Karakorum (Classical Mongolian: ᠬᠠᠷᠠᠬᠣᠷᠣᠮ Qara Qorum, Khalkha Mongolian: Хархорум Kharkhorum) was the capital of the Mongol Empire in the 13th century, and of the Northern Yuan in the 14–15th centuries. Its ruins lie in the northwestern corner of the Övörkhangai Province of Mongolia, near today's town of Kharkhorin, and adjacent to the Erdene Zuu monastery. They are part of the upper part of the World Heritage Site Orkhon Valley Cultural Landscape.
The Orkhon valley was a center of the Xiongnu, Göktürk and Uyghur empires. To the Göktürks, the nearby Khangai Mountains had been the location of the Ötüken, and the Uighur capital Karabalgasun was located close to where later Karakorum would be erected. This area is probably also one of the oldest farming areas in Mongolia.
In 1218/19, Genghis Khan rallied his troops for the campaign against the Khwarezm Empire in a place called Karakorum, but the actual foundation of a city is usually said to have only occurred in 1220. Until 1235, Karakorum seems to have been little more than a yurt town; only then, after the defeat of the Jin empire, did Genghis' successor Ögedei erect walls around the place and build a fixed palace.
The name Karakorum or "Kharkhorin" in Mongolian language might be translated as "black quarter/space". "Khar" means "black" and "khorin" probably shares the same root as the verb "khori (to imprison/hold)" as in "khorigdoh" that means "to be imprisoned/held". "Khori" also means "twenty" like "khorin mori (twenty horses)", but it is unlikely that there would be a "black twenty".
Under Ögedei and his successors, Karakorum became a major site for world politics. Möngke Khan had the palace enlarged, and the great stupa temple completed. They also commissioned the famous Silver Tree of Karakorum at the city center. The sculptor was Guillaume Bouchier. A large tree sculpted of silver and other precious metals rose up from the middle of the courtyard and loomed over the palace,with the branches of tree extended into the building. Silver fruit hung from the limbs and it had four golden serpents braided around the trunk. At the top of the tree rose a trumpet angel. When the khan wanted to summon the drinks for his guests, the mechanical angel raised the trumpet and to his lips and sounded the horn, whereupon the mouths of the serpents began to gush out a fountain of alcoholic beverages into the large silver basin arranged at the base of the tree.
William of Rubruck
William of Rubruck, a Flemish Franciscan missionary and papal envoy to the Mongols reached Karakorum in 1254. He has left one of the most detailed, though not always flattering, accounts of the city. He compared it rather unfavourably to the village of Saint-Denis near Paris, and was of the opinion that the royal abbey there was ten times as important as the Khan's palace. On the other hand, he also described the town as a very cosmopolitan and religiously tolerant place, and the silver tree he described as part of Möngke Khan's palace has become the symbol of Karakorum. He described the walled city as having four gates facing the four directions, two quarters of fixed houses, one for the "Saracenes" and one for the "Cathai", twelve pagan temples, two mosques, as well as a Nestorian church.
When Kublai Khan claimed the throne of the Mongol Empire in 1260—as did his younger brother, Ariq Boke—he relocated his capital to Shangdu, and later to Dadu (today's Beijing). Karakorum was reduced to the administrative center of a provincial backwater of the Yuan Dynasty founded in China in 1271. Even worse, the ensuing wars with Ariq Boke and later Kaidu hit the town hard. In 1260, Kublai disrupted the town's grain supply, in 1277 Kaidu took Karakorum, only to be ousted by Yuan troops and Bayan of the Baarin in the following year. In 1298/99 prince Ulus Buqa looted the markets and the grain storehouses. However, the first half of the 14th century proved to be a second time of prosperity: in 1299, the town was expanded eastwards, in 1311 and again from 1342 to 1346 the stupa temples were renewed.
After the collapse of the Yuan dynasty in 1368 Karakorum became the residence of Biligtü Khan in 1370. In 1388, Ming troops took and destroyed the town. Saghang Sechen's Erdeni-yin Tobči claims that a khuriltai in 1415 decided to rebuild it, but no archeological evidence for such a venture has been found yet. However, Karakorum was inhabited at the beginning of the 16th century, when Batu-Möngke Dayan Khan made it a capital once again. In the following years, the town changed hands between Oirads and Chinggisids several times, and was consequently given up permanently.
Erdene Zuu monastery stands near the site. Various construction materials were taken from the ruin to build this monastery.
The actual location of Karakorum was long unclear. First hints that Karakorum was located at Erdene Zuu were already known in the 18th century, but until the 20th century there was a dispute whether or not the ruins of Karabalgasun, or Ordu-Baliq, were in fact those of Karakorum. In 1889, the site was conclusively identified as the former Mongol capital by Nikolai Yadrintsev, who discovered examples of the Orkhon script during the same expedition. Yadrintsev's conclusions were confirmed by Wilhelm Radloff.
The first excavations were done in 1933/34 under D. Bukinich. After his Soviet-Mongolian excavations in 1948/49, Sergei Kiselyov concluded that he had found the remains of Ögödei's palace. However, this conclusion has been put into doubt by the findings of the 2000-2004 German-Mongolian excavations, which seem to identify them as belonging to the great stupa temple rather than to Ögödei's palace.
Findings of the excavations include paved roads, some brick and many adobe buildings, floor heating systems, bed-stoves, evidence for processing of copper, gold, silver, iron (including iron wheel naves), glass, jewels, bones, and birch bark, as well as ceramics and coins from China and Central Asia. Four kilns have also been unearthed.
In 2004, Prime Minister Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj appointed a working group of professionals to develop a project to build a new city at the site of the ancient capital Karakorum. According to him, the new Karakorum was to be designed to be an exemplary city, with a vision of its becoming the capital of Mongolia. After his resignation and appointment of Miyeegombiin Enkhbold as Prime Minister, this project was abandoned.
- Micheal Walther, Ein idealer Ort für ein festes Lager. Zur Geographie des Orchontals und der Umgebung von Charchorin (Karakorum), in: Dschingis Khan und seine Erben, p. 128
- Micheal Weiers, Geschichte der Mongolen, Stuttgart 2004, p. 76
- Hans-Georg Hüttel, Karakorum - Eine historische Skizze, in: Dschingis Khan und seine Erben, p. 133–137
- Mongolia, Land of Inspiration. Irmuun Press, 2008, p. 81.
- "Genghis Khan and the making of the Modern World " Jack Weatherford, p.170.
- Hans-Georg Hüttel, Der Silberbaum im Palast des Ögedei Khan, in: Dschingis Khan und seine Erben, p. 152
- Rolf Trauzettel, Die Yüan-Dynastie, in: Michael Weiers (editor), Die Mongolen, Beiträge zu ihrer Geschichte und Kultur, Darmstadt 1986, p. 230
- Hans-Georg Hüttel, Der Palast des Ögedei Khan - Die Ausgrabungen des Deutschen Archäologischen Instituts im Palastbezirk von Karakorum, in: Dschingis Khan und seine Erben, p. 140–146
- Christina Franken, Die Brennöfen im Palastbezirk von Karakorum, in: Dschingis Khan und seine Erben, p. 147–149
- Ulambayar Erdenebat, Ernst Pohl, Aus der Mitte der Hauptstadt - Die Ausgrabungen der Universität Bonn im Zentrum von Karakorum, in: Dschingis Khan und seine Erben, p. 168–175
- This article incorporates public domain text posted on-line by The United States Library of Congress: A Country Study: Mongolia.
- Dschingis Khan und seine Erben (exhibition catalogue), München 2005
- Qara Qorum-City (Mongolia). 1: Preliminary Report of the Excavations, Bonn 2002
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Karakorum.|
|Wikivoyage has a travel guide for Karakorum.|
- Silk Road Seattle - Karakorum and Cities along the Silk Road, posted at the web site of the University of Washington, 2004.
- Treasures of Mongolia - Karakorum, Mongolia, UNESCO Courier, by Namsrain Ser-Odjav, March 1986.
- William of Rubruck's Account of the Mongols
- Mongolian-German excavations (in German)