Whether you view Sir Aurel Stein
as a tomb raider
or as the savior of precious cultural objects might depend on whether you are Chinese or British. An impartial observer might merely wonder: Sir Aurel Who?
Sir Aurel Stein was born in Hungary in 1862 and later became a British citizen. He was a linguist, explorer, archaeologist, and scholar. Many of the artifacts he collected are in the British Museum and the Bodleian Library at Oxford holds his papers. Stein traveled many thousands of miles through the Middle East and Asia along the ancient trade route known as the Silk Road. He "discovered" the caves at Dunhuang and he brought the Diamond Sutra, the oldest known complete printed text, out of Asia in 1907.
He died in Kabul, Afghanistan, in 1943 at the age of 83.
To understand his place in the panorama of Asian studies, Buddhist literature, art history, and linguistics is not an easy task. He played a part in the "Great Game" of exploration and geopolitics, as did the famous explorers Francis Younghusband and Sven Hedin. He lived the kind of life of study and travel that was probably only possible during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He was monumental.
It is only fitting that one of the most impressive sets we have right now is Stein's Detailed Report of Explorations in Westernmost China. Consisting of four folio volumes and a map portfolio bound in silk, the books are housed in a custom folding case that, when laid out flat, is a map of the Silk Road.
Whether or not this fabulous production of Stein's work appeals to you might depend upon whether you are Chinese or British. Or English-speaking: the text throughout is printed in Chinese.