I recently returned to the dessert. After last year’s brush with the Taklamakan, this time it was the Gobi dessert that straddles China and Mongolia, merging with the Taklamakan as it heads west. The Gobi is a rainbow desert and the location of important cities of the ancient Silk Road such as Dunhuang. Dunhuang was the main reason I went to the Gobi.
For a thousand years, this stunning oasis city was a strategically important crossroad not only for commerce but also religious and cultural exchanges between China and the Western world. The Han dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD) established Dunhuang as an official outpost at the western most point of China, almost a thousand miles from the Han capital of Xi’an. All merchants, pilgrims, and foreign emissaries traveling Silk Road had to pass through Dunhuang before entering or leaving China. I wanted to see what remained of the Han legacy and the Buddhist pilgrimage art carved into the famed Mogao caves near Dunhuang.
Today, visitors to Dunhuang can still see the remains of ancient Han fortresses, including the earliest parts of the Great Wall built 2,000 years ago, much earlier than most parts of the Great Wall which were constructed during the Ming period in the 14th century.
THE MOGAO CAVES
One does not expect to find art in the dessert, much less a profusion of religious art in vivid colors. But this is what you find in Dunhuang. Just 25 km southeast of the city center lies the Mogao Caves, the site of a long cliff into which some 492 caves containing Buddhist painted murals and sculptures have been cut. The earliest caves date to AD 366 and the latest, in the 1300s during the Ming dynasty. This is one of those places where you will never forget.
As a crossroad city of the Silk Road, Dunhuang was a site of religious pilgrimage. From the 4th century AD through the golden age of the Tang dynasty (618 -907), wealthy Buddhist devotees would commission monks to construct dedicated shrines by carving out the friable clay cliff face. Other monks were commissioned to decorate the cave walls and ceilings with Buddhist murals in vivid colors that complement sculptures representing the Buddha, a couple of which are of monumental proportions.
Inside the caves, you are truly the presence of one of the world’s great cultural treasures.
Unfortunately, there are more treasures that are no longer in the caves today. Prior to the early 1900s, the caves were filled with rolled-up documents, manuscripts in diverse languages (including Hebrew!) and paintings. At the turn of the century, these objects were sold, mainly to western explorers in order to fund the upkeep of the caves. They are now scattered in museum collections outside China. Pictured below is a Mogao painting, now in the British Museum. That it is a work of the highest order is beyond doubt.