Daily Telegraph 5 march 2015 Genghis Khan really, really didn’t want his tomb to be found. But now the 800-year-old murderous wall of deception he built up around his final resting place is starting to crumble.
IT is one of history’s greatest unsolved mysteries: Where is its most brutal, most successful warrior buried?
He had achieved the impossible: Uniting the fractious nomadic tribes of northeast Asia’s steppes into the great Mongol Empire.
At the head of an enormous horseback army, Genghis Khan then slaughtered his way out of Mongolia, across the Middle East and into Europe.
He pillaged his way to enormous power and wealth along the way.
In 1227, he suddenly died.
… He went against a certain castle that was called CAAJU, and there he was shot with an arrow in the knee, so that he died of his wound. A great pity it was, for he was a valiant man and a wise one.
—Marco Polo, The Travels of Marco Polo, Book 1, Chapter 50
In death he achieved another victory not even the pharaoh’s could achieve: Resting in peace.
And that’s something that has been driving archaeologists batty for more than a century.
But the tantalising clues are beginning to add up. Now more substantial evidence is gradually falling into place.
Soon, his legendary tomb may be found.
MYTH OF MYTHS
Legend has it that a small group of his most loyal subjects took the great Khan’s body to a sacred mountain called Altai. But Genghis really, really didn’t want his grave to be desecrated.
So he left very specific orders to be followed.
Eternal story ... John Wayne stars as Genghis Khan in film The Conqueror
As the Khan’s funeral procession made its long journey to his secret burial site, escorting soldiers would surge forward and kill any onlookers. “Go and serve your lord in the next world,” explorer Marco Polo would later record them as having cried.
Even when the funerary rites were complete and the conquering general interred, the killing continued.
The slaves, labourers and mourners who witnessed the event were murdered. Even the soldiers responsible for keeping the entourage secret were massacred to ensure the eternal secrecy Genghis’ final resting place.
Only a few of his most loyal family members remained alive. They are said to have set loose a herd of 10,000 horses to trample evidence of the burial — and massacre — into the ground. Nothing was to be left to guide looters to his grave.
Some say his subjects even went so far as to divert a river to eliminate any chance that it could be found or entered.
Then there were the guardians: Legend has it some 50 families were appointed to live in the mountains and plains around his tomb as eternal wardens, or Darkhats. Nobody was allowed to enter the valley and live.
It’s a prohibition that has been successfully enforced for more than 800 years.
Whatever the truth of the story, it seems to have worked.
For centuries, few had a clue as to where Genghis Khan lay.
For centuries there had been rumours. Whispered stories.
Shock troops ... A mounted Mongol warrior.
But most speculation centred on the fate of Genghi’s Khan’s successors: Upon their death, each was also carried to Altai mountain to be buried in the vicinity of the great man himself.
Their entourages suffered the same fate.
Kublai Khan, Genghis Khan’s grandson, is said to have had more than 20,000 men killed to ensure his remains would remain untouched.
It had long been suspected the great Khan had been returned to his birthplace — the Khentii Aimag province of Mongolia.
There is a historical hint: The oral epic poem “The Secret History of the Mongols” tells the story of how, one day, Genghis had been hunting in the mountains of his homeland. While resting in the shade of a tree, he was overcome by the beauty of the landscape: “What a beautiful view! Bury me here when I pass away.”
In the 1980s, prominent Mongolian historian Professor Badamkhatan pieced together every element of the legend he could find.
“I found a key to the puzzle. There is a vast mountainous area in Khentii province known as Ikh Khorig (Burkhan Khaldun) or the Great Taboo. It covers roughly 240 square kilometres of wilderness. And this is the sacred burial ground of Mongol Khaans,’ he wrote.
It is a sacred place. Somewhere local authorities were reluctant to disturb.
The site was certainly forbidding: Only one valley, the Kherlen valley, leads to the suspected sanctuary.
The mausoleum found near the remains of Genghis Khan’s palace.
Then, after years of rejected pleas, archaeologists were granted permission to scour the remote Mongolian landscape.
More than 1300 sites had been identified. One of them was found to contain his palace and mausoleum.
A Japanese and Mongolian research team found the outline of a complex on a grassy steppe some 300km east of the Mongolian Capital, Ulan Bator.
It was a simple design, reminiscent of a square tent. Only fragments of fine porcelain found scattered among the ruins suggest its noble history. The pottery also helped date the structure to the conqueror’s times.
The link with the missing tomb is tenuous: Ancient text report court officials travelling from a mausoleum near the palace to the burial site “daily” to conduct memorial services.
Almost 15 years of scouring the area for his tomb has so far come up trumps.
Local resistance to any form excavation remains resolute: Many expeditions to the area have been prevented from digging potential structures.
EYE IN THE SKY
Aerial and satellite photography has proven to be the key in the hunt for Genghis’ tomb.
The landscape of Mongolia is largely undisturbed: Little in the way of construction or intensive farming has obscured what remains.
So satellite photos have been built up into mosaics and processed to highlight any unusual looking shapes.
Dr Albert Yu-Min Lin, of the University of California in San Diego, has been matching photo-mosaics with maps and to highlight any unusual looking shapes for several years now.
“Using traditional archaeological methods would be disrespectful to believers,” Dr Lin told National Geographic. “The ability to explore in a non-invasive way lets us try to solve this ancient secret without overstepping cultural barriers. It also allows us to empower Mongolian researchers with tools they might not have access to otherwise.”
It took more than 10,000 volunteers to eyeball the 84,000 images he had collected.
“This is a needle in a haystack problem where the appearance of the needle is unknown,” the report says. “Over 10K online volunteers contributed 30K hours (3.4 years), examined 6,000 km2, and generated 2.3 million feature categorisations.”
From this effort, a catalogue of 55 possible sites was assembled and the tedious business of whittling down the contenders begun.
Most appear to be in the shadow of the Burkham Khaldun mountains.
Some sites have already been sampled: By drones in the air and by foot on the ground.
It’s building up a comprehensive of this long forgotten, sacred landscape.
MOUND OF MYSTERIES
If found, the tomb of history’s greatest warrior will become one of archaeology’s most significant finds.
During the 2004 excavation of Genghis Khan’s Palace, professor Shinpei Kato of Kokugakuin University said: “If we find what items were buried with him, we could write a new page for world history.”
The simple reason: His wealth was amassed at one time from many of Europe and Asia’s different cultures. Much can be learned from their varying forms, styles and substances.
Genghis Khan’s tomb may not even be the first to be located. Ancient text say up to 14 of his successors — all Khan warriors — were buried in the same area. Chief among them is Kublai Khan, Genghis’ famous grandson.
The valley could be a vast necropolis on a scale of Egypt’s famous Valley of the Kings — the final resting place for the Khan’s conquering successors.
It may be the great conqueror’s body isn’t even buried in Mongolia: Later traditions say the only remains which made it back to his chosen burial site was his shirt, personal tent and boots.
There are even rumours that the enormous efforts to keep the burial site secret failed: One account says the grave was found 30 years later. Other tales tell how Genghis’ family was able to visit the site by following a mother camel which returned the grave to “weep” over the remains of her calf. It had been buried with the war lord for just that purpose.
Hope of eventually excavating potential grave sites are improving.
Built by one of the warlord’s generals in 1212 on the western frontier of Mongolia, the exact whereabouts of this structure also had been long lost.
Scratching the surface ... Excavations underway at the Mongol fortress site.
Osaka University researchers matched a written description from a medieval Chinese travel book of the fortress’ location to the landscape 880km west of Ulan Bator.
Examination of aerial survey photographs in 2001 traced the outline of a 200m by 200m wall in the flat expanse of steppe.
It took until late last year before archaeologists were allowed to visit the site. They uncovered wood chips, Chinese ceramics and animal bones. These were dated and exposed the structure’s links to the 13th and 14th centuries.
Now they’re undertaking a careful excavation of the ruins to see what other clues they can find.
Knowing the location of the fortress helps narrow-down the route used for Genghis Khan’s bloody invasion of Central Asia and the Middle East.
More importantly, it represents a gradual shift in the mindset of the Mongolian people to allow their heritage to be examined.
But any expedition to the sacred valleys of the Burkham Khaldun mountains in search of the great Khan is likely to be some time away yet.