The oasis town of Dunhuang lay at a crucial junction of the Silk Road, that ancient braid of caravan trails stretching for more than 7,000 kilometers from China to the Mediterranean, which served as a highway not just for merchandise, but also for ideas – religious, cultural and artistic. By the 4th century AD, the Silk Road had brought Dunhuang both commercial prosperity and a growing Buddhist community. Some 25 kilometres to its south-east, at the edge of the Mingsha Shan or Dunes of the Singing Sands, lay a river bed bordered by a long cliff.

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