Great Mosque of Xi'an

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Like the Great Mosques at Hangzhou, Quanzhou and Guangzhou, the Great Mosque of Xian is thought to have existed as early as the seventh century. The mosque that stands today, however, was begun in 1392 in the twenty-fifth year of the Ming Dynasty. It was ostensibly founded by naval admiral and hajji Cheng Ho, the son of a prestigious Muslim family and famous for clearing the China Sea of pirates.

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Great Mosque of Xi'an
Great Mosque of Xi'an

Since the fourteenth century, the mosque has undergone numerous reconstructions. Most of the buildings extant today are from the Ming and Qing Dynasties of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The mosque was constructed on Hua Jue Lane just outside the city walls built by the Ming Dynasty, in what was once the jiao-fang neighborhood for foreigners to the northwest of the city. Today, this neighborhood is part of Xian proper, with the city's famous Drum Tower a block away.

Great Mosque of Xi'an
Great Mosque of Xi'an

Layout of Xi'an Great Mosque

The mosque occupies a narrow lot about 48 meters by 248 meters, and the precinct walls enclose a total area of 12,000 square meters. Unlike many Chinese mosques, it has the layout of a Chinese temple: successive courtyards on a single axis with pavilions and pagodas adapted to suit Islamic function. Unlike a typical Buddhist temple, however, the grand axis of the Great Mosque of Xian is aligned from east to west, facing Mecca. Five successive courtyards, each with a signature pavilion, screen, or freestanding gateway, lead to the prayer hall located at the western end of the axis.

Great Mosque of Xi'an
Great Mosque of Xi'an

The first courtyard is entered via two modest side gates along the north and south precinct walls. Its eastern precinct wall is constructed of finely ground and polished brick and has a wide screen wall at its center, carved with floral patterns organized into three diamond shapes. Ornamental projections resembling wooden dougong brackets are carved into the brick under the raised eaves of the roofed screen wall. At the center of the courtyard is an imposing wooden gateway, or pailou. This nine-meter high freestanding pailou 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.

Great Mosque of Xi'an
Great Mosque of Xi'an

The rooms along the northern wall have staggered facades, with the "Unmatched Pavilion", or Yizhen Pavilion, in the center. The pavilion, used as a lecture hall, is three bays wide and has a hipped roof fronted by a central projection with wide, raised eaves, reminiscent of a bangke tower. This roof is mimicked to a lesser degree on the flanking halls, with elaborate awnings spanning over the entryways. Beautifully carved lambrequins compliment the recessed curtain wall at the back of the porch at the Unmatched Pavilion, which has a finely carved door and lattice windows. Even the steps leading up to the lecture hall were once carved with floral motifs. Sculpted dragons and flowers decorate the roof ridges and crests. Notably, figurative sculpture can only be found atop the roofs of the mosque complex and not along paths or flanking gateways, quite unlike a Buddhist temple.

Great Mosque of Xi'an
Great Mosque of Xi'an

In the second court, separated from the first by a shallow roofed pavilion, stands a rectilinear stone pailou built to resemble a wooden structure. It's three doorways, the central of which is higher and wider than the two flanking, each bear an inscription. Two freestanding vertical brick piers, carved with ornate floral motifs and crowned with tiled roofs with upswept eaves and dougong brackets, follow the stone pailou. These monumental piers, which are repeated again in the third courtyard, house stone tablets with Arabic inscription in their central arched niches. Reception rooms, now used as shops and residential space, flank the second court. The area to the south of this courtyard was originally designated for Hui burial, although this practice never fully developed.

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