Desert Caves Hide Scholar's Delights

Article excerpt

DUNHUANG, China - Approaching China across the Eurasian continent, after the Tian Shan mountains, one is confronted by the Taklamakan Desert, with its sinister epigraph: "If you go in, you won't come out."

At Kashgar, the Silk Road divides in two, skirting the northern and southern edges of the desert. For those who survived the trip, the oasis of Dunhuang east of the desert must have been a fine sight indeed.

Marco Polo, having journeyed 30 days through the Taklamakan in the late 1200s, was one of them. "The people are for the most part idolaters, but there are also some Nestorian Christians and Saracens," he wrote of Dunhuang in his "Travels."

Eleven years ago, excavating a meditation cave in the northern part of Dunhuang's Mogao Grotto complex, archaeologist Peng Jinzhang made an exhilarating discovery: four beautifully preserved pages of white-linen paper, filled with a script he could not identify.


Scholars at Beijing University helped him solve the mystery. The language was Syriac, and the pages were from the Book of Psalms in the Old Testament.

Mr. Peng's find confirms Marco Polo's observation that Christians did indeed live, pray and die in Dunhuang's Mogao Grottos - one of Buddhism's most hallowed sanctuaries and a repository for the cultures and creeds that traveled the Silk Road to China's doorstep here eight centuries ago.

The Syriac Bible find, announced recently, is just one of several illuminating discoveries by Mr. Peng and his team during their six-year excavation of the northern part of the Mogao Grottos - a complex of some 750 caves carved into the sandstone cliffs along the Daquan River, 15 miles southeast of Dunhuang in China's Gansu province.

Among the 243 excavated caves - the monks' living quarters, meditation and burial chambers - the team found movable wooden type for the Uighur script, unique documents written in the obscure, defunct Phags pa and Xixia languages, Persian silver coins, and countless other artifacts.


"Our work confirms that the Mogao Grottos were an integrated complex, where monks lived as well as prayed and studied," said Wang Jianjun, a member of Mr. Peng's team.

Founded in the 4th century A.D., the Buddhist cave temples at Mogao flourished for a thousand years as a haven for Buddhism, scholarship, meditation, and artistic creativity, before being abandoned as the Chinese withdrew their garrisons in 1372, after the maritime route proved more reliable than the Silk Road.

In 1900, the Taoist priest Wang Yuanlu stumbled upon the Hidden Library, where some 50,000 documents, including the Diamond Sutra - the oldest printed book known - had lain untouched for a millennium.

In 1907, the British-Hungarian archaeologist Sir Aurel Stein arrived in Dunhuang, and, having paid Mr. Wang a mere four silver pieces, carted off thousands of manuscripts, silk scroll paintings and woodslips - messages written in ink on thin pieces of wood, a medium used especially in Tibet - which are now housed in the British Museum, the British Library and the National Museum in New Delhi.


French, American, Japanese and Russian explorers followed, and by the 1930s what remained at Mogao were some 2,000 Buddhist sculptures and cave murals depicting sutras, legends, customs, trade and daily life during a span of 800 years.

Today, the Mogao Grottos are the mainstay of Duncan economy, attracting thousands of visitors to this remote outpost at the western end of the Great Wall each year, as well as the locus for an esoteric, thriving field of scholarship. In the 1960s the eroding cliffs was reinforced with an unbecoming but functional concrete facade. In 1987, the Mogao Grottos were declared a World Heritage site by UNESCO, the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. …