Genghis Khan’s Treasures

Beneath the ruins of Genghis Khan’s capital city in Central Asia, archaeologists discovered artifacts from cultures near and far

One of the riches found at Khara Khorum, this gold alloy bracelet dates from the 14th century. It is decorated with a phoenix flanked by demons. (Courtesy of the Institute of Archaeology of the Mongolian Academy of Sciences)

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Just as they were inspired by the cities that they conquered, the Mongols were influenced by the Chinese and Arab civilizations that they absorbed.

“Nomads are not dogmatic,” says Bill Honeychurch, a Yale University archaeologist. “They had the idea that you can learn from people you’ve brought into the fold.” From these pieces the Mongols forged a culture of their own. “They didn’t just adopt, they synthesized and acquired, and the end result was something unique and different.”

As it turned out, Khara Khorum was a less than ideal site for a city. “There wasn’t sufficient food or resources,” Rossabi says. Five hundred carts of supplies were brought in each day to feed a population that grew along with the empire, which by the mid-thirteenth century would stretch from Hungary to the shores of the Pacific. Genghis’s grandson, Kublai Khan, eventually moved the capital city to Beijing and built a summer palace at Shangdu -- the “stately pleasure dome” of Samuel Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” poem.

“You can’t rule a population of 75 million from Mongolia,” Rossabi says. “Kublai was trying to ingratiate himself with the Chinese, playing down the foreignness of his dynasty to win over his subjects.”

Khara Khorum began to fade, although the Khans periodically returned to the city on the steppe. After the Mongols were expelled from China in the fourteenth century, they briefly made the city their center again; in 1388 the Chinese obliterated it. The site remained important to various Mongol clans and in 1586 Abtaj Khan built a large Buddhist monastery there.

The Palace of the Great Khan, archaeologists now think, lies beneath the remains of this complex, much of which was destroyed by Mongolia’s Communist leadership in the 1930s. Its silver fountain may never be recovered, but to historians the real fascination of the Mongols’ city is that it existed at all.

“It is kind of amazing that they conceived of, or accepted, the idea of setting up a permanent structure,” Rossabi says. If the Khans hadn’t “moved toward having an administrative capital, the empire wouldn’t have succeeded so readily.”

About Abigail Tucker

A frequent contributor to Smithsonian, Abigail Tucker is writing a book about the house cat.

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