The Islamic splendour of Xi’an

One of China’s four great ancient capitals, Xi’an in Shaanxi Province is lined with fascinating historic sites, including an Islamic neighbourhood which will catch many visitors by surprise.

Words by Ronan O’Connell

Inside the old walled city of Xi’an, amid a nest of ancient alleys, an Islamic call to prayer rings out. In most Chinese cities this sound would be sending a message to a small community of Muslims.

But not here in Xi’an, which boasts the biggest Islamic community in central China – a historic neighbourhood home to more than 50,000 Hui Muslims. Located alongside the city’s iconic Bell Tower, the neighbourhood of Huimin Jie has for centuries been home to the Hui people, who came here from the far northwest of China.

Xi’an is renowned for the Terracotta Army Museum, its massive city walls, the monumental 14th century Drum Tower and Bell Tower, the 1,400-year-old Giant Wild Goose Pagoda, and its proximity to the spectacular Mount Huashan. All of these sites attract droves of visitors. Meanwhile, Huimin Jie has become an increasingly popular tourist destination thanks to its ancient appearance, lively street markets, tasty halal food, and historic mosques, including the Great Mosque of Xi’an.

I am particularly keen to see this Islamic house of worship. As I walk through the imposing wooden gate that marks the entrance to this complex, I begin to get a sense of the enormous size of the mosque. It is the largest ancient mosque in China. Occupying a 12,000m2 site, and divided into five courtyards, the Great Mosque dates back almost 1,300 years.

Displaying a blend of styles, the mosque has brightly coloured wooden pagodas and grey stone arches, typical of Chinese architecture, as well as the arabesque patterns which commonly decorate Islamic buildings. While the mosque’s huge prayer hall is not open to visitors, I am free to wander its courtyards. Just a few hundred metres away I find the smaller but similarly attractive Daxuexi Mosque.

Next to its stone gate entrance, which is etched with Islamic calligraphy, stand two elderly Hui Muslim men wearing white prayer caps called Taqiyah. They smile and wave me inside the mosque. About half the size of the Great Mosque, Daxuexi has a similar layout – long and narrow with a series of courtyards separated by ornamental gates. This configuration is standard for mosques built in China’s Tang dynasty (618–907 ce), during which Islam was first introduced to China.

The architectural symbols of Xi’an

Both of these mosques sit just a short walk from the most iconic buildings in Xi’an, the Bell and Drum Towers. One of my favourite things about Xi’an is how easy it is to navigate on foot. In cities like Beijing and Shanghai, most of the attractions are spread out, requiring you to take many taxi trips. Here in the heart of the walled city of Xi’an, though, I am able to quickly walk between these mosques, the historic towers and one of the city’s oldest Taoist complexes, the 600-year-old City God Temple.

From Daxuexi Mosque I walk through several busy shopping streets, filled with Hui street vendors selling halal snacks, until I’m standing at the foot of the Drum Tower. With its red façade, green glazed tiles, and gold details, this 36m-tall tower stands out like a beacon in the middle of a busy traffic roundabout. Originally designed as military lookout points, both the Drum and Bell Towers offer sprawling views across the walled city. I join the crowds of tourists in climbing the stairs to the viewing platforms of both towers.

Even more impressive, though, are the vistas from the top of the city wall, which is 14km in length and encloses the oldest part of Xi’an. One of Asia’s best-preserved ancient city walls, it was built more than 600 years ago under the Ming dynasty to protect Xi’an from invaders. Walking along the top of the wall is a classic tourist activity. As I stand atop this fortification, I turn my back on the walled city and look out towards the green hills to the east, where, some 30km away, lies one of the world’s most significant archaeological excavations, the Terracotta Army.

In the 1970s archaeologists dug up almost 9,000 terracotta soldiers, horses, and chariots, which for about 2,200 years have stood guard over the tomb of China’s first Emperor Qin Shi Huang. I walk around the three pits filled with these intricately carved figures, marvelling at the level of craftsmanship and considering just how remarkably old Xi’an is. It was almost a millennium after the creation of this tomb that Islam arrived in Xi’an. Now, 1,300 years after the first Muslims settled in this city, it has one of the biggest and most fascinating Islamic communities in all of China.

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From Colours October 2019

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5 Senses – Taste
Green Tea

Refresh yourself with the light, earthen flavour of Chinese green tea, which is one of the most popular drinks in Xi’an and can be found in almost any restaurant or along any busy street. Xi’an gets very hot in summer so try ice-cold green tea.