Accessibility links

Mongolia: Archaeologists Say They May Have Found Genghis Khan Burial Site

  • Bruce Pannier

An archeological team in northeastern Mongolia announced this month they may have found the grave site of the legendary Mongol conqueror Genghis (Chingiz) Khan. Chingiz Khan died in 1227 just as his army was poised to flow into Europe. But his burial place has remained a mystery. RFE/RL correspondent Bruce Pannier takes a look back at the "Great Khan" and the work at a site that may contain not only the Mongol warrior's remains but the answers to other unsolved mysteries of that era.

Prague, 30 August 2001 (RFE/RL) -- For more than 800 years the final resting place of the legendary conqueror Genghis (Chingiz) Khan has remained a mystery to the world. The grave site was never reliably documented, leaving those searching for the Great Khan's burial place to rely on rumors passed on through the centuries. But a Mongolian-American archeological team believes it may have found the tomb of Chingiz Khan or one or more of his descendants. The find, if proven, could add much to what the world knows about Chingiz Khan and the Mongols who ruled the largest empire ever in the history of mankind.

When Chingiz Khan died in 1227 it gave Europe a brief respite from invasion. The Mongol army had already overrun Central Asia, was in northern Persia and had penetrated deeply into China. A vanguard of the army was in Eastern Europe, having found its way through the Caucasus, and was even patrolling along the lower Volga River. Italian merchants trading along the Black Sea coast willingly gave the Mongol army a wealth of intelligence about European states and their leaders.

But the news that Chingiz Khan had died interrupted the advance, and the leading Mongol generals and sons of the Great Khan returned to Mongolia to select a new leader. Before they arrived Chingiz Khan was buried. From there history has little to offer about the funeral ceremony or the location of the grave. This was intended by the Mongol leadership of the time who wanted the site to remain a secret.

Professor John Woods of Chicago University has taught Mongol history for 31 years. He was named by the excavation's American sponsor, Maury Kravitz, to head the team sent to northeastern Mongolia to do work at an intriguing site which may be the final resting place of Chingiz Khan. He tells RFE/RL why it is so difficult to pinpoint the site of Chingiz Khan's grave.

"One of the problems is the lack of any kind of written source material, contemporary source material. The best contemporary source we have is 'The Secret History of the Mongols' and when it comes to the part where Chingiz Khan dies it simply says he dies. It doesn't say anything about what happens to him later on. So we're dependent on written sources that come from China or from Iran or much later on in Mongolia, namely the 17th century on."

Shaibering Bira, the head of the International Mongolian Studies Association in Ulan Bator, is cautious about the find, telling RFE/RL more work needs to be done at the site before any conclusive statements can be made. Bira points out there are several claims from archeological teams who believe they have found the site.

Seventeenth-century Mongol lore has traditionally provided the most popular explanation as to why there is no record of the Great Khan's grave site. Woods recounts the tale:

"The funeral cortege was moving northward. It is alleged that every living being in its path was killed. The story goes -- and the numbers vary here -- that 50 or more soldiers were taken to bury him [Chingiz Khan] in another spot. Those 50 were killed by 50 who were again killed by another group of people and there is a spot near the place we're looking at now, called the graveyard of the 100 soldiers which points to that legend."

Woods said the site, about 300 kilometers northeast of the Mongolian capital Ulan Bator, is promising for a number of reasons. He said the site is close to the places most important in Chingiz Khan's life -- the likely site of his birth in 1162 and the place where, in 1206, he was transformed by Mongol tribal leaders from a warrior named Temujin to leader of a tribal confederation with the title Chingiz Khan.

The complex in northeastern Mongolia suggests someone of prominence is buried there. There is a stone wall, three meters high, surrounding an area three kilometers around and extending nearly 200 meters up a hill. Woods said it is likely that persons of lower status are buried at the base of the hill while the important people are interred toward the top.

Woods said another problem confronting the archeologists is that no tomb of a Mongol leader from Chingiz Khan's time has ever been found. He said the tombs of Mongol leaders that do exist are found in countries like Iran where Mongols, living decades or more after Chingiz Khan, converted to Islam and were buried according to Muslim traditions. But the graves of the sons and grandsons of Chingiz Khan -- and his grandson Kubilai Khan, who ruled the Mongol Empire at its zenith -- have never been found. Woods said it is possible those graves are on the hillside also.

Woods also spoke about what may be buried along with the Mongol conqueror. Woods recounted the argument of the archeological team's sponsor.

"My colleague Maury Kravitz puts forth the following argument: He says, how is it that Chingiz Khan conquered all these different areas -- including very rich cities in China and the Islamic world, cites like Samarkand and Bukhara -- how is it that no artifact from any of these cities from that period has ever appeared in any museum anywhere in the world? He then goes on to the conclusion that they must be buried with Chingiz Khan."

Khurmetkhan Mukhamadi is a historian at the Academy of Sciences in Ulan Bator and a consultant for the team. He tells RFE/RL the discovery of Chingiz Khan's grave would have great significance for Mongol society today.

"Finding the grave of Chingiz Khan would have great significance for the Mongol people. Contemporary Mongolia is very proud of its great father. Currently many places are named after him, there are newspapers named after him and there is also an academy named after him."

Mukhamadi says such a find could also have great meaning for the world as it is possible many secrets, or even the answers to mysteries of the Middle Ages, are buried along with Chingiz Khan.

Woods says the team will gather at the site again next year. Work can only be done from the start of June to the end of July, due to the climate. But Woods says it should not take very long to determine whether this is the grave site of Chingiz Khan or his descendants. Before the end of next summer, an answer may be found to one of the world's greatest mysteries.

(Dosan Baimoldo of the Kazakh Service contributed to this report.)