The end is the beginning. The beginning is at the end.
Xi’an was the terminus and the initium. Certainly, from the Chinese point of view, for those who had the silk and knew the pathways above the desert and the skyscraping Himalayas, knew them far earlier than others who struck out to find trading parners, Xi’an was the beginning of their road, the road eventually named the Silk Road.
It was the place for one of the great dynasties of the world–the Han–a glittering civilization back in the days where Greece, Persia, and India were just beginning to look around and wonder how the universe was made. It was a place where philosophies and spiritual ideals intersected. It was the place where some of the biggest and grandest human enterprises started.
It was also called Chang’an. It was known as the Western Peace.
The Root of Peace, Root of the East
While GNWork’s Minecraft vision above is not strictly Xi’an, it well represents what the ancient city might have been like. It’s worth the 3:20 (+Youtube ad, sorry) to put yourself in the mood to read about the city named “Western Peace.” (Thanks to my youngest, Lee, for reminding me that Minecraft exists).
There were people living there 6500 years ago. One of the first Chinese dynasties, the Zhou, settled just south of there. The 8000-soldier terracotta army, which took decades to build, helped protect one of the earliest powerful emperors, even after death. Liu Bang (aka Gaozu of the Han), founding emperor of the Han, settled near the river.
Liu built the Weiyang Palace–4.8 sq km or 2 sq miles–nearly 7 times as big as the Forbidden City and 11 times the size of Vatican City. It was 200 BCE, and the emperor built the largest palace complex that has ever existed.
Many Names, Many Spiritual Ideas
Chang’an it was called then, and it would have been the launching pad for the road out from east to west. At the height of the Tang dynasty in 600 CE, built up from trade and prosperity, a million people lived within its walls.
It was also called Fenghao, Daxing, Fengyuan, Anxi, Jingzhao. The city grew and shrank, modernized and fell into decline, built up, attacked, declined. Surrounded by walls whose walls were breached, then rebuilt.
The silkworms were cultivated further south and towards the sea. But the silk was made and seen everywhere. Silk for tapestries, gowns, even for padded armor. Silk went into draperies, painting, and later on currency, the so-called “flying money.”
Beyond its commercial and cosmopolitan atmosphere, Xi’an was known for something else. It was one of the first places to attract multiple religions from multiple cultures. Chinese monks made pilgrimages to India and came back with Buddhist texts and other treasures. It was a 10,000 mile journey.
The Giant Wild Goose Pagoda was one of the shrines for Buddhists.
But there were other religions debated in Xi’an:
- Zoroastrianism 500 BCE, was the world’s first monotheism, Persian.
- Daoism & Confucianism 550 BCE, the latter of which included not just morality and ethics but also the exercise of political power.
- Nestorian Christians 430 CE focused on the independence of Christ divine and human natures. AKA Far Eastern Christianity.
- Judaism 2000 BCE
- Manicheism 250 CE another variation of the dark and the light.
- Islam 600 CE. Today, half a million people in Xi’an are Muslim.
Chang’an or Xi’an reached its height in the Tang dynasty, but multiple attacks before the first millennium CE destroyed it and the Tang, and it fell out of favor. People moved away. When the Song dynasty spread across most of the China, their capital was to the southeast, closer to the coast. And when they lost the north to another rival dynasty, that capital, too, was closer to the coast.
But Xi’an, first and last of cities, has been remaking itself. The Ming dynasty came late, about the time that the European explorers were settling and colonizing everywhere else. They gave this northwest jewel its current name.
And today 12 million people live in the surrounding area. It has its share of business, universities, and tourist attractions, even a theme park dedicated to the ol’ Silk Road and giant palace days.
When I planned to write these 26 posts about the Silk Road, I chose that as my topic in part because of the “X.” Solving the alphabet is always about J, X, Q, Z and not necessarily in that order. There were many possible Js and Qs, and a couple of options for Z–I still haven’t decided.
But if you write about the Silk Road, there is only one X.
So my beginning was launched by knowing roughly where I would end, near the end of the month, the end of my ideas, but the beginning of the road.
Xi’an lives on.