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Kizil Caves

Kizil Caves

The Kizil Caves are a set of 236 Buddhist caves with at least 1000 square metres of wall paintings, mostly Jataka stories located 75 kilometres northwest of Kucha on the northern bank of the Muzat River in Baicheng County, Xinjiang province, China.This area was a commercial hub of the The Silk Road.

They are said to be the earliest Buddhist cave complex in China, developed between the 3rd and 8th centuries. The caves were abandoned around the 10th century, as Islam began to spread into this northwestern part of China. The statues were destroyed completely, as the the Islam prohibited the worship of idols.

The remaining murals suffered from all kinds of destruction: by wind, drought, rain and insects. Many of the murals have been chipped off and "stolen" by the Russians, the Japanese and the Germans during the early years of the 20th century. Most importantant were the four German expeditions between 1903 and 1913 by Albert Grünwedel (1856-1936) and Albert von le Coq (1860-1930). At the Museum für Indische Kunst (Museum of Indian Art) in Berlin Dahlem, 328m² of murals, 395 different fragments of the wall paintings, are archived. And there are also ancient documents written on birch bark and wooden slips. All together 470m² of wall paintings were removed at Kizil.

It seems, the current interpretation of the removal of paintings by foreigners, is theft. But that is only one aspect of the story. The times were different, when the explorers took them home, they obviously did not have the idea that they were stealing. The murals were not appreciated by the locals at this time, and many had been destroyed, so the removing of the artworks was considered an act of preservation. And obviously it is still much easier to visit the murals in the Berlin museum, than in the little developed countryside of China.

Many steps in the history of Archaeology were considered vandalism by the next generation. The archaeologists of the German and French prehistoric cave removed tons of sediments destroying most of its content. Nevertheless Archaeology would never have developed without this important milestone in science history.

The caves were located close to the northern branch of the legendary silk road, and thus legends, myths, and arts from ancient India, Greece, Rome, Persia and Central China melted here to a new Buddhist art. In the fertile Tarim Basin lies the city Kucha, at the crossing of the silk road with a trade route descending from the difficult Muzart Pass in the north. Kucha was one of the earliest centers of Buddhism in the Tarim Basin, probably from the first century on, but first mentioned in a fourth-century Chinese chronicle.

The caves are in a very remote part of China, and not very well developed for tourists. At the moment Chinese scientists work on the paintings, but there is no development for the comfort of the visitors or the protection of the paintings. It is rather unclear if they will ever be developed, but as the Chinese government develops tourism, both inland and foreign, it is rather likely. Nevertheless, at least for the next ten years, it might be wiser to visit the exhibition at Berlin Dahlem.


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