Archaeologists Map Ruins of Karakorum, Capital of the Mongol Empire, for the First Time

Genghis Khan founded the city, located in what is now central Mongolia, around 1220 C.E.

A view of the Orkhon River valley under a blue sky
Karakorum served as the capital of the Mongol Empire during the 13th century. In the 16th century, the Buddhist Erdene Zuu monastery (pictured) was erected on the ruins of the city. Aloxe via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY-SA 3.0

The ruins of Karakorum, the 13th-century capital of the Mongol Empire, are still visible on the Earth’s surface today. But scholars have long ignored this physical evidence. Instead, descriptions of the city—located in what is now central Mongolia—have relied largely on written accounts by European travelers.

Archaeologists’ understanding of Karakorum, in other words, is overdue for an update. Now, for the first time ever, researchers have drawn on advanced geophysics methods to publish a detailed map of the capital. The findings, published this week in the journal Antiquity, greatly expand scholars’ knowledge of the abandoned Eurasian city, reports Garry Shaw for the Art Newspaper.

Archaeologists Map Ruins of Karakorum, Capital of the Mongol Empire, for the First Time
Ögödei Khan, the son and successor of Genghis Khan, as depicted by a 14th-century artist Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The settlement itself dates to around 1220 C.E., when Genghis Khan established a camp of yurts at a point where the Orkhon River valley transitions into leveler pastures. A skilled commander and the fabled uniter of the nomadic steppe tribes, he recognized the strategic potential of the camp’s location.

After Genghis Khan’s death in 1227, his son and successor Ögödei chose the same location to serve as the capital of the empire, per Encyclopedia Britannica. In Karakorum, as it came to be known, Ögödei and subsequent khans constructed a lavish palace and played host to diplomats, traders, Chinese artisans, Muslim merchants and other travelers along the Silk Road.

Lead author Jan Bemmann, an archaeologist at the University of Bonn, and his team spent 52 days surveying an area of 465 hectares with a SQUID, or superconducting quantum interference device. (The technology measures topography and underground magnetic fields to create a map of unexcavated remains below the surface, according to Heritage Daily.) The team then combined this data with aerial photographs, historical records and previous surveys, generating a detailed view of Karakorum’s density and structure.

Archaeologists Map Ruins of Karakorum, Capital of the Mongol Empire, for the First Time
A new topographic map as (a) absolute and (b) relative altitude representation, with (c) section through the most elevated areas S. Linzen / Antiquity

Speaking with the Art Newspaper, Bemmann notes that the new map allows researchers to identify where large brick buildings once stood and where roads once cut through the terrain. The team was also able to locate elite neighborhoods within the city walls.

“The great gain from our project is that we can now view the plan of the abandoned city in enormous detail, both above and below ground,” the archaeologist says.

Previous studies of Karakorum had mostly confined themselves to inside the city walls. But Bemmann’s team found that the Mongol capital extended much further into the Orkhon River valley than previously thought. Supply settlements, production sites, residences and other networks spread out along the region.

“Therefore, we are not only talking about an imperial city, but about an imperial valley,” Bemmann tells the Art Newspaper.

Archaeologists Map Ruins of Karakorum, Capital of the Mongol Empire, for the First Time
In the 18th century, a Dutch artist created this rendering of what the "silver tree" in Karakorum's central palace, as described by Flemish monk Willam of Rubruck, may have looked like.  Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

William of Rubruck, a Flemish Franciscan monk, toured Karakorum in 1254 and penned an account of his travels. According to the University of Washington, his writings constitute one of the earliest and most detailed descriptions of the Mongol Empire from a Westerner’s perspective.

As Abigail Tucker wrote for Smithsonian magazine in 2009, the monk was captivated by the grandeur of Karakorum’s great palace. He was especially impressed by a great silver fountain in the shape of a tree that stood in the palace entryway. When called upon, servants would use the fountain to dispense drinks such as wine, clarified mare’s milk, a honey drink and rice mead.

Karakorum’s riches owed much to the Mongol Empire’s military might. “Everything the warriors could extract from [captured] territories they did, from talent to goods,” explains Ruth Schuster for Haaretz. Bemmann adds that the Mongols “collected the best people from central Asia and moved them to the core Mongol area,” where they were forced to help construct and support the growing city.

Archaeologists Map Ruins of Karakorum, Capital of the Mongol Empire, for the First Time
A preliminary reconstruction of the road system within and leading to Karakorum J. Bemmann and S. Reichert / Antiquity

“The Mongols really were nomadic and stayed nomadic,” Bemmann tells Haaretz. “They were not city developers,” so they relied on their captives to advise them. Interestingly, a full 40 percent of the land within Karakorum’s city walls was left empty.

By the 15th century, Karakorum had been all but abandoned. Experts discovered the city’s precise location in 1889, but little archaeological work has taken place at the site in the decades since.

“It was astonishing to witness the growing extent of the map day by day, and with that the digital reconstruction of Karakorum,” says Bemmann, as quoted by Medievalists.net. “With every day, with every new piece of the city added to the map, our understanding of the city grew.”