The Islamic Legacy of the Silk Road: The Shiite Ulu Mosque

It was built in the 8th century, in the century after the birth of Islam. Great Sian MosqueWith its architecture that combines traditional Chinese style with Islamic motifs and places of worship, it is considered one of the rarest works of art in the world.

The historic Silk Road, the route of interaction between East and West, not only of trade but also of ideas and beliefs, mediated the recognition and spread of Islam in China. The Şian Ulu Mosque survives as a living example of this heritage.


The Great Mosque in the central city of Xi’an in Shaanxi Province was first built in 742 during the Tang period, one of China’s imperial dynasties.

The imperial capital, called “Chang’an” at that time, had become one of the most crowded, cosmopolitan and prosperous cities in the world thanks to the Silk Road trade. Traders who came to the Chinese lands from Central Asia, Iran and Arabia played an important role in the Silk Road trade.

In China, Islam was first recognized and spread through Muslim traders using the Silk Road. During the Tang period, the first mosques were established in the port cities of Guangcou and Chuancou in the south of the country.

In the Tang capital of Chang’an, the city’s so-called “Western Market” had become a place where Muslim merchants traded, camped, and lived. Over time, a dense Muslim population formed in the region along with the native Chinese who adopted Islam.

The Tang Emperor of the time, Shunzong, ordered the establishment of a place of worship for the Muslim community in 742. The mosque was founded in the same year at its current location in the Muslim Quarter of Şian.

The mosque, which was also used during the Song dynasty in subsequent centuries, was destroyed and repaired several times. In the 13th century, the Yuen dynasty was rebuilt during the Ming dynasty in the 14th century and took its present form.


The Ulu Mosque is located in the Muslim quarter in the western part of the historic city, in an area that remains a traditional marketplace. Hui, the indigenous Muslim people of China, live in the region.

The Hui population exceeds 10 million throughout China, mainly in the northwestern regions. It is estimated that about 20,000 Hui live in Xi’an.

At first glance, it is difficult to distinguish a Hui from a Han Chinese who belongs to the dominant ethnic group in China. The Hui, who are ethnically the same as the Han, speak Chinese with the same regional dialects.

Clothing proper to Islam is the distinguishing feature of this ethnic group. Men’s headscarves and women’s headscarves can be distinguished as being Hui, but the signs of religious and cultural differences are observed to be diminishing in new generations.

The Hui share a genetic heritage passed down through marriages and religious and cultural partnerships with Silk Road immigrants from Central Asia, Iran and the Middle East.

Created through the peaceful interaction of Islam with Chinese culture, this cultural group is devoted to their holy book, the Quran, and religious traditions and obligations. Mosques are not only places of worship for Hui communities, but also places that establish and maintain group identity and cultural and social bonds.

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The largest of China’s pre-modern mosques, the Grand Mosque was designed as a social complex, surrounded by walls on all four sides, with facades facing courtyards, as in other historical and religious buildings in the country.

The campus consists of four successive courtyards and extends in an east-west direction, facing the qibla, in contrast to China’s traditional north-south oriented space layout.

The courtyards of the mosque complex, occupying an area of ​​1230 square meters, are separated by traditional Chinese arches, stone arches with lines and ornaments, and passageways.

At the entrance to the courtyard, a monumental door ornament called “payfang”, dating from the Qing period, China’s last imperial dynasty, welcomes visitors. As you walk through the courtyard, you’ll come across imperial plaques, standing stones with verses from the Quran, and carved arches.

After passing through the two tree-lined courtyards designed like a traditional Chinese garden, following the stone arches, the “Peace of Heart Pagoda” rises in the middle of the third courtyard. It is estimated that the pagoda, in the form of a three-story, octagonal tower, served as a minaret in the past, and the muezzins recited the call to prayer here.

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Bringing together the traditional architectural forms of China with the functions of places of worship belonging to Islam, the Grand Mosque is one of the brightest examples of the adaptation of mosque architecture to Chinese culture.

While the layout of the mihrab and mosque facing the qibla is similar to mosques in other countries of the world, Chinese-specific structures stand out in complementary elements such as the minaret and in the functions of the kulliye.

The hexagonal “Zümrüdüanka Camellia” in the center of the fourth courtyard is a place where the congregation sits for prayer.

When the prayer time arrives and the call to prayer is given, the congregation here reaches the inner courtyard of the mosque by passing through the paved path. When you enter the courtyard with a small fountain in front, you are greeted by a beautiful mosque made entirely of wood.

The roof of the mosque, which is built with traditional Chinese woodworking craftsmanship, where the planks are connected by interlocking, without nails, is also in a traditional style, consisting of curved planks painted in indigo blue. Arabic and Chinese inscriptions were placed on the door of the mosque.


Consisting of two rooms, one opening into the other, the mosque is large enough for a congregation of 1,000 to pray together.

The walls of the outer chamber are covered with 30 wooden panels on which 30 parts of the Qur’an are engraved. Verses from the Quran and Chinese translations can be read line by line on the walls of the mosque.

In the inner room where the altar is carved in stone, competent examples of calligraphy and wooden decoration can be seen.

As the Imam’s prayer is mingled with the chirping of birds in the garden at the time of the prayer, the deep scent of wood gives peace to the hearts.

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