The Mogao Caves - a Unique Tribute to Ancient China

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Out of the rough, sheer cliff looms an immense series of detailed caves and grottoes, each one riddled with lost secrets, intricate art, and precious statues. Torch in hand, you step across the ancient threshold of a ground-breaking discovery, tracing the footsteps of monks from a thousand years ago. Here lies the monumental face of the unique Mogao Caves, an integral part of the UNESCO World Heritage List and a deserving recipient of the title. The Caves represent a melting pot of Asian cultures and religions, hold a vast collection of unique manuscripts and ancient literature and presents intricate, detailed artworks, frescoes and facades, and colossal, elaborate statues.

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The art riddled throughout the colossal 3.42 square kilometres of caves is a series of unique and intricate masterpieces, and effortlessly accomplishes the first criteria of the UNESCO World Heritage List: to be a masterpiece of creative human genius. Art covers almost every wall in each of the 492 caves and bears influence from many South-Asian religions and cultures. Found in the Caves were awe-inspiring fifteen-metre-tall Buddhist statues, carved straight out of the stone cliff, at a time where tools were not as advanced as today’s tools are. This is a monument to the sheer dedication to creativity and culture by the artists. Renowned and accomplished archaeologist, Aurel Stein, visited this ancient site and commented on the artwork in his 1912 book, Ruins of Desert Cathay. Stein stated, “Nothing but careful copies in colour by the hand of an artist fully conversant with Eastern painting and Buddhist iconography could do justice to the wealth of spirited composition, graceful design of figure and ornament, and harmonious colour effect which these frescoes display, and then it would need his devotion for many laborious months.” This quote demonstrates the breathtaking quality and dedication needed to create such precious masterpieces. There is no doubt that the creation of the Caves and the art within is the embodiment of creativity and passion in human history. and a valuable and enriching series of splendour that easily deserves the privilege of a place on the UNESCO World Heritage List.

The Mogao Caves are a focal point of culture and religion for many Asian cultures, combining all inhabitants’ beliefs and practices into the Caves' vast reaches. They doubtlessly, easily fulfil the second World Heritage List criteria: to represent an interchange of human faith, belief, and culture. Throughout the Caves are artworks that demonstrate the religious and cultural influences acquired over the thousand years of its use. The Mogao Caves have hosted several South-Asian religions, whether Buddhism, Taoism or Hinduism and has been home to different cultures of people, such as the Tibetans and Chinese peoples. The thousand years of powerful and significant influence from each culture have contributed to a powerful interchange of human culture. These intense connections can still be seen by any tourist traipsing these sacred halls. There is no doubt that this immense insight into the beliefs and connections between so many cultures deserves protection so that everyone has a chance to explore these links between ancient cultures.

However, some might believe that the Mogao Caves’ portrayal of connections between so many diverse cultures, and the sheer quality, dedication, detail and culture in the art are all ‘insignificant’. They fail to acknowledge one of the most important discoveries in the Caves yet: Cave 17, the Library Cave. Aurel Stein, the prestigious archaeologist, stated again in Ruins of Desert Cathay, 'The sight of the small room disclosed was one to make my eyes open wide. Heaped up in layers, but without any order, there appeared in the dim light of the priest’s little lamp a solid mass of manuscript bundle rising to a height of nearly ten feet, and filling, as subsequent measurement showed, close on 500 cubic feet.” These 60 000 manuscripts included literature from China, Tibet, and even Iran, over 4500 km away, as well as Judaist, Hindu, Buddhist and Taoist texts and the earliest dated book, the Diamond Sutra, from 868 CE. Nigh on a dozen different languages were scribed in the manuscripts, and each scroll provided their own insight to their culture of origin, whether of law or trading or other topics. The Library Cave and its immense archive demonstrates that the Mogao Caves were an incomprehensibly major and significant discovery, and is a unique testimony to cultures across Asia, therefore fulfilling Criteria 3 of the World Heritage List.

All in all, the Mogao Caves are a focus between cultures up to 4500 kilometres away and are a unique tribute to Ancient China – Ancient Asia. The Caves doubtlessly deserve and require preservation, and it is crucial that they remain their title as a Heritage Site. They are the embodiment of human creativity, the epitome of interchange between diverse and significant cultures and a unique testimony and tribute to the same. Of the 6 criteria of the UNESCO World Heritage List, the Mogao Caves achieves all of them, even if this speech details only three. Could you truly allow this ancient wonder to get ploughed down by corporate bulldozers? See its incredible artwork and archive lost forever, evaporated into nothingness? We must preserve the Mogao Caves’ beauty and the legacy and dedication from those who walked its vast depths, a thousand years ago. 

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