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'Lake Baikal: the very name fills Russian hearts with awe'

Who built this Siberian summer palace… and why?

By 0 and 0 and 0
12 November 2014


1,300-year-old structure could be a fortress, summer palace, monastery, or even an astronomical observatory. Picture:

With its island location and towering square walls that were once impenetrable, it looks at first glance to be an ancient fortress or kremlin to keep out enemies. Others believe the 1,300-year-old structure in rural Siberia has more mystical properties and might have been a summer palace, monastery, or even an astronomical observatory.

Whatever it is, more than a century after it was first explored, archaeologists are no further forward in discovering the secrets of Por-Bajin, who built it or why.

Most likely constructed in 757 AD, the complex has fascinated and frustrated experts in equal measure since it was located in the middle Tere-Khol, a high-altitude lake in Tuva, in the late 19th century.

First explored in 1891, with small-scale excavation work later carried out between 1957 and 1963, it was not until 2007 that proper research took place at the site.

Archaeologists found clay tablets of human feet, faded coloured drawings on the plaster of the walls, giant gates and fragments of burnt wood. But nothing yet has provided a definitive answer as to why the structure was built, and excavation work continues.

Por-Bajin map

Por-Bajin on the map of Uighur Kaganate. Picture: Irina Arzhantseva

'Por-Bajin is legally treated as one of the most mysterious archaeological monuments of Russia,' says the official website for the complex, about 3,800km from Moscow.

'Apparently it was built at the period of the Uighur Khagante nomadic empire (744-840 AD), but it’s not clear what they built a fortress for in such a solitary place, far from big settlements and trade routes. 'The architecture also produces many questions and it has reminders of a model of an ideal Chinese city-palace.'

Por-Bajin, which translates as 'clay house' in the Tuvan language, is located in the very centre of Eurasia, on the borders of Russia and Mongolia. It sits on a small island in a lake high in the mountains between the Sayan and Altai ranges, about five miles west of the isolated Kungurtuk settlement in southern Siberia.

Laser mapping of the site prior to the first major excavation in 2007 helped experts build a 3D model of what the community might have looked like. Despite its age, parts of the structure were well preserved when archaeologists arrived to examine the 3.5 hectare site, with walls clearly visible.

Outer walls standing 10 metres tall and 12 metres wide formed a rectangular shape, creating what many have interpreted as a protective kremlin-like fortress. A main gate was discovered, opening into two successive courtyards connected by another gate.

Walls on the inside were smaller, at about one metre-tall, forming the outline of buildings, with a large building in the centre of the site. Some of the walls and panels were covered with lime plaster painted with horizontal red striped.

The main complex in the inner courtyard had a two-part central structure, one behind the other linked by a covered walkway. It had a tiled roof and was supported by 36 wooden columns resting on stone bases.


Por-Bajin in winter

Por-Bajin reconstruction

Construction materials, and the way the site is laid out, told the experts it was built in a typically Chinese architectural tradition, most likely in the second half of the eight century. Pictures:, Irina Arzhantseva

Construction materials, and the way the site is laid out, told the experts it was built in a typically Chinese architectural tradition, most likely in the second half of the eight century.

'The building was most likely of the post-and-beam construction characteristic of Chinese architecture from the T’ang Dynasty,' wrote head archaeologist Irina Arzhantseva in a report published in The European Archaeologist in 2011.

'Finds of burnt timber fragments point to the use of the typical Chinese technique of interlocking wooden brackets, called dou-gung. Ramps led down to the two flanking galleries which were roofed, open spaces looking onto the access to the main pavilion.'

While debate continues about the use of Por-Bajin, there is growing evidence it was a community or palace complex centred around a Buddhist monastery. Certainly, there is an argument that its layout is typical of the palaces of the Buddhist Paradises as depicted in T’ang paintings.

Books from the era also describe the existence of Uighur towns, extensive building activities, and a transition from a nomadic to sedentary lifestyle. Indeed, there may have been as many of 15 of these settlements in Tuva alone, all square of rectangular shaped and enclosed by walls with a main gate.

What puzzles the experts, however, is the lack of rudimentary heating systems, particularly given that Por-Bajin sits at 2,300metres above sea level and endures harsh Siberian weather.

Walls of Por-Bajin

Walls of Por-Bajin

Walls of Por-Bajin

Outer walls standing 10 metres tall and 12 metres wide formed a rectangular shape, creating what many have interpreted as a protective kremlin-like fortress. Pictures: 'Por-Bajin Fortress' foundation

If anything it suggests that the complex was only ever occupied for a brief period of time, or was used as a seasonal home in the warmer summer months. Some experts even say that the climate, or other natural occurrences in the region, brought occupation of the site to an early end in the 9th century.

Por-Bajin sits on a bed of permafrost with evidence that the melting of this ice – as a result of warmer temperatures over the past century - has caused not only a destruction of the walls, but a dramatic rise in the depth of the lake water.

In the 2011 research paper, Irina Arzhantseva wrote: 'This situation created a two-fold threat to the long-term survival of the site. Thermokarst (melting of the permafrost) seems to undermine the stability of the structures on the site, leading to collapse and decay; and frost fissures are causing constant erosion of the banks of the island to such an extent that it is estimated that the walls will start collapsing into the lake in about 80 years.

'Archaeological and geomorphological fieldwork revealed traces of at least two earthquakes which had accelerated the natural process of deterioration. The first of these seems to have happened already during the construction of the ‘fortress’ in the 8th century.

'It is not yet quite clear how long the buildings survived after the abandonment of the site in the 9th century, but some time after the abandonment there was another catastrophic earthquake which led to fires and to the collapse of the southern and eastern enclosure walls, and destroyed the north-western corner bastion.'

Chinese roof tile

Chinese roof tiles

Restoration on Por-Bajin

'The building was most likely of the post-and-beam construction characteristic of Chinese architecture from the T’ang Dynasty.' Pictures: Irina Arzhantseva, 'Por-Bajin Fortress' foundation

While debate on its origins will no doubt continue for decades, those who have seen Por-Bajin are all in agreement about its beauty. In fact, in many ways Russian president Vladimir Putin sums it up perfectly.

'I have been to many places, I have seen many things, but I have never seen anything of the kind,' he said, following a visit to the complex with Prince Albert of Monaco in 2007. Few could argue with that.

Comments (17)

I agree with Mr. Putin. * 'I have been to many places, I have seen many things, but I have never seen anything of the kind,' he said, following a visit to the complex with Prince Albert of Monaco in 2007.'
Kevin Michael Callihan Sr., United States
21/07/2021 02:44
I recently saw a documentary on the Smithsonian channel about a Chinese empress. They showed a trading market for fine Asian commodities. This looks very much like the marketplace replica portrayed in the documentary. Maybe that's why there is no show of a heating source. If the market was open during late spring, summer and early fall, maybe no heating was necessary. I'm just speculating, like everyone else.
Betsy D Holtsclaw, Gasburg, Indiana, USA
25/06/2018 06:24
This palace ruin could be the resident of Princess Ningguo of Tang when she was sent to marry with Turkish khan. This ruin looks like a palace and most likely to used as palace at the very beginning but it could be changed to religious institution later.

Also, the climate in 7 to 8th century were not as cold as current. It were much higher than modern temperature and therefore, the architect of this palace did not see any necessity to place any warming system in it and that is a likely reason that the archeologists unable to find any warming system from this ruin.
Isidorus Rufus von Sinar, Berlin
29/12/2016 10:19
what are the architectural dimensions of the rectangular geometric plan?
Mark Pappas, Saint Louis - Missouri
22/12/2016 23:52
If Eskimos lived in igloos, in truly sub zero temperatures, I suppose this place is a relative luxury.

In order to put a more accurate theory to the place one would have to find weaponry, food remnant deposits and take some core samples of the lake.

Summer Palaces could be horrific if mosquitoes took a bite out of the honorary figurehead.
Kelly, Durham UK
10/03/2016 06:54
While the ruins appear to have been a Chinese Architecture, you will also be surprized that Por-Bajin has an Indian Connection. Old Indian Texts state that Lord Krishna's grandson Prathumna left India and moved northwards (called as Upper Kuru) and constructed this fort to have life at this place. As is to confirm the Indian Connection, you will find a mystical sanskrit inscription in Chag in Lake Baikal
17/02/2016 14:26
It was hun(garian) ancient territory in the past. Ujhgurs are our relatives.....
Mary Hungary, EU
09/01/2016 11:49
this is a typically Tang Chinese city. This place belong to China until Russia and his puppet Mongo occupied this place in 1944. If you look Chinese map which pulished by Taiwan this place still believe to China on legal principle.
jake, china
10/04/2015 22:40
Ask and it shall be given. Monterrey has never had these weather conditions as long as records have been kept. Right now nobody is sleeping here. Thunderstorms and not the little ones predicted by forecasters. one decade ago Monterrey has weathered a 50 year drought. Change is a constant. Two thousand American warships are being defeated in their harbors. Ancient civilizations have disappeard without so much as a whimper. What the fitzgerald happened to them? As they got old they got mould. Mould eats pretty well everything and then has brains for desert. It´s chemical cousin Rusty also does a pretty good job. The question in my mind is what is the relationship betwin insects such as roaches, you know the kind, the ones which are not permitted to be mentioned online. They have managed to survive quite well and so, why? Once weather condition return to drier ones the moulds move out. Where they go, nobody knows. So what happens to the bones, you ask. They get mouldy and disappear into thin or actually not so thin air.
R Brisson, Monterrey
10/04/2015 18:02
If the drawings are correct there is only two access points to allow entry to the buildings along the outer walls.The inner walls allow limited access as well.To me it appears to be built for the containment of people.It is not a place where you can roam around freely.
William Daley, Burford Ontario Canada
10/04/2015 09:33
Are there any references to this in Chinese annals?
Alex Shenfield, Toronto, Ontario
10/04/2015 06:48
Many civilizations build fortress like retreats at times in the history of man. In Bolivia Puma Puka, in Peru Cusco by he Incas and in Mexico the town of Tulum to name a very few.
Man wants to honor his Gods and also protect the sites from other societies who do not share the same beliefs. Once society had sufficient population the desire to build takes hold and man wants to honor his Gods and himself by building monuments. Today sky scrapers are built to show off the ability to create and for future generation to stand at awe of mans accomplishments.

Roy Halvorsen, Edgewater New Jersey USA
20/11/2014 20:09
When I saw the dates, it made me think of 752, the dedication of the great Buddha at Nara, buddhist monks came from all over Asia, it is passed down in the history. It's when Buddhism was flourishing. This is a temple. Perfect for meditation, they thought, but ended up being too remote, raw.
Richard, Japan
20/11/2014 09:05
Cool stuff.

That Buddhist monastery idea makes sense. It kind of does look Asian.

But then again, who knows.

Vote Dole in '96
Bob Dole, Nineteen 90 Six
16/11/2014 12:47
Looks like a Chinese structure.
george, florida, usa
16/11/2014 10:46

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