What fascination the ancient dead hold for the living, especially children! An early childhood memory of mine was of visiting tombs and pyramids in Egypt. I vividly remember even now the feeling of claustrophobia I felt climbing through steep tunnels within the pharaonic tombs to reach their inner chambers, and then later poring over books about the young Pharaoh Tutankhamen and his fabled golden mask. It was my first exposure to the obsessive lengths to which those can afford it will go to gain immortality, sometimes even for their pets.
Tutankhamun is better known now than when he was alive as a prince. When the British Museum exhibited his funerary treasures in the 1970s, it had a record turn-out. That popularity has been surpassed only by the terracotta warriors that surrounded the tomb of the Chinese emperor Qin Shi Huang in Xian, Western China. He was the first to unify China and started the Great Wall in 200 BC. Like his successors, he was a bittersweet combination of culture and cruelty.
In Xian we saw one of the largest minority Muslim populations in the world
His tomb was guarded by an army of life-sized terracotta statues that had been buried for about 2000 years. Then in the early 1970s these were discovered by a farmer in rural Xian while he was trying to bore a water hole for his crops. Instead of water, he uncovered one of the most stunning finds of the 20th century since Howard Carter’s opening of Tutankhamun’s treasure-crammed tomb. The farmer and his group instantly called the local authorities. Since then, the Chinese government has spent almost 40 years unearthing three of the pits and restoring about 3000 life size soldiers.
The warriors are now displayed in the purpose built site where they were uncovered. The warriors and their horses stand proudly as you face them. Each is uniquely crafted and then assembled. The soldiers represent a full army – with shorter soldiers and infantry, growing progressively in height and weight until one reaches the portly generals who are larger than life, older and with noticeably large bellies. The museum buildings are separated into three pits. The first and largest pit houses endless rows of soldiers and horses, the second contains cavalry and infantry and the third pit houses high ranking officials and chariots.
It is believed that there are about twenty square miles yet to excavate. The grand prize them is the Emperor’s tomb, sealed with forbidding rivers of mercury which ran along the floor of the tomb. In addition to the 8,000 soldiers, there were also 999 concubines who were entombed alive to keep the dead emperor company in the after-life, proving that polygamy is a numbers game. One man won, 990 concubines lost.
Visiting the Xian site was a lifelong dream for me; as it seems to have been for 8 million other visitors who visit Xian every year. The city itself is beautiful and built in line with Feng Shui principles, with the foothills of the verdant Qin Ling mountains to the south and the snaking Wei Hei river to the north. The discovery of the warriors has converted Xian into a tourist centre, and its discoverer into a must-see, must-meet celebrity. The farmer found a new career, signing autograph books for the rest of his life.
My own guide was a gentle woman, genuinely and infectiously proud of her city, its culture and history. Despite showing people around for almost twenty years, her voice still contained a pristine enthusiasm, as if she were showing her city for the first time.
Seeing Xian in real life makes one realise that the wonders of the ancient world are over. It was the age of the great and powerful. Today there are no Emperors or Pyramids or Colosseums being built. What are our modern day equivalents? Zahra Hadid’s creations? The metro rail in Lahore? Trump Towers? What power must this one man – Qin Shi Huang, albeit an emperor – have had, to commission a veritable army of almost 700,000 artisans who spent their lives carving out the terracotta warriors in anticipation of the emperor’s death? Each soldier was painstakingly carved with a unique face, a set of clothes and then painted in colours which disappeared instantly when the paint encountered fresh air after two thousand years.
We shared dumplings and jasmine tea, celebrating the Silk Road and the unifying spirit of the Emperor
Chariots were prepared to help carry the Emperor’s soul into the afterlife with horses that would run at the speed of light into the next world. The soldiers carried real bronze and copper weapons. These were left untouched by a human army that plundered and razed the emperor’s palace. Local legend has it that his palace was so vast that when the conquering army took it over to raze it, it took almost three months to burn it to the ground. It is a wonder that these memories and anecdotes are remembered and that the warriors could remain a secret for so many years. Huang was partly responsible even killing those who worked on the tomb so that the site and treasures would remain a secret. Little did he know that his secret would remain safe for two thousand years and even now his own tomb remains untouched apart from being recreated for celluloid in the movie Mummy 3.
An unexpected experience in Xian was to see one of the largest minority Muslim populations in the world. Xian is regarded as the beginning of the Silk Route and is home to a large Muslim community with its own quarter within the confines of the walls of the Old City. Picture a much cleaner version of the Food Street in Lahore with tofu instead of potato fritters and lots of music and noise. Xian’s Muslim Quarter is similar to the bazaars of old cities found throughout the Silk Route whether in Uzbekistan, Pakistan or Tajikistan. Mounds of dried red chilies are ground by industrial-sized pestles and shared in different forms; as crunchy fries or ground to serve on bowls of steaming hot dumplings and fresh noodles. Mutton is the preferred meat in the Muslim quarter served with fresh noodle soups or as burger sliders with fresh radish and cucumber. Fresh nougat is rolled by men and young women mix fresh almonds and walnuts into it. They then pound it with large pestles and then serve it fresh.
Unlike the eastern parts of China where rice is the main staple, Xian is renowned for its noodles and dumplings. Each dumpling stand was unique and manned by young women and men dressed in traditional Muslim garb – heads covered – which is a rarity in China. It seemed so familiar and yet so foreign; what seemed like an Arabic script was actually one of the local Chinese languages. Their faces were as regal and representative of the region as the young terracotta warriors.
I had gone along with a group of culturally diverse colleagues. As we shared dumplings and toasted each other with rounds of jasmine tea, we celebrated the old Silk Road and the unifying spirit of the old Emperor, who had brought us all together even after 2000 years. Like Tutankhamun, he sought immortality. Ironically, both have achieved just that – through their tombs.