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World's Oldest Book Found in Secret Room

Updated: Feb 18, 2022

More than one and half millennia ago, a wandering monk stopped at an oasis.

World's oldest book opened on a page showing Chinese writing
Credit: British Museum

The area in western China, some distance outside the town of Dunhuang, was known for its stunningly beautiful crescent-shaped spring, and its “singing” sand dunes: the winds there sometimes made a rhythmic musical sound. The monk, named Lè Zūn noticed some cave openings in the cliffs above a river. He felt that there was something special about the location and decided to stay and make it his home. He started digging out the cave to live in about AD 366.

Over the centuries, thousands of pilgrims arrived and decided to stay in what had become a holy place, digging out more caves, and spending their time praying, chanting, and creating sacred art on the walls. They also made sculptures and collected ancient books.

The Dunhuang area, in the Gansu-Xinjiang desert region, became a key crossroads on the new Silk Road, a trade route taking goods between Xian and Central Asia. But time passed and habits changed. More than 1,000 years after the caves’ first resident had arrived, travellers starting taking other routes, as shipping lines improved, and the Silk Road gradually became quiet.

The remaining monks in the caves eventually died off and there was no one to take their place. The Mogao Caves were completely forgotten, and for hundreds of years, they were nothing more than a dusty legend, holes in the cliff wall, known only to the local people.

Then, in the late 1800s, another travelling monk, Wang Yuanlu, came upon the site. He felt the pull of ancient magic and decided to stay there and dig into the caves. He was stunned at what he found.

News of the amazing treasures of art and ancient scrolls eventually went out to the world, and over the following decades, international scholar-explorers took an interest. The caves released some breathtaking secrets. There were hundreds of caverns containing some of the world’s finest ancient paintings, sculpture, and literature.

The complex of caverns were like a tunnel to a lost world. For example, explorers found the Library Cave, a room full of books that had been untouched since the year AD 1002. Inside, they found the oldest book in the world: the Diamond Sutra. It had been written in AD 868. While there are older written works in existence, they are fragmentary and undated. The Sutra is the oldest complete, dated, printed book.

Today hundreds of thousands of people visit the Thousand Buddha Grottoes every year, carved into rock cliffs above the Dachuan River.


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