The 'Caves of the Thousand Buddhas'

The 'Caves of the Thousand Buddhas', or Qianfodong, are located at Mogao, about 25 kilometres south-east of the oasis town of Dunhuang in Gansu province, western China, in the center of the desert. In the late fourth century, the area had turn into a busy desert crossroads lying on the caravan routes of the Silk Road linking China and the West. Traders, pilgrims and other travelers stopped up at the oasis town to stock up with provisions, pray for the journey forward or give thanks for their survival.

At about this time peripatetic monks carved the first caves into the long cliff stretching almost 2 kilometres in length next to the Daquan River. Over the next millennium more than 1000 caves of changeable sizes were dug. About five hundred of these were decorated as cave temples.

When the Silk Road was deserted under the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), oasis towns lost their importance and several were deserted. Even though the Mogao caves were not entirely abandoned, by the nineteenth century they were largely forgotten, with only a few monks residing at the site. At some point in the early eleventh century, an absurd archive - with up to 50,000 documents, hundreds of paintings, collectively with textiles and other artifacts - was preserved up in one of the caves (Cave 17). Its entrance covered behind a wall painting, the cave remained hidden from sight for centuries, until 1900, when it was discovered by Wang Yuanlu, a Daoist monk who had allotted himself abbot and guardian of the caves.

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