China’s fabled ‘Genghis Khan Wall’ was not actually built to keep him out
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Archaeology11th-cent barrier likely for refugees fleeing climate change

China’s fabled ‘Genghis Khan Wall’ was not actually built to keep him out

737 km section of Great Wall in Mongolian Steppe predates ferocious ruler; was built to control movements of nomadic peoples, boost Khitan-Liao Empire, Israeli hi-tech study shows

Amanda Borschel-Dan is The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology editor.

  • An excavator of the Northern Line of the Great Wall of China. (courtesy Hebrew University)
    An excavator of the Northern Line of the Great Wall of China. (courtesy Hebrew University)
  • An excavator of the Northern Line of the Great Wall of China. (courtesy, Hebrew University)
    An excavator of the Northern Line of the Great Wall of China. (courtesy, Hebrew University)
  • Genghis Khan portrait, from an album depicting Yuan emperors located in the National Palace Museum in Taipei. (public domain via wikipedia)
    Genghis Khan portrait, from an album depicting Yuan emperors located in the National Palace Museum in Taipei. (public domain via wikipedia)
  • Hebrew University of Jerusalem archaeologist Professor Gideon Shelach-Lavi in the Mongolian Steppe. (courtesy Hebrew University)
    Hebrew University of Jerusalem archaeologist Professor Gideon Shelach-Lavi in the Mongolian Steppe. (courtesy Hebrew University)
  • Mongolian horses (courtesy Hebrew University)
    Mongolian horses (courtesy Hebrew University)
  • Medieval-era forts in the Mongolian Steppe. (courtesy Hebrew University)
    Medieval-era forts in the Mongolian Steppe. (courtesy Hebrew University)
  • Aerial view of the excavations of the fort along the Northern Line of the Great Wall of China. (courtesy Hebrew University)
    Aerial view of the excavations of the fort along the Northern Line of the Great Wall of China. (courtesy Hebrew University)
  • Yurt used by the excavation teams of the Northern Line of the Great Wall of China. (courtesy Hebrew University)
    Yurt used by the excavation teams of the Northern Line of the Great Wall of China. (courtesy Hebrew University)

A new archaeological study and detailed first hi-tech mapping of the northern-most section of the Great Wall of China gives insight into why the Northern Line was built — and why walls are continuing to be built in contemporary society.

Built in the Mongolian Steppes, the barrier is popularly dubbed the Genghis Khan Wall, but spoiler: contrary to a longtime historical hypothesis, it was not built as defense against an infamous Mongol called Genghis Khan.

In fact, most walls are not built as a barrier against invading armies, according to lead author of the study, Hebrew University Prof. Gideon Shelach-Lavi.

Shelach-Lavi told The Times of Israel that, alongside precise cartography, part of his ongoing research on this wall and other sections in China is aimed at better understanding why states or rulers decide to invest energy and resources into building walls. He was recently awarded the European Union’s prestigious ERC Advanced grant of €2,499,750 to pursue this study.

Genghis Khan portrait, from an album depicting Yuan emperors located in the National Palace Museum in Taipei. (public domain via Wikipedia)

Usually it is not war that is the impetus for building a barrier, Shelach-Lavi said. “We tend to think the walls are built against armies, but probably a lot are related to the movement of refugees, or from looming pressure of refugees and the perception — that is not necessarily true — that they [the rulers] need to stop them,” he said.

The interdisciplinary study of a circa 11th century, 737 km (458 miles) length of the Northern Line of the Great Wall was conducted by archaeologists and researchers from Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Yale University, and the Mongolian Academy of Sciences. Their findings were published on June 9, in an article, “Medieval long-wall construction on the Mongolian Steppe during the eleventh to thirteenth centuries AD” in the United Kingdom-based Antiquity review of world archaeology.

The team used intensive archaeological survey, GIS analysis, drone photography, and the analysis of satellite imagery to explore the function of the wall and the logic behind its construction in the far-off Dornod Province, in north-eastern Mongolia.

Hebrew University of Jerusalem archaeologist Professor Gideon Shelach-Lavi in the Mongolian Steppe. (courtesy, Hebrew University)

Archaeologist Shelach-Lavi has specialized in prehistoric China since the 1990s. This new medieval period study is a departure for him, as well as the posting in the Mongolian steppes. Unlike other portions of the Great Wall, the Northern Line, he said, was not built to separate between agriculture and pastoral economies, but is found “deep inside the steppe area, deep inside the nomadic peoples.”

Based on archaeological finds, the team date the wall to the 11th or early 12th century, when the Khitan-Liao Empire ruled the area (907–1125). Unlike other Chinese dynasties, this empire’s roots were nomadic, but the people adapted to Chinese bureaucracy. It could be compared, said Shelach-Lavi, to the way in which the Jordanian Hashemite Kingdom maintains pride in its Bedouin roots.

Yurt used by the excavation teams of the Northern Line of the Great Wall of China. (courtesy, Hebrew University)

“We tend to think the walls were built by Chinese dynasties against nomadic peoples. In this instance, the dynasty was founded by people with a nomadic background,” said Shelach-Lavi. The dynasty maintained its nomadic culture and had not one, but five capital cities that the court moved between, living in tents. “The Liao Dynasty… was a formidable enemy of the Northern Song (960–1127), the reigning Chinese dynasty to the south,” writes the article.

The researchers discovered that it was not built as a symbol of a Chinese conquest of Mongolia, based on its dating, nor, based on its size, to ward off invading armies, such as the much later Genghis Khan. “It has more to do with interaction within the nomadic peoples,” said Shelach-Lavi.

Mongolian horses (courtesy, Hebrew University)

Unlike the popular brick-built perception of the Great Wall, much of the lesser known sections were built of earth. (The entire Great Wall was constructed between the last centuries BCE to the 17th century CE.) The Northern Line was constructed from packed earth. Shelach-Lavi explained that builders excavated a trench, took the earth and pounded it, to make it very solid, compact.

But whoever constructed the wall was “not planning to stop armies,” he said, since at 2 meters (six feet) high with a 2-meter deep ditch, it was “not something that any army can’t come and cross rapidly,” said Shelach-Lavi.

According to the Antiquity article, the team identified 72 structures along the wall that were organized into small clusters, each located roughly 30 kilometers (some 18.5 miles) apart. Traveling between them on horseback, using ox-carts or even on foot would take no more than a few hours, write the authors.

“It seems clear that these clusters were centers of human activity probably contemporaneous with the wall being in use,” write the authors.

Medieval-era forts in the Mongolian Steppe. (courtesy Hebrew University)

The 72 structures, however, were not built on high ground, rather on relatively flat lowland area between two mountain ranges. Likewise, the structures were placed “at locations that seem to favor natural pathways through the wall (as opposed to elevated locations with high visibility),” write the authors.

“It was not a military fortification of the border, rather used to control movement of the people,” Shelach-Lavi said, or perhaps to levy taxes. The local nomadic people, herdsmen, were channeled to cross at narrow gates near the camps along the walls, thus it was possible to control them, he said. Remains of circular structures could be where their flocks were held while in the compounds, but laboratory testing to confirm this was held up due to the coronavirus crisis.

Aerial view of the excavations of the fort along the Northern Line of the Great Wall of China. (courtesy Hebrew University)

Even so, the wall represents a lot of investment of manpower and resources for such a remote area.

“We think that they [the Liao Dynasty felt they] needed to control and stop massive movements of people,” he said. Shelach-Lavi said that the 11th-13th century was a very unstable period climactically. An especially cold winter and spring would kill the grazing grass and create pressure on the nomadic people to move to the south, he said.

The combination of economic pressure and climactic change caused a wave of refugees and migration that was controlled by the building of a wall. Sound familiar?

“I don’t want to sound too simplistic,” laughed Shelach-Lavi. “It is definitely not a one-to-one comparison [to the US-Mexico border]… but through this study we hope to reach a better understanding of why states were building walls that can help us understand today,” he said.

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