Where in the world is Genghis Khan?

Here he is in a 14th century silk portrait.

He’s also on Mongolian banknotes, on Mongolian vodka bottles, atop this 131-ft statue, and etched into a hillside in Ulaanbaatar (a 400-plus ft geoglyph!). But where’s the old warlord’s actual body? Well … nobody knows.

When the Great Khan died, huge efforts were made to keep his gravesite a mystery. The slaves who built his tomb and the thousands of Mongols who marched in his funeral procession were all slaughtered to preserve the secrecy of the site. The soldiers who massacred these attendees were themselves later killed, just to make sure no one would talk.

But people did talk. They talked and made up stories and spun legends. One legend says that a river was redirected to flow over his grave so that he’d never ever be disturbed. Another has it that the world will end if his tomb is ever found and opened. But by far the best story is this one: The only creature ever to have found Genghis Khan’s grave was a camel whose calf had been slaughtered and buried with him. After years of sorrowful wandering, the forlorn camel returned to the site to weep over her poor dead calf. Oof! The tragedy! 

Going to these lengths to obscure a burial site may seem like overkill, but it turned out to be a prudent move on the Great Khan’s part, because for almost 800 years people have been combing the steppe for the site. The prevailing opinion after all these centuries is that his body was probably brought home to Khentii Province, where he was born.

One particularly popular thread of speculation is that he’s buried somewhere on the sacred mountain of Bukhan Khaldun. Fun fact: Mongolia has a whole list of sacred mountains (ten of them!), all of which are protected by Presidential Decree. The Great Buhkhan Khaldun Mountain has even earned a place on the UNESCO world heritage site list, in part because it “reflects the formalisation of mountain worship.” That’s some mountain.

All these sacred-site designations have stopped people from digging around the place. And in fact, the Mongolians themselves (according to this BBC article and this SCMP article) aren’t so keen on locating the tomb at all. They seem more interested in respecting the wishes of the dead and letting sleeping Khans lie. But that’s not stopping the rest of the world from doing whatever it wants.

So the search continues … lately with satellite imagery, and, of course, drones.