Archaeologists have mapped Karakorum, the capital of the Mongolian Empire established by Genghis Khan, in unprecedented detail – all without having to dig anything up.
Jan Bemmann of the University of Bonn in Germany and an international team of researchers used advanced geophysics to map out what was the capital of the largest contiguous empire in history for most of the 13th century. Their research, published in the journal Antiquity, revealed Karakorum’s roads, districts, and more in greater detail than ever before.
This investigation also found the Mongolian city was larger than previous research expected, stretching far beyond the walls. “We arrive at a profound re-evaluation of this important city, which underlines its eminent place in Mongolian and Eurasian history,” said Professor Bemmann, lead author of the study.
Karakorum was founded by Ögödei, son and successor of Chinggis (also known as Genghis) Khan, in the 13th century at the site of one of Chinggis’ camps. Construction of the site was completed under the reign of Möngke Khan. Franciscan friar William of Rubruck, an envoy of King Louis IX of France, describes an enclosed city with four gates, which was home to Chinese artisans, Muslim merchants and captives from all over the empire. For both Ögödei and Möngke, it was an important place. However, by the 15th century, the Mongolian Empire had fractured into separate entities and Karakorum fell into dereliction.
Although the city was never forgotten, its exact location was until 1889. Since then, relatively little archaeological research has been carried out at the site. “Limited excavations at prime spots of the city and earlier maps revealed insights into the core of the walled city area: we have knowledge of the craftsmen quarter in the middle of the city, of a Buddhist temple and of the location of the palace,” said Professor Bemmann, “However, we do only poorly understand the inner layout and the extent of the city beyond the actual walled area as well as the social organisation of the city’s population.”
As such, the team surveyed 465ha over 52 days with a ‘SQUID’ (Superconducting Quantum Interference Device). This instrument measures the topography of the surface and magnetic fields of the ground beneath, as different materials having different magnetic properties. When combined with field surveys, aerial photography, and analysis of historic records, this allowed the team to build up a map of Karakorum without ever having to lift a trowel.
“The most exciting facet of our work for me was to see the progress of data acquisition during the field season,” said Professor Bemmann, “It was astonishing to witness the growing extent of the map day by day and with that the digital reconstruction of Karakorum. With every day, with every new piece of the city added to the map, our understanding of the city grew alongside.”
Together, the team mapped the city walls, revealing three of the four main gates documented in the historic record. Outside of these walls, they found the city extended over three kilometres along some of the approaching roads – far greater than other research and historical records indicated.
“In the thirteenth century AD, based on his experience of medieval western European cities, Rubruck had no doubt that the ramparts surrounded the entire city of Karakorum; his view informed later historians and archaeologists alike,” the researchers wrote in the paper. “The combination of large-scale and high resolution surveys now undertaken reveals that the city had no clear limits, with built areas becoming less dense with distance from its centre.”
Inside the walls, thes city spanned 1.33 square kilometres, with neighbourhoods comprised of different building designs, hinting at distinct functions or inhabitants in various parts of the city. Further, the researchers found that the centre of the city had much denser deposits, suggesting these were the areas of the city occupied for the longest period. However, the team ultimately found the biggest single feature of Karakorum was nothing. 40% of the area within the wall appears to have been left empty. This may reflect the fact the many in the Mongolian Empire remained nomadic and mobile. As such they would not have needed to visit the city much, if at all, so would not need to build permanent residences. Even Ögödei and Möngke would have only spent part of the year there – although they did build palaces, and powerful members of Mongolian society joined them in constructing permanent dwellings in the city.
Instead, the only permanent occupants of the city may have been the labourers and craftspeople needed to sustain it. Most of them would have been forcibly relocated or taken as prisoners of war, further adding to the alien nature of the city. “The peculiarity of these cities lies in the fact that they were ‘implanted’ by the ruler into a landscape without fixed architecture, and that the permanent inhabitants were brought from abroad,” the researchers wrote in their paper. “Hence, these cities remained foreign entities, the continued existence of which was unimportant for the pastoral nomads, as they were not dependent on them.”
As such, research at Karakorum is not just shedding light on an empire’s capital city, but a different kind of capital city – created by the ruling class, but ultimately detached from both them and wider Mongolian society.
The article, “Mapping Karakorum, the capital of the Mongol Empire,” by Jan Bemmann, Sven Linzen, Susanne Reichert and Lkh. Munkhbayar, is published in Antiquity. Click here to read it.