This month, celebrations in this Central Javanese city have commemorated the epic first voyage of Muslim Chinese Admiral Zheng He, who visited these shores 600 years ago.

Zheng He made seven journeys between 1405 and 1433 around Asia and on to Arabia and Africa, in the service of the Ming empire.

A virtual cult has grown around the eunuch admiral in the Central Java port of Semarang and several other cities in the Malay world, around the Java Sea and along the Malacca Strait.

China's Columbus

While relatively unknown in the West, Zheng's voyages of discovery are comparable with those of Vasco da Gama, Magellan or Christopher Columbus.

Born in the minority Muslim community in southwest China's Yunnan province, he was captured by the invading Ming army and castrated.

Some say the explorer found
America before Columbus

He later entered imperial service and became a close aide to the Yongle Emperor, the third Ming Dynasty emperor, who commissioned most of his voyages.

On 11 July 1405, Zheng set sail on a journey which took him to southern India, the island of Ceylon and on to present-day Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia.

"In Semarang the people call him Sam Po Kong. He symbolises friendship, trade, culture, religion. The Taoists and the Buddhists pray to him and the Muslims come on pilgrimage," temple guide Suratman Ajong explains.

Blessings sought

This month, thousands of visitors have sought the blessing of the ancient mariner beneath the upswept eaves of the temple, filled with the fragrant scent of incense.

In 1405, the explorer landed at what is now the site of the temple. 

"In Semarang the people call him Sam Po Kong. He symbolises friendship, trade, culture, religion. The Taoists and the Buddhists pray to him and the Muslims come on pilgrimage"

Suratman Ajon,
Temple guide

A carved fresco relates episodes from the mariner's voyage: when his diplomatic skills helped to amicably settle a dispute between Siam and the Melakan Sultanate and when, landing on the coast of Africa, he received a giraffe as a gift which he later presented to the emperor.

"Zheng He is as famous as Christopher Columbus," says Diana, 38, an Indonesian telecommunications worker. She is not Chinese but says she is pleased with the Chinese contribution to Indonesia, thanks to Zheng.

First to America?

In contrast with Columbus's modest crew of about 90 which made his 1492 journey to the New World on relatively tiny ships the Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria, Zheng was accompanied by nearly 28,000 people. They included sailors, soldiers, scientists, cartographers and interpreters on more than 200 immense junks.

According to a controversial theory by British author and former Royal Navy officer Gavin Menzies, Zheng also beat Columbus to America, discovering it in 1421 on another of his voyages. 

Zheng's voyage paved the way
for Muslim preachers

"The Chinese brought many innovations, in pottery, textiles, medicine," says Ivan Haris Prikurnia, who is producing a documentary on Zheng for the private television station SCTV.

It will be broadcast during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan (October-November) in Indonesia, where nearly 90% of the population of 220 million is Muslim.

Spreading Islam

Prikurnia suggests that the Muslim admiral's voyage to Java helped pave the way for Muslim preachers who followed and helped to spread Islam.

"There are nine men who introduced Islam in Indonesia. Of them, four were Chinese," says Prikurnia, suggesting this is not to everyone's liking.

While Zheng's achievements are honoured, the sentiments he stirs have not always been extended to his fellow Chinese in modern-day Indonesia.

Subjected to numerous discriminatory practices under the 32-year authoritarian government of Suharto, ethnic Chinese became the targets of mob violence during the 1998 mass movement that led to Suharto's resignation.

Respected 

"There are nine men who introduced Islam in Indonesia. Of them, four were Chinese"

Ivan Haris Prikurnia,
Documentary producer

Zheng, however, earns the respect of both communities. Indigenous ethnic Malays revere him as a Muslim, while ethnic Chinese honour him as a great man who spread the influence of the Middle Kingdom far and wide.

In Indonesia's second-largest city of Surabaya, in East Java, a massive piece of wood believed to have come from one of Zheng's ships is preserved under glass, like a religious relic.

Golkar, the political party that formerly backed Suharto and is now the largest bloc in parliament, organised a symposium on the admiral to coincide with the 600th anniversary of his voyage.

"We want to show our attention towards this community (of Muslim Chinese)", says Bambang Sadono, who is Golkar's Central Java provincial chairman.

With his Chinese and Islamic characteristics, Zheng is today used as a unifying symbol in the ethnic and religious mosaic of Java, Indonesia's most populous island.