For centuries historians and treasure seekers have searched for the burial site of history’s most famous conqueror. New findings offer compelling evidence that it’s been found. Oliver Steed reports
IN the 800 years since his death, people have sought in vain for the grave of Genghis Khan, the 13th-century conqueror and imperial ruler who, at the time of his death, occupied the largest contiguous empire, stretching from the Caspian Sea to the Pacific. In capturing most of central Asia and China, his armies killed and pillaged, but also forged new links between East and West. One of history’s most brilliant and ruthless leaders, Khan remade the world.
But while the life of the conqueror is the stuff of legend, his death is shrouded in the mist of myths. Some historians believe he died from wounds sustained in battle; others that he fell off his horse or died from illness. And his final burial place has never been found. At the time great steps were taken to hide the grave to protect it from potential grave robbers. Tomb hunters have little to go on, given the dearth of primary historical sources. Legend has it that Khan’s funeral escort killed anyone who crossed their path to conceal where the conqueror was buried. Those who constructed the funeral tomb were also killed — as were the soldiers who killed them. One historical source holds that 10,000 horsemen "trampled the ground so as to make it even"; another that a forest was planted over the site, a river diverted.
Scholars still debate the balance between fact and fiction, as accounts were forged and distorted. But many historians believe that Khan wasn’t buried alone: his successors are thought to have been entombed with him in a vast necropolis, possibly containing treasures and loot from his extensive conquests.
Germans, Japanese, Americans, Russians, and the British all have led expeditions in search of his grave, spending millions of dollars. All have failed. The location of the tomb has been one of archeology’s most enduring mysteries.
A multidisciplinary research project uniting scientists in America with Mongolian scholars and archeologists has the first compelling evidence of the location of Khan’s burial site and the necropolis of the Mongol imperial family on a mountain range in a remote area in northwestern Mongolia.
Among the discoveries by the team are the foundations of what appears to be a large structure from the 13th or 14th century, in an area that has historically been associated with this grave. Scientists have also found a wide range of artifacts that include arrowheads, porcelain, and a variety of building material.
"Everything lines up in a very compelling way," says Albert Lin, National Geographic explorer and principal investigator of the project, in an exclusive interview with Newsweek.
For 800 years the Khentii mountain range, where the site is located, has been off-limits, decreed thus by Genghis Khan himself before his death. If the findings bear out, this will be one of the most significant archeological discoveries in years. Using drones and surface-penetrating radar, and enlisting the help of thousands of people to sift through satellite data and photographs, the team has searched the mountain range, systematically photographing 4,000 square miles of landscape.
In a laboratory at the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology at University of California, San Diego, Lin and his team combed through the massive volumes of ultrahigh-resolution satellite imagery and built 3-D reconstructions from radar scans in their search for clues to where Genghis Khan may be buried. Thousands of online volunteers sifted through 85,000 high-resolution satellite images to identify any hidden structures or odd-seeming formations.
"It is undeniable that Genghis Khan changed the course of history. Yet I cannot think of another historical figure of comparable impact that we know so little about," says Lin, who is still tight-lipped about the full extent of the team’s results as they await peer review. But excitement shines through his academic caution. "Any archeological results related to the subject may shed light on a vital piece of our shared cultural heritage that has gone missing."
To reach the Khentii mountains, you drive east from the capital, Ulan Bator, passing a shimmering statue of Genghis before reaching the mining town of Baganuur. The crumbling town has all the charm of a post-Soviet Dickensian nightmare: a 10-mile-long slag heap signals the presence of the largest state-run open-pit coal mine in Mongolia. Exiting north out of town, the remains of a Soviet military base bring to mind the set of a post-apocalyptic horror movie. But once free of the city, the Kerulen River Valley, homeland of the Mongols, unfolds in all its panoramic beauty. Located on one of the main east-west routes across Central Asia, the steppe continues west to the Caspian Sea, east to Japan and northern China, circumventing the Gobi Desert that inspired nightmares for Marco Polo and other travelers.
This geography, and the forgiving climate, has made the steppe an attractive place for the nomads to live. Unlike the rest of the country, where temperatures can plummet below -40º Fahrenheit and peak above 100º F during the summer, the climate in these valleys is unusually mild. Ritual monuments and burial sites are scattered throughout the landscape. Archaeologists have found tombs on top of tombs, where different tribes from different eras have used the same ritual space.
Mongolian families still live in yurts or gers, as the traditional tents are known locally, maintaining their nomadic lifestyle. The blue sky merges with the horizon, and white yurts dot the sweeping landscape like sailboats floating on a sea of green.
From afar, the pastoral herding scene appears to have evolved very little since the Khans ruled. But times are changing. A decade of devastatingly harsh winters followed by very dry summers has crippled the livelihoods of livestock-dependent herders, who make up a third of the country’s population. Tens of thousands have migrated into city slums, while thousands of others have turned to illegal gold mining in their fight for survival. Carrying on their backs big green panning bowls for finding gold, they’re known as the ninjas because of their resemblance to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. At the same time, Mongolia is rapidly developing — in large part due to its mineral riches. By some estimates, Mongolia’s economy is the fastest growing in the world, as the nation seeks to tap its wealth of coal, copper, and gold, projected to be worth $1.3 trillion.
A satellite dish and a Chinese-made truck and motorbike sit outside one yurt, where we stop to ask for directions.
Altan Khuyag, a 53-year-old herder and forest ranger, offers us a cup of warm milky tea, insisting that we stay the night, in a typical display of Mongol friendliness. Among the nomads, reciprocal hospitality is a vital part of life on the steppe. When I ask about Genghis, he dips his ring finger into a bowl of vodka, flicking a drop to the sky, towards Tengri, the god of the blue heaven. Two more dips, two more flicks, two more ritual offerings. In Mongolia, superstition still surrounds Genghis Khan, and the hunt for his tomb often stirs heated debate. Even his name is a touchy subject. In Mongolia, Genghis Khan is known as Chinggis Khaan and is considered by many almost a god.
"He watches over us. He is why we have our good lives today," says Khuyag, hunching his shoulders as if feeling the presence from above. He, like many locals, thinks Genghis Khan is buried on a mountain in the Khentii range — a belief shared by both ancient and contemporary historians but unsupported by science or physical evidence until the discoveries made by Lin and his Mongolian partners.
Khuyag has scaled the range twice, but he believes the conqueror’s grave should be left in peace. "I don’t think people should search for his tomb, because if it is opened, the world will end."
At the very least it might create geopolitical tensions as many Chinese believe Genghis Khan was Chinese, and China claims him as their own. Indeed, a huge mausoleum has been constructed in China to hold a replica of Khan’s empty coffin, and the monument is popular with the Chinese, some of whom worship him as a semidivine ancestor.
"If Genghis Khan’s tomb is discovered in Mongolia, it will have enormous geopolitical repercussions," says John Man, the author of Genghis Khan: Life, Death, and Resurrection. "Many people in China believe Mongolia, like Tibet, should be part of China, as it was under Kublai Khan. If China succeeds in establishing mining rights in Mongolia and a dominance over that industry, then Genghis’s tomb might become a focal point for political ambitions, the like of which we have never seen."
Born into tribal nobility, Genghis — or Temujin, as he was then known — lived an epic life. As a child, he became an outcast after his father was murdered and his family ostracised. But Genghis survived and grew up to become a brilliant warrior and tactician who managed to unite warring tribes and conquer most of the then-known world. At the same time he changed society and introduced an alphabet and a central currency, making him one of the most influential people of the last millennium.
During their campaigns of conquest, soldiers raped and pillaged — and the Khans had many offspring, though only legitimate sons were counted. His son Tushi reportedly had 40 sons, while his grandson Kublai Khan had 22. When a genetic study in 2003 showed that 16 million men carry an identical Y chromosome that originates from one man who lived about 1,000 years ago, many drew the conclusion that it must have been Genghis Khan’s DNA, though there is, of course, no actual evidence of that, since his body has never been found.
Even so, the impact of Genghis Khan was without parallel. In less than 20 years he conquered lands stretching thousands of miles from the Pacific Ocean to the Caspian Sea and carried the bounty of his conquests back to Mongolia. As incentive and in payment, spoils were divided among his soldiers. After their deaths, the nobility are thought to have had the objects buried with them
because they believed they would need them in the afterlife. But little of these riches have ever been found. It’s as if they came into Mongolia and vanished.
"People imagine that [Genghis Khan’s] tomb would be filled with gold and silver, the treasure, wealth, loot from his great conquests," says Prof. Ulambayar Erdenebat, when I meet him at his office at the National University in Ulan Bator, where he heads the archaeology department. A transparent crystal belt sits on the table between us, and Erdenebat gently arranges each piece on a bed of black felt.
"This is unique. There is not another like this in the world. We discovered it in a tomb belonging to a 13th-century nobleman believed to be part of Genghis Khan’s tribe," Erdenebat explains. He opens another small jewellery box and delicately lays down a gold ornament, intricately carved with pieces as thin as thread and inlaid with ruby and turquoise. He slowly unpacks his cupboard, revealing more treasures: a pure silver cup, gold rings, buttons, and earrings, all dating from the time of Genghis Khan.
For decades archaeological expeditions to the region were thwarted by the inaccessibility of the country. After the fall of the Ching dynasty, Mongolia declared independence in 1911, though China still considered Mongolia part of its own territory. Mongolia, though, became closely aligned with the Soviet Union and in 1924 once more declared its independence with the backing of Moscow. The alignment with Moscow, however, stymied archaeological efforts as Soviet authorities persecuted and punished scholars for studying the history of Genghis Khan, fearing he could become a symbol for the opposition seeking greater independence from Moscow.
In the early 1960s, an East German–Mongol expedition found pottery shards, nails, tiles, brick, and what they thought were the foundations of a temple at a holy mountain in the area. At the summit they found hundreds of cairns, and at the highest point, iron armour, arrow points, and other offerings, but little sign of the grave.
After the demise of the Soviet empire, a Japanese-led expedition funded by the Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper flew by helicopter to the top of that mountain in a much-hyped but ultimately fruitless expedition. In 2001 an expedition led by Maury Kravitz, a retired commodities trader from Chicago, searched the area, but was forbidden by authorities from accessing the mountain. At a site called the Almsgiver’s Wall, a soldier’s tomb at a 10th-century military outpost was discovered, but the expedition was called off after a string of accidents that prompted one newspaper to write about the "curse" of the Genghis Khan tomb "striking again."
Some archaeologists suggested that the hundreds of cairns discovered in the 1960s were actually tombs. But Lin and his Mongolian partners conducted geophysical surveys to reveal there was no scientific merit in these theories.
Using innovative and advanced technologies that weren’t available to explorers in the past, the team set out to separate fact from fiction. It had the makings of a Hollywood epic, mixing the high-tech world of Jason Bourne with the Technicolour exploits of Indiana Jones.
Lin, whose fascination with Genghis Khan was sparked in 2005 during a personal trip to Mongolia to research his own heritage, felt fortunate to be the techie scientist in this action adventure. "I was lucky. I’m a scientist and engineer who stumbled across this extraordinary 800-year-old mystery," he says. "I felt that perhaps the rapid advancement of technologies might [open] up a new scientific chapter in a lost piece of world history."
Lin partnered with the International Association for Mongol Studies and the Mongolian Academy of Sciences. Three years ago the expedition, supported by the University of California, San Diego, as well as the National Geographic Society, was granted permission to explore the mountain range, and the Valley of the Khans Project was born. Their approach, Lin is keen to emphasise, maintains the integrity of the ancestral burial grounds by using noninvasive tools.
"Hopefully this opens a new chapter in the continued process of paying homage to our past through the pursuit of knowledge," says Prof. Tsogt-Ochiryn Ishdorj, a principal investigator on the project.
Looking for signs of human-made objects or material in the remote area, their excitement mounted as radar picked up the outlines of a foundation for a large structure. Small teams of field scientists and archeologists were then sent into the area to have a closer look with high-tech tools such as radar, magnetometers, and drones. They were rewarded with the thrilling discovery of arrowheads, ceramics, roof tiles, and bricks, suggesting human activity in the remote, uninhabited area. "When we extended the search area and looked more closely, we identified hundreds of artifacts scattered on the surface. We knew there must be something significant there," says Fred Hiebert, archeology fellow with National Geographic and one of the other principal investigators on the project.
When they carbon-dated their finds, the results were exciting and full of promise, seeming to fit around the time of Genghis’s life and death. "Material dating of some samples indicates 13th- and 14th-century origins, though the full analysis of data is still underway," says Hiebert.
If these initial but intriguing research results are confirmed, it would be the first scientific evidence in 800 years of speculation surrounding the whereabouts of the tomb of Genghis Khan, one of history’s most enduring mysteries.
"We must use science to fill the gaps in the historical record—it is critical towards the understanding of our past and the preservation of the future," says Prof. Shagdaryn Bira, a world-renowned expert on the subject and an investigator with the project.
"The fact that we found something that seems to corroborate those legends is extraordinary," adds Lin.
Just don’t count the gold coins quite yet. The next steps are not that simple. The area is highly restricted and under close government control, and the team is working closely with the authorities regarding any finds.
"We do not want to excavate the site," says Lin. "We believe it should be protected as an UNESCO World Heritage site to ensure that the temple and the area are not looted or destroyed." It is a sentiment echoed by the other project scientists as well as by Mongolian officials.
"In everybody’s heart, we have already registered the site as the most important heritage site in Mongolia," says Oyungerel Tsedevdamba, the Mongolian minister of culture.
Officials are right to be concerned, as grave robbing in Mongolia is a growing problem, with middlemen driving around the countryside and paying locals to dig up burial sites. The looted artifacts are then smuggled out of the country and sold at markets in Hong Kong and China, says Erdenebat, the professor at the National University in Ulan Bator.
Turning to a cupboard, Erdenebat pulls out a collapsing cardboard box from which a bone precariously protrudes. "This is all that’s left from one burial site that was recently raided in Bayankhongor province. They took anything they assumed had value and left the bones, boots, and clothes," he says, as he lays down a crumbling 13th-century leather boot along with the owner’s shinbone.
"It’s impossible to know how many graves are being looted, but it must be in the thousands. All we do know is that it’s getting worse," says Erdenebat. "Take Bayangol province. They’ve been having some harsh winters and no rain in the summers for years, and their herds are dying. With nothing left, the herders are starting to dig up their graves searching for gold. It’s survival."
On the streets of Ulan Bator, it is clear that Mongolia is still in the throes of the Genghis mania that began after the fall of the Soviet Union as Mongolians sought to reestablish their own identity; many Mongolians see Genghis Khan as the father of modern Mongolia and, crucially, as a symbol of their independence. The capital’s airport is named Genghis Khan International Airport, and there is a Genghis Khan Hotel. A university and a line of popular energy drinks, as well as dozens of brands of vodka, also bear the conqueror’s name.
A visit to a few local antique shops confirms that officials are right to be worried about looting, with shopkeepers only too willing to sell off ill-gotten relics. At one shop tucked away on aptly named Tourist Street in downtown Ulan Bator, the owner offers a gold piece even finer than that in Erdenebat’s collection. With a price tag of $35,000, he claims it’s been dug up from a grave in Khentii province. Other items include an elegant stirrup engraved with dragons and possibly used by one of Genghis’s generals. It is priced at $10,000. A water jug in bronze and dating from the same era is marked at $30,000. The most expensive item, though, is a $180,000 three-inch gold carved horse from the Hunnu period "excavated" in the Kerulen Valley, the homeland of the Mongols.
"Our main buyers are Chinese," the store owner explains. "They send Mongolians from Inner Mongolia to buy for their new museums. Last week someone offered $80,000 for the Hunnu horse, but I didn’t accept it." He then offers a bit of unsolicited smuggling advice: "If you want to buy this horse, then just wear it as a necklace when you go through customs, and no one will stop you."
In the heart of the capital, Genghis Khan sits, like Abraham Lincoln, near the seat of government. Outside the capital, a stainless-steel statue weighing in at 250 tons depicts him atop his steed, poised to ride across the steppe once more. Tourists can take an elevator up through the statue and exit at the crotch to gaze out over his domain. "Every nation has a symbol of their heroes, and he is a symbol of our nation," says Battulga Khaltmaa, a former judo world champion and now the Mongolian minister of industry and agriculture, who erected the shimmering monument. "I built the statue to celebrate 800 years of the Mongol state and to bring the history of Genghis Khan ... to the younger generation and make them proud of their past."