Genghis Khan: The Mystery of His Lost Tomb | History Hit

Genghis Khan: The Mystery of His Lost Tomb

Genghis Khan is one of the most notorious figures in history. As the founder and first Great Khan of the Mongol Empire, he once ruled a swathe of land stretching from the Pacific Ocean to the Caspian Sea.

By uniting many of the nomadic tribes of Northeast Asia and being proclaimed the universal ruler of the Mongols, Genghis Khan launched the Mongol invasions which ultimately conquered most of Eurasia. After his death, the Mongol Empire became the largest contiguous empire in history.

Genghis Khan likely died after either falling from his horse or because of wounds sustained in battle. In accordance with the customs of his tribe, he asked to be buried in secret.

Legend has it that his grieving army carried his body home to Mongolia, killing anyone it met along the way to hide the route, before later dying by suicide themselves in order to fully conceal the secret of his place of rest. When he was buried, the army rode 1000 horses over the ground to conceal any traces of their activity.

Incredibly, in the 800 years since, nobody has discovered Genghis Khan’s tomb, and its location remains one of the greatest unsolved mysteries of the ancient world.

Tracking the tomb

Burkhan Khaldun mountain, where Genghis Khan is rumoured to be buried.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

There are numerous legends as to where Genghis Khan’s tomb is. One states that a river was diverted over his grave to make it impossible to find. Another states that it was buried somewhere with permafrost to make it impenetrable forever. Other claims state that his coffin was already empty by the time it arrived in Mongolia.

In light of the mystery, speculation amongst historians and treasure hunters alike has naturally abounded as to where the tomb could be. Khan’s tomb almost certainly contains treasure from across the ancient Mongol Empire and would offer a fascinating insight into the man and the world around him at the time.

Experts have tried to pin down the location of the grave through historical texts and by painstakingly trawling across the landscape. It is widely suspected that his body was laid to rest somewhere close to his birthplace in Khentii Aimag, likely somewhere close to the Onon River and the Burkhan Khaldun mountain, which is part of the Khentii mountain range.

Investigative research has even been conducted from space: National Geographic’s Valley of the Khans project used satellite imagery in a mass hunt for the gravesite.

The Mongolian landscape

Another hindrance when it comes to uncovering the tomb’s location is Mongolia’s terrain. 7 times the size of Great Britain but with only 2% of its roads, the country is mainly comprised of epic and fairly impenetrable wildernesses, and is home to a population of a little over 3 million.

Other royal tombs which have been discovered have been dug as deep as 20 metres into the earth, and it is likely that Genghis Khan’s would be similarly concealed, if not more so.

Similarly, the legend of the 1000 horses trampling the site would suggest that he was buried in a wide-open space or plain; however, accounts perplexingly report that he was buried upon a hill, which would make this difficult or impossible.

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Sceptics of the search

One key twist in the mystery is that the Mongolian people largely don’t want Genghis Khan’s tomb to be found. This isn’t because of a lack of interest: he still remains a popular figure in the country’s historical fabric and popular culture, with the image of Khan being displayed on everything from currency to vodka bottles.

There are, however, a number of reasons why many want his tomb to remain undiscovered. The first – which is perhaps slightly exaggerated or romanticised – is the belief that if Khan’s tomb were to be discovered, the world would end.

This harks back to the legend of Timur, a 14th-century king whose tomb was opened by Soviet archaeologists in 1941. A mere 2 days after the tomb was unveiled, Operation Barbarossa began with the Nazis invading the Soviet Union. Stalin himself was said to believe in the curse and ordered that Timur’s remains be reburied.

For others, it is a question of respect. It is felt that if the tomb was intended to be found then there would be a sign.

Genghis Khan’s legacy

Genghis Khan on the Mongolian 1,000 tögrög banknote.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Genghis Khan’s legacy transcends the need to find his tomb: rather than having just conquered the world, Genghis Khan is regarded as having civilised and connected it.

He is revered as having connected the East and West, allowing the Silk Road to flourish. His rule encompassed the concepts of diplomatic immunity and religious freedom, and he established a reliable postal service and the use of paper money.

Yet archaeologists still hunt for his burial place. His humble palace was discovered in 2004, leading to speculation that his tomb is close by. In spite of this, little progress has been made in discovering it.

Today, the Genghis Khan Mausoleum serves as a memorial in lieu of his burial site, and it seems unlikely that the great mystery of the mighty Khan’s place of rest will ever be solved.

In this episode of Gone Medieval, Matt is joined by historian and author John Man who takes us through the rise, character, and conquests of Genghis Khan, delving into the life of one of the most recognisable names of the Middle Ages.
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Lucy Davidson