The Mogao Caves, on the route of the old Silk Road, have been called the Chinese equivalent of the Sistine Chapel. ow conservationists are racing to save them from oblivion. It is cold and dim in the cave at the edge of the Gobi desert, but the grotto glows bright when a torch picks out the serene face of a Buddha - once pink, now black - on a fresco painted 1,000 years ago to offer comfort to travellers on the Silk Road.Nearby in this astonishing network of hundreds of vividly illustrated grottoes is the Library Cave, which was filled from floor to ceiling with ancient manuscripts and paintings until, 100 years ago. Britisharchaeologist Sir Aurel Stein persuaded the monks guarding the artifacts to sell them and took them back to the British Museum.There are more than 800 caves in the network, of which about 500 have painted frescoes. For 1,600 years, these caves - at Dunhuang in China's Gansu province - survived political upheaval, religious fundamentalism, clumsy Western adventurers, corrupt Qing dynasty officials, harsh treatment by White Russian soldiers and the unwanted attentions of Mao's Red Guards.
however, there are fears that the breath of millions of tourists,
combined with the encroaching Gobi desert, may be more than these
paintings can bear.
Wide-scale plundering of the manuscripts has already meant these invaluable documents are dispersed throughout many countries.
Scientistsfrom all over
the world, including specialists from the British Library, are working
on a project to digitally record the murals and the manuscripts of
Dunhuang and to bring them all together online, so everyone can see the
The Dunhuang digital
archive will include images from the caves as well as frescoes and
scriptures residing in the world's museums, including the British
The project involves
scanning 45,000 square metres of frescoes and recording 3,390 Buddhist
The frescoes are spread among 812 caves hewn out of a
mile-long sandstone cliff.
Behind the caves, the desert looms ominously in the shape of Rattling Sand Mountain.
Last year, there were 550,000 visitors to Dunhuang, and that number is expected to rise this year.
The earliest ofDunhuang's
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