The astronomical observatory in longest continuous use in the world is …
No, it’s not England’s world-famous Greenwich Observatory, creator of “Greenwich Mean Time.” It is the Ming Dynasty’s observatory in central Beijing. Near the southeastern corner of the old City Wall, the Beijing Ancient Observatory, originally built in 1442, is 233 years older than Greenwich.
The eight sets of astronomical instruments on the observatory’s roof have had a distinguished scientific past. Their design was strongly influenced by the Renaissance in Europe but they have some distinctive Chinese elements such as dragons and lions. The observatory’s treasures were pillaged in the 1900 war by marauding foreign troops retaliating for the lengthy siege of diplomats and Chinese Christians in the nearby Legation Quarter by Boxer cultists and the Qing military. Germany, defeated in the First World War, was the first nation to return the stolen treasure.
Today, the observatory is a small gem for in-the-know Beijingers (and a very few international tourists). There are interesting historical displays in the Ziwei Palace and some fascinating astronomical devices.
The Great Wall of China is Beijing’s most famous wall. But there’s another not-as-great wall in Beijing that is more relevant to the capital city’s history and culture. The “Inner City Wall” was built in 1419 early in the Ming Dynasty and formed a highly fortified rectangle that stretched for about 40 km around the Forbidden City and the “inner city” of Beijing.
Well into the 20th century, camel caravans would approach the city gates from the Silk Road, and horses (animal and then iron) would approach from the port of Tianjin. Moats surrounded the defensive fortifications, and a series of watchtowers provided housing for the soldiers.
Several of the gates were heavily damaged by troops from eight foreign nations during the 1900 “Boxer rebellion,” but the walled city remained, in its decaying grandeur, until a combination of the Cultural Revolution and the coming of the Beijing subway resulted in the almost-complete destruction of the ancient wall.
Today, few remnants of the old city wall remain (unlike the restored walls of Xi’an and Nanjing). But there is a mile-long stretch from the Southeastern Watchtower near the former Dongbian Gate to the Chongwen Gate that has been preserved as Beijing Ming City Wall Relics Park. The park was created in the early years of the 21st century when the ramshackle residences, with no heating, running water or plumbing, that abutted it were bulldozed and replaced by flowering trees, grass and hiking paths. (The ancient trees from the Ming era remain.) A small museum on the ramparts contains historical photos, an art exhibit and a few relics. You can walk atop a short section of the original ramparts then continue your stroll at street level. Ancient history, hidden in plain sight.