According to legend, when Genghis Khan died in 1227 in what is now northern China, his lieutenants wanted to keep the death a secret from the Mongols’ enemies. So as the party accompanying his body made its way back to Mongolia, they killed every person they saw on the way - more than 20,000 - so news of the death wouldn’t spread. Then, when they buried Genghis, they either redirected a river to cover the site, or set horses to trample the ground so no trace would be seen, or killed all the people who buried him, and then killed those killers.
There is no hard evidence that any of those things happened. It may well be that they are after-the-fact embellishments designed to explain a remarkable circumstance of history: the location of Genghis’ tomb remains a mystery.
The Mongol Empire receded almost as fast as it spread -- a fact that may have played a big role in keeping Genghis’ final resting place a secret. For centuries, the people of Mongolia retained a traditional, nomadic lifestyle that left little time to contemplate the distant past. In the 20th century, the Soviet Union dominated Mongolia and, while it modernized the country, it feared Mongolian nationalism, and so discouraged any deep look into the nation’s history.
But the last 20 years have seen a burst of interest in Genghis Khan. Abroad, his reputation as a bloodthirsty barbarian has undergone a substantial revision, thanks in part to books like the bestselling Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World. Meanwhile, a new, high-budget museum exhibition is touring the United States that emphasizes some innovations developed by Genghis Khan, including intercontinental commerce, religious pluralism and meritocracy.
In Mongolia, Ghengis is revered to a degree approaching that of a deity. His image appears everywhere, including on a tapestry in Ulaanbaatar’s main monastery, as well as a statue in front of the parliament building. Ulaanbaatar’s airport and popular brands of beer and vodka are named after him.
Given the revival of his legacy, it’s not surprising that there has been an awakening of interest in finding his grave.
The newest team to mount a search for the grave of Genghis Khan is relying on state-of-the-art technology that combines massive computing power with a creative crowd-sourcing technique. This innovative method, organizers hope, will allow their team to succeed where earlier expeditions failed.
The Valley of the Khans project is sponsored by the National Geographic Society, and members refuse to grant media interviews. But the group’s website links to a YouTube video in which the group’s head, Albert Yu-Min Lin, outlines his team’s search strategy. [For additional information click here]. In the video, Lin describes his first visit to Burkhan Kaldun, the most likely site of the grave, at the end of 2008 to take GPS readings. The group is also collecting satellite data from GeoEye, whose Ikonos satellite, launched in September 2008, offers the highest resolution satellite images available to civilians, Lin said. To get even more detailed images the group plans to use unmanned drone airplanes to take aerial photography and geophysical tools like electromagnetic induction and ground-penetrating radar, pioneered by the mining industry, to get images of what might be under the ground.
The data gathered by those tools will be processed and put online so that amateur web surfers - attracted by a game with a title like "Help Find the Tomb of Genghis Khan" - can scan through the images. They will look for anomalies, like right angles, that might indicate the possibility of human activity on the landscape or underground. Then the images of those anomalies will be analyzed in greater detail by Lin and his team. Astronomers successfully used a similar scheme, called Galaxy Zoo, to help classify more than a million galaxies that were photographed by telescopes scanning vast swaths of the sky, Lin said. (Another initiative, somewhat similar to Lin’s idea, to find the wreckage of the airplane of adventurer Steve Fossett, failed.)
"This is how you find the needle without touching the hay," Lin said. The project is expected to be completed in mid-2011.
In Hohhot, the capital of the Chinese province of Inner Mongolia, there is a brand new Genghis Khan Square, featuring a huge equestrian statue of the conqueror, and next to it runs Genghis Khan Boulevard, where the feature nominally Mongol motifs, like domes on the roofs and blue and white color schemes.
That China would so honor Genghis Khan, whose Mongol armies overwhelmed China in the 13th century and ruled it for more than a century, would seem unlikely. But Beijing, in an attempt to keep a close hold on its Mongolian minority, now reasons that since Genghis conquered China, he can be treated as a Chinese hero.
And that gives the search for Genghis Khan’s grave a bit of a geopolitical flavor. Asked why the tomb of Genghis Khan should be found, Mongolians can give several answers, like finding the right place to worship the great hero, or to draw the world’s attention to him and to Mongolia. But perhaps the most often cited justification is the need to prove that Genghis Khan belongs to Mongolia.
On the prairie of Inner Mongolia, which borders Mongolia, and which is home to most of China’s Mongolian minority, (and more ethnic Mongolians than are in Mongolia proper), stands the Genghis Khan Mausoleum. The name notwithstanding, virtually no one claims that Genghis is actually buried there. But the "mausoleum" is nevertheless a significant monument to the Mongolian leader, and one that China uses to bolster its claim to Genghis’s legacy.
The current mausoleum is the modern descendent of a tradition that began shortly after the death of Genghis Khan in the 13th century. Because the location of his tomb was secret, Genghis’s heirs created a mobile memorial, originally a set of white tents called ordos, where Mongolians could venerate him. The tents first centered on Burkhan Khaldun, the holy mountain in northern Mongolia where Genghis is presumed to be buried. Through circumstances not recorded, they eventually ended up in what is today China.
For Mongolia, where income from tourism accounts for nearly 20 percent of gross domestic product, Genghis Khan is already a major draw, with tour operators aggressively promoting the opportunity to "follow in Genghis’ footsteps." Finding his grave, boosters say, will only increase the country’s appeal.
Already, private companies are creating ambitious projects to generate income from Genghis’ legacy. One company, GENCO Tours, built a 40-meter stainless steel statue about an hour’s drive from Ulaanbaatar. It is a popular destination for Mongolians and foreign tourists. (Ironically, the steel for this symbol of the Mongolian nation was obtained in Russia and the statue was constructed in China; only the final assembly took place in Mongolia.) The same company also recently opened a living history museum that depicts life in Mongolia in the 13th century, a time when the Mongol Empire was at its height.
The most ambitious project, however, is a planned theme park on the road approaching Burkhan Khaldun, the holy mountain where Genghis is widely believed to be buried. It just broke ground in September and when it is completed in 2015, it will include temples, palaces, hotels and museums devoted to Genghis Khan and the Mongol Empire. It will cost upwards of $70 million, with four Mongolian companies providing investment capital, said Gerel D., general manager of the project.
The project is privately financed, but it enjoys the backing of the Mongolian government, Gerel said. Project officials now are negotiating with the government about improving the road to the site, which is now nearly 100 km from the nearest paved road. The complex’s appeal, Gerel said, would be as a place to pay respects to Genghis Khan.