Daily Picture Show

The Spirit Of China's Sufi Shrines

In 2002, photographer Lisa Ross found herself far away from home — in the remote Taklamakan Desert of western China, in what is known as the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region.

"I was looking for something," she says, but "I didn't know what I was looking for."

  • Unrevealed, Site 3 (Harvest Prayers), 2010. Markers for saints in the desert are maintained by shaykhs, who dig out the sands that would otherwise cover them over time. The number of flags on a marker correlates to a saint's power at performing miracles.
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    Unrevealed, Site 3 (Harvest Prayers), 2010. Markers for saints in the desert are maintained by shaykhs, who dig out the sands that would otherwise cover them over time. The number of flags on a marker correlates to a saint's power at performing miracles.
    Courtesy of Lisa Ross
  • Unrevealed, Site 6 (Ritual Bathhouse), 2009. Turquoise water springing from a small mountain creates a stream that is believed to have the power to cure disease. This shelter is used for bathing in private and in prayer.
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    Unrevealed, Site 6 (Ritual Bathhouse), 2009. Turquoise water springing from a small mountain creates a stream that is believed to have the power to cure disease. This shelter is used for bathing in private and in prayer.
    Courtesy of Lisa Ross
  • Black Garden (Tandem), 2009. Two markers, coupled in an isolated area.
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    Black Garden (Tandem), 2009. Two markers, coupled in an isolated area.
    Courtesy of Lisa Ross
  • Unrevealed, Site 5 (Six Awaiting), 2009. Future places for burial close to the tomb of a saint are carved out of soft mountain stone.
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    Unrevealed, Site 5 (Six Awaiting), 2009. Future places for burial close to the tomb of a saint are carved out of soft mountain stone.
    Courtesy of Lisa Ross
  • Unrevealed, Site 1 (Trees and Shelter), 2007. Many graves and ancient desert trees line the path that leads to a great saint's marker. Shelters have been built so pilgrims may spend the night, as a journey to a mazar is far for many. The shelter also offers respite from the high heat of the day and can be used as a place to have small meals.
    Hide caption
    Unrevealed, Site 1 (Trees and Shelter), 2007. Many graves and ancient desert trees line the path that leads to a great saint's marker. Shelters have been built so pilgrims may spend the night, as a journey to a mazar is far for many. The shelter also offers respite from the high heat of the day and can be used as a place to have small meals.
    Courtesy of Lisa Ross
  • Black Garden (An Offering), 2009. Small bottles filled with oil are sometimes left as offerings for the dead; the oil may be used for burning wool, a ritual activity at some mazars.
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    Black Garden (An Offering), 2009. Small bottles filled with oil are sometimes left as offerings for the dead; the oil may be used for burning wool, a ritual activity at some mazars.
    Courtesy of Lisa Ross
  • Black Garden (Crib with Door), 2009. Some markers have small doors that allow family members access to leave food for the spirits.
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    Black Garden (Crib with Door), 2009. Some markers have small doors that allow family members access to leave food for the spirits.
    Courtesy of Lisa Ross
  • Unrevealed, Site 12 (Four Branches), 2009. Footprints lead up to four bare holy markers in the dunes.
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    Unrevealed, Site 12 (Four Branches), 2009. Footprints lead up to four bare holy markers in the dunes.
    Courtesy of Lisa Ross
  • Doll, Rock, Bowl, 2009. Food may be left alongside other offerings.
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    Doll, Rock, Bowl, 2009. Food may be left alongside other offerings.
    Courtesy of Lisa Ross
  • Unrevealed, Site 4 (Colored "Cribs"), 2009. Painted burial markers are protected by a stand of poplar trees.
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    Unrevealed, Site 4 (Colored "Cribs"), 2009. Painted burial markers are protected by a stand of poplar trees.
    Courtesy of Lisa Ross
  • Unrevealed, Site 2 (Red Movement), 2009. Interconnected by wind and sand: tulums, branches, mazars and saints.
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    Unrevealed, Site 2 (Red Movement), 2009. Interconnected by wind and sand: tulums, branches, mazars and saints.
    Courtesy of Lisa Ross

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She had been visiting a friend in Beijing but ventured out to the desert on her own. That's where she first encountered mazars: handmade holy sites in Sufi Islam, built to commemorate saints who are buried there.

Several trips to China and about a decade later, Ross now has a book out — as well as a show at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York City: Living Shrines of Uyghur China.

The Uighurs (also spelled Uyghurs) are Muslims who live in this remote part of China. And these sites are tributes to saints, who in their lifetime were deemed to have healing power that they carried to the grave.

The shrines are located sporadically throughout the sprawling region and are often unmarked. Some of them, Ross says, are easily 500 years old. The sites serve as destinations for pilgrims — who leave offerings in exchange for healing.

But in Ross's quiet, lonely photos, the pilgrims are obviously missing.

"Intimacy was very important to me," she says. "I couldn't really make intimate photographs of people I didn't know. I wanted to photograph the landscape as if I were making a portrait."

The shrines aren't always easy to find — especially for an outsider. It's not like there's a handy map to the region. The closest thing Ross found was a 2001 hagiography (or a biography of saints) written in the Uighur language by local scholar Rahila Dawut.

With that as a basic guide, Ross traversed the desert by rickety bus, donkey and foot — accompanied first by historian Alexandre Papas, and later by Dawut and her students.

They managed to find dozens of shrines — but another thing Ross excludes from her photos is the specific location: "As much as it would be awesome for as many people to see these things in person, it would also endanger their existence."

This part of the world is modernizing, and that could jeopardize some of these places and the traditions. But Ross has captured something that will endure: The spirit of a place.

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