Lost Cities – Xanadu

Today I bring you the first instalment of my series of posts on “Lost Cities”. I would like to let you know right from the beginning that the term “lost city” is applied loosely here. As you will see throughout the different posts these are not always locations that are physically lost or not found. In many cases, I use this term to refer to places that used to stand tall. These were often centres of power, the core to long gone civilisations and empires. Therefore, as long as you keep that in mind, we are good to go. Why have I chosen these sites? Well, the answer is different for each of them. This is a fairly popular topic I guess in terms of public history – I am sure you have seen a documentary somewhere. But I think what draw me to look into these locations was not that populist approach, but my inner Indiana Jones looking for adventures that I am very unlikely to have in real life. Every archaeologist and history dreams (I Think…I Certainly Do!) of finding something forgotten and buried down into oblivion in the annals of our past. Now, I am in no position of doing great discoveries, so I only have left the stories of this places. And sometimes, a story is all you need…


Xanadu, actually named Shangdu means upper capital. This was in fact the summer capital of the Mongol leader Kublai Khan and the Yuan dynasty. It used to be home to 100.000 people until its destruction by an invading army of the Ming dynasty. The razing of Xanadu took place during the reign of the last Yuan Emperor and Khagan of the Mongol Empire: Toghon Temur in 1369. Sadly, and due to very extreme deterioration, all we have left are just the bases of the outline of the walls. What is left of these measures 2200 square metres, and the layout goes a bit like this. The walls and measurements I have just given you are part of the outer city, then they would have had an inner city held within the walls, with a palace which would have been around 550m in length. You know…Small! In any case, the current location of this site is actually in Zhenglan Banner (Mongolia).

I know this seems like a bit of a pessimistic note to start this post on, but I wanted you to feel the devastation from the beginning. And then, hopefully you will understand why Xanadu was such a symbol and why it had to be destroyed as an act of war – I am sure in any case that’s what the Ming forces thought to themselves in the process of trashing the place, anyway. So, what else do we know about Xanadu?  The city’s original name was Kaiping and was designed by the Chinese architect and adviser Liu Bingzhong or Liu Kan for the Yuan dynasty. The project started in 1252 and finished by 1256. Just a decade after the works were finished the famous Venetian Marco Polo visited the renown city. He actually called it Chandu, or Xandu; in fact, it seems the name change to Shangdu happened in 1264, which would explain the vocabulary used by Marco Polo. In the Travels of Marco Polo (Book 1, chapter 61 specifically for Xanadu, read the rest just for fun!), he goes at great length to explain his adventures around the old region of Cathay, and we find extensive information on Xanadu as an imperial city. He describes it as being an opulent, remarkable city. The palace, he says, is built with marble, gilded decorations all over, and then, he also mentions a second palace, also known as the Cane Palace where the Khan lived alongside in the main marbled residence… I think the evidence speak for themselves. In essence, Xanadu was a massive hub connecting trade for China in the north of “Cathay”. However, as the Mongol domains expanded, its location lost importance as the capital of the kingdom, and instead it was refashioned as an imperial city of high status by the mid 14th century.

Well, curiously enough, the city regained its former name after the Ming destroyed and occupied the area of Xanadu: they torched the remains of Liu’s creation and renamed it Kaiping. The site remained unoccupied and uncared for hundreds of years. Luckily the UNESCO decided to finally inscribe it in the list of World Heritage as of 2012. Like many sites that are abandoned and left to fend for themselves much destruction has been done to the archaeological record by the locals. In fact, it is reported notoriously that a lot of the stone work and marble of the city was repurposed for houses more recently in the town of Dolon Nor. As of today, not much other than the outline of the walls is left, though and effort for restoration and preservation of the site has been carried out since 2002.

Now, you will be thinking, what specifically pushed the Ming forces to destroy such a city, when it was no longer the capital? Granted its status was indeed very high and it was still an important symbol of the Yuan dynasty, but the treatment it received was pretty harsh. Perhaps it will start making more sense if I told you that, the down fall of Xanadu came as a result of the Red Turban Rebellion. The roots of the rebellion were many, although they mostly had to do with the economic and environmental problems link together caused by the constant flooding of the Yellow River, bouts of the Black Death and the very high expenses required to maintain such a vast empire. Not a good scenario. It also helps knowing that the Red Turban army was formed by Guo Zixing and his followers were members of the White Lotus society

…And before you start thinking we are suddenly in a Wuxia movie, I will tell you what that means. The White Lotus crew were essentially a political and religious movement, with basis in Dharmic religions as well as Persian Gnosticism. With their strict codes of conduct that resonated with the issues described earlier that the empire was facing, they quickly started becoming the champions of the injustices performed by the Mongols in their own lands, and as every rebellious group they did part take and a few demonstrations. The Mongol administration pick on this quickly and proceeded to ban them, and thus the White Lotus became a secret society of sorts. What I haven’t told you yet is that the vast majority of the members of this organisation were Han Chinese, therefore causing complications here not just in terms of religiosity but also ethnicity and cultural status. The Yuan dynasty saw a variety of religions amongst their ranks, including an increase in the number of followers of Islam in China, whilst the state never officially converted to the doctrine this caused some social dissent. Kublai Khan himself eventually established Tibetan Buddhism as the de facto state religion. Nonetheless, he particularly favoured the Sakya sect; a move that he did in part to have an advantage in his conquest of the Tibet area. Sadly, as a result of this favouritism the rest of religious movements in the Mongol empire lost importance, which caused once again social anxieties amongst the people, particularly the ordinary folk. This only contributed more to the escalation of things if we consider that during Mongol rule the “Han” or the previous Jin dynasty were all divided as a separate class in their feudal system and the decorum that they had received in previous rule was dismissed. So, in essence, the Han Chinese were super bitter. As the Red Turban Rebellion gained momentum, the White Lotus society became an incredibly favourable basis for their desire to overthrow the established system, and from here on, the story is pretty obvious to follow: all you need is the numbers and will to raise in arms, and soon your have a whole bloody war. To their great advantage, the mid 14th century saw a moment of great instability amongst the Mongols who were too busy fighting themselves over a very far stretch territory. So, by the time the Ming forces made it to Xanadu, little was left of the former glory of the empire this wonderful city had helped to build. Razed to the ground as is raided by Genghis reborn himself, Xanadu crumbled and set itself to sleep.

One thought on “Lost Cities – Xanadu

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s