Ancient Buddhist caves in China could ‘turn to sand’

The Art Newspaper
By Hannah McGivern
25 February 2014

Sites containing third-century wall paintings face destruction from natural forces

The network of 236 sandstone caves extend over an area of two to three kilometres in the vast, sparsely-populated autonomous Xinjiang region of China, along the ancient Silk Road

Urgent conservation work is needed to save a series of caves in northwest China containing ancient murals by Buddhist monks, which are threatened with destruction from the forces of nature.

The network of 236 sandstone caves extend over an area of two to three kilometres in the vast, sparsely-populated autonomous Xinjiang region of China, along the ancient Silk Road. The caves were inhabited by Buddhist monks and used as temples between the third and the eighth centuries, and are lined with murals providing a rich picture of early Buddhist culture.

The caves, known locally as Kezer, are prone to deterioration, particularly from moisture, because of their geological composition, which includes many soluble salts. Although the region is very dry, any rainwater could have “distastrous consequences”, according to Giorgio Bonsanti, an expert in wall painting preservation. He told our sister paper, Il Giornale dell’Arte, “the signs of progressive decay, which in the long term would turn everything to sand, are dramatically evident.”

Bonsanti said that there have been efforts to buttress the mountains with cement and horizontal metal poles, which anchor the external layers of stone to more solid rock, but these fortifications are proving insufficient in the bid to save the caves.

The murals are particularly significant because of their stylistic similarity to Indian, rather than classical Chinese, art, which bears witness to the transmission of Buddhism to China from the south. In the early 20th century, many of the paintings were removed by Western archaeologists, notably the German expedition of Albert von Le Coq in 1906, and are now housed in museums including the Museum für Asiatische Kunst in Berlin and the Musée Guimet in Paris.

Around 10,000 people visit the caves each year—a fraction of the 800,000 who visit the Mogao caves further east along the Silk Road, which became a Unesco World Heritage site in 1987.

Although the situation is serious and urgent, the caves are not beyond saving. Bonsanti says that “In this battle against fatal natural processes, man is destined to surrender eventually, but hopefully the end of Kezer will not yet be seen for many generations to come.”

The caves were inhabited by Buddhist monks and used as temples between the third and the eighth centuries, and are lined with murals providing a rich picture of early Buddhist culture.
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