Abandoned Cities in the Steppe – Roles and Perception of Early Modern Religious and Military Centres in Nomadic Mongolia

Urban ROOTSKiel students Sebastian Schultrich, Bastian Breitenfeld and Tanja Schreiber investigate an Early Modern walled enclosure in the Khangai mountains, September 2019 (photo: Sara Jagiolla / CAU Kiel).

The migration of people from the countryside to larger, urban centres, but also the violent destruction of settlements and cities, are phenomena that have shaped world history for thousands of years. At the same time, shrinking and completely abandoned cities, so-called lost cities, and forgotten places in rural regions are emerging, whose original meaning and significance can project different effects into later times.
In Mongolia, towns and cities have been an integral part of the nomadic society for more than a millennium, and abandoned urban sites from various periods dot the land, inscribing memories of lost empires and long-gone alliances into the cultural landscape. The relation between sedentary urban and mobile pastoralist lifeways has constituted a key cultural, economic and political factor in one of the major pastoralist formations in Eurasia. Currently, about 30 percent of the Mongolian population leads a life as nomads. Thus, mobility is just as much an essential part of cultural identity as the reference to the rise of the Mongolian empire under Genghis Khan and his successors in the 13th and 14th centuries. The era in which most modern Mongolian cities are rooted is the period of Manchu rule in the 17th to early 20th centuries. Subsequent political developments led to the abandonment or forced destruction of many of these urban focal points. As former centres of sedentary life, they still make an important contribution to the country’s cultural identity, which needs to be deciphered more precisely. Taken together, traditional nomadic pastoralism, the reception of Chinese and Tibeto-Buddhist influences and the founding of the state as a People’s Republic barely one hundred years ago determine this field in cultural memory.
The ethnoarchaeological research project associated to the ROOTS subcluster Urban ROOTS at Kiel University (CAU) is devoted to the study of lost cities of this influential period of Mongolian history to solve the conundrum behind the sociocultural, economic and political dynamism associated with these urban centres. The project contrasts Buddhist monastic settlements with presumed military camps of Manchurian occupiers during the Qing Dynasty (1616-1911). The aim is to identify facets of urban life in Early Modern Mongolia and to examine how they have shaped cultural memory over several generations up to the present day. In an innovative interdisciplinary approach, we combine archaeological, geographical, historical and social anthropological methods to trace the entanglement of the former significance, historical perception and current importance and interpretation of abandoned Manchu period urban settlements. 
Within the intellectual space of Urban ROOTS, the project takes a specific look on continuing dynamics of urban agency and perception after site abandonments within the socio-cultural setting of a largely nomadic society. We investigate whether the economic, religious and social networks, in which the sites were incorporated during their functioning, have left traces in later mental concepts as well as practical connotations of the natural, ritual, and socio-political landscape, and in the self-perception and identity of their inhabitants.
The first interdisciplinary field campaign in Central Mongolia took place in September 2019, concentrating on two presumed military camps in the Khangai mountains and on the nearby Baruun Khüree, one of the earliest non-mobile Buddhist monasteries in the country founded in the 16th cent. The results from test trenches and digital elevation models created from UAV imagery have yielded detailed new insights into architectural structure and dating of the the camps and the monastic site. Interviews with local nomadic families and with monks yielded first information on the perception and interpretation of the installations by the local population. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic and resulting travel restrictions, the 2020 field work in Mongolia had to be restricted to remote sensing surveys of the prominent Manchu military city of Uliastai. PhD stipend holder Enkhtuul Chadraabal together with further Mongolian scholars operated drone flights over the huge fortified complex north of the modern city. The areal imagery was used to generate detailed 3D digital elevation models, enabling the evaluation of the urban design in the conjunction between fixed (e.g. fortifications, temples, workshops) and mobile (e.g. yurt) elements.     
The research is funded by the Gerda Henkel Foundation as part of the funding programme ‘Lost Cities – Perception of and Living with Abandoned Cities in the Cultures of the World’. Particularly noteworthy is the promotion of three young scientists (Enkhtuul Chadraabal, archaeology and architecture; Jonathan Ethier, archaeology; Dr. Christian Ressel, Mongolian studies) through doctoral and postdoc scholarships within the project. Project partners are the Mongolian Academy of Sciences (Prof. Dr. Chuluun Sampildonov), Kiel University (Prof. Dr. Henny Piezonka), the University of Applied Sciences Dresden (Prof. Dr. Martin Oczipka) and Dr. Birte Ahrens (Bonn). There is also intense cooperation with the German Archaeological Institute (Dr. Christina Franken).

Project by Henny Piezonka hpiezonka@ufg.uni-kiel.de, Martin Oczipka, Chuluun Sampildonov and Birte Ahrens




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