The Great Mosque, one of the oldest, largest and best-preserved Islamic mosques in China, is located on 30 Huajue Lane in downtown Xi’an, a large city and capital of Shaanxi Province in central China. The city, once known as Chang’an, marked the eastern end of the Silk Route and was home to the Zhou, Qin, Han and Tang dynasties' ruling houses. It is also the first city in China to be introduced to Islam by the influence of the Arab merchants and travellers from Persia, who followed the Silk Route during the mid-7th century.
Some of those Arabs settled in China and married local Han women, forming the foundations of the genetically-diverse ethnic Hui population and their descendants also became Muslims. Apart from that the Mongol conquest of China in the 13th century also witnessed large immigration of Muslims into China, who were known in Chinese as People with Coloured Eyes. The Great Mosque in Xi'an, also known as the Huajue Xiang Mosque, was allegedly first built in the year 742 AD, during the reign of Emperor Xuanrong of the Tang dynasty, although it has undergone several renovations throughout its history. However, its current form was mainly constructed in 1384 AD, during the reign of Emperor Hongwu of the Ming dynasty.
Inside the walls of the huge complex of the mosque, occupying an area of around 12,000 square metres (14,352 sq yd), the mosque occupies a narrow lot of about 158 feet (48 m) by 814 feet (248 m). Unlike the traditional mosques, the Great Mosque in Xi'an is built in the traditional Chinese style of architecture, with a pagoda-like minaret, in place of the Islamic signature of a dome.
However, its rooms contain all the necessary features of traditional mosques, such as Qibla and Mihrab, complete with decorative calligraphy, both in Chinese and Perso-Arabic script, throughout the mosque. However, although most of the Chinese buildings follow a north-south axis in accordance with Feng Shui, the ancient Chinese art of arranging buildings in a way that will bring peace and prosperity, the mosque is oriented towards the west, the direction of Mecca.
The walled complex of the mosque includes four successive courtyards, each containing a signature pavilion, screen or freestanding gateway leading to the prayer hall, located at the western end of the axis.
The first courtyard, approachable through two modest side gates along the north and south precinct walls, contains a 30 feet (9 m) tall and elaborate wooden arch, covered with glazed tiles, which can be traced back to the 17th century. Three chambers stand on either side of the arch, displaying some antique furniture, preserved from the Ming and Qing dynasties.
The second courtyard, separated from the first by a shallow roofed pavilion, is equipped with a stone gateway, resembling a wooden structure. It contains a stone arch in the centre, flanked by two steles or upright stone slabs, decorated with wonderful calligraphy, considered to be great treasures in the art of handwriting. While one of them contains the script of a famous calligrapher, Mi Fu of the Song dynasty, the other contains the calligraphy of Dong Qichang of the Ming dynasty. Although the area to the south of the second courtyard was initially designated for Hui burial, it never fully developed. The reception rooms, which flank the second court, are now used as shops and residential spaces.
A hall at the entrance to the third courtyard, containing several steles from ancient times, houses the Xingxin Tower in the centre, where Muslims come to attend prayer services. The three storey brick tower, around 33 feet (10 m) tall, is separated by eaves and wrapped by wooden balconies. From inside, a moveable staircase leads up to the ceiling caissons, which are carved and brightly painted with lotus flowers. The third courtyard also contains a series of rooms along its north and south walls, which are internally divided and once hosted the library and the imam's quarters, along with a narrow courtyard for ablutions. The panelled wooden partitions of the rooms are decorated with painted carvings of flowers like chrysanthemums, lotus flowers and peonies.
The fourth courtyard, approachable through three marble gates with wooden doors, contains the prayer hall, preceded by a large platform. The Phoenix Pavilion or the Feng Hua Ting, located just before the platform, is said to resemble a phoenix with its outstretched wings and interrupts the direct view of the prayer hall. Built during the Qing dynasty, its roofline connects three distinct pavilions, extending from the central hexagonal structure towards two pyramidal roofed gazebos. The prayer hall, contained in the Phoenix Pavilion, is capable to accommodate one thousand people at a time and is comprised of a porch and a great hall with a projecting Qibla bay. While the Qibla bay at the western end of the prayer hall is dimly light with two skylights, the 6.5 feet (2 m) tall pointed arch of the Mihrab is decorated with carved arabesques and calligraphy and painted in darker hues of red, brown than the central space. These three sections, covering an area of about 13,670 square feet (1, 270 sq m), are covered by a single roof with three distinct segments, a common feature of Ming era mosques taken from Han palace architecture. The fifth courtyard, containing two small constructed hills used for the ceremonial viewing of the new moon, is located behind the prayer hall and accessible by two circular moon gates on either side of the portico wall.
Following the ascension of the Chinese Communist Party, the Great Mosque in Xi'an was disgraced and converted into a steel factory, which continued till 1956, when the historical and cultural significance of the mosque was officially appreciated. Apart from being a revered place of worship for the local Hui Muslims, the Great Mosque, added to the UNESCO Heritage List in 1985, is now considered as one of the most notable tourist attractions in the ancient city of Xi’an. It is the only mosque in the country that is open to visitors, although non-Muslim visitors are not allowed to enter the main prayer hall.