In Xinjiang, one locality holds special appeal for explorers, and is sometimes honored as “the Pompeii in the Desert” and a “holy land for archaeologists”. And this mysterious ancient city is known as Loulan.
On 28 March, 1900, when leading his expedition in the desert region near Lop Nur, Swedish explorer Sven Hedin (1865~1952) found their only iron shovel missing. He ordered the local guide to look for the shovel instantly. A sandstorm hit the guide on his way, and to his amazement after the storm calmed down, he found himself in the ruins of an ancient town …
Sven Hedin (1865~1952), prominent Silk Road explorer, rediscovered Loulan in 1900.
Such was the beginning of the modern rediscovery story of the Loulan Kingdom. The Kingdom had used to be a regime based around the oasis city of Loulan situated on the northwestern edge of Lop Nur. References to this desert country are available in official historical records (also under the new name of “Shanshan”) between the Han Dynasty and early Tang Dynasty, in travel records of Buddhist monks like FaXian and Xuanzhuang, and in Tang Dynasty poetry.
Loulan's strategic location on the Silk Road brought to the city both prosperity and threats of war.
Loulan was one of the string of fortified oasis cities on the famous Silk Road. Bordering the Chinese heartland, the Kingdom became the first stop for merchant caravans trading between China and Central Asia, and prospered from the trade. Its strategic location made it the target of control in the contest for hegemony in Central Asia between the Chinese and the Xiongnu. The Han Chinese forces conquered it in 108 BC and turned it into a puppet state, and a military colony was later established and maintained there.
However, the once prosperous area fell into oblivion after the Tang Dynasty - until Sven Hedin. The city of Loulan had been abandoned as early as somewhere in the 3rd century. It has drawn wide interest and debate what factors have caused its abandonment, some of which being listed below:-
1. War of conquest in which the city fell and inhabitants went in exile;
2. The Tarim River, the city’s main source of water, changed its course;
3. The peripatetic movements of Lake Lop Nur;
4. A certain plague that struck the city;
5. The opening of the northern route of the Silk Road which diverted most of the trade traffic away from the southern route (via Loulan).
The seasonal Tarim River winding through the Takalimakhan Desert. The changing of its course was probably the main factor to Loulan's abandonment.
A CGI image of the city of Loulan at its prime.
Further debates center on which race(s) the Loulan inhabitants belonged to. Mummies excavated from the region prove extremely helpful in this regard. The Loulan Beauty has distinctly Caucasian features, with light-color hair, high brows, and steep nose bridge. However, other excavated items seem to suggest that the lifestyle of Loulan residents was closer to ancient Afghans.
Mummy "Beauty of Loulan" with a reconstructed image on the right.
The greatest discovery in Loulan is without doubt the Loulan female mummy discovered in 1980. Perfectly preserved, delicate in appearance and with good skin, eyelashes still intact and lips in an enigmatic mirth. The relic earned the nickname "Loulan Beauty." Experts confirmed that the woman lived some 3,800 years ago. The woman has distinct Caucasian features: light-colored hair and steep nose bridge.
Symbol of Loulan. Ruins of a three-roomed building, probably the government office of Loulan city.
Ruins of a Buddhist pagoda, at a higher level than all other structures.
A holed poplar wood beam. Remnants of a certain civilian residence.
The Xiaohe Tombs Complex. Well-preserved mummies are found in the coffins. Anthropological studies suggest that ancient Loulan residents were a people of mixed blood.
What has survived at Loulan include the ruins of the city’s government offices, civilian residences, and Buddhist pagodas. Traces of the now dried rivers, ditches and farmland are found in its suburbs, implying that agriculture existed here. Relics excavated from Loulan are many and diverse, including Han Dynasty coins, lacquer ware, bronze mirrors, and woolen fabrics in Greek and Roman styles. The Loulan culture was apparently under both Chinese and Western influences.
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