Authentic silk prayer banners, a handwritten Buddhist scripture in near mint condition, a Yuan dynasty fragment of a mathematical document, small clay figurines, Persian silver coins that bear witness to foreign travelers on the Silk Road, patterned floor tiles and oil lamps used to light the dark caves round out the small two-gallery exhibition.
The Mogao Cave shrines, declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987, were largely unknown in the West until they were discovered in 1900 by a Hungarian archaeologist, Sir Aurel Stein.
Dunhuang, located at the north and south crossroads of the Silk Road, was a strategic hub of trade and religion. Stein, who made several treks through Central Asia, had heard rumors of a cave room sealed in the 11th century containing tens of thousands of manuscripts, scrolls, silk paintings and textiles dating in Chinese, Tibetan, Sanskrit and other languages.
A local caretaker had uncovered the treasure trove after discovering a crack in the wall of a corridor leading to a larger cave. It's not clear why the room was sealed, but scholars speculate they were walled up to protect them from the threat of invasion from nomadic people.
Stein was able to persuade the caretaker to sell a portion of the material in exchange for money for the cave's upkeep. In subsequent years, almost 80 percent of the contents were taken out of the country by foreign adventurers. Today, the treasures are found in various museums and libraries around the world.
The exhibition, organized by the Dunhuang Academy, runs through July 21. A second exhibition in the fall will focus on paintings and sculptures by contemporary artists inspired by the caves.