Location: Just behind the Muslim Street of downtown Xi'an.
Full of tranquility and history, the Great Mosque in Xi'an has served city's Muslim population for more than 1,000 years. It is reputed as the largest and best-preserved among all the early mosques in China. Unlike the Arabian mosques with splendid domes, skyward minarets, and dazzling patterns, this mosque is a fascinating site possessing much Chinese tradition in both design and artistic outlook.Following the Hua Jue Alleyway which is within a five-minute walking distance from the Drum Tower. The mosque was first built as early as 700AD, it is in the traditional saying that the Great Mosque was founded by the naval admiral Cheng Ho (Book 1421 talks a lot about the his leadership in the Chinese naval voyage), son of a prestigious Chinese Muslim family who became famous in fighting against pirates in the China sea as early as 14th century. Ever since then, the Great Mosque has undergone a number of reconstructions. Today, most of its buildings are the original from the Ming and Qing Dynasties between 17th-18th centuries.
The Great Mosque is about 48 meters by 248 meters in size and occupying an area of 12,000 square meters in total. The mosque consists of five successive courtyards, each with a signature pavilion, wall screen (or freestanding gateway), lead to the prayer hall located at the very west end of the central axis facing the direction of Mecca.
The first courtyard has two modest side gates along the north and south side, Its eastern wall is built of finely – polished bricks and has a huge screen wall in the center, carved with floral patterns laid into three diamond shapes. Ornamental projections resembling wooden Dou Gong brackets are carved into the brick under the upturned eaves of the roofed screen wall. There is a very magnificent wooden gateway (called Memorial Archway as well) in the very center of the first courtyard. This ancient 9-meter high structure is roofed with blue-glazed tiles and supported by four columns by the sides.The rooms along northern side of the courtyard, used to be lecture hall, is three bays wide and has a hipped roof fronted by a central projection with wide, raised eaves. The roof of all the buildings in the first courtyard is mimicked to a lesser degree on the flanking halls, and full of such Chinese style as fine brick carvings in the wall and lattice windows, even the steps leading further into the complex was once decorated with sculpted dragons.
The second courtyard is separated from the first by a shallow roofed pavilion; there stands a rectilinear stone memorial archway of three doorways built to resemble a wooden structure. the central of which is higher and wider than the two flanking, each bears an inscription to praise Islam. Two freestanding vertical brick piers carved with ornate floral motifs and crowned with tiled roofs as well as upturned eaves and wood brackets. These monumental piers, which are shown again in the third courtyard, house stone tablets with Arabic inscription in their central arched niches. There are reception rooms to the north of the yard, now used to display some exhibits and give lectures. The area to the south of this courtyard was originally designed for Muslim burial, although this practice never fully developed.
Through another roofed pavilion is the third courtyard, the calligraphy on the lintel says "Place of Meditation". Here, the most dominating structure is the "Tower of Introspection" built in octagonal shape, this brick tower is over ten meters tall with three stories separated by eaves and wrapped by wooden balconies. Unlike its predecessors, where the Bangka tower (moon watching pavilion) is separate from the minaret, this Ming mosque merges the minaret and the Bangka tower into the tallest structure of the complex. Its eaves are dotted with blue glazed tiles and dragon heads are carved into the end of ridges. Wood brackets are seen below the raised eaves of the roof. Inside, a moveable staircase leads up to the ceiling balcony, which are carved and brightly painted with lotus flowers. The third courtyard has a series of rooms along its north and south walls. These rooms are internally divided and once hosted the library and the imam's quarters, the paneled wooden partitions of these rooms are covered with painted carvings of chrysanthemums, lotus flowers and peonies.
The path leading into the fourth courtyard has three marble gates with wooden doors. The prayer hall is right here, preceded by a large platform, is at the western end of the courtyard. Before this platform stands the Phoenix Pavilion built in the Qing Dynasty, is said to resemble a phoenix with its outstretched wings and interrupts direct view to the prayer hall. Its roofline connects three distinct pavilions, extending from the central hexagonal structure towards two pyramidal roofed gazebos. This typical Chinese roofline conceals the wooden cupola that crowns the central space, carried on squelches, attesting to the continued use of exotic Islamic elements in interior space. Lecture halls also flank this courtyard. The South Hall serves as a gallery for inscribed tablets that record the history of the mosque. Beyond the Phoenix Pavilion are two small pools, now containing fountains, set astride the central axis, followed by the stone "Cloud Gateways" of the granite "Moon Platform" preceding the prayer hall. The prayer hall, which is the focus of this ceremonial layout, it occupies an area of about 1,270 square meters. and covered by a single roof with three distinct segments, a common feature of Ming era mosques taken from Han Chinese palace architecture. The joined hipped roofs of the porch and the main hall roof have parallel north-south ridges. The heights of the roofs are kept proportional to the depth of the space, following Muslim Hui tradition.
The portico, hall and iwan are differentiated by separate roofs, a common feature of early Muslim Hui mosques taken from Han palace architecture. The open portico, carried on six columns, is covered by the gentle bump of a rolled-shed roof, which dips down to join the roof of the great hall. This large hall, of equal width to the portico, sports a pitched roof raised above the others on two rows of six columns. It is curtailed at the back by the hipped roof of the qibla iwan, whose eaves are supported on twelve external columns. The rounded timber columns supporting these roofs are marvelously decorated with low relief woodwork. There is more sculptural woodwork on the lambrequins and the heavy wood brackets. Six hundred polychrome panels with floral motifs and carved brackets decorate of the ceiling. Heavy cylindrical columns, painted deep red like the walls, divide the first two spaces into seven bays. Blue scrolls bearing Arabic calligraphy are hung from the porch columns.
Behind the prayer hall, and accessed by two circular "moon gates" on either side of the portico wall, is the fifth court with two small constructed hills used for the ceremonial viewing of the new moon.
The Great Mosque is one of the Must-See sites on Xi'an Tours, and it is also nice to spend some time strolling around in the Muslim bazaar to enjoy some free time shopping of local souvenirs.