Due to its location in Huajue Alley, northwest of the Drum Tower, the mosque is also named the Huajue Alley Mosque. Deemed to be one of the two most significant ancient mosques in Xi'an (the other is the mosque in Daxuexi Alley), it was ostensibly founded by the naval admiral and Hajji Cheng Ho, the son of a prestigious Muslim family who is famous for clearing the China Sea of pirates and leading the great Ming naval expedition to south and west. Since the fourteenth century, the mosque has undergone numerous reconstructions. Most of buildings extant today are from the Ming and Qing Dynasties of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
The Great Mosque is the major spot for the religious activities of over 60,000 Moslems in Xi'an. It is also an important historic monument in Shaanxi Province. Like the Great Mosques at Hangzhou, Quanzhou and Guangzhou, the Great Mosque of Xian is thought to have existed as early as the seventh century. Unlike Arabic mosques which have splendid domes, minarets reaching into the clouds, and colorful engraved sketches with dazzling patterns, Chinese architectural elements were synthesized into the mosque's architecture. As a result the mosque resembles a fifteenth century Buddhist temple. The mosque occupies a narrow lot about 48 meters by 248 meters, and the precinct walls enclose a total area of 12,000 square meters. Unlike many other Chinese mosques, it has the layout of a Chinese temple: successive courtyards on a single axis with pavilions and pagodas adapted to suit Islamic functions. Unlike a typical Buddhist temple, the grand axis of the Great Mosque of Xian is aligned from east to west, facing Mecca. Five successive courtyards, each with a signature pavilion, screen, or freestanding gateway, lead to the prayer hall located at the western end of the axis.
Although the great mosque possesses plenty of traditional Chinese architectural features, the inner decoration is strictly in accordance with Islamic requirements. Writings in the hall are all in Arabic, and only Muslims are allowed to enter the prayer hall. The great mosque is viewed as a significant combination of Chinese and Islamic architectural arts. It has been classified a key national historical unit by the State Council of China, and listed by UNESCO as an important international Islamic cultural relic.