Although religion played an important role in the caves, it would be the decreased use of the Silk Road that would threaten the significance of Mogao. In this article, you will learn what happened to the caves when pilgrims and visitors from afar no longer found use in the cave temples.
When the Tang Dynasty arrived, the Chinese Empire embraced Buddhism. The religious community saw more than 1,000 cave temples at the peak of this religious period. As time passed, the Silk Road was used increasingly less as travelers made the shift to new sea routes. Mogao started to become more of a local resource. In the 14th century, the caves were sealed and the people turned their backs on them.
People did not start to revisit the Mogao Caves until a Taoist monk named Wang Yuan Lu was wandering about the land and accidently came across the caves in 1900. At once, the monk recognized the importance of the site. He devoted his life to excavating and restoring the caves. He revamped the murals. He planted trees and gardens. He also built a guesthouse. The monk went begging to fund his cave project. All of his effort would have gone overlooked if Wang had not happened upon a hidden chamber. Inside of cave #17, he found an impressive collection of manuscripts, sutras and paintings on silk and paper. Some of the finds were 1,000 years old and had been well preserved. For the 20th century, the monk had made one of the greatest archaeological discoveries.
When news of the monk’s find hit the ears of the Dunhuang authorities, they took some of the manuscripts for themselves and sealed the rest of the cave. Transporting the rest of the treasure would have been too costly to accomplish. However, in 1907, Aurel Stein (an explorer and scholar) came to China. He asked Wang to reopen the chamber. When he had a chance to see what was inside the cave, he marveled at the collection of original sutras, the Buddhist texts written in different languages, and the rare Tang painting on silk and paper.
Stein donated money to Wang’s restoration fund, and then went off to England. In his possession, he took away about 7,000 manuscripts and 500 paintings. Later on in the year, a Frenchman named Paul Pelliot made negotiations to ship 6,000 manuscripts back to Paris. Today, the majority of these writings are part of the Chinese collections of the British Museum and the Louvre Museum.
Despite the wealth of history and information associated with the caves, they did not receive the status of being a national monument until 1961. By this time, damage had threatened the preservation and integrity of the caves. For example, a group of foreigners used the caves as barracks. At the time, they placed graffiti over the frescos. Nowadays, the site serves as an important tourist attraction. An archeological project continues to shed light on the caves. In 1987, the Mogao Caves became a World Heritage Site. In 2001, a wave of 248 caves was found. The artifacts stored inside have not been fully explored yet.