Dunhuang , in north-west China, is situated at a point of vital strategic and logistical importance, on a crossroads of two major trade routes within the Silk Road network.
Lying in an oasis at the edge of the Taklamakan Desert, Dunhuang was one of the first trading cities encountered by merchants arriving in China from the west. It was also an ancient site of Buddhist religious activity, and was a popular destination for pilgrims, as well as acting as a garrison town protecting the region.
The remarkable Mogao Caves, a collection of nearly 500 caves in the cliffs to the south of the city, contain the largest depositary of historic documents along the Silk Roads and bear witness to the cultural, religious, social and commercial activity that took place in Dunhuang across the first millennium.
A number of ancient passes, such as the Yu Guan or "Jade Gate" and the Yang Guan, or "Southern Gate", illustrate the strategic importance of the city and its position on what amounted to a medieval highway across the deserts.
The Mogao Caves illustrate not only the religious importance of Dunhuang however, but also its significance as a centre of cultural and commercial exchange. One of the caves, known as the "library cave", contains as many as 40,000 scrolls, a depositary of documents that is of enormous value in understanding the cultural diversity of this Silk Road city.
The earliest text is dated to 405 AD, whilst the latest dates to 1002 AD. The arrangement of documents in this library cave suggests that they were deliberately stored there, and it seems likely that the local monasteries used the cave as a store room. They provide a picture of Dunhuang as a vibrant hub of Silk Road trade, and give an indication of the range of goods that were exchanged in the city.
According to these documents, a large number of imports arrived from as far away as north-east Europe. Interestingly, the scrolls that mention merchant caravans are usually written in Sogdian, Uighur, or Turco-Sogdian, indicating that they were produced by the foreign traders in the city.
Dunhuang was not simply a recipient of trade however, and had a very active export market too. The scrolls refer to a large number of goods that were produced in city and its surrounding regions and sold to merchants, including silks of many varieties, cotton, wool, fur, tea, ceramics, medicine, fragrances, jade, camels, sheep, dye, dried fruits, tools, and embroidery.