Khara Khoto is an ancient city located in the western part of Inner Mongolia. It was once a thriving city, thanks to its location on the famous Silk Road. But a devastating massacre left the city in ruins and, until recently, many locals refused to approach the ruins of Khara Khoto, for fear of its ancient ghosts.
This contributed to the discovery of the city’s ruins at the beginning of the 20th century. Excavations at Khara Khoto have uncovered thousands of manuscripts in the Tangut language, arguably one of the site’s most impressive finds. These were preserved by the area’s dry climate and spared from looters due to the remoteness of the ruins.
Marco Polo on Khara Khoto
The name ‘Khara Khoto’ literally means ‘Black City’ in the Mongolian language. This is also seen in the name given to the city by the Chinese, i.e. Heicheng. As for the Tanguts, who founded the city, they knew it as Yijinai.
Interestingly, Khara Khoto is believed to have been mentioned by the famous Venetian traveler, Marco Polo . It has been identified (by the archaeologist Aurel Stein) as Etzina (also spelled as Ezina) in The Travels of Marco Polo . The description of the city by Marco Polo is as follows:
“Leaving this city of Kampion, and travelling for twelve days in a northerly direction, you come to a city named Ezina, at the commencement of the sandy desert, and within the province of Tanguth. The inhabitants are idolaters.
They have camels, and much cattle of various sorts. Here you find lanner-falcons and many excellent sakers. The fruits of the soil and the flesh of the cattle supply the wants of the people, and they do not concern themselves with trade.
Travellers passing through this city lay in a store of provisions for forty days, because, upon their leaving it to proceed northwards, that space of time is employed in traversing a desert, where there is not any appearance of dwelling, nor are there any inhabitants excepting a few during the summer, among the mountains and in some of the valleys.”
As mentioned by Marco Polo, Khara Khoto is situated on the edge of the ‘sandy desert’, i.e. the Gobi Desert. Although the city lies on the Silk Road , its inhabitants were not involved in trade and commerce. Instead, they made a living by supplying provisions to those who were making the journey into the desert.
When Marco Polo wrote his work about his travels to Asia during the 13th century, Khara Khoto had already existed for several centuries. It is often claimed that the city was established in 1032 by the Tanguts.
Who Were the Tanguts?
The Tanguts, known also as the Xia, were an important ethnic group in northwestern China. They were mentioned in Chinese sources as early as the 6th and 7th centuries AD. During that time, the Tanguts were invited by the Chinese to settle in what is today the provinces of Sichuan, Qinghai, and Gansu.
The Chinese were hoping that the Tanguts would act as a buffer zone between them and the Tibetans. Although the Tanguts occasionally joined the Tibetans in attacking the Chinese, on the whole, they served their purpose well. This is seen, for instance, when Emperor Taizong, the second ruler of the Tang Dynasty, bestowed his family’s surname, Li, on the family of the Tangut chief during the 630s AD.
By the 11th century, however, the Chinese, who were now under the Song Dynasty, were forced to turn their attention to the east. This was due to the fact that the they were in conflict with the Khitans, who had founded the Liao Dynasty shortly after the collapse of the Tang Dynasty at the beginning of the 10th century.
As a consequence, the Chinese had little time to focus on the western borders of their empire, and the Tanguts seized this opportunity to establish their own state, Xi Xia, or Western Xia, in 1038. This state flourished for about two centuries, until it was conquered by the Mongols in 1227. The Tanguts were in control of such a powerful state that It took the Mongols about 20 years to subdue them.
The Fall of Khara Khoto
Khara Khoto was only captured in 1226, a year before the Tanguts surrendered to the Mongols. According to a popular misconception, the city went into decline once it became part of the Mongol Empire. In reality, however, Khara Khoto continued to prosper.
As a matter of fact, one of the positive effects of the Mongol conquests was the re-establishment of the Silk Road, which would have resulted in more traders passing through Khara Khoto. The city’s prosperity, however, came to an end not long after the fall of the Mongol Yuan Dynasty.
In 1368, the Yuan Dynasty was overthrown by the Ming Dynasty, and the Mongols expelled from China. Many of the surviving Mongols are said to have fled to Khara Khoto. They were allowed to settle there by its inhabitants.
As the immediate concern of the Ming Dynasty at the time was to impose law and order on their newly gained territories, they were not really bothered about pursuing the fleeing Mongols. By 1372, however, there were so many soldiers at Khara Khoto that the Mongols were able to entertain the idea of launching an invasion on China, in order to retake it from the Ming Dynasty.
When news of the Mongols’ plans reached the ears of the Chinese, they were alarmed. By this time, the Ming Dynasty had consolidated their rule over China, which meant that they were able to address the Mongol threat more forcefully. Therefore, in 1372, the Chinese sent an army to attack the Mongols at Khara Khoto.
This military expedition is mentioned briefly in the historical records of the Ming Dynasty. According to these records, the Mongols of Khara Khoto, who were led by Buyan Temur, surrendered to Feng Sheng, a Chinese general, when he arrived at the city. Feng Sheng’s army was in fact part of a much larger expedition by the Ming Dynasty to destroy the Northern Yuan Dynasty, which the surviving Mongols established.
The Chinese military expedition was a force of 150,000 men, and was divided into three divisions, each advancing to the north of the Gobi Desert via a different route. The western division was led by Feng Sheng, while the eastern and central divisions were led by Li Wenzhong and Xu Da respectively.
Despite the strength of their army, the Chinese were defeated by the Mongols. In the centuries that followed, the Mongols continued to menace the Ming Dynasty, until they were conquered by the Later Jin Dynasty (the precursor of the Qing Dynasty) in 1635.
Legend of the Black City Ghosts
While the fall of Khara Khoto is a small episode in the military expedition of 1372, more details about the event can be found in local legend. According to this legend, the leader of the Mongols at Khara Khoto is said to have been a general named Khara Bator (meaning ‘Black Hero’). The legend also states that the fortifications of the city were so strong that the Chinese were unable to take it by force.
Therefore, they laid siege to the city. In order to increase the pressure on the defenders, the Chinese diverted the Ejin River, which flowed outside the city, and was its only/main source of water. As a consequence, Khara Khoto’s wells soon dried up, and the defenders were forced to choose between dying of thirst or dying in battle against the besiegers.
In one version of the legend, Khara Bator lost his mind due to this dilemma, and murdered his family before committing suicide. Another version of the legend has the Mongol general escape from the city through a breach he made in the northwestern corner of the city walls. Apparently, a hole in the walls large enough for a rider to pass through can still be seen at Khara Khoto.
The remaining Mongol soldiers waited in the city until the Chinese finally launched their final assault on Khara Khoto. The defenders were mercilessly slaughtered, leading to rumors in the present day that the city’s ruins are still haunted by the ghosts of the fallen Mongol soldiers. Until recently, many locals refused to approach the ruins of Khara Khoto, for fear of these ancient ghosts.
Rediscovering the Ruined City
Unlike the Mongols, who preserved Khara Khoto when they captured it from the Tanguts, the Chinese did not bother to maintain this city on the edge of the Gobi Desert. As a result, it was abandoned. It has been speculated that one of the reasons for the abandonment of Khara Khoto was the shortage of water.
In the centuries that followed, Khara Khoto fell into ruin. But it was not completely forgotten, as rumors of its existence continued to circulate. In fact, it was in the early 20th century that these rumors led to the rediscovery of the city’s ruins.
Towards the end of the 19th century, the Russians were conducting scientific expeditions in northern China and Mongolia. Two of the explorers, Grigory Potanin and Vladimir Obruchev, heard rumors about a lost ancient city somewhere downstream along the Ejin River.
Back in Russia, these rumors attracted the attention of the Asiatic Museum in Saint Petersburg (today part of the Institute of Oriental Manuscripts of the Russian Academy of Sciences). A Mongol-Sichuan expedition under Pyotr Kuzmich Kozlov was launched in 1907.
Within a year, Kozlov had discovered the location of Khara Khoto. In May 1908, Kozlov obtained permission to excavate the site from Dashi Beile, a local Torghut chief. In return for his permission to excavate the site, Kozlov gave Dashi Beile a free dinner and a gramophone.
The expedition’s most remarkable discovery at the ruins was a large quantity of texts, including manuscripts, books, and scrolls. These were written in the Tangut language, and were preserved thanks to the dry conditions of the surrounding desert. By the time the first expedition ended, Kozlov had sent 10 chests of artifacts back to Saint Petersburg.
In addition to over 2000 Tangut texts, the chests also contained Buddhist objects . In 1909, Kozlov returned to Khara Khoto, and more manuscripts were unearthed. The artifacts remain in Saint Petersburg to this day, though they have been published as the Russian Collection of Khara-Khoto Manuscripts.
Other Expeditions to Khara Khoto
In the decades that followed, other expeditions to Khara Khoto were undertaken by various explorers. In 1917, for instance, Aurel Stein visited Khara Khoto on his third Central Asian expedition, and surveyed the site for eight days.
Other archaeologists, such as the American Langdon Warner, and the Swedish Folke Bergman, also visited the ancient city, the former in 1925, and the latter in 1927 and 1929. On his second visit, Bergman stayed at Khara Khoto for a year and a half, surveying and making maps of the area.
The Chinese also took interest in the site. Between 1927 and 1931, for example, a Sino-Swedish expedition, led by Sven Hedin and Xu Bingchang, carried out excavations at the site. Additionally, between 1983 and 1934, Li Yiyou, from the Inner Mongolian Institute of Archaeology, carried out excavations at Khara Khoro, unearthing another 3000 manuscripts.
The remains of the buildings at Khara Khoto have received much less attention than the manuscripts. These structures include the city’s ramparts, which are 9 meters (29.5 ft) high, 4 meter (13.1 ft) thick outer walls, a 12 meter (39 ft) high pagoda, and crumbling mud houses.
In addition, there is a building that may be a mosque outside the city walls. It has been speculated that this building would have been used by Muslim traders who stopped at the city.
Considering the fact that Khara Khoto is not easily accessed, due to the surrounding desert, the ruins have not been developed into a tourist attraction. While this means that the site does not reap the benefits brought about by tourism, it also does not suffer from the damages caused by receiving numerous tourists. This may help to preserve the ruins for the future.