The ancient city of Karakorum, the 13th-century capital of the Mongolian Empire, has now been mapped in detail by a team of international archaeologists. Their research, published in the journal Antiquity on Thursday, revealed the settlement was much larger than originally believed and was “implanted” on the Mongolian steppe.
Using advanced geophysics, the team surveyed over 1,140 acres with a Superconducting Quantum Interference Device (or SQUID) that measures topographical features on the surface, as well as magnetic fields below ground. The map was then compiled using a combination of data, field surveys, aerial photographs, and historical accounts.
Jan Bemmann, the study’s lead author, called the findings a “profound re-evaluation of this important city, which underlines its eminent place in Mongolian and Eurasian history.”
The Mongolian Empire was the largest contiguous land empire in history, with its capital city at Karakorum from 1220–1267 C.E. It was founded on the site of one of Genghis Khan’s camps, by his son and successor Ögödei, and construction was finished during the reign of Möngke Khan.
An example of steppe urbanism—a city built on the Mongolian plateau—Karakorum was a walled settlement with four gates, and served as a commercial hub, administrative center, and royal residence after a palace was added in 1235. According to a primary historical source written by Franciscan friar William of Rubruck in 1254, the city’s population encompassed Chinese artisans, Muslim merchants, and captives from across the Mongolian Empire.
“The peculiarity of these cities lies in the fact that they were ‘implanted’ by the ruler into a landscape without fixed architecture, and that the permanent inhabitants were brought from abroad,” the study reads. “These cities remained foreign entities, [and] were detached from the local pastoralist society and economy.”
In an email to ARTnews, Bemmann explained the concept of an “implanted” city as a newly established settlement where the city and its inhabitants “fall out of the sky” in one package. He continued, “It means not only was the city newly erected in a landscape without cities and permanent settlements, but also the people who built the city were brought—most inhabitants were not drawn, but driven.” Karakorum was not incorporated into the local economy, and researchers believe the local herders stayed out of the city. “Implanted means you can remove [the city] again and it doesn’t harm the local population,” Bemmann added.
Karakorum was abandoned by the early 15th century C.E. and its exact location was lost until 1889, when the city was rediscovered. “The Mongolian Plateau on which Karakorum was built is often considered a purely pastoral nomadic ecozone, but is, in fact, rich in monuments, with permanent structures ranging from small settlements and walled enclosures to fortifications, monasteries, and large cities covering several square kilometres,” the study reads.
The new map revealed previously undiscovered roads, districts, and significant expansion beyond the city walls. It also showed less densely built areas further from the settlement, which may have been used for temporary camps during social gatherings such as quriltais, or the assemblies of the ruling elite.
According to researchers, the detailed new measurements provide the first evidence of distinct zoning within the city. The design of Karakorum features U-shaped and square compounds to the north and east of the walls. The eastern gate would have been the most heavily used, as the road from the east gate leads out of the city, and both sides are lined with additional buildings.
To the south and west, there are structures of various sizes forming a crescent shape, which are likely buildings for the elite, as well as for administration and ritual activities. The buildings in this section include different colored glazed roof tiles and granite column bases.
The two eastern access roads merge to the south-east, and head towards China, while paths from the northern and western gates lead to the nearby Orkhon River. Researchers believe that water from the river was transported into Karakorum on carts, in storage vessels, or in leather bags, as no constructed water supply within the city has yet been discovered.
“It was astonishing to witness the growing extent of the map day by day and with that the digital reconstruction of Karakorum,” Bemmann said. Future excavation work will be needed to determine building materials, layers of occupation, and types of activity across the various sites.