(Original article courtesy of The Straits Times (Singapore); June 24 - a report by Erling Hoh)
Approaching China across the Eurasian landmass, one is confronted by the mighty Taklamakan Desert, with its sinister epigraph: 'If you go in, you won't come out.'
The ancient Silk Road divides into two branches at Kashgar and skirts along the northern and southern hem of the desert.
For those who survived the trip, the oasis of Dunhuang east of the desert must have been a fine sight indeed.
Marco Polo, having journeyed 30 days through the Taklamakan, was one of them. 'The people are for the most part idolaters, but there are also some Nestorian Christians and Saracens,' he wrote of the place in his Travels.
Eleven years ago, excavating a meditation cave in the northern part of Dunhuang's Mogao Grotto complex, archaeologist Peng Jinzhang made an exhilarating discovery: Four beautifully preserved pages of white-linen paper filled with a script that he could not identify.
Scholars at Beijing University helped him solve the mystery. The language was Syriac, and the pages from the Psalms in the Old Testament.
The find confirms Marco Polo's observation that Christians did indeed live, pray and die in Dunhuang's Mogao Grottoes - one of Buddhism's most hallowed sanctuaries and an unparalleled repository for the cultures and creeds that funnelled into the Silk Road on China's doorstep eight centuries ago.
The Syriac Bible find, announced recently, is only one of several illuminating discoveries made by Mr Peng and his team during their six-year excavation of the northern part of the Mogao Grottoes - a complex of some 750 caves carved out of the sandstone cliffside along the Daquan River 25 km south-east of Dunhuang in China's Gansu province.
Among the 243 excavated caves - the monks' living quarters, meditation and burial chambers - the team found movable wooden type for the Uighur language, rare documents written in obscure languages, Persian silver coins and countless other artefacts.
'Our work confirms that the Mogao Grottoes were an integrated complex, where monks lived as well as prayed and studied,' says Mr Wang Jianjun, a member of Mr Peng's team.
Today, the Mogao Grottoes are the mainstay of Dunhuang's economy, attracting thousands of visitors to this remote outpost at the western end of the Great Wall each year, as well as being the locus for an esoteric, thriving field of scholarship.
In 1987, the Mogao Grottoes were declared a World Heritage site by Unesco.
For the past decade, an international team of experts, led by the Dunhuang Research Academy in cooperation with Osaka University, the Tokyo National Research Institute for Cultural Properties, the Getty Conservation Institute and other organisations, has been hard at work trying to save the caves' paintings with the same passion, creativity and attention to detail as the monks and pilgrims who created them.
A 5-km windbreak fence has reduced the amount of sand blown over the cliff face by 60 per cent. Iron doors have been installed in all the caves to reduce dust and humidity.
To strengthen the caves, scientists are measuring the cracks, and plan to pin and stabilise them.
Other work focuses on documenting the paintings, analysing the colour pigments and developing new materials and techniques to preserve them.
In Cave 85, a large Tang dynasty cavern with 16 illustrated Sutras, which has been selected as a model case study, wall-painting conservator Stephen Rickerby is busy testing different grouts - a paste which is to be injected behind the painted mud plaster to secure it to the underlying rock wall.
Nearby, a member of the team from Osaka University is measuring the underlying rock's moisture content, while an international group of experts is focused on thermography tests, which identify detachments in the plaster through the measurement of minute differences in temperature.
Says Dr Neville Agnew, a conservation scientist from the Getty Conservation Institute: 'These paintings deserve the same kind of attention and preservation as a Rembrandt or a da Vinci. And they are much more threatened than paintings on canvas.'
Humidity, together with salt leaching from the underlying rock, is the main culprit in the deterioration and flaking of the murals.
The thousands of tourists who make their way out to Mogao every year, while bringing much needed cash to the region, also pose a threat by their very presence.
Because of the deleterious effect of too many visitors on the murals, a standard tour of the Mogao Grottoes is now restricted to brief visits to a few, unlit caves.
While the conservation work being done at the Mogao Grottoes is one of China's most successful international collaborations in this field, the dispersal of its manuscripts around the globe, and their restitution to China, remains a controversial issue.
Says Dr Rong Xinjiang, a Dunhuang expert at Beijing University: 'From a moral point of view, the artefacts should be returned. The Chinese government should, at the appropriate time, through the appropriate legal and diplomatic channels, try to retrieve the artefacts.'
At the same, however, the diaspora of Cave 17's treasure around the world has turned Dunhuang studies into a global endeavour, with scholars from many countries labouring hours on end to decipher its manuscripts.
Written in rare, dead languages ranging from Tangut to Runic Turkic, they deal with a gamut of concerns: Historical records, Buddhist Sutras, Taoist tracts, medical treatises, herbal pharmacopoeias, calendars, astronomical charts, literature, poetry, folk songs, real estate deals and even the model for an apology from a drunken guest to his host.
Prompted by the desire to see all Dunhuang artefacts in one place, the International Dunhuang Project (IDP) was launched in 1993 at the behest of the British Library, and the treasures from its Hidden Library are now being made available at the project's website http://idp.bl.uk
In a separate endeavour, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation is spending some US$3 million (S$5.46 million) to reunite a selection of the treasures from Mogao, scattered around the globe, from the National Library in Taiwan to the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris, in cyberspace.
Says Dr Susan Whitfield, who heads the IDP: 'The database makes the physical location of the manuscripts redundant.'
TREASURES FROM THE CAVES: What was carted away, what was left
FOUNDED in the 4th century, the Buddhist cave temples at Mogao flourished for 1,000 years as a haven for Buddhism, scholarship, meditation, and artistic creativity.
The caves were abandoned as the Chinese withdrew their garrisons in 1372 and the maritime route proved more reliable than the Silk Road.
In 1900, the Taoist priest Wang Yuanlu stumbled upon the famous Hidden Library, where some 50,000 documents, including the Diamond Sutra, the earliest-dated printed book known, had lain untouched for a millennium.
In 1907, the British-Hungarian archaeologist Sir Aurel Stein arrived in Dunhuang, and, having paid Wang four silver pieces, carted off thousands of manuscripts, silk scroll paintings and woodslips, which are now housed in the British Museum, the British Library and the National Museum in New Delhi.
French, American, Japanese and Russian explorers followed, and by the 1930s, what remained at Mogao were some 2,000 Buddhist sculptures and the caves' stupendous murals, which depict Sutras, legends, customs, trade and daily life during a span of 800 years.