The Afaq Khoja Mausoleum And The Legacy Of A Great Uyghur Leader
The Afaq Khoja Mausoleum is a tomb complex located in Xinjiang, an autonomous region in northwestern China. For the predominantly Muslim Uyghurs (or Uighurs) who inhabit the region, this mausoleum is considered to be their holiest local site. The mausoleum was built during the 17th century, and, in spite of its name, was not originally built for Afaq Khoja, but for his father. Nevertheless, Afaq Khoja himself was buried in the mausoleum, as were several generations of his descendants. Apart from the religious significance of the monument to the Uyghurs, the Afaq Khoja Mausoleum is also notable for its exceptional architecture. In addition, the monument has been promoted by the Chinese government as a tourist attraction, a controversial move that has not exactly sat well with the Uyghurs.
An interior photo of the Afaq Khoja Mausoleum showing both wooden pillars and beams colorfully decorated. (Colegota / CC BY-SA 2.5 ES )
The Afaq Khoja Mausoleum: Location And Early History
The Afaq Khoja Mausoleum is situated in Haohan Village, about 5 km (3.1 mi) to the northeast of Kashgar, an oasis city in the Tarim Basin region of southern Xinjiang. The mausoleum was built around 1640 and was originally intended to serve as the tomb of Afaq Khoja’s father, Muhammad Yusuf Khoja, a prominent Naqshbandi Sufi preacher from Central Asia.
Muhammad Yusuf is said to have been a son of Makhdum Azam, whose death caused a split amongst his followers. Whilst one group of Makhdum Azam’s followers swore allegiance to Muhammad Yusuf, another rallied around Ishaq Khoja, Makhdum Azam’s other son. In this version of events, Muhammad Yusuf would most likely have been in Altishahr with his father. In another account of the story, Muhammad Yusuf had crossed the Pamirs into Altishahr during the early 17th century and began to engage in religious and political disputes with the local leaders.
The later career of Muhammad Yusuf is even less certain, due to issues with the primary sources. As a result, there are disagreements amongst scholars about what actually happened. According to some scholars, for instance, Muhammad Yusuf, encouraged by his success in Altishahr, decided to travel eastwards, and went as far as the Qinghai-Gansu border region, which is inhabited by the predominantly Muslim Salar people. After spending some time amongst the Salar people, Muhammad Yusuf returned to Altishahr, where he was poisoned by rivals. Other scholars, however, argue that Muhammad Yusuf had died at an earlier date, and that his journey to the east was actually undertaken by his son, Afaq Khoja.
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In any event, Afaq Khoja, like his father, was also an influential Sufi preacher. He was brought up in Qomul, where he was born, and received his education at the religious schools of Kashgar, Sariqqul, and Yarkand. Afaq Khoja’s religious authority was based on the claim that he is a sayyid, i.e., a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad.
In addition to the religious role he played, Afaq Khoja was also politically active, and contended with both the local religious and secular authorities in Kashgar. Consequently, he was forced to leave Khasgar by Ismail Khan, the local Chagataid ruler.
A ≈ in Khasgar commemorating Afaq Khoja. (John Hill / CC BY-SA 4.0 )
Afaq Khoja turned this setback into an opportunity to seize power in Khasgar. He managed to obtain the support of the Zhungar Mongols, who invaded Ismail Khan’s lands in 1678. After his defeat, Ismail Khan and his immediate family were exiled to Ili, and Afaq Khoja was appointed as the new ruler of the whole Tarim Basin region. In return, Afaq Khoja paid an annual tribute to the Zhungar Mongols .
Despite seizing power, Afaq Khoja’s reign was marked by political turmoil, as he was opposed by both the supporters of the Chagataids and those of the rival Khoja faction. This turmoil continued even after the death of Afaq Khoja in 1694.
In spite of the tumultuous rule of Afaq Khoja, it is clear that he was still a highly revered figure amongst the local population. This is reflected in the fact that after his death, he was buried in his father’s mausoleum. Furthermore, the tomb complex was named in honor of Afaq Khoja and became a pilgrimage site.
One of the minarets at the Afaq Khoja Mausoleum. (Colegota / CC BY-SA 2.5 ES )
Afaq Khoja Expands The Mausoleum Complex
It seems that Afaq Khoja placed great importance on the mausoleum, and perhaps considered it as a monumental project that would remind the local population of his family’s authority. Although the mausoleum was built in 1640, Afaq Khoja continued to expand the monument during his lifetime.
Thus, in addition to the main tomb itself, the tomb complex includes a monumental entrance, prayer hall, mosque, lecture hall, and khaniqa (a site for Sufi ritual activity). Moreover, the Afaq Khoja Mausoleum was a landowner, and commanded large stretches of land throughout the southern Xinjiang region. By the second half of the 19 th century, the mausoleum owned around 2300 acres (931 hectares) of land. The land owned by the mausoleum was considered to be a religious property, managed jointly by Afaq Khoja’s descendants and the custodians of the tomb complex.
The Afaq Khoja Mausoleum is also notable for its architecture and is considered to be one of the best examples of Islamic architecture in Xinjiang. The main tomb occupies an area of 35 m by 29 m (115 ft by 95 ft), and has four minarets, one on each corner of the monument. In the center of the mausoleum is a dome, which reaches a height of 17 m (55 ft). The dome is the tallest point of the building, and its exterior is covered with green glazed tiles. Likewise, the façade of the building, as well as the four minarets, are covered with glazed tiles, though these are not limited to green ones, but also included yellow, blue, and brown ones. The colorful tiles stand in contrast with the monument’s white walls.
The fine woodwork in the Afaq Khoja Mausoleum. (Colegota / CC BY-SA 2.5 ES )
Although the tiled façade of the main tomb is the Afaq Khoja Mausoleum’s most prominent architectural feature, its wooden beams are also worth mentioning. These were carved by hand, and beautifully painted. Unfortunately, the paint on these beams have been slowly deteriorating, as a result of neglect and insufficient funds to preserve them.
In a way, the tombs themselves may be considered as part of the architecture of the mausoleum as well. These tombs were constructed above ground and draped in colorful silks. There are supposed to be 72 tombs in the mausoleum representing five generations of Afaq Khoja’s family. At present, however, there are only 58 tombs. This is due to an earthquake that struck Kashgar in the 1960s, which caused massive damage to the mausoleum, and destroyed some of the tombs. Whilst the building was repaired the tombs were not rebuilt, hence the reduced number of tombs today.
"Storming of the Camp at Gädän-Ola" a scroll depicting a raid in 1755 in which the Kalmuk Ayusi, having gone to the Chinese side, attacks Dawa achi's camp on Mount Gadan. (Giuseppe Castiglione ( 郎世寧) / Public domain )
After Afaq Khoja’s Death Rebellions And Conflicts Increase
In the century following Afaq Khoja’s death, his descendants were able to hold on to power in Kashgar, though they owed allegiance to the Zhungar Mongols. In 1755, however, the Zhungars were conquered by the Qing Dynasty . Subsequently, Kashgar was also annexed by the Qing Dynasty, and came under Chinese rule.
Although the Khojas rebelled against Chinese rule during the 18 th century, they were swiftly crushed. This is considered to be the beginning of the Afaqi Khoja Holy War, which would last for about a century. This war saw the descendants of Afaq Khoja attempting to forcefully retake the lands that had been seized by the Qing Dynasty.
After putting down the first Khoja rebellion, the Chinese were able to rule the region in peace for about 60 years. Another rebellion, however, broke out in 1816, though this was also short-lived. The greatest threat to Chinese rule in Kashgar occurred in 1825, when yet another rebellion broke out. Unlike the previous rebellions, this one was more successful, as its leader, Jahangir Khoja, managed to wrest control of Kashgar from the Chinese, and held on to the city for some time.
The Chinese battling Jahangir Khoja’s forces in 1828. ( Public domain )
The Complicated Story Of Jahangir Khoja And The Chinese
Jahangir Khoja was born in 1790, and, around the beginning of the 1820s, was in Kokand, where he received refuge and support from its ruler, Amir Umar Khan. When the old ruler died, however, his successor, Muhammad Ali Khan (known also as Madali), did not continue his father’s generous treatment of Jahangir Khoja. Consequently, Jahangir Khoja had a difficult time in Kokand, and decided to leave.
Although Jahangir Khoja tried to leave, he was stopped, and thrown into prison. Soon, however, he managed to escape, and made it to Kashgar, where he prayed at the tomb of Afaq Khoja for his ancestor’s help.
When the Chinese learned of Jahangir Khoja’s return, they sent an army of 4000 men to destroy him. According to the historical sources, Jahangir Khoja’s troops abandoned him, whilst those who remained were slaughtered by the Chinese. Eventually, only Jahangir Khoja and two of his companions were left. They hid in a grave and were resigned to the fact that they would soon be dead.
Fortunately for the three men, reinforcements from Jamayeh Chum Baghish, a local Muslim leader had arrived. Jahangir Khoja had sent a messenger to this leader, inviting him to join his jihad against the Chinese. When Jamayeh Chum Baghish’s men heard of this, they immediately took up arms, and came to Jahangir Khoja’s aid.
After his rescue, Jahangir Khoja entered Kashgar in triumph, and was enthusiastically welcomed by the city’s inhabitants. He had the Chinese-appointed governor executed and took control of the city. Although Jahangir Khoja was a wealthy and in command of a great army, he ended up squandering his advantages. According to historical accounts, he neglected the affairs of state, and indulged in various vices, thus upsetting his subjects. Eventually, the Chinese gathered an army, and attacked Kashgar. After a fierce battle, the Muslims were defeated, and Kashgar was re-captured by the Chinese. The inhabitants of the city were massacred but Jahangir Khoja managed to escape. Soon, however, Jahangir Khoja was captured, and sent to Beijing to be executed.
Portrait of Lady Hoja (the Fragrant Concubine), Consort of the Qing Dynasty Qianlong Emperor. (Unidentified painter / Public domain )
The Famous Fragrant Concubine And The Afaq Khoja Mausoleum
Arguably the most intriguing character associated with the Afaq Khoja Mausoleum is the Fragrant Concubine, known also as Iparhan amongst the Uyghurs. She was a mysterious figure from Kashgar who lived during the 18 th century. Some have even claimed that the Fragrant Concubine was a relative of Afaq Khoja. In any case, the Fragrant Concubine was famed for her beauty, and more importantly the sweet scent she exuded. This caught the attention of the Emperor Qianlong , who had her brought to Beijing.
There are two conflicting versions of the legend. According to the first, the Fragrant Concubine did not reciprocate the emperor’s love, and plotted to kill him. In the end, she was forced by Qianlong’s mother to commit suicide. According to the second, the Fragrant Concubine performed her duties as a concubine, and died a natural death. The second version of the legend also states that the Fragrant Concubine’s body was escorted back to Kashgar and buried in the Afaq Khoja Mausoleum.
It is unknown, however, if the alleged tomb of the Fragrant Concubine is indeed her final resting place. Some are of the opinion that the concubine is not even buried in the Afaq Khoja Mausoleum, and others note that archaeologists have identified the grave of a concubine named Xiangfei (Chinese for Fragrant Concubine) outside Beijing.
The association of the Fragrant Concubine with the Afaq Khoja Mausoleum has been seen by some as a means to create a connection between Beijing and Kashgar. According to an article published in the New York Times in 2014, “the party-run history machine is especially single-minded in its effort to promote story lines that portray Uighurs, Mongolians, Tibetans and other groups as contented members of an extended family whose traditional homelands have long been part of the Chinese nation.” Thus, the story of the Fragrant Concubine may be interpreted in this light.
Today, the Afaq Khoja Mausoleum is a popular tourist attraction the area. (Colegota / CC BY-SA 2.5 ES )
Today, The Afaq Khoja Mausoleum Is A Tourist Destination
Today, the Afaq Khoja Mausoleum has been transformed into a tourist destination , and, according to The New York Times article, is “managed by a Chinese company that charges an entry fee”.
According to another article, published in 2020 in The Art Newspaper , the Afaq Khoja Mausoleum is now “museumified and inaccessible to pilgrims”.
In other words, the sacred dimension of this monument has been removed by the authorities. The mausoleum, however, may be considered to be more fortunate than some other Uyghur shrines, which have been demolished over the years.
Still, the Afaq Khoja Mausoleum can be viewed as a contested site and will likely remain as such in the years to come.
Top image: Afaq Khoja's tomb in Afaq Khoja Mausoleum in Kashgar, China. Source: John Hill / CC BY-SA 4.0
By Wu Mingren
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