U.Erdenebat: Karakorum is the world capital in the Medieval Period

The Mongol Messenger
2020-09-04 15:52:02

This year marks 800th anniversary of the establishment of Karakorum, capital city of the Mongol Empire. The ancient city of Karakorum reached the peak of its prosperity as a capital city under the rules of Ogedei Khaan and Munkh Khaan of the Great Mongol Empire, which stretched from Eastern Europe to Western Asia. Later Biligt Khan Ayushiridara, the eldest son of Togoontumur, who is the last Khaan of Yuan Dynasty, attempted to rebuild the city as “Norther Yuan”.  We sat down with Dr. Erdenebat Ulambayar, Archaeology and Anthropology Department of the National University of Mongolia to talk about Karakorum city. 

  • Archaeology is Mongolia’s one of the most successfully developing scientific fields of study that is yielding results through its studies at international level. Archaeological research project on the Karakorum city of the Mongol Empire was launched 20 years ago. Let’s start talking about this, shall we?

People are well-aware of Karakorum, the capital city of the Great Mongol Empire, established by Chinggis Khaan. However, the past seven decades have seen a few archaeological excavations and studies on the Karakorum city ruins, mostly funded by foreign sources with insufficient works to promote the findings obtained by those studies to the public, especially to the Mongolians themselves. Therefore, a Mongolian research team led by Dovdoin Bayar, Ph. D, prominent Mongolian archaeologist and historian, and German archaeological expedition jointly launched a project to study Karakorum city. I was also included in the project, which additionally sought to discover historical sites on the Orkhon Valley, besides Karakorum. We worked to study the Orkhon Valley and structures and locations of Karakorum city, which are the first sites of Mongolia to undergo archaeological studies, implying that the history of Karakorum city has an important connection to the development of archaeology and ancient studies in Mongolia. 

  • The second edition of your book titled 'Karakorum Ancient Capital of Mongolia' was published earlier this year. What would you tell about your book? 

The book contains all types of data and facts on the history of establishment of Karakorum city as well as causes led to the city’s prosperity and decline, etc. Historical sources, archaeological discoveries and rare items on the Karakorum city and its history are included in the book. 

  • This year marks 800th anniversary of the Karakorum city establishment. What kind of activities are on the plan to mark the anniversary? 

Works of the joint archaeological expedition of Mongolia and German in the last 20 years have been quite effective. For this reason, we are concentrating on raising public awareness of the results of our works and research to the public and the book.  “Karakorum Ancient Capital of Mongolia” is one of them. In addition, we managed to unveil the archaeological ruins on the ground as exhibits for the first time in Mongolia while attempting to protect them. We also had studied and excavated the location of the site to the ruins of Buddhist temples in Karakorum city, looking into the materials used for building the temples. The museum founded as a result enabled local and foreign tourists to visit the temples by themselves, allowing them to gain understanding of the scope of them. As present-day Kharkhorin soum of Uvurkhangai aimag, where Karakorum city was located, is considered as central tourism region of Mongolia, the works performed by the scholars serve as tourist products in some way. 

  • The Karakorum Museum is essentially one of the major achievements of your research works made in the past 20 years, isn’t it?

Of course, it is. The Museum named after the ancient city of Karakorum was established with non-refundable aid from Japan. The first-ever international-standard history, archaeological museum in Mongolia displays rare valuable items found from the Orkhon Valley and ruins of Karakorum city.  The museum, which holds permanent and temporary exhibition halls and outdoor exhibition space, maintains close collaboration with international scholars and teams. 

  • Why did Chinggis Khaan declare the location of the capital of the Great Mongol Empire to be in the Orkhon Valley? 

It is a significant issue that a lot of people ask of. The city is deemed to be founded upon Ogedei Khaan’s order. However, Chinggis Khaan in 1220 already set the location of the Great Mongol Empire to be in the Orkhon Valley, according to several historical sources. And the actual building of the city surrounded by its walls belongs to the period ruled by Ogedei Khaan. A group of historians supposed that nomads are people who have no knowledge of settled culture, despise cities and towns, and only conducts to destroy or demolish. Tangible results of many years of archaeological studies concluded that this assumption is false as there are numerous facts found to prove that the Mongols had intricate policy measures to rebuild war-torn or damaged cities and bolster their economies. Some sources indicate that the city of Lun or Luut of the Hunnu Empire (Xiongnu), the first state in the Central Asia, was situated in the Orkhon Valley, where remains of the Ordu-Baliq or Karabalghasunt, the capital of the first Uyghur Khaganate and remains of memorials to Bilge Khan, Fourth Qaghan of the Second Turkic Khaganate and general and prince Kul Tigin are found as well. Therefore, the Orkhon Valley is considered as an accepted land where the powerful nomadic states that had existed on the Mongolian territory built the palaces of their rulers. This suggests that the reason behind why Karakorum, the capital of the empire in the 13th century was built in the Orkhon Valley correlates with the traditional beliefs supported by the ancient nomads.


  • What were the most important roles played by Karakorum city in the history? 

There are dozens of books written on this topic. The most important aspects are that Karakorum city development reached its highest point during the period of Ogedei and Munkh Khaans. Since then, in 1260, Kublai Khaan and Ariq Boke Khan came on the scene to the throne of the Mongol Empire. The conflict between the brothers eventually ended with the defeat of Ariq Boke Khan. Starting 1271, Kublai Khaan named his empire Yuan and moved founded its capital in modern-day Beijing city of China. Thereafter, Karakorum city never managed to flourish to the same level of the periods ruled by previous Khans. Karakorum is the most influential city of the Mongol Empire that has become the symbol of beliefs, unity and sovereignty of the Mongols.   

  • Is it true that this unity and globalization are embodied in the religious diversity in Karakorum? 

The religious lives taking place in the temples and monasteries of the Karakorum city made impression on the visitors to the city. Regarding the temples and monasteries of the city, European missionary and explorer Guillaume de Rubrouck described as a religiously tolerant place, having twelve pagan temples, two mosques, as well as a Nestorian church. It can demonstrate that Karakorum city’s various churches and temples allowed residents to freely enjoy their own choice of religious beliefs and practices. One of very smart principles observed by the Khaan was that they never tolerated discrimination of people on the basis of their religion. As such, Karakorum was the first capital city that embraced religious diversity and decreed religious freedom for everyone. There is even a record that Munkh Khaan allowed organizing a debate among various religions for the first time. 

  • You mean, the first time in the world?

It can be considered as the first ever peaceful and theoretical religious debate during the Middle Ages. 

  • What was the principle of Munkh Khan when having the debate? 

Since all religions differ from one another, Munkh Khaan commanded to hold debate with the fundamental principle without attacking or insulting others. As written by Rubruck, Christians dominated the debate and even Munkh Khaan stayed to help the Christians in Karakorum, taking their side.  

  • What did he say? 

"Just as God gave different fingers to the hand so has He given different ways to human to freely choose their religion or belief and that is why God had given us, Mongols, their eternal Blue sky."

  • Apart from its ancient history, what characteristics of Karakorum do attract attention of the scholars? 

As a capital of the Mongol Empire, which dominated in the world at that time, Karakorum city was the world economic and political hub for a certain period of time. On the other hand, the palace of the Great Khaan was settled in Karakorum, with crucial political decisions concerning the conquests, appointment and grants of rights of the chiefs and lords of the empire’s far distant territories. Over and above that, many explorers and scholars described that Karakorum was a wealthy and prosperous city during the period ruled by Ogedei and Munkh Khaans, which can be explained by their smart strategies, and the compassion they showed. For example, there are scores of parts that tell about the life of Ogedei Khaan in the Compendium of Chronicles, the work of literature and history written by Rashid-al-Din Hamadani.

A well-known journalist and translator of Mongolia G.Akim translated some of them into Mongolian. A great deal of facts and information found in the Compendium of Chronicles about Ogedei Khaan showing or extending empathy towards others, such as helping poorer people of other religions avoid harsh punishment under the Yassa (Ikh Zasag), code of laws, having grand celebrations, paying more than what the merchants say or the actual cost for goods they brought and his ability to fairly and exceptionally evaluate the value of handmade works of art. Ordinary people and merchants in distant areas who are captivated by Ogedei Khaan’s kindness, compassion and consideration started moving to the town. Scholars agree the glory of Karakorum city spread throughout the world within a short period of time in the wake of trade and commerce activities that fostered its development. 


  • What was special about the city structure of Karakorum? 

In terms of the organizational structure, Karakorum had all features of a settled town. The area surrounded by walls with 4 gates opened up to two streets in Karakorum occupied a 1.8 km square land. The streets crossed over each other by the center of the city. A multiple number of nationalities residing in the city side by side, who built monasteries and churches for their own worship, allowed all kinds of architects to be employed there. In particular, the palace of Ogedei Khaan was built by Chinese architects as in 1265, Ogedei Khaan invited more than 1,500 skilled handicraftsmen from China assigning them to build the palace for him. Construction materials, such as earth, burnt clay and raw bricks, wood and gravels were used for building the city.

  • The Mongols long maintained traditional nomadic lifestyle. Even the Khaans never remained long in one place, and had portable dwellings necessary for when they move seasonally. What would say about this? 

The Khans of the Mongol Empire built many satellite-like cities around Karakorum and inhabit them depending on the time of year. For instance, there was a mansion customized for hunting activities with hawks and falcons along the shore of the Tsagaan Lake, within one-day distance from Karakorum.  The mansion is believed to be built by Muslim craftsmen. They never stayed in place of residence at all times, only moved across various seasonal places they built encircling Karakorum over the course of the year at times other than war journeys. During this exact time, a slew of buildings to accommodate a large number of the khans and queens, and monasteries and churches of various religions were erected. Historical sources record that envoy from civilized foreign nations at that point in time visited Karakorum, having face-to-face conversations with the Khaan and discussing issues on relations among the nations. 

  • A variety of culinary traditions must have been introduced in Karakorum, the city that was shaped by people from different places and their cultures, right? 

Yes.  There is even a separate field of study for researching seeds of plant species dug up from the soil in Karakorum city area and more than 80,000 types of seeds were segregated for study. Among them, seeds of grape plant were found to be the most widespread one. The scholars believe it likely that the plant with the ability to survive growing conditions of the city were sown and cultivated there while others were exported from Asian and European countries. 

  • Taking into consideration that the city was packed with people of different ethnic groups and nationalities as well as and the Yam or Urtuu, long-distance postal relay system established from Karakorum across the empire, was Karakorum really a metropolis at that time? 

Certainly. Japanese historian Masaaki Sugiyama gave an account that the city as a type of a mixed city. On the city’s postal relay station system and the importance of metropolis status, the historian concluded that Ogedei Khaan’s decision to designate envoys to various regions of the empire to oversee the local administration activities and tax system operations while strengthening the centralized government capacities contributed to the stabilization of international and domestic order. Historian believe in this way that the establishment of the relay stations or Ortoo connecting Karakorum to Dzungar Khanate, running over the Volga River or in present-day Kazakhstan is one excellent achievements of his. 

  • Most people recognize Karakorum by its Silver Tree, which is designed by a French goldsmith. Was the tree located inside the Khan’s Palace or outside?

The Silver Tree was outside of the palace. French goldsmith Pierre de Bergeronc created the sculpture of drinking fountain, inspired by the writings by William of Rubruck during the XVII century. But both the depiction of Pierre de Bergeronc and painting of the Silver Tree differ from William of Rubruck’s writings in which he described that the Silver Tree was located in the city center. The Silver Tree is an amazing creation of mechanical engineering of that period. There is a sculpture of an angel blowing a trumpet on top of the tree with four pipes shaped like snake below it. Each of the pipes poured wine, fermented mare’s milk, honey mead, and rice wine during weddings or feasts for the guests, and the pipes were connected to conduits, and underneath the tree a vault in which a man can be hid. And pipes go up through the heart of the tree to the angel.

In the first place he made bellows, but they did not give enough wind. Outside the palace is a cellar in which the liquors are stored, and there are servants all ready to pour them out when they hear the angel trumpeting. And there are branches of silver on the tree, and leaves and fruit. When the drink is wanted, the head butler cries to the angel to blow his trumpet. Then he who is concealed in the vault, hearing this blows with all his might in the pipe leading to the angel, and the angel places the trumpet to his mouth, and blows the trumpet right loudly. Then the servants who are in the cellar, hearing this, pour the different liquors into the proper conduits, and the conduits lead them down into the bowls prepared for that, and then the butlers draw it and carry it to the palace to the men and women. This mechanical process implies that any traces of the Silver Tree would lead to the discovery of the palace in Karakorum, which has been longed by scholars and archaeologists of different periods.

  • In 1948, Russian archaeologist Kiselev concluded that the remains found by partial excavation of a religious structure was the Khaan’s palace, which was proved to be wrong later. What is the history behind the shunshig - religious items found from the monastery of Karakorum? 

The Great Temple (Great Hall) of Buddhism was built in 1254 under the leadership of Munkh Khaan. Later during the Yuan dynasty, Togoontumur Khan and Ayurbarwada Buyantu Khan were recorded to have earmarked fund from the treasury to renovate the deteriorated temple. There are some historical records found that the city had a five-story, 300-meter-tall outstandingly beautiful building, making the fact about the existence of the 90-meter tall temple obvious. Between 1342-1346, the monastery was renovated to have the most captivating and charming building with the shining monument erected subsequently, which was placed on the back of the stone turtle sculpture, everyone knows of now. The monument is inscribed with the writing in Mongolian and Chinese languages about the occasion of naming and renovation conducted on the temple by the decree of Khaan. The consecrated shunshigs or vase containers containing various symbolic items, such as seeds, grains, silk wrapped with golden thread, golden and silver coins, turquoise and brass nails, were discovered in 2014 under the four corners of its base and under the west and east wing stairs. 


  • A seal of Biligt Khan Ayushiridara, son of Togoontumur, was found from the Karakorum remains. Is it a significant finding, isn’t it? 

Following the fall of the Yuan Dynasty in 1368, the Mongols returned home to re-settle their lives in Karakorum, which is corroborated by the bronze seal of the treasury minister with phags-pa script unveiled by the excavation by the Mongolian-German joint expedition. The bronze cast square seal with oval handle narrowed to the top weighs 730 grams and carved with Chinese words “Third month of Second Year of Xuanguang” on the top. 

  • What is the meaning behind this date? 

With this date, it has been revealed that the seal was created in 1372, relating to the Biligt Khan Ayushiridara, successor to the last khan of Yuan dynasty. The Mongols’ dominance over China collapsed in 1368 and they returned to their northern land, when Karakorum was still the capital. Biligt Khan Ayushiridara hence moved back to Karakorum and changed the era name to Xuanguang. As such Karakorum was revived to be called the Northern Yuan Dynasty, manifesting that the Mongol Empire Karakorum did not go extinct and still remained a strong power. 

  • What caused the extinction of Karakorum?

As I have mentioned earlier, the Mongols lost their unity and started fighting with each other, which led to the decline of Karakorum. But it was not the cause of the collapse. Because of economic issues, people began to abandon Karakorum, leaving it as a forgotten ruined city. Since the Mongol khans lost their control over the Chinese territory, imports of food commodities from China started to decline and demand for food products for the residents could not be met, resulting in the people with nomadic tradition of lifestyle to move to far distance places.

  • How many professionals and scholars took part in the research of Karakorum since its beginning until today? 

In 1870, the first study was conducted by a Russian traveler and scholar. Although Karakorum was located and announced to the world, the exact location of its ruins had not been determined. In 1889, Russian archaeologist and explorer Nikolai Yadrintsev identified on the basis of science that the ruins of an ancient city near the Erdene Zuu Monastery is the remains of Karakorum. Afterwards, Russian archaeologist Dimitry Bukinich became the first person to conduct archaeological excavation study on the Karakorum remains, however, the excavation could not cover much of an area due to the technical capacity. Most interestingly, Bukinich concluded that this was not the remains of Karakorum. More extensive excavation was performed by Mongolian-Soviet team headed by Mongolian archaeologist Kh.Perlee and Soviet archaeologist  S.V. Kiselev's in 1948 and succeeded to confirm the remains of Karakorum by virtue of tangible collection of discoveries on the location. Since then, German, Russian and Japanese scholars have been working on the site. 

  • What kind of research works on Karakorum and development on the museum are on the future plan? 

We are paying attention on promoting the history of Karakorum and the importance of preservation of valuable heritage items to the public in the first place. Information billboards that satisfy relevant international standards will be placed on the territory of Kharkhorin soum, where the remains of Karakorum are situated in, which is deemed necessary for both international and domestic tourists and scholars. Study of Karakorum holds ample significance not only for Mongolia, but also to the world.

  • Thank you for taking the time to meet with us. I hope we will meet again with new findings and greater discoveries. 


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