Karakorum: Medieval city of global importance

Travel Nilanjan Hajra
Medieval city
The Erdene zuu Monastary, near Karakorum, Mongolia, in Ovorkhangai Province. Photo : Dreamstime

The history of Karakorum, once a medieval city, in present-day Mongolia, is no less dazzling for being brief. Indeed, it rose like a comet, in the mid-13th century. Then it fell it into being a nondescript human habitation before reappearing in the international imperial map from time to time between the 14th and the 16th centuries, before falling into final oblivion. Over these years the city was the capital of the Mongol Empire, and later that of the Northern Yuan Dynasty. In its glorious days the medieval city was one of the nerve-centres of global diplomacy.

Discovery of the ruins and their history 

In the Ovorkhangal province in north-central Mongolia lies the sprawling ruins of Karakorum, aka K’a-la-k’un-lun, Khra-Khorin and Har Horin. Two Russian orientalists, Nikolai Yadrintsev and Wilhelm Radloff, discovered the precise location of the medieval city in 1889. Later, in 1948-49 members of the Soviet Academy of Sciences explored the ruins further discovering numerous monuments. These included the Palace of Ogodei, the second Mongol emperor, son of Genghis Khan, and a 12th or early 13th century Buddhist monastery.

There could have been human habitation at this site in the mid-eighth century CE. However, Karakorum truly began to obtain its importance during the reign of the great Mongol emperor Gengis Khan. In 1220 he made it the city of his headquarters, and launched his invasions into China from this base.

However, the glorious days of Karakorum truly began in 1235. In this year, after vanquishing the Jin rulers, Ogodei fortified the city building walls around it. He also ordered the construction of the huge Tumen Amgalan Ord, the Palace of Myriad Peace, which was completed within a year. The medieval city, now surrounded by earthen walls, had four gates in four directions. Besides the palace, there were also several private apartments, many gardens and several lakes. The city also had a significant Muslim population. A large number of Muslim craftsmen lived in the city. Ogodei Khan also built prayer and worship halls for Muslims in the city.

Karakorum’s progressed further during the reign of Mongke Khan, the fourth Mongol emperor, who ruled between 1251 and 1259. William of Rubruck, a Flemish Franciscan missionary visited the medieval city in 1254 and has described it in great detail. Of particular interest is his description of a ‘silver tree’ at the gate of the Khan’s palace. Rubruck writes that during Mongke Khan’s reign a Parisian goldsmith named William Bouchier lived in the Karakorum. And he had constructed a silver tree at the entrance of the khan’s palace. At the base of the silver tree were four silver lions which threw mare’s milk from their mouths! Again, four gilded serpents coiled around the tree, each of these spewed from its mouth a different drink! Rubruck also said that the medieval city had two mosques, which indicates the presence of a significant Muslim population.

The decline of the medieval city

Kublai Khan, the fifth khagan Mongol emperor, and the most important one after Gengis, shifted his capital to Shangdu in 1260. Naturally the medieval city lost much of its glamour and importance after this. Karakorum still continued to survive as a city and witnessed a resurgence of sorts in the 14th century. Bilikt Khan, the last emperor of the Mongol dynasty of China, returned to the city after being banished from Beijing. He rebuilt portions of the city. Finally, it regained its status as a capital city during the reign of Batu Mongke Dayan Khan, of the Northern Yuan dynasty. He ruled between 1479 to C 1517. After this the medieval city sunk into oblivion and totally disappeared.

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