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The Lost Tomb of Genghis Khan

Genghis Khan

The death of Genghis Khan is shrouded in secrecy. The Great Khan died in the summer of 1227, during a campaign against the Tanguts, along the upper reaches of the Yellow River, in Yinchuan. But the manner of his death is unknown. It is reasonable to believe that he died of injuries sustained during the battle. It is also reasonable to believe that those wounds came not from an enemy arrow, as asserted by Marco Polo, but from falling off his horse during hunting, according to The Secret History of the Mongols—a semi-mythical genealogy of Genghis Khan written sometime after his death. It is unreasonable to believe that Genghis Khan died of bleeding when a crafty Western Xia princess, that the Mongols had carried off as war booty, inserted a contraption into her vagina so that when Genghis Khan came to sleep with her, it tore off his organs. That particular story, some Mongol scholars believe, was created by the Khan’s enemies to vilify him.

The secrecy surrounding the death of Genghis Khan invited speculation and later inspired so many apocryphal tales that it’s difficult to separate truth from fiction. Long before his death, Genghis Khan is said to have wished to be buried in an unmarked grave in the mountains of Burkhan Khaldun. According to The Secret History of the Mongols, Genghis Khan was hunting near the Burkhan Khaldun mountain in the Khentii Mountains of his homeland, when he sat down to rest under a tree, and was so overcame by the beauty of the landscape before him that he asked to be buried in the mountains.

Burkhan Khaldun holds another significance in the life of Genghis Khan. Once while fighting against the Merkit tribes, Genghis Khan narrowly escaped death and fled to the sacred precincts of the Burkhan Khaldun mountains where he was given shelter by an old woman. He pledged at that time to honor the mountain from then on with sacrifices and prayer every morning.

After his death, Genghis Khan’s mortal remains were escorted by his soldiers back to his homeland where he was buried according to his wishes—in an unmarked grave, somewhere in the heartland of Burkhan Khaldun mountains. Nothing marks the place—no mausoleum, no temple, no tombstone. Nobody knows where Genghis Khan lies.

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Mountains of western Mongolia. Photo credit: Bernd Thaller/Flickr

An often repeated account tells how Genghis Khan’s soldiers killed every person and animal they encountered on the journey from Yinchuan, and after the secret burial, they massacred all those who attended the funeral to keep the location a secret. They, in turn, were killed by another set of soldiers, who in turn, were also killed. After the burial, a thousand horses trampled the area repeatedly to obscure the location of the grave. According to yet another account, a river was diverted over his grave to make it impossible to find the place.

The knowledge of the location of the grave was not something that was forgotten over the centuries. When Marco Polo travelled the region in the late 13th century, not one Mongol he asked could tell where the Great Khan lay buried.


Related: An Enormous Statue of Genghis Khan in Mongolia


Shortly after the death and burial of Genghis Khan, soldiers sealed off the entire area—more than 240 square miles—an area that became Ikh Khorig, or the Great Taboo. The region, already made difficult to reach by a series of mountains covered in thick forest, was declared sacred, and off limits to everyone except family members and the Darkhad, a group of elite warriors and their families, who were given the task of ensuring that no one else entered. The punishment for trespassing was death. The Darkhads and their descendants dutifully carried out their assignment long after the Mongol Empire had collapsed. When foreign armies invaded parts of Mongolia, the Mongols prevented anyone from entering the sacred precinct of their ancestor.

When the Mongolian People's Republic, a satellite state of the USSR, was established in 1924, the Soviet rulers continued to honor the tradition fearing that the failure to do so would give rise to Mongolian nationalism. The Soviets declared the land a “Highly Restricted Area” and cordoned off 10,400 square-kilometers of surrounding land. It was only in the last 20 or 30 years, security was relaxed allowing many foreign archeologists to begin the hunt for Genghis Khan’s lost tomb.

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A family gers in late afternoon sun. Khuvsgol, Mongolia. Photo credit: Kertu/Shutterstock.com

In the 1990s, a Japanese-Mongolian expedition called Gurvan Gol (meaning ‘Three Rivers’) was launched to find the tomb. Using ultrasonography, the team located as many as 1,380 possible grave sites but further research was halted by furious public protests. Many Mongolians believe that their leader’s final resting place should not be disturbed, and now that Burkhan Khaldun mountains is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it has become even more difficult to conduct hands-on archeology.

With the site now largely off-limits, some researchers have turned to satellite imagery. In 2010, a team led by Albert Yu-Min Lin, a research scientist at the University of California, San Diego, invited online volunteers to pour over thousands of high resolution photographs of Mongolia taken by satellites for telltale signs of a grave. The trouble was, the researchers did not know what to look for, so volunteers were asked to flag anything out of the ordinary. 

“This is a needle in a haystack problem where the appearance of the needle is unknown,” Lin said.

In just six months, more than ten thousand armchair explorers tagged over 2 million sites—both known and unknown—from which researchers culled the list down to one hundred location. A field team explored these locations and positively identified fifty five sites to be archaeologically and culturally significant. None of these, however, are the tomb of the Great Khan.

The elusive tomb continue to attract archeologists. Some have started using drones for a closer look at the landscape without having to trod the sacred territory.

The fascination for Genghis Khan’s grave is something Mongolians do not share with foreigners. For them Genghis Khan is a figure of enormous respect, and if the Great Khan himself did not wanted to be found his dying wishes should be honored.

Leading image of Genghis Khan’s statue by Ari V / Shutterstock.com

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Photo credit: Mikhaylov Ilya/Shutterstock.com

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