Friday, August 20, 2010

Aurel Stein

My friend Arthur Fournier has shown me his beautiful website, primarily dedicated to rare books, which today has a post on Aurel Stein.  Stein--whose grave in the British cemetery in Kabul is shown above (I took that photo in 2007)--was an explorer and antiquarian who discovered an amazing treasure trove of books at the Mogao caves near Dunhuang.  

You can see Arthur's blog for details of this discovery; let me simply explain why Stein's life has always intrigued me.

First of all, he is not the only man of Hungarian Jewish descent to have found Central Asia intriguing.  An earlier example was Arminius Vambery, a sample of whose writing can be found here.  Vambery was interested in tracing connections between the Hungarians and the peoples of central Asia.  But his interests were much wider; it has recently been revealed that he was a British intelligence agent.  He was certainly a master of disguise, as he reveals through his delighted descriptions of how he managed to pose as a Turk posing as a darwish.  Vambery, who also allegedly was the basis in real life for the literary figure of Professor Van Helsing in Dracula, was altogether remarkable.

But central Asia attracted such people at that time.   Olaf Caroe in his book The Pathans (see the link for the book, but don't buy it there! it can be bought for less) celebrates a number of British imperial officials who lived out their lives among the Pashtuns, sometimes forsaking the chance of return to Britain.  Sven Hedin, whose reputation much later was to be darkened by his early support for Nazism, was in his youth famous for his adventurous forays into the Lop Nor desert, which themselves inspired Stein.  Colonel Bailey was, not long after Stein, also in central Asia as a daring envoy, who managed while disguised as a Romanian to be drafted into the Bolsheviks' secret service on a dangerous mission: to kill the celebrated British secret agent, Colonel Bailey.  His description of this adventure can be found here.  Another excellent book on this region, at this time, is Peter Hopkirk's.

Stein himself ended up living alone in Kashmir, and dying in Kabul.  A modern scholar who attempts to follow to some extent in his footsteps - without abstracting large volumes of literary art, which is what has made Stein a controversial figure, especially in China - is Christoph Baumer whom I met last semester at Harvard, where he spoke to students of Professor Charles Stang.