Discovering the Silk Road
Aurél Stein was born on 26 November 1862 in Budapest, the third child of elderly parents. His birthplace was near the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, which was then under construction.
Discovering the Silk Road
Ancient Knowledge in a Modern World

Discovering the Silk Road

Photo: iStock
Rita Jeney - Zoltán Wilhelm 22/12/2023 07:00

Aurél Stein was born on 26 November 1862 in Budapest, the third child of elderly parents. His birthplace was near the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, which was then under construction.

He studied comparative linguistics and classical philology at the university, and studied Sanskrit and Old Persian in depth. Subsequently, he expanded his knowledge at the universities and libraries of London, Oxford and Cambridge. His stay in England also enabled him to meet important officials of the British Empire who recommended him to jobs in India, which he had not been able to do in his home country.

At the age of 25, in 1887, he arrived in Lahore to take up the post of Registrar of the Punjabi University and Principal of the Oriental College, while teaching Sanskrit language and literature. From then until the age of forty-eight, he was in the service of British education: after Lahore, he spent a year in Bengal in 1899 and then in the North-West Frontier Province of British India until 1910.

For Aurél Stein, India was much more than a place of office from the beginning. In Kashmir, he collected ancient manuscripts, discovering what is considered the most authentic Sanskrit version of a 12th century royal chronicle, the Rajatarangini, and then producing a critical edition and English translation.

In addition to his philological work, his field expeditions identified the place names mentioned in the text, thus reconstructing the historical geography of Kashmir. His keen interest in exploring the Buddhist pilgrimage sites mentioned in Chinese pilgrims' travelogues often led him to places where no European explorer-traveller had ever been before him.

His archaeological expeditions continued in his old age until his death in 1943.
Aurél Stein (Photo: Wikipedia)
His attention had already turned to Inner Asia at the end of the 19th century: a special meeting point for the civilisations of the ancient world, thanks to the Silk Road, a network of trade routes that ran along the edge of the Taklamakan Desert and linked Europe to Asia.

The unique achievements of his three successful archaeological expeditions have made him justly world famous. He set out on his first expedition to Inner Asia in 1900, making significant archaeological and geographical discoveries, returning the following year. His second expedition (1906-1909) was more extensive in space and time, bringing unprecedented scientific success and numerous awards. On his third expedition to Inner Asia (1913-1916), he reached as far as the Gobi Desert.

Afghanistan and the ancient Bactria region were also coveted research areas, and he was finally granted a research permit in 1943. Although he reached Kabul, he was unable to start his research due to ill health. He died in Kabul on 28 October 1943, aged 81, and his grave is in the Christian cemetery in Kabul.

Aurél Stein left behind a lasting legacy as a polyhistor who enriched modern science with universal values through his holistic cultivation of archaeology, philology, art history, geography, cartography and cultural anthropology.

Rita Jeney is an archaeologist, Indologist and Associate Professor at Bhaktivedanta College

Zoltán Wilhelm is a geographer, habilitated associate professor (University of Pécs), director of the Asia Centre, former director of the Hungarian Information and Cultural Centre in Delhi

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