The archeological site known as Niya (hereafter referred to as the Ruins of Ancient Niya), which lies deep in the Takla Makan Desert on the southern rim of the Tarim Basin in present-day Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, has been called the Pompeii of the East, owing to Niya having been buried, quite suddenly, as had ancient Pompeii ages earlier. Or so it seems, for no one really knows what caused the residents of Niya to abandon their city in such a panic that they even left their dogs tethered in front of their houses, apparently fleeing for their lives from some unknown-to-us, impending calamity.
It is true enough that most of Niya was buried under the sands of the Takla Makan Desert when the Hungarian-born British archaeologist, Sir Marc Aurel Stein, rediscovered it in 1901, based on certain artifacts that had surfaced and whose existence came to Stein’s attention when the archaeologist was in the area searching for lost cities along the southern route of the Silk Road, cities that had been described by a 7th century Chinese Buddhist monk by the name of Xuanzang (“Hiuen-Tsiang”, in the writings of Stein). But one cannot conclude from this that the residents of Niya were fleeing a massive sandstorm. The mystery that enshrouds ancient Niya may, alas, never be cleared up!
Niya gets its name from the fact that it lies near to a much younger and smaller city by the same name, which lies near the Niya River. The Ruins of Ancient Niya lie, as suggested above, on the southern route of the famous Silk Road. The ancient city extends 25 kilometers north-south, and averages some 6 kilometers in width, along an east-west axis. According to available historical texts, the Ruins of Ancient Niya lie in the geographical area of what was once the ancient Kingdom of Jingjue.
Since the Kingdom of Jingjue in the Ruoshui region of northwestern China was believed to have been a city-state, of which there were apparently several throughout the western and northern parts of China during various historical periods, some modern sources choose to call the Ruins of Ancient Niya “Jingjue”. The recovered artifacts from the Ruins of Ancient Niya suggest that the city was indeed a prominent stopping-off point along the Silk Road.
According to a Chinese historical document whose English title translates to Han History: Biography of the West, Niya had only 480 households, comprising 3360 individuals, plus about 500 soldiers (from which data we can deduce that the average Niya household – not counting the soldiers, but surely counting members of the extended family – consisted of 7 individuals). The document goes on to say that during the Eastern Han (CE 025-220) Dynasty, Niya was annexed by the Shanshan Kingdom.
Since Niya lay directly on the southern route of the Silk Road, one can easily deduce that the camel caravans that transported the traded goods along the Silk Road would necessarily have to pass by Niya, and since there was no other major city in the region which could have competed with Niya as a provider of the basic necessities required by travellers – principally, food and drink for both man and beast, though other goods and services beyond mere necessities may have been demanded – one can with reasonable certainty claim that Niya was a key stopping-off point along the Silk Road.
Moreover – and this is a crucial point – the stopping-off points along the Silk Road were not mere reprovisioning oases, they were as well important hubs from which goods travelling east along the Silk Road were distributed into the hinterland, to be sold for a handsome profit there. These included handicrafts and artworks from Greece as well as cotton textiles from India. Indeed, not only was there a demand for imported goods in the hinterland, but the wealthy merchants of the hub cities along the Silk Road who managed the hinterland trade would themselves have eventually acquired a taste for exotic imports. Of the traded items from China, silk cloth and silk brocade formed the bulk of course, but there were many other traded items such as lacquer works, copper-framed mirrors, and paper.*
The remnants unearthed at Niya also bear witness to the city’s importance as a cultural crossroads. The images of flying dragons in various shapes on still-intact girders, the Buddhist paintings and the many other artifacts retrieved from grave sites at Niya all point to China’s anchoring as one of the four ancient civilizations (the other three being Babylon, Egypt, and India).
The discovery of the Falu Manuscript is perhaps the most important archeological find to emerge from the excavations at Niya. The eight hundred wooden “chards” that make up the Falu Manuscript cover almost every aspect of life among the Jingjue people. They include official announcements, official and private letters, and various other written documents and instructions. The Falu Manuscript offers a unique insight into the life and times of the Jingjue people.
Ancient Han Chinese civilization, which included knowledge of relatively advanced methods of agriculture and irrigation, is believed to have reached its peak during the Han (BCE 206 – CE 220) Dynasty. In the arid west of the country a thousand years later, however, increasing drought and resulting sandstorms seem to have become a familiar pattern, testing even the best agricultural innovations. In an attempt to reduce soil erosion and the devastating effect of wind-blown sand, the residents of Jingjue cleverly planted vast areas with the hardy (i.e., not requiring large amounts of water), but quickly growing, poplar tree as a barrier against the inexorable onslaught of wind-driven sand.
By Jingjue law, the cutting of trees was strictly prohibited; violaters were fined to the tune of a horse, while simply cutting off branches was punishable to the tune of a cow. This is perhaps the earliest environmental protection policy implemented in history! The king himself took upon his person the safeguarding of the seeds for the next season’s crops, as well as the water supply that would be needed for growing them.
In spite of these precautions, the wind-driven sands eventually buried Niya, although, as indicated above, it is not possible to determine whether the residents of Niya, when they fled in haste – abandoning their city, never to return – did so in the face of a sandstorm of tsunami proportions. However, having abandoned the city, it was only a matter of time before the desert sands would claim it, given the pre-existence of long-term drought and wind-driven sand in the region, for the poplar tree expires almost as rapidly as it spires, requiring constant replanting in order to maintain an effective barrier against the ravages of the wind, including the sand it bears with it.
The sudden and mysterious flight from Niya, suggesting parallels to Pompeii – if not to Sodom and Gommorah – will continue to puzzle scholars until solid evidence comes to light that can explain this curious enigma.
* It would seem that in the early period of the Silk Road trade, many “Chinese” silk products that reached Europe were in fact reprocessed in the Phoenician port cities of Sidon and Tyre from heavy Chinese silk cloth. This Chinese cloth was remade into lighter, more transparent (gauze-like) silk products, then dyed in a variety of colors to suit Mediterranean and European tastes. Evidence of this “reprocessing” can be found both in Roman as well as in Chinese sources. For example, the Roman scholar and historian, Procopius (CE 500 circa – 565 circa) made extensive reference to how the “value-added” – as one would describe it in modern terms – silk reprocessing business in Phoenicia was a thriving cottage industry.
And the Chinese historical writer and encyclopaedist, Ma Duanlin (alternatively, Ma Tuan-lin), writing in his work, Wenxiantongkao, over a half-century later, but referring to the early-period silk trade, also corroborates the existence of the Phoenician silk reprocessing “cottage industry” with these words: ‘They always made profit by obtaining the thick plain silk stuffs of China, which they split in order to make foreign ling kan wên‘ (“purple patterned damask”, purple being an especially popular color among the Romans).
These considerations notwithstanding, Chinese brocade especially was highly prized in markets from the Aegean to the Mediterranean to the Baltic Seas, as well as on the British Isles, of course. Silk brocade was not only one of the main components of the west-bound Silk Road trade, silk brocade was also highly popular among the more well-to-do members of Chinese society. For example, a silk brocade item with the Chinese characters wuxingchudongfanglizhongguo embroidered on it that was unearthed in the joint tomb of a Chinese husband and wife, and which has been dated to the Eastern Han Dynasty, is considered by experts as an exquisite exemplar of the art of brocade, and a rediscovered lost treasure of the Silk Road.