Kharhorin or Karakorum
By Abhijeet Swami
Since the 1990’s there has been discussion to shift the capital of Mongolia to Kharkhorin from the current over-polluted capital of Ulaanbaatar. Historically, Kharkhorin was the centre of empires that had a significant impact across Eurasia.
The plain on which Kharkhorin (earlier Karakorum) is situated extends 30 kilometers or more between two east-west running ridges. No landform obstructs the sun as it travels along its length. The Orkhon river follows the base of mountains to the north. It is summer and the grass is plentiful. Availability of grass, water and space made the Orkhon valley an appropriate site for the encampment of an army, or for the establishment of a large city. It is not surprising that this valley is a place of ceremonial significance and that Mongols and nomadic leaders desired capital cities and empires to be built there.
Southern bank of the Orkhon and floodplain. Photo: Abhijeet Swami.
Turkic people first established a tradition of rule from this valley in the early 8th Century. Mortuary monuments to the Turkic leader Bilge Khaghan and his younger brother and commander Kül Tegin were found about a ‘day’s ride on horseback’ north of the ruins of Karakorum’.[i] Uighurs established the next empire (744-840) in the region and their capital, Khar Balgas, was also less than a day’s ride on horseback from Kharkhorin.
Kharkhorin became an imperial city in the second half of the 13th Century.[ii] Permanent buildings were established around 1235 and did not cease being built until the 1250’s. For longer than a decade, 1500 workers were building the city walls, until they were dismissed by Mongke Khan in 1251, who then ‘resettled’ 500 craftsmen families to build a palace.[iii] When Friar William arrived from France in 1254, although he was not impressed by the dimensions of the city or the palace, he saw twelve temples devoted to the faiths of different peoples, two mosques, and a church; as well as grain, sheep and goats, cattle and wagons, and horses being sold at the four gates of the city.[iv] The city became a centre of art production, where ceramic, metal, glass, wood, bone and birchbark objects were produced by artisans from around the empire for use and exchange.
But it was not easy to maintain the city in a place of savage winters and vast distances: freezing and thawing of the ground damaged infrastructure; raw material had to be imported from the far reaches of the empire; and the climate was not suitable for growing sufficient food. Indeed, Ogedei Khan issued a Yasa, which commanded that 500 wagonloads of food and drink should arrive at Kharkhorin every day.[v] This Yasa was a source of grief to generations of oxen, who pulled these big wagons from northern China.
Kharkhorin was destroyed by Ming troops in either 1380 or 1388 after lasting through violent sieges during the intervening years.[vi] Since then floods and rains have moved the earth so that the remnant city is now entirely under ground. When I visit, it is the time when the rains fall but I can see it is still possible to wade across the river. Widespread debris on the south bank and the high-water mark on the north bank indicate that the river can rapidly become deep and fast flowing. Four granite stone turtles, as foundation stones, used to face towards the cardinal directions. One of these turtles survives, as it was moved onto the mountain above Kharkhorin. An information board next to this turtle advises that the turtles were placed there to ensure a long and peaceful life for the city, to seek protection from floods and protection against invading enemies.
Turtle at Kharkhorin. Photo: Einalem (CC BY-SA 2.0).
Moving the capital from Ulaanabaatar to Kharkhorin would be an expression of Mongolian nationalism, while it would also relieve congestion and pollution in the current capital of Ulaanbaatar. Judging by the many permanent structures built on the floodplain, flooding may have become less of a problem today, perhaps due to climate change.[vii] From experience with the worsening conditions in Ulaanbaatar’s ger districts, the Mongolian government could plan to better accommodate future migrants in the city from the surrounding countryside. National debt and a small economy, however, may not allow construction of a socially-inclusive city. Development of Kharkhorin into the capital city at a future date is a possibility, given that it is a suitable place for settlement and connected to Ulaanbaatar by a sealed road. Yet Kharkhorin’s historic legacy alone may not be sufficient to draw migrants, or employment as infrastructure and maintenance will require significant government investment.
[i] Skaff, J.K. and Honeychurch, W. 2009. ‘Empire building before the Mongols: legacies of the Turks and Uyghurs’, In W.W. Fitzhugh, M. Rossabi & W. Honeychurch (eds.) Genghis Khan and the Mongol empire, The Mongolian Preservation Foundation and Smithsonian Institution, Seattle, pp. 84-89.
[ii] Erdenebat, U. and Pohl, E. 2009. ‘The crossroads in Khara Khorum: excavations at the center of the Mongol empire’, In W.W. Fitzhugh, M. Rossabi & W. Honeychurch (eds.) Genghis Khan and the Mongol empire, The Mongolian Preservation Foundation and Smithsonian Institution, Seattle, pp. 136-145.
[iii] Pohl, E. 2010. ‘The excavations in the craftsmen-quarter of Karakorum (KAR-2) between 2000 and 2005- stratigraphy and architecture’, In J. Bemmann, U. Erdenebat & E. Pohl (eds.), Mongolian-German Karakorum expedition, Reichert Verlag, Wiesbaden, pp. 63-136.
[iv] Rubruck, W. 1990. [13th Century], The mission of Friar William of Rubruck: his journey to the court of the Great Khan Mongke 1253- 1255, trans. P. Jackson, The Hakluyt Society, London, p. 221.
[v] Al-Din, R 1971, The successors of Genghis Khan, trans. J A Boyle, Columbia University Press, New York, pp. 62-63.
[vi] Pohl 2010, pp. 132-134.
[vii] Already Mongolia has warmed by 2.14 degrees Celcius, water bodies have become smaller or have disappeared and there were 57 days of dust storms in 2007, compared to 18 such days in 1960 (Ministry of Environment, nd, Climate change in Mongolia: outputs from GCM, Government of Japan, viewed 6 September 2018, https://www.env.go.jp/earth/ondanka/pamph_gcm/gcm_mongolia_en.pdf).