Situated at a strategic point along the Silk Route, at the crossroads of trade as well as religious, cultural and intellectual influences, the 492 cells and cave sanctuaries in Mogao are famous for their statues and wall paintings, spanning 1,000 years of Buddhist art.
The group of caves at Mogao represents a unique artistic achievement as much by the organization of space into cells and temples built on five levels as by the production of more than 2000 sculptures carved out of the rock walls, then covered with clay and painted, and the approximately 45,000 m2 of murals, among which are many masterpieces of Chinese art.
In the desert landscape of the extreme north-west of Gansu Province are the cliffs of Mogao, which form the eastern edge of Mount Mingsha. The cliffs rise above the Dachuan River, which is 25 km south-east of the Dunhuang oasis. Within the cliffs are the 492 natural cells and rock sanctuaries extending over 1,600 m that make up the famous Caves of a Thousand Buddhas (Qianfodong). The history of these caves is inseparably linked with that of the first Chinese expeditions against the nomads of the Mongolian steppes and Central Asia.
After the almost complete failure of the expedition of Zhang Qian in the ancient country of Bactria in 139-126 BC, a long section of great walls was built to protect the northern frontier. In 117 BC, military posts, like that of Dunhuang, were established. Two years later, the number of these command posts was doubled. Control of the Hexi pass and the oases route, which was the central segment of the Silk Route that connected China with the Mediterranean world, was the motivating factor in the incessant conflicts between the Chinese sovereigns and the nomads.
Dunhuang would remain cut off from the Middle Empire for long periods at a time, and so constituted a cosmopolitan enclave where all the peoples of Asia mingled together. Many foreign religions were represented, and devotees of Buddhism, Nestorianism and Islam could be found in this caravan oasis. According to an inscription, Buddhist monks first began work on the caves of Mogao in AD 366, whereas the state officially recognized Buddhism as a religion only in 444.
The majority of the cells and temples were constructed, however, from the 5th century up through the 14th century, when the region began to decline. Several great moments of the history of Central Asia are illustrated in the caves and frescos that illustrate doctrinal themes, reflecting transcendental teaching, correspond to the period in the 7th century when the Tang dynasty tightened its control of the Silk Route.
The first Tantric themes appear at the time of the occupation of Dunhuang by the Tibetans, from 790 to 851. Following the conquest of Gansu by the Tanguts, these themes multiplied, encouraged by the proliferation of lama sects under the Western Xia (1036-1227). With this same invasion in 1036 correspond the 45,000 manuscripts discovered in 1900 by the Taoist monk Wang Yuan-lu (Wang Guolu) in a cave where they had been hidden at the approach of the Tanguts. Although dispersed, this fabulous collection is one of the essential sources of Asian history.
The Mogao caves are closely associated with the history of transcontinental relations and that of the propagation of Buddhism in Asia. Being so strongly linked with the history of China, they constitute an anthology of Buddhist art with paintings and sculptures spanning a period of a thousand years. Moreover, since they were still occupied by Buddhist monks from the end of the 19th century until 1930, the rock-art ensemble at Mogao, administered by the Dunhuang Cultural Relics Research Institute, preserves the example of a traditional monastic settlement.