It has always been said that travel opens up your mind and teaches you many lessons, and my visit to the Great Mosque of Xian (or Xian) was a great example of that.
When I told you about the buzzing Muslim street food market of Xian I mentioned my surprise at finding such a vibrant and large Muslim community deep in the middle of China.
At the time, I didn’t know that Xian had been the eastern terminus of the legendary Silk Road. This partly explains the early penetration of Muslim culture and religion from different parts of central Asia, and its survival to this day.
In addition to the food market, I was particularly struck in this part of town by the exquisite Great Mosque of Xian. Almost hidden behind its outer walls, its entrance in a quiet backstreet, the mosque came as a pleasant surprise to me.
I just wasn’t expecting to find such an enthralling, cross-cultural in China at all. And this is one of the reasons why travelling, even in this age of the Internet and a world in permanent connection, is still an invaluable learning experience.
At first sight, the mosque’s buildings and gardens are undeniably Chinese in style, with its trademark roofs, arches and gates. Look a little closer, though, and you’ll notice the subtle integration with Muslim influences, most obvious in the form of stone carvings and inscriptions in Arabic. This unexpected fusion surprised and delighted me. In some ways, it reminded me of the Christian and Muslim fusion (sometimes forced, sometimes organic) that you can find in many old buildings and monuments in Spain, as a heritage of the long Muslim rule in the South many centuries ago.
I visited the mosque in the cloudy, fading light of dusk. There were a few visitors, but not many, and the garden was peaceful; just perfect for enjoying the place and taking quite a few photos. The main prayer hall was forbidden to non-Muslims, but it didn’t matter. There were so many quiet corners, and so many beautiful details in the garden, that my visit lasted a good half hour.
My visit to the mosque illustrates, in my view, why travel is such a fulfilling, unique experience. I could certainly have learned about the mosque and its striking features online, or in a book, or watching some documentary. But that would never have made the same impression on me as discovering it almost by chance and experiencing it first-hand. The Great Mosque, just like the nearby street food market, and many other places I have visited and photographed have become a part of me in a way that only a masterfully crafted novel could aspire to emulate (but not match).
If you happen to visit Xian mainly attracted by its world-famous warriors, make sure you don’t miss the Great Mosque before heading out for a bite in the street market. I’m sure you won’t regret it.