Orkhon Valley Cultural Landscape

Orkhon Valley clearly demonstrates how a strong and persistent nomadic culture led to the development of extensive trade networks and the creation of large administrative, commercial, military and religious centres. The empires undoubtedly influenced societies across Asia and into Europe and in turn absorbed influence from both east and west in a true interchange of human values. This culture is still a revered and indeed central part of Mongolian society and is highly respected as a 'noble' way to live in harmony with the landscape. The valley itself is an exceptional illustration of several significant stages in human history, reflecting its role as the centre of the Mongolian Empire, a special Mongolian variation of Turkish power, the Tuvkhun hermitage monastery as the setting for the development of a Mongolian form of Buddhism, and Khar Balgas as the capital of the Uighur Empire.

This cultural landscape is in central Mongolia, some 360 km south-west of UlaanBaatar, the capital. Along the Orkhon River, which flows north, draining into Lake Baikal across the border in Russia. Over 90% of Mongolia's huge land area is high-level pasture or desert wasteland, at an average altitude of around 1,500 m. Water is at a premium and the river valleys have therefore assumed great importance, becoming the focus for settlements of various kinds. In Mongolia, nomadic pastoralism, the grazing of horses, sheep, goats, cows and camels, is perceived as much more than the objective technical demands of pastoral life: it is revered and glorified as the heart of Mongolian culture. In turn Mongolian nomadic culture is part of a much wider distinctive nomadic pastoral culture, embracing many other people besides the Mongols and extending across central Asia. 

The Orkhon Valley covering an area of 1,220 square kilometers (470 sq. miles) is one of the most important cultural regions in the world and was recognized by the UNESCO World Heritage as a cultural landscape in 2004. The extensive area encompasses the pastureland on both banks of the Orkhon river and includes numerous archaeological sites dating back to the 6th century. The Orkhon Valley Cultural Landscape includes sites such Kharakhorin, the 13th century capital of Chinggis Khaan’s Empire.

For many centuries, the Orkhon Valley was viewed as the seat of the imperial power of the steppes. The first evidence comes from a stone stele with runic inscriptions, which was erected in the valley by Bilge Khan, an 8th-century ruler of the Empire. Some 25 miles to the north of the stele, in the shadow of the sacred forest-mountain was his  or nomadic capital. During the Qidan domination of the valley, the stele was reinscribed in three languages, so as to record the deeds of a Qidan potentate.

Mountains were considered sacred in Tengriism as an axis mundi. Moreover, a force called qut was believed to emanate from this mountain, granting the khagan the divine right to rule the Turkic tribes. Whoever controlled this valley was considered heavenly appointed leader of the Turks and could rally the tribes. Thus control of the Orkhon Valley was of the utmost strategic importance for every Turkic state. Historically every Turkic-Mongolian capital was located here for this exact reason.

The main monuments of the Orkhon Valley are as follows:

1. Early 8th-century Turkish memorials to Bilge Khan and Kul Tigin with their Orkhon inscriptions are admittedly the most impressive monuments from the nomadic turkish people. They were excavated and deciphered by Russian archaeologists in 1889-93.
2. Ruins of Khar Balgas, an 8th-century capital of the Uyghur Empire, which cover 50 square km and contain evidence of the palace, shops, temples, monasteries, etc.
3. Ruins of Chinggis khaan's capital Karakorum which could have included the famed Xanadu palace.
4. Erdene Zuu monastery is the first Buddhist monastery established in Mongolia. It was partly destroyed by Communist authorities in 1937-40.
5. Tuvkhun Hermitage is another spectacular monastery, overlooking a hill at 2,600 m. above sea-level. Likewise, it was almost totally destroyed by the Communists.
6. Remains of the 13th and 14th century Mongol palace at Doit Hill. 

All our Orkhon Valley Cultural Landscape Tours

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