Some manuscripts, like those that have begun to resurface in Timbuktu, never really disappeared, but were instead hidden and passed down through the generations in private hands. Others, though, have spent centuries being truly lost, only to emerge unexpectedly back into the spotlight.

One such library is the collection of manuscripts produced in Dunhuang during the Middle Ages. Although now well within Chinese borders, Dunhuang began as a frontier outpost at the western edge of Chinese territories in the 2nd century BCE. Over the next centuries, the influence of Buddhism transformed the settlement into a centre of religious learning and the arts. At first, only a few monks lived as hermits here, but the establishment of monasteries and the excavation of over 1,000 caves for meditation and religious observance, not to mention the burgeoning Silk Road trade, made Dunhuang into a premier destination for religious pilgrims.

Some of this mediaeval…

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