Philobiblon: The Turks at the Royal Academy

Thursday, January 27, 2005

The Turks at the Royal Academy

They've arrived. No, I don't mean the Turks, but the hordes of visitors at Turks: A Journey of a Thousand Years: 600—1600 AD. It was like a rugby game in there today, albeit a very polite one.

But the exhibits, if not perhaps the exhibition, deserve the attention.

I only had an hour to spare, and so concentrated on two sections. Doing it in parts, if you possibly can, is undoubtedly the way to go; the span is so broad, the flood of empires of which you've never heard before (or at least I certainly hadn't) so overwhelming.

I learnt that the people called the Turks first appear in history in the 6th century AD, when they established ties with the Western Wei dynasty (535-51) in China. They are, on the Silk Road, at the very crossroads of the world, as is made clear in rooms two and three, where all of the exhibits are religious, but pick your religion. There's Buddhism, Nestorian Christianity*, Manichaeism, Mazdaism (a local form of Zoroastrianism), and some of the carved stone statues (used as gravemarkers) look distinctly animist to me, although that's not specifically mentioned that I saw.

Marking graves with stones was one of the characteristics that continued through centuries and religions. I was taken with a humble gravestone, a triangular lump of basalt worked only on one side to produce a flat surface. It was scratched, almost graffitied, with a Nestorian cross, and the label said "identifies the deceased, a Turkic maiden, and her death year, 'the year of the dragon' using a 12-year animal cycle adopted by the Turks".

(NOTE TO CURATOR: we want names! This maiden wasn't anonymous when she was buried, why should she be now?)

It is displayed with several similar gravestones, and a note that many of these were found in Semirechye (modern Kakakstan and Krygyzstan). I will confess I was unaware of a country of the former name and I only got eight Google hits - is it maybe a quasi-autonomous republic of somewhere? They weren't clear. Anyone who knows, please comment! (If it is a country, is this a record minimum for Googling?) (ADDITION: I meant Kakastan - sorry I realise this wasn't very clear!)

One of the similar gravestones, from 1302, is dated "according to the era of Alexander the Great", showing how his influence lingered in the region, as I'd previously learnt at the Musee Guimet.

Opposite were some stakes of a form that I've never seen before. Carefully shaped into an octagonal cross-section, up to a metre or so in length, covered in writing (Uighur), they seem to have been driven into the floor of temples to record the contributions of benefactors. One temple in Khocho seems to have been entirely founded by a woman, but again, no name is given!

This delightfully eclectic period seems to have come to an end in the late 900s, when there were mass conversions to Islam and significant migrations.

I said the exhibits were great, but sadly not so the exhibition. Perhaps it is showing signs of the internal wrangles at the RA - the people-flow seems very badly arranged (objects that can be seen from all sides only have labels on one, crowding everyone together), the print on the labels is far too small, so the RA visitors, who aren't on average on the young side, were almost pressing their faces up to the surface to read them, and the explanatory panels so packed with names, dates and times as to be almost incomprehensible - a dictionary reference rather than an explanation.

Still, the objects are wonderful - go anyway!

*There's a great deal on Nestorian Christianity in China on this site.

2 Comments:

Blogger John Emerson said...

Semirechye means "Seven rivers" and is a geographical term based on a delta, I think. Semipalitakinsk means seven of something. Neither means half of anything, and neither was ever a state.

John Emerson Idiocentrism

1/27/2005 04:26:00 am  
Blogger Natalie Bennett said...

Sorry, I realise on re-reading that wasn't very clear, I was referring to Kakstan. But thanks for the knowledge on "Semi".

It might be "seven deserts", or something like that. My notes further say that from 552-740 there were two "qaghanates", based in Altar and Mongolia, the eastern part of being what is now Chinese Xinjinag (which has of course the much-repressed Uighur independence movement). The exhibition says this is "one of the world's largest deserts, Taklamaken, which merges with the Gobi in the east. The Silk Road skirted it."

1/27/2005 09:23:00 am  

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