There is evidence of human habitation in the Dunhuang area as early as 2,000 BC, possibly by people recorded as the Qiang in Chinese history.
Located in the western end of the Hexi Corridor near the historic junction of the Northern and Southern Silk Roads, Dunhuang was a town of military importance.
“The Great Wall was extended to Dunhuang, and a line of fortified beacon towers stretched westwards into the desert. By the second century AD Dunhuang had a population of more than 76,000 and was a key supply base for caravans that passed through the city: those setting out for the arduous trek across the desert loaded up with water and food supplies, and others arriving from the west gratefully looked upon the mirage-like sight of Dunhuang’s walls, which signified safety and comfort. Dunhuang prospered on the heavy flow of traffic. The first Buddhist caves in the Dunhuang area were hewn in 353.”
Today, the site is an important tourist attraction and the subject of an ongoing archaeological project. A large number of manuscripts and artifacts retrieved at Dunhuang have been digitized and made publicly available via the International Dunhuang Project.
A number of Buddhist cave sites are located in the Dunhuang area, the most important of these is the Mogao Caves which is located 25 km (16 mi) southeast of Dunhuang. There are 735 caves in Mogao, and the caves in Mogao are particularly noted for their Buddhist art, as well as the hoard of manuscripts, the Dunhuang manuscripts, found hidden in a sealed-up cave. Many of these caves were covered with murals and contain many Buddhist statues. Discoveries continue to be found in the caves, including excerpts from a Christian “Holy Bible” dating to the Yuan Dynasty.
Numerous smaller Buddhist cave sites are located in the region, including the Western Thousand Buddha Caves, the Eastern Thousands Buddha Caves, and the Five Temple site. The Yulin Caves are located further east in Guazhou County.