Located on the open steppe on the right bank of the Orkhon River in central Mongolia, some five kilometers away from the river itself, Kharakhorum was founded in 1220 by Genghis Khan as a military center. The name means black stones or black walls. Settlement patterns were informal with traders and craftsmen establishing themselves around the area until it grew into a town. While the prevailing winds aided in keeping the mosquitoes down in the summer months, that same wind blew bitterly cold in the winter with no natural land features to afford any protection either from the elements or from invaders. The proximity to the mountains and their seasonal grazing was attractive to these nomads. In short, Genghis Khan had selected the perfect site for a nomad camp, but not necessarily as the site of a fixed capital with property and people to protect. It was his Genghis Khan’s son Ogodei who built the city into an organized urban area. The walls formed a rectangle, with its top and bottom oriented on a northwest/southeast axis, conspicuously different from the usual north/south axis. The outer city walls were made of earth, 1000 meters on the north side, 1500 on the west, and two kilometers on the east. The remains of a northeast corner tower have been discovered, leading to the theory that each corner had one, modelled on the Chinese cities of the era. Ogodei’s palace was situated in the southwest corner, itself a walled enclosure. West of the palace area was a pond filled by a canal from the Orkhon river. This canal also fed water into the city itself.
Kharakhorum was roughly divided into four quarters. There was one for the traders, many of whom were Muslim, and markets, and another where the artisans imported from China congregated. The Mongol rulers were highly tolerant of religious differences and in Kharakhorum there were mosques, twelve “idol” temples, as William of Rubruck called them, though certainly at least one of these was Buddhist, and even one Christian church, all clustered together in one end of the city. The fourth quarter was a walled enclosure for the Khan, his family and his officials. A third of this palace city was taken up by government officials. Ogodei had gathered scribes who could translate from every language spoken throughout his empire.
Kharakhorum attracted numerous visitors from the west, all of them writing about their travels. Most notable is the Flemish Franciscan monk, William of Rubruck, who visited in 1253 and penned a detailed description of Kharakhorum and Mongolian life in his Journey to the East.
Ogodei died in 1241 and his widow, Toregene Khatun, ruled Kharakhorum as regent until the naming of Guyuk as Khan in 1246. He died in 1249 and was succeeded by Mongke Khan who was followed by Ariq Boke in 1259. None of these successions was without contest, as there were several vying branches of Genghis Khan’s family. Kublai Khan overthrew Ariq Boke in 1264, going on to defeat the Song dynasty and complete his occupation of China by 1279. When Kublai moved his capital to Khanbaliq (modern Beijing), Kharakhorum was reduced to a backwater provincial city, and was finally destroyed by invading Chinese forces in 15th century. Mongolia’s largest and grandest monastery, Erdene Zuu, was reputedly constructed from the ruins of this once great city in the 16th century, and is still active today. The ruins of the once great city are under the protection of UNESCO and the Mongolian government.