The art and civilisation of the Silk Road achieved its highest point in the Tang Dynasty. Changan, as the starting point of the route, as well as the capital of the dynasty, developed into one of the largest and most cosmopolitan cities of the time. By 742 A.D., the population had reached almost two million, and the city itself covered almost the same area as present-day Xian, considerably more than within the present walls of the city. The 754 A.D. census showed that five thousand foreigners lived in the city; Turks, Iranians, Indians and others from along the Road, as well as Japanese, Koreans and Malays from the east. Many were missionaries, merchants or pilgrims, but every other occupation was also represented. Rare plants, medicines, spices and other goods from the west were to be found in the bazaars of the city.
About the 7th century, when information started to filter along the Road. It was at this time that the rise of Islam started to affect Asia, and a curtain came down between the east and west. Trade relations soon resumed, however, with the Moslems playing the part of middlemen. The sea route to China was explored at this time, and the `Sea Silk Route' was opened, eventually holding a more important place than the land route itself, as the land route became less profitable.
The steady advance of Islam, temporarily halted by the Mongols, continued until it formed a major force across Central Asia, surrounding the Taklimakan like Buddhism had almost a millennium earlier. The artwork of the region suffered under the encroach of Islam. Whereas the Buddhist artists had concentrated on figures in painting and sculpture, the human form was scorned in Islamic artwork; this difference led to the destruction of much of the original artwork. Many of the grottos have been defaced in this way, particularly at the more accessible sites such as Bezeklik, near Turfan, where most of the human faces in the remaining frescoes have been scratched out.
DUNHUANG........The crowning discovery was of a walled-up library within the Mogao grottos at Dunhuang. This contained a stack of thousands of manuscripts, Buddhist paintings and silk temple banners. The manuscripts were in Chinese, Sanskrit, Tibetan, Uyghur and several other less widely known languages, and they covered a wide range of subjects; everything from sections of the Lutras Sutra to stories and ballads from the Tang dynasty and before. Among these is what is believed to be the world's oldest printed book. This hoard had been discovered by a Daoist monk at the beginning of the twentieth century, and he had appointed himself as their protector.
There is still a lot to see around the Taklimakan, mostly in the form of damaged grottos and ruined cities. Whilst some people are drawn by the archaeology, others are attracted by the minority peoples; there are thirteen different races of people in the region, apart from the Han Chinese, from the Tibetans and Mongolians in the east of the region, to the Tajik, Kazakhs and Uzbeks in the west. Others are drawn to the mysterious cities such as Kashgar, where the Sunday market maintains much of the old Silk Road spirit, with people of many different nationalities selling everything from spice and wool to livestock and silver knives. Many of the present-day travellers are Japanese, visiting the places where their Buddhist religion passed on its way to Japan.
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