• Image about Mongolia

He's been dead for almost 800 years, but the mystery surrounding the elusive tomb - and treasures - of Genghis Khan is as current as ever. Illustrations by Kako.


For those who know him only as a character in Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure, the real Genghis Khan (known to the Mongols as Chinggis Khan) is the Asian-history equivalent of Napoleon or Alexander the Great.

The thirteenth and fourteenth centuries were all about Genghis and his descendants, the Great Khans. At its height, the Mongol empire stretched from modern-day Korea to Poland and from Iraq to Vietnam. By the end of the 1200s, Genghis's sons and ­grandsons - including Marco Polo's pal Kubilai - had amassed the largest contiguous land empire in world history. It was more than twice the size of the Roman Empire and more than four times the size of Alexander the Great's.

So, considering that Genghis Khan has been dead for almost 800 years and that his empire is long gone, why does anyone care about him anymore? The obvious answer of "historical significance" aside, most of the fascination surrounding him has to do with his secret burial site (after all, who doesn't love a mystery?) and one juicy word: ­treasure.

During their reign, the Khans pillaged the wealthiest cities of their era, including a string of shimmering gilded citadels along the legendary Silk Road: Samarkand, Bukhara, and Tashkent. And while much of the plunder was undoubtedly used to maintain the vast empire and to pay off debts, scholars know that some of the priceless objects Genghis was accused of looting in his lifetime of conquest did indeed make it back to Mongolia. Even though much was given away, it is believed that he may very well have collected a stunning treasure, one unrivaled in history - and taken some of it with him to the grave.
But finding the final resting spot of this fearsome conqueror was never going to be easy, especially since he went to great lengths to make sure his grave was undisturbed. According to Chinese texts, Genghis issued detailed orders to his trusted generals instructing them to make certain that his tomb remain hidden for all time. Legend goes that when Genghis's cortege brought his corpse back to Mongolia from the Chinese region where he had died in battle (or in bed), every living creature they encountered was killed. And, just as pirates dispose of those who help to bury their treasure, the generals slaughtered the people who dug Genghis's tomb and buried them in a nearby mass grave.

Imagine the history world's surprise, then, when in August 2001, a group of American and Mongolian entrepreneurs and academics calling themselves the Genghis Khan Expedition claimed that they had zeroed in on the burial spot of Mongolia's founding father. Was it possible that one of the world's greatest mysteries was about to be solved? Answer: not ­really. Or at least a highly probable not really. But, being the intrepid reporter and archaeology buff that I am, I decided to drop everything and head out to see this discovery for myself.

MONGOLIA SHOCKS first-time visitors, and not just because things like the local drink (a beverage traditionally made with fermented mare's milk, called kumis) are slightly less than appetizing, but because the whole experience feels a lot like an interplanetary journey - to planet Genghis. Imagine combining George Washington with Justin Timberlake. Genghis is that ubiquitous, and that revered.