Mogao Grotto, China 2008
While trekking northwest China, I had a chance to visit the famous Archeological site, “The Mogao Grotto” and the “Yumen Pass” of the Ancient Silk Road. Both are within 100 km of Dunhuang, China.
The Mogao Grottoes are located in Mogao Town, about 25 km southeast of Dunhuang. This area used to play an important stopover of the ancient Hexi Corridor which is one of the most important sections of ancient China Silk Road.
The Mogao Grottoes, (also known as Thousand Buddha Caves), is a group of ancient caves which were built in different dynasties, (North Wei, North Ahou, Sui, Tang, Song, Xixia and Yuan). The caves were built in five stories and are neatly arranged. They look like beehives or pigeon-holes and are really spectacular. They are the largest ancient treasure trove of arts and culture in China, and a world-famous Buddhism arts center.
Picture below, Mogao Grotto is famous for the exquisite murals and various sculptures kept inside the caves. With 735 Caves, more than 45,000 square kilometers, 2,415 painted sculptors, of different sizes.
Mogao Grottoes are one of the greatest repositories of Buddhist art in the world from which can be traced to the the development of Chinese art over 1600 years from one dynasty to the next because each dynasty built their own caves to record its own features.
In 1987, the UNESCO listed the Mogao Caves as the World Heritage Sites. It declared -“As evidence of the evolution of Buddhist art in the northwest region of China, the Mogao Caves are of unmatched historical value.
These art-works at Mogoa Grottoes, provide an abundance of vivid materials depicting various aspects of medieval politics, economics, culture, arts, religion, ethnic relations, and daily dress in western China.”
Around in 111 BC, the emperor Wuding of Han Dynasty established Dunhuang as a defensive strategy to protect against the Xiongnu. As the time passed by, Dunhuang also became an important trade center and meeting place of culture for the religions along the Silk Road.
The Mogao Caves originally consisted of meditation caves for Buddhist monks, but later many other kinds of caves were built.
The most important grottoes are the consecrated caves which are themed by Buddhism, including Chinese Buddhism, Tibetan Budhism, Indian Buddhism, etc.
The caves, sponsored by important clergy, local ruling elite, even the Chinese emperors, have large space inside, and were exquisitely painted to represent famous events and stories of Buddhism.
One of the most notable discoveries was the Buddhist cave library in the Mogao Grottoes. The cave had been sealed and hidden at the end of the first millennium AD and only re-discovered in 1900. Sixty thousand manuscripts, paintings and printed documents on paper and silk were found in the cave itself. These unique items have fascinating stories to tell of life on this great trade route from 100 BC to AD 1400. Yet most were dispersed to institutions worldwide in the early 1900s, making access difficult. Unfortunately, many were destroyed during the bombing of London by the Nazi’s during WWII.
Pictured above, my trekking group also went to the “Yumen Pass”. The Yumen Pass was located about 90 km northwest of Dunhuang City.
In the early period of Emperor Wu of Han Dynasty (138 BC), he expanded the territory and pacified the northwestern border. The ambitious ruler, Emperor Wu sent Zhang Qian to travel west and persuade the tribe Yuezhi in the west to make alliance and extirpate Xiongnu in the north. Zhang Qian’s first journey started from Chang’an (now Xian) and reached the Hexi Corridor via Yumen Pass.
In the many years followed during Han Dynasty, Yumen Pass witnessed a large number of great historical events, including the brave generals’ suppression of frontier harassment, Zhang Qian’s second contact of East-to-West, splendid development of the Dunhuang culture, and lastly the flourishing trade and culture exchange between China and Eurasia.
Pictured above, the Yumen Pass was completely built with earth, with a total area of about 600 square meters. The length from east to west is 24.5 meters, the width from south to north is 26.4 meters, the remaining height is 9.7 meters. There are two gates. One is to the west and the other is to the north. There is a 1.3 m wide passage way for pedestrians. The pass was built with internal and external parapet walls. There is a passage way for horses in the southeast corner of the pass less than 1 m wide, which leads to the top of the pass.
Pictured above, the Big Fangpan Castle or Hecang Town. The distance from Yumen Pass to the Hecang Town is about 15 km. The site is situated on a sat marsh on the south bank of the Shule River.
The site of ancient Hecang Town is also named Dafangpan, standing on the gobi-desert about 90 km away and to the northwest of Dunhuang downtown. According to “Dunhuang Records” kept in London, we know the city had been the pace storing military supplies. Research shows that the Town was built in the Han Dynasty and it was a warehouse to store grains.
The ancient Hecang Town had been a complete walled town, as well as an important military fortress. It was constructed with earth, in the shape of a rectange. The length from east to west is 132 m, the width from south to north is 17 m, with a maximum remaining height of 6.7 m. Two was in the south-north direction within the site divide the whole Town into three parts. On the remaining walls in the south and the north are some holes, which are considered by specialists as holes-of-ventilation for food.
Pictured below, the Great Wall of the Han Dynasty was built much earlier than the famous Mutianyan, Badaling, and Jinshanling Great Walls of China (there all are part of Ming Dynasty Great Wall).
The older Great Wall of the Han Dynasty is situated about 6 km west of Small Fangpan Castle, (pictured above) and northwest of Dunhuang. This section is to the west of Jiayu Pass, and is mostly built along Shule River.
Constructed in the early period of Emperor Wu, the Great Han Wall started from west Dunhuang, winded more than 1, 000 km eastward via Yumen Pass, Zhangye, Shandan, Wuwei and terminated in Ningxia. Pictured above and below, the remaining part of the great wall is 3.75 m high, 3 m wide at the base and 1.5 m wide on the top. People in ancient times had adopted a very special method of construction due to the lack of soil while there was large quantity of grits and broken stones.
First, a frame was made of juniper tamarisk and reed, with grits in the middle, pressed tightly layer by layer. To ensure the solidity of the wall, reed, juniper tamarisk, diversiform-poplar trees and kendyr are mixed with grits and consolidated. The highest part of the remaining wall is about 4 m high. The reed layer is 5 cm thick, and the sand and grit layer is 20 cm thick. It is closely glued and can be regarded as a kind of concrete invented to ancient china. There was a beacon tower in every 5 km to convey news.
Pictured below, a few dilapidated walls on the soft Gobi and gravel hills are the only remains you can see after over 2, 000 years’ erosion. Due to natural causes, the northwest of Yumen is situated in a topographic low. Therefore the underground water has a high salt content, which can bind the grits tightly and so make the wall solid and strong. Having experienced weathering for hundreds and thousands of years, it is still high in the stone desert.
This is really a magnificent view, and has become a miracle in the history of Chinese military and architecture.
Pictured above is a beacon tower. It is built with soil on the base, and the upper part is made of bricks, which is 10 m high.