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This dragon head, unearthed at Xanadu, was attached to the end of a beam.

Stunning dragon heads found at ancient summer palace of Xanadu

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Archaeologists have found some stunning artifacts during excavations of the famed palace at Xanadu in Inner Mongolia, including three ceramic dragon heads. Xanadu became the summer palace of Kublai Khan, grandson of Genghis Khan, after he conquered China.

The 13 th century palace of Xanadu, also called Shangdu, is about 9,000 square meters (97,000 square feet) and is inside an imperial city, which is surrounded by an outer city wall on about 40 hectares (120 acres).  It is located in what is now called Inner Mongolia, 350 kilometres (220 mi) north of Beijing, about 28 kilometres (17 mi) northwest of the modern town of Duolun.

Xandu highlighted in red on 1626 map by English cartographer John Speed

Xandu highlighted in red on 1626 map by English cartographer John Speed (Wikimedia Commons)

The research team reported in the journal Chinese Cultural Relics that the fine dragon head relics are made of red clay and are glazed with black, white, yellow and blue tints. Other finds include a clay fish with lifelike scales, tiles from roof eaves, and dripstones that defected water, which were decorated as birds and dragons and glazed in yellow and blue patterns.

Archaeologists also found ramps called mandaos that gave horses and carriages entry to the palace. Mandao means “path for horses.” The ramps were probably associated with Mongol pastoral lifeways, the archaeologists said.

Tourists use a new boardwalk to get up close to residential ruins at the Site of Xanadu.

Tourists use a new boardwalk to get up close to residential ruins at the Site of Xanadu. [Photo: Xinhua]

The excavations were done in 2009 by scholars from the Archaeology and Inner Mongolian Institute for Cultural Relics Conservation, the Inner Mongolia Normal University,  and the Inner Mongolian Institute of Cultural Relics. The journal Wenwu published their study several years ago, and it was then published in English in Chinese Cultural Relics.

A famous poem of the English language, “Kubla Khan,” drew its inspiration from the palace of Xanadu. The author, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, had fallen asleep in an opium stupor and had a fantastic dream about the city, which was built in 1256. He awakened and could not remember much, but did write his famous poem based on his dream. The poem begins:

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.
So twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled round;
And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,
Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree;
And here were forests ancient as the hills,
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.

Kublai Khan was Genghis Khan's grandson. In his city, where he ruled from 1263 to 1272, he tried to fuse Han Chinese and Mongolian cultures. The Mongols, as the Yuan dynasty, ruled China for more than 100 years from Xanadu. The inhabitants abandoned the city in 1430.

Portrait of Kublai Khan

Portrait of Kublai Khan (Wikimedia Commons)

The UNESCO World Heritage Site of Xanadu webpage says planners used traditional Chinese feng shui in the design of the city, incorporating a river and nearby mountains into the layout. The entire site, on 25,000 hectares (96 square miles) has the ruins of the city, including tombs, palaces and temples; and nomadic camps. There are also waterworks, including the Tiefan-gang Canal.

Under the Yuan dynasty, there was a religious debate at Xanadu that resulted in the spread of Tibetan Buddhism across northeast Asia. The religion and culture of Tibetan Buddhism are still practiced in many areas.

The site ChinaKnowledge, written by a sinologist, says the idea that the Mongls were brutal and exploitative “cannot be substantiated.” Dr. Phil Ulrich Theobald writes that Mongol leaders cooperated with Chinese ethnic groups to rule the economically advanced Yuan empire. The end of Mongol rule in China came probably not as a result of the many rebellions but rather because of the minor ice age of the 14th century and Mongol indecisiveness about whether to live their traditional nomadic lifestyle in yurts or adopt the Chinese palace as their abode.

Dr. Theobald notes that after Mongols left China for the steppe and their rule ended, the most successful bandit rebel, Zhu Yuanzhang, founded the Ming dynasty of 1368 to 1644. This emperor, known as Taizu, ruled from 1368 to 1398.

Featured image: This dragon head, unearthed at Xanadu, was attached to the end of a beam. (Chinese Cultural Relics journal photo)

By Mark Miller

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Mark Miller has a Bachelor of Arts in journalism and is a former newspaper and magazine writer and copy editor who's long been interested in anthropology, mythology and ancient history. His hobbies are writing and drawing.

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