On the hunt for Genghis Khan


For centuries historians and treasure seekers have searched for the burial site of history’s most famous conqueror. New findings offer compelling evidence that it’s been found, Oliver Steed reports.
In the 800 years since his death, people have sought in vain for the grave of Genghis Khan, the 13th-century conqueror and imperial ruler who, at the time of his death, occupied the largest contiguous empire, stretching from the Caspian Sea to the Pacific. In capturing most of central Asia and China, his armies killed and pillaged, but also forged new links between East and West. One of history’s most brilliant and ruthless leaders, Khan remade the world.
But while the life of the conqueror is the stuff of legend, his death is shrouded in the mist of myths. Some historians believe he died from wounds sustained in battle; others that he fell off his horse or died from illness. And his final burial place has never been found. At the time great steps were taken to hide the grave to protect it from potential grave robbers. Tomb hunters have little to go on, given the dearth of primary historical sources. Legend has it that Khan’s funeral escort killed anyone who crossed their path to conceal where the conqueror was buried. Those who constructed the funeral tomb were also killed — as were the soldiers who killed them. One historical source holds that 10,000 horsemen “trampled the ground so as to make it even”; another that a forest was planted over the site, a river diverted.
Germans, Japanese, Americans, Russians, and the British all have led expeditions in search of his grave, spending millions of dollars. All have failed. The location of the tomb has been one of archeology’s most enduring mysteries. Until now.
A multidisciplinary research project uniting scientists in America with Mongolian scholars and archeologists has the first compelling evidence of the location of Khan’s burial site and the necropolis of the Mongol imperial family on a mountain range in a remote area in northwestern Mongolia.
Among the discoveries by the team are the foundations of what appears to be a large structure from the 13th or 14th century, in an area that has historically been associated with this grave. Scientists have also found a wide range of artifacts that include arrowheads, porcelain, and a variety of building material.
“Everything lines up in a very compelling way,” says Albert Lin, National Geographic explorer and principal investigator of the project, in an exclusive interview with Newsweek.
For 800 years the Khentii mountain range, where the site is located, has been off-limits, decreed thus by Genghis Khan himself before his death. If the findings bear out, this will be one of the most significant archeological discoveries in years. Using drones and surface-penetrating radar, and enlisting the help of thousands of people to sift through satellite data and photographs, the team has searched the mountain range, systematically photographing 4,000 square miles of landscape.
In a laboratory at the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology at University of California, San Diego, Lin and his team combed through the massive volumes of ultrahigh-resolution satellite imagery and built 3-D reconstructions from radar scans in their search for clues to where Genghis Khan may be buried. Thousands of online volunteers sifted through 85,000 high-resolution satellite images to identify any hidden structures or odd-seeming formations.
To reach the Khentii mountains, you drive east from the capital, Ulan Bator, passing a shimmering statue of Genghis before reaching the mining town of Baganuur. The crumbling town has all the charm of a post-Soviet Dickensian nightmare: a 10-mile-long slag heap signals the presence of the largest state-run open-pit coal mine in Mongolia. Exiting north out of town, the remains of a Soviet military base bring to mind the set of a post-apocalyptic horror movie. But once free of the city, the Kerulen River Valley, homeland of the Mongols, unfolds in all its panoramic beauty. Located on one of the main east-west routes across Central Asia, the steppe continues west to the Caspian Sea, east to Japan and northern China, circumventing the Gobi Desert that inspired nightmares for Marco Polo and other travelers.
This geography, and the forgiving climate, has made the steppe an attractive place for the nomads to live. Unlike the rest of the country, where temperatures can plummet below -40º Fahrenheit and peak above 100º F during the summer, the climate in these valleys is unusually mild. Ritual monuments and burial sites are scattered throughout the landscape. Archaeologists have found tombs on top of tombs, where different tribes from different eras have used the same ritual space.
Mongolian families still live in yurts or gers, as the traditional tents are known locally, maintaining their nomadic lifestyle. The blue sky merges with the horizon, and white yurts dot the sweeping landscape like sailboats floating on a sea of green.
From afar, the pastoral herding scene appears to have evolved very little since the Khans ruled. But times are changing. A decade of devastatingly harsh winters followed by very dry summers has crippled the livelihoods of livestock-dependent herders, who make up a third of the country’s population. Tens of thousands have migrated into city slums, while thousands of others have turned to illegal gold mining in their fight for survival. Carrying on their backs big green panning bowls for finding gold, they’re known as the ninjas because of their resemblance to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. At the same time, Mongolia is rapidly developing — in large part due to its mineral riches. By some estimates, Mongolia’s economy is the fastest growing in the world, as the nation seeks to tap its wealth of coal, copper, and gold, projected to be worth $1.3 trillion.
A satellite dish and a Chinese-made truck and motorbike sit outside one yurt, where we stop to ask for directions. In Mongolia, superstition still surrounds Genghis Khan, and the hunt for his tomb often stirs heated debate. Even his name is a touchy subject. In Mongolia, Genghis Khan is known as Chinggis Khaan and is considered by many almost a god.
At the very least it might create geopolitical tensions as many Chinese believe Genghis Khan was Chinese, and China claims him as their own. Indeed, a huge mausoleum has been constructed in China to hold a replica of Khan’s empty coffin, and the monument is popular with the Chinese, some of whom worship him as a semidivine ancestor.
Born into tribal nobility, Genghis — or Temujin, as he was then known — lived an epic life. As a child, he became an outcast after his father was murdered and his family ostracised. But Genghis survived and grew up to become a brilliant warrior and tactician who managed to unite warring tribes and conquer most of the then-known world. At the same time he changed society and introduced an alphabet and a central currency, making him one of the most influential people of the last millennium.
During their campaigns of conquest, soldiers raped and pillaged — and the Khans had many offspring, though only legitimate sons were counted. His son Tushi reportedly had 40 sons, while his grandson Kublai Khan had 22. When a genetic study in 2003 showed that 16 million men carry an identical Y chromosome that originates from one man who lived about 1,000 years ago, many drew the conclusion that it must have been Genghis Khan’s DNA, though there is, of course, no actual evidence of that, since his body has never been found.
Even so, the impact of Genghis Khan was without parallel. In less than 20 years he conquered lands stretching thousands of miles from the Pacific Ocean to the Caspian Sea and carried the bounty of his conquests back to Mongolia. As incentive and in payment, spoils were divided among his soldiers. After their deaths, the nobility are thought to have had the objects buried with them because they believed they would need them in the afterlife. But little of these riches have ever been found. It’s as if they came into Mongolia and vanished.
“People imagine that [Genghis Khan’s] tomb would be filled with gold and silver, the treasure, wealth, loot from his great conquests,” says Prof. Ulambayar Erdenebat, when I meet him at his office at the National University in Ulan Bator, where he heads the archaeology department. A transparent crystal belt sits on the table between us, and Erdenebat gently arranges each piece on a bed of black felt.
“This is unique. There is not another like this in the world. We discovered it in a tomb belonging to a 13th-century nobleman believed to be part of Genghis Khan’s tribe,” Erdenebat explains. He opens another small jewellery box and delicately lays down a gold ornament, intricately carved with pieces as thin as thread and inlaid with ruby and turquoise. He slowly unpacks his cupboard, revealing more treasures: a pure silver cup, gold rings, buttons, and earrings, all dating from the time of Genghis Khan.