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.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Publication: Tibetan Zen

Discovering a Lost Tradition
The Stories Told by the Dunhuang Cave Manuscripts

Author: Sam van Schaik

Until the early twentieth century, hardly any traces of the Tibetan tradition of Chinese Chan Buddhism, or Zen, remained. The discovery of the sealed cave in Dunhuang transformed our understanding of early Zen, and its role in Tibetan Buddhism. Sam van Schaik of IDP has recently published a book of translations of key Tibetan Zen texts, with brief introductions discussing the roles of ritual, debate, lineage, and meditation in the early Zen tradition.

Shambhala Publications, 2015
PB. 240 pp. $21.95/£17.99
ISBN: 9781559394468

Available in the UK from Wisdom Books.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Authenticity and Transparency in Digital Projects: IDP

In 2014 Paschalia Terzi from the University of Borås, Sweden, spent six months on an Erasmus scholarship with IDP in London working on her MA thesis on the concepts of authenticity and transparency in digitisation projects. Her MA was awarded in 2015 and her thesis is now available for download.

She writes:

"Cultural institutions that hold unique and valuable physical items only for restricted access until now are experiencing a change that demands them to take up the role of information providers as well. The International Dunhuang Project is a digitization project that has been taken as an example to investigate this phenomenon and more particularly issues of trustworthiness and how it can be established in the digital environment. Two concepts have been found to form the basis of its assessment in the online world, authenticity and transparency. Authenticity is a concept borrowed from the existing practice of cultural institutions like museums and archives but transparency is a new demand that has come along with internet and the WWW. Through the examination of components of IDP's website like online documents, metadata and images along with interviews with the producers of the project, an attempt has been made to understand how trustworthiness is perceived by the producers of the project and how they have implemented it on the material of their website."