Already, private companies are creating ambitious projects to generate income from Genghis' legacy. One company, GENCO Tours, built a 40-meter stainless steel statue about an hour's drive from Ulaanbaatar. It is a popular destination for Mongolians and foreign tourists. (Ironically, the steel for this symbol of the Mongolian nation was obtained in Russia and the statue was constructed in China; only the final assembly took place in Mongolia.) The same company also recently opened a living history museum that depicts life in Mongolia in the 13th century, a time when the Mongol Empire was at its height.
The most ambitious project, however, is a planned theme park on the road approaching Burkhan Khaldun, the holy mountain where Genghis is widely believed to be buried. It just broke ground in September and when it is completed in 2015, it will include temples, palaces, hotels and museums devoted to Genghis Khan and the Mongol Empire. It will cost upwards of $70 million, with four Mongolian companies providing investment capital, said Gerel D., general manager of the project.
The project is privately financed, but it enjoys the backing of the Mongolian government, Gerel said. Project officials now are negotiating with the government about improving the road to the site, which is now nearly 100 km from the nearest paved road. The complex's appeal, Gerel said, would be as a place to pay respects to Genghis Khan.
Although the complex will be located near Genghis's presumed burial site on Burkhan Khaldun, the promotional materials only mention the mountain's earlier significance to Genghis, not his potential tomb. And Gerel said he believes the grave shouldn't be found. "We don't have the right to do this [find the grave]," he said. "We only have the right to pray where he prayed."
Genghis Khan's tomb would undoubtedly become a major tourist attraction for Mongolia, and media stories about the search for the grave tend to focus on the gee-whiz fascination of finding the tomb of one of history's greatest leaders and most notorious warlords. But few of those stories mention a key fact: The prospect of finding the grave is deeply unpopular among Genghis's descendents, the residents of modern Mongolia.
"Personally, I don't want it to be found. The people who buried him didn't want him to be found," said Erdenebat Gendendaram, the director of the department of culture and art at Mongolia's Ministry of Education, Culture and Science. Although there have been no polls on the subject, "The majority of Mongolian people are against it, I'm sure," he said.
"There is a good possibility now that it could be found, but I don't want that," said Udval, a shaman who lives and works at the 13th century theme park. "People have forgotten about their country's values and their culture's values," she said. "These people [searching for the grave] are trying to find something they can sell abroad; they're just thinking about money, not our culture, what our ancestors believed."
Some Mongolians argue that if the grave could be found without disturbing it, then that would give Mongolians a place to focus their devotion to Genghis, while respecting the sanctity of the site. "Mongolians would like his grave to be found, but not destroyed or touched by a lot of people," said Tumen, the head of the Archeology Department at the National University of Mongolia.
To some, this is the promise of the approach used by the American Valley of the Khans team, led by scientist Albert Yu-Min Lin, since it doesn't involve digging up the grave. "It's so much more interesting to me if they find the grave but don't touch it. Isn't that more beautiful?" asked Lkha. Ariunbat, the managing director of a Mongolian television network, Education Channel. Lin's satellite images and computers, Ariunbat said, are "a beautiful kind of technology."
Nevertheless, many Mongolians believe that the temptation of both potential historical knowledge and vast riches that could be underground will ultimately be too much to resist, and even a well-intentioned discovery of the grave will result in it being opened up one day. "There is so much treasure and gold buried with him, so if the grave is found there is no way they are not going to dig it up," said Namjildorj, an artisan at the 13th century national park. "He's our father, our god, and we want him to rest in peace," he said. "We don't touch the god's bones when he's buried."
The reason that this unpopularity is not often publicized is that many prominent Mongolians keep their objections private. Many of Mongolia's top archeologists and officials from the Mongolian Academy of Sciences have cooperated with the major foreign expeditions, which spend lavishly in Mongolia. The expedition earlier this decade led by Chicago financier Maury Kravitz reportedly spent $2 million on its attempt, and Lin, in interviews given before his team was sponsored by National Geographic, said that he needed $700,000 to find the tomb.
Many Mongolians cooperate with the foreign expeditions because of this money, said Brian White, the former director of the American Center for Mongolian Studies in Ulaanbaatar. "There's a need for some people to make foreign researchers feel like it's possible" to find the tomb, he said. "People are spending ungodly amounts of money here, and if there was no money involved, they [Mongolian experts and officials] would be a lot more honest about their position, or just wouldn't help at all."
There have been persistent allegations that local aides to both the Japanese expedition of the 1990s and the American one from early this decade might have deliberately misled the foreigners so they wouldn't find the grave, and that the government secretly forbade archeologists from searching in the most likely spots. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Those rumors have never been proven. But the Valley of the Khans project, by doing almost all of its work outside Mongolia, will be able to circumvent any attempts at Mongolian interference. "They can cover so much ground, they've changed the game," White said.
Editor's Note: Joshua Kucera is a Washington, DC,-based freelance writer who specializes in security issues in Central Asia, the Caucasus and the Middle East.