Most people have probably heard of the Great Wall of China – the collective name of a series of fortification systems built across the historical northern borders of China to protect and consolidate territories of Chinese states and empires against various nomadic groups of the steppe –including the disproven myth that it is the world’s only man-made structure that can be viewed from space.
But few people know about the “Ghengis Khan Wall,” whose construction was allegedly ordered and supervised by the founder of the Mongolian empire for whom the wall was named.
Apart from defense, other purposes of the Great Wall have included border controls, allowing the imposition of duties on goods transported along the Silk Road, regulation or encouragement of trade and the control of immigration and emigration. Furthermore, the defensive characteristics of the Great Wall were enhanced by the construction of watch towers, troop barracks, garrison stations, signaling capabilities through the means of smoke or fire, and the fact that the path of the Great Wall also served as a transportation corridor.
In August 2011, with the help of Google Earth, an international expedition documented the ancient wall in a restricted border zone in southern Mongolia, and the work was reported in National Geographic magazine. The team suggested then that it wasn’t the work of Genghis Khan or his heirs but actually a long-lost segment of the Great Wall of China network. Close to China in the border region of Ömnögovi Province, the ancient structure hadn’t been scientifically explored or studied before, said William Lindesay of the International Friends of the Great Wall conservation group based in Beijing, China. But their study left more questions about the understudied structure than answers.
Now, for the first time, researchers have fully mapped the “Genghis Khan’s Wall,” a 737-kilometer section of The Great Wall that resides outside of China along the Mongolian Steppe. Hebrew University of Jerusalem archaeologist Profץ Gideon Shelach-Lavi lead the international research team and have just published their findings in the latest edition of the journal Antiquity.
They identified 72 structures along the wall that were organized into small clusters, each located roughly 30 kilometers apart. This indicates that the wall was likely built in a single, organized phase, likely during the Khitan-Liao Empire (907 to 1125 CE). The Khitan-Liao dynasty predated the rule of Chinggis Khan and was one of the few states during the time period to consistently control this area of the Mongolian Steppe.
The famous “Great Wall of China” actually consists of several fortifications, built piecemeal between the last millennia BCE and the 17th century CE. Shelach-Lavi and his team studied the northern phase of this wall-building. Aptly named “The Northern Line,” this section is mostly located in Mongolia, with some sections in Russia and China, an area that used to be home to nomadic tribes that routinely raided Imperial China.
The wall was built during the Medieval Period (11th to 13th Centuries), an era that saw the rise of Genghis Khan (more accurately translated as “Chinggis Khan”), who lived approximately between 1162 and 1227 CE. “I would risk saying that it is the largest human-made structure or artifact in all of Mongolia,” added Shelach-Lavi. “It is amazing to me that it is not already much better analyzed.” Despite its massive size, he continued, little research has been done on this medieval wall system, and it is barely mentioned in the most authoritative historical works.
Originally, researchers believed that this section of the wall was built to defend the local population from the Great Khan and his nomadic raiders. However, Shelach-Lavi’s findings suggest that defense was not the primary function of these fortifications.
“Our analysis of the wall suggests that it was not built to defend against large invading armies or even against nomadic raids into sedentary lands. Rather that it was geared to monitor and control the movements of nomadic populations and their herds,” explained the Hebrew University archaeologist.
Fieldwork conducted in 2018 focused on exploring the wall line and a selection of structure clusters, located in Dornod Province. This collaborative project involved archaeologists from the Hebrew University, the Mongolian Academy of Sciences and Yale University.
By examining the wall’s placement and building style, the international team of archaeologists, which included colleagues from Yale University and the Mongolian Academy of Sciences, revealed the Northern Line’s primary role: to expand the influence of the Khitan-Liao Empire, one of the imperial dynasties in the region, by controlling and monitoring the nomads that lived along their northern territory.
Significantly, many of the wall’s structures are not located at high vantage points, which are critical for military defense. Instead, they were located at lower altitudes, likely closer to roads and other sites that would aid in population control. “Our study suggests that the assumption that these were all military structures needs to be challenged,” suggested Shelach-Lavi. “We need to study the structures and their context to better understand the reasons they were built,” he added.
Despite the apparent importance of the Northern Line, its construction is not mentioned in any contemporary documents. It was also neglected by later researchers, often only receiving a passing mention in textbooks. “This huge structure is extremely enigmatic,” said Shelach-Lavi.
The Jerusalem-led team set out to change that, systematically mapping the Northern Line over several years. In addition to aerial views supplied by drones, they conducted a detailed survey of a small part of the wall and nearby structures. This allowed them to investigate the artefacts left behind and to study the construction of the wall.
“Our analysis suggests that the northern wall line was pre-planned and systematically built. Its location between two mountain ranges, the organized placement of its auxiliary structures and the combination of different types of structures all suggest a carefully considered design,” the authors wrote.
“We have little doubt that this massive structure facilitated an intended set of functions related to protecting, observing, monitoring and/or in some way demarcating this northern zone. We argue, however, that the northern wall line was probably not the fortified border that it is sometimes considered to represent the Liao and Jin Dynasties, for instance, probably did not conceive of their polity as bounded
by what is the very modern notion of rigid borders. Rather, their view of empire was more concerned with the control of people, many of them nomads, rather than focused on clearly defined land.”
Furthermore, the detrimental socio-economic impact that frequent cold spells and droughts can have on the fragile ecology of the Steppe may provide an additional reason for establishing such control, the team concluded.