Archaeologists Debunk Myth: Mongols Had Cities, but Not for Themselves

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An aerial view of Orkhon River Valley.
The Orkhon River Valley, where Genghis Khan wanted his city builtCredit: He-ba-mue
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

Almost 800 years ago, warriors on horseback galloped out of northern Mongolia, conquering much of Asia. The only reason they didn’t sweep on into Western Europe and crush it like a bug was apparently a protracted spell of cold.

Study of a long-gone culture is usually based on historical and physical records. The Mongols did keep records and the neighbors wrote quite a lot about them. But the great and mighty Mongol Empire is supposed to be “invisible” in archaeology because they stayed on their steeds and scorned permanence.

In fact the Mongols did have cities, sort of. The central Asian steppe has not a few Mongol-era monuments, forts and more. And on the northern edge of the Gobi Desert, not far from Ulaanbaatar in the heart of today’s Mongolia, Genghis Khan, aka Chinggis Khan, chose a site for his capital city, Karakorum.

But Karakorum didn’t arise through the usual mundane process of a settlement evolving into a village evolving into a town. It arose from nothing, an artificial implant. Karakorum was also much bigger than had been thought until now, spilling beyond the city’s defensive walls to the foothills, says a new paper published in Antiquity this week. But what exactly is an “implanted” city?

A model of Karakorum. Credit: Brcke-Osteuropa

When the emperor suddenly needs a city

Given the consistently nomadic lifestyle of the Mongol fighters, it is perhaps ironic that the word “horde” stems from the Turkic for palace, a sedentary place.

The great army known to posterity as the Golden Horde (for the color of their yurts) took shape after the unification of Mongol and Turkic tribes on the Mongolian plateau.

It has even become a cliché that, being nomads, the Mongols led a minimalist lifestyle, not hauling around more than they need. They didn’t build cities, they destroyed them, goes the narrative. In Israeli circles, the paucity of archaeological remains from the vast Mongol empire has been suggested as a model for why we don’t find clear remains of the great United Monarchy from King David’s time – i.e., maybe it isn’t that David and the monarchy didn’t exist, but that the ancient Jews were still largely a roaming folk.

It is apparently true that the Mongols didn’t build cities, at least not for themselves, according to the analysis by Prof. Jan Bemmann of the Rhenish Friedrich Wilhelm University of Bonn and colleagues in Antiquity. Indeed, Bemmann confirms, they led a nomadic life. But the emperor needed a place to centralize his rule over their growing empire.

Thus in the year 1220, the founder of the great empire Genghis Khan chose a nice site for a capital, where the Orkhon River Valley transitions into pasture. And there on the bucolic plain the city of Karakorum was built by his son and successor, Ögödei, though construction would be completed only by Möngke Khan, the authors explain.

Karakoram (Kharkhorin)Credit: Google Maps

Karakorum was not the only Mongol city but, Bemmann explains, it was the first and most important one, and it was built by the Mongols’ captives using “captured” materials.

Everything the warriors could extract from the territories they did, from talent to goods, and brought back to Karakorum. “All the booty and embassies too had to go there,” he says.

This is not pure conjecture or even deduction. William of Rubruck, a Franciscan friar and French envoy, visited in the year 1254 and described it as a walled city with four gates that was peopled by foreigners: Chinese artisans, Muslim merchants and captives from all over the empire. The archaeologists’ finds support that description, adding that occupation extended far beyond the walls.

Gold bracelet found at Karakorum Credit: Jan Bemmann, Antiquity

“Implanted urbanization” is a term the archaeologists coined for this strange phenomenon of a city in which the inhabitants were all basically prisoners who were forced to build a city using materials from elsewhere, except for the mud used to build the simple folk’s homes, and that was fired into bricks to build the palace. The mud was local.

“The Mongols collected the best people from central Asia and moved them to the core Mongol area,” Bemmann says: everyone from artisans to astronomers, mainly from former Soviet republics and Afghanistan.

Twice a year, the team writes, the Khan would come to the city and stay in his palace – which was only built in 1235, about 15 years after the city first began to rise on the Mongolian plain. He wouldn’t stay for long, but Genghis’ heir Ögödei encouraged the Mongol elites to build brick houses near the palace. The city became not only the focus of power and administration but of long-distance trade, which rather changes the image of the archaeologically invisible Mongol Empire.

When nomads plan a city

Mapping the implanted city using a SQUID (Superconducting Quantum Interference Device) and aerial imaging, rather than shovels and sweat, led the archaeologists to realize that Karakorum was much bigger than had been thought.

Karakorum map: Erdene Zuu is a monastery built on the ruins of the Khan's palaceCredit: Esri, DigitalGlobe, GeoEye, Eart

They also discovered that about 40 percent of the land enclosed by defensive walls remained empty.

“The Mongols really were nomadic and stayed nomadic. They were not city developers,” Bemmann says. That was one of the things captives were for. Asked whether the implanted city arising from nothing was a copy of a town somewhere else, he suggests that it may have started that way. The first generation of nomadic Mongol leaders wouldn’t have known where to begin, so that made sense. But then the next generation of nomad rulers likely tapped their captive experts and took their advice. To a degree.

Karakorum has whiffs of influences from Chinese and central Asian urban construction, but ultimately the city is Mongol in character. For example, the palace is in the city’s southmost section. “The emperor had a good view of the south,” Bemmann observes. In China, the palace would have been in the city center or north – which, among the Mongols, is where they placed their dead.

As for that vast empty tract within the walls, it remains a mystery. The city in general was low density, and possibly that empty space was reserved for transient yurts; in any case it was clearly not permanently occupied. In contrast to the notion that campsites of nomadic societies leave no traces, Bemmann explains – they do: any pedestrian survey would find some artifacts. Also, nomads tend to return to the same campsites and over time, and the earth becomes compacted. Not so here.

“Maybe when the khan came to the city for 10 days or two weeks his personal retinue and bodyguards, about 1,000 people, would set up their yurts in that area,” he surmises – and in such brief interludes they would not have left any traces.

A wild camel in the wilds of Mongolia.Credit: Kelapstick

So there we have it. Far from having no cities, the Mongol emperors had several on the steppe, including this capital, not quite a prefab city but almost, built by captive craftsmen and labor. Its layout of roads and structures attests to planning, but Mongol-style, not Chinese.

And the city ended as cities end. It isn’t that it was destroyed by some peeved or vengeful enemy. After the empire split into four khanates in 1260, Karakorum would continue to serve as the capital of one of the four: the Yuan Empire – which soon had a new capital city of its own, Dadu. Which would become Beijing. Karakorum would soldier on as the major city of the Gobi Desert and even gained some new public buildings. And then in the 14th century, the Yuan Empire imploded. In 1586, a Buddhist monastery was built on the land of the ex-palace and the rest of the city would be left to the encroachment of the desert and its creatures, from the viper to the ibex and the wild camel, and would be lost.

It was never forgotten per se, being mentioned in historic records around the region, the authors add. And it was found again by one Nikola Yadrintsev in 1889. A subsequent archaeological expedition drew the first map of the city in almost 800 years. But until the coming of the SQUID, none saw the true vast dimensions of this Mongol city implanted in the middle of nowhere, with its great span of nothing inside, for the greater convenience of the great Mongol emperors.

The Karakorum tortoise.Credit: Frithjof Spangenberg

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