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Capital of the Mongol Empire and Heir to the Earlier Traditions of Urban Settlement in the Orkhon River Valley

Despite its small size and remote location, one of the most important cities in the history of the Silk Road was Karakorum (Qara-qorum; Mong.: Khara-Khorin). Although 'founded' under Chingis Khan in 1220, Karakorum's development as capital of the Mongol Empire occurred in the 1230s under his son Ögedei. It flourished only for some three decades before Chingis' grandson Qubilai moved the capital to Beijing. The city is of interest as the successor to other 'urban' centers of nomadic polities in the Orkhon River Valley of north central Mongolia. Moreover, the written and archaeological evidence about Karakorum tell us a great deal about the commercial and cultural interactions across Eurasia in which the Mongols played such an important role.

The town was situated on a grassy plain a short distance from the Orkhon River where it emerges from the gorges of the Khantai Mountains and flows northward to meet the Tuul (on whose upper reaches the current capital of Mongolia, Ulaanbaatar, is located). A favorable micro-climate makes the location ideal for pasturage, and a Chinese traveler in 1247 remarked on the cultivation of grain and vegetables. Ata-Malik Juvayni, an important historian and official under the Mongols, who spent time in Karakorum in the early 1250s, relates how hail destroyed the grain crop in one year, but the following one saw a bumper harvest. Karakorum also is strategically located on the most important east-west route across Mongolia. This central part of the Orkhon River valley was considered a sacred homeland by steppe peoples who earlier had laid claim to universal dominion and had placed their capitals there. The rulers of the Türk Empire in the early eighth century were buried there. The famous Orkhon Turkic inscriptions, some of the earliest texts in early Turkish, mark the burial sites and inform us about a vision of the world in which ethnic identity was inseparably connected to the Orkhon region and its adjoining mountains.

There is abundant evidence that urban centers (not necessarily sizeable cities) were in fact not unusual in the steppe lands of Mongolia in the centuries prior to the emergence of Chingis Khan's Mongol Empire. Of particular interest are the settlements of the Uighurs, who succeeded the Turks as rulers of the steppe and for a time in the late 8th and 9th centuries even exercised considerable political and economic influence over T'ang China. It seems that as early as the mid-7th century, the Uighurs had established walled compounds of some size in Mongolia, perhaps not in the first instance for permanent settlements of an urban type, but rather for political display. Kharbalgas, the Uighur capital of the late 8th and 9th centuries, just north of Karakorum in the Orkhon Valley, was a very substantial settlement indeed. The huge royal compound ('citadel'), which which measures some 450 x 200 m, even in ruins today is visibile from kilometers away across the steppe. According to Tamim Ibn Bahr, anArab ambassador in 821 who visited the city,

From a distance of five farsakhs before he arrived in the town of the khaqan he caught sight of a tent belonging to the king, made of gold. It stands on the flat top of his castle and can hold 100 men.

Outside the royal compound was a sprawling settled area occupying as much as 7 x 2.5 km, partly enclosed with lower walls. and containing numerous houses. Tamim Ibn Bahr noted:

…this is a great town, rich in agriculture and surrounded by rustaqs full of cultivation and villages lying close together. The town has twelve iron gates of huge size. The town is populous and thickly crowded and has markets and various trades. Among its population, the Zindiq religion prevails.

By this last he means Manichaeism, about which more shortly. Archaeology has confirmed this picture of a flourishing local agriculture: there are millstones, pestles and irrigation canals; some burials contain grains of millet.

The broken pieces of what was once a large stele with a trilingual text in Chinese, Uighur and Sogdian lie unprotected in the grasslands within sight of the walls of the citadel. The inscription seems to have been erected in the first half of the 9th century to commemorate the Uighur ruler who had died in 821. Interestingly it refers to one of the previous Uighur Qaghans as "the great Turkic ruler of the world who has received his splendor from Heaven," suggesting a pretension at universal sovereignty by Divine dispensation, a not uncommon belief amongst the rulers of the steppe. The Chinese part of the inscription praises the earlier Uighur ruler, Bügü Khan for adopting Manichaeism, an event we think occurred in the wake of his support for crushing the An Lushan rebellion against the T'ang Dynasty in 762 or 763. Myths about that conversion were still being told in the 1250s when Juvayni, visited Karakorum. Curiously, Juvayni prefaces his account with reference to the examination of some inscription (the one we still have in fragments?) near the ruins of Kharbalgas which contained a miracle story about the selection of Bügü Khan as the Uighur ruler. Then Juvayni describes the adoption by him, not of Manichaeism, but of Buddhism, thus making this event the explanation for the fact that in Juvayni's own time Buddhism was probably the most prominent of the faiths he would have witnessed in Karakorum.


So the choice of the location for Karakorum was no accident: ecology, political considerations, steppe tradition and and local beliefs all came together there. We can be certain that the Mongols, having received the submission of the heirs to the earlier Uighurs, were highly conscious of the earlier history of the region, even if in some mythologized form and must have been impressed by the still substantial remains of earlier settlement.

Ironically, the physical remains of Karakorum itself would fare less well than those of Uighur Kharbalgas. There are few surface traces of the Mongol capital. One sees today a stone tortoise, cut in a local quarry, which served as the base for a plinth with an inscription on it. The Erdeni Tzu monastery in the background is a later construction, recently restored after being destroyed by Mongolia's communist regime in the 20th century. Karakorum was located on the plain adjoining the monastery and to its east. The town wall enclosed a somewhat irregular rectangle measuring approximately 1.5 by 2.5 km. The walls were sufficient for controlling access to the town but would not have protected it against a major attack. Important economic activities, merchant residences and religious buildings were located within the walls; at least the main street was paved in stone. Given what we know about the settlement and movement patterns of the Mongols, it is clear that at the times when the Khan's court was present, the population of the town would have grown substantially by the temporary residence of Mongols in their gers (yurts) in the adjoining territory.


The Franciscan William of Rubruck in 1253-1255 was the first European to provide an eyewitness description of Karakorum. He was a careful observer.

Regarding the city of Caracorum, you should know that, discounting the Chan's palace, it is not as fine as the town of Saint Denis, and the monastery of Saint Denis is worth ten of the palace.

What was his standard for this unflattering comparison? His village of St. Denis, now lost in the urban sprawl of Paris, was important as the burial place of the first bishop of Paris. The monastic complex there became the center of a flourishing town. In the century when Rubruck wrote, the chuch, which stands today, was an impressive Gothic cathedral The town was a prosperous center of craft production and by the century after Rubruck is estimated to have held 10,000 inhabitants (Paris at the time had some 200,000). We don't know the population of Karakorum, but likely its permanent inhabitants were fewer than those in Saint Denis.

Rubruck's description of the Mongol capital continues:

It contains two quarters: one for the Saracens, where the markets are and where many traders gather due to the constant proximity of the camp and to the great number of envoys; the other is the quarter of the Cataians, who are all craftsmen. Set apart from these quarters lie large palaces belonging to the court secretaries. There are twelve idol temples belonging to the different peoples, two mosques where the religion of Mahomet is proclaimed, and one Christian church at the far end of the town. The town is enclosed by a mud wall and has four gates. At the east gate are sold millet and other kinds of grain, though they are seldom imported; at the western, sheep and goats are on sale; at the southern, cattle and wagons; at the northern, horses.


The compiler of the first true 'World History' and an important administrator for the Mongol Ilkhanids in the Middle East, Rashid al-Din, obtained from Mongol sources numerous anecdotes which illustrate the wise policies and generosity of the various khans and serve as a kind of compendium of legal decisions. While it is not always clear that we should take such anecdotes at face value, they convey a substantial amount of information on the role of the Mongol court in stimulating crafts and commerce in Karakorum and provide details about the artisans and merchants. Here are two examples from Rashid al-Din's description of Khan Ögedei.

He [the Khan] was passing through the market of Qara-Qorum, when he caught sight of a shop full of jujubes. He felt a craving for this fruit and upon alighting ordered Danishmand Hajib to buy jujubes from that shop ...

The account then relates how the Khan's agent tried to save money, and even though he had paid double the asking price, the Khan insisted that the shopkeeper be given an even larger sum.

The Khan's reputation for excessive generosity obviously led some to exploit his largesse. One of the more amusing anecdotes concerns the poor bowmaker,

who made exceedingly bad bows. He was so well known in Qara-Qorum that no one would buy his wares. One day he bound twenty bows at the end of a stick, brought them to the gate and took his stand there. When Qa'an [Ögedei] came out he caught sight of him and sent someone to inquire into his circumstances. 'I am', he said 'that bowmaker whose bows no one will buy, and I have become exceedingly poor. I have brought these twenty bows to present to Qa'an'. He ordered his attendants to take the bows from him and give him 20 gold balish.

Many of the craftsmen had surely not come to Karakorum of their own free will. Conscription of artisans was a normal practice under the Mongols when they conquered new territories. We shall meet one of them shortly.

The archaeological evidence fleshes out our picture of the town's economic life, with particularly rich material continuing to be found in the Chinese commercial section of the center of the city, which has been the focus of the ongoing German-Mongolian excavations. Karakorum was a center of metallurgy where water power from a canal connecting the town with the Orkhon River ran the bellows for the forges. There are iron cauldrons (used, among other things, as heating braziers), abundant quantities of arrowheads, and various decorative metal objects. Of particular interest are a substantial number of axle rings for carts, some of which must have been quite sizeable and presumably were used both for the transport of goods and at times to move gers without their being dismantled. Analogous carts are still used today in Mongolia. Local industry produced glass beads for jewelry and other decorative purposes; their forms are of a type that was widespread across all of the Mongol Empire. Spindle weights tell us that yarn was being produced - presumably in the first instance from the wool of the Mongols' own flocks. We know that rich silk fabrics were highly valued by the Mongol elite; some fragments of imported Chinese silk have been found. While there was limited production of grain in the surrounding region, it seems likely that the demand for grain required much of it to be imported from China. The archaeologists have discovered at least one small millstone.

Of particular interest is the production and importation of ceramics. The recent German-Mongolian excavations uncovered ceramic kilns, which produced such objects as roof tiles and finials for the Chinese-style buildings, water pipes, sculptures and a variety of table ware. The evidence suggests that the technology came from China. At the same time, the demand of the elite for high quality ceramic wares was met by imports, including good Chinese porcelain. When the famous blue-and-white porcelains began to be produced in the first half of the 14th century, they almost immediately found a market in Karakorum.

Evidence concerning commerce includes coinage. For all the fact that the written sources emphasize the significant role of Muslim merchants connecting Karakorum with Central Asia, most of the coins which have been discovered are of Chinese origin and range in date from a few T'ang Dynasty examples up through the Yuan (Mongol) coinage we would expect. However, earliest 'documentary' evidence which has survived from Karakorum is a coin with an Islamic inscription minted there in 1237-8. Excavations have also yielded a great many metal weights.

In the Russian-Mongolian and more recently the German-Mongolian excavations, particular attention was devoted to the site of a large building which had been located on the edge of the historic center of Karakorum. When it was excavated in the 1940s, the Russian archaeologist Kiselev concluded that this substantial structure was the Khan's palace. It is square in plan and had rows of columns, whose granite bases are impressive for their size. Remains of a large platform were in the center. The site is littered with evidence suggesting at some point it was a Buddhist temple; among other finds are hundreds of small votive clay stupas and images. On the basis of the most recent excavations, the German archaeologists have raised serious doubts that the building ever was a palace; in fact it probably was a Buddhist temple from its beginnings in the second quarter of the 13th century. If this was not the palace, then where did the Khans receive important visitors?

Rubruck described the royal compound in Karakorum as

a large encampment, near the city walls and enclosed by a brick wall just as are the priories of our own monks. Here there is a great palace where he holds his drinking sessions twice a year, once at Easter when he passes by there and once in the summer when he is on his way back. The latter occasion is the more important, inasmuch as then there gather at his court all the nobles from any place up to two months' journey away; and he then confers on them garments and presents, and parades his great grandeur. There are numerous other buildings there the length of barns, where his supplies and treasures are stored.

The Franciscan also described the quite wonderful fountain in the courtyard of the palace, made for the Khan by the conscripted Paris silversmith Guilliame Bouchier. It was

a large tree made of silver, with four silver lions at its roots, each one containing a conduit-pipe and spewing forth white mare's milk. There are four conduits leading into the tree, right to the top, with their ends curving downwards, and over each of them lies a gilded serpent with its tail twined around the trunk of the tree. One of the pipes discharges wine, a second caracomos (refined mare's milk), a third boal (a drink made from honey), and a fourth rice ale, known as terracina.... At the top, he made an angel holding a trumpet, and beneath the tree a cavity capable of concealing a man; and there is a pipe leading up to the angel through the very core of the tree … Outside the palace there is a chamber where drink is stored and where stewards stand ready to pour when they hear the angel sound the trumpet.

No trace of this marvel has survived, even though Rubruck's description inspired 18th-century French drawings of it, one of which today graces the reverse of the Mongolian 5000-tughruk bill. There is also a replica in the parking lot of a Karakorum motel.

For all the fact that substantial Chinese-style buildings seem to have been common enough in Karakorum, the relatively small permanent core of the city was surrounded by a large area where the Mongols would pitch their tents or gers, a pattern which persists even today, where ger suburbs are part of the urban landscape even in the Mongol capital Ulaanbaatar. In every part of the Mongol Empire, the rulers never simply settled down in one place but rather maintained a regular pattern of nomadic movement. Thus, as Rubruck suggests, the Khan probably never spent more than a few days every year in the Karakorum itself, probably then living in his ger, even if he used some palace, location yet to be discovered, for receptions. In the spring he went north along the Orkhon to a palace complex that had been built for him by Muslim architects, as Juvayni put it, 'to spite the Cathayans'. In Juvayni's words:

[it] was a very tall castle filled with all kinds of many-coloured, jewel-studded embroideries and carpets. In the entrance was placed a throne full worthy of the place, and in the banqueting hall were jasper vases, and ewers studded with pearls…And in front of the castle there were pools of water, wherein many water fowl used to gather, and he would watch the hunting of these birds.

His winter camp was in the next river valley to the south, where there was a somewhat milder microclimate. A rather substantial array of buildings has been partially excavated at the presumed location of this camp. The khan's ordu or court was where he happened to be residing. His officials, household staff and guard moved with him. In was in one or another of the palace complexes that the Khan received, as Rubruck noted during his visit, emissaries from the caliph in Baghdad, from the Sultan of India (whose gifts, incidentally, included eight leopards and ten greyhounds trained to sit on the back of a horse), and from the Seljuk Sultan of Turkey. Rubruck's Franciscan predecessor, John of Plano Carpini, never made it to Karakorum itself, since during his visit in Mongolia, the Khan was resident somewhere outside of the city.

As a Catholic monk, Rubruck was particularly interested in the religious life of the town, whose population contained a microcosm of the religious diversity of the empire. He provides us some interesting material on Mongolian indigenous religion (shamanism) and notes the presence of Muslims who, of course, had been trading in the region from earlier centuries. While the reconstruction is hypothetical pending further archaeological discovery, one of the two mosques Rubruck noted in the city might have looked like the one depicted in the museum model next to a large caravan sarai. The largest number of places of worship he noted was for the 'idolaters', that is Buddhists. Most of his attention is directed though to the Nestorian Christians. Nestorian Christianity had made its way to China as early as the 7th century and was well established in some areas of Inner Asia. It enjoyed particular popularity amongst some of the tribes in western Mongolia; a number of the royal women, one being Qubilai Khan's mother, were Nestorians. While Rubruck was pleased to find Christians in Karakorum, he was distressed by the fact that they were from a sect deemed heretical by the Catholic Church. In fact he has harsher words for them and the Buddhists than he does for the eclectic Mongols, who seemed quite eager to invoke the magic of any faith which might strengthen their divinely inspired mandate.

By the time Marco Polo reached China in the early 1270s, Qubilai Khan had made Beijing the Empire's capital, replacing Karakorum. There is no reason to think Marco visited the former capital, but he mentions it and indicates (probably with some exaggeration) that it was surrounded by an earthen wall some three miles in circumference. He also reports on the civil war in the early part of Qubilai Khan's reign in which the Khan had besieged the city. Apparently it survived that siege intact, only to suffer from fire at the very end of the 13th century during civil disturbances. Throughout much of the 14th century it retained at least in the minds of the Mongol rulers of China some symbolic importance as the city 'founded' by the charismatic founder of the Empire, Chingis Khan. The stone stele of 1346/7 erected to commemorate the imperial patronage involved in re-dedicating Karakorum's main Buddhist temple invokes Chingis Khan even if he had little to do with the city's real development as the Mongol capital. Karakorum was completely destroyed in 1388 by a Ming army pursuing the remnants of the Mongol forces whom they had expelled from China.

For a time in the early 16th century, the region of Karakorum was important in local Mongol politics, but by 1585, when the very important Erdeni Tzu Buddhist monastery was built adjoining the southern edge of the one-time capital of much of Eurasia, Karakorum was only a dim memory. It was mainly because of the monastery and the favorable geographical location that the area continued to be important in the political and religious life of Mongolia until the vicious destruction of the monastery in the 1930s by the anti-religious Communist regime. However, even today, as the depiction the palace on Mongol currency suggests, the Karakorum remains one of the important symbols of Mongol identity. It is the location of one of the important annual Naadam festivals which celebrate Mongolian tradition traditional sports and culture.

— Daniel C. Waugh


References :

Primary source texts.

  • John Andrew Boyle, tr., The Successors of Genghis Khan (NY; London: Columbia University Pr., 1971). A translation of selections from Rashid al-Din's world history, whose focus is the Mongols.
  • Francis Woodman Cleaves, "The Sino-Mongolian Inscription of 1346," Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 15 (1952): 1-123. Analysis and translation of the text on a stele erected probably in 1347 to commemorate restoration of the main Buddhist temple in Karakorum. The inscription is the main evidence Chingis Khan was in some way the "founder" of the city or at least had at some point resided there. In 2003 the Mongolian-German expedition discovered a new fragment of the broken stele; see Dschingis Khan und seine Erben, pp. 150-152.
  • Ata-Malik Juvaini, Genghis Khan: The History of the World-Conqueror. Tr. and ed. by J.A. Boyle with an introduction by David O. Morgan (Seattle: Univ. of Washington Press; Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1997; first ed. 1958). One of the two most important Persian histories of the Mongols.
  • V[ladimir] Minorsky, "Tamim ibn Bahr's Journey to the Uyghurs," Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 12/2 (1948): 275-305. Text, translation and extensive commentary on text recounting the journey in 821 to the Uighur capital, Kharbalgas, by the emissary of the Arab caliphate.
  • The Mission of Friar William of Rubruck. His journey to the court of the Great Khan Möngke 1253-1255. Tr. by Peter Jackson; Introd., notes and appendices by Peter Jackson with David Morgan (London: The Hakluyt Society, 1990). The most substantial first-hand early Western account of the Mongols. An older translation of Rubruck is available on-line at: .
  • Marco Polo, The Travels. Tr. with an introduction by Ronald Latham (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1958), esp. pp. 92, 315-317. This is the most commonly available modern translation. For the classic Yule/Cordier translation with its extensive annotation, go to Project Gutenberg.

Secondary works.

  • Thomas T. Allsen, "Spiritual Geography and Political Legitimacy in the Eastern Steppe," in Henri J. M. Claessen and Jarich G. Oosten, eds., Ideology and the Formation of Early States (Leiden: Brill, 1996): 116-135. Includes observations on the importance of the Orkhon Valley.
  • Larry Clark, "The Conversion of Bügü Khan to Manichaeism," in Ronald E. Emmerick, Werner Sundermann and Peter Zieme, eds., Studia Manichaica. IV. Internationaler Kongress zum Manichäismus, Berlin, 14.-18. Juli 1997. Berichte und Abhandlungen, hrsg. von der Berlin-Brandenburgischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, Sonderband 4 (Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 2000), pp. 83-123. Includes, pp. 87-88, a translation of the key part of the Kharbalgas inscription.
  • Dschingis Khan und seine Erben. Das Weltreich der Mongolen [Chingis Khan and His Heirs. The World Empire of the Mongols] (Munich: Hirmer Verlag, 2005). A lavish catalogue of arguably the best ever international exhibition of Mongolia-related artifacts, held in Bonn and Munich in 2005-2006. Pp. 126-195 include essays on Karakorum, its history, and the recent Mongolian-German discoveries at the so-called palace, the ceramic kilns and the center of the city where the Chinese craftsmen lived.
  • Stefan Heidemann, Hendrick Kelzenberg, Ulambayar Erdenebat, Ernst Pohl, "The First Documentary Evidence for Qara Qorum, from the year 635/1237-8," Beiträge zur Allgemeinen und Vergleichenden Archäologie 1 (2005): 93-102. On the Muslim coin minted in Karakorum in 1237-38 and its archaeological context in a workshop in the Chinese section of the city.
  • S. V. Kiselev et al., Drevnemongol’skie goroda [Ancient Mongolian Cities] (Moscow: Nauka, 1965). The largest part of this important volume is devoted to the Soviet-Mongolian excavations of Karakorum in 1948-49. It includes an overview of the city’s history, details about the excavation of the palace and the commercial/craft quarters, the buddhist frescoes, coins, metalwork, ceramics, etc.
  • Judith G. Kolbas, "Khukh Ordung, A Uighur Palace Complex of the Seventh Century," Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, ser. 3, 15/3 (2005): 303-327. Evidence concerning one of the earliest of the fortified settlements of the Uighurs.
  • J. Daniel Rogers, Erdenebat Ulambayar and Mathew Galoon, "Urban centres and the emergence of empires in Eastern Inner Asia," Antiquity 79, No. 306 (December 2005): 801-818. A good overview of several important urban sites in Mongolia, built in different periods; includes maps
  • "Saint-Denis: a town in the Middle Ages." Excellent website about the French monastic town near Paris which was William of Rubruck's point of comparison for Karakorum.
  • Noriyuki Shiraishi, "Seasonal Migrations of the Mongol Emperors and the Peri-Urban Area of Kharakhorum," International Journal of Asian Studies 1/1 (2004): 105-119. Summarizes the evidence regarding the palace complexes in and around Karakorum and the patterns of movement by the khans between them.

For additional images of objects from Kharbalgas and Karakorum, visit the Silk Road Seattle web page for the Mongolian Museum of National History.

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© 2008 Daniel C. Waugh. Last revised August 11, 2008, the revision being a substantial expansion and rewriting of the earlier Karakorum essay.
Photographs and drawings are copyright of the author, except as noted. The ox-cart at Karakorum is © 1979 Marina Tolmacheva; the photo of the 2005 excavation © Charlotte Green; both used with permission. The satellite image in Fig. 2 is from NASA's "Visible Earth" website.