Khara-Khoto: Lost City of the Gobi Desert

Khara-Khoto, or the ‘Black City’, sits mostly forgotten in the barren sea of the Gobi Desert. It was once a wealthy metropolis, despite its location in the middle of the world’s most forbidding deserts. Like many kingdoms at the time, it eventually fell victim to conquest.


This ghost city lies within the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region of China. The Tangut, a Tibeto-Burman group, founded it in the 11th century AD. They built the city like a fortress, encircled by nine-metre-high ramparts. Today, one of its intact ruins includes what historians believe is a tomb or mosque. This suggests that some Muslims lived among the Tangut. Whether or not the two groups got along is a mystery.

Two centuries after its establishment, the ruthless Genghis Khan conquered the city in 1226 AD. For once, the conquest did not end in destruction and pillaging. Under Mongol administration, cultural and economic life flourished for the next 150 years.

The city grew into a trading hub. Its roads led to vital Silk Road stops like Xanadu. Art and education thrived. Traders dealt in luxurious commodities like silks, linens, porcelain, writing implements, and silk-based artwork. Marco Polo himself passed through the city, which he called Etzina.

This may be a tomb or mosque in Khara-Khoto in the southeast corner of the city

The Khara-Khoto tomb or mosque. Photo: Aurel Stein


According to some sources, military forces of the Ming dynasty laid siege to Khara-Khoto in 1372. They cut off its water supply, and many inhabitants died of thirst and starvation.

In despair, the city’s Mongol leader Khara Bator killed himself and his family. The Ming army slaughtered the remainder. After the conquest, the city lay abandoned. Time and sand swept over its remains, and the city faded from memory until the early 20th century.

The rolling sand dunes of the Gobi Desert

Sand dunes of the Gobi Desert in Mongolia. Photo: Shutterstock


Renewed interest in the Black City prompted several expeditions from Russian, Hungarian, Chinese, Swedish, and American archaeologists. The Russian explorer Pyotr Kuzmich Kozlov led the first major expedition to the city in 1908. He found historical treasures such as Tangut land and loan contracts, inventories, and market records. Many of these documents were written in Chinese as well. He also discovered Buddhist artwork, which he sent back to the Geographical Society in St Petersburg.

An aerial view of Khara-Khoto shows the layout of the city

The Black City today. Photo: @PicsSilkRoad/Twitter


Subsequent expeditions found more manuscripts, household artifacts, silks, paintings, books, and wood engravings. These have painted a vivid picture of Tangut history and culture. They also revived interest in the Tangut language, whose written and spoken forms are still being pieced together.

Kristine De Abreu

Kristine De Abreu is a writer at ExplorersWeb.

Kristine has been writing about Science, Mysteries and History for 4+ years. Prior to that, Kristine studied at the University of Leicester in the UK.

Based in Port-of-Spain, Kristine is also a literature teacher, avid reader, hiker, occasional photographer, an animal lover and shameless ramen addict.