Genghis Khan's Lost Tomb
Source: (Photo by In Pictures Ltd./Corbis via Getty Images)
Genghis Khan was the most successful conqueror in history -- he was also one of the most brutal. One would expect that a person of such eminence would have a monumental tomb on par with the Pyramids of Giza. Curiously, the location of Genghis Khan’s tomb is one of history’s most enduring mysteries.
The Khan of Khans
Genghis Khan (sometimes Chinggis) was born circa 1162 as Temüjin, the son of a Mongol tribe leader. Through outstanding military tactics, brutality, and politicking he managed to unite the quarreling tribes of Mongolia under his sole rule as Genghis Khan by 1206. Genghis Khan literally means, “Universal Ruler.”
A Military Genius
Genghis Khan’s strength was in his absolute mastery of the abilities of his 80,000 man Mongolian army. They were masters of the horse and bow. A Mongolian rider could manipulate his horse with his legs only, thus freeing him to use a bow and arrow from the saddle with deadly accuracy. Genghis provided great organization using drums, torches, and smoke signals to weld his men into a fierce instrument of destruction.
In 1207, Genghis undertook a series of conquests mainly for resources from neighboring kingdoms including Xi Xia and the Jin Dynasty of Northern China. Meanwhile, in the west, he established trade and diplomatic relations with the Khwarazmian Dynasty which contained most of Persia and Turkestan. However, in 1218 a Mongol trade mission but the governor of the town of Otrar suspected that they were spies. He took their goods and executed them.
Genghis Khan was outraged and demanded reparations from the Shah, who ruled the Khwarazmian Dynasty, including handing over the offending governor. When the Shah refused and in fact shaved two of the heads of the Mongol diplomats and beheaded their Muslim assistant.
Genghis led a 100,000 man army to exact revenge. In two years, the Mongols had destroyed the dynasty using brutal tactics. Prisoners were used literally as human shields in front of Genghis’s dread cavalry and massive slaughter followed in what some describe as genocidal. In the end, the Mongols killed about 1.7 million people which represented about a quarter of the population.
The conquests of Genghis Khan led to the so-called Pax Mongolica, the Mongolian Peace, which brought for the first time the control of the entire Silk Road from China to the Middle East under the control of one state. This allowed in subsequent years for the flourishing of trade. The Mongols also promoted the arts, sciences, and tolerated all religions (as long as they submitted to the Mongols).
Genghis Khan’s descendants would continue to expand their empire, but he himself died on August 18, 1227, from unknown causes while on a military campaign in China.
Genghis Khan wished for his burial place to be secret and his sons brought their father’s body back to Mongolia. Things then get hazy. Folklore holds that the 1,000 warriors who took the Khan to his burial place were executed and those that performed the execution were also slain.
According to several accounts, his coffin was placed in a pit and then it was covered up to look like the original landscape. Then 10,000 horsemen rode over the spot to conceal it more. Slaves who built the tomb were executed as well. Another legend holds that a river might have been diverted or a forest planted to further hide the grave.
Genghis Khan’s successors would also be buried in secret graves. The Venetian traveler, Marco Polo wrote that the Khans were all buried in a mountain called, “Altaï.”
Locating the tomb has been a Holy Grail of grave robbers, archaeologists, and historians since it is assumed that there would be a mass of wealth and artifacts buried with the Mongol conqueror.
The most plausible location for the tomb is Burkhan Khaldun a mountain in the Khentii Mountains of northern Mongolia. This area was designated as sacred by Genghis Khan and the nearby region called the Ikh Khorig, or Great Taboo. It is said that Genghis, while there said, “What a beautiful view! Bury me here when I pass away."
The Great Taboo was guarded for centuries with none allowed to enter.
In 2004 a Japanese-Mongolian mission found Genghis Khan’s palace which seemed to indicate that they were near the tomb. Still, it remained lost.
It may be that the burial place was not in Mongolia. Frank McLynn, author of Genghis Khan: His Conquests, His Empire, and His Legacy writes:
“The overwhelming probability is that Genghis was buried not in Mongolia but in or near the Ordos [the region in which Genghis Khan died], as in the great heat of August decomposition of the body was setting in fast and the Mongols had no knowledge of embalming. From the fact that no early thirteenth-century artifacts looted from the cities of Persia and China have survived, it is inferred that they were buried with the khan. Probable rather than certain is the enduring legend that all fifty members of the burial party were taken to another location and then executed by an assassination squad, who in turn were executed so that the secret of the khan’s final resting place would die with him. We cannot be certain that this happened on this occasion, but we do know this was Mongol practice after the burial of later Khans.”
This does seem plausible given the fact that touching a corpse was considered taboo in Mongolian shamanism.
The most recent efforts to find the tomb are using satellite imaging and other non-invasive tactics since the Mongolian people as a whole, treat the memory of Genghis Khan with reverence and celebrate him as a national hero. One means has been crowd-sourced to enthusiasts who tag areas of what may have archaeological discrepancies.
In 2015 a French archaeologist, Pierre-Henri Giscard performed an unauthorized exploration of the Burkhan Khaldun has a man-made mound atop that may be indicative of a tomb.
Still, the site is off-limits to deeper exploration, so the mystery of Genghis Khan’s tomb may take longer still to unravel. The Great Khan is still unconquered.