19th-century Hungarian scholarship turned towards the East. The quest for the ancient land of the Hungarians and the research of the origins of the Hungarian people of language was of prime importance, and Hungarian travelers and scholars played a significant role in the geographical, geological, ethnological, zoological and botanical description of Asia. A major achievement in this vein was the Eastern Asian expedition of Count Béla Széchenyi (1837-1908), the son of the founder of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, István Széchenyi. The three scholarly members of the expedition were Austrian cartographer lieutenant Gusztáv Kreitner (1847-1893), the linguist Gábor Bálint of Szentkatolna (1844-1913) who, however, was forced to turn back by his illness, and the geologist and geographer Lajos Lóczy (1849-1920). In the fieldwork, Lóczy played the main role, and the most important scholarly results of the expedition concerning the geomorphology and paleontology of Central Asia and Western China are linked to his name. He edited the scientific results of the expedition in the three volumes entitled “Gróf Széchenyi Béla keletázsiai utazásának (1877-1880) tudományos eredményei” (Scholarly results of the Eastern Asian travel of Count Béla Széchenyi), containing the contributions of twenty Hungarian and foreign scholars. The renowned geographer Ferdinand von Richthofen, who in 1877 coined the term “Silk Road” (Seidenstrasse), regarded the essays by Lóczy in these volumes as masterpieces of geological studies.
In April 1879 the team arrived to the town of Dunhuang, the first precise cartographic survey of which, based on astronomical localization, was a result of this expedition as well. They visited the Caves of the Thousand Buddhas, described by Lóczy and Kreitner in their reports, and recognized the high artistic level of these works. In addition, they distinguished the unique stylistic features of the local Buddhist representations, and called attention to the many dangers menacing these monuments due to their insufficient custody, dilettantish restoration and repainting, religious intolerance, attacks of predatory bands and the fact that believers also use the caves as living quarters. The expedition played a decisive role in attracting Aurel Stein to Dunhuang, unaware of the incredible treasures waiting for him. He recollects:
“Already in 1902 my friend Professor Lóczy, the distinguished head of the Hungarian Geological Survey and President of the Geographical Society of Hungary, had directed my attention to the sacred Buddhist grottoes, known as the ‘Caves of the Thousand Buddhas’ or Ch’ien-fo-tung, to the south-east of Tun-huang. As member of Count Széchenyi’s expedition and thus as pioneer of modern geographical exploration in Kan-su, he had visited them as early as 1879. I had been greatly impressed by his glowing description of the fine fresco paintings and stucco sculptures which he had seen there, and the close connection with early Indian art which he thought to have recognised in some of them without himself being an antiquarian student. It had, in fact, been a main cause inducing me to extend the plans of my expedition so far eastwards into China.”
In 1909, in his lecture read at the Hungarian Geographical Society he emphasized that “[…] I was encouraged by the fact that there, in the innermost parts of Asia I entered a region, for the discovery of which a claim had been set up already three decades earlier by Hungarian scholarship, through the expedition of Count Széchenyi.”
Aurel Stein in all later works on Dunhuang expressed his thankfulness to Lóczy for having contributed to the greatest discovery of his life. He was the only Hungarian scholar to take part, at the request of Stein, in the composition of the scholarly report on one of Stein’s expeditions: in the Ancient Khotan Lóczy wrote the analysis of the loess and sand in which the artefacts were found.