Joshua Kucera 11/13/09
Part 5 in a Series

The Valley of the Khans project, the American-led effort to find the tomb of Genghis Khan, has gone to great lengths to appeal to Mongolian sensibilities. Project leaders have hired Mongolian partners, including two prominent scholars, a "local media and political consultant/liaison" and a public relations agency, according to the group’s website.

"I had to do some ’diplomatic PR,’" explained Albert Yu-Min Lin, the group’s leader, in a speech earlier this year. "I established collaborations with the academics, politicians and media sources that I needed to make a campaign to make it OK for us to do this search."

Perhaps most crucially, learning from the mistakes of the previous international expeditions, he has promised to only identify the location of the tomb, not to disturb it in any way. "The whole thing has to be non-invasive, to be respectful and meet some of the cultural traditions of the Mongolians, and one of their big traditions is that you shouldn’t disturb the grave[s] of the dead," Lin said.

While the geophysical surveys that the Valley of the Khans group plans to conduct usually just serve as preliminary surveys before an excavation, Lin said he hopes that, in this case, they will provide proof that Genghis’ grave exists, without having to dig. "With this we can say, ’This is, more conclusive than not, the site of the tomb,’ then we can start to protect it using programs like UNESCO World Heritage," he said in a speech to colleagues at the University of California-San Diego earlier this year. He added that Mongolia is suffering from a surge in black-market archeological trade, and that "by locating it officially we can protect that area."

Despite taking extreme care to cultivate local opinion, Lin has found himself caught up in controversy. Interviews with dozens of people in Mongolia uncovered very little enthusiasm - and many unflattering rumors - about Lin’s expedition. Part of this has to do with his heritage: He is Chinese-American, and Mongolians have a deep mistrust of China, which ruled Mongolia for centuries. In addition, many Mongolians still believe has irredentist claims on Mongolian territory.

Asked if he had considered working with Lin, the head archeologist on a rival Mongolian team, Batsaikhan, answered "I will never cooperate with a Chinese man to find Genghis Khan’s grave."

Lin’s rivals also have attempted to spread negative stories about the Valley of the Khan’s expedition in the local press. And while many of the allegations against Lin are implausible, they nevertheless point to a PR challenge for the Valley of the Khans team. Batsaikhan said that Lin climbed Burkhan Khaldun without official permission twice, but city officials in Mongonmort, who regulate climbs up the mountain, said they weren’t aware of that.

Gerel, the director of the Great Mongolian Khans’ Theme Park, said that his friends in the Mongonmort area said that Lin told them he was hoping not to find the grave, but instead to prove that it wasn’t there. "Only after that did I find out that they were searching for the tomb," he said. "Mongolian people aren’t happy about them," he said, adding that the mistrust is so great that Mongonmort residents refuse to lend Lin and his team horses for their trips up Burkhan Khaldun. (Gerel is also critical of Batsaikhan’s effort, and said the team is not as close to finding the grave as they claim. "They are making money on this. They just say they are out of money to gain attention," he said).

For his part, Batsaikhan does not hide his interest in excavating the tomb. He says that while Mongolians aren’t yet ready for the grave of Genghis to be dug up, his team has a plan to build public support. Team members believe that not only Genghis is buried on top of Burkhan Khaldun, but four other khans are as well, including Khubilai Khan (Genghis’s grandson and the founder of Yuan dynasty) and Ogodei Khan, Genghis’s son and successor as ruler of the Mongol Empire. If those graves are excavated first, "we will prepare people psychologically for excavating Genghis Khan’s tomb," he said.

He said a Mongolian archeologist excavating the tomb would not be as controversial as a foreigner. And he argued that the popular disapproval of excavating the tomb is getting in the way of Mongolia’s national interest, namely in claiming Genghis’s legacy from China and other countries. "China, Russia, even Kazakhstan, they say that Genghis Khan’s grave is there. So we need to settle this issue, to confirm that it is in Mongolia," he said. "For Mongolians it’s a religious thing to not disturb the grave, but that makes it difficult for professionals like me to work."

What might be in the grave is a matter of debate among experts. Some believe Genghis may not have been buried at all, in keeping with traditional Mongol practice at the time, and therefore there may not even be a tomb to find. Others argue that he must have been buried with accoutrements befitting his status as the most powerful man in the world: Batsaikhan said he believes the grave holds not only treasure, but the bodies of animals and women intended to accompany him to the afterlife. "A lot of people think the grave is full of riches, but no one knows," said D. Tumen, the head of the archeology department at the National University of Mongolia.

For now, what’s in Genghis Khan’s grave remains a secret, one of archeology’s greatest mysteries. But it soon could be solved, whether Mongolians are ready for it or not.

Editor's Note: 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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