Located near the Drum Tower on Huajue Lane of Xi’an, Shaanxi Province, the Great Mosque of Xi’an is one of the oldest, largest and best-preserved Islamic mosques in China. It is really well worth a trip to see the Great Mosque, not only for its centuries-old history but also for its particular design of mixed architecture combining traditional Muslim and Chinese styles.
The Great Mosque was originally built in 742 during the Tang Dynasty (618-907) to honor the founders of Islam in China. Islam was introduced into Northwest China by Arab merchants and travelers from Persia and Afghanistan during the mid-7th century when some of them settled down in China and married Han people. Their descendants became Muslim of today.
The Great Mosque is about 250 meters from east to west and 50 meters from south to north, covering an area of 13,000 square meters. Unlike most mosques in Middle Eastern or Arab countries, this mosque has neither domes nor traditional-style minarets; it has the layout of a Chinese temple, with successive courtyards on a single axis and pavilions and pagodas adapted to suit Islamic function. Unlike a typical Buddhist temple, however, the grand axis of the Great Mosque of Xi’an is aligned from east to west, facing Mecca. The complex consists of four courtyards, each with a signature pavilion, screen, or freestanding archway, leading to the prayer hall located at the western end of the axis. Landscaped with gardens, the further you stroll into its interior, the more serene you feel.
At the center of the courtyard is an imposing wooden archway, dating back to the 17th century. This nine-meter high archway is a four columned roofed structure buttressed on all sides by wooden props, anchored into stone bases. Multiple tiers of meticulously carved dougong brackets support its blue glazed tile roof. Three chambers stand either side of the archway, in which is now displayed some furniture preserved from the Ming and Qing dynasties.
In the center of the second courtyard there is a stone memorial archway, behind which stand two steles on both sides. On one stele is the script of a famous calligrapher named Mi Fu of the Song Dynasty; the other is from Dong Qichang, a calligrapher of the Ming Dynasty. Their calligraphy is considered to be a great treasure in the art of handwriting due to the elegant yet powerful characters.
At the entrance to the third courtyard is a hall that contains many steles from ancient times. As you enter the courtyard, you will see the Xingxin Tower (Tower for Introspection). This brick tower is over ten-meter tall with three stories separated by eaves and wrapped by wooden balconies. Its eaves are decorated with blue glazed tiles and dragon heads are carved into the ridges. Inside, a moveable staircase leads up to the ceiling caissons, which are carved and brightly painted with lotus flowers.
The prayer hall, preceded by a large platform, is at the western end of the fourth courtyard. Before the platform stands the Phoenix Pavilion. Its roofline connects three distinct pavilions, extending from the central hexagonal structure towards two pyramidal roofed gazebos. This apparently Chinese roofline conceals the wooden cupola that crowns the central space, carried on squinches, attesting to the continued use of imported Islamic elements in interior space.
The Prayer Hall covers an area of 1,300 square meters. Its ceilings are carved with over 600 classical scriptures. Huge wooden boards inscribed with the Koran in Arabic and Chinese are placed in the hall. They are marvelous carvings of art, rarely seen in the other mosques in the world. This hall can hold more than 1,000 Muslims in service and prayer services are held five times everyday respectively at dawn, noon, afternoon, dusk and night according to traditional custom.
The Great Mosque is the largest Islamic service center in Xi’an, and it is the only mosque in the country that is open to visitors. Non-Muslims, however, are not admitted to the main prayer hall or during times of prayer.