A key route for civilisation itself, the Silk Road left a unique trail of ancient artistry in its vast, 6,500-kilometre wake, examples of which are now on display in Dubai.
Rich artistry of the Silk Road on display in Dubai
One of the most important roads in history begins with a legend: the wife of Huang Ti, China's emperor around 2500 BC, dropped a silkworm cocoon into a hot cup of tea, killing the worm and revealing the cocoon's delicate silk. She became known as Lady Si Ling-Chi (Lady of the Silkworm) and her discovery led to the creation of an impressive road that changed history.
The Silk Road, which linked the East and the West, was one of the world's oldest and most important trade routes.
Starting with the Han Dynasty (206BC-220AD) in China, the road expanded into a network of arteries that passed through a range of dynasties and empires, covering over 6,500 kilometres.
Stretching all the way from Rome, passing through the Middle East and South, Central and East Asia including India, Persia and Syria, it extended all the way to Japan, where Buddhism and the art of porcelain flourished. With northern, southern and south-western routes, passing through parts of Arabia and North and East Africa, a road that began with the trading of silk expanded to include the movement of other commodities, as well as inventions, religions and languages, facilitating a tremendous cultural exchange.
You can get a glimpse of some of the treasures from this road until the end of this month at The Farjam Collection Gallery at the Dubai International Financial Centre, where more than 70 rare objects from Persia, India, China and Japan tell the story of the road.
"The artwork on display illustrates the history and the creativity that came about from the sharing of ideas and cultures along the Silk Road," says Marjan Farjam, the gallery's curator and the niece of the man behind the collection, Dr Farhad Farjam.
"You get to see the amount of detail and heart that used to be put into their most simple objects, like a tiny box," she said.
A giant in the world of art and antiques, Farjam works in the pharmaceuticals industry, but according to his niece, his first love is art.
"My uncle is an artist at heart. He didn't go after pieces that were in fashion or the best in terms of investment; he collected what he liked, what he found beautiful and interesting, and so his collections tend to be unique," she says.
Items include a large and colourful Imari dish from Japan's Meiji period (1868-1912), an angry-looking golden dragon incense box, rare and intricate miniatures from Persia and India that tell legends from various time periods, and a 10th-century statue of Buddha from China.
"You feel a sense of Zen when you stand in front of the statue," says Marjan.
Buddhism spread throughout Asia via the Silk Road, particularly flourishing in Japan and Tibet.
"You need to stop at each object and take your time with it to really appreciate the story behind them," says Marjan. "Part of Dr Farjam's vision is for the visitors to interact and engage with the art work, to find links between the different empires and their styles."
Upon entering the gallery, visitors are greeted by a collection from Japan.
Tea pots, delicate porcelain vases and lacquered furniture remind visitors of the strong allure of Japanese art and culture.
As an artist who painted on porcelain before, Marjan has a great appreciation for the skill that went into drawing complete scenes from everyday life or mythology on the pieces.
"Just so beautiful. Even objects that would be put in some corner would have the greatest care put into their design and creation," she says, highlighting the different designs on a variety of tea pots reflecting different periods.
The use of ivory is also ubiquitous, with a row of tusk vases from the Meiji period, and a 30cm statue of a geisha carrying flowers also is on display.
In the Persian collection, Marjan points to a rare 9th-century glass-cut cup and a 7th-century post-Sassanid, faceted glass bottle, and explains how difficult it is to find such perfectly intact antique glass pieces from those periods.
Besides these two, there are examples of stunning early Persian glassware and pottery on display: unglazed and tin-glazed objects decorated with abstract motifs, floral designs and Islamic art with a sense of geometry at its core.
As for miniatures on display, there is an emphasis on natural motifs and the Persian technique of layering perspectives, creating a natural sense of space. Using vibrant colours, as well as gold and silver, the exhibition features styles from the different schools including Shiraz, Tabriz and Herat.
One example on display is Capturing a Demon, a miniature from the 16th century that depicts a dark-figured horned man in a red skirt being dragged by a horseman and his followers.
Meanwhile, the collection of Indian miniatures provide insights into royal life, depicting a variety of activities such as polo, elephant fighting, falconry and shisha smoking. Also, the strong connection to their gods is illustrated through magnificent detail, with some of the Mughal India miniatures telling old folk tales known as the Tutinameh. The Tutinameh is a collection of 52 morality tales told by a parrot to distract his mistress from her lover during the long absence of her husband.
"You get to see a whole different world through these miniatures, and you don't need any words to explain what is happening in them. The story is in the art," says Marjan.
One miniature on display features angels parading around dressed in traditional Indian clothes and sporting red, yellow, green and white wings. Each of the angels in the 18th-century miniature, named Holy Man and Angels, has a different expression and is doing or carrying something symbolic while a holy man, complete with halo, rests on a piece of wood.
In the China collection are ancient scrolls and porcelain ceramics. Hard-paste porcelain was first made in China during the Han and Tang dynasties, before becoming popular in Japan. Two wall scrolls, both dating to the Han Dynasty, depict the same lady, but in one she rides an elephant, and in the other she rides a lion. Coloured with bursts of red and blue, the elephant and the lion have exaggerated facial expressions, unlike the lady's serenely happy face.
These are some of the highlights of the exhibition, which in the opening of the accompanying catalogue Farjam says will "encourage cultural dialogue and understanding".
"In bringing together works of art from different parts of the world, we can trace the influences, similarities and divergences that became manifest as the result of centuries of cross-cultural exchange," he says.
"What is revealed is a universal language of art that permeates arbitrary geographic borders."
The Farjam Collection's Silk Road exhibition runs at Gate Village 4, DIFC until December 23, 2012.
Rym Ghazal is a columnist and senior features writer for The National.