Information Highway: Camel Speed but Exotic Links (Silk Road Exhibit NY)





“You are about to make an unusual journey,” a wall label proclaims at the beginning of an exhibition that opens on Saturday at the American Museum of Natural History. Normally that promise would provide reason enough to be wary. But this is something different.

You are welcomed by life-size camels laden with worn canvas sacks, their bodies framed by sand dunes stretching into the distance. A while later, near a 17-foot-long wooden Chinese loom, you find bowls filled with mulberry leaves on which scores of white worms are gnawing. You see, too, what kind of cocoons they soon will weave, and how these sacs might then be boiled and unwound into silk threads. And later still, you seem to arrive in an outdoor market in evening as the sounds of footfalls and animal cries mix with the murmur of voices; stalls are piled with produce, furs and spices, including a leopard skin, a yak tail, pheasant feathers, lapis lazuli and barrels whose smell suggests that they are filled with rose petals, jasmine oil and patchouli.

Museum exhibitions often aspire to theater, but the stagecraft of this show, “Traveling the Silk Road: Ancient Pathway to the Modern World,” succeeds with compelling vividness. Designed and produced by the museum, under the direction of David Harvey, vice president for exhibition, it is meant to suggest a journey over the Silk Road in its prime, covering “the entire distance from East to West — from Xian, the capital of China, to Baghdad, the heart of the Islamic world.”

The Silk Road, which has now become part of folklore, was a loose network of Central Asian trade routes that made up the most dangerous, exotic and economically valuable overland passages in the ancient and medieval worlds. And while you never really believe that your own “unusual journey” is anything comparable, that is just as well. As the exhibition points out, the Silk Road trek was accomplished on foot or by stumbling camel train through unrelenting desert and over steep mountain passes. It is some 4,600 miles long and takes at least half a year to traverse. And it passes through regions whose temperatures range from minus 50 degrees Fahrenheit to more than 120. In ancient times (as in our own) weapon-wielding robbers ambushed travelers, and tribal armies clashed over shifting frontiers.

And the point of it all, particularly during the era focused on here — from the years 600 to 1200 — was to trade the products of human invention, cultivation and belief: the luxuries of spices and silk, the pleasures of music and image, the convictions of religion and science. “Traveling the Silk Road” really does give you an idea of what was involved, how valued the cloth, manuscripts and pottery must have been, and how vital, too, the resulting cultural cross-fertilization must have seemed in a world of daunting obstacles...



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