When you enter Xi’an, the first landmark you will run into is the ancient Xi’an City Wall. These walls were built around the old town to surround it, as Xi’an has been the capital of China for several dynasties and the start of the famous Silk Road. The northern side of the Xi’an City Wall is paralleled to the city railway. Xi’an, like most important ancient cities, was a walled one and Xi’an City Wall still stands tall and divides the city into inner and outer parts.
Xi’an City Wall is a colossal structure. If you see this giant wall up close, you will find yourself so small even if you are a tall person. Two main entrance points to the inner city, of the wall, are the south and north gate. The new town has evolved along the old wall in an orderly way.
If you go on top of the wall, you have three options to have a look around. First, you can rent a bike and cycle it for yourself. There are also electric cars available for tourists which charge you based on the distance they take you.
The last and the longest option is walking, that could be very beautiful, especially in the afternoon when it’s less crowded. But if you are visiting in the summer, it’s better to go early in the morning or after sunset to avoid the heat.
Why was Xi’an City Wall built?
This enormous wall was built during the reign of Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang of the Ming Dynasty in the 14th century.
Zhu Yuanzhang founded the Ming Dynasty, but long before that, when he captured Huizhou, a hermit named Zhu Sheng advised him to do something which shaped lots of cities later. Zhu Sheng advised Zhu Yuanzhang to build tall walls, capture provisions and later become the emperor.
Zhu Yuanzhang took the advice, and after he unified the whole country, he started a campaign to build large defensive walls around cities. The order was sent to local governors, and the walls were built. Zhu then made the cities in his empire fortified and impenetrable.
The Xi’an City Wall is not entirely done by Ming Dynasty but enhanced by them from an old Tang Dynasty structure.
Xi’an City Wall Architecture
The first version of Xi’an City Wall was made of earth, put layer by layer. The base layer of the wall consisted of earth, quick lime and glutinous rice extract all put together for a foundation which made the wall exceptionally strong and solid.
During later time, the builders used bricks to make it better. After that, a moat was built around the city, which was both wide and also deep. There used to be a massive drawbridge over the moat that was designed to cut the entrance to the town.
In the Ming Dynasty enlargement of the wall started and it became a colossal structure that stands 39 feet (12 meters) high. It is 39-46 feet (12-14 meters) across the top, 49-59 feet (15-18 meters) thick at the bottom and 8.5 miles (13.7 kilometers) in length.
There is a rampart around every 393 feet (120 meters). These ramparts are towers which extend out from the main wall. They were built to allow soldiers to see if enemies were trying to climb the wall. The distance between the ramparts was calculated based on the range of arrows fired from either side, which allowed soldiers to protect every part of the wall without exposing themselves to the enemy. 98 ramparts were built, and each of them has a sentry building on top.
The Gates of Xi’an City Wall
If you planned to leave the city or get inside, they only way possible, was through the gates. So from a strategic point of view, these gates were extremely important. Xi’an City walls form a rectangle, and therefore it has four gates to the north, south, east and west. Each side has three towers inside:
- The Gate Tower (Zhalou): The drawbridge and lifting or lowering it happened here.
- The Narrow Tower (Jianlou): It’s the one in the middle and has thinner walls. Rectangular windows of this tower were used by soldiers to shoot arrows.
- The Main Tower (Zhenglou): The innermost one which has the entrance to the city.
Back then weapons were not strong enough to break through Xi’an City Wall, so the only chance intruders had to get inside the city, was buy attacking the gates. That is the reason for the structure of the gates of the wall.
The four gates of the wall each had a specific name:
- Changle (Eternal Joy) in the east
- Anding (Harmony Peace) in the west
- Yongning (Eternal Peace) in the south
- Anyuan (Forever Harmony) in the north
Yongning gate, which is located in the south is the most beautifully decorated of the gates. It is close to the Bell Tower, in the center of the city and Important greeting ceremonies organized by the Provincial Government are usually held in the south gate square.
The South Gate Square has been restored and formally opened to the public on September 6, 2014. It covers an area of around 7.9 acres (32,000 square meters). This square is U shaped and is divided into three parts, the main royal road, secondary royal road, and celebration square.
If you go below this square, you can find a large underground parking lot. There are also two museums and the archery tower of the South Gate open to visitors of the wall.
The Gate Tower and The Main Tower are connected by an area called Wong Cheng where soldiers were stationed. It also had a sloped passage for horses which led to the top of the wall, which was actually gradually ascending steps that made it easy for war horses to ascend and descend. There are altogether 11 horse passages around the city
On every corner of the wall, there is a watchtower, and because it’s a rectangle structure, hence it has four. Three of these watchtowers are square-shaped, but the one at the southwestern corner is round. The reason for this may lie in the model of the imperial city wall of the Tang Dynasty.
Each watchtower has a corner rampart which is more extensive and higher than ordinary ones. This indicates the strategic military importance of the corners of Xi’an City Wall during battle times.
You could find Crenellations or battlements Along the outer crest of the city wall. 5,984 of these battlements existed and beneath each of them is a square hole that functioned for keeping watch and also shooting arrows. The lower inner walls are parapets that were used to prevent soldiers from falling off the wall while traveling back and forth.