A team of archaeologists from the Saratov Regional Museum of Local Lore is currently excavating the ruins of the city of Ukek, located along Russia’s Volga River. The 13th-century stronghold formed part of the Golden Horde, a kingdom founded by Batu Khan, a grandson of the great Mongol conqueror Genghis Khan. Among other discoveries, the archaeologists uncovered two Christian temples, one of which was decorated with stone carvings and held a cache of fine ceramics in its basement.
Born in 1162 near the border between modern-day Mongolia and Siberia, Genghis Khan rose from humble origins to build the largest land empire in history. He began by uniting a host of nomadic Mongolian tribes–a total of some 1 million people–before moving on to conquer vast swathes of Central Asia and China. Though he was notorious for the countless corpses he left in his wake (in part thanks to the Mongols themselves, who promoted their vicious reputation in order to sow terror among their enemies, Genghis Khan also abolished torture, granted religious freedom to his subjects and destroyed repressive feudal systems.
After Genghis Khan was killed in battle against China’s Xi Xia kingdom in 1227, the sprawling empire he had conquered was split apart. His eldest son, Juchi, died before his father, but Juchi’s son Batu inherited part of the western portion of his grandfather’s empire. In a series of military campaigns, including the sacking and burning of the city of Kiev in 1240, Batu Khan managed to extend the boundaries of his domain. At its peak in the mid- to late-13th century, Batu Khan’s Golden Horde (or Kipchak Khanate) extended from the Carpathian Mountains in eastern Europe to Siberia, and controlled many of the valuable Silk Road trading routes connecting China with medieval Europe.
The Golden Horde city of Ukek, which is currently being excavated by archaeologists from the Saratov Regional Museum of Local Lore, was built a few decades after Genghis Khan’s death, near the site of Batu Khan’s summer home on the Volga. Citizens of Ukek practiced a variety of religions, including Islam, Christianity and Shamanism, and the archaeologists have unearthed sections of the city’s Christian quarter. Among their most notable discoveries are the basements of two temples, as churches are sometimes called in eastern Christianity.
One of the temples, built in 1280, was destroyed in the early 14th century. Archaeologist Dmitriy Kubankin, who presented the team’s findings recently at the European Association of Archaeologists’ annual meeting in Istanbul, told LiveScience that the temple had a tile roof and was decorated with murals and stone carvings on both the interior and exterior of the building. “The best-preserved bas relief (a type of stone carving) features a lion being clawed by a griffin,” Kubankin said. In the basement of the temple, the archaeologists found the remains of goods that appear to have been stored there by local merchants, including plates and bottles that may have been imported from the Byzantine Empire, Iran or Egypt. Kubankin said the church cellar would have been considered a safe place to store valuable goods intended for sale.
The second temple was built in 1330, after the first one was destroyed, and was in use until about 1350. The excavation team has only unearthed part of its foundation, with its apse. Interestingly, though Christians did not have power under Golden Horde rule, the team’s findings show that not all of them were enslaved. In fact, people of wealth did frequent the Christian section of the city. According to Kubankin, he and his colleagues found “some items belonging to the local elite” in the ruins, including “a Chinese glass hair pin, with a head shaped as a split pomegranate, and a fragment of a bone plate with a carved dragon image,” among other things.
The city of Ukek did not enjoy a long life, as the Golden Horde went into decline in the 14th century, in part thanks to the ravages of the Black Death, which struck in 1346-47. In 1395, a ruler named Timur (or Tamerlane) attacked and destroyed Ukek and took over much of the territory formerly ruled by the Golden Horde, on his way to building his own empire.
Modern-day buildings now cover much of Ukek, and the archaeologists will have trouble excavating the entire site, as it extends over several plots of privately owned land. Still, Kubankin said his team from the Saratov museum has made “significant discoveries” by digging at the single Ukek site in yearly excavations since 2005, adding that these discoveries will soon be featured in a museum exhibition.