Israeli Archaeologists Shed New Light on Great Wall of Mongolia

The monumental wall running almost 750 kilometers in Mongolia and China wasn’t built to fend off Genghis Khan and his horde but to control mass migrations of climate refugees, archaeologists suggest

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Aerial view of a fort (square) and possible animal pen (round) along the Great Wall of Mongolia: such forts were built every 30 kilometers
Aerial view of a fort (square) and possible animal pen (round) along the Great Wall of Mongolia: such forts were built every 30 kilometersCredit: Nachem Doron

The Great Wall of China is one of the most prominent mysteries on the face of the planet. We can see it from outer space, yet surprisingly little is known about much of it. What purpose did the Great Wall of China really serve, whose purpose did it serve, and when did it serve said purpose?

In fact, the so-called great wall is a series of ancient high walls uncomfortably grouped under the soubriquet “Great Wall of China” in today’s China and Mongolia, and a bit in Russia and North Korea too. The earliest one dates to 2,500 years ago and the latest was erected in the 17th century. Their purpose has been assumed to have been defensive.

Now, an unusual collaboration of Israeli, Mongolian and American archaeologists propose that at least one of these great walls – dubbed the “Genghis Khan Wall” and stretching almost 750 kilometers (466 miles) from Mongolia to China – doesn’t have the hallmarks of a military installation. Nor does it separate between ecological regions, as had been suggested by some: the ecology on both sides is much the same.

Map of the many Great Walls of China: the Mongolian one is the northern-mostCredit: Maximilian Drrbecker / (Chumw

This great wall may have been built – and fast at that – to control vast migrations by nomads in a climatically challenging time, propose Prof. Gideon Shelach-Lavi and a multidisciplinary team from the Hebrew University, with Otgonjargal Batzorig of the Mongolian company Oyu Tolgoi Mines, Chunag Amartuvshin of the Mongolian Academy of Sciences and William Honeychurch of Yale.

The collaboration reported on surveying the “understudied” stretch in Mongolia, erected during the medieval period, and the discovery of clues to its functions, in the journal of Antiquity

Genghis Khan and the great walls

In total, the “great walls” built over more than 2,000 years stretch 21,196 kilometers, according to the China Highlights website, which qualifies that the calculation is downside because it doesn’t count sections built on older ones, or isolated sections. Some segments were later connected.

The new report relates to the 737 kilometer-long structure in Mongolia dubbed the “Genghis Khan Wall,” though it seems Genghis Khan (aka Chinggis Khaan) or fear of him had nothing to do with its construction.

Genghis Khan, against whom the Great Wall of Mongolia was not builtCredit: Nachem Doron
Excavators' campsite in MongoliaCredit: Nachem Doron

Let us describe it first: The Great Wall of Mongolia is the northernmost of the great walls and, like most of the rest, it stretches east-west. About half of it is in Mongolia; it continues into China, passes through Russia (southeast Siberia) and ends back in China. There has been some archaeological investigation of this wall by Mongolian, Chinese and Russian archaeologists.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the eminent Chinese historian Wang Guowei suggested that after the rise of the fierce nomad chief Genghis Khan in the 13th century, the terrified Jin dynasty built the walls to stop him. Not that it worked, and ultimately one of Khan’s horde of grandchildren would conquer all of China. However, the consensus now and the opinion of the team is that the Mongolian wall predated the Mongol horde by a century or two.

The argument then turned to whether the Mongolian wall was built by the Khitan-Liao dynasty (907-1125) or the Jin dynasty (1115–1234). For all the vast labor that went into their construction, no dynasty whatsoever left behind records of building it, let alone why.

Yet it is now widely agreed that it dates to the Liao period. Their new surveys and analysis support that thesis, the team writes.

Asked if the Great Wall of Mongolia might have been erected in stages by both the Liao and Jin dynasties, Shelach-Lavi says evidently not: it seems to have been built during one period, though research continues.

“It’s very systematic, with a fort every 30 kilometers. It’s all very consistent,” he tells Haaretz. “It definitely looks like one monument, and was built fast. Historic documents on the Liao show they could recruit a big workforce. The historic records show, for example, that they could enlist 200,000 people to construct roads or other projects. Maybe building the wall took a few years, but that’s all.”

Aerial view of ancient fort and possible animal pen built along the Great Wall of MongoliaCredit: Nachem Doron
The eroded remains of the Great Wall of MongoliaCredit: Nachem Doron

It wasn’t made of stone, he elaborates: there were none in that area. It was fashioned from pounded earth covered with plaster, which sounds vulnerable to the archaeologically uninitiated. But actually a structure made of robustly pounded earth structure can survive thousands of years of weathering, Shelach-Lavi explains. Though indeed the Mongolian wall has eroded to a maximal height of about a meter today compared with an estimated theoretical historic height of 2 or 3 meters, he says.

A Chinese tradition

The earliest of the great walls is the 600-kilometer Great Wall of Qi, which had been postulated to date to the seventh century B.C.E., but is now believed to have been erected in the fifth century B.C.E. That was made of stone, and much of it still stands. It stretches from the present-day city Jinan to Qingdao. Many more great walls would be built after it, mostly in China and some in eastern Mongolia, with bits in the territory of southern Siberia and North Korea.

The Mongolian wall wasn’t erected by a Chinese dynasty: neither the Jian nor the Liao were Chinese dynasties but were polities of nomadic people related to the Mongols, called the Khitan people. The Khitan had their own language, which was related to Mongolian, and their own writing. The dynasties controlled northern china and much of what is now Mongolia, and adopted certain characteristics of their southern Chinese neighbors but maintained their nomadic identity, Shelach-Lavi says.

“The Khitan established five capital cities and their ruler would travel between them by season, roaming with the migration of the people,” he says. “These ‘cities’ were walls within which they put up tents.”

In other words, classical thinking that the Great Wall of Mongolia had been erected to protect hapless Chinese farmers from nomadic marauders from the steppes is likely off, the team suggests. It was apparently built because of issues between the nomadic, pastoralist peoples in the steppe, though it followed a tradition dating back centuries of building great walls in China.

To be sure, the Great Wall of Qi was a border wall; so was the latest wall, built by the Ming dynasty from the 15th to 17th century, which was intended to stop armies, and did, Shelach-Lavi says.

Great Wall of China, built by the Ming Dynasty Credit: Thomas Peter/REUTERS
Bactrian camels in on the steppes in MongoliaCredit: Nachem Doron

“The Liao knew the tradition and certainly were influenced by it, but even if the construction itself was influenced by the Chinese, it was located 800 kilometers north and westward of the traditional walls,” he says.

Which leads to a key argument over why the Mongolian wall was built.

It did sport square fort-like structures every 30 kilometers. But the sparse archaeological evidence found on the ground indicating sparse occupation, and the fact that much of the wall runs along low-lying land rather than the commanding heights of mountains, argues against a purely defensive role against invading enemies. So what was it for?

Flint tools and no coins

The new study relies on surveying by satellite and drones, and boots on the ground, focusing on a section of the northern wall in Dornod Province, northeastern Mongolia. The results of two excavation seasons suggest that the region was occupied in two periods: the prehistoric, attested by stone flint tools; and the medieval period when the wall was built.

Eroded line of the Great Wall of Mongolia, and horsesCredit: Nachem Doron

The stone tools predate the wall by thousands of years and have nothing to do with it. Then there are meager remains, including pottery fragments, from the construction period. “There was nothing else, no cities or settlements that left archaeological remains, other than these two periods,” Shelach-Lavi says. “That shows the wall was established in a very sparsely occupied place.”

They found no coins, but not for lack of trying. Asked what they deduce from that, Shelach-Lavi answers, “Only that we didn’t find any.” Some excavation within the wall and structures didn’t produce any coins either, though coinage was in circulation during the Liao and Jin dynasties. Maybe some will be found in future digs there.

Holistically, the team claims the Great wall of Mongolia wasn’t built for defensive purposes per se, but to control mass migration of peoples. The nomadic peoples of the steppes were vulnerable to climatic conditions from drought to freeze, and would move en masse when necessary. 

“Our thinking is that the wall was meant to control mass migrations of refugees,” Shelach-Lavi sums up. People could only cross the great wall through the structures every 30 kilometers, in a controlled manner in which they might have been taxed in exchange for passage, he suggests.

At the postulated crossing points, the archaeologists also found ruined circular wall structures that they think may have been pens for animals, which could have served for taxation purposes.

In future work, the team plans to test ground samples for animal remains, in labs in Israel and in Cambridge, England. It’s hard to say when. For the moment, the archaeological investigation of the Great Wall of Mongolia bogged down because of the coronavirus.

Campsite in evening on the vast steppe of MongoliaCredit: Nachem Doron