CULTURAL HERITAGE OF MONGOLIA

By Dovdoin BAYAR

The broad land of Mongolia has a history and a culture that have been built up during the course of several thousand years of human habitation, and it is one of the cradles of civilization. It is, therefore, very rich in relics dating from Paleolithic times to the late middle ages. In many ways, the territory of Mongolia has been a bridge between East and West since the earliest times and therefore the study of those relics not only enriches Mongolia's history but is also of great relevance to the study of the history and culture of all mankind. Stone tools 500,000 years old have been found in Mongolia, proving that Man was settled in the area at that time, and that it was from Central Asia that he went on to the American continent. Early Man took the stones provided by nature and from them fashioned stone tools; as he began to acquire finer skills in the working of stone, he made not only weapons but also all kinds of jewelry, implements and stone monuments, and began to learn how to construct towns and villages.

The earliest stone monuments that are most commonly found in Mongolia today date from the bronze age. The nomadic herdsmen of those times constructed stone mounds and stone-flagged graves of great size, and used great skill in the beautiful execution of carved 'reindeer stones'. Such stone monuments were placed on the steppe, in valleys, in gullies or on the tops of small hills either singly or in groups of up to twenty stones, either as graves or markers of dedicatory sites, and some of them still remain in their original positions. The 'reindeer stones' are between one and four meters high. The four sides of a long oblong stone are nicely trimmed and the total surface is divided vertically into three bands. All around the stone in the upper section are images of the sun and moon, and in the middle section are many deer, leaping and flying. The lower section is decorated with carvings of knives, swords, bows and quivers, battle axes, whetstones, hooks, mirrors and so on.

The deer themselves are executed according to a very precise formula, with long narrow limbs like those of birds, graceful necks, majestic curving many-branched antlers, but most especially the full flight of their leap is shown with consummate skill. Some particular examples of these 'reindeer stones' have, carved in the upper section of the stone, a human head and face. The skill with which these animals, widespread among the nomadic peoples of Central Asia, are represented is everywhere plain. 'Reindeer stones' have been found over an exceptionally wide area; of the 500 so far brought to light, 450 have been discovered in this country and the remainder in southern Baikalia, Tuva, the Russian Altai - from Central Asia in fact to the Danube basin. Scholars of these stone monuments estimate that they range in age from the second millennium to the third century BC.

Other examples of the stone monuments of Central Asia are the statues which are to be found right across Mongolia from east to west. Those that have been found on the Mongolian territory fall into two basic categories and the most common date from the sixth to eighth centuries. These stone statues are skillfully carved to show the clothes that these ancient people made and wore: hats, belts, weapons, jewelry and sometimes the tools of their trades. Scholars research and categorize the carvings on the statues and, by comparing them with other archaeological finds and with written records, can establish their date and tribe. A large group of statues was found in the eastern part of the country from the Turk period but these are quite different, and it is thought that they are from the Mongol state of the 13th and 14th centuries. What is particular about these examples is that the figures are carved seated on backed chairs not associated with other kinds of stone statue, and their clothes, hats, hairstyles and utensils are very different from those on the Turk stones.

The purpose of these stones was probably the same as that of the Turk monuments - they were erected as part of a cult dedicated to the memory of the great Khans, and thus are descended from the early reindeer stones. Study of the stone statues and research into the customs, religious beliefs, and social relations of those people not only serves to enrich the science of history, it is also very important in that it shows the level of skill that these early artists attained.

It has become a truism widespread in many places that, because the Mongols adopted a nomadic pastoral economy, they did not build towns or villages. And yet we know from archaeological research and from written documents that peoples of the Mongol origin were establishing towns about 2000 years ago and that they were erecting buildings of a very distinctive architecture. Archaeological evidence of more than 200 ancient towns has so far been discovered on the Mongolian territory.

The 13th-century capital of the Mongol Empire, Karakorum, is a special example of Mongolia's early towns and is attracting attention from scholars in many countries. The city was built in 1220 on the orders of Genghis Khan and was founded on the site of a city previously occupied during the Uighur period. It is said that the work went on until the time of Ogedei Khan when in 1235, the outer wall was built and the great 'Myriad Peace' palace was erected. Not only was Karakorum the administrative, industrial and cultural capital of the Mongol Empire, it was also an important crossroads between the eastern and western worlds.

Around the city was a large square wall, in the middle of each side of which was a gate, beside which all kinds of goods and livestock were bartered, bought and sold. Within the city were separate districts occupied by artisans and craftsmen, traders, administrators and private citizens. Because the Khans of Mongolia in those days honored all religious faiths, a total of 12 worshipping places of the Christian, Buddhist and Islam faiths actively held services. We know from archeological research that Karakorum was a great center for metalwork and other handicrafts. The city had an iron and steel foundry well advanced for its time.

The most beautiful part of the city was the palace in the southwestern sector. Within the city wall and inside a wall of its own was the 'Myriad Peace' palace of Ogedei Khan; surrounded by the residences of the princes and noblemen. The main building of the palace was founded upon a specially landscaped dais; its main hall was floored with green enameled flat bricks; and the roof covered with red and green enamel tiles. In the southern section of the main hall was a silver tree-fountain, crowned with a silver figure of a man blowing a trumpet. At festival times, a beautiful sound would be heard as four kinds of delicious drink poured from four dragons' heads facing in four directions from the trunk of the tree, and flowed down into silver vessels placed there to receive them. The layout of the city of Karakorum and the architecture of the buildings combine the very best of city planning of the nomadic Mongols and of eastern and western architecture. Evidence of other early Mongolian cities of this time is still being discovered and researched.

Although Buddhism has a 2000 year-old history of propagation in Mongolia, it was not until the 16th century that it was widely spread among the people and brought together their minds and their everyday lives. From this time there was a tremendous growth in monastery and temple building in Mongolia, and a great development in the combination of traditional nomadic architecture with temple building skills. At the beginning of the 20th century there were more than 700 temples and monasteries in Mongolia. Every single one of these had its own particularities and all were exceptional examples of oriental architecture. In Mongolian architecture the frame of the building is made of wood but other materials are also used, such as felt, bricks and stone, and the main wooden props are set in stone foundations. The influence of the nomadic lifestyle is plain to see in the architecture of Buddhist religious structures and dwelling places. This is why it is so convenient to use the 'Mongol gher' (dwelling of Mongolian nomads), which can be taken down and re-erected, as a temple hall. The trellis walls, roof poles and layers of felt were replaced by stone, brick, beams and planks, and became permanent. As parts were added to the upper and side parts of the 'gher' so architecture acquired new material. As the 'gher' changed in this way, gher-shaped buildings emerged. From early times Mongolian architecture has shown the influence of the architecture of those countries with which it has had closest cultural relations: India, Tibet and China. The science of architecture appeared with the teachings of Buddhism, and 18th and 19th century writings contain a wealth of theoretical information on architectural ways and means, principles and measurements. There were highly specialized religious schools in operation training architects, artists, and sculptors. Of the monasteries left in Mongolia, Erdene Zuu in Ovorkhanggai, Amarbayasgalangt in Selengge and Gandang in Ulaanbaatar deserve particular mention.