Karakorum: A Silver Tree and Other Unique Elements of a 13th Century Mongol Capital
During the 13th century, Karakorum was perhaps one of the most important cities in the world. It was the capital of the Mongol Empire. After it was destroyed, the location of the famous city was lost for centuries. But the Karakorum ruins were eventually rediscovered and through a combination of archaeological work and vivid historical accounts, researchers have been able to imagine what the city was like during its heyday.
The Early History of Karakorum
Karakorum (also spelled as Khara-khorin, Har Horin, Kharakhorum, and Qara Qorum) is a historical site located in the Orkhon Valley of north-central Mongolia. The area was settled before the arrival of the Mongols, and the archaeological records suggest that it was first established as a tent city around the 8th or 9th centuries by the Uighur descendants of the Bronze Age Steppe Societies. It was only later, in 1220, that a permanent settlement at Karakorum was founded by Genghis Khan.
A 13th century stone turtle, one of the few visible remains at Karakorum from the time when it was the capital of the Mongol Empire. (Frithjof Spangenberg/CC BY SA 2.5)
The land around Karakorum was not the most agriculturally fertile. Genghis Khan’s choice of Karakorum as his capital, however, was based on the fact that it was located strategically at the north-south and east-west intersections of the Silk Road routes crossing Mongolia. In other words, this city had great potential to grow rich from trade. The city also served as Genghis Khan’s base for his invasion of China.
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The Khan's Palace at Karakorum
Whilst Karakorum was founded by Genghis Khan, it was not developed much during his time. It was only during the reign of Ogedei Khan, Genghis Khan’s successor, that Karakorum began to be turned into a city befitting the capital of the Mongol Empire.
In 1235, the Jin Dynasty was finally destroyed by the Mongols, and construction works began in Karakorum. A palace supported by 64 wooden columns standing on granite bases was constructed to serve as the residence of the Great Khan, whilst mud walls were built around the city for defensive purposes.
Karakorum continued to serve as the capital of the Mongol Empire until 1264, when Kublai Khan moved his capital to Khanbaliq. About three years later, Karakorum was largely abandoned. In 1368, Bilikt Khan, the last ruler of the Yuan Dynasty, was banished from Beijing and returned to Karakorum, which he partly rebuilt. The Ming Dynasty, which had seized power from the Mongols in China, pursued the remaining Yuan loyalists into Mongolia, and around the end of the 14th century, destroyed Karakorum.
Model of the Khan Palace in Karakorum in the National Museum of Mongolian History in Ulan Bator. (Public Domain)
The Karakorum Silver Tree
It is thanks to the writings of Medieval travelers that descriptions of Karakorum during its heyday have been preserved. One of these writers was William of Rubruck, a Flemish Franciscan missionary who served as the envoy of King Louis IX of France at the Mongol court.
William reported that during the reign of Mongke, the fourth Great Khan, there was a Parisian goldsmith by the name of William Bouchier at Karakorum who constructed a silver tree at the entrance of the khan’s palace. At the base of this tree were four silver lions which belched mare’s milk from their mouths. Moreover, four gilded serpents were entwined around the tree, each of which spewed forth a different drink.
Representation of the silver tree of Karakorum on a 5000 tugrik banknote of Mongolia. (Public Domain)
William also recorded that the city had 12 different pagan temples, two mosques, and a church, indicating the religious diversity of Karakorum.
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Rediscovering a Mongol Capital
After the destruction of Karakorum, the once great capital of the Mongols gradually disappeared from human memory. It was only in 1889 that the location of Karakorum was discovered by two Russian Orientalists working in the area. Archaeological excavations at the site began in the following century.
Amongst other things, excavations have uncovered pottery kilns, metalsmithing workshops, and a Muslim cemetery. Although the archaeologists who excavated the site during the 1940s were certain that they had discovered the ruins of the khan’s palace, more recent excavations have cast doubts on this interpretation, suggesting that the ‘palace’ may have instead been a temple.
13th century kiln excavated in Karakorum, Mongolia. Kiln was used to heat and harden bricks. (CC0)
Top image: Painting depicting what the silver tree of Karakorum may have looked like. Source: Mongolia Expeditions – Mongolia Geographic
By Wu Mingren
Hirst, K. K., 2018. Karakorum: Genghis Khan's Capital City. Available at: https://www.thoughtco.com/karakorum-genghis-khans-capital-city-171735
Silk Road Seattle, 2004. William of Rubruck's Account of the Mongols. Available at: https://depts.washington.edu/silkroad/texts/rubruck.html
The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2013. Karakorum. Available at: https://www.britannica.com/place/Karakorum
UNESCO, 2018. Karakorum. Available at: https://en.unesco.org/silkroad/content/karakorum
Waugh, D. C., 2008. Karakorum. Available at: https://depts.washington.edu/silkroad/cities/karakorum/karakorum.html