The city of Lhasa is the heart of cultural Tibet. Its importance dates back to its status as the capital of the Tibetan Empire in the seventh and eighth centuries, and as the capital of the Dalai Lama’s government from the seventeenth century onwards. In China it serves as the capital of the Tibet Autonomous Region.
Lhasa has also been perhaps the most important religious site over the history of Tibet. It is home to the Jokhang Temple complex, founded by the seventh century Tibetan Emperor Songtsen Gampo and residence of the most famous religious image in Tibet – the Jowo statue of the Buddha Shakyamuni. The Jokhang is the nucleus of central Lhasa’s commercial and religious Barkor area. The Potala, built in the seventeenth century by the Fifth Dalai Lama as his palace and one of the greatest examples of Tibetan architecture, is also located in the Lhasa Valley. Finally, two of the three great seats of Geluk monasticism – Sera and Drepung – have been located here since the fifteenth century.
The city of Lhasa is located in the southern part of the Tibetan high plateau at an altitude of 3650m above sea level and on roughly the same latitude as Cairo. The valley in which Lhasa is situated is formed by the river Kyichu, a tributary of the Tsangpo (which is known as the Brahmaputra in India). The dominant peaks surrounding Lhasa range between 4400m and 5300m above sea level.