"Khotan is a province 8 days journey in width, subject to the Great Khan. The inhabitants all worship Mahomet. It has cities and towns in plenty, of which the most splendid, and the capital of the kingdom, bears the same name as the province, Khotan. It is amply stocked with the means of life. Cotton grows there in plenty. It has vineyards, estates, and orchards in plenty. The people live by trade and industry; they are not at all warlike."
– From Travels by Marco Polo
The ancient city of Khotan (sometimes written as Yutian), capital city of the Kingdom of Khotan, had been buried under centuries of sand when it was rediscovered by Aurel Stein (whose full name was Marc Aurel Stein, but who was later knighted as Sir Marc Aurel Stein), a Hungarian-born archaeologist (a real-life Indiana Jones figure, in fact) who was inspired by two men, one a contemporary and one from the ancient past. The latter was a Chinese Buddhist monk of the 7th century CE by the name of Xuanzang ("Hiuen-Tsiang", in the writings of Stein) who had traversed the route from Chang'an (present-day Xi'an) in eastern China to Bactria in Central Asia, along the northern rim of the Tarim Basin, which route roughly corresponded to the southern route of the famous Silk Road. Bactria was a region of former Greater Iran that corresponds to the geographical nexus where present-day Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Afghanistan all come together.
The other source of inspiration to Stein was the work of the Swedish explorer and geographer, Sven Hedin, who had done extensive, detailed mapping of large parts of Central Asia, including the routes of the famous Silk Road. Central Asia was an area that theretofore had not been mapped in great detail. Aurel Stein later became a British citizen, and it was as such that he made some of his most famous explorations, thanks in no small part to the excellent maps that Sven Hedin had drawn.
How Stein rediscovered the buried city of Khotan (also written as Yü-t'ien in Stein's works) is quite interesting, for it rested not on excavations (that had already been done for him by greedy looters), but on a logical analysis, or a (Sherlock) Holmesian deduction, of, on the one hand, what had already been unearthed, plus, on the other hand, a careful observation of the terrain of the area. What had been unearthed was a large body of artifacts (statues, pottery, coins, etc.), including gold leaf (not raw gold, but worked gold), which indicated the existence of an older culture beneath the dust of the present-day city of Hetian (written as Yotkan in Stein's works).
Stein's true Holmesian observation lay in noting than the area, which consisted of agricultural land plots, had been irrigated for centuries with water that had been redirected via canals from the nearby rivers, including the Kara-kash River, and that these plots of land were much higher (more elevated) than the roads that crisscrossed them. The explanation – Stein's deduction – was that the water that had been dumped onto the land plots over the decades contained large amounts of silt, or loess, which, over time, caused the farmed plots to rise higher and higher compared to the access roads, which had not been "irrigated" in this manner. Underneath the farmed plots of the present-day village of Hetian/ Yotkan lay then the ancient city of Khotan, reasoned Stein.
Stein also noted that the geographical area corresponding to present-day Hetian/ Yotkan matched the descriptions given in the "travel annals" of Xuanzang, the Buddhist monk who had traversed this area back when the city of Khotan existed. A more detailed examination of the archeological finds that had been unearthed in the area corroborated Stein's theory regarding the link between Hetian/ Yotkan and Khotan, which, today, is accepted as fact.
Khotan was an important city on the southern route of the Silk Road as early as the Western Han (BCE 206 – CE 009) Dynasty, i.e., from the very beginning of the Silk Road trade. Agriculture played an important role in the commerce of Khotan from ancient times, as the Chinese had long since developed sophisticated methods of irrigation, including the art of digging canals to divert water from streams. But jade was also an important part of Khotan's commerce, as there were rich finds of the material in the region.
Among the archaeological artifacts excavated in Hetian were the following: pottery figurines; vases; pottery tools; items in jade; beads (used in jewelry); statues in gold and in bronze (including Buddha figures); and various ancient coins. Many of these artifacts display a strong Persian or Greek style, indicating the far-reaching extent of the trade along the Silk Road, which trade went in both directions, of course, and included not only commodities, but also ideas such as Buddhism, and – later – Islam. The degree of sophistication of some of the excavated artifacts, such as a gold duckling that is similar to the gold duckling excavated in the Dunhuang Mogao Grottos (another site visited and catalogued by Stein – these grottoes have since been placed on the World Heritage List), bear witness to the wealth and glory of the ancient city of Khotan, and indeed, to the wealth and glory of the Kingdom of Khotan.
The Silk Road routes by land had developed relatively rapidly (i.e., relative to the times, where word of the exotic wares of the Orient, though they spread quickly, spread mainly by word of mouth in BCE 200), but when they declined, the trade along these routes dried up almost instantly to a mere trickle, since traders had discovered that sea passage was quicker, safer, and cheaper – all things considered – than transport via camel caravans across arid deserts and freezing mountain passes, where everyone seemed bent on exacting "toll fees" for the right of passage through their respective territories. The once-thriving cities along the Silk Road therefore quickly became ghost towns, with few inhabitants, as the "clientele" on which they had survived no longer arrived. It is for this reason that a city like Khotan could become buried in the dust without anyone noticing it – most of the city's inhabitants had long since moved on.
In the wake of Aurel Stein, who had made several trips to Central Asia in search of the cities mentioned in the "travel annals" of Xuanzang, and who had unearthed many cultural treasures which he took with him, came a number of mercenary types looking for "buried treasure" in the form of gold and jade relics, etc., but other, more serious archaeologists came as well. For example, immediately after the news broke of the discoveries made by Stein on his first Central Asian expedition, German and Japanese archaeologists arrived in Central Asia to follow in Stein's footsteps – or rather, in Xuanzang's footsteps – in the hope of claiming precious cultural relics for their own national museums.
By the time of Stein's third expedition, all such endeavors were looked upon by the Chinese government as hardly more than "treasure hunts", and it therefore took steps to limit the traffic. Many came anyway, and the "treasure hunt" continued for a quarter of a century, and involved archaeologists from leading European nations as well as from the U.S. and Japan. Today, Silk Road treasures can be found in major museums all across Europe, in the U.S., in Russia, in Japan and elsewhere in Asia, including in China.
Present-day tourists who wish to see some of the marvels of the Silk Road trade that still remains to the Chinese people, most notably, that which remains locally of the artifacts unearthed from the ancient city of Khotan, can quench their thirst at the museum in Hetian.