Ancient life in the slow lane

EVER wondered what happens when you cross-breed a Dromedary with a Bactrian camel? No, it’s not a joke. The answer is that the offspring are less grumpy than the parents.

This is the kind of thing you’ll discover in the National Museum of Australia’s new exhibition, “Travelling the Silk Road”.

The museum’s Dr Mike Pickering is comfortable with the curiosity value of the show, the third in a trilogy of exhibitions from the American Museum of Natural History.

“That’s no bad thing,” he tells me, “it’s good to throw a bit of effervescence into the mix.”

“It’s going to be a fun exhibition,” he says as we chat about Marco Polo, Sinbad other ancient travellers on the route. And what a route.

To Pickering, who has researched the trade routes of Aboriginal prehistory, this is almost a perfect show. The exhibition extends its concept from land journeying to take in sea-routes too, with a crusty Arabian dhow one of the objects on show.

But nothing can quite compete with the life-size model of a two-humped “ship of the desert”. Kids of all ages will doubtless be fascinated by this medieval version of a rent-a-car, where you swapped camels half way along the journey, hiring the Bactrian variety for Asia and the Arabian variety for places further west.

But it is Man who is the centre of this exhibition, which takes us on a journey from Xi’an, the ancient capital of China; to Turfan, famous for its vineyards; Samarkand, in what is now Uzbekistan, and on to the fabled Islamic capital Baghdad.

Each section is defined by differently coloured silken tents and each is jam-packed with objects and interactive displays. I can report that I successfully identified some rich oils in the smelling section. There’s also spices, a sexton, a five-metre-long replica of a Tang-era loom, musical instruments and the glass from Baghdad that the Chinese so prized.

The exhibition is linear and, as you enter, you’ll get a passport that can be stamped as you travel from one city to the next.

Though Xián is officially the starting point, it really begins in remote villages where people grow silkworms and make silk. There are many hubs on the way, and “capillaries of this artery”.

The Silk Road reached its height by the end of the Dark Ages, around 1000 AD.

“The traffic is not just in objects,” Pickering notes. So individuals on the Silk Road swapped religious beliefs, bringing the West into contact with Buddhist, Muslim and Zoroastrian ideas.

To Pickering, this exhibition is most relevant to Australians. He believes it shows an exchange of ideas in moral philosophy and law that continued into Europe. There were other exchanges, too – medical knowledge, paper manufacturing, knowledge of minerals and dyes and, since traders undoubtedly started new families on the six-month journey, human contact.

“Travelling the Silk Road: Ancient Pathway to the Modern World”, National Museum of Australia, until July 29.

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