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Khotan (Xingjiang Uygur Autonomous Region of China)

Ancient City on the Silk Road


Terracotta Face Mask from Khotan, Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, China

Terracotta Face Mask from Khotan, Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, China


Khotan is a major oasis on the Silk Road, located on two rivers in the southern Tarim Basin of China, the Yurung-Kash and the Qara-Kash, south of the vast impassible Taklamakan Desert. Long before the famed Silk Road, Khotan was a stop on the "Jade Road," connecting Khotan to China. Despite its advantageous location as one of handful of oases on the roads through central Asia, in historic times Khotan itself was very small, no more than 2.5 to 3 km (1.5-2 miles) in circumference, with a population of about 20,000 during the Han Dynasty.

History of Khotan

Known as Yutian to the Chinese, Khotan was the center of silk production in Tarim. Ancient history claims that a Chinese bride of the king of Khotan smuggled the seeds of the mulberry trees and silk worm cases out of China to Khotan. It is possible that Khotan was the actual site of the legendary Serindia, where the West is said to have first learned of the art of silk making.

Khotan was a double colony, settled both by an Indian prince, one of several sons of the legendary King Asoka expelled from India after Asoka's conversion to Buddhism; and an exiled Chinese king. After a battle, the two colonies merged.

Yutien is mentioned in the Hanshu, the documents left by the Han Dynasty explorer Zhang Qian, who reported to his king in 125 BC that there were 3,300 households, including a population of about 20,000. By the early 20th century, 200,000 people lived in Khotan.

Khotan's Archaeology

The first official excavations at Khotan were conducted by Aurel Stein in the early 20th century; but looting of the site began as early as the 16th century. Documents referring to Khotan include the accounts of the Buddhist pilgrim Xuanzang and Khotanese documents such as the Beishi.

Sources and Further Information

This article is a part of the About.com guide to the Archaeology of Buddhism, and the Dictionary of Archaeology.

Mallory, J. P. and Victor H. Mair. 2000 The Tarim Mummies: Ancient China and the Mystery of the Earliest Peoples from the West. Thames & Hudson, London.

Wagner, Mayke, et al. 2009 The ornamental trousers from Sampula (Xinjiang, China): their origins and biography. Antiquity 83(322):1065–1075.

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