The History of the Silk and Fur Roads
The incursions of the Xiongnu, a savage Turkic tribe that regularly pillaged the towns on China’s northern border, prompted the Han Emperor Wudi (r. 140-86BC) to seek Western allies for a joint attack. For this military reconnaissance mission he sent out one hundred men, led by Zhang Qian, who took thirteen years to report back with tales of glittering western cities and alien cultures. As soon as he did though, Zhang Qian was sent back in charge of a still larger party equipped with ten thousand sheep, gold, satin and silk.
This second journey, China’s first substantial contact with the Central Asian civilizations, opened up caravan routes. The route that passed south of the Tianshan mountains, used primarily for the export of Chinese goods, came to be known to Europeans as Silk Road. However, another route, which passed north of the Tianshan mountains, was known in China as the Fur Road, and it was along this passage that new religions, ideas and goods were imported into China.
During the spectacular military, cultural and financial successes of the Tang dynasty (618-907) many merchants from Persia, Arabia and Central Asia were attracted to China’s capital, Changan, in search of profit. They brought their religions and fashions with them.
The Great Mosque and Muslim Quarter
As foreign communities grew in size, they introduced their own customs and facilities. The 50,000 strong Muslim community that lives and works today in Xi’an traces its history to those Middle Eastern merchants who, after travelling the Fur Road, settled down here. Then, as now, the Muslim community perpetuated their culture by operating mosques and schools. So it is that the Great Mosque was originally constructed in the year 742. Today the Muslim community, which supports ten or so mosques, runs its own primary school, foods shops and restaurants. For over 1300 years, they have been an integral part of Xi’an’s colourful daily life.