Echoes of Civilisations: Representing Mongolia’s Cultural History
By Ruben Seaton
Photo: Ruben Seaton. Temples at Erdene Zuu.
The open fields surrounding Kharkhorin (or Karakorum) have seen some remarkable moments in human civilization. Spending time at Erdene Zuu monastery and the site of the former capital of the Mongol Empire provided time to think about the country’s long and rich history. It also prompted questions about how we remember culture.
In the 13th century, Kharkhorin was the centre of the rapidly expanding Mongol Empire. It was a hub for trade, manufacturing, and the exchange of ideas across cultures. Visiting a site of such significance, I was expecting to be able to identify where the beautiful tree sculpture once stood and where mosques existed alongside a church. However, not for the first time on this study tour, my presumptions were misguided.
It was an odd scene: an elevated white concrete platform jutted out from the green landscape, disingenuously representing where the Great Hall once stood in the southwest corner. There was no recovered stonework to be seen; apart from the information boards near a turtle statue, situated beyond the temple on the grassland steppe, there was little to suggest we were standing in what was once the capital of a great empire.
In a strange way, it reminded me of the Shelley poem Ozymandias: a statement of grandeur which had been reduced to less than rubble thanks to human hands and mother nature. Bricks and materials from the city were repurposed to be used for building a monastery. The gradual deterioration of Kharkhorin, through centuries of dry summers and cold winters, was there to be seen.
Buddhist spiritual memory had also been disrupted, but in a profoundly different way. Erdene Zuu monastery and museum was a beautiful but troubling presentation of a rich spiritual history of over 400 years.
Within our intensive course we had been told about the execution of lamas and destruction of holy sites. Back at the library in the ANU, I flicked through a book called ‘Soviet Terrorism in Mongolia’ and thought that the word choice may have been a bit of an exaggeration. However, for me it was then that I really thought about the significance of the actions of the Soviets. High-level monks were killed; mid-level monks were put in jail and low-level monks were sent for ‘re-education.’ From 1937-1944, Erdene Zuu was essentially a ghost town, with monks and visitors too intimidated to return. Looking at the eerie open spaces within Erdene Zuu’s walls, due to the destruction of buildings and monuments, the reality seemed both stark and cruel.
Photo: Ruben Seaton. Dragon decoration.
A thought about sacred and culturally significant sites in Mongolia in general. Coming from Australia – even from the few days I spent in Beijing before arriving – we are used to seeing national monuments and sites maintained in a particular manner: perfectly manicured gardens, shiny displays, new paint jobs. While visiting sites such as Gandan Temple, the Bogd Khan Palace and Erdene Zuu, it was common to hear comments from our class group about the long grass, creaky verandahs and peeling woodwork. The logic behind these observations is understandable: If these sites are so important, why not take better care in presenting and maintaining them?
In thinking about this, I think it’s important to be mindful of imposing our own lived experiences and expectations on other cultures. Sure, the appearance of the sites could be due to lack of attention, or a lack of funds for repairing buildings. But it is more likely is that employees, volunteers and worshippers simply have a different conception of what is important in a sacred or significant site. The aesthetics of a building may be far less important than the spiritual value of what it houses or represents. Keeping short grass probably isn’t a priority for a pastoral nomadic people who rely on livestock to keep pastures low; old and faded paintwork may be a sign of authenticity, not disregard.
I arrived in Ulaanbaatar thinking that the best way to explore a new country was by jogging through its streets and parks, not dawdling through old buildings. However, visiting these sites and reflecting on their significance has been a poignant reminder of what was, of what has been lost and what is being remembered.
Photo: Ruben Seaton. Stupas at Kharkhorin.
The History of the Mongols Podcast: ‘Karakorum’
New York Times: ‘Bringing a Monastery Back to Life’
William of Rubruck’s Account of the Mongols: ‘XVII: Description of Karakorum’