If you have not been to Xi’an, you have not been to China. Often called the birthplace of Chinese civilisation, Xianyang, just north of modern Xi’an, was the capital of the 2,000-year-old Qin dynasty — the first dynasty to unite China under Qin Shi Huangdi, its first emperor. The Qin (pronounced Chin) consolidated the warring states and steered the country towards economic growth. In fact, China got its name Chin from Qin.
For 1,000 years, the city was the capital for 13 dynasties, the most for any city, and was ruled by a total of 73 emperors. With so much history within the boundaries of the city, Xi’an is regarded as one of the most cultured cities of the world with historical ruins, museums and traditional relics. But most importantly it influenced the world outside of the Great Wall and the creations of the eastern terminus of the Silk Road. This is where trade and religions came into China, and this is where the Silk Road expedition formally took off.
The first city in China with more than a million inhabitants, it benefitted from the Silk Road trade and migration of merchants and the like. To keep invaders at bay, they constructed an 11km wall and moat around the city that still stands strong today.
This is the second-part of a series on the Silk Road as Eos follows a group of Pakistanis and American-Pakistanis as they traverse the historic route. The second article deals with the group’s journey to Xi’an City.
“We entered the city through one of the 13 gates through the 12-metre-high City Wall,” says KM Ali. “The wall protected the city which was open to many Silk Road journeys. It was in fact, one of the most impressive military defence systems in the world.”
Now, the wall stands between modern Xi’an with skyscrapers and highways, while the old city centre houses the traditional landmarks such as the Muslim Quarter and Bell and Drum Towers.
China’s Muslim world
Xi’an is also the first city in China to be introduced to Islam. Although it is not a Muslim-dominated city, it has profoundly been influenced by Islamic culture. At the city’s Muslim Quarter, as one traverses Muslim Street, a socio-cultural shift in terms of food, clothing and language becomes apparent. “Spicy mutton kebabs on coal-fired grills, piles of walnuts and freshly-squeezed pomegranate juice are just a few of the knick-knacks. Thank God for no fried bugs!” shares Yasmin Ali, part of the group travelling along the Silk Route.
Xi’an is also the first city in China to be introduced to Islam. Although it is not a Muslim-dominated city, it has profoundly been influenced by Islamic culture. At the city’s Muslim Quarter, as one traverses Muslim Street, a socio-cultural shift in terms of food, clothing and language becomes apparent.
Along the city walls, narrow lanes barely a metre wide open to a large area housing the 130,000-square-foot Xi’an Grand Mosque. This 1,300-year-old mosque was built with the blessings of Emperor Qin to invite and retain Muslim traders and skilled workers.
“The architecture is a mixture of Chinese and Muslim symbolism. The Quran was carved in wooden panels in both Arabic and Chinese,” Babar Ali tells Eos.
Chinese dragons and other animal imagery are incorporated in the building structures. “It is interesting that Chinese Muslims, while maintaining their religious identity, have over the millennia adopted Chinese traditional motifs in their places of worship,” points out Amjad Hussain, part of the team.
Xi’an’s Terracotta Army
Straight out of Rob Cohen’s The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, Xi’an’s Terracotta warriors offer you a visual journey into China’s war history.
About an hour outside of Xi’an, some farmers discovered pottery pieces as they were digging for a well in 1974. It was a complete army with foot soldiers, archers, officers, cavalry and chariots. The entire terracotta army was buried below the surface and covered with roofs of wooden beams and earth. That is where they waited for 22 centuries until their accidental discovery.
Xi’an’s Terracotta Army turned out to be one of the finds of the century as archaeologists discovered three massive pits of warriors. “The life-size soldiers, bigger than an average Chinese man, along with horses and archers are created from clay, applied with ceramic coating and then baked. They are positioned together ready to fight … in the emperor’s afterlife,” Mahera Omar from the team explains.
The city, in the context of its combative past, has an obscure feel to it. Surrounded by the city walls, in the presence of the terracotta army, it reminds its visitors of China’s reclusive nature towards the outside world. Sheltered and aloof, Xi’an captures China’s past, present and its future.
The writer is a member of staff
Published in Dawn, EOS, August 20th, 2017