The Library Cave

On June 25, 1900, tens of thousands of important historical manuscripts were found in a secret room within the Caves of the Thousand Buddhas in Dunhuang, China, where they had been hidden for nearly a millennium.

Library Cave, Magao
Charles Nouette (1869-1910), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The Magao Caves, popularly known as the Caves of the Thousand Buddhas, were a key point on the Silk Road that stretched from China to the Middle East and Europe in the Middle Ages. They were an international hub of commerce, religion, and cultural dissemination, and yet another example of buildings carved out of solid rock:

Magao Caves
Zossolino, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

For more than a thousand years the caves were a key site for Buddhist worship, and accumulated a large cache of manuscripts from across the Medieval world. Something happened in the 11th century CE – perhaps the threat of invasion – and the manuscripts were sealed up in a secret room within the temple and forgotten by history.

Nine hundred years later, in 1900, a Taoist monk named Wang Yuanlu was cleaning up and restoring part of the Magao Caves when he found the entrance. Opening the hidden door, he discovered a cave packed to the ceiling with ancient manuscripts, some dating as far back as the caves’ founding one and a half millennia ago.

Local officials ordered him to seal it back up again so that it could be properly preserved. Growing impatient, Wang Yuanlu instead sold off a few thousand of the manuscripts to European archaeologists to fund his restoration efforts. The contents of the Library Cave have proven to be some of the most significant and important documents in the history of central Asia, including the following:

  1. A printed copy of the Diamond Sutra, dated to 868. This is the oldest extant printed book with a date in history.
  2. The Dunhuang Go Manual, the oldest known strategic guide to the board game Go.
  3. The Dunhuang Star Chart, the oldest known Chinese pictorial guide to the stars.
  4. Fragments of the ancient Chinese rhyming dictionary Qieyun.
  5. An 8th century CE selichot (penitential prayer) written in Hebrew.
  6. The Tibetan Annals, the earliest written history of Tibet.
  7. The Painting of a Nestorian Christian figure, a silk painting that has been interpreted as an early representation of Jesus Christ.

Alongside, of course, thousands of seminal Buddhist texts, and other works in a dozen different languages (Sanskrit, Old Turkic, Kotanese, and more). Because of those early European purchases, the contents of the Library Cave are spread across the world, but today you can view them all online via the International Dunhuang Project.

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