Preserved in wood, stone, and brick are thousands of years’ worth of ideas in the shape of domes, steeples, and towers. In the whispers between creaks and rasps, the walls hint at secrets of a distant past to passersby. Though it may seem they are standing still, buildings are quietly moving through time, evolving with each passing generation.
A mosque in Karakol – the third largest city in Kyrgyzstan - stands tall, protected by a wooden gate with large golden handles and peeling blue paint. This mosque looks different from other mosques in Kyrgyzstan, with dragons and grapes carved into its exterior. This mosque was built in 1907 and within its architecture exists a story of its creators and 111 years-worth of history.
Luke Lee lives in a village just 30 minutes away from the mosque. He is a farmer and seed-seller at a local bazaar and has felt connected to the earth his entire life.
He was born in 1952, the youngest son of farmers. During the Soviet Union, Lee’s father led the village’s collective farm, making sure everyone worked together and the harvest was appropriately distributed: 90% going to the government and the remaining 10% divided between farmers. After high school, Lee moved to southern Kyrgyzstan for college where he studied German.
“I studied in Osh for 5 years and in that time, I met a beautiful girl,” Lee recalled with a grin.
“Her name was Sabir, which means patience in the Kyrgyz language. This girl became my wife and she has put up with me for 40 years!” he joked, laughing. Then he added more seriously, “Love requires great patience.”
Initially, Lee’s parents were against this marriage because Sabir is Kyrgyz and Lee is Dungan.
“My parents were against the fact that I married a Kyrgyz woman,” explained Lee, “The reason we marry only other Dungans is to preserve our roots, language, culture and tradition, but since I was the most beloved child of my parents among 7 brothers, they eventually accepted our marriage.”
I met Luke Lee on the porch of a traditional house in his village, with a swinging door and a large yellow sign that said ‘MUSEUM.’ He is this modest museum’s caretaker, clearly passionate about the history of his people.
When we entered the museum, he pointed to a painting and began to tell a legend of how the Dungan people came to exist. Like any good legend, the story started with a dream.
One night, sometime in the 7th century, the Chinese emperor had a dream about a man who saved his life. This man was suspected to be the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH). Curious, the emperor sent messengers, twice, asking the prophet to come to China. Twice the prophet was unable to make the long journey, first sending a magic portrait and then a convoy of soldiers and teachers in his stead.
These soldiers and teachers taught the emperor about Islam and helped him fight in wars with Mongolia.
After the war, the emperor invited these soldiers and teachers to stay. Many of the soldiers and teachers agreed and married into Chinese society. After time passed, the couples had children, and these children - half Arab, half Chinese - were Dungans.
“Our father is Arab and our mother is Chinese,” said Lee when he was finished telling the legend, “Our father taught religion and our mother taught language.”
In 1877 Luke Lee’s ancestors faced persecution and fled to Kyrgyzstan – a treacherous path through high mountains in the winter. Many did not make the journey but those who did found refuge in Kyrgyzstan – their new home.
After the Dungan people got settled, they decided to build a mosque – the one behind a wooden gate with the golden handles and peeling blue paint. A Chinese architect was invited to build the mosque using only wooden planks and without nails per Chinese tradition.
Islamic art is traditionally aniconic, meaning it doesn’t portray representations of the natural or spiritual world.
This is why you don't find representations of people, animals, or angels depicted in mosques around the world and why Islamic art is famously associated with geometric mosaics and calligraphy.
On this mosque, however, the Chinese architect carved depictions of dragons, grapes, and flowers into the structure’s frieze.
The mosque’s current imam (religious leader) said that “these drawings belong to the mind of architect and should be looked at separately from the mosque.” (This has been a topic of controversy in the past, but most people accept it as part of the mosques history).
This mosque functioned from 1907, until around 1939, when it was shut down under Soviet rule and used for storage.
Luke Lee grew up in a religious family, but never really understood Islam. He grew up during the Soviet Union when access to information about religion was restricted. When he was 26 years old, he remembers his brother buying a translation of the Quran, the first time ever he was able to read it in his native language.
“When the Soviet Union collapsed, translations of the Quran appeared and I diligently began to study,” said Luke Lee. “I am personally very curious and like to learn new things.”
Although Luke Lee studied the Quran when he was 26, he didn’t begin to really understand it until he was 50.
“I was always afraid of death, but when I studied religion, I stopped being afraid of death. The soul of an eternal man does not die; this is only a temporary life,” he said.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the mosque was reopened, and, like Islam, was reclaimed by the people. During the week, between 30-50 men visit the mosque each day and on Fridays, up to 1000 people come for Friday prayer.
Most of these worshippers are Dungan, like Luke Lee - the carved dragons and grapes an ode to their history and the peeling blue paint continually whispering secrets of a distant past to anyone who will listen.