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The Ruins of Western Xia’s Imperial Tombs

About 30 kilometers to the west of the modern city of Yinchuan, lies the enormous burial complex of the Western Xia dynasty. Spread over 40 square kilometers on the eastern slope of the Helan mountain range, these tombs are proudly called "the Pyramids of China” by the locals.

As anybody can see, these tombs look nothing like the majestic stone pyramids of Africa. Instead, the Western Xia Tombs are earth and brick structures having the appearance of a giant pile of mud and dirt. But in the heydays, they must have been truly something to behold.

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Photo credit: BabelStone/Wikimedia

The Western Xia dynasty existed between the 11th and the 13th centuries, before it was annihilated in an act of vengeance by the fearful Mongol ruler Genghis Khan. In 1219, Genghis Khan had asked the then emperor of Western Xia, Asha, for military aid against his planned invasion of Khwarezmia and Eastern Iran. But Asha refused stating that if Genghis needed aid from others, then he had no claim to supreme power. Genghis Khan was so infuriated by Asha’s arrogance that he swore to wipe Western Xia from the face of the earth. And he did.

Genghis Khan first invaded Khwarezmia and successfully defeated it. He then turned his attention towards Western Xia. The Mongol army pushed through the enemy’s defenses systematically destroying Western Xia cites and slaughtering their population. By the time the empire’s capital city Yinchuan fell, the annihilation was near total. Every written record was destroyed, and much of the empire’s architecture and cultural artifacts. So complete was the eradication that until the 20th century, nobody knew who founded Western Xia. Still very little is known about the Tangut ethnic group who founded the empire.

The fact that these tombs survive is a miracle in itself.

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Mongol conquest of Western Xia and other regimes of China

Each of the mausoleum occupies an area of more than 100,000 square meters, surrounded by inner and outer walls. Inside these enclosures were an array of watchtowers, pavilions housing stone tablets, a sacrificial hall and a coffin platform, although most of these buildings are well beyond recognizable. Highly visible are the mounds, also known as the spiritual terrace. Squat like Buddhist pagodas, these round or octagonal structures are about 20 meters tall.

The tombs have five or seven stories, each of which is built with flying rafters that were once overlaid with rows of richly decorated glazed green tiles. Archeologists believe that the sides of the spiritual terraces were originally painted a deep red to contrast with the green tiles. One can only imagine how magnificent the tombs must have looked.

With no glazed tiles to protect the earthen tombs from the elements, what remains now are crumbling mounds of brown earth. Fortunately, building materials, broken stone tablets, towers, glazed tiles, walls and steles with inscriptions of Western Xia or Han characters still remain, and provide visitors with interesting information on the Western Xia.

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Photo credit: lee_uav/dronestagram

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Photo credit: xiaoming wang/Flickr

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Stele bases of Tomb no. 3. Photo credit: BabelStone/Wikimedia

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