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Hellenism On The Silk Road Essay Research

Hellenism On The Silk Road Essay, Research Paper

Hellenism on the Silk Road

Along the Silk Road, merchants traded desirable wares from all over Asia and the Mediterranean. Gold, porcelain, spices, jewelry, textiles, and about anything else material that any civilization along this vast network of trade routes could create. Along with material concerns, however, came the much more lasting and intriguing effect of cultural exchange; religions, ideas, food, architectural developments, philosophy, and art all moved along the routes with these travelers from town to town. Some eventually spread all the way from the Greco-Roman world to China and Japan.

Alexander the Great was one of the foremost pioneers into the Middle Eastern world. Crossing as far as modern Uzbekistan, Alexander brought with him to every region Greek craftsmen, soldiers, and religion. One of the most profound and lasting impacts made by Alexander s forays into Asia was introducing the Greek tradition of sculpture, much admired by the Romans in the West, into the area known as Transoxiana, now Gandhara in North India. Much of early Gandharan Buddhist art bears witness to this transfer of aesthetic ideology. In a work recently acquired by the Freer Gallery of Art, a Head of a Buddha , one can see the Hellenistic tradition quite clearly. There are strong examples of realism in this Buddha head relatively unique to Greek art . The text of Jerry Bentley s Old World Encounters contends that Hellenistic tradition had a great impact on Buddhist art mainly due to the fact that earlier Buddhists thought it wrong to portray the Buddha as corporeal, but rather he should be shown by symbols. Their first influences to create figural images of the Buddha came from the Hellenistic invaders and their devotional practices. The hair of the Buddha is naturalistic, not the stylized snail curls seen in many statues of the Buddha. Each tendril of the hair is carefully chiseled out and moves gently over his head and ushnisha . The cheekbones are high and the chin is strong . His full lips are gently rested together, and his eyes look down, the lids half closed. The paint remaining on the eyes have them looking straight out and downcast. Slight traces of gold leaf cling to this head, which once was covered in gold (now only the brown ground is visible). The ushnisha and elongated earlobes are traditional parts of the iconography of the Buddha. In this statue, the ears are not exaggerated in length, but rather very natural in appearance. Except for the gold leaf the statue bears no ornament, also typical of the Buddha. The last element that betrays the statue as that of a Buddha is the stylized urna , shown sometimes as a literal third eye, and sometimes as a curl of hair between his brows. It is in this case a simple dot, almost like a bindi, a much more natural looking expression of the urna.

Another piece from along the Silk Road is a plate from Iran . The plate is made of silver with a scene executed in repouss in the center. The flat parts of the scene are gilt. The scene represents the Greek god Dionysus triumphant arrival in India. Interestingly, this may also link back to Alexander, who is said to have followed Dionysus route into Asia on his conquests. Like Dionysus, Alexander got hardly farther than India. In the center of the scene sits Dionysus, loosely draped in yards of fabric and holding a bowl of grapes. He is the largest and most central figure of the composition. Next to him sits Ariadne as a goddess. According to mythology, she was the wife of Dionysus. To her left stands the hero Heracles holding his lion skin. To Dionysus right are two figures exiting the room, possibly two Maenads, his followers and constant companions. Below the platform Dionysus and Ariadne occupy, two small apsara kneel holding a wheel with 8 points inside it. Below them is a figure of a lion and an amphora flanked by two more apsara. All around the top register of the plate is a grapevine twined with ivy, possibly a reference to the bridge Dionysus used to cross the Ganges into India, said to be made of twined grapevine and ivy.

A final piece showing western influence is a Chinese chimera . The chimera is a mythological figure with Western origins. In Asia Minor, the chimera was a half lion, half unicorn. In Rome, the chimera was part wolf, part serpent, part lion. In China, it appears to be a half lion half dragon. In all cultures, the chimera is a forbidding apotropaic figure supposed to turn away evil and protect good . The chimera s appearance on both ends of the Silk Road simply reinforces the notion of cultural exchange that the Silk Road provided. The chimera represented both fear and protection, good and evil, dark and light, all elements of yin and yang. This particular chimera has the feet and body of a lion, rather squat with the typical pug face seen on so many Chinese lions. Its face has the goatee and wing-like ears commonly seen on depictions of dragons. Additionally, it has long curved wings attached to its scapulae , a common attribute of dragons. Along its back are lines and circles in a regular pattern, possibly an abstraction of the Chinese writing system. This may suggest that the creature is primal and ferocious, the pattern literally meaning nothing, but that it is more than it seems; that is, that the chimera may not be aware of its place yet represents something powerful. If not actually entirely possessing that power, the chimera is an essential part in completing it. In the text of Monkey, there is a chapter titled Riding the Dragon. The general idea is that the ferocious dragon, blindly attacking pilgrims and eating one of their horses, without realizing it actually benefits the travelers. In atonement, Guan-Yin forces the dragon to atone for his thoughtlessness by taking the place of the devoured horse. The result is a horse better than the first one for the master, and the only one that can carry the pilgrim to India as ordinary Chinese horses could not. A foe turned to ally simply by completing its duty.

Western influence ran the length of the Silk Road. Religion, aesthetics and ideas common to many cultures were pulled together and synthesized by the multi-cultural civilization only made possible by the vast networks that composed one of the longest and most momentous trade routes in the history of the world.


Anonymous. Chimera and item tag. Accession #MLS1874. Freer

Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.

Anonymous. Head of the Buddha and item tag. Accession

#1998.299. Freer Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.

Anonymous. Plate and item tag. Accession #64.10. Freer

Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.

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and the Sackler Gallery of Art. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institute, 1998.

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