This is an outsized land for outsized legends. No roads, no permanent buildings; just unfurling sky, tufted dry grass and streaming wind. We stopped to drink salted milk tea in nomads’ round ger tents and to snap pictures of roaming horses and goats. Sometimes we stopped just for the sake of stopping ‒ Ömnögovi Province, Mongolia, is endless by car. I couldn’t imagine tackling it on a horse.
But this is the country of Genghis Khan, the warrior who conquered the world on horseback. His story is full of kidnappings, bloodshed, love and revenge.
That’s just history. The legend begins with his death.
Genghis Khan (known in Mongolia as Chinggis Khaan) once ruled everything between the Pacific Ocean and the Caspian Sea. Upon his death he asked to be buried in secret. A grieving army carried his body home, killing anyone it met to hide the route. When the emperor was finally laid to rest, his soldiers rode 1,000 horses over his grave to destroy any remaining trace.
In the 800 years since Genghis Khan’s death, no-one has found his tomb.
Foreign-led expeditions have pursued the grave through historical texts, across the landscape and even from space ‒ National Geographic’s Valley of the Khans Project used satellite imagery in a mass hunt for the gravesite. But most interest in locating the tomb is international; Mongolians don’t want it found.
It’s not that Genghis Khan isn’t significant in his homeland ‒ quite the reverse. His face is on the money and on the vodka; he probably hasn’t been this popular since his death in 1227. So it can be difficult for outsiders to understand why it’s considered taboo to seek his grave.
Genghis Khan did not want to be found
The reluctance is often romanticised by foreign media as a curse, a belief that the world will end if Genghis Khan’s tomb is discovered. This echoes the legend of Tamarlane, a 14th-Century Turkic-Mongolian king whose tomb was opened in 1941 by Soviet archaeologists. Immediately following the tomb’s disturbance, Nazi soldiers invaded the Soviet Union, launching World War II’s bloody Eastern Front. Superstitious people might call that cause and effect.
But Uelun, my translator, was having none of it. A young Mongolian with a degree in international relations from Buryat State University in Ulan-Ude, Russia, she did not seem superstitious. In her opinion, it is about respect. Genghis Khan did not want to be found.
“They went through all that effort to hide his tomb,” she pointed out. Opening it now would violate his wishes.
This was a common sentiment. Mongolia is a country of long traditions and deep pride. Many families hang tapestries or portraits of the Grand Khan. Some identify themselves as ‘Golden Descendants’, tracing their ancestry to the royal family. Throughout Mongolia, the warrior remains a powerful icon.
The search for Genghis Khan’s tomb
Beyond cultural pressures to honour Genghis Khan’s dying wish for secrecy, a host of technical problems hinder the search for his tomb. Mongolia is huge and underdeveloped ‒ more than seven times the size of Great Britain with only 2% of its roads. The population density is so low that only Greenland and a few remote islands can beat it. As such, every view is epic wilderness. Humanity, it seems, is just there to provide scale: the distant, white curve of a herdsman’s ger, or a rock shrine fluttering with prayer flags. Such a landscape holds on to its secrets.
Dr Diimaajav Erdenebaatar has made a career overcoming such challenges in pursuit of archaeology. Head of the Department of Archaeology at Ulaanbaatar State Universityin Mongolia’s capital city, Dr Erdenebaatar was part of the first joint expedition to find the tomb. The Japanese-Mongolian project called Gurvan Gol (meaning ‘Three Rivers’) focused on Genghis Khan