A commodities broker thinks he can find Genghis Khan's grave

August 15, 1994|By Chicago Tribune

How is it that a Chicago commodities broker, a self-taught expert on Genghis Khan, can claim to have a bead on the site of the 13th century conqueror's grave when even veteran scholars of Mongol history and the Mongolian people themselves don't?

Academics were posing that question after the Mongolian government confirmed last week it has given its blessings to Maury Kravitz to search for the burial site.

Media from around the world and people wanting to sign up for his expedition flooded Kravitz with phone calls last week. Meanwhile, professors who have studied the Mongols were mostly skeptical. Sometimes their tone suggested that he might as well look for the Holy Grail.

Even so, they wouldn't mind joining Mr. Kravitz's team. After all, he could get lucky; a Mongol tomb was discovered early in the 19th century in Iran.

Scholars say the best primary sources on Genghis and the Mongols are a poor road map to the grave, if the burial site ever really existed.

Mr. Kravitz's venture "would be like looking for the lost city of Atlantis in in a two-man submarine," said Gregory Guzman, a history professor at Bradley University in Peoria, Ill.

"Don't make me sound too negative," said another academic, James Bosson, professor of Oriental languages at the University of California, Berkeley, who would like to keep open the possibility of an invitation to join the expedition.

"But it would be like looking for a needle in a haystack, where the haystack was millions of square miles large," Mr. Bosson said. "There is no evidence I know of that could lead one to it."

Mr. Kravitz says that is exactly the point; he has information the other "Mongolists" don't, but he can't yet disclose it. He hasn't even shared the details with his family. "There's only one lunatic running around this world who thinks he knows where it is and that's me," said the 62-year-old Mr. Kravitz.

Mongol scholars primarily rely on two texts: the very sketchy "Secret History of the Mongols," written by a Mongol shortly after Genghis' death in 1227, and the "History of the World Conqueror," a Persian account set down in the wake of the Mongol invasion of what is now Iran. The Persian account appeared 10 to 15 years after Genghis' death.

Still a must-read for literate Mongolians today, the "Secret History" provides some detail on Genghis' funeral, says Morris Rossabi, a history professor who teaches at City University of New York and Columbia University.

The text says Genghis was killed in battle in an area that is now northern China. "We don't even know what day he died on," said Mr. Guzman.

If Genghis was slain in northwestern China, his troops would have had to lug his body across the Gobi Desert. "That wouldn't have done much for an unembalmed body," said Mr. Guzman, who adds that embalming wasn't a Mongol practice. This leads Mr. Guzman to believe that Mr. Kravitz will be most assuredly wasting his time looking in Mongolia.

The "Secret History" relates that at Genghis' burial, 40 virgins and an equal number of horses were sacrificed and interred with him, said Mr. Rossabi, author of a biography of Genghis' nephew, Kublai. "His tomb hasn't been found either and it would probably have even more treasure since the empire was larger under him."

A legend that hundreds of Genghis' servants were killed by soldiers to keep his grave secret cropped up later. This record of sacrifices gained credibility when another Mongol's tomb was discovered with horse carcasses scattered about, said Mr. Rossabi. Because the "Secret History" is filled with myth and legend, scholars long ago learned to read it with a skeptical eye.

Mr. Bosson, of Berkeley, speculates Genghis might have gotten a traditional Mongol sendoff. The departed was placed on a litter drawn by a horse that was ridden by a close family member over the steppes.

The relative was required never to look back, ensuring the secrecy of the location where the body would slip off to be disposed of by birds.

That theory is enough to make the normally even-keeled Mr. Kravitz erupt.

"Do you think they're going to drag him along the ground until he disappears into the earth?" he said excitedly. "He was the most revered person of his time. These guys don't know. None of them know. I've got 33 1/2 years in this . . . I'm working with a different set of puzzle pieces."

Mr. Kravitz hasn't had much time to work on his puzzle or some of his other hobbies, which include collecting frog figurines or making collages, since going public with his planned expedition last week. His phone has been ringing non-stop. Most of the calls are from journalists and would-be adventurers, with a few unusual cases thrown in.

"'How can you claim you're looking for the burial place of Genghis Khan when I saw his coffin?'" asked one caller. The caller said he had seen it in northern China where officials told him it bore the Mongol's ashes.

"I said, 'Listen my friend, I want to tell you something and I hope it doesn't upset you,' " Mr. Kravitz said.

"'If Genghis Khan were in a coffin he would've been the first Mongol in the world that was in one. They didn't use coffins.' "

Though the smart money says the commodities broker faces long odds, his friends believe if anyone can find Genghis, Mr. Kravitz can.

Jack Sandner, chairman of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, says his former law partner is an insomniac and voracious reader with encyclopedic knowledge. Mr. Kravitz has amazed him by recalling from memory Rudyard Kipling poetry and Arab prayers with equal ease.

"How can you count a guy like that out?" Mr. Sandner asked.

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