IT is hard to imagine a more important place to the Mongols than the sacred mountain Burkhan Khaldun.
I travelled there on horseback and stood at the top of the mountain in the swirling fog. The icy wind caught the thick fringe of horsehair on what appeared to be an over-sized warrior’s helmet, and flapped a jumble of blue silk prayer scarves, attached to spears. This was the spirit banner of Genghis Khan.
Perhaps, almost eight centuries earlier, the funeral cortege of Genghis Khan had made its solemn journey along the winding Holy River in the valley below.
The mountain was where the Mongols first settled, according to the Secret History of the Mongols, the nation’s most important text, from the early 1200s.
Genghis Khan credited the mountain with saving his life when he escaped the Merkid tribe. He vowed to pray to it every day, and said his descendants should do likewise.
He decreed that no-one must settle at the source of the three rivers – the Kherlen, the Onon, and the Tuul – which all originate in this mountainous region of northerly Mongolia.
The Persian historian Rashid al-Din, writing in the early 1300s, said Genghis Khan chose to be buried at Burkhan Khaldun. He declared: ‘Our burial site and that of our offspring will be here.’
Those buried with Genghis are believed to include his youngest son and ‘keeper of the hearth’ Tolui, Tolui’s wife Sorghaghtani, and their sons – the Great Khan Möngke, Arigh Böke, and the Great Khan Khubilai, the Yuan dynasty ruler of China.
It was a remarkable privilege for me to travel there. At the time fewer than ten Westerners, some from more than a century before, had made it to these remote mountains. The region was out-of-bounds under Communism in the last century.
The mountain and its surrounding area was declared a World Heritage Site in July 2015. The Mongolian government confirmed, for the first time, that in their view Burkhan Khaldun was the probable burial site of Genghis Khan.
I journeyed to the mountain during a 700km horseback expedition to explore the possible burial places of Genghis Khan. He was almost certainly entombed at Burkhan Khaldun – rather than elsewhere in northerly Mongolia, or in northern China where he died on a military campaign in August 1227.
Genghis’s cause of death is unknown, although he might have had a fever. His ‘flesh was hot’, according to the Secret History of the Mongols. He had suffered a bad fall from his horse the previous winter.
The theory that the Ordos region of China was his last resting place gained currency in the late 1800s, when European explorers discovered tented shrines there. This is now the ‘Genghis Khan Mausoleum’ – an impressive memorial, but not a necropolis.
Genghis Khan was, I believe, returned 1,500km to his homeland in the customary way. The Mongolian chronicles of the 17th century describe his homecoming. Homeland is of huge importance to the Mongols, who believe their ancestors are still alive in sacred places.
There his ‘eternal great tomb’ was established, according to the anonymous Altan Tobchi or Golden Summary.
Perhaps the chronicle means the great oval ‘tumulus’ – more than 300 metres long and over 20 metres high – on top of Burkhan Khaldun, the modern-day 2,362 metre Khentii Khan. It certainly appears man-made, and not a natural glacial feature.
I believe Genghis Khan was buried on, or towards, the top of the sacred mountain, bringing him closer to the Eternal Blue Heaven he worshipped.
Burkhan Khaldun stands in an area known historically as Ikh Khorig – the Great Forbidden Sanctuary. Early Mongol rulers forbade ordinary people from entering lands set aside for hunting and royal burial.
I travelled through this area, raw with natural beauty, on my expedition. It was a sublime, uninhabited wilderness.
The area was initially guarded by the Uriankhai, a tribe exempt from taxes and military service. This undermines the folkloric suggestion that the funeral escort was slaughtered to keep the grave site secret.
The Mongolian government said in its World Heritage application: ‘Mongols believe that each mountain, stream, river, spring, and lake has its own life and own deity. People were buried at high altitudes so as to entrust them to the deity.’
The Secret History of the Mongols also indicates that people of high status were buried in elevated places, and in the 1200s the first three Mongol rulers of Persia were buried in the traditional way – on mountains, in forbidden zones.
Humans and horses were sacrificed to join the early khans in the afterlife; great treasures might be buried too.
As I stood at the summit of the sacred mountain, a lone hawk soared high above – as though it was the guardian of the place, and its secrets.
Robin Ackroyd’s book on the quest for the tomb of Genghis Khan is available here.