In Qara Qorum did Ogedei KhanKajmeister, riffing on Samuel Coleridge
A stately Mongol palace built
A courtyard tree sounded angel horns
And snakes of silver guilt
The Mongols swept across Asia in the early thirteenth century, conquering the cities along the Silk Road, using a combination of brutal and brilliant military tactics accompanied by innovative siege weaponry. They extracted wealth from places like Merv, Zhongdu, Baghdad, and Samarkand on a massive scale, until the cartloads of goods flowed into Mongolia like a “river of silk” as Mongolian chronicler Jack Weatherford said.
It was as though [Chinggis] Genghis Khan had rerouted all the different twisting channels of the Silk Route, combined them into one large stream, and redirected it northward to spill out across the Mongols steppes.Jack Weatherford, Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World
A Palace of Their Own
What might a nomadic people do with all that treasure? Ogodei, son of Chinggis Khan, built a palace. It was called Qara Qorum or Kharakorum, meaning black walls, tall with “lofty pillars” according to Rashad al-Din, the historian. It was a place that looked good for a large camp of Mongols nomads, with ample water, high winds to drive away bugs, and mountains as a sanctuary for the herds.
Unfortunately, its estimable qualities for herders did not make it the most desirable for a permanent palace. In some ways, the establishment of this lofty site with its ornate decorations which only lasted a dozen decades was as symbolic of the empire as anything else–quickly grand but unsustainable in its ambitious design. Fairly quickly, the permanent settlement suffered from lack of food and water for the people, even if the cattle were happy. When Ogodei was flush, they could spend oodles of gold to bring in supplies, but the well ran dry.
William of Rubruck , another papal envoy like Giovanni del Piano del Carpini (see G), was equally unimpressed. He said the tiny French city of St. Denis was more interesting. Yet, who asked you William of Rubruck? Why was there a constant stream of envoys from the pope going out to Karakoum to pass judgement? Because they were p***ing in their pants as the Mongols took Budapest, Baghdad, Kiev, and Krakow. The Europeans got lucky that they found eastern Europe a little too hilly for their tastes.
The Silver Tree
However, before the site fell away to dust, Ogodei did build up the place. At one point, a third of the buildings were taken up by civil servants just counting all the carts of silk trundling up the hill to the palace.
Also, as was the fashion of the time, he brought in artisans to design a complicated sculpture. Animatronics were all the rage, so this was a giant silver tree. It was topped with angels trumpeting, and four snakes that spouted liquid into bowls. Not silver in color, but silver as in the precious, scarce metal that everyone used for coinage (in some cases, silver was rarer than gold).
The liquid wasn’t water, which arguably was even scarcer than silver. Instead, the snakes spouted grape wine, rice wine, mead, and fermented mare’s milk, the Mongols favorite drink. It was designed such that when the right actions were performed, the angels would blow the horn, calling the guests in for the feast, and more drinking. Oddly enough, Ogodei died from drinking.
Qubailai Calls His Own Number
After the death of Mongke Khan in roughly 1260, Chinggis’ grandson Qubilai expected to be made the next khan. However, before he could get his act together, his cousin Arik summoned a gathering (called a quriltai) up in Qaraqorum.
Qubilai had a different idea. He hightailed it back to northern China, where he had spent most of life, and pulled all his supporters together into his own gathering of “all” the leaders. He acclaimed himself khan and the civil war was on.
Eventually, the Mongol empire was split into four giant sections, with Qubilai running the Yuan dynasty that reunited all of China. Arik stayed in Mongolia and drove what came to be called the Chaghatai khanate. Hulegu, another cousin, took Persia, and the fourth cousin covered the remaining section to the north, called the Golden Horde.
For roughly another 60-100 years, the khanates stayed intact, until Russian children of their defeated ancestors took back their territory from the Golden Horde. Qubilai’s grandchildren were kicked out of China by the Ming dynasty. The Il-khanate Mongols melted into Persia, most becoming Muslim and dissolving into the local population. Chaghatai stayed with the Mongols, and the city of Bokhara was ruled by a Mongol ancestor until 1920, when Lenin’s red army took it back.
Blown to the Winds of the Erde Khun Monastery
Today, Kharakorum is no more. In the spot where there was once a silver tree and a gold and white palace. But there is a monastery in the spot, which seems somehow fitting as a way to honor both the legacy, which is ornate, and the land, which scours the legacy away as so much dust blown across the steppes.