What is happening to the Mogao Caves

brown tomb
Photo by Jose Aragones on Pexels.com

By Sharon St Joan

In 2011, I, along with several friends, visited China. One of the more amazing sites we saw were the Mogao Caves.  (The photo is of caves that are somewhat similar to the Mogao Caves.)

Far out into the Gobi Desert lies the city of Dunhuang. The atmosphere there is somehow reminiscent of frontier towns in the southwestern U.S. during the late nineteenth century.  There is the sense that one is far, far from civilization. The population is around 180,000 – so not that small. 

Nearby lie the Mogao Caves. These are caves inside cliffs, along a long natural wall, which house some of the most beautiful examples of Buddhist art spanning around one thousand years, from around 400 CE to 1400 CE. There are many thousands of paintings and sculptures, found inside the system of around 500 cave temples. They are very striking works of art.  

There are also documents that were found, in recent decades, in a hidden cache of ancient writings. Apparently, they were found, unexpectedly, hidden in a compartment behind a wall. Many of these documents were sent to Beijing, but some remain. Some are very ancient, written in various languages. We were told that some still remain undeciphered.  

Very sadly, in an article on July 17, 2023, the Washington Post writes that recent floods and heavy downpours have caused extensive damage to the caves and to the artwork. This is quite hard to imagine since the caves are in an area, far out in the desert, that has been excessively dry for around 1500 years.  

Now, out of the blue, moisture is causing severe damage. Water vapor levels can cause salt to crystallize, resulting in the dislodging of the paint. A certain distance from the Mogao Caves, in the Jinta Temple Grotto, humidity levels reached 93 percent during a severe downpour last year.

1,000 miles to the southeast of Dunhuang, in the grottoes of Maijishan, in two of the caves, more than half the murals had fallen off.  

All this is happening despite a great deal of attention and hard work on the part of both international and Chinese conservationists and environmentalists who are well aware of the problem and who are attempting to save the ancient artwork.  

Incredibly beautiful, irreplaceable, ancient artwork is being destroyed by downpours in an area that has been dry for thousands of years. Now, unpredictably, the art work is gone.   It is a tragedy when beautiful artwork is destroyed. But somehow the tragedy is compounded when the artwork is very ancient and is also part of history that has endured for many centuries.

© Copyright, Sharon St Joan, 2023

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