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Sunday, Jan. 23, 2011

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Past glory: Palmyra in Syria, which thrived from 100 B.C. until the third century A.D. EDAN CORKILL PHOTOS

Mystery at a crossroads of continents

Deep in the Syrian desert, Edan Corkill finds that goods traded along the fabled Silk Road more than a millennium ago may have reached as far as Japan's ancient capital of Nara


By the time I reached the small town of Palmyra, way out in the middle of the Syrian desert, I had become somewhat accustomed to the ways of the locals.

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Desert rose: Situated at a natural oasis, ancient Palmyra was a major trading post for Silk Road merchants.

"Tell him we traveled 9,000 km from Japan to see these very tombs," I hollered at our guide with exaggerated agitation, "and we aren't budging until he lets us in." In Syria, I had learned, you don't delicately edge into disagreement through insinuation, as you might in Japan. You dive in head first.

By this, the fifth day of our Syrian Tourism Ministry-sponsored press tour of the nation's uniformly stunning historical sites, we had already negotiated several such "disagreements," usually with success. Our guide and I had developed a kind of good cop-bad cop routine; I, oddly enough, was the bad cop. On this particular occasion, our adversary was a middle-aged man who had wandered out of his Bedouin- style tent, past his goats and his dust- covered motorbike, to tell us he wouldn't let us into the tombs we sought to see because we didn't have permission from the appropriate government authority.

The Tourism Ministry, it appeared, was inappropriate.

My claim that the tombs were the reason I had come to Syria was only a slight exaggeration. Palmyra's Roman-period tombs were always going to be a highlight of the trip. Not only do they date from the second century A.D., but they had been excavated and restored by a Japanese team of archeologists in the 1990s. Also, they are described in the Lonely Planet guidebook as "superb," and, what's more, I knew that their heavy stone doors had once concealed several items that hinted at ancient trade with Asia — trade, that is, along the famed and fabled Silk Road.

And that's what had really brought me to Syria. Long accustomed to seeing evidence in Japan of a Silk Road connection with the Middle East, what I wanted to see on this trip was the opposite: evidence in the Middle East of Silk Road exchange with Japan, or, at least, eastern Asia.

But judging from the state of negotiations with the man with the goats and dusty motorbike, I may have come so far — only to be going no further. Deciding on a change of tack, I bundled the other journalists out of the minivan and proceeded to lead them in a march in the direction of the tombs, which it seemed were about 50 meters away.

Around 2,000 years ago, when these particular tombs were constructed, this part of the world probably seemed further from Japan than the planet Mars does today.

Back then, it would have taken several years to make the journey across Asia. The most recent space probe got to the red planet in a few months. And, like present-day interplanetary travel, it would have been objects, not people, that made the odyssey.

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Unearthing the past: Japanese experts who have excavated underground tombs in Palmyra (top) have found, behind massive limestone doors (above), carvings such as this (below) that hint at ancient Silk Road trade stretching as far as Japan.
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The types of things that were passed, from trader to trader, along the routes between the Mediterranean Sea and the Pacific Ocean — from Syria, then on through present-day Iraq, Iran, northern India, China and, in some cases at least, to Japan by boat — were mostly small, light and durable.

Precious stones such as turquoise and lapis lazuli; dyed and woven products such as Chinese silk brocade; containers made of gold, silver or glass; mirrors in bronze; swords and armor; clothes, masks and musical instruments, paintings and artworks; spices and medicine: All were traded and gifted back and forth along those routes, according to one of Japan's preeminent Silk Road specialists, the late Namio Egami.

Egami was the director of one of Japan's largest-ever celebrations of the Silk Road, 1988's "Silk Road Exposition, Nara," a massive undertaking that was primarily sponsored by Nara Prefecture but also involved the cooperation of dozens of countries. The event's specific inspiration was that the final "Japan leg" of the Silk Road was opened up at about the time Nara and the surrounding area was at the center of Japan's political life: the Asuka Period (538-710) and the Nara Period (710-794). It was during those more than 2 1/2 centuries that Japan's rulers first became interested in Buddhism and teachings from the mainland, with Empress Suiko (554-628) and her influential Prince Regent Shotoku (574-622) leading the way.

One of the earliest temples built in Japan to honor the new religion brought over from China was Horyuji, which was completed in 607 but may have been rebuilt after a fire in the eighth century.

The interior of the main hall of the temple located in the west of present-day Nara Prefecture is filled with all manner of murals, including one that depicts winged angel-like figures. Some scholars have noted that this mural has much in common with religious depictions that can be found on the Asian mainland, and even at the western extremities of the Silk Road.

However, a second, even more spectacular Buddhist monument was built around the same time — the massive, 15-meter-high statue of Buddha that to this day dominates a large hall completed in 752 at Todaiji Temple in Nara City.

On the occasion of the temple's opening, a great number of gifts were brought from China. One of those, it is believed, may have been a cut-glass bowl about 10 cm in diameter and 8.5 cm high whose outer and inner surfaces feature a pattern of circular indentations that look as if they could have been made by pressing a small ball into the glass as it cooled.

Like most of the treasures brought over from China, the Haku Ruri no Wan (White Glass Bowl), as it is now known, was kept at Todaiji in a large wooden storeroom called the Shosoin. And despite the passing of more than a millennium, that's where it remains to this day, only occasionally being brought out for conservation or exhibitions.

Mention the word "oasis" and most people are likely to imagine the stereotypical small clump of palm trees growing around a water source in the middle of a desert.

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Respect for the aged: Made wealthy as a result of Silk Road trade between Western Europe, the Mediterranean and Asia as far distant as Japan, some Palmyran families had lavish underground tombs constructed for themselves, where they honored their ancestors as demigods who would watch over them in the afterlife.

Well, strange as it may seem, that is pretty much what Palmyra is like. The "clump" of palm trees there covers about 400 hectares, but, when viewed as a panorama from above — as is possible from the nearby 17th-century hilltop castle Qala'at ibn Maan — then suddenly even those 400 hectares of greenery come to resemble a "small clump" in a very big desert indeed.

It was around the first century B.C., when present-day Syria was part of the Greek-influenced Seleucid Empire extending from the Mediterranean to the Indus, that the small settlement on the northern edge of this oasis developed into a stopping point for camel-caravan travelers crossing the Syrian desert. The town's importance grew further when the Romans took over the region in the first century A.D.

The ruins of that ancient town remain to this day, and they are extraordinarily evocative. Even the most casual visitor is able to ascertain not only the size and scale of the old town, but its grandeur, too. There are giant arches, a semicircular theater that's still largely intact, a huge temple that predates the Romans and, most strikingly, the remains of a series of giant columns that had lined what must have once been a beautiful colonnaded street just over a kilometer long.

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