Most people outside China only know of Beijing (once called Peking) as the capital of China. However, another city was China’s capital for more than a thousand years, and there were others. The top five are: Xi’an (called Chang’an in ancient times), Beijing, Nanjing, Luoyang, and Kaifeng.
Chang’an (Xi’an) served as the capital for twelve dynasties, including the Western Zhou, Qin, Western Han, Sui and Tang dynasties, spanning more than eleven-hundred years. It was also the cultural center of the Silk Road.
To discover Chang’an’s long history also teaches us much about China’s civilization. Discovery Channel’s Neville Gishford said, “It (Han Chang’an) was more powerful than Rome. If any Roman army had actually gone there, they would have been absolutely annihilated.”
Han Chang’an was larger than Constantinople and richer than Egypt’s Alexandria. It was a fortress so powerful that even 20th-century artillery could not knock its walls down.
Today, Xi’an (once Chang’an) is home to almost nine million people and thousands of men made of clay, the Terra Cotta Warriors guarding China’s first emperor.
In addition, the massive city wall is more than six-hundred years old and longer than 12-kilometers. Cracks are appearing and an engineering team keeps close watch and makes repairs
However, the Xi’an of today was first built over two thousand years ago and has been three cities, not one. The Han Dynasty built the first city (Chang’an), which is located close to the modern city of Xi’an, and the old eroding walls of the Han Dynasty capital are still visible.
At 36 square kilometers, Han Chang’an was more than one-and-a-half-times the size of Rome.
Archaeologist Charles Higham, a world famous authority on ancient Asian cities, said, “A delegation of jugglers from Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius (161-180 AD), who is regarded as one of the greatest emperors in Roman history) traveled and performed in the Han Court of Chang’an.”
More than two thousand years ago, the walls of Chang’an (Xi’an) were made of rammed (compressed) earth and most of the city was built of kiln-fired clay bricks, which was a revolutionary building material at the time.
The builders of Han Chang’an used this new technology in revolutionary ways such as building an underground sewer system connected to the moat that surrounded the city.
From the Qin to the Tang Dynasty, 62 emperors ruled China from Chang’an. The China Daily says in and around Xi’an, there are about 500 burial mounds where the remains of emperors and aristocrats rest.
The largest tombs mark the passing of Emperors Qin Shi Huangdi (259 – 210 BC), Tang Gaozong (628 – 683 AD), and his wife Empress Tang Wu Zetian (624 – 705 AD).
The Daming Palace, where the Tang Emperors ruled China, was eight-hundred years older and nearly five times larger than Beijing’s Forbidden City. The Daming Palace was built in one year.
However, it wasn’t the Daming Palace that made Chang’an powerful. Long before Manhattan, Hong Kong, Paris, and Dubai, Chang’an was where the world came to shop.
Over a thousand years ago, the wealth of the West poured into China. But wealth wasn’t the only thing China gained. Several major religions were also introduced to China.
For instance, Islam was barely a hundred years old, when Silk Road traders brought this religion to Chang’an. Today’s Xi’an claims it has a Muslim history going back thirteen hundred years when Islam was first introduced to China in 650 AD.
In fact, the oldest mosque in China was built in 685-762 AD in Chang’an during the reign of Emperor Xuanzong of the Tang Dynasty.
Although Christianity and Islam were both introduced to China during the Tang Dynasty, Buddhism has deeper roots since it first arrived in China from India about 200 BC.
Christianity arrived in China in 635 AD (more than eight hundred years after Buddhism and only a few years before Islam), when a Nestorian monk called Alopen reached the ancient capital city of Tang Chang’an.
During the Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1643 AD), China isolated itself from the world by rebuilding the Great Wall and a string of impregnable fortresses to protect China’s heartland from Mongol invasion.
One of those fortresses was a new military city built on the ruins of Tang Chang’an, and the Ming named this city “Western Peace” that in Mandarin is “Xi’an”.
Xi’an was one-sixth the size of Tang Chang’an, but nearly six hundred years later, Xi’an’s walls still stand representing the largest, best-preserved set of ancient defensive walls in the world.
History records that when the walls of this third city faced its first attack, they stood firm, but the attack took place from April – November in 1926. The 20th-century artillery rounds only dented the walls.
The newest enemy to Xi’an’s ancient walls comes from modernization and the millions of inhabitants of the city. As the water table below the city is sucked dry from too many people, this has caused the earth to sink, which is pulling down the walls, and engineers and scientists work to discover ways to save them.
Lloyd Lofthouse is the award-winning author of My Splendid Concubine, Crazy is Normal, Running with the Enemy, and The Redemption of Don Juan Casanova.
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