The Cursed City of Khara-Khoto


According to one of the many Mongolian legends, the first descendants of the Gods built a beautiful wealthy city which was home to sages, merchants, brave soldiers, and skillful craftsmen. The city was built back in the time when waters of the warm sea washed the picturesque shores that later became the Gobi Desert.

Khara-Khoto was the name of the legendary ancient city. Its doom is mentioned in one more Mongolian tale. It is said that the last ruler of the city was Khara-Bator, who declared war on the Chinese Emperor because he wanted to take over his throne.

But he was forced to hide behind the impassible walls of the city after losing a number of battles. The Chinese Emperor was unable to take over the city so he ordered the riverbed ofEjin River to be moved – depriving Khara-Khoto of water.


Khara-Bator saw that his city and its people were condemned to inevitable doom, so he hid his piles of treasure, murdered his wife and children and dove into a final battle in which he perished. The Chinese army took over the city of Khara-Khoto, killing all of its citizens and leaving it in ruins.

Russian explorers, scientists and researchers were also aware of the dead city that was lost among the sands of the Gobi Desert. Russian researcher, Pyotr Kozlov, organized an expedition in Mongolia in 1907. After several weeks of failed search attempts, Kozlov was able to gain the support of the leader of the Torhout-baile tribe, which inhabited the area. With the help of a guide, the expedition finally reached the dead city on March 19th, the same year.

Foreigners were not allowed to bring large animals into the city, start fires, or eat inside its walls. Women were also forbidden from entering Khara-Khoto. Discompliance would anger the spirits of the ancient city’s founders.

As proof, the guide told the Russian travelers a story of how a 100 years earlier, a local woman stumbled into the city, looking for her lost horse. Among the ruins she found several pearl necklaces. She had barely made it out of the city, when a terrifying sand storm caught her.

Several days later, a passing-by caravan found the woman’s body half-covered with sand, with the burned pearl necklaces in her hands. The leader of the Torhout-baile tribe demanded that the discovered jewels of Khara-Bator be delivered to him.

Priceless Discoveries

High fortress walls, almost completely covered by sand, rose before the Russian travelers. One of the well-preserved tombs was located beyond the walls of the city, and precisely in that tomb, the researchers discovered incredible and priceless (from a historic point of view) artifacts.

Scientists discovered rare samples of Buddhist iconography in the tomb – they were covered with color painted silk tarps, numerous iron and wooden statues. The discovered library was of particular value – it held more than 2000 well-preserved manuscripts and scrolls.

Illustration of some of the clay sculptures.
Illustration of some of the clay sculptures.

There were 20 human-sized clay figures facing each other in the center of the mausoleum. Manuscripts were laid one on top the other next to each of the sculptures. The scientists stumbled upon a well-preserved skeleton in a sitting position in the far corner. They ventured a guess that the skeleton might have belonged to the spiritual leader, in whose honor the mausoleum was built.

The members of the expedition were in for many more interesting and mysterious discoveries inside the city as well. They cleared up a strange structure in the center of Khara-Khoto – circular, 2.5 meters (8 feet) high, resembling a giant piece of cheese. Scientists stumbled upon unclear cuneiform symbols on the upper-most flat part of the structure. They were different from those in the manuscripts, and were obviously from a much earlier time period. And there were also concentric circles, spirals and lines tangled up in a strange web.

Everything was carved into hard rock. According to the scientists, the structure might have served as an observatory, as well as a holy place where ancient priests brought offerings for their Gods.

There was yet another discovery that was waiting for the researchers in one of the half-destroyed structures.  A glorious fragment of a wall fresco appeared before the group after they cleared out the sand. There were not only illustrations of priests, but of strange creatures as well – two-headed birds, fish with human heads, and fearsome dragons, and next to those creatures were miniature figures of people.

Khara-Khoto raises the curtain on its secrets

In the midst of the summer of 1907, Kozlov received a message from Mongolian authorities ordering him to immediately cease excavations and leave the city. There were numerous complaints from locals that the foreigners were defiling the “forgotten city”.

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

It so happened that unprecedented drought descended upon the region at the same time of the expedition. As if that wasn’t enough, a series of powerful quakes shook the central part of Mongolia. All of these conundrums were interpreted by the elders as a sign that the mighty spirits were unhappy with the presence of foreigners in their lands.

In spite of all the obstacles, Kozlov was able to send a large part of the discovered relics and manuscripts to the Geographical Society in Saint Petersburg, where experts succeeded in deciphering most of the texts.

Parts of the scrolls were full of possible recipes for healing of people and livestock. A lot of space was dedicated to chronicles from which it became clear that in 1226-1227, the Tangut country was defeated by the armies of Genghis Khan.

But parts of the documents were never deciphered, because they were written in a language unknown the researchers.  According to one of the versions, ancient priests had encrypted magic texts in the scrolls. And according to others, those were probably the only documents serving as proof of the ancient civilization that built the city of Khara-Khoto.