A team of U.S. archeologists may be close to finding the tomb of the great Mongol warrior Genghis Khan. However, their work has stopped, as leaders in Mongolia worry about breaking old traditions and arousing public anger. University of Chicago history professor John Woods is realistic about his slim chances of finding the tomb of the fabled 13th century conqueror.
After Genghis Khan was buried in 1227, 2000 servants and soldiers at the funeral were slaughtered to ensure the secrecy of the gravesite, so it could never be desecrated. The tomb has never been found. It is said to include vast riches plundered from 20 kingdoms.
For three years, Professor Woods has led a team of U.S. and Mongolian archeologists searching for the tomb. This year, the team got permission to dig at a sacred site long connected with the khan.
Oglogchiin Kherem, the Almsgivers Wall, is 3.2 kilometers around. It contains at least 60 depressions thought to be graves, possibly including that of Genghis Khan, known in Mongolia as Chingis Khan.
"The location is tantalizing because it is where we believe Chingis Khan was born," Professor Woods said. "Near where he was enthroned as leader of all the Mongols in 1206. Near the activities of his father Yesugui who was not as prominent as his son was. Until we dig more we are just not going to know."
After a few weeks of digging, Professor Woods and his team, which includes three top Mongolian archaeologists, reported curious findings.
"When we dug down we came upon a layer of flagstones, and underneath those stones were curving channels, most curving off to the west," he said. "We are led to conclude that these are not burials as we had thought, but ritual sites for sacrificial purposes. And in one case we found human remains in these channels, more often than not there were animal bones in and around the channels."
But excavation work was suddenly halted.
Mongolia's former prime minister, Dashiin Byambasuren, visited the site in July. Mr. Byambasuren was horrified at what he considered the desecration of a sacred place.
In a letter to Mongolia's president, Mr. Byambasuren said that cars had been driven over sacred ground and buildings were placed too close to the wall. He said human remains were defiled by being stored unceremoniously in a pan. Mr. Byambasuren also worried that the American investors backing the dig had commercial interests, hoping to recover Genghis Khan's treasure. He urged the president to move the archaeologists off the sacred site and turn it into a protected area.
The letter was published in local newspapers and has angered many Mongolians. Traditionally, Mongolians believe that digging in the earth brings bad luck and that disturbing the tomb of an ancestor will destroy his or her soul. The situation is more sensitive because Genghis Khan is considered the father of Mongolia and his spirit is worshipped in cult ceremonies.
Photographer Osoorjaamaa Ulzitogh becomes upset when he sees a photo of the excavation site.
"I would say that it looks like the land was devastated by war," he said. "You can imagine that when the people made these royal tombs, that they tried to do their best to respect them, keep them a secret and keep them looking natural. But if you come and destroy these places centuries later it is very bad."
Professor Woods says his team acquired all the necessary permits. The car tracks on the site, he says, were made before the team arrived. He also insists that the remains have been stored according to scientific practice, and that the idea they had been desecrated is a matter of opinion.
"And I do not think we have anything to apologize for," he said. "If it is a person's personal opinion that people who are buried should not be disturbed I have no answer for that. This is an issue that has to be decided internally, whether or not people feel strongly about that one way or the other."
Soon after the letter was published, local authorities ordered the archaeologists out of Ogloogchiin Kherem. The leading investor, Chicago lawyer Maury Kravitz, ended the project for this summer to avoid further conflict. Government officials have visited the site and the National Security Council will debate the matter.
Mr. Kravitz has long pursued Genghis Khan's grave. A motion picture is being planned about his 40-year search for it, and a documentary is being prepared about the dig. He has promised that if the grave is found, Mongolia's government will keep all the artifacts inside.
The archaeologists are returning to the United States, and do not know if they will be allowed to return to follow the trail of Genghis Khan.