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LOS ANGELES – For a thousand years China's Cave Temples of Dunhuang were a popular traveler's rest stop, marketplace and religious shrine on the fabled Silk Road. Now they are coming to Los Angeles, both in spirit and reality.
In an exhibition curators say is unprecedented, three full-scale, hand-painted replica caves have been erected on The Getty Center museum's hilltop campus overlooking LA.
Nearby, in an adjacent gallery, the museum has assembled more than 40 spectacularly preserved and priceless artifacts taken from one of the caves, and in still another gallery visitors can take a 3-D virtual reality tour of on an actual cave in China, this one filled with life-size sculptures of the Buddha and his entourage.
"We're trying to help the public understand what this place is, where it is and why it's important," Tim Whalen, director of the Getty Conservation Institute, said during a recent tour of "Cave Temples of Dunhuang: Buddhist Art on the Silk Road," which opens Saturday.
"By any standard," he added, "Dunhuang is one of the most important heritage places in the world."
Indeed, along with the Great Wall and the Forbidden City, Dunhuang's more than 450 Mogao Caves, as they are also known, were among the first Chinese sites recognized by the United Nations' World Heritage Center in the 1980s.
But tucked away on the edge of the Gobi Desert, more than 1,100 miles from Beijing, they are not the easiest place in China to get to today.
That wasn't the case from the 4th to the 14th centuries, when the Silk Road was teeming with travelers during the millennium when the caves served as a key rest stop, marketplace and shrine.
"I think we all have romanticized notions about the Silk Road and people moving from the east in China all the way to the Mediterranean," Whalen said as he and Marcia Reed, the Getty Research Institute's chief curator, reviewed dozens of paintings, drawings, sculptures, silk tapestries, and handwritten and printed documents in one of the galleries.
"But people were moving back and forth," he continued. "There are documents here of Jewish prayers and Christian prayers."
Also displayed are sculptures of European-looking people, a travel document carried by a monk from India and numerous artistic depictions of the Buddha.
Perhaps the most priceless item on display is a scroll of Buddhism's "Diamond Sutra," commissioned and dated in 868 by a man named Wang Jie as a gift to his parents. Discovered in one of the caves in 1907, it is believed to be the world's oldest printed book.
"As you know, in the West we think Guttenberg invents printing, but we should know that in 868 a complete printed book was made in China in woodblock, and that's the 'Diamond Sutra,'" Reed said.
Still, it's not her favorite piece in the show. She points to "Miraculous Image of Liangzhou," a stunning, 1,300-year-old silk tapestry, before settling on another 9th century scroll, "The Magic Competition Between Sariputra and Raudraska."
The latter features a competition of supernatural feats between Buddhists and Brahmins, with printing on one side describing the events depicted in ink and pigment on the other.
Two of the three Getty caves were built from the ground up for the exhibition by artists who came to Los Angeles from China's Dunhuang Academy, which collaborated with The Getty's research and conservation institutes to produce the exhibition. The third cave was moved intact from the academy's own museum.
Although many items in the actual caves remain intact, the site was largely abandoned after shipping moved from the Silk Road to sea lanes in the 1400s.
It wasn't until 1900 that they were "rediscovered" by Western explorers, who Whalen said removed about 40,000 treasures from the site's "Library Cave" after paying the monk still there a small fee. They include the gallery items, which are on loan from museums and libraries in Britain and France.
Although they are for the most part in exquisite condition, they are so fragile that Reed said Getty officials didn't really believe the institutions would loan them.
As it turned out the museum got almost everything it asked for and the show, five years in the making, became a much bigger deal than first envisioned.
"We were suddenly encouraged to believe we really could do this unification of the caves coming from Dunhuang and the pieces coming together from almost halfway around the world, joining them in a way that they hadn't been together in more than a century," she said.
The results will be on display until Sept. 4.