29 March 2011

Genghis Khan, Shipwrecked Treasures & the ArtScience Museum

The ArtScience Museum was open to the public on 19 February 2011. It is a most amazing architecural structure. The building is shaped like a half open hand with the fingers reaching for the sky. Its roof formed like a glass dish collects water and continuously falls 35m through the central atrium of the building as a waterfall, which is then collected and recycled.

This highly modern building designed by Moshe Safdie opened with 3 major oriental exhibitions: Genghis Khan, Shipwrecked Treasure and Travelling the Silk Road.

These exhibitions were an experience I have never had before in a museum and took John and I a "measly" 5 hours to get through. We completely immersed ourselves into the exhibitions. They were beautifully presented and learned more about Genghis Khan throughout this exhibition than if I had to read a book about it.

Genghis Khan

Born in the early 12th century as Temujin, he spent 20 years unifying the nomadic tribes of Northeast Asia bringing about stability, ethnic identity and reinforced traditions. He also introduced the Mongolian script writing system and the first written Mongolian law (albeit kept secretly and only viewed by him and his closest advisers). Following unification and successful military campaigns he was bestowed the title Genghis Khan thereby making him the ruler of Mongolia for the next 20 years of his life.

Renown for being an excellent military strategist he was also quite surprisingly a fair leader. He valued loyalty above all else and promoted based on merit not favoritism or family ties. He understood that loyalty was born of sharing the spoils of war and treating the conquered tribes with dignity. Instead of driving the defeated tribes away or abandoning them he would integrate them into his own tribe and provide them with protection.

In order to cement alliances between tribes he married at the age of 16 to Borte whom he was promised to when he was only nine. Together they had four sons. Although he had many wives and children, they were of a lower status thereby excluding the children from succession.

Mongolian soldiers were mind-blowing horse riders and archers. The bows took a year to construct and they often slept with them to stop the bows from stiffening in the cold. A Mongolian bow had a shooting range of 320m which was 100m further than the English longbow. They were such expert archers that they could shoot an arrow whilst facing backwards on a horse or hanging at the rear and besides the horse for protection. To keep their aim true they would release their arrows when all four feet of the horse were off the ground. Talk about precision timing and how in tune they would have had to be with their horses.

Before he died, Genghis Khan divided the empire amongst his sons and grandsons. The Mongolian Empire continued to spread for a further couple of generations but due to in-fighting between his descendants the empire began to fracture and finally dissolved in the mid-14th century when the native Chinese overthrew Kublai Khan who was the founder of the Yuan Dynasty, the last Mongolian leader and one of Genghis Khan's grandsons.

At the height of its success the Mongolian Empire consisted of most of Asia, parts of Eastern Europe and North Siberia (approximately 22% of Earth's land area). It is known as the largest contiguous empire in the world, which at the time had a population of 100 million.

Genghis Khan is a highly regarded figure in Mongolia's history and considered as the founding father of today's Mongolia.

In a nutshell, Genghis Khan inspired loyalty amongst his troops, was a military strategist, a strong and fair leader and a great visionary.

Shipwrecked - Tang Treasures and Monsoon Winds

Imagine going out diving for sea cucumbers and three kilometers from shore you come across an unusual bump beneath the ocean. Upon further investigation you discover a cargo laden shipwreck in only 16 metres of water that has been resting beneath the ocean for a 1000 years.

It's 1998 and near Belitung Island, Indonesia which is about 600km south-east of Singapore a 9th century Arab dhow (Arab sailing vessel) is found and then excavated. The cargo hold of the dhow is laden with 60,000 objects, such as mass produced ceramics, Chinese blue & white dishes, silver, gold and bronze items. The surprise isn't just the quantity of items discovered but the fact that a large proportion of them are still intact. Partly due to tightly-packed wares in ginormous jars and partly due to sediment covering the dhow and preserving the wood from rotting and hence the goods held within it.

It is not difficult to fathom the treacherousness and inefficiencies of transporting goods to the West via the Silk Road route which was often afflicted by bandits. So the maritime silk route rose to the occasion and expedited the transportation of goods from China to Europe and Africa. Travelling by dhow was fast, efficient and able to transport large quantities of goods. Of course it did have its own risks such as hazardous weather, pirates and disease.

What is fascinating to note is that the vast portion of the cargo consisted of mass produced Changsha wares. It shows that even back in the 9th century the Chinese had the capacity and capability to produce ceramics on an industrial scale. Europeans loved the Chinese imports as you may often see nowadays in castles' crockery collections (particularly the Chinese blue & white patterns).

The dhow's typical sea journey would have commenced in Oman (east of Saudi Arabia), coursing through the Arabian Sea via India and Sri Lanka, steering north of Indonesia through the Strait of Malacca, around Singapore and then north to Guangzhou, China. Here it loaded the dhow with goods and commenced its return journey. What remains a mystery is why the dhow didn't turn north-west into the Strait of Malacca but kept southward of Singapore until it sunk in the Gelasa Strait between Belitung and Bangka Islands. One can imagine that a possible explanation is being blown off course by a storm and crashing into shallow reefs and submerged rocks which the Gelasa Strait is known for. Who knows!?

Purchased for $32m by a private company together with the Singaporean Government a small selection of the cargo has made its debut at the ArtScience Museum where it is being showcased until it departs for a world wide tour for the next five years. At the end of the tour the exhibition will be permanently housed in Singapore.

The commercial excavation of the underwater archeological site was highly contentious. Professional organisations dedicated to maritime archeology were concerned that the painstaking task of documenting the excavation and preserving the site would be compromised and give way to plundering and accidental destruction.

The excavators understood the extraordinary history and value of such a find and had the ethical philosophy to keep the cargo intact so that it could be studied in its original context.

For me it was a privilege to be privvy to such a stunning discovery and have an insight into a world gone by.

The Silk Road

A transcontinental route extending 6500km, the Silk Road gets its name from the Chinese silk trade which began around 200BC. Silk making was a highly guarded secret by the Chinese thereby making silk a valuable item. Of course silk wasn't the only item traded on these routes. Perfumes, spices, medicines, jewels were amongst other things.

During the Mongol Empire trading was easily done on the Silk Road because the Mongol's would have checkpoints along the way ensuring travel safety. Unfortunately when the Empire fell the route was unprotected and opened up to swarms of robbers. Over time trading on the route declined until it dissolved.

The Silk Road connected much of Asia to northern Africa, Europe and the Mediterranean. A perilous route due to its mountains and harsh desserts, the caravans filled with goods moved from location to location, selling and trading their wares. Agents were used to travel between locations as it would have been impossible for any one merchant to make the journey in its entirety.

Through dioramas and written boards, the exhibition recreated a part of the Silk Road journey commencing in Xi'an and ending in Baghdad. In Xi'an we watched silk worms spin cocoons and admired and wondered at the five meter silk loom (a very large and complex contraption). Arriving in Turfan we looked at the displays of feathers, furs and spices and the raucousness of the night market. Next stop was Sarmakand showing the ancient craft of papermaking and finally arrived in the bustling town of Baghdad a hub of commerce and scholarship.

We emerged from the Museum a little more cultured and with a little more appreciation for history.