Art: What’s black, grey and read all over?

    I suppose I was 14 or 15 when I became aware of Dunhuang. I remember staring at something grey and busy in a case in the British Museum when some adjacent information about it broke through the armour of schoolboy indifference and began resonating noisily. This thing? Surely not? But it was true. The scruffy roll of busy grey paper was the oldest known example of printing. I was looking at the world’s first book.

    It was called, magically, the Diamond Sutra. I loved that name immediately. I read that it had been discovered in a cave in the Gobi desert, at the oasis of Dunhuang. This Diamond Sutra contained no less than eight metres of delightfully complex Buddhist toing and froing about the nature of reality. “Wheresoever there are material characteristics,” warned the ultimate first edition, trickily, “there is delusion.” It meant nothing much when I was 15. But now that I have trebled my experience and been to America, I know the Diamond Sutra to be accurate on this subject, as it is on so many.

    From Friday, you will be able to admire it too, because, after years and years of waiting for its reappearance from out of the bowels of the British Museum, the world’s oldest printed book — as great a cultural treasure as there is in this country, to my way of thinking — is about to go on show again at the British Library, in an exhibition devoted to the boisterous aesthetic bazaar that flourished along the Silk Road. A helpful map will show how this miraculous trade motorway managed to traverse the entire Eurasian landmass and connect the Mediterranean with the Pacific. And after talking us through the intriguing geography of it all, the show will seek then to achieve the impossible, which is to evoke the Silk Road’s explosive cultural atmosphere in precious objects and hushed museum texts.

    To understand how and why this cultural explosion was triggered and sustained, I need to get us all back on board that noisy Ilyushin 108. As you now know, I was on a pilgrimage to the discovery site of the world’s first book, ecstatically seeking bibliolatrous enlightenment. But my fellow travellers were not. They were heading into the desert for fun. They wore quaintly huge sunglasses and had extra-large mobile phones, which nobody asked them to switch off. They joked. They shouted. They bonded. When the beer trolley came round, every one of them grabbed two cans at a time, and thus the whole plane rocked and rolled through the skies from one end of China to the other, until the land below began to turn yellow, the trees began to disappear and we were finally flying over the desert. And there it was at last, a green splodge in an ocean of grey.

    Modern Dunhuang, it turned out, was not really a desert oasis any more, but a kind of Chinese Las Vegas, a pleasure town in the wilderness, offering various kinds of isolated Gobi fun: camel rides, sand-tobogganing, dune-sailing. The roustabouts were coming for the markets, the food, the gambling, the volatility.

    Dunhuang is, and was, both a relief point and a pressure cooker. It takes so long to get here that, whether you are a 6th-century Sogdian merchant from Samarkand, trading emeralds, or a contemporary partygoer from Shanghai, looking for the disco, you invariably arrive with your stove stoked. Thus, the cultural achievements of the Silk Road were driven by a pent-up creative energy endemic to oasis situations, turbo-charged with intense mer-cantile desire.

    Of all the famously precious things that passed along the Gobi motorway — gold, silk, spices, carpets — none was eventually as precious as Buddhism, which made its way briskly from India along the Silk Road and found, at Dunhuang, a pause in the wilderness, somewhere to rest and restore itself physically, yes, but also, as the Diamond Sutra makes plain, spiritually. “The city of shifting sands” was the most important religious stopping-off point along the Silk Road. And for 1,000 productive years, it managed to remain the chief inter- national conduit both for a famous array of pleasure-invoking earthly substances and for a religion that warned, repetitively and obsessively, of the temporariness of pleasure on earth.

    The Diamond Sutra is dated “the 13th of the fourth moon of the year of Xiantong”, which translates exactly, it seems, to May 11, AD868. Thus, several global epochs before Gutenberg, half a millennium before Caxton, deep in the Gobi desert, Chinese printers were already in business, produ-cing usefully perplexing thoughts for pilgrims and caravanners to carry with them as they sweated along the Silk Road from one frantic oasis to the next. The first printed book was an entirely practical Chinese solution to the specific desert problem of producing quick texts for the endless inter-oasis journey.

    Another of this show’s cases will reveal a 6th-century painting from Dunhuang, of three rabbits chasing each other in a circle. The same case will also contain an Islamic coin, minted 500 years later, 1,000 miles away, displaying the same three rabbits — and then a tile from a medieval church in Chester, featuring the same motif. Thus, the three rabbits were transported from Dunhuang to Chester along the Silk Road, passed from civilisation to civilisation, race to race, religion to religion, epoch to epoch, like a package in the hands of the Pony Express. Remarkable.

    The show has gone to the lengths of re-creating one of the myriad painted caves for which Dunhuang is internationally venerated. The Caves of the Thousand Buddhas, as they are known, offer one of the most important artistic spectacles on earth. After you have seen them re-created in cardboard here, I urge you to go and discover them in the flesh, if you ever can. They will turn your view of civilisation on its head. An entire millennium before our Renaissance, the Chinese, at Dunhuang, were mass-producing Sistine Chapels by the dozen, gouging tens of hundreds of decorated caves out of the desert cliffs in a staggering display of relentless cultural effort.

    It was inside one of these painted caves, in a sealed secret compartment, that the explorer Aurel Stein discovered the Diamond Sutra in 1907. With it were thousands of locked- up Buddhist treasures — scrolls, paintings, books — that the British Museum is astonishingly fortunate to possess. Many of them are now being unveiled for the first time. At last.