China and the Silk Road


Silk Road to See in China

Bezeklik Thousand Buddha Caves

Aseries of retreats once inhabited by Buddhist monks dating back from the 5th to 9th centuries. Located in Turpan, a key junction on the Silk Road’s Northern Route near the ancient oasis town Gaochang, the caves are found to the northeast of the Taklamakan Desert on the high cliffs of the west Mutou Valley under the legendary Flaming Mountains.

Although the Uyghur word “Bezeklik” means “beautifully decorated place” or “a place with paintings”, the caves were in terrible condition when they were first found. Unfortunately, the site and much of the religious artworks contained in the caves suffered waves of exploitation, natural destruction, and plunder. Muslims intentionally seeking to destroy any traces of Buddhism after Islam became the dominant religion and swept across Central Asia in the 7th century, which can be mainly attributed to Muslim merchants at work under the protection of local Muslim rulers.

Expedition teams that traveled to the area from nations such as Germany, Britain, and Japan also removed sculptures, manuscripts, and murals from the caves bringing them back to their respective countries. The German expedition led by Albert von Le Coq, removed a number of artworks and sent them off to Berlin, where most was completely destroyed by the air raids in 1944 during WWII. The vandalism of religious artifacts, decades of erosion, avaricious explorers and archaeologists, and petty thieves are all factors that led to the poor conditions of the caves.

Covering an area of 1200 square meters, the caves are one of the largest Buddhist grottoes temple ruins in Xinjiang. The area underwent many changes of rulership, invasions, and migrations. As a result, the paintings and carvings depict people of various races and cultures. They contain scenes of the lives of ancient Uyghur people, people performing Buddhist rituals, and playing music. The architectural styles of the site are also the most diversified in west China. Currently, there are 57 numbered caves preserved containing fragments of fresco paintings each portraying different Buddhist themes. Out of these numbered caves, 18th, 29th, and 48th belonged to the Qu Gaochang Period while the 16th, 17th, 25th, 31st, 42nd, and 69th belonged to the Tang Dynasty.

Magao Caves – The Caves of the Thousand Buddhas

Situated southeast of the Dunhuang oasis town in Gansu province. Carved into the cliffs above the Dachuan River, the first construction began in 366 AD by a Buddhist monk named Lie Zun, who had a vision of a thousand buddhas. They are renowned for the statues and wall paintings from the 4th to 14th century, spanning of 1,000 years of Buddhist religious art.

Historically, Dunhuang had been a major commercial hub on the Silk Road and acted as a busy desert crossroad on the caravan routes linking China and the West; it was a religious center for Buddhist monks and missionaries. However, as Buddhism reached its peak during the Tang Dynasty, newly discovered sea routes gradually replaced the Silk Road as it became more accessible and predictable the importance of land routes declined. Many oasis towns were deserted and as a result, the Mogao Caves were largely forgotten.

In 1907, the Hungarian born explorer, Aurel Stein, led an expedition to Dunhuang. In the Hidden Chapel, he discovered original sutras brought from India, Buddhist texts written in Sanskrit, Sogdian, Tibetan, Uighur, Runic- Turkic, Chinese, and other languages, sculptures, manuscripts, relics, silk paintings, etc. Many of these relics are now displayed in the British Museum, Louvre Museum, National Library of China, Bibliotheque Nationale, and the Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg.

The Caves of the Thousand Buddhas became one of the World Heritage Sites in 1987. There are currently 492 caves preserved housing about 4,500 square meters of murals and 2,000 painted sculptures.

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