There’s a fascinating Muslim community among the historical sights of the capital of China’s first emperor.
The Tang Dynasty Emperor strides ceremoniously down the aisle in his black gold-trimmed robe. Gorgeous concubines dressed in flowing gowns trail behind him. As he walks past my table at the front of the hall, I feel like I should drop to the ground with my head pressed to the floor. 1400 years ago when Xi’an was the capital of the Tang Dynasty, my head would have been certainly been chopped off for not showing the Emperor proper respect.
But today, the Emperor is a performer in the Tang Dynasty Song & Dance Troupe, a dinner show with a slickly choreographed routine where dancers in bright costumes leap and twirl on the stage with acrobatic flair. Here, Xi’an’s history comes to life in swirls of colour, dance and music.
Xi’an’s main historical sight is the Terracotta Warrior Museum, which covers an area of more than 20 hectares and is divided into three pits. More than 8,000 figures of warriors and horses, along with other items such as chariots and weapons, have been unearthed in these pits.
The army of clay warriors was assembled by Emperor Qin Shi Huang (259-210BC) to protect the Emperor in the afterlife. The life-sized figures of soldiers (many of which hold real weapons) and horses are arranged in classical battle formations. Although many pieces have been restored, excavation and restoration work is an ongoing process.
The Tang period was the golden age of Chinese literature and art. So my next stop is the Forest of Stone Steles Museum, a gallery of stone tablets that records Chinese culture and history in a variety of writing styles.
The collection, which is housed in what was once a Confucian temple, dates back to 1090 AD and is a library of 3000 engraved stone tablets. There are classics such as Classic on Filial Piety written by Emperor Xuan Zong in AD 745, the Ming De Shou Ji Stele (a record of the peasant uprising against the Ming emperors) and the Popular Stele of Daiqin Nestorianism (engraved in AD 781 to mark the opening of a Nestorian church in China).
Big Wild Goose Pagoda
Next on the literature trail is the Big Wild Goose Pagoda, an ancient architectural marvel built with layers of bricks but no cement to hold the bricks in place. The pagoda is on the grounds of the Temple of Great Maternal Grace, which during its heyday had 13 courtyards and 1,879 rooms. There was a chamber dedicated entirely to the translation of Buddhist scriptures.
Xi’an’s historic centre is marked by its bell tower, a traditional building that was built by Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang as a watchtower in 1384.
Across the square from the bell tower is the 600-year-old drum tower, named for the huge drum that originally hung within it. During ancient times, the beat of the drum at sunset indicated the end of each day. Inside the drum tower is a drum museum with displays of different types of drums, some as old as one thousand years. A drum performance is held here each day.
Xian’s Muslim Quarter
Below the drum tower is the start of the Muslim Quarter, the hub of Xi’an’s Muslim community.
I amble past the traditional Ming and Qing Dynasty shop houses, catching whiffs of barbeque beef and mutton roasting slowly over charcoal fires.
I browse through dried fruit and nut shops and souvenir stores with rows of imitation terracotta warriors. The cafes are packed with Muslim men in white skull caps sipping tea. I pull up a seat at a café and a young waitress slaps a metal plate with a dozen skewers of meat on the table in front of me.
She has typical Chinese features and is dressed in tee shirt and jeans like any modern teenager in China. “My family’s Muslim food is the most popular in Xi’an,” she says.
Xi’an’s Muslim community is a tightly knit group descended from diplomatic envoys and merchants who settled in the area centuries ago. Although the Muslim Quarter is compact, it has an ambience that differentiates it from the rest of the city.
Its main landmark, the Great Mosque, is one of China’s largest. Built in an eclectic mixture of traditional Muslim and Chinese styles, visitors can enter the mosque’s courtyard to admire gardens, stone arches, glazed tiles and ancient tablets but only Muslims are allowed into the prayer hall. Although the present mosque only dates back to the 18th century, it’s believed that an original mosque might have been established on this site during the Tang Dynasty as a result of Islam being introduced into China by Arab merchants and travellers.
Later that evening, I follow the glittering lights on a walk around Xi’an’s ancient wall. One of the very few cities left in China where the old city wall is still visible, Xi’an’s wall forms
a rectangle around the ancient Tang Dynasty city. Visitors can climb steps to the top of the wall and take a 16-kilometre jog along the top of the wall.
A large group is gathered on the grassy area beneath the wall to watch local performers singing and dancing. The entire structure, with its guard towers, is lit up like a fairytale fort and is a glittering reminder of Xi’an’s imperial past.