Dunhuang is an ancient city in northwest China and is also a famous part of the Silk Route. Dunhuang is the first-ever trading town, the rest and prayer stop for a smooth journey ahead of the traders back in the day, making it a busy spot filled with foreign market products and traveling merchants. Dunhuang is also well known for the Mogao Caves, having made their way into one of the UNESCO heritage sites. The importance of Dunhuang is the prime strategic location of the place. It was situated at the crossroads of two major trade routes, joining China and Central Asia. The Busy Oasis in the desert

An overview of Dunghuang- the silk route of China - Sheet1
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Crescent Lake_ ©mybestplace.com

Dunhuang is an oasis, formed by the Crescent Lake and the Mingsha Shan lying in the Gansu-Xinjiang desert (part of the Gobi desert). Crescent lake was a relief to travelers at the time as a resting point, where people could freshen up. Mingha Shan was known for the singing or the drumming winds, as described by the people. Dunhuang was initially brought under the control of the Chinese by the Han dynasty (206 BCE – 220 BCE). However, after the decline of the Han era, it became semi-independent. Dunhuang gained its independence and entered the kingdom of Gunsu (Ganzhou Uyghur) around the 4th or 5th BCE.

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Dunhuang city_ ©www.freepik.com

Dunhuang was the point at which the Silk Road, the trading route which ran around the Tarim Basin on the north and the south, merged. Over the years, the city had been explored by many in power. In the 1970s, Dunhuang lost its pride in being a business city after the decline of the silk route. Apart from being a vital spot for trade, Dunhuang had its fair share of being a military hiding area, a center for pilgrims, and conducting cultural and religious activities.

Dunhuang witnessed the natural exchange and evolution of cultural and artistic beliefs of people. It was a high-spirited and lively city for many years in the first millennium. Blessed with creative, religious, and artistic spirits, Dunhuang has a rich history tracing the footsteps of those who had been there.

Mogao Cave – The Carved Wonder of Dunhuang

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Magao Caves_ ©Neville Agnew

Mogao caves, or the Caves of Thousand buddhas (Qianfo Dong), located in the south of the city, are another significant attraction of Dunhuang. It is a culmination of over 492 caves and an abode of statues, stunning architecture, cultural relics, over 2000 painted scriptures, and murals spanning over 45,000 square meters and over 25 kilometers, believed to be works of Buddhist monks showcasing the art from 4th to 14th century, making up to the worth of a world heritage site. The first of these caves was founded by Buddhist monks in 366 AD who had split the works in the caves into religious scriptures, art, and other cultural and historical events. 

Access to this heritage site is only through Dunhuang. This national treasure represents the largest and oldest Buddhist culture and practices, chiseled onto the cliffs above the Daquan river. These works provide an exact idea of the evolution of people over the years, and some specific details about culture, politics, religion, art, scriptures, calligraphy, trade, clothing, economics, ethnic relations, etc. Initially carved out as a place of worship and meditation for Buddhist monks in 366 AD. 

Art and Architecture of the Mogao Caves

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Dunhuang Central Asian Bodhisattva_ ©wikipedia commons

The artistic value of the Mogao caves is not only about Chinese traditions and culture. Instead, it also depicts certain artistic styles from western culture, ancient Indian and Gandharan (present-day Pakistan) customs, and a mix of arts of Turks (present-day Turkey), ancient Tibetans, and other Chinese minority communities. Buddhist evolution, art, and practices were also recorded in the caves. Apart from showcasing the enormous talents of the artisans, it also reflects their knowledge and their interest in the life of civilians. These works are masterpieces, preserved to the present day due to the desert climate and the remote location of the cave.

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Mogao Buddhist sculptures_ ©httpsuopera.comproductdunhuang-day-tour-with-painting-class

The cave temples were made by skilled artisans at that time. Each of them showcases different scenic representations of civilian life, nature, and arts. Even though the cave itself is divided into hundreds of cells, the decoration pattern suggests that the whole of it had been made and portrayed from one single concept. The wall paintings seem to be done in dry fresco (a method of mural painting on fresh lime). The wall was made with mud, straw, and reeds and plastered with lime. The sculptures had been constructed with wood, straw, reeds, and plastered. All the sculptures erected are of varying heights, the tallest being 34.5 meters and the smallest being only 2 centimeters in height. All these sculptures have different stories to tell and of various cultural representations. Hence, they are different in their styles and have various construction techniques. The colors in the paintings and sculptures were plant-derived mineral pigments, with gold and silver leaf.

Cultural and Commercial hub – Does it still exist?

Dunhuang is considered the first-ever cultural and commercial hub where people travel from different parts of the world, exchanging and experiencing various cultural and political values, arts and crafts, knowledge, and materials. With the silk route decline, however, Dunhuang was slowly forgotten. Fortunately, the city remains intact, shining with elegance and inspiring artists, archeologists, and travelers. 

Dunhuang View_ ©mybestplace.com

At present, Dunhuang houses various museums, and a Buddhist rock sanctuary open to the public. Visitors get an opportunity to seek the lost identity of Dunhuang, only seen in the books, getting first-hand experience of a city with great cultural- historic importance.

References and citations

Dunhuang: a city on the old Silk Road – in pictures. (2015). BBC News. [online] 3 Oct. Available at: https://www.bbc.com/news/in-pictures-34276009.

‌Unesco.org. (2019). Dunhuang | SILK ROADS. [online] Available at: https://en.unesco.org/silkroad/content/dunhuang.

Wikipedia Contributors (2019). Dunhuang. [online] Wikipedia. Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dunhuang.

Dunhuang | China | Britannica. (2019). In: Encyclopædia Britannica. [online] Available at: https://www.britannica.com/place/Dunhuang.

Pepper, F. (2016). Dunhuang — a brief history and travel guide to China’s Silk Road oasis. [online] The China Project. Available at: https://thechinaproject.com/2016/12/23/dunhuang-history-travel-guide/ [Accessed 21 Oct. 2022].

Centre, U.W.H. (n.d.). Mogao Caves. [online] UNESCO World Heritage Centre. Available at: https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/440/.

Khan Academy. (n.d.). Mogao caves at Dunhuang (article) | China | Khan Academy. [online] Available at: https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/art-asia/imperial-china/tang-dynasty/a/mogao-caves-at-dunhuang.

en.chinaculture.org. (n.d.). Mogao caves. [online] Available at: http://en.chinaculture.org/2017-07/18/content_1039563.htm.

mybestplace.com. (n.d.). MyBestPlace – Crescent Lake, a desert oasis with 2000 years of history. [online] Available at: https://mybestplace.com/en/article/crescent-lake-a-desert-oasis-with-2000-years-of-history [Accessed 21 Oct. 2022].


Based in the Dubai, Akshaya Ashok Kumar is a young Architect keen on exploring the integrity of architecture as a profession . She believes that architecture is more than just building spaces and structures. Being an introvert by nature, she voices out her thoughts through words.

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