Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Mongolia | Chingis Khan’s Tomb | Burkhan Khaldun

Once again the search for the tomb of Chingis Khan is heating up. It is now the subject of a Cover Story in Newsweek Magazine. As the story points out, this has been going on for decades now. I must admit I do not share the fascination many people have about Chingis’s tomb. It is clear from the record that Chingis Khan did not want people to know where he was buried. We should leave it at that. Of course, many assume that he must have been buried with a huge amount of treasure which would have an immense historical—to say nothing of monetary—value, but I am not sure that any historical evidence that such treasure exists. 

As a bibliomane, I am much more interesting in what happened to the original Mongolian version of the Secret History of the Mongols, the fundamental text of Mongolian history, which is in large part an account of Chingis’s life.  The original book in Mongolian, most of which probably written in 1228, was supposedly taken to China, where a phonetic version of the text was made using Chinese ideograms. Then the text was translated into Chinese. The original Mongolian version somehow got misplaced. The Mongolian versions we now possess have been translated back into Mongolian using the phonetic Chinese version and the translated Chinese version. The original Mongolian version is still lost. But might it possibly still exist hidden away in Mongolia or in some archive in China? This text would be of incalculable historical and bibliographical interest. Yet to my knowledge no one has mounted any serious attempts to find it. Everyone seems fixated on the alleged treasure of Chingis Khan. 

Anyhow, over the years I have visited many of the places where various investigators  have posited that Chingis Khan might be buried. Let me point out that I myself was not looking for the tomb but was visiting these places as a result of other historical interests. A few years ago rumors swept Ulaanbaatar that Chingis’s tomb had been located on the top of Burkhan Khaldun Mountain in northern Khentii Aimag. According to one theory, the so-called Black Crown of Burkhan Khaldun, the dome-like structure at the top, was in fact an immense ovoo built over Chingis’s tomb. Whether this is one of the places referred to in the Newsweek article I do not know. The article was completely silent on actual locations. 

I have been to the summit of Burkhan Khaldun three times; my first visit was described in my book Travels in Northern Mongolia, written in 1997. I went back once again while doing research for my book Illustrated Guide to Locales Connected with the Life of Zanabazar (see Burkhan  Khaldun  Chapter). I went back a third time purely as a pilgrimage. Although I was not aware at that time that the summit was thought by some to be the burial place of Chingis Khan I was aware that Chingis himself had almost certainly visited the summit of the mountain. I must add that my Mongolian guides did not believe Chingis was buried there; they insisted he was buried in the so-called Forbidden Mountains on the east side of the upper Kherlen Valley. They say his tomb will never be found because he was not buried with any treasure and his bones have long since disintegrated. 
7724- foot Burkhan Mountain Mountain, also known as Khentii Khan Uul. The famous “Black Crown” of the mountain is not visible from this angle. (Click on photos for Enlargements)
By traditional women were not allowed to go to the top of Burkhan Khaldun. They stayed at this lake near the base of the mountain and had picnics while the men went to the summit. 
Pilgrims at the base of Burkhan Khaldun
This ovoo is located in a clearing at the base of the mountain where a temple once stood. According to locals, this temple was destroyed during the time of the invasion of Galdan Bolshigt into Khalkh Mongolia back at the 1680s. Nearby Saridgiin Khiid was destroyed at the same time. 
Collecting artz on the way to the summit of Burkhan Khaldun. The artz that grows on this mountain is said to be especially powerful. 
Halfway up the mountain is an ovoo marking the spot of a temple supposedly built by Zanabazar as a resting place for pilgrims visiting the mountain. According to locals the temple was destroyed during communist times. 
Riding toward the Black Crown at the top of Burkhan Khaldun. According to a theory prevalent a few years ago Chingis Khan  was buried under this Black Crown. My local Mongolian guides did not believe this story. 
Some of the hundreds of small ovoos at the summit 
Ovoo at the summit of Burkhan Khaldun
Wolf skins on ovoo at the summit of Burkhan Khaldun
Relief of Chingis Khan on the ovoo at the summit


  1. Hi Don,
    it's funny because I am just reading the chapter of " Genghis Khan" where John Man is attempting to reach the summit of Burkhan Khaldun...(Someone left the book along with others to be taken for free on the pavement next door to where I live)
    What is Artz? It doesn't look like Juniper..Is it used as incense?

    Jean Emmanuel

  2. Artz is a kind of juniper that is dried and used for incense. Artz is not the long-needled plant on the right hand side of the photo. That is some kind of small pine tree I think. Artz is the plant under the young man’s arms. There is also a sprig of artz in the young man’s hat.

  3. What an interesting place! I read that the locals use the ovoos for religious ceremonies - did you see any of that happening? I found your post while googling for information about the new world heritage sites, and I hope you don't mind that I linked to you in my post about them: http://globecalledhome.net/2015/08/24-new-unesco-world-heritage-sites/

  4. Religious ceremonies are held regularly at the summit of Bogd Khan Uul. I have not personally witneessed any of them, however.

  5. Do you have any photos of the black crown from your visits there? I have seen that it is covered in symbols.

    1. Some of the photos above were taken on the black crown. There are hundreds of small ovoos but I do not remember seeing any symbols.