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.
Even in Mongolia, which is characterized by a nomadic way of life, such abandoned urban sites can be found. Towns and cities have been an integral part of the Mongolian 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 life ways has thus 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. This mobile way of life is just as much an essential part of cultural identity as the reference to the rise of the Mongolian empire under the leadership of the Grand Khans – above all Genghis Khan – in the 13th and 14th centuries. Less is known about the following centuries, when Mongolia was dominated by the Chinese Ming Dynasty and later by the Manchurian Qing Dynasty. 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. Specifically, the project contrasts Buddhist monastic settlements with presumed military camps of Manchurian occupiers during the Qing Dynasty (1616-1911). It aims to gain insights into the various 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. The focus of the new research project is to expand knowledge about this time and to investigate its effects to the present day. In an innovative interdisciplinary approach, we will combine archaeological, historical and social anthropological methods for the first time to trace the entanglement of the former significance, historical perception and current importance and interpretation of abandoned Manchu period urban settlements. A combination of ethnographic and historical research, archaeological fieldwork and remote sensing methods will be employed in order to investigate how the abandoned urban sites in their material state and their history and former significance is still reflected in the consciousness and perception of the local people.
Within the intellectual space of Urban ROOTS, the project takes a specific look on continuing dynamics of urban agency and perception after the abandonment of urban sites within the socio-cultural setting of a largely nomadic society. We ask how the former roles and significance of the now-abandoned sedentary centres are projected into later times and how they continue to impact the local society and life ways up until today. 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 of the presumed military camps in the Khangai mountains and on the nearby Shankh monastery, one of the earliest non-mobile Buddhist monasteries in the country. The results from the excavated test trenches and the detailed digital elevation models created from UAV imagery have already yielded new insights into the dating of the presumed military installations and the building structures of the camps and the monastic site. Interviews with nomadic families and with monks yield first information on the perception and interpretation of the installations by the local population.

The research is funded by the Cluster of Excellence ROOTS and 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 Building Research; Jonathan Ethier, Archaeology; Dr. Christian Ressel, Mongolian Studies) through research and doctoral scholarships within the project. Project partners are the Mongolian Academy of Sciences (Prof. Dr. Chuluun Sampildonov), Kiel University (Prof. Dr. Henny Piezonka), the Hochschule für Technik und Wirtschaft Dresden (Prof. Dr. Martin Oczipka) and Dr. Birte Ahrens (Bonn). There is also intensive 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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