The city of Kashi is located at the western edge of Xinjiang Province and at the western boundary of the Taklamakan Desert, which, bearing the Uyghur name, "no return," is the second largest desert in China. The city is rimmed on three sides by mountain ranges; the Tien Shan to the north, the Pamir to the west, and Kunlun Shan range to the south.
The old section of the Kashi is terraced up a hillside and crossed by two rivers, the larger of which is the Kaxgar River. The seventeenth-century Aitika Mosque, the dominant feature of the old town, faces a large square that is often filled with the overflow of the market surrounding the mosque, with as many as 15,000 people.
A three-tiered hierarchy of streets comprised of main thoroughfares, secondary "block" roads and residential cul-de-sacs define the city. The walls of Kashi's courtyard houses define the street's course. Today, Kashi is a small city of 325,000 people, where close to seventy-five percent of the population are Uyghurs. A railroad, completed in 2000, now links Kashi to Urumqi and points further east, and the Karakorum Highway links it to Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan further west.
Historically, Kashi rose to prominence as the last Chinese town along the Silk Route, and the node where the northern and southern arms of the Silk Road converged on their way to the Mediterranean. The more popular route, which passed to the north of the Taklamakan Desert, traveled from Xian to Turpan, Urumqi and Aksu on its way to Kashi, and the original southern route passed through Gansu, Khotan and Shache to arrive at the city. From Kashi, caravans traveled northwest towards Russia or southwest towards Pakistan. Although Kashi is within the borders of current-day China, it is nearly equidistant to the city of Xian and to the Mediterranean Sea.
According to a Persian Epic, Kashi, or Shule as it was known, was the capital of a kingdom founded by the Tushlan warrior Abla Puziyafu. There are no remnants of this city, and the ruins of the old city walls date only as early as the second century B.C., the first Chinese dynastic rule of Kashi under the Han Dynasty.
Until the seventh century, when the Tang Dynasty re-garrisoned the city, Kashi experienced waves of conquest both from the Western Turkish Khanate to its west, from Tibet to its south, as well as from the north and south. With temporary stability imposed by Tang Emperor Taizong, Silk Road traders began to settle in Kashi, where each ethnic group lived in a separate residential quarter. In 840, the city was taken by Uyghurs who were fleeing the Kyrgyz from the Orhon Valley in Mongolia. With the incorporation of other Turkic tribes, Kashi was declared the capital of the Kharakhanid Uyghur Kingdom. The Qarakhanid Uyghur Dynasty became the first minority Islamic Dynasty in China when Satuk Bughra Khan converted to Islam in 934.
In 1219, Kashi and the surrounding area fell under the rule of Mongolian Genghis Khan who developed the Silk Road trade under the Pax Mongolica. By the time Muslim Turkish warrior Tamerlane conquered the city in the fourteenth century, the population of Kashi and of the greater Xinjiang Region was almost completely Muslim. Subsequently, Kashi became the main residence of the powerful yet divided Khoja clan who ruled the Tarim basin from the sixteenth through the mid-eighteenth century under Manchu Chinese suzerainty. This family of religious leaders from Bukhara built the Aitika Mosque at the center of Kashi and erected the Apak Khoja Mausoluem, an important pilgrimage center, at the outskirts of the city.
The Aitika Mosque established Kashi as the regional center of religious education.
In response to the Han Chinese reoccupation by the Qing Dynasty in 1755, Kashi became a center of Muslim rebellion. The brief rule of the Khokand ruler Yakub Beg, who lead the revolt against the Chinese from 1866 and 1877, saw considerable development of the city. A visiting Englishman, Robert Shaw in 1869 described Yakub Beg's tightly controlled city as follows; "Entering the gateway, we passed through several large quadrangles whose sides were lined with rank of brilliantly attired guards, all sitting in solemn silence so that thy seemed to form part of the architecture of the building . . . Entire rows of these men (were) clad in silken robes and many seemed to be of high rank judging from the richness of their equipment." Yakub Beg substantially fortified the city walls and built an additional Great Mosque at the Apak Khoja Mausoleum.
By the end of the Qing Dynasty in 1911, the city boasted a mosque on every street, 126 in all, and seventeen madrasas.
In 1877, the Chinese definitively annexed Uyghur East Turkestan, renaming it "Xinjiang" or New Territory and inciting rebellion amongst the majority Uyghur, Kazak and Kyrgyz Turkic populations. The distinct ethnic and cultural identity of people in the Xinjiang region continues to be a point of tension between the local leaders and the Chinese government. A major rebellion led by Ma Chung-ying from 1928 to 1937 established the Uyghur region as the Muslim Republic of Eastern Turkestan, which was annulled by the provincial warlord Sheng Shih-ts'ai in 1943 in coalition with the U.S.S.R. In the 1950s, the province was renamed the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Since the importation of Han Chinese through the recent "Great Western Development" industrialization efforts of the government, the Uyghurs are no longer the majority outside of the southern Tarim area in Kashi and the oasis towns that surround the Taklamakan Desert. The Xinjiang Province is still considered East Turkestan by separatist Uyghur groups.
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