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The town of Dunhuang is situated on the junction between the northern and southern Silk Roads, with the Taklamakan desert to its west. It lies on the Dang River, which flows south into the Gobi desert.

In the fourth century, an itinerant monk excavated a meditation cave in a cliff face located to the south-east of Dunhuang. Others followed and by the eighth century there were over a thousand cave temples, many of which were decorated with sculptures of Buddhist figures and spectacular paintings of Buddhist imagery across the walls and ceilings. The caves were gradually abandoned from the 13th century onwards, with the decline of the Silk Roads, but they remained a place of active pilgrimage into the twentieth century.

In 1900, one cave (known as Cave 17 or the ‘Library cave’) was found to contain thousands of manuscripts, paintings and other artefacts. These had lain undisturbed since the cave was sealed around 1000 CE. This discovery was a turning point in various academic fields as it proved to be an unrivalled source of knowledge for official and religious life along the Eastern Silk Roads.

Highlights from the collection