Located within the vast and hostile expanse of the Gobi Desert, the Suoyang Relics have miraculously managed to avoid being buried beneath the sands of time. These relics are all that remain of an illustrious Silk Road oasis city known as Suoyang, which was established over 2,000 years ago! In 2014, its status as a historical site of invaluable importance was cemented, as it was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The city was first founded during the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD), but it didn’t receive the name of Suoyang until the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912), which was thanks to a classical novel named Xue Rengui’s Campaign to the West. This novel claims to detail the campaigns of a famous Tang Dynasty military general known as Xue Rengui. According to legend, Xue was passing through the area with his army on his way to conquer the West when he tragically ran out of supplies just outside of the city. Luckily, his troops came across an edible plant known as Cynomorium or “Suoyang” (锁阳) in Chinese and this is what saved them from an untimely death. From then onwards, the city was named Suoyang after this life-saving plant!
While the miraculous survival of Xue Rengui and his army is probably a fabrication or an exaggeration, the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD) did undeniably represent the period of greatest prosperity for this burgeoning oasis city. Its location within the Hexi Corridor made it a key stop along the ancient Silk Road and at its peak it boasted a population of over 50,000 people! During the An Lushan Rebellion (755-763), however, the Tang imperial government was severely weakened and was unable to maintain control of cities in remote parts of their territory, such as Suoyang. Thus the city fell under the control of the Tibetan Empire in 776 and wouldn’t be returned to the Tang until 849, when it was recaptured by a skilled Tang general named Zhang Yichao.
After the collapse of the Tang Dynasty, the Western Xia Dynasty occupied the region in 1036 and Suoyang became a major part of the Western Xia Empire. Historians know very little about this mysterious empire, which was ruled by a Turkic people known as the Tanguts. Much like the Tang Dynasty, however, Suoyang continued to flourish during this period as a cultural, economic, and military centre. While the city never quite lived up to its former glory in later dynasties, it did serve as a sanctuary for the King of Hami and his followers in 1472, when the Chenghua Emperor of the Ming Dynasty moved them to Suoyang after they had been threatened by the Mongols.
In 1494, the Hongzhi Emperor decided to repair and refortify the city walls that had been constructed during the Tang and Western Xia dynasties, but tragically his efforts were in vain. Two decades later, the city was attacked and occupied by a Mongol named Mansur Khan, who ruled the empire of Moghulistan. Incessant infighting between the Mongols and other nomadic tribes belonging to Moghulistan caused severe damage to the city and it was subsequently abandoned.
Nowadays, the ruins of the city lay scattered across the Gobi Desert and are comprised of four main sections: the inner city, the outer city, the yangmacheng fortresses, and the Ta’er Temple. The inner city is patterned in the shape of an irregular rectangle and is surrounded by rammed earth walls that are still between 9 to 12 metres (30 to 40 ft.) in height. The entire city structure is arranged around two main streets that begin at the northern and western gates respectively, from which branch all the smaller streets and alleyways that make up this vast labyrinthine city.
There is a smaller partition wall within the inner city itself that divides it into two sections: the larger wester district and the smaller eastern district. The western district is home to the remains of several residential buildings, while most of the buildings in the eastern district have tragically been completely destroyed. Historians estimate that, due to its size and the shape of its remaining buildings, the eastern district was most likely the area where government buildings and the residences of high-ranking officials were located, whereas the western district was occupied by the general populace. Alongside these remains, one of the main features of the inner city is an 18-metre (59 ft.) tall adobe watchtower in its northwest corner that is miraculously still standing.
The outer city unsurprisingly encloses the inner city and is thus also in the shape of an irregular rectangle. It is similarly surrounded by rammed earth walls, which have fallen down in several places and currently range from between 4 to 11 metres (13 to 36 ft.) in height. This outer city is believed to represent the extent to which Suoyang had grown at its peak during the Tang Dynasty. The southern wall, however, was destroyed by a flood and was never repaired, indicating that this section of the city had gradually fallen into disuse.
Between the inner and outer cities lie a series of special fortresses known as yangmacheng, which literally translates to mean “sheep-and-horse city.” Don’t worry; farm animals didn’t miraculously achieve sentience and build their own city in ancient times! The name simply derives from the fact that, during peacetime, these fortresses would be used as animal enclosures in order prevent disease by keeping humans and livestock apart. This innovation meant that the fortresses were effectively utilised during both wartime and peacetime. These spectacular fortresses, however, were exclusively used during the Tang Dynasty and were largely abandoned thereafter.
You may be wondering: How did this vibrant city support its substantial human and livestock population in the barren expanse of the Gobi Desert? This was thanks to an ingenious irrigation system, which channelled water directly from the nearby Shule River into over 90 kilometres (56 mi) of canals that covered an area of around 60 square kilometres (23 sq. mi). Nowadays, it ranks as one of the most extensive ancient irrigation systems in the world.
The Ta’er Temple
While the Buddhist Ta’er or “Pagoda” Temple is considered part of the Suoyang scenic area, it is not part of the city proper and rests just 1 kilometre (0.62 mi) east of it. A number of historical documents indicate that the Ta’er Temple may in fact actually be the King Ashoka Temple, which means it dates all the way back to the Northern Zhou Dynasty (557-581 AD). The temple was tragically destroyed during this period as part of Emperor Wu’s suppression of Buddhism, but was rebuilt during the Tang and Western Xia dynasties. It was during the Tang Dynasty that the great monk Xuanzang supposedly preached at the temple for a month before setting off on his famous pilgrimage to India. Many of the extant remains of the temple, however, date back to the Western Xia Dynasty, including the main pagoda and eleven smaller subsidiary pagodas. Alongside these pagodas, there lie the remnants of a drum tower, a bell tower, and the residential quarters of the monks.
Standing at an impressive 15 metres (48 ft.) in height, the main pagoda of the temple is undeniably the highlight of the complex. It is an adobe structure that is covered in white lime and shaped in such a way that it resembles an upturned bowl. During the 1940s, local eyewitnesses claimed to have seen a band of robbers break open the main pagoda and take numerous Buddhist artefacts that they found inside. After this report, archaeologists began searching the pagodas of the temple and found within one of the smaller pagodas a copy of the Buddhist mantra Om mani padme hum written in the Tangut script of the Western Xia Dynasty. This extremely rare document is one of the only remaining examples left of the Tangut script. If the robbery hadn’t happened, archaeologists may never have found this priceless gem, so it seems every cloud does have a silver lining after all!
Alongside the Ta’er Temple, there are a multitude of ancient tombs and cemeteries that lie outside of Suoyang. Over 2,100 tombs have been discovered, some of which date as far back as the Han Dynasty! Only one of these tombs, however, has been excavated by archaeologists. Much like the pagodas of the Ta’er Temple, this vast Tang Dynasty tomb was explored in 1992 after it was disturbed by grave robbers. Within the tomb itself they found artefacts of incredible value, such as porcelain figurines, tomb guardians, silks, and coins, which indicate that the tomb most likely belonged to a governor or wealthy merchant. None of these tombs are currently open to the public, but many of the artefacts discovered within this particular tomb are exhibited at the nearby Suoyang Museum.
Explore more about the Suoyang Relics on our travel: