I’ve been very excited to visit the ancient Buddhist caves of Bezeklik in 2015.
Bezeklik Thousand Buddha Caves (柏孜克里千佛洞, Bǎi zī kè lǐ qiān fú dòng) are located in Xinjiang Autonomous Region (新疆维吾尔自治区, Xīnjiāng wéiwú’ěr zìzhìqū,شىنجاڭ ئۇيغۇر ئاپتونوم رايونى ) to the north of the Taklamakan desert, around 50 kms East of Turpan (吐鲁番,Tǔlǔfān, تورپان) .
Who had the chance to visit the great monastery of Bezeklik, near Turfan, can be testimony of what sort of damages have been able religious fanatics (perhaps red guards too) before the Chinese authorities decided, too late sadly, to protect the few surviving paintings. [From: Foreign Devils on the Silk Road, 1980, Peter Hopkirk.]
The monks who decided to build the monastery of Bezeklik have been very clever in choosing the location to locate the monastery. Very well hidden between the hills, in area today next to the desert.
A small river flows in the valley creating here and there a quite small oasis few meters below the caves.
Bezeklik means “a place with beautiful decorations” [ From: A guide to the scenic spots and historical sites in Xinjiang China, 中国新疆名胜古迹旅游指南， 2000，Xu Huatian, Xie yaohua, Chen Hongbo].
The name in fact reveals the caves used to be completely covered by frescoes and statues describe Buddhist myths and everyday life in the silk road in the times when they were active. For example, we can know who was the one who funded the jobs because they are mentioned and sometimes painted in the quarries. Again from these paintings we see how varied was the mix of populations with Western, Asian, Mongolian, or Chinese. Something similar is still possible to be discovered in Dunhuang caves, Longmen caves Luoyang, Yungang caves, Hangzhou caves which all survived the centuries because the entrances have been sealed and hide.
The area is composed by 83 caves, around 40 murals for a total surface of 1.200 sqm.
Between 1900-1930s was ending the area of Imperialism but thanks to new technologies explorations were rampant. French, British, Germans, Russians, Japanese, and few others were exploring Central Asia with different intents, mostly related with cartography and geology. Those explorers were versatile men of science, in some cases they were traveling with entire libraries and equipment, others spent years learning the local languages and using fine arts to draw by hand a “picture” of their discoveries.
Germans leaded by Albert Grünwedel set their tents in the northern caves, while French by Le Coq e Bartus in the south ones.
The paintings were cut down using special knives deep to the rocks, applying pressure on the surface with felt carpets it was then possible to remove entire sessions and transport them away.
Today, most of the fresco of Bezeklik are located at the British Museum in London-UK, Tokyo National Museum in Japan and the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg-Russia.
Unfortunately, the fresco took by Germans have been lost following the bombing of the Berlin Ethnology Museum during World War II.
Moreover at that time there was no education on how respect artifacts and ancient relics. During those decades have been experimented new techniques which allowed cut and transpose into canvas entire segments of fresco.
Unfortunately Bezeklik has experienced on the skin the evolution of the technique and the competition of these explorers. in some cases more concerned with fame, the race of conquest rather than the sharing of discoveries that belong to humanity.
Many argued that foreign explorers in some way saved many Chinese relics from Cultural Revolution. It is true that Cultural Revolution leaded to the end of hundred of thousands of relics, but it is very hard to say. I like to imagine the caves in their entire beauty.
TODAY: As many other Chinese cultural attraction the area undergone to several renovations. In China is often adopted invasive renovation instead of conservative renovation. Because of this approach not only the relics are at risk but also are introduced elements geographically, historically and ethnically very far from the original ones.
Here an example this fat Buddha which is instead an iconic sculpture in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province, something like over 3.000 km away from Bezeklik.