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The International Dunhuang Project (IDP) is a ground-breaking international collaboration seeking to make all manuscripts and other items from Dunhuang and the archaeological sites of the Eastern Silk Roads freely accessible via an Internet database. The IDP also encourages the use of these materials through educational and research programmes.
Visit the collections on the IDP website
The city of Dunhuang was an important stop along the so-called Silk Roads, a network of trading routes in the ancient world. It is well-known for the nearby Mogao Caves (or Mogao Grottoes), a series of Buddhist caves carved into a long cliff-face. In 1900, a small cave thought to have been sealed at the beginning of the eleventh century CE was discovered by chance. It was packed from floor to ceiling with tens of thousands of manuscripts, printed documents, paintings and other artefacts.
Composite image of Cave 16, with the entrance to the small, newly discovered cave (Cave 17) on the right. Stein, Ruins of Desert cathay, fig.188
These materials, which have been compared to the Dead Sea scrolls for their significance, tell fascinating stories about life on the Silk Roads. They are vital resources for researchers interested in Central Asian religions, material culture, and trade. However, within fifteen years of the cave’s discovery, its contents were spread to three continents and around ten major institutions worldwide.
In 1993, the British Library hosted a conference gathering for the first time conservators and curators from all the major collections. During discussions, all parties agreed to work together to make these materials more accessible and to ensure their preservation in the long term. The International Dunhuang Project (IDP) was founded the following year in 1994. The name ‘Dunhuang’ was used to signal the importance of the collection dispersed from the Mogao Caves and to represent the shared desire of its participants to digitally reunite these and other Central Asian materials.
What is the IDP now?
Since its establishment, the scope of the IDP has grown to encompass many archaeological sites from Chinese Central Asia. Because some objects were acquired by foreign explorers in the early 20th century, relevant collections are located in several countries. The aim of this extensive network of libraries, museums and research institutes worldwide is to conserve, catalogue, digitize and research any relevant artefacts, manuscripts and archives in their collections. All members agree to make the images and metadata relating to these collections freely available online, contributing to a shared pool of knowledge about these important materials. As a result of their efforts, the first IDP website, idp.bl.uk, was launched in 1998.
Upon joining the project, major partner institutions established their own IDP websites in different languages to better adapt to local needs. However, the websites all share the same synchronised database, meaning that no matter which website you visit, the information is still unified. The database now combines information from all of the IDP’s partner institutions into one location, which can then be accessed by the global public.
Major partners include:
- The National Library of China, Beijing
- The Dunhuang Academy, Dunhuang
- The Institute for Oriental Manuscripts, St Petersburg
- Ryukoku University, Kyoto
- The Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Science and Humanities
- Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris
Other institutions also contribute to the partnership by sharing data, images, and expertise. The full list of contributing institutions can be found on the IDP website.
As of February 2022, the IDP has digitised more than 100,000 objects around the world, or about 80% of the collections. The materials that remain to be published include fragile documents requiring substantial and complex conservation work before they can be photographed.
What is the IDP at the British Library?
The British Library plays a key role as a major partner of the IDP. It also stewards two important collections related to materials from the Silk Roads:
- The Stein collection contains over 45,000 manuscripts and printed documents acquired by Marc Aurel Stein (1862 – 1943) during four expeditions to central Asia at the beginning of the 20th century. They are written in many languages, including Chinese, Tibetan, Sanskrit, Tangut, Khotanese, Kuchean, Sogdian, Uighur, Turkic and Mongolian. Other portions of Stein’s collection in the UK are cared for by the V&A (textiles) and the British Museum (art objects).
- The Hoernle collection was formed at the turn of the 20th century and named after Rudolph Hoernle (1841 – 1918). It includes over 2,000 Sanskrit, 1,200 Tocharian and about 250 Khotanese items, in addition to a few in Chinese, Persian and Uighur.
A presentation for the Dunhuang Academy during a workshop held in 2018 that brought together members from the IDP partner sites.
The British Library recognises the huge cultural and historical significance of these items. As a public institution and a national library, it is our duty to research, make accessible and preserve these items for people worldwide. We are particularly keen to work collaboratively and share resources with institutions, professional networks and communities of users for which the collections in our custodianship have a special significance and relevance.
The IDP at the British Library also administrates additional projects related to the collections. One initiative, the Lotus Sutra Manuscripts Digitisation Project, was established in 2017 with the aim of conserving, digitising and cataloguing nearly 800 Chinese copies of this Buddhist scripture from Dunhuang. This multi-year project has contributed a huge amount of data and images to the IDP website, making these manuscripts widely and freely accessible to scholars and the broader public.
We are in constant communication with our IDP partners in the UK and internationally to discuss collaboration in areas like resource sharing, technology, research, and the promotion of the collections. Through these activities as well as regular knowledge and skill exchange programmes, we aim to increase the knowledge of and access to these important Silk Roads materials.
A selection of items in the collections
- Diamond Sutra – The world’s oldest dated printed book (produced 11 May 868 CE).
- A Chinese-Tibetan manuscript of the Lankavatara Sutra – Possibly used as a translation guide along the Silk Roads.
- Booklet of the Avalokiteśvara Sutra – A travel-sized religious booklet with illustrations.
- A Judaeo-Persian letter from Dandan-Uiliq – One of the earliest records of the Jewish community in China.
- Sogdian letter of Nanaivandak – Written in 313 CE, it describes the sack of the cities of Ye and Luoyang.
Get in contact
If you would like to get in touch, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For further information:
- Visit our website (http://idp.bl.uk)
- See updates and highlights on Twitter at @idp_uk
- Browse the IDP Blog
- Subscribe to our mailing list
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