Expedition to the Silk Road

For the Humboldt Forum the “Cave of the Ring-Bearing Doves” will be accessible as a walk-through reconstruction. A team from Berlin documents the original cave in Northern China. A Travelogue.

Holding his breath in awe, Toralf Gabsch surveys the craggy ceiling with the still-preserved ancient murals of the sacred Buddhist cave, and then exclaims, “This is the absolute highlight of all our three expeditions along the Silk Road!” As Head Restorer of the Museum für Asiatische Kunst, Berlin (Asian Art Museum), he has been waiting for this moment for years. “The ‘Cave of Treasures’ is one of the most significant restoration projects we’re doing for the Humboldt Forum. This is the first time we have the chance to obtain accurate spatial measurements and document the state of preservation.”

Gabsch and his team are presumably the first German scientists to enter the “Caves of Treasures” (Kizil Caves 82–85), located near the town of Turfan in Xinjiang, China, since the last Royal Prussian expedition arrived here in 1914. From that time onwards, the Chinese authorities had consistently denied official permission to reenter the cave on grounds of safety.

And for good reason: The ascent to the cave system proves to be quite an adventure for Gabsch and his fellow restorers Katharina Leubner and Holger Manzke. Leading the way, Manzke first must clamber up a seven-meter-long wooden ladder missing several rungs. Once on top, he has to hug the rock face and grope his way slowly along a ledge a mere 30 cm wide. Here, he secures a rope safety system for his colleagues. Finally, all three can step into the dizzyingly high main chamber of the “Caves of Treasures.” The exquisite wall paintings from the cave now forming part of the museum’s collection would probably not survive today had they remained exposed to wind and weather. How they came to the German capital at the beginning of the last century is truly a tale of adventure.

Electrified by finds from Central Asia he had seen at the Orientalists’ Day exhibition in 1899, Albert Grünwedel, a researcher at what was then known as the Berlin Museum für Völkerkunde (Museum of Ethnology) immediately began to raise funds for his own Turfan Expedition. Three years later, he was ready. Together with technician Theodor Bartus and the Tibetologist and linguist Georg Huth, Grünwedel traveled across the vast expanses of Russia by train and steamboat and then on to the Chinese borderlands on horseback. All equipment was transported with pack animals and on wagons. The expedition received generous support from the Chinese government, which provided letters of safe passage, arranged for accommodations, and organized the required beasts of burden. Three further Royal Prussian Turfan expeditions were to follow. In 1914, just a few months before the outbreak of the First World War, the fourth and final expedition’s last transport crates arrived in Berlin.

Their contents included large sections of the original wall paintings found in the “Cave of the Ring-Bearing Doves,” (Kizil Cave 123) which then became part of the Museum of Ethnology’s inventory. From 2019 onwards, visitors to the Humboldt Forum will be able to experience them as part of a walk-through reconstruction of the cave, unique worldwide.

But there is still much to be done before that can happen. When Holger Manzke and Katharina Leubner enter the cave temple, it looks as if it had been rediscovered for the first time in decades. The floor is covered with a thick layer of sand and every footstep raises swirls of dust. The restorers meticulously survey the cave, prepare a detailed photo documentation, and examine the fragmentary wall paintings that still survive. The niche where a Buddha sculpture was once seated is of particular significance. Judging by the black soot visible on the rock face, Holger Manzke deduces that the niche was never plastered and shares his assumption with his colleagues: “A full body numbus, known as a ‘mandorla’ made out of wood probably used to be in this spot, and what we see here is the torch soot that must have accumulated behind it.” Lilla Russell-Smith, Curator for Central Asian Art, enthusiastically greets her colleagues’ find: “This is an important discovery; at the museum, we have a gilded halo disc that might actually fit into this very spot. Even though the wooden Buddha figure that used to stand in the niche of the ‘Cave of the Ring-Bearing Doves’ has been lost, we might consider exhibiting the halo as part of our reconstruction of the cave at the Humboldt Forum.”

On the last day of their stay at the cave, the Berlin restorers and their Chinese counterparts are making preparations to set off to their next destination: the so-called “Third Cave System,” located in a remote side valley of the cave complex of Kizil. It can be reached only after a strenuous climb over wild footpaths and across a landscape where wind and water have carved out bizarre bedrock formations and the sun has baked the clay and sand to the hardness of concrete.

Here, well concealed in the rocky landscape, lies a fantastically preserved cave temple whose wall paintings inspired Grünwedel to name it after Queen Maya. The German team can make out numerous delicately drawn heads and animal representations in the cave’s richly painted ceiling. The niche reserved for the cultic effigy is painted in a lustrous deep blue. “We probably have this secluded location to thank for the fact that the splendid murals of the ‘Queen Maya Cave’ (Kizil Cave 224) with their scenes of the Buddha preaching and the depictions of animal wildlife are still so well preserved,” Toralf Gabsch explains.

By the time the researchers from Berlin emerge from the cave, the sky has darkened noticeably. The mountain range on the other side of the valley has become almost entirely obscured and the wind has picked up. The Chinese colleagues warn that the trek back to the local research institute must begin immediately — one of the sandstorms for which this region is notorious is brewing.

Stefan Müchler is Press Officer in the Media and Communications Department of the Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz.