The Mogao Grottoes, a mile-long complex of rock caves that houses the world's greatest treasury of Buddhist art, have weathered an extraordinary range of human behavior. Since AD 366, when a monk cut the first cave into a cliff and established a shrine along an ancient trade route now known as the Silk Road, the grottoes have been the object of pilgrims' veneration, traveling salesmen's prayers, archeologists' greed and tourists' curiosity.
The richly decorated caves have benefited from scholarly devotion and they have been battered by sandstorms, pollution and vandalism. But never in 1,627 years of development and deterioration have they been subjected to such intense scrutiny as they are receiving this week from a group of visiting conservators.
The occasion is an international conference focusing on an ambitious project that was first undertaken in 1989 by the Chinese State Bureau of Cultural Relics and the Los Angeles-based Getty Conservation Institute. The six-day meeting, dedicated to the "Conservation of Ancient Sites on the Silk Road," has brought cultural preservation experts from 15 countries to the Dunhuang Academy, a 50-year-old institution that occupies a sprawling complex on the southwestern edge of the Gobi Desert, about 1,200 miles west of Beijing.
The delegates are studying the progress of a collaborative venture that has brought high-tech conservation to an extraordinary monument. The grottoes, which are on UNESCO's list of World Heritage Sites, contain 484,000 square feet of wall paintings and more than 2,000 polychromed clay statues of Buddha, measuring up to 108 feet in height.
The effort to save the artworks has called for unusual measures, including the design and installation of a 2.5-mile fence to fend off sand, a solar-empowered monitoring station to measure environmental data and the effect of visitors inside the caves, and synthetic membranes to strengthen roofs of caves that have been damaged by earthquakes and erosion.
The meeting--organized by the Getty Conservation Institute, the Dunhuang Academy and the Chinese National Institute of Cultural Property--is the first official presentation of the innovative conservation project, and its significance is not lost on the Chinese.
"This is the first time that Gansu Province has held such a high-level conference," Chen Yiling, deputy governor of the province said at Sunday morning's opening ceremony in an auditorium that had been hastily refurbished for the occasion.
Dunhuang Academy Director Duan Wenjie offered an even grander assessment, calling the assembly the most prestigious event of its kind ever to take place in China.
The delegates had already received the equivalent of a royal welcome in Dunhuang, a dusty city of about 100,000 that claims a half-dozen dysfunctional traffic lights and three telephone lines that are perpetually busy. The entire staff of the Dunhuang Hotel donned red-and-gold sashes, stood at attention and applauded as a bus delivered the visiting conservators.
The Getty's involvement in the Mogao Grottoes symbolizes a philosophical ethic that takes a broad view of cultural heritage, GCI director Miguel Angel Corzo told the delegates in his opening remarks. "It offers a sense of continuity in a rapidly changing world and connection with other societies, past and present."
Just as the Silk Road served as a conduit for the "exchange of ideas, religious beliefs, language and thought," as well as commodities, the conference provides an opportunity "to trade . . . thoughts for the common good of humankind's cultural heritage," Corzo said.
Timing is crucial for such cultural exchanges, Corzo said in an interview. Working with China at the moment when it is becoming more open may help put conservation on the national agenda, he said.
"I think the most important aspect of this project is getting assistance in the training of Chinese personnel, so that we will be able to conduct the work independently," Duan said.
As is typical of GCI's foreign field projects, which always leverage the Getty's resources by establishing partnerships, training is a major component of the Mogao venture, Corzo said. The cost of the conservation project and the conference has not been revealed, but the Getty picked up the tab for expenses of four keynote speakers and six delegates from developing countries.
Sixty papers on the conservation of the Mogao Grottoes and an array of related projects are being presented at the conference. Topics include site management, the impact of tourism on cultural monuments, environmental monitoring, wall painting, conservation and methods of pigment analysis. But the highlight for most delegates is a chance to see the biggest and best of Central Asia's rock-temple complexes.
Strategically positioned at the Western gateway to China and at the convergence of northern and southern branches of the Silk Road, Dunhuang grew up as a center of commerce and culture. As Buddhism made its way from India to China, pilgrims erected shrines and travelers stopped to seek divine protection on perilous journeys, to give thanks for safe passage.
Over time, from the 4th Century to the 14th Century, about 1,000 caves were cut into a sandstone cliff, creating five stories of rooms that stretch for a mile along a river bed. As Buddhism gained powerful support, court painters were dispatched to Dunhuang to create elaborate temples and wealthy families donated caves that portray cosmic views of Chinese society.
The Mogao Grottoes reached their peak during the Tang Dynasty (618-907), but gradually fell into disuse and decline. Their remote location and the dry climate helped to preserve them until the late 19th Century, when foreign archeologists discovered the caves.
They removed as many treasures as they could spirit away, before the Chinese government clamped down in the 1920s. By 1911, when the Dunhuang Academy was established to preserve the site, the caves had been additionally damaged by Muslim zealots who defaced human images and by Russian soldiers who used the grottoes as barracks. Nature also had taken its toll through erosion, earthquakes, sandstorms and water seepage.
When the Getty came to the rescue four years ago, conservators determined that the way to save the artworks was to treat the surrounding area. Some solutions were simple, such as installing filters on doors to reduce the volume of dust that enters the caves. Others, such as a weather station and monitors that measure the caves' environment and feed data into computers, are far more complicated.
Among the most innovative components of the project is a synthetic woven fiber fence in the shape of a giant letter "A" that stretches out on a plateau above the grottoes.
Designed as a wind screen for sand that blows off the plateau and piles up at the foot of the grottoes, the fence contains $8,000 worth of materials and took 40 Chinese workers two months to construct, according to Neville Agnew, the Getty institute's special projects director.
The fence has reduced the flow of sand about 60%, Agnew said, but it is expected to be a temporary measure. About 500 yards behind the fence is a drip-irrigated plot of natural vegetation, which is expected to be self-sustaining and take over the fence's function once the plants are established.
All these creative efforts will only help if the site is properly managed, the experts say, and that means figuring out how tourists can be accommodated without undoing conservation work.
Of the 492 caves that remain, about 30 are open to the public. Replicas of 10 caves are being created in a museum currently under construction and expected to open next fall. Just as tourists in the Dordogne region of France visit a replica of Lascaux instead of the real thing, most visitors to the Mogao Grottoes are likely to do most of their viewing in the new museum.
The Mogao Grottoes have made Dunhuang the most prosperous area of Gansu Province, according to Ma Wenzhi, head of the region's cultural department. "Proper protective measures must be taken, not only to preserve the relics themselves, but also to provide better conditions for tourism," he said.
Indeed, the issue of the interdependence of conservation and tourism looms large at the conference. "There is a new truism," conservator Robertson E. Collins said in his presentation. "We all need tourists in order to get the money to protect our sites against tourism."
Part of the answer to the management of the Mogao Grottoes may be apparent next spring when results of the conservation project will be evaluated to determine the nature of the Getty Conservation Institute's future involvement, Corzo said.