The Lost City Niya

Lost City Niya – Silk Route Map Documentary – Archaeology

The ancient lost city of Niya provides a detailed exemplification of the contact and interaction of different peoples along the Silk Road during the early centuries of the common era. Niya was a destination for travelers trekking across the various mountain ranges of southern and central Asia, including the Kunlun and Himalaya Mountains as well as within the vast and arid Taklamakan Desert. This city provided a connection along the southern networks of the Silk Road, and thus created an integral link among foreign peoples from across the continent. Due to its location within western modern-day China, Niya acted as an oasis town that could be reached by merchants and immigrants traveling north from India, west within China, and east from regions that constitute southwestern Asia. Having been referred to as the “Pompeii of the Silk Road”, the lost city of Niya has provided integral insight into the exchange of goods and ideas along even the most remote areas along the Silk Road.


Niya was part of the Kroraina Kingdom, which prospered in early centuries CE. Native inhabitants of this kingdom had no literary systems, and therefore had no written records in their native language. It was not until immigrants began to travel to the Kroraina Kingdom and Niya that documentation came to provide an insight into the interaction of this community. The mere discoveries of records written in languages native to Afghanistan, Pakistan, and China show the contact among these people, despite the vast geographical boundaries that made travel to Niya and the Kroraina Kingdom extremely arduous.

Niya is located amongst various topographical features that make the city extremely difficult to locate and access. Because of this, travelers were limited in the various pathways they could take to reach the city in the first place. Archaeologists who set their sights on uncovering cities such as Niya and the Kroraina Kingdom sought to determine the true difficulties of these travelers. Aurel Stein journeyed across the Taklamakan Desert from India in an effort to understand not only the difficulty experienced by travelers, but also find further evidence of human interaction among these routes[4]. Even today, the ancient ruins of Niya are very difficult to reach and require special equipment and permission from the Chinese government to access.

During his multiple expeditions to Niya, Stein discovered various objects, shrines, and writings that further contributed to the idea that there was increased cultural exchange during the early centuries of the common era. Along the route, there were thousands of inscriptions and drawings discovered and studied including graffiti on rocks as well as round mounds called stupas that play a role in the practice of Buddhism. “On some sections of the Gilgit Road, one can still see drawings and inscriptions left behind by ancient travelers on the rock walls. Travelers often had to halt for several months before they could proceed; like Stein, they had to wait for the snow to melt in the summer and could take desert routes only in cooler winter weather”. These markings and stupas were left by travelers, thus expanding the reach of new traditions and religions such as Buddhism through the Taklamakan Desert in cities such as Niya.


Located in present-day Xinjiang in China, the Kroraina Kingdom was located approximately 1,120 miles from the capital city of the Han Dynasty, Chang’an. Because of this proximity, the Han Dynasty and the small kingdom held relations with one another for some time around the early centuries BCE. This exchange is evident among further findings among cities around Niya such as Loulan, which believed to have been the capital of the Kroraina Kingdom based on its supposed size compared to smaller cities such as Niya. Distinctive Chinese coins were found in the ancient city of Loulan. These bronze coins with square holes dated from around 86 BCE to 1 BCE, and their placement within this oasis city exemplified the interaction among this remote area to one of the major hubs of the ancient world. Additionally, in Niya, Chinese documents have been discovered, suggesting that they had a non-military presence in the small city as well. “Just like other places in China, it was under the control of several officials appointed by the central government. There lived more than families with a population of more than 3,000 people”. Further contact with the Chinese was proven by archaeologists as various objects such as cloths with Chinese symbols imprinted on them. Oasis towns such as Niya provided stops for camel caravans that would cut across the Taklamakan Desert and carry goods from China to Central Asia and eventually reach Europe.

Like many oasis towns and cities along Silk Road throughout ancient history, Niya was located in an area that was seemingly impossible to reach or discover even today, let alone in the distant past. It is hard to fully determine and comprehend the experiences of these people who interacted thousands of years ago, but various discoveries can provide a glimpse into what might have occurred. “While telling us little about the history of armies and empires, these everyday letters, administrative and legal records, and similar documents open an intimate window onto the realities of daily life along the southern Silk Road in the third and fourth century AD when Niya was part of the kingdom of Kroraina”. Scattered findings of people who come across ancient cities such as Niya happen upon clues into the lives of traders and citizens of long-lost cities that provide clues and evidence of interaction and commerce among distant regions, such as Chinese coins or tributes to holy figures in Buddhism as were discovered in Niya.

The spread and exchange of ideas, items, and religion is evident among many cites known to be along the Silk Road through the findings of documents and objects that link certain towns or posts to other areas or ancient empires. In addition, along the broader Silk Road, religions such as Christianity and Buddhism were passed along by travelers and traders across the various stops on the Silk Road, contributing to a vast spread of varying religious identities across many remote parts of Central Asia, as well as other, more populated regions such as throughout empires. As ancient wooden tablets and other objects have been found along routes known to have connected oasis towns, for example, across the Taklamakan Desert within the Kroraina Kingdom, definitive proof can be gathered concerning the communication across these remote cities, and the ideas and goods that came through them. The impact that a single document or object can have on the entire known history of the Silk Road, as well as the regions that correlate with it, is immense. Important findings have proven the ways in which distant civilizations interacted with one another, exchanged ideas, and traded with each other thousands of years ago.


Based on Stein’s findings around the 20th century, it had been discovered that around 200 CE, immigrants had come to the Kroraina Kingdom in waves and had eventually begun to assimilate to the culture, as well as teach the people of the kingdom in cities such as Niya how to make wooden documents. These people continued to migrate and bring Buddhist teachings from India, which became evident as proof of Buddhism was discovered from further objects and sculptures. Through these discoveries in Niya, people such as Aurel Stein were able to prove initially in the early 20th century, that there was increasing cultural exchange in ancient times among places that would have been and still currently are difficult to reach and find. Western influences also played a role in Niya, as “he appearance of Pallas Athena, Eros and other Greek deities on some seals showed the impact of western classical art”. Seemingly small pieces of evidence have culminated to provide a detailed history of one small aspect of the Silk Road, showing how truly impactful this road was.

When considering the larger scope of the entirety of the Silk Road and how one small city such as Niya can have any sort of impact, it is important to acknowledge the importance of the framework of studying history and how the various aspects of it uncover new ideas and facts. Daniel Lord Smail’s concept of “deep history” focuses on the study of the entire human past, which in itself emphasizes the need for fields such as biology and archaeology to intertwine with the study and better understanding of the history of humans. Going back even further than the history of humans and how we have developed, David Christian embraces and explores the concept of “big history” which, instead of focusing only on the human past, as deep history does, Christian begins his study of global history at the advent of the universe, solar system, and the world as we know it. While the entire field of global history need not always be concerned with the literal history of the entire world from the beginning of time, the overall concept of varying lenses through which history is viewed over time can have a large impact on the views of specific events themselves. When studying Niya, the various scopes through which its history can be studied vary. One cannot understand the history of this lost city without understanding first, the history of the Silk Road, and on an even broader scale, the histories of religions and communication between people largely before and during this time. Niya provided a detailed link among societies from across the Eastern Hemisphere, thus exemplifying the impact the Silk Road had on ideas, religion, culture, and connection of peoples.

Have you ever heard what happened to The Mayan Civilization ? Or The Lost Angkor Civilization? How about the Lost Gobekli Tepe Temple or Nabta Playa and the Indus Valley Civilization ?