Thursday, July 30, 2009
The mosques of Lanzhou: a photo essay
This is the principal mosque of Jiayuguan, an attractive modern building on a crowded street corner near the train station. I took the photograph on my last day in Jiayuguan, as I prepared to board an overnight train to Lanzhou, and it reminded me that on my last trip to Lanzhou, eleven years ago, I had wanted to do a photo essay of the mosques of the city, stitched as they are through its urban fabric. This is that essay.
In the middle of Lanzhou city, which is a long narrow city stretched out from east to west along the banks of the Yellow River, the main road splits in two and goes around an island of land containing two mosques. This is the first one you come to, if you approach from the east, as I did. As you will see, the space is obviously intended for approach from the west instead, so I'm kind of coming in the back door here; but I was overjoyed to find this mosque still standing, since it was my favorite one when I visited in 1998. At the time, it was even more crowded round with small outbuildings and commercial real estate. Here, the green and white storefront to the right is a pharmacy, while the green sign with yellow characters is the Iran Noodle Shop, a halal restaurant. I would love to be able to explain the Central Asian connections that led to this mosque so resembling a miniature Kremlin, but I can't. It houses the Gansu Provincial Muslim Association. Must ask my Egyptian graduate student what the point of the three globes beneath the crescent finial is (anyone?). You will notice the same arrangement on all the rest of the mosques to follow.
Here's what you see when you walk to the other end of the traffic island and turn back toward the west. This mosque also existed when I was here before, I'm quite sure, but I believe it was painted green at the time. I remember the freestanding concrete arches all around the central space. However, the four minarets did not exist at the time, and the mosque was similarly crowded with shops and restaurants. These have clearly been razed, the colonnade around the structure built (at bottom, with pointed arches) and the four minarets erected some time in the last eleven years. There is a little garden inside the colonnade, with playground equipment for children. The bright plastic of the playground equipment rather clashed with the austere white of the building, but several young mothers in headscarves were shepherding a passel of happily shrieking children around the enclosure, which is obviously the center of an active community. The red billboard (for Dong Peng Ceramics) rather spoils the grandeur of the view, but it must be prime advertising space (at the intersection of several major roads). One hopes the community is making some money here. Note, at lower right, some traditional bicycle-and-umbrella action going on.
This detail gives you a better view of the arabesque design on the dome and the ornaments and latticework of the minaret.
This minaret is at the edge of the sidewalk, further down the main street to the west of the last mosque. The mosque itself is a nondescript building in an interior courtyard, but the minaret is a great example of the fusion style in Chinese Muslim architecture: Qing-style carved-wood ornament and color, with Islamic pointed arches and onion domes, and calligraphic panels (seen through screens here, along what is clearly the muezzin's balcony) at the top. It has an elaborate Ming/Qing-style carved-brick foundation:
A few details to notice: the details meant to imitate wood-frame architecture of the Ming or Qing, complete with beam ends, brackets, carved paneling and even a "tile" roof; the sign in Arabic script (I don't know what language it is, but Arabic and Uighur are the two likely candidates), Chinese, and English; and the large decorative panel depicting Chinese oil-pine trees growing by a stream with an arched bridge. Note the crescent moon shining through the tree branches.
Walking by the banks of the river, I saw a few more urban mosques:
This one also looks vaguely Russian to me, but I can't put my finger on quite why; possibly it's the geometric form of the minarets and the colored tile on the outside.
This little mosque was tucked in among a bunch of new Chinese-style tourist buildings on the far bank of the Yellow River.
Here's another "fusion" style minaret, less interesting than the first, and nearly swallowed in its urban surrounds. I count five onion domes in this picture.
Some other Chinese mosques I photographed this trip include one in Tianshui (sorry for the quality of this picture, shot against the light at dusk; I should have known better, but I was tired and ravenous). I'm actually standing with my back to the mosque itself; this is an elaborate pailou (ornamental gateway) in traditional Chinese post-and-beam wooden construction, with glazed tile ornaments:
The details I shot came out a little bit better, including the panel of Arabic calligraphy:
and the tiny glazed-tile mosque at the top of the gate:
This is another one that deserves to be seen in the Large size, so I recommend clicking through to Flickr.
The Dunhuang mosque had a lovely new tilework gate with large carved-brick panels:
The quality of *this* picture isn't my fault; it was taken at the height of a sandstorm.
Finally, I came across a mosque in Taiyuan with another pailou-style gate, although smaller than the one in Tianshui:
It was flanked by these lovely carved-brick panels glazed in green and cream:
and when you looked in through the gate, you saw the end of a traditional Chinese-style brick building painted with a wonderful calligraphic roundel: