The beginning of the Silk Road was in Xi ‘an, the place known for its Terracotta Army, and its old mosque.
The Silk Road starts at Xi’an, the capital of China in the time that silk was traded. Xi’an’s history goes back to some 200 years BC, when it was founded by Qin Shi Huang, who for the first time united China as a single empire – the name China may even be a corruption of his name. He died soon afterwards, but left his marks, not only politically but also culturally: Xi’an has established its place in the world as the home of the Terracotta army, the only army that never moved anywhere. This army of foot soldiers, archers and cavalry, established to defend the tomb of Emperor Qin, was only rediscovered in 1974, by a farmer digging a waterhole in one of the many inconspicuous hills on the plains surrounding the city. Excavations so far have yielded thousands of life-size clay soldier-sculptures, each individually painted, with a unique facial expression, lined up in military units, row after row. Quite special indeed, and they haven’t finished excavating yet!
Several dynasties followed Qin, all with Xi’an, or something similar nearby, as their capital, but as Chinese dynasties go, they do get defeated so once in a while, complete with total destruction of their capital. Present day Xi’an is in fact a Middle Age rebuild by one of the Ming Emperors, but not to restore its role as a capital anymore, that had switched to Beijing.
There is a lot to see in Xi’an, but my favourite is the Great Mosque in the old Muslim quarter. Originally dating from 742, barely 100 years after the establishment of Islam – quite impressive, given the distance from the Middle East! – the current building probably also stems from the Ming dynasty, the one who rebuilt the city. The mosque is nothing like what you are used to from the Arab world, it is actually very much like a Chinese temple, with one courtyard leading to another, and another, until one finally reaches the prayer area. Each court yard is flanked by delicately decorated and painted wooden buildings which contain exhibits of wide variety. What makes everything so pleasant are the flowers and the plants, the little alley ways and bridges, and the overwhelming silence inside the complex, in stark contrast to the chaos outside. Just to make a point, Xi’an is a town where it is almost impossible to find a taxi driver willing to enter the old city during the middle of the day, for fear of being stuck in traffic for hours to come.
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