Path of a Tyrant: Uncovering Genghis Khan's Lost Legacy

Christina Franken, who is currently doing excavations in the medieval city of Karabalgasun, built by the nomadic Uighur people, sees the search for the grave as a "sensational treasure hunt."

The Other Khan

This opinion may also be fueled by a dash of frustration. Indeed, virtually unbeknownst to the general public, German and Mongolian archaeologists have made a sensational discovery 320 kilometers (200 miles) west of the capital Ulan Bator, where they have apparently found the remnants of the palace that Ögödei Khan built in the middle of the steppes.

Tragically for the researchers, hardly anyone has ever heard of Ögödei Khan.

This relatively unknown ruler wasn't even designated to ascend to the throne -- and his rise to power sheds light on the tangled circumstances of one of the most fascinating imperial dynasties of the Middle Ages.

As Genghis Khan's third son, Ögödei was not a prime candidate to succeed his father. This privilege was reserved for the firstborn son, Jochi. But while Genghis was exceedingly brutal and unscrupulous with his opponents, he was something of a pushover as a father.

Jochi and Chagatai clashed so violently over the planned succession that they tussled on the carpet of the Great Kahn's felt yurt, pummeling each other with their fists, while their father, the great warlord, pleaded with them to stop.

This episode ultimately led a man who, by the today's medical standards, could easily be described as a hardcore alcoholic, to become the ruler of the Mongolian Empire. Compared to his father's fiery temperament, though, Ögödei was a rather gentle soul.

'An Ingenious Reformer'

Historians see the youngest son as an ingenious reformer. He introduced paper currency and even established a postal system. But Ögödei's greatest accomplishment was building a city on the steppes that could be used to administrate his ostensibly ungovernable kingdom of nomads.

The idea dates back to his father, Genghis -- who, opulent marauder that he was, preferred to continue spending his nights in the familiar shelter of traditional Mongolian tents. In the steppes of the fertile Orkhon Valley, archaeologists have found the stony remains of the famed settlement of Karakorum, which Marco Polo mentioned in his travel accounts.

By all appearances, Ögödei envisioned the satellite town as a multicultural city right from the start. "There was a Muslim and Chinese quarter here, Buddhist temples and mosques, and even a Christian church," says Hüttel, the archaeologist.

Thanks to geomagnetic surveys, researchers have discovered that the northwestern part of the city had no permanent buildings. This was presumably an early sort of camping ground, where the Mongolian city-dwellers pitched their tents. The tent residents weren't driven to pursue a trade or work in the fields -- two activities that help develop a fledgling community. Instead, the nomads-turned-city-dwellers into a leadership clique that surrounded the ruler of the city, Ögödei.

Two Very Different Legacies

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