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dunhuang desert & caves

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From Sichuan further northwest to China's traditional desert frontier, where the Silk Road oasis of Dunhuang lies on the edge of the Taklamakan Desert - quite literally, with large sand dunes bordering on the town.

From ancient times Dunhuang became a religious and cultural center for Silk Road travellers, as testified by the hundreds of caves decorated with Buddhist art, known as the Mogao Caves, the oldest of which dates back to the fourth century CE. The place is impossible to photograph, but this gallery gives some idea of its splendor.

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One fascinating illustration of culture spreading along the Silk Road is the motif of the three hares, which was first found in the Mogao Caves and spread westward through Central Asia and as far west as England and Wales. Interestingly, all major Eurasian religions - Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism and Islam - have used this visual puzzle, whose meaning is not quite known.

The Mogao Caves is also where in 1900 an astonishing collection of ancient documents was discovered in a cave that had been sealed for a thousand years. The find comprised some 50,000 documents in Chinese, Tibetan, Sanskrit and a host of other languages from all over Eurasia, including Tangut, Khotanese and Syriac (a form of Aramaic). Besides Buddhist scriptures, the collection also included Taoist, Manichaean, Nestorian and Jewish texts.

At the time, many of the documents were carried off to Europe, but today the International Dunhuang Project is reuniting the collection online.

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