The race to save the Mogao frescoes
The Mogao grottoes at Dunhuang in China are one of the world’s richest art treasures. Dunhuang, though far from the center of Chinese civilization, was a key stop on the Silk Road. The Silk Road was not only a trade route for merchandise, it was also the route by which Buddhism was introduced to China, and Dunhuang is home to nearly 500 caves that served as Buddhist temples. The cave-temples are full of thousands of murals and sculptures, created between the fourth and fourteenth centuries.
For centuries the region’s remoteness and arid climate preserved that artworks is good condition. But today, according to this report, the murals are “fading away from age, tourist pressures and climate change.” The report goes on to describe efforts to photograph and preserve the art works.
A race is on to arrest the deterioration of the UN World Heritage site, which occupies 492 different cave temples along a 1.6-kilometre (one-mile) long cliff face near the ancient Silk Road oasis town of Dunhuang.
That decline has accelerated in recent years due in large part to desertification caused by climate change, said Wang Xudong, head of the Dunhuang Academy, the state-run institution that studies and maintains the grottoes.
More-frequent sandstorms from the nearby Kumtag desert are upsetting the fragile environmental balance inside the caves.
“Our biggest challenge is protecting the interior environment of the caves, especially from sandstorms, which are the biggest risk here,” he said.
But it’s a complex and painstaking task.
“Each cave has its own unique mineral, temperature, and moisture situation. We have to treat each one differently. We are learning every day,” Wang said.
The top image of a bodhisattva appears in a Tantric Buddhist painting in Cave 14. Dating from the Tang dynasty (618–906), it probably reflects a Tibetan influence; Dunhuang was under Tibetan rule during a some of the Tang. The second image accompanied the news article; I have done a little restoration work of my own on it.