Sunday, January 6, 2019


Now that I'm inching back into activity here on the blog (I honestly thought I'd be gone longer), I realize it's time for another one of my posts that can't decide between history and mythology. And what better topic to address in that mindset than the millennia-old concept of sacral kingship, in order to quell the need to go back and edit my college research project?

Sacred kings, past and present, are broadly defined as monarchs (male or female) whose temporal rule holds religious significance. They may hold religious authority, in which case they may hold some similarities to an outright theocrat, or they may simply be an otherwise earthly ruler reigning with the legitimacy conferred on them by a sacred figure or institution. Sacred kingship took a huge variety of forms around the world throughout history, arguably being present on every single continent with the exception of Antarctica.¹ The divine right of kings and mandate of heaven were enormously significant in the western and eastern halves of Eurasia respectively, but I want to look into a form of divine legitimacy that was carried by rulers of states which often straddled Europe and Asia- nomadic pastoralist empires.

The khan named Temüjin consolidated the disparate Mongolic tribes and officially formed the Mongol Empire in 1206 CE. After this date he became known as Chinggis Khan. He, like so many other khans of the Mongol people(s), had previously been invested with his power by a böö, or shaman, at the feet of the mountain named Burkhan Khaldun, located in modern day Khentii Province. This was a sacred mountain for the Mongols, and according to the account of his life, Temüjin once escaped certain death after a lost battle by taking refuge at the mountain. Burkhan Khaldun is traditionally believed to be a sort of axis mundi connected to heaven and the sky-god Tengri. By propagandizing the unlikely victories, narrow escapes, and seemingly miraculous events of Temüjin's life, it was easy to demonstrate to the Inner Asian world that he was a legitimate authority figure, surely under the guidance and protection of Eternal Heaven.²

But Burkhan Khaldun wasn't the only source of sacral kingship that Chinggis Khan benefited from. Humans live between heaven and earth, after all. And that is why he chose to place the capital of his nomadic empire at the literal and figurative center of the nomad's world, in a place called Ötüken.

Ötüken, often referred to as Ötüken-yish or Ötüken-jer, meaning "forest" or "land" of Ötüken, respectively, is an area of land that is difficult to pin down today. One theory put forth by Mongolist Thomas T. Allsen is that it stretched from the Khangai Mountains of central Mongolia to the Sayan Mountains of nearby Tuva³, though this doesn't quite match up when you try to place its most central landmark, the Orkhon River Valley, at its center. This is further muddled by the frequent claim that Ötüken is also a single mountain at the center. Though to be fair, spiritual geography can be very vague or flexible based on the needs of the time.

The Orkhon Valley, located at the tentative heart of Ötüken as well as about 320 kilometers west of the modern capital city of Ulaanbaatar, was where Chinggis Khan founded his first imperial city of Karakorum. But it had also once been the site of the city of Ordu-Baliq, seat of the Uyghur Khaganate almost four hundred years prior. Yet the Uyghurs had come there centuries after the fractious Göktürks had done the same twice over, and before them had come the Rourans, and even before them it is possible that the Xianbei and Xiongnu confederations had centered their states on the river valley. By the lifetime of Chinggis Khan it was the site of over a thousand years of cultural continuity and habitation by prestigious nomads whether they be Mongols, Turks, proto-Mongols, or other poly-ethnic or uncertain groups. Chinggis Khan's decision to place the seat of his new empire there was as natural as it was calculated.

And with good reason: thanks to a local microclimate, some of the greatest grazing lands in the Mongolian Steppe are located here, in addition to a breathtaking array of forests, mountains, rivers, and lakes. I believe it was as close to a paradise as the harsh steppe landscape could have offered to ancient nomads.

But it wasn't just a beautiful landscape with practical or tactical value and a long history.

Orkhon Valley is the place from which qut emanates.

Qut is a divine power which originates in Ötüken and spreads outward, granting the local ruler the divine right to unite and rule all of the tribes of the land. It was an extension of the favor of the spirits of the land, or yer-sub, whose mood and disposition toward humanity was said to be seen reflected in the weather and bounty of nature, in particular the fruit trees of Orkhon. The valley was recognized in writing as being vital to imperial power as far back as the early 8th century CE, when one of the rulers of the Göktürks, Bilge Khagan, inscribed on a stele at the site that "If you stay in the land of the Ötüken, and send caravans from there, you will have no trouble. If you stay at the Ötüken Mountains, you will live forever dominating the tribes!"⁴

It is also no coincidence that Ötüken is one of many names given to the earth-goddess of Turko-Mongol mythology, commonly seen as second in power only to Tengri, who was often presented as being her husband or relative. By controlling both Ötüken and Burkhan Khaldun, Chinggis Khan had the exceptional ability to say that the two greatest divinities of the world were on his side.

I see qut as sort of a hybrid sacral kingship model, which combines the elements of a few others. It comes from a physical location which must be seized and controlled in order to harness it, yet it takes the form of an empowering supernatural energy that is non-exclusive with, similar to, and distinct from the general favor or protection of the chief deity. I'd dare to say it resembles the power of barakah conferred upon people, objects, and places by God in Islam, though on a comparatively very limited scale, and with very specific stipulations attached.

Today we don't have a lot of world leaders claiming that they are empowered by magical leyline energy, which is probably for the best. But the beauty and history of the Orkhon Valley are preserved by a UNESCO heritage site designation.

¹ Though to be fair, we aren't sure about how the Elder Things governed themselves.

² Franke, Herbert. The Cambridge History of China, Volume 6. Cambridge University Press, 1994. Page 347.

³ Allsen, Thomas T. "Spiritual geography and political legitimacy in the eastern steppe." Ideology and the Formation of Early States. Brill Academic Publishers, 1996. Pages 124-125.

⁴ Drompp, Michael R. "Breaking the Orkhon Tradition: Kirghiz Adherence to the Yenisei Region after A. D. 840." Journal of the American Oriental Society 119, no. 3. American Oriental Society, 1999. Page 391.