The Qara Khitai or Western Liao dynasty (1124-1218) is one of the most fascinating polities in medieval Eurasia, but also one of the least documented in terms of both literary sources and material culture. Founded by Khitan refugees who escaped from North China when the Jurchen Jin dynasty (1115-1234) vanquished the Khitan Liao dynasty (907-1125), the Qara Khitai soon established a multicultural empire in Central Asia, combining Khitan, Chinese, and Muslim elements. The Buddhist Qara Khitai ruled over their mostly Muslim population in rare harmony until the rise of Chinggis Khan (r. 1206-1227). Hitherto only a few objects - and not a single structure - have been associated with this powerful empire. We argue that the Kök-Tash mausoleum, excavated in 2017-2018 and originally interpreted as a unique subterranean Muslim mausoleum, is actually the first-ever identified Qara Khitai elite tomb. This unique tomb, located in the Kochkor valley of north-eastern Kyrgyzstan, about a day's ride from the Qara Khitai capital of Balāsāghūn, shares many similarities with the Liao tombs in North China, notably the typical Khitan mesh-wire burial suit. Yet it also uses local Central Asian materials and techniques, thereby manifesting how the Qara Khitai managed to retain their cultural identity in their new Central Asian and mostly Muslim environment. Moreover, identifying the Kök Tash mausoleum as a Qara Khitai tomb allows us to reassess several other unusual tombs excavated in the region in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and to suggest attributing them, too, to the Qara Khitai.
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Copyright © The Author(s), 2023. Published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of The Royal Asiatic Society.
- cultural identity
- Kök-Tash mausoleum
- Liao dynasty tombs
- mesh burial suit
- Qara Khitai