ANCIENT GRANDEUR – By Bernard VanCuylenburg

ANCIENT GRANDEUR – By Bernard VanCuylenburg


Present day Xian in China is more famous today for the Terra Cotta Warriors. But in ancient times this grand city was once the capital of China and was known as Chang An. This is the city which saw the genesis of the Silk Road which ultimately led to ancient Rome.


The  Muslim Quarter in Xian deserves special mention due to its cultural diversity. As the name indicates, the Muslim Quarter has been home to the cities Hui community (Chinese Muslims) for centuries. Although Muslims have lived here since the 7th century, the community today did not take root until the time of the Ming dynasty. It is a fascinating place  – full of shops of every description  – books shops with copies of ancient maps and other historical trivia, coffee shops, tea shops, spice shops, shops with the best silks and items of clothing, shoe shops, shops with mountains of raisins, walnuts, almonds, pistacchios, plus the usual gauntlet of souvenir stands… name it, it is here.

There are lanes full of butcher’s shops, sesame-oil factories, smaller mosques hidden behind enormous wooden doors , men in white skullcaps, and pretty women with their heads covered in coloured scarves…..very “Arabian Night” in its ambience and atmosphere….What I liked most in this part of Xian is the ancient mosque here which dates from about 750 AD. It is in an excellent state of preservation with a fascinating blend of Islamic and Chinese architecture.


Facing west towards Mecca, the mosque begins with a classic Chinese temple feature, the spirit wall which is designed to keep demons at bay ! The gardens too with their rocks, pagodas and archways are obviously Chinese, with the exception of the four palm trees at the entrance. Arab influence extends from the central minaret (cleverly disguised as a Pagoda) to the enormous turquoise – roofed Prayer Hall as well as the elegant calligraphy gracing most entryways. The present buildings are mostly from the times of the Ming & Qing dynasties. Of course Islam came into China through the Silk Road, as did Buddhism.


There is another historic feature worthy of mention, the contents of which will astonish the world whenever excavation gets underway and when the treasures therein are revealed to the world. That is the tomb of the emperor Qin Shi Huang Di. He was the Emperor who first started the Great Wall in 221 BC, and is credited with unifying the warring states of that period, to forge China into one country as we know it today. He was also responsible for the tombs of the Terracotta warriors which continue to stun visitors. In its heyday, this tomb must have been one of the grandest mausoleums the world had ever seen. Historical accounts describe it as containing palaces filled with precious stones , underground rivers of flowing mercury and an ingenious defence system against intruders. The tomb took 38 years to complete and required a workforce of 700,000.


This should give one an idea of what a colossal undertaking it was and the megalomania of the man. It is said that the artisans who built it were buried alive within, thus taking its secrets with them.  I have seen the  mound under which his tomb lies twice, (at the present time, unexcavated, it is only a huge mound) and understand that the authorities have requested for British and German archaeological expertise before excavation gets underway. They also intend building some roofing or a canopy over it as protective cover, lest the treasures within could perish on sight if suddenly exposed to the light after a period of 2200 years.  I can humbly state that when revealed to the world, this tomb will in content and grandeur, far exceed that found in the tombs of the Pharaohs in the Valley of the Kings in Egypt.


Bernard Van Cuyenburg

Bernard VanCuylenburg.

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