Loulan, one of the world's most mysterious ancient ruins


By AGENCY

This tomb mural is now kept at the Loulan Museum. — Wikipedia

Among the greatest historical mysteries in the world, one that draws the eyes of archaeologists and historians worldwide to the middle of nowhere in northwest China is the legendary Loulan.

As one of the many oasis states in ancient China’s western regions – roughly today’s Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region – Loulan witnessed hundreds of years of splendour around the Han Dynasty (202 BCE to 220 AD) before fading out in history, with its cities vanishing into endless sand, nowhere to be found.

At least not until the start of the 20th century, when Loulan, also known as Kroraina, reappeared to the world in an accidental discovery in the Taklimakan Desert by Swedish explorer Sven Hedin, which has since set off a global craze for Loulan studies.

Now, with more findings coming out of the millennia-old ruins, the once mysterious Loulan has offered a rare glimpse into the history of Xinjiang, the close relations between the western and central regions of ancient China, as well as the shared cultural identity of Chinese civilisation.

A file photo from September 2020 showing conservationists reinforcing the ruins of the three-room house at the Loulan Ruins. — Photos: Northwest Research Institute of CREC/XinhuaA file photo from September 2020 showing conservationists reinforcing the ruins of the three-room house at the Loulan Ruins. — Photos: Northwest Research Institute of CREC/Xinhua

Ancient ruins

The Loulan Ruins comprise a number of archaeological sites scattered on the eastern fringe of the Taklimakan Desert near the now-desiccated Lop Nur, among which the jewel in the crown is the ancient city of Loulan.

Dubbed the Oriental Pompeii, Loulan city – presumably the capital of the Loulan Kingdom – was situated at the juncture of the southern and northern routes of the ancient Silk Road.

Now the once flourishing city has become a heap of ruins hidden in countless sand dunes to the northeast of Xinjiang’s Ruoqiang County.

Seen from above, the large settlement was basically square, covering an area of about 108,000sq m. In its northeast stands the tallest structure in the city – a dilapidated Buddhist stupa about 10.4m in height.

Not far away is the well-known “three-room house”, the remains of a structure deemed to be a government office, where a treasure trove was found of inscribed wooden slips and paper documents.

“Everything here is a cultural relic and has great value,” said 19-year-old Adiljan Jilir, the youngest of the rangers tasked with protecting the Loulan Ruins.

Due in no small part to the lasting fame of Loulan, the ancient city and nearby tombs have become a hot spot for intruding tourists and even a target of cultural relic theft, despite their far-flung locations.

To keep the ruins safe, Adiljan and his teammates make regular patrols around the ruins every day. Yet besides those intruders, they have bigger challenges to deal with – the dreadful weather and the no less dreadful loneliness.

Gusty winds and sandstorms commonly occur for most time of the year, and in summer the surface temperature can reach 70°C. Apart from those harsh elements, only sand and silence keep them company.

“We are guardians of the Loulan Ruins. We have to put up with the loneliness, the sandstorms and the searing heat,” said Ma Zhuang, a 42-year-old ranger.

He said he knew little about Loulan before taking this job, but has now developed a profound bond with the ancient ruins after reading a lot of history books.

“Life here is bitter indeed, but now I enjoy it like sweet sugar,” Ma said.

Chinese civilisation

Since its rediscovery over 120 years ago, Loulan has fascinated explorers, archaeologists and historians both inside and outside China, with related excavations and studies shedding more light on the history of Xinjiang.

The latest major outcome is The Report On Archaeological Investigation And Excavation Of Loulan, a book published in 2022 by late Chinese archaeologist Hou Can, which provides new detailed information on its location, scale, layout and history.

Given its important location along the Silk Road, Loulan used to be a bustling hub of economic and cultural exchanges between the East and the West. Exotic adornments made of seashells and corals were found here, thousands of miles from the nearest seashore.

The position and size of the stupa indicate its importance in the city, said Pan Pan, an assistant professor at the School of Sociology and Anthropology of Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, China.

“It proves that Buddhism was quite popular back then after it had entered ancient China’s western regions.”

However, in the eyes of many historical researchers, the most striking feature of this remote local kingdom is its strong bond with the central regions of China.

Politically speaking, “... from those inscribed wooden slips and paper documents found near the three-room house, we can determine that Loulan city used to be the seat of the office of the top official dispatched by the central government to govern the Western Regions,” said Feng Jing, curator of the Loulan Museum.

A textile or carpet fragment that was retrieved from a refuse heap in Loulan by the Hungarian-British archaeologist Marc Aurel Stein between 1906 and 1908, during his second Central Asian Expedition. — The British Museum/WikipediaA textile or carpet fragment that was retrieved from a refuse heap in Loulan by the Hungarian-British archaeologist Marc Aurel Stein between 1906 and 1908, during his second Central Asian Expedition. — The British Museum/Wikipedia

Exquisite brocades uncovered here showcase the close cultural and emotional attachment between the central and western regions of ancient China. Many of them are embroidered with good wishes in traditional Chinese characters or auspicious creatures like dragons and tigers.

“Those embroidered brocades reflect the broad mind of ancient China during the Han Dynasty,” said Li Wenying, director of the Xinjiang Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology. “They also convey the beautiful wish for national prosperity.”

“Loulan witnessed and participated in Silk Road exchanges. It is a symbol of Chinese culture shared by all ethnic groups of the Chinese nation,” she added.

Old legends

To preserve this outstanding cultural symbol, a broad array of endeavours has been made by authorities and communities at both national and local levels.

The latest major protection and restoration project for the Loulan Ruins was carried out in 2020, during which an expert team worked for about 170 days to repair the stupa and the three-room house in the scorching heat and suffocating sandstorms.

In order to better present the hard-to-access Loulan to the public, the Loulan Museum, the only Loulan-themed museum in the world, was built in Ruoqiang County and officially opened in 2011.

Greeting visitors at the entrance to the ancient Loulan-style structure is a relief of the “Beauty Of Loulan”, a 3,800-year-old mummy that was found in 1980.

These ancient oxhide boots found in Loulan are now in the National Museum, Beijing. — JOHN HILL/Wikimedia CommonsThese ancient oxhide boots found in Loulan are now in the National Museum, Beijing. — JOHN HILL/Wikimedia Commons

Now there are 5,717 cultural relics in the museum’s collection, including mummies, woodenware, bronzeware, pottery, embroidery and documents, of which six pieces are classified as “first-class cultural relics”, said Feng.

At a corner inside the museum, a variety of products with distinctive Loulan features are on sale, such as bookmarks, flash drives, pillows, cushions, water cups and handbags.

“Those brocade fragments uncovered in Loulan are the source of our inspiration,” said Sun Hu, owner of the booth. “Tourists like our products very much.”

To the north of the museum lies a Loulan-themed cultural park, where a host of embossed walls, inscribed columns, sculptures and pavilions put on display showcase various aspects of the rich Loulan culture. It has become a must-see destination for visitors to the county.

In addition, Feng said that with government support, the museum regularly organises training courses, outreach programmes, cultural symposiums and other activities to further encourage Loulan exchanges and studies and enable more people to know about the real history of this mysterious land.

“The Loulan Ruins offer an important window for the world to understand the big country in the East,” said Meng Xianshi, a professor of history at Renmin University of China and long-time Loulan researcher.

With related studies gaining more attention and going deeper, the cultural and historical value of ancient Loulan will be further decoded and better understood, he added. – Xinhua

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