Genghis Khan and Burkhan Khaldun

« previous post | next post »

Every five years or so, popular science magazines have a "Genghis Khan tomb" story.

Here's a current iteration:

"Where is the tomb of Genghis Khan?"

By Owen Jarus, published 12 days ago

The location of the tomb of Genghis Khan (c. 1162 – August 18/25, 1227; the founder and first great Khan [Emperor] of the Mongol Empire) was certainly meant to be kept secret by those who buried him.  

Marco Polo wrote that, even by the late 13th century, the Mongols did not know the location of the tomb. The Secret History of the Mongols has the year of Genghis Khan's death (1227) but no information concerning his burial. In the "Travels of Marco Polo" he writes that "It has been an invariable custom, that all the grand khans, and chiefs of the race of Genghis-khan, should be carried for interment to a certain lofty mountain named Altai, and in whatever place they may happen to die, although it should be at the distance of a hundred days' journey, they are nevertheless conveyed thither."

In a frequently recounted tale, Marco Polo tells that the 2,000 slaves that attended to his funeral were killed by the soldiers sent to guard them, and that these soldiers were in turn killed by another group of soldiers which killed anyone and anything that crossed their path, in order to conceal where he was buried. Finally, the legend states that when they reached their destination they committed suicide. This tale does not appear in contemporary sources, however.

Another folkloric legend meanwhile says that a river was diverted over his grave to make it impossible to find, echoing the myth of the burial of the Sumerian King Gilgamesh of Uruk or of the Visigoth leader Alaric.* Other tales state that his grave was stampeded over by many horses, that trees were then planted over the site, and that the permafrost also played its part in the hiding of the burial site.


[*VHM:  Since Gilgamesh (roughly late 2nd millennium BC) and Alaric (c. 370-410) were both much earlier than Genghis, whether or not a river was actually diverted over Genghis's tomb, this legend that is common to all three (and there were undoubtedly others in the course of history) bespeaks a Eurasian custom that transcends vast space and time.  Numerous Language Log posts, especially those on Old Sinitic reconstructions and archeological findings show that the eastern and western ends of Eurasia were linked already by the Bronze Age (roughly 4th millennium to 2nd millennium BC).]

Burkhan Khaldun is supposedly the name of Genghis Khan's birthplace and perhaps also where his tomb was located.  "Burkhan", I know, means "Buddha; god"), but Khaldun gives me trouble.  Wikipedia and other sources say that it means "mountain", but the Mongolian word for "mountain" is uul, so far as I know.

Also, I'm chiefly aware of "Khaldun" in the name of the famous Arabic historian, Ibn Khaldun, where it comes from the Arabic root "khalada" (kh-l-d), meaning to remain or last forever, be everlasting; to be immortal, deathless, undying; to abide forever; to remain, stayThe noun "khald" means infinite duration, endless time, perpetuity, eternity (dar el-khald: paradise).  Could that be used to mean "mountain" in Mongolian?


Unsure about these matters, I inquired of my Turkologist and Mongolist colleagues how to explain them.

Peter Golden quickly replied:

The Большой академический монгольско-русский словарь, под ред. А. Лувсандэндэва, и Ц. Цэдэндамба (М. “Academia, 2002), IV: 26, has халдун “гора, скала, пик” which seems reasonable to me. Pelliot advanced this interpretation. The Russian version of Wikipedia, cites Dagur Mongol халдун — «ива» – (which goes back to Rinčen, a highly regarded Mongol scholar), “Mountain of the Willow-God” – but a bit more of a stretch to me. These are discussed in Igor de Rachwiltz’s translation and commentary, The  Secret History of the Mongols (Leiden-Boston: Brill, 2004), I: 229-230. In any event, a derivation from Arabic x-l-d is unlikely.

I would be most interested in what the real Mongolists in our group have to say.

Stefan Georg joined in:

Yes, there is certainly no Arabic here, халдун is, I’d say, a more ‚bookish‘ way to refer to a mountain in Modern Khalkha, very probably, if used today, used in reminiscence of the very name B. Kh. This second element of this name is, in all probability, originally a geographical term with „hilly“ semantics – at times, ‚cliff‘ has been ventured as a possible approximation (by Pelliot, who observes that this is actually the translation in the Chinese text of the SH), but there is little in the way of attestations in Mong. languages which might really help to pin it down with any kind of exactitude. De Rachewiltz’ commentary on the SH, as mentioned by Peter, is a good starting point for thinking about it (and the one thing I turned to immediately). But, then, I might not really be up to date with current wisdom on this name and its possibly appellative second part.

From Nicola Di Cosmo:

In fact, both words are complicated, but khaldun more so. Please see the attached article*, which summarizes previous research, mostly by Mongolian scholars. I myself have no opinion on this matter.


Ravdan Enkhbayar, Enkhjargal Purev, Oyunsuren Tsend.  "A name study of “Burqan Qaldun” in the Secret History of the Mongols."  Universum: филология и искусствоведение:  электрон. научн. журн. 2021. 4(82). URL: (дата обращения: 25.06.2022).


[VHM:  I have a pdf of this article and would be happy to share it with interested parties.]

Johan Elverskog clarifies the Mongolian terms for "mountain":

Modern "uul" from classical "agula" is indeed the Mongolian word for mountain. Nevertheless, Qaldun has nothing to do with Arabic; however, what it actually means in Mongolian has been much debated. Interpretations range from “willow” to “cliff” to “mountain,” see de Rachewiltz’s “Secret History,” pg. 229-230.

Pamela Kyle Crossley looks at a broad range of aspects concerning "Burkhan Khaldun":

Morris Rossabi translates Bukhan Khaldun as "Budda Cliff." The references in the Secret History of the Mongols suggest that the place had some religious significance, probably not limited to Buddhism, since the founding ancestor of the Mongols was supposed to have been born in the vicinity; there could have been an ancestral spirit temple there or near there. Specialists on Mongol folklore and the Secret History of the Mongols do not agree that the place now identified as Burkhan Khaldun is the real place. Several possible locations have been discussed, from the Altai Mountains to the Khingans, basically. There is also a Korean angle. "Bulham" seems to a reference to Burkhan Khaldun in Korean folklore, and some Korean historians (outliers, I gather), associate Burkhan Khaldun (which in this case would mean "Buddha cliff", mostly as a folk etymology) with the Uriangkhai people of Manchuria and the Goguryeo era Koreans.

To summarize:

The Burkhan Khaldun (Cyrillic: Бурхан Халдун) is one of the Khentii Mountains in the Khentii Province of northeastern Mongolia. The mountain or its locality is believed to be the birthplace of Genghis Khan as well as his tomb. It is also the birthplace of one of his most successful generals, Subutai.

Burkhan Khaldun means the "God Mountain" and is also called Khentii Khan (The King of the Khentii Mountain range).


бурхан (burkhan) (Mongolian spelling ᠪᠤᠷᠬᠠᠨ (burqan))

From Common Turkic *burqan (Buddha), compare Old Uyghur pwrq'n (burqan, Buddha), Karakhanid بُرْخَنْ(burχan, idol). The Turkic word is derived from Middle Chinese (MC bɨut̚, “Buddha”) and Old Turkic (qan, ruler, king) and chosen to represent Buddha corresponding properly to Sanskrit बुद्धराजा (buddharājā, Buddha-king) in the earliest Turkic translations of Buddhist scriptures.


The Turko-Sanskritic derivation of the first element of Burkhan Khaldun and the uncertainty concerning the meaning and origin of the second element only increase the mysteriousness surrounding the founder and first ruler of the mighty Mongol empire.


Selected readings

[Thanks to John Tkacik]


  1. Pamela said,

    June 25, 2022 @ 9:14 am

    definitely recommend reading the article cited by Nicola. they like burqan as a variation of "willow" (see also their notes on ovoo). but this seems a bit tortured: "In terms of the hypotheses of the previously mentioned researchers, the hypothesis that is closest to our suggestion is rock+mountain."

  2. Sagi said,

    June 25, 2022 @ 3:53 pm

    Don't know if this has anything to do with anything, but kheled חלד is an old fashioned Hebrew word for "universe", and as we all know, Genghis Khan means something like "universal ruler"…

  3. John Swindle said,

    June 26, 2022 @ 12:49 am

    Former President Ulysses Grant and his wife, Julia Dent Grant, but they’re entombed above ground as opposed to buried.

    If I understand correctly the bodies of Hawaiian rulers were also hidden but responsibility for their well-being was passed down. No diverting of rivers and no implication of influence from Eurasia in the matter.

  4. maidhc said,

    June 26, 2022 @ 3:44 am

    The burial sites of Hawaiian chiefs were hidden so that their bones would not be made into fishhooks. So it was said.

    I'm not sure why anyone would want to do this, but I suppose it had some magical significance.

  5. David Marjanović said,

    June 28, 2022 @ 4:21 pm

    bespeaks a Eurasian custom that transcends vast space and time.

    It certainly bespeaks a Eurasian story that extends across vast expanses of space & time. (Stories do travel very well indeed.) But that does not require that any river was ever diverted over any tomb, only that someone once thought that would be a cool thing to do in certain circumstances.

  6. George Amis said,

    June 29, 2022 @ 1:41 pm

    A little riddle:
    Q:Why is the spiritual teacher of the great Genghis so jumpy?
    A: Because he is a khan-guru.

  7. Mehmet Oguz Derin said,

    June 29, 2022 @ 3:00 pm

    A slight possibility: Khaldun might be an isolated case for the word gold(en) "altın/altun" in the languages of proximity. There are variations of the word gold in Turkic that starts with a k- consonant.

RSS feed for comments on this post