Last time, we left off just after Dan and the team had survived a wild sand storm, and finished mapping the site of Shaazan Khot, a Mongol Empire trade center. They broke camp and started on their way to the Orkhon River Valley, and the fabled capitol of the Mongol Empire—Kharkhorum.
Years later I realized a paved road runs all the way from Ulaanbaatar to the fabled monastery of Erdene Zuu in the Orhkon Valley—we didn’t take the paved road. Our route was far more circuitous involving a river crossing and careful navigation through marshes. Our back door approach was designed to allow stops at the Turk ceremonial complex at Khoshoo Tsaidam, the Uighur Empire capitol at Khar Balgas, multiple outlying palaces, tombs, several unnamed sites, and, of course, Kharakhorum, the Mongol Empire capitol. These places are the reason the valley looms large in Mongolian history and forms a strong part of the national identity today. Recently, the Parliament even considered moving the capitol from Ulaanbaatar to the Orhkon Valley. What a project that would be!
Moving a capitol or establishing a new one sounds like a daunting task, but it happened several times in the history of Mongolia. For instance, shortly after A.D. 750 at the birth of the Uighur Empire, the king adopted the Manichaeanism religion and had these words carved in granite: “we will transform this land of smoke and blood into a place where everyone eats vegetables.” His mission statement was a radical one, considering that almost everyone for thousands of kilometers in every direction subsisted mostly on the products of herds—milk and meat. Yes, agriculture was practiced, but it wasn’t the foundation. For a time, the Uighurs changed that. In a broad section of the valley, they laid out a city and built a grand capitol with a wall enclosing an area of 25 square kilometers! Ordu Balik, now known as Khar Balgas (Black Ruins), was by far the largest ancient city in Inner Asia, rivaled in modern times only by Ulaanbaatar. Within the Ordu Balik walls there were residential districts, public buildings along broad streets, and a citadel housing the royal palace. In 821 the Arab traveler, Tamîn ibn Bahr, noted that beyond the city walls there were closely spaced villages practicing agriculture (Mackerras 1972; Minorsky 1947; Rogers et al. 2005). Today the walls have mostly melted or been plowed away by modern agriculture. Only the citadel remains tall on the landscape. The king’s dictum came true, but only for a time. Less than 100 years later the city was in ruins and the granite pronouncement lay broken and scattered.
Feeling like brazen commoners treading on royal grounds, we unloaded the van and set up camp near the moat surrounding the citadel. Here we spent two days studying the layout of the city and the methods used to construct the walls. The next day we continued on to Kharakhorum and the adjacent monastery of Erdene Zuu. These places are tourist destinations, especially Erdene Zuu.
If you travel to Mongolia you must visit Erdene Zuu. If you blink, however, you may just miss the fact that the monastery is adjacent to the ruins of the capitol of the Mongol Empire. If you go out the back gate of Erdene Zuu you will see a mostly flat field with thorn bushes and a few piles of earth and broken roof tiles. You are now looking at the ruins of Kharakhorum, established in 1206 by Genghis Khan as the capitol of the rapidly expanding Mongol Empire. In stark contrast to the vast Uighur capitol, the new capitol of the largest and most powerful empire on Earth was only about one square kilometer. After the days of Genghis Khan, the succeeding Mongol khans held court here and accepted such emissaries as Friar John of Plano Carpini sent by Pope Innocent IV in the spring of 1245 and Brother William of Rubric sent by the French prince St Louis at Acre in 1253. The Europeans were there to find out who the Mongols were—they were spies. Fear had spread through Europe following news of the Russian defeats and the destruction of Pole, German, and Magyar armies at the hands of the strangers from the East. A copy of the letter from the Pope to Güyüg Khan carried by John of Plano Carpini is now in the Vatican Archives (Dawson 1955). The Pope explains, at length, the Catholic saints and recommends that the Khan convert to Christianity. In a simple to the point response, the Khan replies, “Thou, who art the great Pope, together with all the Princes, come in person to serve us.” We do not know the Pope’s exact reaction, but we do know that he did not travel to Kharakhorum.
Genghis Khan and the Mongols were not barbarians, although it is easy to see why they might be portrayed that way, since the histories about them were mostly written by the defeated. Genghis Khan’s mission statement was simple: to fulfill the destiny of the Mongols to bring all nations under their rule. The only surviving book written by a Mongol author of the day is titled, “The Secret History of the Mongols” (Cleaves 1982) and recounts the rise of Genghis Khan. Jack Weatherford has written a good accessible book drawing heavily on the “Secret History”. Give it a read if you want the inside story on the Mongol Empire.
In the next installment of “Travels in Mongolia” the minivan roars beyond the Orhkon Valley to chart lesser known places in the mountains and forests of the north.
-J. Daniel Rogers
Cleaves, Francis W, ed. and trans. The Secret History of the Mongols. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982.
Dawson, Christopher H. The Mongol Mission: Narratives and Letters of the Franciscan Missionaries in Mongolia and China in the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries. New York: Sheed and Ward, 1955.
Mackerras, Colin. The Uighur Empire According to the T’ang Dynastic Histories. Canberra: Australian National University, 1972.
Minorsky, V. “Tamîn Ibn Bahr’s Journey to the Uyghurs.” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 12, no. 1 (1947): 275–305.
Rogers, J. Daniel, Erdenebat Ulambayar, and Mathew Gallon. “Urban Centres and the Emergence of Empires in Eastern Inner Asia.” Antiquity 79 (2005): 801–818.
Weatherford, Jack. Genghis Kahn and the Making of the Modern World. New York: Crown Publishers, 2004.