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What are the Mogao Caves?
Posted In: Ancient Civilizations  10/19/11
By: Yona Williams

Located close to the city of Dunhuang in the Gansu province of China, you will find the Mogao Caves. Known by many different names, such as the Mogao Grottoes, Caves of the Thousand Buddhas, or Caves of Dunhuang, tourists come to this site to delight in the history of the Buddhist cave temples.  In this article, you will learn about the importance and history of this attraction.

The caves played a significant role during the days of the Silk Road (from the 4th to 14th centuries), which involved a network of trade routes spread across many different land masses that connected the East, South and Western Asia with the Mediterranean region and Europe. In addition to the land routes, trade took place using sea routes that included the likes of the Red Sea. During this time period, China traded silk, spices and tea. India traded precious stones, pepper, textiles and ivory. The Roman Empire exported gold, silver, wine, carpets, and gems.

The Mogao Caves highlighted the culture of the Silk Road, as well as religious works of art. Today, about 600 of the cave temples have survived with thirty open to the public.

Before the religion of Buddhism made its way to India, temples in China were constructed out of wood. This material was able to survived most of the environment of China. Cave temples were a tradition that started in India. They were not able to build using wood or other materials, especially in regions where poverty was commonplace. The extreme heat also posed a problem for using wood as a building material.

Using the caves for temples was an ideal solution for other places– one that started to appear at Mogao in the 4th century. The influx of pilgrims, monks and scholars that traveled along the Silk Road would stop at this site to meditate. They were not the only people to stop at this location – merchants and nobles also paid a visit to the temples in hopes of enjoying success in their business field or enhance their spirituality.

Legend has it that the first cave was established in 366 AD. A Buddhist monk named monk Lie Zun (or Lo-tsun) experienced a vision of 1,000 Buddha. He persuaded a wealthy pilgrim of the Silk Road to fund the first temple. Many others followed his lead. The temples were decorated with murals that were initially created to further religious contemplation, but over time, the images offered narration. A great deal of artists and crafters were called upon to decorate the caves. They would use high scaffolding and oil lamps when painting the caves. The pay was minimal, but at least they could live in the caves and have a place to sleep – even if it was a bed made out of bricks.


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