Monday, October 26, 2015

Remembering Aurel Stein: died 26 October 1943 in Kabul

On 31 March 1943, just back from Las Belas tracing one of Alexander the Great's unsurveyed routes, the scholar, archaeologist and explorer Marc Aurel Stein (b. 1862) received a telegram from Cornelius Van Hemert Engert (1887-1985), US Minister in Kabul. It was an entirely unexpected invitation to Afghanistan. Stein was in his 81st year but, characteristically undefeated by age, he immediately started making plans and laying down conditions for his visit: he wanted to visit sites in Bactria and the Helmand valley and also follow ancient routes through Afghanistan. Van Hemert Engert was dismayed that Stein expected so much to be agreed in advance, but Stein's experiences on his last visit to China in 1930 had made him cautious. Perhaps also he could not really believe it would be possible: after all, his boyhood dreams of visiting Afghanistan had been constantly thwarted.

Stein had set foot — in his imagination — on Afghan soil as a schoolboy when he first read of the travels of Alexander the Great. Thirty years later when crossing the Pamirs in 1900 on his first Chinese Central Asian expedition, he had stood at the country's western border and taken a few steps into the promised land. After this he tried many times to gain permission to carry out excavations there but had constantly failed.

Stein finally reached Kabul on Tuesday 19 October 1943. He arrived from Peshawar in the US Legation car and stayed in the Legation. He lost no time in making the round of official calls necessary to facilitate his planned archaeological work but, on the Thursday after his arrival, he allowed himself an afternoon in the Kabul Museum. The next day he had a chill and was forced to cancel engagements, including a Saturday visit to the cinema. By this time the chill had developed into bronchitis and on Sunday morning he clearly felt he might not recover. He spoke to van Hemert Engert about funeral arrangements, asking for a Church of England service and telling him: 'I have had a wonderful life and it could not be concluded more happily than in Afghanistan which I have wanted to visit for sixty years.'

That evening he suffered a stroke. He did not fully regain consciousness and died on Thursday 26 October 1943 only a week after his arrival. He was buried in the Christian cemetery in Kabul, Gora Kabur ('white graveyard'). The funeral service was conducted by the Anglican padre from Peshawar and attended by representatives of the Afghan ruler, the Foreign Ministry and other departments, the Persian Ambassador, Iraqi Minister and Soviet Chargé d'Affaires, alongside American and British Legation staff: Stein would have approved of the international mix. His grave continues to be looked after today (picture above taken in 2006).

Stein's life — and that of his contemporary, Sigmund Freud — is the topic of a lecture by Professor Craig Clunas on 6 November 2015. The lecture will be held at the British Library and followed by a drinks reception.

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