‘Genghis Khan’s Wall’ was not built to defend against Genghis Khan, archaeologists find

Researchers have fully mapped ‘Genghis Khan’s Wall’ for the first time. Part of The Great Wall of China system, it was believed that it was created to defend against the Mongol leader and his armies. However, the archaeologists believe that the construction was for dealing with nomadic peoples and their herds.

The research has been published in the journal Antiquity. The wall, also called ‘The Northern Line’ spans 737 km across the Mongolian Steppe, home of nomadic tribes. It was built between the 11th and 13th centuries AD. No medieval records survive of its construction, so little is know about why it was built. In the early 20th century historians suggested that it was a defensive fortification against the threat of Mongol attacks.


“Our analysis of the wall suggests that it was not made to defend against large invading armies or even against nomadic raids into sedentary lands,” said Professor Gideon Shelach-Lavi, from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, lead author of the research, “rather that it was geared to monitor and control the movements of nomadic populations and their herds.”

The Great Wall(s) of China, with the Northern Line highlighted (credit:
Connor J. Sweetwood. Data from © Mapbox and © OpenStreetMap

Professor Shelach Lavi and his colleagues from the Mongolian Academy of Sciences and Yale University set out to systematically map The Northern Line. Additionally, they conducted a more detailed survey of a small part of the wall and nearby structures. This allowed them to investigate the artefacts left behind and study the construction of the wall.

By examining the placement of the wall and the way it was built, the international team of archaeologists revealed The Northern Line’s primary role. Instead of defence, it was aimed at expanding the influence of the Khitan-Liao Empire (907–1125), one of the Imperial dynasties in the region that sought control over the nomads living along their northern territory.


Notably, many of the associated structures are not located at high vantage points that would be helpful for military defence. Instead, the analysis revealed they were located at lower altitudes, likely closer to roads and other places that would aid population control. This revelation may prompt a re-evaluation of the countless other ‘great’ walls around the world. Although many were inferred to be defensive, this assumption may not be justified.

“Our study suggests that the assumption that these were all military structures needs to be challenged,” said Professor Shelach-Lavi. “We need to study their structure and context to better understand the reasons they were built,” he added, noting that this might also have implications for the success of current efforts to build monumental dividing walls.

Drone photo of structures associated with the wall. Similar features were noted along its length (credit: Nachem Doron)

The famous ‘Great Wal of China’ actually consists of multiple fortifications, built piecemeal between the last millennia BC and the 17th century AD. One such phase of wall building took place during the Medieval Period, between AD 1100-1300, and featured the construction of fortifications 6,500 km long. As such, this single episode of wall-building represents one of the largest monuments ever constructed. The Northern Line Aside from its sheer size, this period of building is notable for featuring the construction of the most northerly section of the Great Wall. Named ‘The Northern Line’, this 737 km earthen segment is mostly located in Mongolia, with some sections in Russia and China.


The archaeological research included GIS analysis, drone photography and analysis of satellite imagery. In their article the researchers explain:

At the outset of our project, we used high-resolution satellite imagery to identify systematically the line of the wall and any structures associated with it. This remote-sensing approach revealed that the structures along the wall are arranged in distinct clusters. We have traced the entire length of the wall, which, at 737km, corresponds well with previous estimates. Along the wall line, we identified 72 individual structures arranged in 42 clusters. This is far more than the few structures described in even the most detailed published descriptions. The clusters of structures are spread more or less evenly along the wall line, with distances between clusters varying from 8–29km (with one irregular 48km interval where the wall crosses the Argun River). We therefore suggest that travelling between most clusters on horseback, using ox-carts or even on foot would take no more than a few hours.

Much of the wall is poorly preserved, with remaining sections about only one metre high. But the wall was continuous and was 10 metres wide along its length, and also had a small ditch on its northern side. Along the wall one can find the remains of dozens of structures, shaped as squares, rectangles and circles. The researchers believe that these would have been buildings for monitoring the wall and regulating who would be allowed through. The circular structures may have been corrals for herds, or used as border markets.


The article “Medieval long-wall construction on the Mongolian Steppe during the eleventh to thirteenth centuries AD,” by Gideon Shelach-Lavi, Ido Wachtel, Dan Golan, Otgonjargal Batzorig, Chunag Amartuvshin, Ronnie Ellenblum and William Honeychurch is published in Antiquity. Click here to read it.



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