Karakorum: Capital of the Mongol Empire

02.29.2012 | 0 Comments

Despite its small size and remote location, one of the most important cities in the history of the Silk Road was Karakorum (“black walls” or “black stones”). Although the city was founded under Genghis Khan in 1220, Karakorum's development as capital of the Mongol Empire occurred in the 1230s under his son Ögedei. The city is the successor to other nomadic urban centers in the Orkhon River Valley of north central 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.


Map of Karakorum

Of particular interest are the settlements of the Uighurs. Kharbalgas, the Uighur capital of the late 8th and 9th centuries, just north of Karakorum in the Orkhon Valley, was a very substantial settlement at the time. The huge royal citadel even in ruins today is visible from kilometers away across the steppe. The broken pieces of what was once a large stele with a trilingual text in Chinese, Uighur and Sogdian lie in the grasslands in front 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, Bügü Khan, for adopting Manichaeism. So the choice of the location for Karakorum was no accident because it was a combination of favorable environment, political considerations, steppe tradition and local beliefs – all important factors for the Mongols.

Kharbalgas, the Uighur Capital 

Kharbalgas, the Uighur Capital

Inscription on a Stele with a Trilingual Text in Chinese, Uighur, and Sogdian

Inscription on a Stele with a Trilingual Text in Chinese, Uighur, and Sogdian

Karakorum had an important role for the commercial and cultural interactions across Eurasia in which the Mongols played a critical role. Karakorum is strategically located on the most important east-west route across Mongolia. The city had a vibrant economic life and was an important commerce center along the Silk Road.

The Cervan Sarai

The Caravan Serai

-          Metallurgy: water power from a canal connecting the town with the Orkhon River was used for the forges; iron cauldrons (used, among other things, as heating braziers), abundant quantities of arrowheads; various decorative metal objects.


-         Ceramics (production and importation): ceramic kilns, which produced such objects as roof tiles and finials for the Chinese-style buildings; water pipes; sculptures; table ware.


-         Coinage: 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 the T'ang Dynasty to the Yuan (Mongol) Dynasty.

Karakorum also has remarkable architecture. The Erdene Tzu Monastery was built in 1586 and originally consisted of 62 temples, most of which were destroyed during Stalinist attacks in the 1930’s. It became an active monastery after the democratic movement in 1990. Three temples depicting three stages of Buddha’s life that of a child, adolescent and adult can be seen here today, however, the main temple, the Tzu of Buddha consists of statues of his childhood.

Famous Turtle Monument in front of Monastery

The Erdene Tzu Monastery

Karakorum declined after Kublai Khan moved the capital to Beijing. After the 16th century, the area continued to be important in the political and religious life of Mongolia mainly because of the monastery and the favorable geographical location. However, even today, 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.

Posted by Kristina Hristova

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