The heat sears my neck as I turn over my camera equipment at the heavily guarded checkpoint. No photos are allowed of what we're about to see. Between the heat and my nakedness I lack the proper anticipation for what lies in the beehive of caves ahead.
Sullen, I fall to the back of the small group as we enter the first cave. I'd blown off the guide's introduction, deservedly missing important clues about what to expect (I did catch the part about he being the only one allowed to have a flashlight -- seemed unfair).
The group brakes en mass at the mouth of what appears a cavernous tunnel. Ducking behind and squeezing to the side, I move around into an empty space and take several steps. I'm blessedly alone in the cool, refreshing darkness. My eyes adjust. I'm nose to nose with something the size of my house protruding towards me. Colors and scale come into focus and a smile breaks my stony face.
An UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Mogao Caves are part of a system of 492 Buddhist grottoes carved into cliffs along the Silk Road at the far western end of the Great Wall. Paintings and sculpture of a quantity and size I struggled to grasp, the caves contain one of the greatest repositories of Buddhist art in the world. Manuscripts alone approximate 50,000. It's estimated the artwork could fill 15 miles of gallery space. At its pinnacle the site had 18 monasteries, 1400 monks and nuns, and numerous artists, calligraphers, and translators. The construction of the caves spanned 10 dynasties. Generally agreed to have been founded in AD 366, the collapse of trade after the Yuan dynasty left the 1700 meters of grottoes and a millennium of art untouched for centuries as the Gobi desert took hold.
The hidden treasure went undiscovered until the early 1900's when Wang Yuanlu, a Chinese Taoist appointed himself guardian of the temples.Yuanlu discovered a walled-up containment area holding hordes of manuscripts. He proceeded to sell these for a pittance to Aurel Stein a Hungarian archaeologist, who then discovered the Diamond Sutra, the world's oldest dated printed text, along with 40,000 other scrolls (all removed by gradually winning the confidence of Yuanlu, the Taoist caretaker). Word got out and the European archaeologists descended in 1910 laying claim. Greed ran amok. Bits and pieces of the discovery were sold and scattered all over the world while wall murals and other permanent works were destroyed in the removal process. Between the plundering of archaeologists, the Chinese themselves, a few Muslims, and Russian troops who intentionally destroyed and defaced some of the art, a fair amount remains to be enjoyed in its original and rightful environment.
While various art objects can be viewed today in the British Museum, the British Library, the Srinagar Museum, and the National Museum, New Delhi, there is but one way to see the Mogao Caves. Trek to the far Western end of the Great Wall, walk into the dark coolness and open your eyes to see their occupants staring back at you.
Written by Tammie Dooley.
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