Universität Bonn

Institut für Archäologie und Kulturanthropologie DE

Karakorum, the Capital of the Mongol World Empire

 Mongolia, Orkhon valley

Karakorum, the first capital of the Mongol Empire from the 13th/14th century, is the origin and the hub of our activities in Mongolia: our work in the Orkhon Valley began with the exploration of this city and it will continue to be at the heart of our research activities in Mongolia (Fig. 1). Together with our Mongolian partners from the Archaeological Institute of the Mongolian Academy of Sciences, we have been exploring the practice of urbanism in the Mongolian steppes since 1999.

Karakorum, abandoned sometime in the early 15th century, lies nearby the modern administrative center of Kharkhorin and stretches to the north of the Buddhist monastery Erdene Zuu, which had been probably built on top of the former palace of the Great Khans. To the untrained eye, there is not much left to see of the once magnificent city: unordered elevations in the ground and occasionally ceramic sherds are more or less all that is left of the city. Archaeologists, however, discern streets and building platforms, collapsed buildings and walls within the chaotic rubble. These remains provide the material basis for answering our questions about urbanism in a steppe environment, the city’s population and their daily life and occupations.

Fig. 1: Location of Karakorum within the modern state of Mongolia. © Bonn University
Eine Wissenschaftlerin und ein Wissenschaftler arbeiten hinter einer Glasfassade und mischen Chemikalien mit Großgeräten.
Fig. 2: The layout of Karakorum with some excavation results. © Bonn University


Bonn University’s engagement in Karakorum started with works in the middle of the city between 1999 and 2005 directed by Prof. Helmut Roth and Dr. Ernst Pohl: Archaeological excavations uncovered parts of the Chinese craftsmen's quarter known from a 13th century travelogue (Fig. 2). Institutionally, the work has since then been embedded in the "Mongolian-German Karakorum Expedition", a research cooperation, to which belong the Archaeological Institute of the Mongolian Academy of Sciences, the Commission for Archaeology of Non-European Cultures (KAAK) of the German Archaeological Institute (DAI), and the University of Bonn. The agreement on which this cooperation is based was signed in 1998 on the historic ground of the ancient Mongolian capital in the presence of the then Federal President Prof. Roman Herzog and has since been regularly renewed.

The research in Karakorum at that time was triggered by the Mongolian Academy's wish to be able to present new results on the history and structure of the city on the occasion of the 800th anniversary of Genghis Khan's election as Great Khan of all Mongols in 1206. In view of the importance of this project for the national identity of modern Mongolia, it was agreed that the parties carried out two parallel excavation projects, one in the so-called "palace area", since then proven as a Buddhist temple, in the southwest of the city by the KAAK and another in the city center by the University of Bonn (Fig. 2).

Historical tradition attributes the founding of the city to Genghis Khan, who in 1220 determined the Orkhon Valley as site for his residence. However, concrete construction measures are only mentioned for the time of his son and successor Ögedei Khan, who had a rampart built around the nascent city in 1235 and began building a palace in the same year. When the Franciscan monk William of Rubruck stayed in Karakorum for several months in the spring of 1254, he saw the city as a multicultural community in which members of almost all parts of the empire lived within the city walls occupied with a wide variety of activities and positions. Europeans of various nationalities, Muslims from West and Central Asia and above all Chinese lived and worked here. Not all of them voluntarily, as the example of the renowned goldsmith Guillaume Boucher shows, who completed the famous drinking fountain in form of a silver tree for the palace hall during Rubruck's presence. Boucher had come to Karakorum as a prisoner of war from the European campaigns and had to perform his services for the Great Khans of the Mongols.

First excavations

The excavations of Bonn University were located in a district in the center of the walled city (Fig. 3) and initially focused on chronological questions concerning the foundation of the city, the internal division into different periods and the duration of settlement in Karakorum. An area directly south of the central road junction was chosen, which is characterized by an elevated terrain with numerous platforms, rubble mounds and road axes. Beneath these rubble mounds are the remains of buildings and courtyards that once stood on the major north–south road. The height of the individual rubble mounds compared to the normal valley floor justified the assumption that structures with a multi-period building sequence could be found here, which would allow us to reconstruct breaks and continuities in the settlement sequence and with that to formulate new, archaeologically based insights into the urban development of Karakorum.

Fig. 3: The excavation areas within the middle of Karakorum. © E. Pohl, Bonn University
Eine Wissenschaftlerin und ein Wissenschaftler arbeiten hinter einer Glasfassade und mischen Chemikalien mit Großgeräten.
Fig. 4: Street pavement of the 13th century. © E. Pohl, Bonn University

Some of the excavation areas laid out during these years reach down to a depth of five meters before the river gravel of the Orkhon was reached. One of the most significant discoveries of the excavations in the city center was evidence of a large, north–south oriented street (Fig. 4). At a depth of about 2.5 meters underneath the topsoil, parts of a pavement made of irregularly hewn slate slabs were uncovered in several places. The pavement can be broken down into individual fields of about 3 × 2 meters, which were separated by a wooden framework. This street belongs to the capital period of Karakorum. During this period, life in the city was characterized, among other things, by international trade traffic, which required appropriate road conditions even within the city. At the same time, regular cleaning was also required to keep the road passable. When this was no longer ensured, the road silted up relatively quickly and all subsequent reconstruction measures proved to be technically less demanding, until in the 14th century only a simple, more or less poorly paved road surface constituted one of the major streets through the city.

Finds and features from the buildings on both sides of the street show that the excavations have uncovered a section of the craftsmen's quarter of the "Cathai", the Chinese, as described by William of Rubruck. This becomes clear in view of the architecture of the buildings, manifold technical installations such as ovens and fireplaces, but also of finds (Fig. 5). Evidence was found of metalworking workshops, glass and gemstone processing, bone carvers, and production sites for birch bark objects, each shown by raw materials, semi-finished products, waste materials, and finished products.

Fig. 7: Selection of Chinese ceramics © E. Pohl, Bonn University
Eine Wissenschaftlerin und ein Wissenschaftler arbeiten hinter einer Glasfassade und mischen Chemikalien mit Großgeräten.
Fig. 6: Workshop area east of the street from the 13th century © E. Pohl, Bonn University

Already around the first half of the 13th century the area along the street is marked as an artisans’ quarter. The best example is the workshop of a fine smith east of the street. The workshop was located at the front of the house facing the street. Several still completely preserved round wooden bases with a diameter of 30–40 cm and a height of about 80 cm were uncovered inside the workshop in 2004, which were placed next to each other parallel to the course of the street (Fig. 6). They were heavily covered with bronze dust and have square recesses on their tops in which metal anvils were embedded. The find spectrum of this workshop includes large quantities of small-cut bronze fragments that served as raw materials for reworking, textile and leather remains might have served as cushioned base for repoussé works.

On the occupation level of this workshop a silver coin with the stamp of a mint in Karakorum was found. This coin, dated to 1237/38, represents the oldest contemporary evidence to date for the mention of the ancient Mongol capital.

Craft and trade activities can be traced in the excavation areas through all settlement periods. The fact that metalworking establishments were still located in Karakorum during the later phases of settlement in the 14th century is evidenced by a workshop west of the road. A whole repertoire of objects has been found here (Fig. 7), including an unfinished gold plate bracelet with a phoenix depiction, a bronze driving model belonging to it, other models with various motifs, as well as a completely preserved Chinese storage vessel embedded in the ground, in which tools and products of the craftsman working here were found. These findings, as well as a collection of Chinese coins and a complete string of glass beads, suggest that the end of this workshop must be associated with an unforeseen event and that the owner was no longer able to bring his belongings to safety.

Fig. 9: Workshop finds west of the street from the 14th century © E. Pohl, Bonn University
Eine Wissenschaftlerin und ein Wissenschaftler arbeiten hinter einer Glasfassade und mischen Chemikalien mit Großgeräten.
Fig. 8: Bronze seal of the ministry of finance of the year 1371/1372 © E. Pohl, Bonn University

Demise of the city

The late 14th century was a troubled time for Karakorum. After losing its function as the capital of the Mongol Empire under Qubilai Khan in 1260, who established his capital first in Shang-du and then later in Beijing, the city regained its previously held rank as capital after 1368. In that year, the Mongols had been driven out of China after more than a hundred years of rule. Ayuširidara, the son of the last Yuan emperor in Beijing, returned to the place of his ancestors in 1370. One of the most important finds of the excavations, a seal of the Ministry of Finance, stems from this period. The seal had been produced in Karakorum in 1371/72 (Fig. 8). Members of the former court had probably returned with Ayuširidara, as the quality of the finds within the most recent occupation layers is extremely high. Several bronze mirrors, a porcelain lion, but also the finds from the mentioned workshop with the gold bracelet are probably to be interpreted in this way. We are only insufficiently informed about the end of Karakorum. What is certain, however, is that the archaeological traces of the city center faded away in the first decades of the 15th century, and in 1586 the Buddhist monastery Erdene Zuu was built with the help of building materials from the area of Karakorum. However, the old capital has remained just as present in the collective memory of the Mongols over the centuries as the founder of the empire Chinggis Khan, whose face is still embossed on the Mongolian banknotes today.

Recent works in and around Karakorum

Most recently, together with our partner Sven Linzen from the Leibniz-Institute for Photonic Technologies in Jena, a new magnetic and topographical mapping of the complete city, which reaches beyond the immediate city walls, set these endeavors on a new, hitherto unmatched basis with regard to detail and potential insights (Fig. 10). We combined these measurements with intensive, systematic pedestrian surveys covering the immediate surroundings of Karakorum as well further stretches of the Orkhon valley (2017–2019; Fig. 9). During these surveys, German and Mongolian students helped to document all cultural monuments that can be gleaned on the surface spanning Neolithic to modern times and diverse relicts, such as burials, habitation sites, ritual monuments, and sherd scatters. These surveys help us to understand the interdependency between the city and its hinterland.

Fig. 9: Surveyed areas in the middle Orkhon valley from 2017 to 2019. Each survey square is 1 by 1 km, white area marks Karakorum. © Bonn University
Fig. 10: New topographic map of Karakorum © S. Linzen, IPHT Jena

Project data

2016–2021 -> German Research Foundation (https://www.dfg.de/)

  • Reiternomadische Reiche in Innerasien im diachronen Vergleich – Sicherung und Ausübung von Herrschaft im Spiegel der Baudenkmäler und Schriftquellen. Project within CRC 1167 (2016–2021). Now “Macht und Herrschaft. Bonner Zentrum für vormoderne Ordnungen und ihre Kommunikationsformen” (https://www.macht-herrschaft.uni-bonn.de/de/startseite)
  • Karakorum – Geomagnetic prospection and topographic measurement of the first capital of the Mongol Empire. Partner: Leibniz-Institute for Photonic Technologies (IPHT, Dr. Sven Linzen), Jena, and Mongolian Academy of Science, Institute of Archaeology (2016–2019))

2005 -> Deutsche Stiftung Welterbe (https://www.wismar-stralsund.de/welterbestiftung/)

2003–2005 -> Bundesministerium für Bildung und Forschung (https://www.bmbf.de/)

2002 -> Kulturabteilung des Auswärtigen Amtes (https://www.auswaertiges-amt.de/de/aamt/auswdienst/abteilungen/kulturundkommunikation-node)

1999–2001 -> Wissenschaftsministerium des Landes Nordrhein-Westfalen (https://www.mkw.nrw/)

Since 1999 -> Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst (https://www.daad.de/en/)

  • Mongolian Academy of Sciences, Institute of Archaeology (https://ac.mn/c/947148)
    (currently Lkh. Munkhbayar, A. Enkhtur; previously Prof. Dr. D. Tsevendorzh†; Prof. Dr. D. Bayar†, Prof. Dr. U. Erdenebat)
  • Deutsches Archäologisches Institut, Kommission für Archäologie Außereuropäischer Kulturen (https://www.dainst.org/en/standort/-/organization-display/ZI9STUj61zKB/14496)
    (currently Dr. Christina Franken; previously Prof. Dr. H.-G. Hüttel)
  • Universität München, Institut für Paläoanatomie, Domestikationsforschung und Geschichte der Tiermedizin (Prof. Dr. J. Peters, Prof. Dr. A. von den Driesch†)
  • Leibniz-Institute for Photonic Technologies, Jena (https://www.leibniz-ipht.de/)
    (Dr. Sven Linzen)
  • Universität Bonn, Helmholtz-Institut für Strahlen- und Kernphysik (Prof. Dr. H. Mommsen)
    Hochschule Karlsruhe, Fachbereich Geomatik (Dipl. Ing. A. Rieger)
  • Landesamt für Denkmalpflege am Regierungspräsidium Stuttgart, Labor für Archäobotanik (Prof. Dr. M. Rösch)
  • Universität Jena, Lehrstuhl für Semitische Philologie und Islamwissenschaft (HD Dr. St. Heidemann)
  • J. Bemmann/S. Linzen/S. Reichert/Lkh. Munkhbayar, Mapping Karakorum, the Capital of the Mongol Empire. Antiquity 96, 385, 2022, 159–178. DOI: https://doi.org/10.15184/aqy.2021.153
  • J. Bemmann/S. Reichert, Karakorum, the first capital of the Mongol World Empire: An imperial city in a non-urban society. Asian Archaeology 4, 2021, 121–143. https://doi.org/10.1007/s41826-020-00039-x
  • S. Reichert, Auf dem Rücken der Schildkröte: eine Inschrift im Spannungsfeld von Konflikt und Konsens im mongolischen Weltreich. In: E. Brüggen (Hrsg.), Macht und Herrschaft als transkulturelle Phänomene. Texte – Bilder – Artefakte. Macht und Herrschaft 13 (Göttingen 2021) 33–51.
  • S. Reichert, Craft Production in the Mongol Empire. Karakorum and its Artisans. Bonn Contributions to Asian Archaeology 9 (Bonn 2020).
  • S. Reichert, Karakorum, Mongolia, Finds, Samples, and Iron per m-grid Dataset (KAR-2). Published online December 21, 2020. DOI 10.22000/336
  • S. Reichert, A Layered History of Karakorum. Stratigraphy and Periodization in the City Center. Bonn Contributions to Asian Archaeology 8 (Bonn 2019).
  • S. Reichert, Imperial policies towards handicraft: The organization of production in the old Mongolian capital Karakorum. In: M. Bentz/T. Helms (Eds.), Craft production systems in a cross-cultural perspective. Studien zur Wirtschaftsarchäologie 1 (Bonn 2018) 186–208.
  • A. Sklebitz, Glazed Ceramics from Karakorum: The Distribution and Use of Chinese Ceramics in the Craftsmen Quarter of the Old-Mongolian Capital during the 13th–14th Century A.D. (Inaugural-Dissertation Bonn: Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität 2018). urn:nbn:de:hbz:5-50054.
  • E. Pohl/S. Reichert/J. Block/K. U. Heußner/U. Treter, Dendrochronological data from Karakorum and Erdene Zuu, Mongolia. In: J. Lechterbeck/E. Fischer (eds.), Kontrapunkte. Festschrift für Manfred Rösch. Universitätsforschungen zur Prähistorischen Archäologie 300 (Bonn 2017) 231–249.
  • J.-S. Park/S. Reichert, Technological tradition of the Mongol Empire as inferred from bloomery and cast iron objects excavated in Karakorum. Journal of Archaeological Science 53, 2015, 49–60.
  • J. Bemmann/U. Erdenebat/E. Pohl (eds.), Mongolian-German Karakorum Expedition 1. Excavations in the Craftsmen Quarter at the Main Road. Forschungen zur Archäologie Außereuropäischer Kulturen 8 (Wiesbaden 2010).
  • S. Heidemann/H. Kelzenberg/U. Erdenebat/E. Pohl, The First Documentary Evidence for Qara Qorum from the Year 635/1237/38. Zeitschr. Arch. Außereuropäischer Kulturen 1, 2006, 93–102.
  • Dschingis Khan und seine Erben. Das Weltreich der Mongolen. Ausstellungskatalog Bonn/München 2005.
  • H. R. Roth/U. Erdenebat (Hrsg.), Qara Qorum-City (Mongolia) I. Preliminary report of the excavations 2000/2001. Bonn Contributions to Asian Archaeology Vol. 1 (Bonn 2002).
  • H. Mommsen/F. Jansen/R. Renner, Geomagnetische Prospektionsmessungen in Karakorum, Mongolei. In: E. Pohl/U. Recker/C. Theune (eds.), Archäologisches Zellwerk: Beiträge zur Kulturgeschichte in Europa und Asien. Festschrift für Helmut Roth zum 60. Geburtstag. Internationale Archäologie Studia honoraria 16 (Rahden/Westfalen 2001) 71–77.


Avatar Bemmann

Prof. Dr. Dr. h.c. Jan Bemmann

Universitätsprofessor für Vor- und Frühgeschichtliche Archäologie

R. 3.063

Brühler Straße 7

53119 Bonn

+49 (0)228 / 73-7325

Avatar Reichert

Dr. Susanne Reichert

Feodor Lynen Research Fellow, Vor- und Frühgeschichtliche Archäologie

University of Michigan LSA, Tappan Hall

855 South University Avenue

Ann Arbor, MI 48109-1357, U.S.A.

+49 (0)228 / 73-7325 (Sekretariat)

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