The ‘Caves of the Thousand Buddhas’, or Qianfodong, are situated at Mogao, about 25 kilometres south-east of the oasis town of Dunhuang in Gansu province, western China, in the middle of the desert. By the late fourth century, the area had become a busy desert crossroads on the caravan routes of the Silk Road linking China and the West. Traders, pilgrims and other travellers stopped at the oasis town to stock up with provisions, pray for the journey ahead or give thanks for their survival.
At about this time wandering monks carved the first caves into the long cliff stretching almost 2 kilometres in length along the Daquan River. Over the next millennium more than 1000 caves of varying sizes were dug. Around five hundred of these were decorated as cave temples.
When the Silk Road was abandoned under the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), oasis towns lost their importance and many were deserted. Although the Mogao caves were not completely abandoned, by the nineteenth century they were largely forgotten, with only a few monks staying at the site. Unknown to them, at some point in the early eleventh century, an incredible archive – with up to 50,000 documents, hundreds of paintings, together with textiles and other artefacts – was sealed up in one of the caves (Cave 17). Its entrance concealed behind a wall painting, the cave remained hidden from sight for centuries, until 1900, when it was discovered by Wang Yuanlu, a Daoist monk who had appointed himself abbot and guardian of the caves.