China: Beauty found at saintly tomb

By Jim Eagles

The Apak Hoja Tomb in Kashgar, China, makes the area an important site for Sufis. Photo / Jim Eagles
The Apak Hoja Tomb in Kashgar, China, makes the area an important site for Sufis. Photo / Jim Eagles

For a minute I thought we were going to have a punch-up at the holiest Muslim shrine in the legendary Silk Road trading town of Kashgar.

We were standing in a respectful silence in the Apak Hoja Tomb, honouring a revered Sufi saint and listening as his story was told by our guide, Abdul, a Uighur Muslim.

Suddenly, in burst a Han Chinese tour party, led by a young woman shouting over her portable loudspeaker system.

The peace of the tranquil chamber was shattered; we couldn't hear what Abdul was saying and I could see him and the other Uighurs present getting irritated.

Eventually, he went over to the noisy guide, pulled out her microphone and said something in a voice of quiet anger. The young woman shouted back and her group seemed inclined to join in.

Several of the Uighurs moved behind Abdul and whispered vehemently in support. Tension rose and I got ready to take a photo and run. But then the young woman nodded and peace returned to the holy place.

The shrine, Abdul explained, was actually built by Apak in 1640 as a burial place for his father, Yusup Hoja, who came to Kashgar from Uzbekistan to preach Sufism, the mystical strain of Islam.

It has a distinctive look because the exterior is covered in green tiles while the grave markers are sheathed in flowered tiles brought especially from Uzbekistan.

"The father is buried here," Abdul said, pointing to a grave marker with green flower tiles.

"But it is known for Hoja because his fame was greater."

Hoja continued his father's Sufi work but also became a local ruler, remembered fondly by his subjects. When he died in 1693, he was also buried in the shrine and it was renamed in his honour.

But just as Apak's fame has eclipsed that of his father, the saint's memory has been overtaken outside Sufi circles by a granddaughter, Iparhan.

There are various versions of her story but the one Abdul told was that she was the wife of a Muslim rebel captured by troops of the Quianlong emperor and was taken to Beijing as booty.

The emperor fell in love with her great beauty, especially the natural fragrance of her body, so she became his favourite concubine, earning the name Xiangfei or Fragrant Concubine.

When she died, the emperor allowed her body to be taken back to her family, in a journey which took three years. Today at the Apak Hoja Tomb there is also a preaching hall, built in 1637, for the Hojas to spread the Sufi message, a later mosque and a huge Muslim graveyard.

Pilgrims still come from far afield to pay their respects to the saint.

"It is," said Abdul, "an important place of pilgrimage for Sufis. Coming here seven times is equal to making the haj to Mecca."

But the shrine is increasingly known as the Tomb of the Fragrant Concubine - such is the nature of celebrity.

It was almost certainly her resting place that the noisy Chinese tour party had come to see.


Getting there: Singapore Airlines operates 12 times per week between Auckland and Singapore and then onward to 62 destinations in 34 countries, including Malaysia, China, Japan, Vietnam, Thailand and Korea.

Getting around: World Expeditions operates its Silk Road expedition from Beijing to Samarkand via Kashgar in April, May, August and September. Ring 0800 350 354 for further details.

Jim Eagles travelled the Silk Road with help from Singapore Airlines and World Expeditions.

- NZ Herald

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