October 2009 • Canon 40D camera
The Great Mosque can be found in the Muslim quarter of Xi’an, at the end of the narrow passage to Hu Jue Lane. Behind this wall, lies a peaceful oasis of tranquillity. The Great Mosque was first built in 742 AD during the reign of Emperor Xuanzong 唐玄宗 of the Tang Dynasty 唐朝 8th Century. The Mosque is said to have been developed into it’s current form by Zheng He 鄭和, a famous admiral, diplomat and explorer from the 15th Century Ming Dynasty. It is the largest and best preserved mosque in China. Islam was introduced to China via Muslim merchants who settled down in the region. It’s interesting to note that the Great Mosque was established around 132 years after Islam was established in the Middle East. It’s a neglected part of Chinese history that Islam has been present in China for over 1,400 years.
The wonderful and unique character of the Mosque is that architectural it looks like a traditional Chinese Temple. Throughout the complex of you find very little trace of Islamic features except for some Arabic calligraphy here and there. Over the years and many Dynasties, the mosque complex has expanded, which makes it a unique, ancient, architectural gem representing many periods of Chinese history. The mosque covers a total area of more than 13,000 m2. It was built in the shape of a rectangle from East to West, facing Mecca in Saudi Arabia and is divided into four courtyards.
After paying and walking through the entrance you are greeted with a tall wooden archway Paifang. Built in the 17th century this is the first indication that this will not be a traditional mosque.
On either side of the archway are two elaborately decorated pavilions. Inside they display some furniture from the Ming and Qing Dynasties.
Through onto the second courtyard and you are greeted with a three connected stone memorial archway from the Ming Dynasty. On the center archway it is inscribed with Chinese calligraphy “The Court of Heaven”. Behind this stand two steles. One features the script of a famous calligrapher named Mi Fu 米芾 of the Song Dynasty; the other is from Dong Qichang 董其昌, a calligrapher of the Ming Dynasty.
They also contain inscriptions about the repairing of the mosque during the Ming and Qing Dynasties. As you walk through the entrance of the third courtyard there are many other standing steles from ancient times.
In the center of this courtyard stands the Pavilion for Introspection 省心亭. The octagonal brick tower consists of three levels with Chinese styled eaves, decorated with small dragon heads . It is the tallest building in the complex and serves as a moon watching pavilion and as the minaret of the Mosque. Inside in the middle of the floor is a stone carving of two dragons. Again one feels like you are visiting a Taoist Temple then a Mosque. On either side of the courtyard (North and South) are other buildings that seem shut when I was there.
One building is the Imperial Hall which has the Moon Tablet — a stele that contains the methods of calculation for the Muslim calendar. This is a very valuable historical record about the development of Islam in this region. Another building is the Lecture Hall which contains a hand–written copy of the Qur’an from the Ming Dynasty and a map of the City of Mecca from the Qing Dynasty. The other buildings are a place for worshippers to perform the water ritual before praying and a library.
You are greeted by the One True Pavilion 一真亭, or better known as the Phoenix Pavilion 鳳凰亭. This special building is a combination of a hexagonal pavilion in the center with triangular archways on either side. Thus, the structure looks like a Phoenix opening it's wings, hence the name. The connecting roof across the pavilion is again like the Pavillion of Introspection with the curved styled eaves with dragons.
A plaque written in mandarin hangs under the pavilion stating “One God”. Inside the pavilion is a stone table with four stone seats. Like in the third courtyard, there are buildings to either side containing historical and cultural relics from the Ming and Qing Dynasty. Also in the courtyard are other steles and what looks like two fountains that was turned off.
The first major Muslim settlements in China consisted of Arab and Persian merchants during the Tang Dynasty in 618 AD. They arrived through the Silk Road or the overseas route through the port of Quanzhou 泉州市
Passing through the Phoenix pavilion, you walk up some steps and over a stone with two dragons to a big wide granite area. This area before the Great Worship Hall is the “Moon Platform”. When we had arrived it was the end of the Friday prayer and so there was a lot of Muslims around. Looking at the Great Worship Hall exterior, it looks like a Buddhist or Taoist wooden temple. The distinct blue glazed roof tiles with sweeping huge eaves stood out in the sun. Standing on the porch and looking up, the wooden frame that holds the roof is amazing too. There are five doorways into the hall, with one open for me to go through. The interior of the hall is breathtaking. It feels historical. And it was the first time you get a sense you are visiting a Mosque.
Dark red wooden beams holding up the roof are decorated with Arabic calligraphy. The wooden ceiling itself, beautifully decorated with floral motifs. It was fairly dark inside but as I got closer to one side of the hall, I realised that the walls are covered in Arabic calligraphy. It was in fact wooden carved panels around the hall with the entire Qur’an written on them. Walking through the hall I was surprised to find a smaller hall in front (or back off the main hall). This area was the Rear Mirhab Hall 後窑殿, which indicates the Qibla (the direction to pray). Here the Imam would lead the prayer facing the direction to Mecca. Architecturally, this space is known as an Iwan, a space vaulted by three sides. The walls at the front are decorated in Arabic calligraphy. This worship hall was small and dimly lit. It felt really ancient and mysterious like you were stepping back in time long forgotten. It felt special.
After visiting the Great Worship Hall, outside on the Moon Platform a group of Muslims were practicing what I assume to be Tai Chi. I wonder: after exercising their soul through prayer they were now exercising their body through Tai Chi. We walked back the way we came.
The sun was out and the birds were chirping away. It was nice again to walk through the courtyards. In 1956, the Mosque was decreed to be an important historical and cultural site under the Shaanxi Provincial Government. In 1988 it was promoted to be one of the most important sites China.
I was amazed to find out how rich and deep history China has with Islam. It has opened my mind to how connected nations and cultures are historically. It was the first time I had visited a Mosque that architectural did not fit into an “Islamic style”. It was refreshing to see a Chinese styled mMsque and hope to see more architectural different mosques in future travels around the world. Unfortunately, non–Muslims are not allowed in the Great Worship Hall, but you can stand on the porch to see in through the five different entrances.
At the time of writing, the entrance fee to the Mosque complex was 12¥. As a bonus you also get to pass through the Muslim Quarter where the Mosque is based, filled with shops and food stalls to look around. I thoroughly recommend visiting this place. As you stroll through the peaceful courtyards you get a sense that you are stepping back in time and witnessing something unique in China... and possibly the world. Two cultural styles working in harmony as one.