In the late fourth century, when the monks Yuezun and Faliang are said to have carved the first caves in the cliff at Mogao, this remote desert valley was a narrow band of green in the surrounding desert. A grove of elm trees flourished along the stream at the base of the cliff, and across the valley floor rose a range of rugged mountains. Perhaps the only sounds were the singing of birds and the hissing of sand blowing over the cliff from the dunes above. Within two centuries, however, Mogao would evolve from the isolated haunt of a few hardy hermits into a vibrant center of Buddhist culture and art whose renown would extend from the Chinese capitals to the far western kingdoms of the Silk Road.
— Roderick Whitfield, Susan Whitfield and Neville Agnew. Cave Temples of Mogao: Art and History on the Silk Road (Los Angeles: The J. Paul Getty Trust, 2000), 53.

Located in an oasis of the Taklamakan Desert in western China, the ancient city of Dunhuang became an important outpost of the Silk Road nearly two thousand years ago. 

For centuries, it flourished as a center for Buddhist worship and learning. Generations of monks and pilgrims carved shrines out of the rock cliffs at Mogao, gradually building one of the greatest collections of Buddhist painting, sculpture, and architecture in the world.

The city was largely abandoned and forgotten due to shifting trade routes in the Ming Dynasty. In the late 19th century, a Daoist monk discovered the Dunhuang library cave, a sealed treasury containing ancient manuscripts in seventeen languages from the previous millennia. Explorers from around the world arrived at Dunhuang, hailing it as one of the most important archaeological finds of the century.

Since 1944, researchers at the Dunhuang Academy have worked steadily to safeguard and study the rich manuscripts, wall paintings, statuary, and architecture of Dunhuang. They were designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987.

Today, over a million visitors from around the world make the pilgrimage to Dunhuang each year, and the city has once again become a site for cultural, artistic, and intellectual exchange.