Some manuscripts, like those that have begun to resurface in Timbuktu, never really disappeared, but were instead hidden and passed down through the generations in private hands. Others, though, have spent centuries being truly lost, only to emerge unexpectedly back into the spotlight.
One such library is the collection of manuscripts produced in Dunhuang during the Middle Ages. Although now well within Chinese borders, Dunhuang began as a frontier outpost at the western edge of Chinese territories in the 2nd century BCE. Over the next centuries, the influence of Buddhism transformed the settlement into a centre of religious learning and the arts. At first, only a few monks lived as hermits here, but the establishment of monasteries and the excavation of over 1,000 caves for meditation and religious observance, not to mention the burgeoning Silk Road trade, made Dunhuang into a premier destination for religious pilgrims.
Some of this mediaeval heritage was readily visible in 1900, although Dunhuang’s importance had largely been forgotten. These included the many murals and sculptures decorating the caves, as well as their elaborate entrances.
It may be because of these obvious signs of cultural heritage that a Taoist man named Wang Yuanlu appointed himself the guardian of the caves. As part of his efforts, he attempted to clear sand from those which had fallen out of use, and in the process discovered a long-forgotten cache of manuscripts. Some were bound in scrolls, others in bundles, and they filled what has now been dubbed the Library Cave from floor to ceiling. Despite the obvious value of the find, Wang was told to reseal the Library Cave by the local governor, where the manuscripts remained for several years.
When European explorers and archaeologists came into the area to collect antiquities, however, the caves were reopened and a large number of manuscripts were sold, making their way into the collections of European museums. Others were claimed by Chinese authorities. These manuscripts, in a wide range of Central Asian languages and covering as many subjects, revolutionised what scholars thought it would be possible to know about the region’s history. In fact, these fragments were so numerous that the task of cataloguing them is still ongoing.
Together, the stories of Timbuktu and Dunhuang confirm that our knowledge of the past is never static. New sources do come to light, although perhaps not as frequently as they disappear, and each time libraries like these are rediscovered, they offer a rare opportunity for us to expand the boundaries of our knowledge and bring us closer to the world’s vibrant history.
Dunhuang is registered as a UNESCO world heritage site, with its own information page. Much work to collate and publicise the manuscripts found in Dunhuang is conducted through the International Dunhuang Project, which has several accessible pages explaining more about Dunhuang’s history.