More than 130 grottoes dot the red sandstone cliffs of Xumishan, a Buddhist enclave along one of the main stretches of the Silk Road. The grottoes were adorned with statues, wall paintings, and inscribed stelae during a 600-year period between the fourth and tenth centuries A.D. The region was also an important pilgrimage destination, being associated with the mythical center of the Buddhist cosmos, Mount Sumeru (Xumishan in Chinese). The grottoes developed in eight separate clusters (along the eight peaks of the mountain), and each has its own iconographic program. One of the largest is the massive Big Buddha Mansion, which houses a 20-meter-tall statue of the Buddha from the Tang period (A.D. 618-908). Some 70 of the caves contain wall paintings and statues, while unadorned grottoes are thought to have served as living quarters for monks.
Although the Xumishan Grottoes have been designated a National Level Cultural Relic Protected Site in China, they face imminent danger due to natural causes, including wind and sand erosion, water damage, and earthquakes. Vibrations from a modern roadway through the area have also posed dangers to the site, but the local government has recently pledged to reroute the road away from the grottoes. Previous emergency conservation measures, including reconstruction of some elements in concrete, also need to be reconsidered and possibly reversed. China's State Bureau of Cultural Relics is eager to protect the site, and hopes that placement on the 2008 Watch List will not only increase public awareness of the importance of Xumishan, but also encourage international efforts to preserve this magnificent, yet little-known site. Last update: 2008