This story appears in the June 2009 issue of National Geographic magazine.
The world economy in the ninth century had two powerful engines. One was Tang dynasty China, an empire stretching from the South China Sea to the borders of Persia, with ports open to foreign traders from far and wide. The Tang welcomed diverse people to its capital, Changan, the site of modern-day Xian, and multiethnic groups lived side by side in a city of a million—a population unmatched by a Western city until London in the early 19th century. Then, as today, China was an economic powerhouse—and much of that power was built on trade.
The other economic engine was Baghdad, capital of the Abbasid dynasty from 762 onward. That dynasty inherited the Muslim world in the Middle East; by 750 it had spread as far as the Indus River to the east and Spain to the west, bringing with it trade, commerce, and the religion of Islam (the Prophet Muhammad himself had been a merchant).
Linking the two economic powerhouses were the Silk Road and its watery counterpart, the Maritime Silk Route. The overland road gets all the attention, but ships had likely been plying the seas between China and the Persian Gulf since the time of Christ. In tune with the cycle of the monsoon winds, this network of sea-lanes and harbors bound East and West in a continuous exchange of goods and ideas.
Tang China was hungry for fine textiles, pearls, coral, and aromatic woods from Persia, East Africa, and India. In return, China traded paper, ink, and above all, silk. Silk, light and easily rolled up, could travel overland. But by the ninth century, ceramics from China had grown popular as well, and camels were not well suited for transporting crockery (think of those humps). So increasing quantities of the dishes and plates that held the meals of wealthy Persian Gulf merchants arrived by sea in Arab, Persian, and Indian ships.
It was a long and perilous journey. And sometimes a ship just vanished, like a plane off a radar screen.
Since time immemorial, ships have come to grief in the Gelasa Strait, a funnel-shaped passage between the small Indonesian islands of Bangka and Belitung, where turquoise waters conceal a maze of submerged rocks and reefs. Despite the dangers, sea cucumber divers were working the area a decade ago when, 51 feet down, they came across a coral block with ceramics embedded in it. They pulled several intact bowls from inside a large jar, took them ashore, and sold them.
The divers had stumbled upon the most important marine archaeological discovery ever made in Southeast Asia: a ninth-century Arab dhow filled with more than 60,000 handmade pieces of Tang dynasty gold, silver, and ceramics. The ship and its cargo, now referred to as the Belitung wreck, were like a time capsule of proof that Tang China, like China today, mass-produced trade goods and exported them by sea. Working in shifts until the monsoon stopped them, a team of divers retrieved the ancient artifacts.
The treasure—much of it, anyway—turned out to be the Tang equivalent of Fiestaware: so-called Changsha bowls, named after the Changsha kilns in Hunan where they were produced. Tall stoneware jars served as ninth-century shipping containers; each could hold more than a hundred nested bowls that might originally have been padded with rice straw, a sort of organic bubble wrap. Scholars already knew that such simple, functional tea bowls had been exported worldwide from the eighth to the tenth centuries: Shards of them had been found at sites as far afield as Indonesia and Persia. But few of the bowls had ever been found intact.
Now the Java Sea had yielded up a shipload, many perfectly preserved—protected in the stoneware jars from the scouring action of sand on the seafloor. Sponged clean, their glazes shone as brightly as the day they were fired.
The handmade bowls give evidence of "factory-like production," says John Miksic, an American professor at Singapore's National University who is an expert on Southeast Asian archaeology. They are the earliest known exported examples of their kind. "The cargo also implies an organizer with managerial skill," Miksic says, "and huge quantities of imported raw materials." Cobalt for blue-and-white ceramics, for example, came from Iran; it was not recovered from ore in China until much later.
Although Arab mariners clearly plied the Maritime Silk Route, trading on a large scale over great distances, "this is the first Arab dhow discovered in Southeast Asian waters," says John Guy, senior curator of South and Southeast Asian Art at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, "and the richest and largest consignment of early ninth-century southern Chinese gold and ceramics ever discovered in a single hoard."
A reconstruction suggests the craft was similar to a kind of sailing vessel still found in Oman and known as a baitl qarib. Almost 60 feet long, with a raked prow and stern, it was built of African and Indian wood and fitted with a square sail. Its most distinctive feature was that instead of being held together with dowels or nails, its planks and beams were literally sewn together, probably with coir, a coconut-husk fiber.
The dhow's port of departure and destination are still uncertain. No logbooks survived, no bills of lading, no maps. But most scholars believe that it was bound for the Middle East, possibly the Iraqi port city of Al Basrah (now Basra). It probably set sail from Guangzhou, the largest of the ports linked by the Maritime Silk Route. In the ninth century an estimated 10,000 foreign traders and merchants, many of them Arabs and Persians, lived in Guangzhou.
Among the tens of thousands of Changsha bowls found in the wreck, one was inscribed with this message: "the 16th day of the seventh month of the second year of the Baoli reign," or A.D. 826 on the Western calendar. This is almost certainly when the bowl was fired. Then, as now, goods did not sit around on the wharf for long, so the ship probably embarked not long afterward.
The serial nature of the cargo (along with the bowls, it included 763 identical inkpots, 915 spice jars of various sizes, 1,635 ewers) and the geographic diversity of its production (from at least five kilns widely dispersed over China) suggest that these were export items made to order. Decorations show the eclecticism of the global market. There is something for everyone: Buddhist lotus symbols and motifs from Central Asia and Persia. Objects bearing geometric decorations and Koranic inscriptions were clearly aimed at the Islamic market. White ceramicware as well as green-splashed bowls and ewers are known to have been popular in Iran. One bowl was inscribed with five loose vertical lines, interpreted by some scholars as a symbol whose meaning resonates powerfully in today's world: Allah.
Like the shiploads of sneakers or electronics stamped "Made in China" today, most of the items recovered from the dhow were trade goods. But at the stern of the ship, divers found a trove of gold and silver and high-grade ceramics whose significance is more mysterious.
Peeling back a cloud of white, acid-free paper, Alvin Chia holds up a cup in gloved hands. "This is the largest Tang dynasty gold cup ever found," he says. Chia is an executive with Singapore's Sentosa Leisure Group, which joined with the Singapore government to beat out several museums and bought the entire cargo in 2005 for more than $30 million. It may one day be the core of a Maritime Silk Route museum.
Chia points out that two men depicted on the cup's thumb plate look Central Asian rather than Chinese, with long, curly hair and thick beards. On the cup's side panels are figures in motion: a Persian dancer clapping her hands above her head, musicians playing various instruments. In Tang China, Chia explains, music and dance from eastern Persia were all the rage.
A large, exquisitely decorated silver flask might offer a clue to the purpose of the hoard. "See the pair of mandarin ducks?" Chia asks. "They are a symbol of matrimonial harmony. On ornamental boxes everything is also in pairs: a pair of birds, a pair of deer, a pair of ibexes." Perhaps these were gifts for a royal wedding in the Persian Gulf—a bride's treasure of the sort rarely seen outside of China.
Since China first began trading with the world more than 2,000 years ago, it has opened and closed like a clamshell. During the Tang dynasty the clamshell was wide open and remained so for many centuries. A string of inventions—gunpowder, paper, printing, and cast iron—had set China on course to become the world's leading economic power. Trade with the West had steadily expanded, with Chinese seafarers taking an increasingly dominant role.
When the great admiral Zheng He set sail in 1405 with a fleet of 317 ships, China ruled the waves. "If you had been sitting in a spaceship looking down on Earth, and you had observed developments from the ninth to the 15th century," says John Miksic, "you would have thought that the Chinese would take the next step—explore the Atlantic and become the dominant world culture." But throughout Chinese history, there has been another, equally powerful force at work: a distrust of merchants and the foreign influences they import, dating back to Confucius, who believed trade and commerce should not dictate Chinese culture and values.
In A.D. 878, little more than half a century after the Belitung ship sank, a rebel leader named Huang Chao burned and pillaged Guangzhou, killing tens of thousands of Muslims, Jews, Christians, and Parsis. And not long after Zheng He's voyages, when Columbus reached the New World, the Confucian worldview won the day; China burned its fleet and turned inward. The Silk Road and the Maritime Silk Route, which had linked China to the world, lapsed into disuse. The Portuguese entered the Indian Ocean, and by the late 17th and early 18th centuries, Europe had begun to dominate world trade. "The whole of world history would have been different if the Chinese had not gone into their shell for 500 years," Miksic says.
Now China competes with India to be the world's workshop. China is open as never before and once again trading with its ancient partners in the Middle East. Iran, for instance, supplies 12 percent of China's oil. In return, Beijing provides machinery and locomotives, builds subways and railroads, and helps Tehran exploit its vast mineral resources, closing the loop from the ninth century, when cobalt was shipped from Persia to China for the blue-and-white ceramics found on the Belitung ship.
"The ancient networks are restored through industries and factories in a world that is now globalized," says Wang Gungwu, a historian at the National University of Singapore.
For how long this time is anybody's guess.