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Central Asia rediscovered

After years of renovation, the Hermitages Central Asian galleries reopen with a spectacular new display.

Published: February 27, 2013 (Issue # 1748)



  • One of the objects on view in the newly reopened Central Asian galleries.
    Photo: FOR SPT

Few people might identify Central Asia as one of the birthplaces of globalization, but those who view it as a strictly 21st-century phenomenon may be surprised to learn that similar cultural and commercial exchanges have been taking place for thousands of years in the arid steppes and mountains of China and Mongolia.

Visitors to the State Hermitage Museum once again have the opportunity to investigate its fascinating collection of art from the region, titled The Culture and Art of Central Asia, which reopened Feb. 14 after a long period of renovation.

The exhibition, which contains around 1,000 artifacts, spans two millennia and features artistic and cultural treasures from across Central Asia that together form a fabulous mosaic of peoples, religions, and artisanship.

The Culture and Art of Central Asia is a reminder of the important role merchants and trading in the area played in the development of art and the expansion of religion mainly Buddhism in this case and also of how the iconography of these religions changed through interaction with various cultures.

The Hermitages collection includes pieces from various parts of the vast region, including East Turkestan (the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in China), Tibet, Mongolia, Buryatia and the western borderlands of modern-day China.

The Mongolian collection is especially extensive, spanning from the first centuries B.C. to the 14th century. Its diversity testifies to the waves of different cultures that passed through the region during this period.

Of particular interest is the collection of artifacts from the Noin-Ula kurgans, a group of 1st-century B.C. burial mounds excavated in northern Mongolia by Soviet explorer Pyotr Kozlov in 1923-1924. Here you can marvel at the ancient skills of the Xiongnu aristocracy, evident in a wealth of objects retrieved from the 200 kurgans, from household items and parts of chariots to lacquered cups and silver jewelry.

But most striking are the silk fabrics, with their diverse ornamentation and highly technical embroidery, which testify to the close links the Xiongnu enjoyed with China.

The area later came under Turkic influence, and this is represented by a helmet, arrowheads, and a stone head with an untranslated runic inscription dating from the 6th or 7th century one of only two such heads found in Mongolia.

The exhibition also features a number of cultural artifacts and works of art from oasis cities located along the route of the Great Silk Road, the vast ancient network of trade routes linking Asia to Europe.

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