The Search for Ghengis Khan
Trying to Find a Needle without Touching the Hay
The Valley of the Khans project is sponsored by the National Geographic Society, and members refuse to grant media interviews. But the group's website links to a YouTube video in which the group's head, Albert Yu-Min Lin, outlines his team's search strategy. [For additional information click here]. In the video, Lin describes his first visit to Burkhan Kaldun, the most likely site of the grave, at the end of 2008 to take GPS readings. The group is also collecting satellite data from GeoEye, whose Ikonos satellite, launched in September 2008, offers the highest resolution satellite images available to civilians, Lin said. To get even more detailed images the group plans to use unmanned drone airplanes to take aerial photography and geophysical tools like electromagnetic induction and ground-penetrating radar, pioneered by the mining industry, to get images of what might be under the ground.
The data gathered by those tools will be processed and put online so that amateur web surfers - attracted by a game with a title like "Help Find the Tomb of Genghis Khan" - can scan through the images. They will look for anomalies, like right angles, that might indicate the possibility of human activity on the landscape or underground. Then the images of those anomalies will be analyzed in greater detail by Lin and his team. Astronomers successfully used a similar scheme, called Galaxy Zoo, to help classify more than a million galaxies that were photographed by telescopes scanning vast swaths of the sky, Lin said. (Another initiative, somewhat similar to Lin's idea, to find the wreckage of the airplane of adventurer Steve Fossett, failed.)
"This is how you find the needle without touching the hay," Lin said. The project is expected to be completed in mid-2011.
A rival Mongolian group claims that the grave is in fact hidden in plain sight. That team, headed by a former bank president and an archeologist at the National University of Mongolia, says the tomb is under a huge man-made rock formation on the top of Burkhan Khaldun, the holy mountain where many Mongolian experts believe Genghis was buried.
The formation, they say, is 22 meters tall, 280 meters long and 180 meters wide, and is clearly visible from aerial photos. If the grave is in fact under that structure, it would contradict the legend that the grave was carefully hidden. It would, though, comport with more recent findings that other khans were buried under similar structures, said the team's top archeologist, Batsaikhan, whose silvery hair and stubble, rolled up sleeves and Lucky Strike habit make him look like the Mongolian version of the archetypal archeologist.
The team said it already has discovered the tomb of another Mongol leader, Bilegt Khan, in a similar structure on another mountain, and has done preliminary research on the stone structure on Burkhan Khaldun. "There is a very big possibility that this is Genghis Khan's grave," he said.
Mongonmort is a small logging village that is the nearest human settlement to Burkhan Khaldun. Its residents have traditionally acted as protectors of the mountain. The town's deputy mayor, Enkhbaatar, said that the belief is spreading that the structure identified by Batsaikhan's team is in fact the tomb of Genghis Khan
Although Mongonmort locals regularly climb the mountain - four times a year a prayer ceremony there honors Genghis Khan - and were aware of the structure, they had never thought of it as Genghis' tomb, Enkhbaatar said. "Most people are herders and don't think about it very much," he said. And because people knew that the tomb was "secret," it didn't occur to them to speculate about where it was, he said. But as Batsaikhan's work has gotten some publicity inside Mongolia over the last year, it's seemed more and more likely that that the structure does in fact house Genghis grave, Enkhbaatar said.
Some experts, though, say that the Mongolian team is on the wrong track. The structure Batsaikhan has identified on Burkhan Khaldun is natural and is definitely not the grave of Genghis Khan, said Igor de Rachewiltz, a Mongol expert at the Australian National University. De Rachewiltz has studied the question of Genghis Khan's grave extensively, and is one of very few non-Mongolians who have been to the top of Burkhan Khaldun.
"They are simple geological formations and have nothing to do with graves. This has been ascertained," de Rachewiltz wrote in an email interview. "The early Mongols never buried their chiefs on top of a mountain, always on the side or at the foot."
The Mongolian team's search also has been complicated by its political connections and murky motivations. The team's leader and former financier, Davaa Nyamaa, is the former president of Anod Bank, which was taken over by the government at the end of 2008 for a variety of accounting improprieties. He is also the chairman of the Civil Movement Party, an opposition political group, and spent six months in jail earlier this year, he said, for leading protests against the government's deal with foreign mining companies to operate Oyu Tolgoi, the largest copper-gold mine in the world. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Other sources in Ulaanbaatar and Mongolian news accounts, however, say that he was in jail for financial crimes related to Anod Bank's closure, and nothing to do with any political motive.
Davaa said that his political work stems directly from his research into Genghis Khan: "I started working in this movement because as I studied the Mongolian khans, I wanted us to live like they did. So I want to build up a strong, intelligent government like we had then," he said.
While the government's cooperation with his team was strong when the project started, including a personal meeting with the former president, Nambaryn Enkhbayar, that ceased as Davaa became more active in opposition politics, he said. "If this project goes well, it will reflect well on our party, and the government doesn't want that, so they're not supporting us," he said.
The government had originally promised to help with financing the expedition, and Anod Bank was sponsoring it before it was taken over by the government, Davaa said. Now the bank is unable to provide financing, so the team is looking for foreign funding. "If we had money, we could start digging immediately," he said.
Joshua Kucera is a Washington, DC,-based freelance writer who specializes in security issues in Central Asia, the Caucasus and the Middle East.
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