GENGHIS Khan went to extraordinary lengths to conceal the location of his grave site, even after his death.
According to legend, the Mongolian despot’s huge burial party killed anyone who saw them en route to the site, and then servants and soldiers who attended the funeral were massacred.
Now archaeologists believe they could be close to finding the long-sought grave, after unearthing the site of his 13th-century palace.
A Japanese and Mongolian research team found the complex on a grassy steppe 150 miles east of the Mongolian capital of Ulan Bator, said Shinpei Kato, professor emeritus at Tokyo’s Kokugakuin University.
Ghenghis Khan united warring tribes to become leader of the Mongols in 1206. After his death, his descendants expanded his empire until it stretched from China to Hungary.
Ghenghis Khan built the palace in the simple shape of a square tent attached to wooden columns on the site at around 1200, Prof Kato said.
The researchers found porcelain buried among the ruins dated to the warrior’s era, helping to identify the grounds, Prof Kato said. A description of the scenery around the palace by a messenger from China’s Southern Tang Dynasty in 1232 also matched the area, he added.
Ghenghis Khan’s tomb is believed to be nearby, because ancient texts say court officials commuted daily from the mausoleum built on the grounds to the burial site to conduct rituals for the dead.
Prof Kato said his group was not aiming specifically to find the grave. Still, he said, finding it would help uncover the secrets of Ghenghis Khan’s power.
"Ghenghis Khan conquered Eurasia and built a massive empire. There had to have been a great deal of interaction between East and West at the time, in terms of culture and the exchange of goods," Prof Kato said. "If we find what items were buried with him, we could write a new page for world history."
Prof Kato said an ancient Chinese text says a baby camel was buried at the grave in front of her mother so the parent could lead Khan’s family to the tomb when needed.
Archaeologists have been forced to abandon their searches for Khan’s grave in the past, however, due to protests that excavation would disturb the site.
An United States-financed expedition to find the tomb stopped work in 2002 after being accused by a prominent Mongolian politician of desecrating traditional rulers’ graves. In 1993, Japanese archaeologists terminated a search for the tomb after a poll in Ulan Bator found the project unpopular.
According to Mongolian tradition, violating ancestral tombs destroys the soul that serves as protector.
If researchers do find the tomb, they would also likely discover the grave of Kublai Khan - Ghenghis’s grandson, who spread the Mongol empire to south-east Asia and became the first emperor of China’s Yuan Dynasty.
According to ancient texts, 13 or 14 Khan warriors, including Ghenghis and Kublai, are buried in the same place. Prof Kato said if the team discovered the tombs, he would step aside and leave the matter of how to proceed up to his Mongolian colleagues.
"We will consult our Mongolian colleagues and decide what the best next step would be. We may have to escape back to Japan," Prof Kato said, laughing. "Excavation should be done by Mongolians, not by those of us from other countries. It is up [to] Mongolians to decide."
The archaeological dig reflects a new interest in Khan among researchers.
Earlier this year, a Chinese historian claimed that he had evidence that the ruthless conqueror was as masterful with the pen as he was with the sword.
Historians have long assumed that the ancient ruler was illiterate, primarily because the Mongolian written language was created in the early 13th century, when Khan would have been in his 40s and would not have had time to learn.
However, Tengus Bayaryn, a professor at China’s Inner Mongolia University, said he has found an edict that could only have been written by Ghenghis Khan himself.