Photos courtesy of Omar Shafi Khan
Fresh off the defense of my doctoral dissertation, my husband and I took a trip to China. I was presenting research at a journalism school in Shanghai. It was my husband and my first time in the country, so we spent our free time exploring the culture and history of three notable cities: Shanghai, Beijing and Xi’an.
While we were familiar with the historical significance and cultural vivacity of Shanghai and Beijing, we were less familiar with Xi’an. We knew that the famed Terra Cotta Warriors were just an hour or so outside the city limits, and had read, albeit briefly, about the Great Mosque and the Muslim heritage couched in the center of the bustling city.
After hiking along the Great Wall and wandering through the Forbidden City, we hopped on a bullet train headed to Xi’an. Hours later, we made a quick stop in our hotel before taking a taxi to the Terra Cotta Warriors. We then prepared for the next day’s trip to Xi’an’s Muslim Quarter and the Great Mosque.
We were unaware that the most awe-inspiring part of our trip was still ahead of us, at the eastern terminus of the famed Silk Road. Linking China to the Roman Empire, the Silk Road exposed Xi’an to an influx of goods, cultures and religions. It was in Xi’an that the largest Muslim community was formed. Today, some 70,000 ethnic Hui Chinese — descendants of Arab and Persian traders who married with the Hans people — live in the historical city. Many of the 10 million Chinese Muslims can trace their roots to those traders and this legendary crossroads.
Another byproduct of that centuries-old cultural exchange is the oldest and one of the largest mosques in China. The foundation of the Great Mosque was laid down in 742 during the Tang dynasty, making it nearly as old as the religion of Islam itself. The mosque has endured five dynasties and five republics.
Surrounding the mosque is the rich and vibrant Muslim Quarter. The busy streets play host to traditional Hui food, halal food stores and restaurants. Stores filled with colorful textiles flanked stores with enormous vats overflowing with spices, and Chinese delicacies abound. Stalls and shops are reverberations of the ancient travelers who cultivated these grounds centuries ago.
As we weaved between crowds, dodged scooters and edged past shop owners tending their curbs, small and unadorned signs pointed us through alleyways to an undeniable treasure of Islamic and Chinese history. At an entrance of the Silk Road sat a treasure exposed only to those who might enter a bustling quarter in search of silence.
The entrance to the Great Mosque is inconspicuous. If we had not been looking for the mosque, we very well could have walked past it without knowing. Hidden by walls, it revealed nothing from the outside that would suggest what we were to discover on the inside.
The mosque consists of some 20 buildings within its five courtyards. The space, as it stands today, was constructed in 1392 during the Ming Dynasty, by navy admiral Zheng He, famous for ridding the China Sea of pirates and who is said to have deep roots in Islam. Since that time, the mosque underwent numerous additions and changes throughout the years.
It is an ancient example of a deep connection between a country whose history favored isolation and a faith from across the globe.
As though cloaked, the mosque grounds are free of the sounds and smells that accompanied the bustling Muslim Quarter. Just 10 steps behind are booths lined with toys and trinkets, beyond that were streets filled with traffic and a bustling modern city. But on the grounds of the mosque, there is a fulfilling absence of being. You are instantly drawn within, by being with out. There is a greatness to the space, not in its size, location or ornateness, but in its essence.
The architecture is a smooth blend of the functionality of Islam and the tradition of China. The mosque is on an east-west axis to face Mecca, in stark contrast to feng shui, which would have placed it on a north-south axis. Sini, Arabic text written in Chinese-influenced script, accompany traditional Chinese and Arabic calligraphy in a fusion of styles throughout the complex.
As we walked the path through the center of the rectangular grounds, we crossed numerous gateways, each adorned with Quranic scripture. About halfway through, we encountered a towering yet modest structure. Much like the rest of the mosque, there was nothing particularly overwhelming about it.
It simply, was overwhelming.
The three-story pagoda-style minaret created a powerful presence. The call to prayer is made in the upper-level terrace of Shengxinlou, or the Examining the Heart Tower. There is something curious and calming about the minaret. In a culture that values the treatment of space, position and energy, the orientation and design of the minaret conveys a sense of humility and balance, a centrality that anchors the grounds of this ancient mosque to the calling of the heart, not the performance of an action. The true center of this mosque is not the prayer hall, but the place from which one is called to peace.
This spoke to me. The minaret, its placement, the design and the architecture so inherently fuse the principles of faith with the fundamentals of ancient Chinese culture. It so effortlessly fits and as a traveler, from a different place, a different culture and in many ways, a different time, I felt so unabashedly at home. A testament to this ancient structure is its unwillingness to allow place to define the essence of its space.
Centuries ago, great travelers in search of knowledge, culture and trade converged on the same ground. For so many, and for centuries past, this mosque welcomed the traveler.
Here, all things intertwine.
We continued through the passageways and came upon an unassuming structure with two older gentlemen sitting on carefully placed chairs at its entrance. They chatted, as old friends might. They were the gatekeepers of this portion of the ancient space and you had to first receive their nod of approval to pass through to get to the prayer hall.
My husband and I, Muslim in the more obvious ways, were allowed in. The prayer space is off limits to those not of the faith. A gentle shake of the head and a wave away indicates to other visitors that this space is not an attraction. It is a destination only for the worshiper.
The prayer hall is made up of three connected buildings, one behind the other, at the back of the entire complex. Timber construction, painted wooden brackets, a turquoise glaze-tiled roof, six-pillared portico and five large doors sit upon a large rectangular platform lined with bannisters.
This is not the Blue Mosque of Istanbul. There is nothing ornate about the space. It is not well-lit nor do enormous chandeliers hang from a towering ceiling. The beauty of the space is in the understated details. Etched in the walls are verses of the Quran. Calligraphy is meticulously carved into the wood. The ceiling features delicately painted patterns, each wooden tile adding to the subtle coloring of a storied past. Fragility is juxtaposed with an enduring strength. It is as if the entire mosque is a space that was ravaged and rebuilt by the dominion of history yet protected by an enduring commitment to its intrinsic value.
There we were, at the eastern terminus of the Silk Road, in an ancient city, alone in an ancient mosque that is just as much a symbol of a faith as it is a testament to a time and place when the world collided in a frenzy of cultural exchange. We were travelers in a place that may never have existed had it not been for those who traveled.
Despite my proclivity to write in a definitive way, I discovered that there is no complete way to describe Xi’an’s Muslim Quarter and its Great Mosque. It is, in so many ways, indescribable.
The inability to arrive at some poetic summation isn’t the result of a spiritual experience or even an extreme predilection for ancient history. In fact, when I arrived in Xi’an, I expected little. I was aware of the Great Mosque and the Muslim Quarter, and was interested to see what they looked like. What surprised me was the immense and overwhelming introduction not to what they were, but to what they meant.
There is something undeniably unique at this conclusion of the Silk Road. Perhaps it is that its spirit never truly concluded. This little piece of Xi’an is proof enough of that.
This is a country that for centuries actively instituted practices to smolder cultural diversity for the sake of protecting its own cultural identity. Yet in the heart of an ordinary city beats an unrelenting spirit of cultural, religious and intellectual convergence, and at its center sits an unassuming mosque that is truly and simply, Great.