Posted by: Brad Nixon | September 19, 2016

Mogao Caves: Ancient Treasures, China

When I was a kid, I wanted to be Roy Chapman Andrews, naturalist and adventurer. Born in 1884, he grew up hunting and fishing in Wisconsin, developed a love of nature and the outdoors, earned a degree and went to New York where he applied to work at the American Museum of Natural History. They didn’t have a job for a college graduate, so he got a job as a janitor in the taxidermy department, started collecting specimens, mounting them and studying for a master’s degree. He worked his way into a series of positions with the museum as a naturalist and mammologist.

Chapman sailed on scientific expeditions to the East Indies and the Arctic and led the museum’s Asiatic Zoological Expedition in China in 1914-15. Then he conceived the outrageous notion of an expedition to the Gobi Desert, driving automobiles, which set off in 1922. That and subsequent Central Asiatic Expeditions discovered a previously unknown wealth of dinosaur and mammal fossils, including the first known dinosaur eggs.

Chapman went on to continued success, and became the museum’s director.

I grew up reading books by and about Andrews. Since then, I’ve been fascinated by the Gobi Desert and central Asia.

Recently, central Asia came to Los Angeles, and I went to see it.

At the southern edge of the Gobi and the eastern edge of the forbidding Taklamakan desert, the northern, central and southern branches of the ancient Silk Road converged at a major oasis waypoint, Dunhuang (red marker, below). It became a metropolis, trading center and multicultural melting pot of more than 75,000 people by the second century A.D. It was a fortified garrison town, and the Great Wall was extended to end at the city.


Dunhuang would have been an impressively diverse and fascinating place, teeming with people from every part of of Asia and the Middle East. Multiple cultures, languages and religions met and intermingled in a stew of trade in not only consumer goods, but art and written documents on hemp, paper and silk.

In about the 4th or 5th Century A.D., as Buddhism was taking hold in China, carried in part by traffic along the Silk Roads, devotees and monks began carving grottoes and caves into a long cliff that faces Dunhuang’s valley. During the next 1,000 years they grew into a complex of more than 700 caves, many intensively decorated with painting and sculpture, known as the Mogao Caves or Thousand Buddha Grottoes. 492 caves still exist with their elaborate paintings, frescoes, sculpture and statuary.

Mogao Caves Brad Nixon 5030 (640x460)

The site is one of the world’s great repositories of Buddhist art. Because of its remote location and the shift in transportation from camels crossing deserts and mountains to oceangoing ships, awareness of Dunhuang faded until the 19th Century, when Western travelers and explorers began to take note. Then, in 1900, a local monk, self-appointed custodian of the grottoes, opened a long-sealed doorway, uncovering a cache of more than 19,000 documents: scrolls and books on hemp, paper and silk; banners; tapestries and figurines, all dating from before 1002, some as far back as 406 AD — more than 900 years old at the least. It was a trove of immense proportions.

The documents were written (in some cases printed) in a wide variety of languages, including not only Chinese but Tibetan, Uigur, Sanskrit, Sogdian (extinct) and Khotanese (ditto). They included a dazzling array of government documents, maps, commentaries, dictionaries and texts, prayers and apocrypha from Buddhist Confucian, Tao, and Christian religions.

Word of the discovery reached the West, and first a British/Indian expedition acquired about 7,000 of the documents in 1907, now in the British Museum collection and in India, followed in 1908 by a Frenchman named Paul Pelliot, who trekked for months across Asia to reach Dunhuang.

A scholar of staggering accomplishment (he knew 13 languages), as well as an adventurer like his near-contemporary, Andrews, Pelliot possessed an eidetic memory, and in three weeks read nearly all the documents in the cave, remembering huge swaths of what he read. He selected and purchased nearly 10,000 of them, now in Paris.

I recently toured an extensive exhibit at the Getty Center Museum in Los Angeles that included a large selection of works from that “Library Cave,” as well as other artwork from the grottoes.

Mogao Caves Brad Nixon 5022 (640x523)

The exhibit included life-sized recreations of three of the grottoes. Time to view them was limited, and lighting was extremely low, but I did my best to capture some of the impressive variety of artistic expression in just these three out of the hundreds of caves at Dunhuang.

Mogao Caves Brad Nixon 5028 (446x640)

Here is a gallery of images from those recreations, which date from the 5th, 6th and 8th Centuries. Lighting was low and my time limited, so they’re snapshots, intended to give you at least a glimpse of a tiny portion of the Mogao treasures. Click on the first, then click on the arrow to advance.


I  was even more impressed by the documents on display from the Library Cave, borrowed from collections around the world in which they reside. Best of all was an artifact I’d read about but never expected to see, the world’s oldest printed book, the Diamond Sutra, printed with wood blocks on a scroll 15 feet long in 868.

The Getty prohibited photography of the artifacts. I invite you to the Getty’s site to see some of the impressive works from the exhibitions. CLICK HERE.

A worthwhile publication by the Getty is Cave Temples of Mogao, Art and History on the Silk Road, Whitfield et. al., 2000. We found it in our library.

CLICK HERE for information about the exhibition catalog.

I hope to make it to Mongolia and the Gobi in RCA’s footsteps. At least I’ve seen the Diamond Sutra.

The J. Paul Getty Museum at the Getty Center is located at 1200 Getty Center Drive,
Los Angeles, CA 90049-1687. Admission is free. Parking is $15. One of LA’s great resources. #GettyInspired

Have you been to Dunhuang? I’d love to hear from you. Leave a comment.

The Mogao Caves are an increasingly popular attraction, and the Getty Conservation Institute plays an important role in helping preserve, restore and protect them from the incursions of the modern world. I’m not a resource for travel directions to Dunhuang/Mogao. It’s about 2,360 miles from Beijing: 25 hours of driving or 3-1/2 hours of flying. I hope you go!

© Brad Nixon 2016, 2017. The artworks pictured in this post are the property of the J. Paul Getty Museum and its partners, depicted here for informational purposes only.



  1. Dunhuang is amazing, but very popular with internal tourism. If you get that far west it’s a short(ish) jump to Turpan and the Bezeklik 1000 Buddha Caves, a much less explored part of the old Silk Road.


    • Thank you. We’re all looking forward to jaunting around central Asia, with your encouragement!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. The Getty show also has a 3d part, a large screen sensuround film of the area, its conservation, and ongoing excavation. About 15 minutes. I visited all 3 parts about a month ago.

    Liked by 1 person

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