Located along the ancient Silk Road, between the banks of the Orhon River and the slopes of the Hangai Mountains, the original city of Harhorim was first settled in the year 700 AD.
Now its former grandeur is barely marked by a single remaining stone, while the new town of Harhorim appears to be thriving.
Genghis Khan declared it the capital of the Mongol Empire in the year 1235.
Most of the inhabitants of the city were merchants and craftsmen who had come to the thriving capital from all over the world.
One of the ways in which it was discovered that people from all over the world used to live and trade here is by the ancient coins found outside the gates of the Erdenezuu Monastery, where most of the trading was conducted.
Khubilai Khan, the successor to and grandson of Genghis Khan, moved the capital of the Mongolian Empire from Harhorim to China in 1271, establishing the Yuan Dynasty, with Peking (Beijing) as its political and religious center.
He had recognized the importance of consolidating his power and control in the eastern regions of the Mongolian Empire, and he chose to do this by moving its political capital out of Harhorim.
Many years later, in 1379, much of Harhorim was badly damaged by an attack of the army of the ruling Ming Dynasty.
200 years later, in the 1580s, a Buddhist monastery named Erdenzuu was built on the already ancient remains of Harhorim.
It was a beautiful day when we visited the old monastery – temperatures were warm, and the sun was shining.
Horses and goats were freely grazing in the surrounding fields, curiously roaming into the monastery through one of its four gates, to check the juiciness of the grass inside the walls.
The parameters of the old monastery are far bigger than the land the surviving buildings require. They are marked by a thick wall built with 108 Buddhist stupas and four large gates, one in each of the cardinal directions.
108 is a sacred number in Buddhism, and is also the number of beads in a Buddhist rosary.
We were told that in the olden days, assigned trading took place just outside each of the gates.
Outside of the Northern gate, those who traded in horses gathered to check the teeth, muscles and manes of the horses they traded.
Outside of the Southern gate, those who traded in cows and yaks gathered.
Outside of the Eastern gate, those who traded in goats and sheep used to meet, and outside of the Western gate, those who traded in grains, like wheat and rice, used to conduct their business.
The monastery was damaged by war in the 1680s, but was rebuilt in the 18th century, and by 1872, had a collection of 62 beautiful temples inside its surrounding walls.
Erdenezuu Monastery was taken under state protection and became a museum in 1944.
There is still a small community of monks who chant, pray and attend to the needs of the community, but the ancient dominance of Mongolia (along with Tibet) in the Buddhist world has remaining only a few whispers and echoes today.
It is hard to imagine that once it had been a thriving and glorious place.
There are very few signs that there had ever been a city here.
Across from the southern gate, there is a row of small restaurants and antique and souvenir shops catering to the many tourists that come here.
There are a fair amount of tourist ger camps dotting the surrounding green landscape, many offering hotel-quality amenities with wifi internet, hot showers and 24 hour electricity.
Erdenzuu Monastery houses an impressive collection of Buddhist artifacts.
We saw beautiful bronze sculptures, Thanka, and whole costumes with impressive mask heads along with ceremonial paraphernalia.
Some halls had beautiful frescos and thousands of Buddha images.
We also saw some impressive images of the Mahakala Deity, which is believed to be able to change its form into 75 different shapes.
We were told that Mongolian Buddhists believe that there are seven steps, or dimensions, to reach Heaven, and that as humans we are in the fourth step.
Ten protectors are displayed in the temple, and only one of them is a woman.
We were told that the revered female Goddess, whose image is displayed in the Western temple, was a deity that defeated the devil in ancient Tibet, after the other 9 male protectors had. failed.
She succeeded in subduing the devil after she tempted, seduced and married him.
We toured many of the temple halls and visited a large yurt, used by people asking that their fortunes be told, or asking for guidance from the monks.
In a nearby temple, I paid some money for the monks to say some prayers and blessings for my sister and mother.
The presiding monk asked me to write my sister’s and mother’s names on a piece of paper which will be given to the monks to read, when they do their daily chanting the next day.
The old monk asked me what do my sister and mother “need,” and listened carefully as my translator explained what it was that I wished for them to have.
He nodded his shaved head approvingly and wrote all the blessing requests on his piece of paper.
According to the needs of the people donating money, a particular Buddhist sutra will be chanted in the temple for them.
Some sutras are very long, and donors have to give a bit extra for them to be chanted by the monks.
Many monasteries post a list of sutras with a corresponding price list, which hangs on the walls of the monastery.
One might say that this is nothing but superstition, and how could the simple task of chanting your name and heart’s desires change your destiny or influence the direction of your life’s boat which anyway is navigated by YOU, by your wishes, beliefs and desires….
In Truth, only YOU can truly change anything, and I do mean ANYTHING that is happening in your life, including chronic dis-eases, long-running feuds, financial difficulties, unhappiness or loneliness, simply by changing your own mind about who you are, and what you are entitled to in your life.
You can learn how you can create your reality consciously, by carefully guarding your mind and selecting which ideas you choose to entertain in your holy mind.
Offering money to the monks is a way to send vibrational blessings to your loved ones and at the same time, to support those humble monks and contribute to the maintenance of the old and beautiful temples.
After our request for prayers, we were told that in order for our blessing to be effective, we needed to carry the written sutras around the perimeter of the temple three times.
A monk loaded the wrapped old books onto our arms, and we were sent to walk around the temple.
After our visit to Erdenezuu, we hiked the hills surrounding the monastery, and saw a monument that was built to commemorate the empire of Genghis Khan.
A map of the vast land that he once conquered, stretching from Asia to Europe had been built from ceramic mosaic tiles.
His empire was the most vast the world had ever seen, before or since its heyday in the 13th-16th centuries.
The landscape around the monastery is green and beautiful, with the Orhon river, which is very wide in some places with trees growing along its banks, providing shade for free roaming horses.
An Ovoo (pronounced Awaa) is a pile of stones which you see all over Mongolia.
It is often erected in special places along the road or on top of mountain passes.
It is a pile of stones that is used by people to pray for blessings and to offer gratitude.
It is common to circle an Ovoo three times when you reach it, and to add your own stone and offering to the pile.
Above Erdenzuu, we saw Ovoo with the remains of horse heads on them.
We were told that it is customary to put on the Ovoo the head of a good racing horse which gave one good service while it was alive, as a way of offering gratitude to the spirit of the horse, and as a way of asking for future winners.
At times, people who have broken a leg will throw their crutches on an Ovoo, as a way of asking for protection from it ever happening again.
You can see all sorts of offerings made in an Ovoo, but most people offer money on top of an item that symbolized something important to them.
It is unthinkable to take any money that was placed on an Ovoo, even if the notes get yellowish from the scorching sun and start flying away in the strong winds.
This respect for other people’s wishes is wonderful to me.
In some places we could see people who had so little, yet it would never cross their minds to collect money left on Ovoo, nor to use for their houses the piles of large stones that used to mark ancient burial sites left over in the fields from the Stone Age.
Mongolians instinctively respect the heritage of the people who lived on this land before them, and it is considered to be very bad luck to dig up ancient graves for the golden coins that they likely hold, or to disturb the graves at all.
It is very common to see animals grazing on those ancient fields, between the graves.
That day as we walked the green landscape, we came upon some small and energetic foals running free.
Only one of them was decorated with a blue silk scarf tied around his neck.
We were told that the custom is to tie a good luck blue silk scarf around the neck of the first born foal of the season.
The Mongolian steppes are not very wooded.
The nomads burn animal dung for their daily fires, which they use for cooking.
It is the job of the young children to go to the fields and collect the dung.
Tuya, our guide, told me that she started taking her family’s animals to pasture by the age of five. While the animals grazed, she was required to collect dung for the ger.
By lunch time, she would keep a keen eye on the ger, expecting her grandmother to wave at her, which meant that lunch was ready.
When she saw her mother or grandmother wave, she would run quickly back to the ger, drugging the sack of dung behind her, along with some baby sheep and goats who did not know that they were not supposed to follow her, but to stay in the field with the herd.
Hungry and very thirsty, little Tuya would leave the animals in the field to fend for themselves, while she ate her freshly made lunch.
After lunch she would go back to the field and collect a second bag of dung until dinner time, when she would herd the sheep and goats back to the ger.
As a reward for collecting two full bags of dung that day, her grandmother would give her a piece of candy after dinner.
Tuya said that while many tourists told her that the odor of burnt dung inside a Ger’s stove smelled bad to their nostrils, she said that the smell still felt so wholesome and pleasant to her.
It is interesting how sounds and scents can bring up memories and be associated with pleasure or sadness.
For example, the smell of rose perfume always bring to my memory a momentary picture of my three times widowed Russian grandmother, sitting and sipping tea alone in her apartment, all made up with nicely done hair and makeup, as if waiting for a date with happiness that never knocked on her door….
Sound also bring up mental pictures and memories, and carry one across space and time Instantaneously.
Our driver Nasa, plays CDs of old Russian folk songs while we ride in his car.
The music carries me to my childhood in Israel, and I am amazed at how much of the music which I had believed to be “Israeli Music,” is actually taken from Russian Ballads and folk songs.
It is almost as if the music I thought to be Israeli, is actually copied stanza by stanza from Russian music.
As we roam the countryside, I find my emotions rising and roaming free with the music, just like the horses in the fields that we pass by.
I do not try to stop this roaming of my heart, simply sit back and observe the passing landscape of my emotions.
I am the eternal observer within this body….. I do not pass judgment nor get carried away with the waves of emotions…. I simply sit in the center of my being and listen to the melodies…. To the One Song inside myself….