A day at Persepolis

…and the heritage of humanity in Iran

I arrive in Shiraz by bus in the early morning hours of a fine summer day more than two decades ago. Like so many times before while backpacking in Iran in the footsteps of Marco Polo, I have been approached by a friendly man on the bus, asking me if I would like to stay with him and his family while in Shiraz. Mr A was married and had two kids, a boy and a girl. They lived in a small flat in the suburbs. Like many people I met in Iran they were disapproving to the present regime, and I was their guest for three days.

Already on the afternoon of my first day in Shiraz they took me out to the amazing UNESCO world heritage site of Persepolis, just outside town, with its stunning set of colossal ruins in grey marble. On the image taken by Mr A we are standing just before the Hall of Hundred Columns, often called The Throne Hall and completed by the king of kings Xerxes the Great in the 5th century BC after his famous losses in battle with the Greeks. An enormous bull’s head from the hall is now in the Oriental Institute in Chicago.

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Ruins of the Apadana, the great hall of Xerxes, king of kings

We wander the palace area for hours, drinking apple juice and seeing the fantastic Apadana, a great hall for audiences also completed by Xerxes. It was burnt by the army of Alexander the Great in about BC 330 after his victory over the Persian empire. Apadana was excavated by an American project led by the archaeologist Ernst Herzfeld in the 1930s and most of his notebooks, diaries, photographs, and also some archaeological objects, are now in US institutions such as the Smithsonian in Washington DC and the MET in New York.

We also see the Tachara palace, started by king Darius I, and pass by the Achaemenid royal tombs at Naghsh-e Rostam. Later I am served a superb dinner at their home and we discuss what we have experienced together, as people do.

After the infamous American presidential tweet a couple of days ago, threatening to attack heritage sites in Iran, international organizations such as ICOM and ICOMOS have strongly spoken out about the nefarious idea of destroying cultural heritage. The point is, of course, that heritage sites such as Persepolis do not belong to present political regimes or devious nationalists, they are the common heritage of humanity and belong to all of us, not the least to people opposing present governments.

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Tachara palace at Persepolis

Castle of the Assassins

Uggla finalMarco Polo tells a mysterious story of “the old man of the mountain”, master of an army of assassins in mountain strongholds which he trained to fanatic obedience and which gave him great power in the Near East. Going up in the Elburz mountains of Iran, I aim to explore this story.

The old man of the mountain, whose proper name was Alo-eddin, had his main castle in a mountain region called Mulehet, according to Marco Polo. In this beautiful mountain valley, he had constructed a secret landscape of marvellous gardens with all the pleasures anyone could ask for close at hand. Alo-eddin gathered promising young men at his court. He sometimes drugged them and took them to the secret gardens, letting them stay there for a while, then drugging them again and taking them out. In this way he installed in them a belief that he had the power to take them to paradise and back which made them fanatically loyal and ready to carry out the most daring assassins for him.

Starting from the city of Qazvin, the mini-bus takes me higher and higher up into the mountains. We are headed for Alamut valley, the “Mulehet” of Marco Polo and the site of Alamut castle, legendary stronghold of the Assassins sect.

This is the third in a series of blog posts relating an attempt to follow in Marco Polos footsteps through Iran, exploring his stories. Read the first one here and the second here.

Alamut
The Rock of Alamut, with the ruined castle of the old man of the mountain on its top

The mini-bus negotiates serpentine mountain roads in a fascinating system of peaks and valleys with occasional green grazing-spots and the odd clay brick village. Not before long the asphalt road becomes a two-meter-wide gravel track on the edge of the cliffs.

Early in the afternoon the bus enters a particularly wide, green valley with an odd, gigantic rock towering in its midst. This is the valley of the Assassins and the rock is the site of Alamut castle.

On the bus I was generously invited to stay in the family home of a man living in the village below the rock. After having tea in his house, Mr Yar guides me on a narrow path up the castle rock and we soon stand before a landscape of ruins at its top.

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Ruins of Alamut castle

Alamut castle was truly the main stronghold of a sort of sect that have become known to history by the name of the Assassins. Their actual name was different, “Assassins” seemingly having risen out of misunderstanding. They were really the so-called Nizari-Ismaili, a special sort of Ismaili that in turn are a kind of Shi’i Muslims.

The Nizari-Ismaili were led by a succession of rulers from Alamut castle, the most famous one the first “old man of the mountain”, a certain Hassan-i Sabbah (the Alo-eddin of Marco Polo). The sect commanded a series of mountain strongholds in the Near East for a period during the middle ages and certainly committed political murders to further their cause. The scale of these murdering operations seems to have been much exaggerated though

Alamut castle is described in medieval written sources as a great stronghold and an important seat of learning, with fantastic libraries, astronomical observatories and the like. The Nizari-Ismaili state was crushed at the Mongol invasion of Iran in the early 13th century, however, and Alamut thoroughly ruined by the troops of Hulagu khan in 1256, just fifteen years before Marco Polo past by Qazvin. The Nizari-Ismaili community managed to survive and exists to this day, their leader’s part of a line of rulers going back to Hassan-i Sabbah and Alamut.

Strolling around at the ruin landscape at the top of Alamut rock, there are traces of walls, towers and buildings and it’s easy to imagine a great medieval castle here. I see no remains of paradise gardens though and if Hassan-i Sabbah ever had any for the training of assassins is unknown and forever lost in the mists of the past.

The road to Zanjan

Uggla finalThe stunning turquoise dome of Soltaniyeh, just outside Zanjan in northern Iran, rises alone over a vast ruin landscape like a sole survivor. This was once the seat of power of the Mongolian Il-khans of Iran in the days of Marco Polo and the magnificent dome will take your breath away, just as it was designed to do 700 years ago.

I got here by bus from the city of Tabriz where I arrived after having crossed the Iranian border with Turkey. Worried at first, expecting Iran to be a tricky country to travel, people I have met so far have been incredibly friendly and helpful. Getting of the bus in Soltaniyeh I will have a few hours to see the famous dome, a key monument in Islamic architecture and, according to UNESCO, a monument of outstanding universal value as stated when it was added on the World Heritage List.

This is the second in a series of blog posts relating an attempt to follow in Marco Polos footsteps through Iran, exploring his stories. Read the first one here.

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In the Church of St Mary, Tabriz, Iran

Marco Polo made a big thing of the large number of Christians being present in the vicinity of Tabriz, otherwise an Islamic region by his days in the 13th century. Seeking the truth behind this story I spent my days in Tabriz looking for Christians and Churches.

Finding little evidence of any Christian presence, a strike of luck finally placed me in the office of Nshan Topouzian, high representative of the Armenian, apostolic church and its religious leader here. Confirming there were thousands of Christians in Tabriz and several Churches, he also let me borrow his official car and driver, sending us out Church-spotting in the evening. I eventually got to see two Churches, of which “St Mariam” (Mary) was said to be from the 11th century and could, if that is true, have been visited by Marco Polo.

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Intricate tiling inside the mausoleum

Early next morning I get to the bus station and board a bus for Zanjan and Soltaniyeh. Getting around by bus seems surprisingly easy in Iran.

When Marco Polo was here in the winter of 1271–1272, Tabriz was the Mongolian capital of their Iranian dominion, the Il-khanate. Though he was travelling on official Mongolian business, carrying the most prestigious letters of passage from the great khan in China, Marco says nothing of any contacts with the Il-khanate leadership in Tabriz. He has a lot to say of Iran in his days though, which I will get back to.

The dome of Soltaniyeh is actually the mausoleum of Il-khan Oljeitu and was built in 1302–12 when he had made Soltaniyeh capital of the Ilkhanid dynasty after Tabriz. It’s a fantastic, octangular structure with the breath-taking, 50 m high blue dome on top. The inside is decorated with magnificent glazed tile-work and designs in inlaid materials. Oljeitu had intended Soltaniyeh to be the greatest among cities but after his death in 1316 it rapidly declined, turning into an elaborate ruin with his splendid mausoleum the sole reminder of its brief period of glory.

From Soltaniyeh I intend going on to Qazvin, the natural starting point for a trip up in the Elburz mountains to explore Marco Polos most capturing story in Iran – the legend of the Old man of the mountain and the mysterious Assassins sect.

 

In Iran with Marco Polo

Uggla finalMarco Polos Silk Road journey was an epic overland adventure in the 1270s where he went from Venice to China through regions utterly unknown to contemporary Europe. Marco Polo was the first to describe travel along the southern Silk Road and his chapters on present Iran are full of interesting mysteries.

In Iran with Marco Polo is the first of a series of blog posts relating an attempt to follow in Marco Polos footsteps through Iran, exploring his stories.

I had travelled from Venice, through Turkey in late June 1993, obtained an Iranian visa in Ankara and now faced the Iranian border at Bazargan. Crossing into Iran I was as full of prejudice as you can be, expecting to get hassled by Islamic fundamentalists at any time. Needless to say, Iran has many problems and most crucially regarding human rights. As it turned out, my experiences of the country were to be of a different kind.

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My Iran itinerary

Having crossed the border, holding my breath, I got on a bus to Tabriz, the first major city and a place also visited by Marco Polo.

In his time, getting here in the winter of 1271-72, Tabriz was the Mongolian capital of the south-western subdivision of their empire – the Il-khanate. Abaqa Khan ruled this realm, married to Maria Palaiologina, a Byzantine princess successfully acting as a Christian leader among the Mongols. All this must have been convenient for Marco Polo, who was, after all, on official Mongol business travelling to meet the great khan in China.

Marco says in his book that Tabriz is a large and prosperous city, important for trade. Interestingly, he also talks about Christians in the city, the presence of churches and a nearby famous monastery.

I manage to find a cheap hotel, dare to walk the streets and find it is not that different from Turkey. The women are more covered, the men less influenced by western clothing styles. All are friendly and on my first day in the city I get invited to the suburban home of a bookseller for dinner, spending very nice hours with his family.

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My hotel in Tabriz
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On the streets of Tabriz

I am on a mission here. I seek the truth about one of Marco Polos stories. I want to find the churches he talks about. There is supposed to be a Christian minority in Iran of some 300 000 people but walking the streets of Tabriz I find none. The bookseller suggests I should see the high representative of Armenian Christians in this region and full of new hope I seek his humble office.

Imperial Vienna

Vienna was the imperial capital in Europe from the 15th to the early 20th century. Its historical splendour, importance and continuity easily diminish London, Paris, Berlin and Moscow. Vienna was the power base of the Holy Roman emperors of the Habsburg dynasty from 1440 to 1806, then imperial capital of Austria and Austria-Hungary until 1918. All this left a profound mark on the city and a complex imperial heritage.

Hofburg
The imperial city palace, the Hofburg, dates back to the 13th century and was the main residence of the Habsburg emperors. It’s an immense complex, still the seat of the Austrian chancellor, but like the newly reconstructed Berlin Stadtschloss now mostly contain museums and other public institutions.

You cannot miss the Hofburg treasury with the profoundly interesting imperial regalia, including the 11th century Reichskrone used until 1806 and the spurious Holy Lance. The Imperial Armouries is an unbelievable collection of all things martial. There’s also the Spanish Riding School, an ethnographic museum, the Imperial library and an excellent garden café in the Palmenhaus.

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The old Imperial library in the Hofburg, now a representation venue of the National library

Imperial crypt
The Kaisergruft, or Imperial crypt of the Habsburg dynasty since 1633, is situated in the Capuchin monastery in Vienna, a few hundred meters from the Hofburg, and was used as late as 2011 for the burial of Archduke Otto von Habsburg, the last Crown Prince of Austria-Hungary.

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Skull wearing the Reichskrone (Imperial crown) on the sarcophagus of emperor Charles VI in the Kaisergruft

The Kaisergruft is a large underground complex with 145 burials, most in impressive metal sarcophagi and including 12 emperors and 18 empresses. It’s a strange and truly spooky place to visit.

Imperial museums
The imperial complex of central Vienna includes two immense museums, the Naturhistorisches (natural history) and the Kunsthistorisches (art history), both inaugurated in the 1880s, though their collections date much further back.

They have everything to do with empire. The Naturhistorisches builds heavily on 19th century imperial expeditions to all parts of the globe, the Kunsthistorisches has its base in the imperial art collection. Furthermore, their architecture and in particular the painted interior decorations both mould and perform imperial culture through the persons, landscapes and perspectives chosen.

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Kunsthistorisches Museum
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In the Naturhistorisches Museum

The Naturhistorisches Museum contain everything imaginable from the natural world. Typical for its time of construction it also contains European prehistory since this was thought of as primitive/natural then, and it used to contain ethnographica from what was then seen as “primitive” peoples worldwide. The latter has been moved out and is now partly on exhibit in the Hofburg, though murals and plaster people still remain in the decorations.

The Kunsthistoriches, on the other hand, and except for later art, also contain collections from ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome, since this was thought of as the origins of culture.

Some of these imperial collections, and in particular all amazing things taken under more or less dubious expedition circumstances from peoples around the globe, provoke questions: what are all these things doing here today and how can the issues around their initial collection and the perspectives under which they were exhibited be handled today? There are several ways to address this; to academically historicize the collections and their information reframing context and perspective, to repatriate some of them and also to publicly discuss and exhibit the dark and complicated histories surrounding them. Some of this is being done in the ethnographical section of the Hofburg, more could be done in the old imperial museums.

There is more imperial heritage to be seen, most importantly the Schönbrunn palace complex just outside central Vienna, but that will be another journey.

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Ancient Egypt in the Kunsthistorisches Museum

 

 

The Prague Golem revisited

A formidable monster of clay protects the Jewish community of Prague since the 16th century. It sleeps in the attic of the Old New Synagogue, the oldest active Synagogue in Europe, ready to be summoned again.

The Golem of Prague was a feat of sorcery. Life was given to a large clay man who became a powerful slave to its master, the famous Rabbi Loew (Judah Loew ben Bezalel), who then controlled this monster without a will of its own. There are various versions of the legend, of course, and in most of them the monster is very effective but eventually turn on its master, wrecking havoc.

Just as alchemy, the Golem story is a major theme for the Prague visitor, which can hardly be avoided. I ended up gazing curiously at the attic of the Old New Synagogue, eating Golem cakes and bringing a nice little clay figure home with me.

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The Old New Synagogue of Prague, from the 1270s. A Golem sleeps in the attic, some say.

The Golem narrative is a great story, and just as alchemy it fits very well with the gothic blocks of Prague old town. Why shouldn’t there be a mystical clay monster roaming these cobbled streets? Why shouldn’t the masterful Rabbi Loew have made one? Its moral is great too – those who create powerful monsters must beware of them turning on their masters.

The general idea of Golems is much older than the story in Prague and emerged from biblical and Kabbalist Jewish texts. The coming alive of clay monsters seems to have been a legend occurring in several places in medieval Eastern Europe. As laid out in History of the Literary Cultures of East-Central Europe vol 4 (edited by Marcel Cornis-Pope & John Neubauer, 2004), the Golem, in fact, didn’t come to Prague until the early 19th century. It was brought alive not by Rabbi Loew but by the Bohemian Jewish community, trying to establish a new literary tradition.

The Golem story got very popular. It was probably the basis for Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein and for numerous similar sci-fi plots such as in Bladerunner or the Terminator series.

A fantastic story, the current Golem presence for tourism purposes in Prague is also a sad reminder of an absence. The absence of once vibrant Jewish life here. Some managed to escape, but estimations say that about two thirds of the Jews in the protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia were murdered in the Holocaust and no Golem rose to protect them.

Alchemy in Prague

Alchemy is a main theme for the Prague visitor and understandably so since it goes so very well with the twisted, bohemian mood of the city. There are alchemy bars, alchemy museums and all sorts of alchemic stories around, some of them even true, and as a visitor you can’t avoid it.

Alchemy was big among the learned in renaissance and early modern Europe, a sort of pre-scientific quest to understand nature and neither as crazy nor as underground as often portrayed, though an obvious field also for charlatans. Sure alchemists were trying to make gold, but how would they have known it wasn’t possible? In the process and among all failed experiments they managed to gain some new insights. Alchemy wasn’t generally done in secret labs but by the most high-ranking learned at royal courts.

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The Alchemist’s lair, as presented at the Speculum Alchemiae museum in Prague

The historical background to the present alchemy fuss in Prague revolves around the melancholic Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II (1552-1612). Rudolf was a great patron of occult learning. He moved the imperial court to Prague castle in 1583, where it remained for the rest of his life, and welcomed occult experts there such as John Dee and Edward Kelley. Astronomist Tycho Brahe was his court astronomer and astrologist, while sometimes active in the royal alchemy lab. Emperor Rudolf also met with the Jewish learned Rabbi Loew (Judah Loew ben Bezalel, dead 1609), legendary maker of the Prague Golem. You get the full story of Rudolf II and his magic circle in Prague in The Mercurial Emperor by Peter Marshall (Pimlico 2007).

There is a range of privately run museums in Prague focusing on alchemy. Most important the Speculum Alchemiae and the Museum of Alchemists and Magicians of old Prague. In Prague castle there is an alchemist’s laboratory to be seen. All these places are reconstructions centered on good stories. I found the cellar of the Speculum Alchemiae most fascinating, where you can take an excellent guided tour. It left me puzzled concerning what was fact and what was good stories though. The range of alchemist’s bars offer more or less curious alchemy-themed drinks.

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What is completely true is that the Danish astronomer and alchemist Tycho Brahe spent the years before his death in 1601 at the court of Rudolf II, doing many things but also alchemy, and Tycho was buried in Prague in the Church of Our Lady before Týn where his grave can still be seen. Chemical analysis of his preserved beard has shown high levels of mercury, possible due to alchemical activities.

Walking the winding, cobbled streets of central Prague, the intense pre-modern feel of it tells you there could be a black magician’s lab around any corner. Though alchemy in Prague is based on a true story, most of what meets the tourist’s eye is made-up props which, of course, is fully consistent with the theme of alchemy.

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Best historical travel books

Uggla finalThe best historical travel book is Isabelle Eberhardt’s In the Shadow of Islam. Eberhardt travelled north Africa in the early 20th century with an acute sense of detail and a wonderful way with words.

Eberhardt dared to go where few else did, visiting and living in Islamic centres of learning. Her stories from southern Algeria are vibrant, moody and perceptive. She wrote about people, landscape and all sorts of moral, political and esthetical issues getting in her way.

Though not historical travel as such, Eberhardt’s work is history in itself by now and an important window to seldom described aspects of early 20th century life. The manuscript for this, her last book, was found in the house in which she died from a mudslide.

The original, French title of the book should actually translate as “In the warm shadow of Islam” and Eberhardt felt very welcome in north-African Islamic culture, even being one of very few foreigners accepted by the Sufi order Qadiriyya. Isabelle frequently dressed and behaved as contemporary men and also converted to Islam.

Shadows and hearts of Asia
Colin Thubron is another great writer travelling the past while moving along in the present. His Shadow of the Silk Road describes an epic journey from east to west, rich in stories and history.

Thubron has a brilliant way of painting the big, deep historical picture and relating events and people in the present to it, creating thick meaning. The visit to the grave of the yellow emperor at the start of this book, introducing the Silk Road theme, is one of the best literary scenes ever. Thubrons The Lost Heart of Asia is another classic and you should also try To a mountain i Tibet.

In the footsteps
I can’t help liking Tim Severin’s long series of books in which he follows in the footsteps of historical travellers such as the argonauts, Marco Polo, Sindbad the sailor, the first crusade and Genghis Khan, or tracing the historical backgrounds to stories such as those of Moby Dick and Robinson Crusoe. Is there an historical traveller he hasn’t followed?

Severin’s stories of tracking Marco Polo on motorbike in the 1960s or riding across Europe on the equivalent of a Medieval warhorse, tracing and telling history simultaneously are most inspiring.

In the Elburz
Freya Starks The Valleys of the Assassins is an underrated classic to my mind, in which we get to follow her 1930s explorations in the Elburz mountains of Iran. Stark explores the ruined castles of the odd medieval Assassins sect – not as murderous as legend has it, though not innocent either – and this is an epic account of it. Stark has a rough time in the Iranian mountains describing it very well.

To Oxiana
Some say The Road to Oxiana by Robert Byron is the best travel book ever and there might be a grain of truth to this. Byron writes really well in a personal, diary-style way about a strange overland trip from Venice to British India visiting and evaluating most historical monuments en route. He takes on a somewhat superior art-historical gaze and attitude though, aging less well, though his prose and wonderful descriptions are timeless. There are few better places to meet the architecture of the Timurids than with Byron.

Finding wanderlust
Then, finally, there is Rebecca Solnit. Wanderlust, A history of walking and A field guide to getting lost blends history with all sorts of inspiring and game-changing reflections, not the least regarding travelling, and so does “The Atlas trilogy” about San Francisco, New Orleans and New York. I’m not entirely sure these are historical travel books, but they are certainly required reading for the historical traveller.

Edge of the Taklamakan

Uggla finalMy journey on the Karakoram highway, described in previous posts, ends in Kashgar and on the edge of the great Taklamakan desert. Crossing this vast expanse of dead, sandy nothingness was a nightmare for earlier travellers along the Silk Roads. The origins of the name is unclear, it may mean “To abandon”, or “Place of no return”, while some say it may derive from Turkish “taqlar makan” or “Place of ruins”, which made a lot of sense to early 20th century explorers and archaeologists here.

The Taklamakan is the world’s second largest sand desert, 1 000 km long and 400 km wide. Historically, two Silk Road routes ran along its edges to the north and to the south. They both started at the Jade gate in the Great wall of China at present Dunhuang to the east, which was for most of history also the western rim of Chinese empires. Along these routes were series of petty city states and then the two Silk Road branches met again in Kashgar to the west.

Route

Xuanzang, the famous Chinese traveller, went on the northern Silk Road route in AD 629, describing the oasis kingdoms of Turpan, Karasahr and Kucha. He visited Kashgar on his way back and wrote about the whole thing in a remarkable travel book. His book is the basis for the much later Ming dynasty novel Journey to the west, published in 1592 and a classic of Chinese literature.

Marco Polo went on the southern route in the 1270s, passing the oasis kingdoms of Yarkant, Khotan and Lop. Among other things he noted the production of jade in Khotan, where the most precious white jade was collected and caravanned east to China proper.

The histories and legends of the Taklamakan are endlessly rich. One of the most significant periods here were the hey days of desert exploration and archaeology which all started with Swedish explorer Sven Hedin.

This was the time of the Great Game of empires competing for control of Central Asia but the Taklamakan area was unexplored, its history little known, which soon attracted men like Hedin, who was the first to explore the desert ruins archaeologically. Arriving in Kashgar in 1894 he set out on an expedition trying to cross a part of the desert, which ended in disaster. After resting he set out again in 1896 and investigated two ruined cities to the north of Khotan with spectacular results, finding ancient buildings, wall-paintings and manuscripts. Most importantly, he wrote a bestselling book about it, Through Asia (1898), speaking about “a Pompeii of the desert”.

This alerted explorers, archaeologists and collecting European museums and the race was on to explore the ruins of the Taklamakan. Orientalist and archaeologist Marc Aurel Stein was soon around, excavating cities sponsored by the British Museum. Albert Grünwedel and Albert von le Coq of the great ethnological museum in Berlin made large excavations of Turpan to the north of the desert, stunning emperor Wilhelm II. Sven Hedin was also back a few times, most famously investigating a place called Loulan and all this went on until the 1930s, filling up museum collections in the West.

Reading their reports today, their motives and methods seem steadily more questionable in the light of new understandings of the age of colonialism and debates on repatriation.

The finds from the Taklamakan ruins of Khotan, Turpan and Loulan are still to be seen in museums in London, Berlin and Stockholm, exciting new generations, while names such as Stein, Hedin and von le Coq perish like echoes in the desert wind.

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Great Game heritage

On my second day in Kashgar I discover, to my surprise, that behind the brutal concrete hotel in which I stay, the old British consulate is fully preserved though stripped of its famous garden.

The British interpreter, later diplomat George Macartney arrived in Kashgar on expedition in 1890 and soon became the first British consul here. He was to stay until 1918 as a major player in The Great Game – the struggle between empires for ultimate control of the roof of the world in Central Asia.

Macartney married Catherine Borland in 1898 and together they managed the British general consulate in Kashgar – the Qini bagh – which was a grand house with beautiful gardens famous for their views over the mountain ranges in the south.

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The Qini bagh

Diplomats, spies, explorers and archaeologists investigating the ruins of the Taklamakan desert all stayed at Qini bagh and most famously archaeologist Marc Aurel Stein, who often recuperated here after desert expeditions.

Russia, the main British counterpart in The Great Game, already had a consulate in Kashgar when Macartney arrived.

Though Kashgar was formally a Chinese city in the 1890s, the most powerful man there was the Russian consul Nikolai Petrovsky who kept a military garrison on the consulate.

When the Swedish explorer (and rival of Aurel Stein) Sven Hedin arrived in Kashgar in 1894 he was greeted by Petrovsky with free vodka and Hedin stayed several times here, receiving all kinds of support from Petrovsky in his desert explorations.

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Previous Russian consulate in Kashgar

I find that the cheapest rooms of the Seman hotel in Kashgar are actually inside what was previously the Russian consulate, so for my second night I reside there.

It’s not well kept but strolling around the house I manage to enter the dining hall, where Petrovsky held banquets for diplomats, explorers and Chinese dignitaries a hundred years ago.

The old consulate houses remain in Kashgar as memorials to the clash of empires on the roof of the world and to the strange age of imperial explorers stripping the amazing ruins of Silk Road cities in the Taklamakan of antiquities to bring home to European museums, which is another story.

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Dining hall of the previous Russian consulate