Albert von Le Coq

Albert von Le Coq

Sir Aurel Steins arch- rival, considered the second most heinous of the "foreign devils" by the Chinese , was the German Albert von Le Coq (1860- 1930). His findings from Chinese Turkestan and those from two other German expeditions, easily filled the 13 rooms that were added on to the Berlin Ethnological Museum for his Turpan Collection.

After working in his father 's wine business until the age of 40, von Le coq decided to study oriental languages including Arabic, Turkish, Persian and Sanskrit, and n 1902 joined the Indian section of the Ethnological Museum in Berlin . I n 1904, he left on his rst expedition accompanied by Theodor Bartus, the museum handyman, to explore harakhoja, Bezeklik, Karashahr, MaralBashi and Shui - pang (north of Turpan), where they found Christian manuscripts, fragments of St. Matt hew's Gospel, the Nicene Creed in Greek, and texts on the visit of the Three Kings to the infant Christ. In Hami, Bartus and von Le C oq were wined and dined at the sumptuous palace of the Khan, which was furnished with Hetian carpets, silk embroiders , jade carvings and French clocks.

While in Hami, von Le Coq heard of the discovery of ancient manuscripts near the oasis town of Dunhuang. A Turkoman merchant knew of a Chinese priest who had discovered the hidden Buddhist library some five years earlier. At the same time von Le C oq's boss, the noted art historian Albert Grunwedel, also from the Berlin Museum, telegrammed von Le Coq to meet him in Kashgar. Since von Le C oq did not have time to go to both places, he spun a coin, a Chinese silver dollar that came up heads. He left for Kashgar the next day and unwittingly left the wealth of Dunhuang to his rivals, Aurel Stein and Paul Pelliot.

Von Le Coq returned with Grunwedel to the Kucha region. A Japanese team had recently been the area, and a Russian team hoped to dig there as well. When the Beresovsky brothers arrived, there was some disagreement as to who had the " right" to dig where. The Russian and German governments had casually laid out "spheres of interest " and made certain arrangements that were supposed to be respected by the excavators.

Von Le Coq moved on to work at the Kizil Caves, which overlook the Muzart River, and consisted of "hundreds of temples in the steep cliffs of a mountain range ". Kucha had been a relatively cosmopolitan city and wealthy caravan stop during the days of Silk Road and was rich in Buddhist culture and art - the Kizil frescoes are considered to be the apex of Central Asian art. Von Le Coq said of one temple: "the paintings were the finest we found anywhere in Turkestan, consisting of s cenes from the Buddha legends, almost purely Hellenistic in character ". The Germans initially found the walls of the caves covered with an inch- thick layer of mould, which was easily washed away with Chinese brandy. One picture done in bright blue pigments showed king Ajatashatru taking a ritual bath in melted butter while a courtier paints the death of the Buddha for his master, since he is afraid to speak the bad news. The other caves contained paintings of the Buddha's temptation by Mara, his sermons and his cremation.

Von Le C oq removed whole murals and the contents of entire temples, but Grunwedel condemned this practice of grabbing art for its value as treasure. Von Le Coq finally left on his own for Berlin after being away two and a half years. Because of the wealth of Buddhist relics that the Germans (including Grunwedel) brought back to be catalogued and studied, von Le C oq did not leave on his second expedition for another six years. However, this expedition was plagued from the start and interrupted by the outbreak of World War I in Germany. It was von Le Coq's last visit to Central Asia and not nearly as lucrative as his first. An extensive account of his excavations is recorded in his book Buried Treasures of Chinese Turkestan. Von Le C oq spent his remaining years as the director of the Berlin Museum, arranging exhibits for his treasures.

Although it is commonly thought that all of the German findings from Central Asia were destroyed by Allied bombing in World War II , this is luckily not true. Some of the wall paintings that had been cemented into the walls, and another 28 of the largest ones (almost all from Bezeklik) were totally destroyed in the bombings, after having survived for centuries hidden in the desert sands. All moveable objects in the museum were taken to the bunker at the Berlin Zoo, or to the bottom of West German coal mines for safe- keeping; most of the manuscripts had been kept at the Prussian Academy for study. Only 40 percent of the artwork was in fact destroyed; the remainder is elaborately and extensively displayed in the Museum of Indian Art in Berlin.

Furthermore, not all of the art was lost due to the Allied air raids. Some of the artefacts that had been moved from the museum to the Berlin Zoo bunker were taken by the Soviets when they took control of that part of Berlin in 1945. It is said that they hauled at least eight or nine crates of clay sculpture back to Russia with them and the whereabouts of these treasures is still unknown. The Russians also looted many Indian and Turkestan sculptures from the Berlin Ethnographical Museum. While much of the European painting removed after the war has been returned, nothing has been mentioned of the Silk Road art, despite repeated requests on the part of the German Authorities.

From Book "The Silk Road Xi'an to Kashgar"-Judy Bonavia


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