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image: Campus NewsThe wrap of Khan? Hunting for Genghis's tomb
In mid-August the announcement made news around the globe. A U.S.-Mongolian expedition, including U of C history professor John Woods, had discovered what may be the burial place of the 13th-century Mongol ruler Genghis Khan.

The expedition members emphasized that they aren't certain this is the actual tomb, which if it follows Mongol custom could contain large amounts of treasure; that they are still seeking official permission to excavate the grave area next summer; and that one bit of ambiguous evidence-pottery shards found on the site's surface-may actually pre-date the era of Khan. Nevertheless, the announcement caught popular and media imagination.

PHOTO:  John Woods (left) searches for the lost tomb of Genghis Khan.

"The location of this site is intriguing," says Woods, U.S. academic director for the Genghis Khan Geo-Historical Expedition, established in 1995 by Chicago attorney Maury A. Kravitz. The enclave of tombs, holding the remains of high-status Mongolian tribespeople, lies not far from the town of Batshireet-200 miles northeast of Ulaan Baatar, Mongolia's capital-on a hill near Genghis Khan's probable birthplace and near the site where he was proclaimed emperor of the Mongols. Some 20 unopened tombs were found on a 600-foot elevation that is part of a walled burial ground known locally as "the Almsgivers Castle," "Chinggis' Castle," and "Red Rock." Another 40 unopened graves lie in the enclave's lower area. Discovered during the expedition's second season of surveying sites associated with Khan, the tombs are encircled by a two-mile long, 9- to 12-foot high wall built without mortar from a variety of stones.

Genghis Khan, whose original name was Temüjin, was born in 1162. Succeeding his father at age 13 as head of his family, he quickly demonstrated his military genius. By 1206 Temüjin was master of almost all of Mongolia and was proclaimed Genghis Khan ("Oceanic Lord"), leader of the united Mongol nation. He invaded northern China, capturing Beijing in 1215, and then turned west, conquering parts of the eastern Islamic world. At his death in 1227, his armies controlled a landmass reaching from Beijing to the Caspian Sea.

Kravitz, an independent scholar who has studied the life of Genghis Khan for 40 years, says that to discover his grave would be "the find of all finds." Already, the expedition has had its share of Indiana Jones-like moments: the team had to turn back from its attempt to scale one possible burial site, deterred by Mongolian hordes of horseflies that Woods said were "right out of a Hollywood science-fiction film. They were large, they were multi-colored, they were bad."

Despite the flies, Woods-who primarily studies the history of Turkey, Iran, and Central Asia from the 13th to 18th centuries and focuses on the encounters of sedentary and nomadic peoples-has enjoyed his first foray into archaeology, where "serendipity is so important." The enclave, he explains, was found almost by accident, when the team approached the site "with the idea of eliminating it" from consideration.

Instead, armed with the necessary permissions from the Mongolian government-and plenty of insect netting-the team plans to return next summer to determine if the site is truly the final resting place of Genghis Khan. - M.R.Y.



  OCTOBER 2001

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