Many of China’s temples and churches were wrecked during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), when communist leaders encouraged young students and workers to destroy symbols of “old China.”
Fortunately for preservationists, Beijing’s Niujie Mosque survived. The mosque was built in 996, during the Liao Dynasty (907-1125), and is the oldest temple in the capital. It’s even older than the Forbidden City imperial palace, which began construction in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).
Niujie, or “Ox Street,” mosque is located in southern Beijing’s Xuanwu District, regarded as the heart of the city’s Muslim community. The area surrounding the mosque has a real Middle Eastern feel to it. Many store signs are in both Chinese characters and Arabic script. There are a number of Muslim grocery stores and restaurants. The restaurants – unlike others in China – don’t serve beer, in accordance with Muslim dietary law. Even the Chinese beggars outside the mosque who approached me spoke in both Mandarin and Arabic.
The entrance fee to the mosque is just 10 yuan ($1.60). I bought my ticket from a man with a warm smile, who – after asking which country I was from – handed me a detailed pamphlet about the mosque in both English and French.
The mosque is 6,000 square meters and has been renovated through the Yuan (1271-1368), Ming and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties. It faces west, toward Mecca, and includes a minaret, lecture hall, stele pavilion and ablution chambers. Most of the facilities are open to the public, but the worship halls, one each for men and women, are closed to non-Muslims.
According to the pamphlet, the mosque is an important part of China’s history because it “houses the Shaihai Tombs, the final resting place of elders who came from the Arabian cultural area to lecture on Islam during the early years of the Yuan Dynasty.”
You won’t find the Niujie Mosque on the cover of any of Beijing’s travel books, but the Chinese capital’s oldest temple is definitely not something to miss.