Karakorum "The First Capital"

Karakorum (also K'a-la-k'un-lun, Khara-khorin, Kharakhorum, Khara Khorum in Classical Mongolian) was an ancient palace and "capital city" of the Mongol Empire in the 13th century, although for only about 30 years. Its ruins lie in the northwestern corner of the Övörkhangai Province of Mongolia, near today's town of Kharkhorin, and adjacent to the Erdene Zuu monastery. They are part of the upper part of the World Heritage Site Orkhon Valley Cultural Landscape.

Archaeological evidence reveals that town life centered on metallurgy powered by the currents of the Orkhon River. Other findings include arrowheads; iron cauldrons; wheel bushings; evidence of ceramic (tiles and sculpture) production, glass (glass beads) production and yarn (spindles) production; also Chinese silk and coins [1]. The palace itself had green-tiled floors, and "all the roofs, made of green and red tiles, had ornamentation of relief." Household utensils, porcelain pottery and bronze, silver and gold decorations have been unearthed as well. [2]

This local region is surrounded by arable land and once hosted rich
mining deposits. For all these finds, Karakorum has been dubbed the
ancient "Empire of the Steppe" [3]. Some evidence indicates that early peoples may have inhabited the area as early as the 8th century (Encyclopedia Britannica).


Political history


Ghengis Khan settled in this region sometime around 1220 and made it a command post for his military conquest of China, marking the beginning of a time period that has become known as the Yuan Dynasty (Encyclopedia Britannica and Yuan Dynasty). Genghis Khan's
real name was Temujin. He emerged as the strongest chieftain among a
number of contending leaders in a confederation of clan lineages. His
principal opponents in this struggle had been the Naiman Mongols, and he selected Karakorum (west-southwest of modern Ulaanbaatar, near modern Kharkhorin), their capital, as the seat of his new empire.

Persian merchants and Chinese craftsmen were main habitants in the
cosmopolitan empire. Although Karakorum is often said to be the capital
of the Mongol Empire, Temujin lived in the movable palaces outside the
city like other nomadic rulers. Karakorum served as the supply base for
the actual "capital." After Temujin's death in 1227 and in compliance
with the will of the dead khan, a kuriltai at Karakorum in 1228 selected Ögedei as khan.


Click image for larger view. Silk routes of the Great Silk Road, including two hypothetical routes leading to Karakorum (lighter blue). No actual route to Karakorum has ever been found.

Click image for larger view. Silk routes of the Great Silk Road, including two hypothetical routes leading to Karakorum (lighter blue). No actual route to Karakorum has ever been found.

Ögedei rebuilt Karakorum in 1235 and re-established Karakorum's trade along the Silk Road. This ancient state of Mongolia in the 13th century was among the most famous and powerful of all in the world. Karakorum became a major site for world trade and politics. "The
flow of ambassadors from France, sons of Georgian and Armenian
sovereigns, Russian princes, and Chinese officials was unceasing
" [4].
Ögedei erected walls to surround Karakorum and constructed a
rectangular-shaped palace firmly held by 64 wooden columns resting upon
on solid granite bases. Present day archaeological findings show that
Karakorum was surrounded by walls occupying a space of approximately 1½
by 2½ km [5]. Numerous brick buildings, shrines, mosques and tortoise sculptures were constructed as well (Encyclopedia Britannica).

Eventually Ögedei's son Güyük succeeded him after his death in 1241. Ögedei's widow Töregene Khatun held power in Karakorum as regent between 1242 and 1246 (see Ögedei Khan).
It was not until the summer of 1246 that a kuriltai assembled at
Karakorum to select the successor to Ogedei, mainly because of
political maneuvering by Batu Khan and other royal princes at Karakorum who had hopes of being elected. Güyük continued to rival with Batu and died in 1249.

In the two years that followed, Karakorum seems to have had no
leader. Though most of the royal princes at Karakorum thought that Batu
should be elected khan, Batu declined the offer and instead nominated Möngke Khan, the eldest son of Tolui.
Möngke's nomination was confirmed by a kuriltai in 1251. When Möngke
died in 1259 the overwhelming choice of the kuriltai as his successor
was his equally brilliant brother, Kublai Khan.
For the next few years, the new khan devoted his attention to
administrative reforms of his vast empire. One major development under
Kublai's generalship was his establishment in 1260 of a winter capital
at Dadu, in modern day Beijing, China. By 1267, he had made Dadu the new capital of his empire (Encyclopedia Britannica).


After Kublai Khan moved the "capital" to Dadu, Karakorum was degraded to a provincial city. Although the Northern Yuan temporarily put the capital there, the subsequent strife between the Forty Mongols and Four Oirats ruined it. Chinese invaders sacked the city and massacred its inhabitants in 1388. About 70,000 Mongols were taken prisoner, and Karakorum was destroyed [6]. Though Karakorum was partially reconstructed later, it was nevertheless eventually deserted (Encyclopedia Britannica).

William of Rubruck

William of Rubruck, a Flemish Franciscan missionary and explorer to Karakorum in 1254,
wrote of his visit and travels, a work which has become one of the
great masterpieces of medieval geographical literature. Because William
was a good observer and excellent writer, and because he asked many
questions along the way without taking folk tale and fable as truth,
his account of Karakorum is held in high esteem:

...a great palace, situated next to the city walls, enclosed
within a high wall like those which enclose monks' priories among us.
Here is a great palace.... There are there many buildings as long as
barns, in which are stored his provisions and his treasures. In the
entry of this great palace, it being unseemly to bring in there skins
of milk and other drinks, master William the Parisian had made for him
a great silver tree, and at its roots are four lions of silver, each
with a conduit through it, and all belching forth white milk of mares.
And four conduits are led inside the tree to its tops, which are bent
downward, and on each of these is also a gilded serpent, whose tail
twines round the tree. And from one of these pipes flows wine, from
another cara cosmos, or clarified mare's milk, from another bal, a
drink made with honey, and from another rice mead, which is called
terracina; and for each liquor there is a special silver bowl at the
foot of the tree to receive it. Between these four conduits in the top,
he made an angel holding a trumpet, and underneath the tree he made a
vault in which a man can be hid. And pipes go up through the heart of
the tree to the angel. In the first place he made bellows, but they did
not give enough wind. Outside the palace is a cellar in which the
liquors are stored, and there are servants all ready to pour them out
when they hear the angel trumpeting. And there are branches of silver
on the tree, and leaves and fruit.
And the palace is like a church, with a middle nave, and two
sides beyond two rows of pillars, and with three doors to the south,
and beyond the middle door on the inside stands the tree, and the Chan
sits in a high place to the north, so that he can be seen by all; and
two rows of steps go up to him: by one he who carries his cup goes up,
and by the other he comes down. The space which is in the middle
between the tree and these steps by which they go up to him is empty;
for here stands his cup-bearer, and also envoys bearing presents; and
he himself sits up there like a divinity.
(Waugh, 2004)


In 1585 Abadai Khan of the Khalkha built the Tibetan Buddhist Erdene Zuu monastery near the site. Various construction materials were taken from the ruin to build this monastery.

The ruins of Karakorum were discovered by the Russian expedition of Nikolai Przhevalsky in 1889, several months after its leader's death. In Mongolia, some people favored relocating the national capital from Ulaanbaatar to nearby Kharkhorin.

Between 1948 and 1949 the Academy of Sciences of the U.S.S.R. explored the ancient site. Their findings include the discovery of the palace built by Ögedei and a Buddhist shrine built around 1300 (Encyclopedia Britannica).

Modern times

The government of Mongolia recently announced that it would like to
build a new capital for Mongolia on the site of ancient Karakorum. The
new capital would be named Karakorum and would be the symbol of a
united, free, and prosperous Mongolia.

See also


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