Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Silk Road - Day 7 - Dunhuang, Mogao Caves

Day 7
Day 7 came along, and we were getting a little disoriented.

K: Where are we going today?
G: Dunhuang…I think.
K: Where were we yesterday?
G: …uhm… Xining?
K: What day is today? Wednesday?
G: …er… no idea.

With so many cities, towns, sites and days stuffed into one trip, I guess disorientation is normal. Everything was all mixed up together.

But we were in fact headed for Dunhuang, to see the uber famous Mogao Caves!

Dunhuang, Mogao Caves
Intro from wikipedia

The Mogao Caves, or Mogao Grottoes (also known as the Caves of the Thousand Buddhas and Dunhuang Caves) form a system of 492 temples 25km (15.5 miles) southeast of the center of Dunhuang. The caves contain some of the finest examples of Buddhist art spanning a period of 1,000 years. Construction of the Buddhist cave shrines began in 366 CE as places to store scriptures and art. The Mogao Caves are the best known of the Chinese Buddhist grottoes and, along with Longmen Grottoes and Yungang Grottoes, are one of the three famous ancient sculptural sites of China. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

More detailed intro (if you’re interested), see: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/07/06/arts/design/06cott.html

History of Looting
The caves are locked up tighter than a bank vault, to stop looters from extending their abominable, thieving, destroying-priceless-artifacts hands in. Unfortunately, most of the looting had already been done in the 1900’s as described in iht:

A century ago, a Taoist abbot named Wang Yuanlu (Grand Priceless National Treasures Auctioneer) stumbled into a secret storeroom in a manmade cave in northwest China that he used for meditation. Hidden behind a rock, he discovered a cache of more than 50,000 books, scrolls, sutras, silk paintings and temple banners, all dating to before 1004.

Wang's discovery was to prove priceless. Books and manuscripts secreted in the chamber — written in Chinese, Tibetan and various Central Asian languages — offered invaluable information about the monks who had carved out the cave, along with hundreds of neighboring grottoes, beginning in 366. Among them was the world's oldest dated printed book — the Diamond Sutra — the record of a debate between Buddha and a disciple over the sentience of all living things.

China was near chaos at the time of his discovery, the Ching Dynasty government watching impotently as foreigners carved up its territory and feasted on the spoils of the once proud empire. Though news of the long-buried cache spread, the government was too preoccupied to act.

So, when the British archaeologist and explorer Aurel Stein (High Priest of Looting # 1) reached the area in 1907, he was able to convince the guileless Wang to sell him enough priceless manuscripts, paintings, embroideries and other artworks to fill 29 large crates — all in exchange for "four horseshoes of silver" worth about £130.

A year later, the French sinologist Paul Pelliot (High Priest of Looting # 2) arrived and purchased thousands more manuscripts and artworks, also for a pittance. Japanese and Russian explorers followed, picking from among the leftovers. When Langdon Warner (Grand Art Destroyer), an American from Harvard University, showed up in 1924, so little was left that he actually removed frescoes from the walls of the caves and transported them back to Boston.

By the time Wang's garage sale was over, close to 80 percent of the paintings, books and manuscripts he had discovered had been removed from China. The Diamond Sutra is in the holdings of the British Museum — 13,300 catalogued items from Dunhuang are in Britain — and the Book of Heaven is in the French National Library in Paris, where approximately 6,000 catalogued items from the grottoes are kept.

It’s so sad. But at least the artifacts are well kept in the museums, even though they should rightfully be returned to China. There’s on-going debate about whether national treasures and artifacts should be returned to the countries of their origin. Like all the Egyptian mummies, Greek sculptures, all the Ming china, and various artifacts from ancient civilizations. I think they should. Why go to England to see Egyptian mummies, when you can go to Egypt and also immerse in the culture and people?

Even Worse Looting
A worse story of looting is that of Bezeklik in Turfan, Xinjiang:

The Hermitage Museum in Russia could have sections of the frescoes removed from the Bezeklik temple site at the beginning of the 1900s by German archaeologist Albert Von Le Coq (Highest Priest of Looting). Von Le Coq rediscovered these caves near Turfan in Xinjiang province and took 24 tons of their contents back to Europe in three trips. Later, British archaeologist Aural Stein (remember, High Priest of Looting #1) also removed antiquities from Bezelik, these treasures are now in the stores of National Museum in Delhi, leaving almost nothing at the site.

24 TONS of artifacts taken back to Germany! They sawed and carved off murals and paintings from the walls of the caves, packed them up into crates and shipped them off. And do you know what happened to the artifacts in Germany? They were housed in a museum that was bombed in World War II! Nothing survived except for 1 piece that was taken to Russia.

Artifacts that had survived for 1000 years peacefully and solemnly in their desert home. And all that’s left of them now are… pictures.

History can be kinda depressing.

More on Mogao Caves next.


synthmon said...

I suppose one has to take into consideration that certain artifacts that are removed end up in a museum, which prizes them dearly, restoring them and so on. They might be in a better shape in that case, than if they had been left in the grotto from whence they came.

GK said...

I know, there's two sides to every story, and no exact 'right' way either way. Some removed artifacts do better in their foreign museums, whilst others get bombed to pieces. Certainly something for archaelogists/explorers of today to consider carefully before they make any extraction moves.