The Incredible Mystery of ‘The Great Wall of China’

A team led by Israeli researchers shed light on the mysterious ‘Genghis Khan’ Wall, generally considered part of the Great Wall of China complex, revealing that the dating and purpose of the barrier were very likely different from what was thought before.

The findings of the research mapping the structure for the first time were published on Monday in the academic journal Antiquity. Located in the heart of the flat, endless Mongolian steppe, the 737-kilometre-long section surveyed by the archaeologists was previously believed to have been built to defend the local population from the legendary leader Genghis Khan, who at the beginning of the 13th century CE established and was the first sovereign of the Mongol Empire.

However, as explained to The Jerusalem Post by Prof. Gideon Shelach-Lavi of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the construction of the wall pre-dated the period and several other elements hint at the fact that the structure might have not been a military installation at all.

“What is known as the Great Wall of China in reality includes many walls,” he said. “The one we considered is a very specific case for several reasons. It is located much further north, deep into an area inhabited by nomadic population and it is not connected in any way with the other parts of the Great Wall. Moreover, it is only briefly mentioned in historical accounts, and no dynasty took credit for it, in spite of the fact that we are talking about an installation that is overall 3,500 kilometres long – of which so far we studied the so-called Northern Line.”
“For us, the question was who built it and why. If we think about it, the question of why people build walls is still relevant to this day,” he added.

Shelach-Lavi has been working in archaeological excavations in China since the 1990s. Since 2018, he and other experts from the Hebrew University, as well as some Mongolian and American colleagues, have been focusing on this project, combining analysis of satellite and aerial images with work on the ground.

The team was able to determine that the structure was probably built by the nomadic Khitan-Liao dynasty, which ruled over the region between 10th and 12th century, therefore earlier than Genghis Khan.

“The period between the 10th and the 13th century was very unstable,” the researcher pointed out, explaining that several ruling dynasties raised and collapsed in the span of those centuries, often fighting each other. In the past, scholars thought that the wall was built to keep invading armies or raiders outside.

“The barrier was probably around two meters high. Moreover, we uncovered dozens of connected structures which were located at lower altitudes. The system therefore does not seem so fit for defensive purposes. Rather it was probably used to control movements of peoples and cattle, possibly to tax them or to prevent them from travelling to other areas,” the professor pointed out.

The installation would have helped increasing the influence of the Khitan-Liao Empire, allowing it to monitor the nomads that lived along their northern territory. An element that might have contributed to the necessity to check populations’ migrations was the fact that the period was especially challenging from the climatic point of view, with very rigid winters and extreme seasons, possibly creating the necessity for nomadic groups to travel southward looking for resources.

Along the wall, which in its best conserved parts today stands about 1m above ground level, researchers also identified remains such as metal artefacts and pottery, but in very scarce quantities.

“For this reason, we believe that the structure was actually occupied for a very limited period of time, maybe 20 years,” Shelach-Lavi said, highlighting that even its construction probably did not take more than two to five years. “We know that they could deploy some 200,000 people for the purpose of building, making the process very short.”

While the researchers are not going to be able to return to the area for a new season of excavations in 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic, they recently received a grant that guarantee at least another five years of work, the professor said.

“We are going to focus also on other parts of the wall and combine different lines of work, including the climatic changes of the time, in a multidisciplinary project,” he concluded.

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