The Emin minaret, rather than a Buddhist temple or Confucian garden, seemed like an appropriate first destination when I arrived in western China. Xinjiang province (technically an “Autonomous Region”) is home to China’s largest Muslim population—mostly ethnic Uighurs and mostly Sunni—numbering around 10 million. There are also millions of Muslims elsewhere in China, but Xinjiang stands out as historically a Muslim-majority region and one where today laws like burqa-bans make life different from the rest of China.
This is worth mentioning because while the Silk Road is one important thread running through Central Asian history, Islam is another. Once upon a time, this region was mostly Buddhist and Zoroastrian. Islam took root in the late 8th century, when Baghdad’s expanding Abbasid Caliphate collided with the growing Tang Dynasty out of Xi’an, China (yeah, that’s the same Xi’an that drove Silk Road trade). The rest, as they say, is history, and Islam remains the largest religion in Central Asia. Official figures suggest that upwards of 80 percent of the total population identifies as Muslim (and higher in Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan), even despite a century of anti-religious Soviet control.
So expect to see minarets, but these minarets are different. In China, the Emin minaret stands out in part because of its unique style. Minarets come in all shapes and sizes, but short and stocky is a type famous in Central Asia (these are the Danny Devitos and Jason Alexanders of minarets). The most famous examples are the unfinished Amin Kahn minaret in Khiva or the Kalon minaret in Bukhara—both on the itinerary for this trip. The subtleties of this “Timurid” architecture style are beyond me, but its influence was felt throughout the Muslim. For me, these structures call to mind the 12th century turquoise-tiled Mevlana tower of Konya, Turkey or pictures I’ve seen of northern Iran’s Gonbad-e Qabus, which sent the grandad of all travel writers, Robert Byron, scrambling for Oxiana (roughly the region of modern Turkmenistan).
Viewing the Emin minaret—with its squat structure of wood and brick, tapered barrel, and geometric detailing common to Islamic aesthetics but largely absent in China—makes all this history seem more immediate. In it you see Islam, its spread, and the impact it had on architecture, culture, and people. The Emin minaret (named for a Qing general) is well within China’s borders, but when I see it I’m reminded that I’m leaving China for someplace very different.