During the time of the Mongolian Empire, Mongol warriors staged one of their conquests from a place called Kharakhorum (also referred to as Karakorum in the West). Not only was Kharakhorum a favorable place to launch a military campaign, but it also sat at the intersections of the Silk Roads (north-south, east-west), guaranteeing it would garner wealth through trade. Kharakhorum became the capital of the Mongolian Empire, but it did not become a permanently established city until one of the Great Khan’s successors (Ogedei) built it up, paving the way for it to become a key location in world politics, highlighting the achievements of the Mongolian Empire.

One of the notable landmarks in the city was a fountain designed by Parisian goldsmith Guillaume Bouchier. The fountain was shaped like a tree, made of silver, complete with silver fruits and leaves. Four gold serpents rose up out of the tree, their mouths acting as the spouts of the fountain. The center of the treetop held an angel automata that could blow a horn, signaling that the fountain would start flowing. Now what came out of the serpents’ mouths? One would assume that it was water, but in fact, the fountain dispensed different alcoholic beverages: Persian grape wine, honey mead, Chinese rice wine, and fermented mare’s milk. There were also lion sculptures at the base of the tree that poured out non-fermented mare’s milk.

The fountain alone was pretty eye-catching, but visitors to Kharakhorum also noticed the prevalence of religious representations and the wide variety of foreigners in the city. From this article:

There at the heart of the Mongol Empire, he [a Flemish friar] found a surprisingly cosmopolitan scene comprised of Hungarians, Greeks, Armenians, Alans, Georgians, and more. In the capital of Karakorum, he found a “Saracen” quarter with its markets and a “Cathayan” one with its artisans; he found temples and mosques, and he found a church [Nestorian]. He met a Christian from Damascus who represented the Ayyubid Sultan, a woman from Metz named Pacquette who had been captured while on business in Hungary, and the son of an Englishman named Basil.

Field, Devon. “The Khan’s Drinking Fountain”. 2019.

To be frank, when I was growing up, I knew so little about the Mongolian Empire. Unless you take the time to study history of this location and time period, it would be easy to assume that Marco Polo was the only European who made it to ancient Mongolia, but that simply wasn’t true. Kharakhorum’s legacy proves otherwise. Unfortunately, over time, Kharakhorum moved from being the capital to an administrative center under Kublai Khan’s rule and was eventually destroyed under Chinese rule. Today, there has been some reconstruction of this majestic city, but the project wasn’t completed. You can see a replica of the infamous silver tree fountain at the site, however. The monastery and temple compound Erdene Zuu and the modern city of Kharkhorin is also in this area today.


EDIT: the earliest version of this post conflated Kharakhorum and Kharkhorin. My apologies!

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