Aurel Stein on timelessness

On April 26, 1907 Aurel Stein wrote to his old friend P.S. Allen, in Oxford, from Dunhuang in north-western China. He describes the tricks played on his mind by the archaeological material he was finding in the ancient borderlands of China, as much as two millennia old but perfectly preserved, as if just that moment discarded:

… I feel at times as I ride along the wall to examine new towers, etc., as if I were going to inspect posts still held by the living. With the experience daily repeated of perishable things wonderfully preserved one risks gradually losing the true sense of time. Two thousand years seem so brief a span when the sweepings from the soldiers’ huts still lie practically on the surface in front of the doors or when I see the huge stacks of reed bundles as used for repairing the wall still in situ near the posts, just like stacks of spare sleepers near a railway station. I love my prospecting rides in the evenings, especially when the winds have cleared the sky. That is the time to see many things, the white brick towers glittering far away on the commanding ridges they usually occupy; the track within the wall line trodden by the patrols of so many years as the slanting rays show it up on the grey gravel soil, —and weak points along the marsh edge where prowling Hun freebooters might have lurked for a rush.

Stein’s was a peripatetic life, born in Hungary, by now a British subject based in India, but already embarked on his second ambitious expedition into Chinese Central Asia. Like all travellers, he had his strategies for finding the comforts of home in inhospitable places: reading Horace in the Kunlun mountains, for example, in the course of his first expedition in 1900. Here the place itself makes him feel at home, and he’s not sure why: is it the tangible history he finds around him, the thoughts his environment provokes of his native Hungary, and his father (there’s a jokey hint also of nineteenth-century ideas that connected the Huns of antiquity with the origins of the Hungarian people), or is it some intimation of a past life? It was lost Buddhist cultures he was rediscovering in Central Asia, and the religion held at least a sentimental appeal for him:

I feel strangely at home here along this desolate frontier—as if I had known it in a previous birth. Or is it, perhaps, only because I heard my beloved father tell so often of the Roman walls traversing parts of Southern Hungary. He had spent many a hot day in tracing their lines; but, alas, the day never came when he could show me what had puzzled and fascinated him. The people against whom they were built, may after all have been distant relations and forerunners of those Huns who had haunted these parts about the time of Christ.

I often return to this letter of Stein’s, and I in turn can’t really explain why. Maybe I share his nostalgia for a strange and ancient place, and find in it some kind of essence of what I do as a Classicist, thinking my way into the lives and minds of two-thousand-years-dead Romans. It’s probably not a memory of a past life.

About Llewelyn Morgan

I'm a Classicist, lucky enough to work at Brasenose College, Oxford. I specialise in Roman literature, but I've got a persistent side-interest in Afghanistan, particularly the scholars and spies and scholar-spies who visited the country in the nineteenth century.

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