Arguably Dunhuang’s most famous attraction, the UNESCO World Heritage listed Mogao Caves in Gansu province form the most fascinating repository of Buddhist art in China.
Between the 4th and 11th century AD, Buddhist monks excavated these caves and painted colourful murals on their walls, until invasion and the encroachment of Islam brought work to a halt. The cave paintings were the legacy not only of resident monks, but also travelling pilgrim monks, merchants and nobles, and the relative isolation of the caves has kept much of the work protected.
Testimony to the wide variety of people who travelled along the Silk Road, a small number of Christian artefacts have also been found in the caves, all but forgotten until early in the 20th century, when the Anglo-Hungarian explorer Sir Aurel Stein stumbled upon the caves and the Daoist priest who guarded them, Wang Yuanlu. Among the thousands of items uncovered by Stein is the Diamond Sutra, the world’s earliest printed book (in scroll form), and many patterns used by monks to reproduce paintings at will.
Known also as the Caves of the Thousand Buddhas, the Mogao Caves or Mogao Grottoes, form a system of 492 temples, of which around 30 are open to the public as an important attraction of antiquity. The use of the word "cave" is actually a bit of a misnomer, since these are not natural, but instead examples of rock-cut architecture.
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