Genghis On My Mind

Outside magazine, July 1996


Genghis On My Mind

He plundered half the known world and then disappeared back into Mongolia without a trace, leaving only tales about a lost tomb filled with clues to his legendary--and mystifying--reign. Seven centuries later, a Khan-besotted Maury Kravitz thinks he can find it.
By Michael McRae


Maury kravitz stuffs his prodigious girth behind the wheel of his sleek, black, limited-edition BMW 750il and fires up its V-12 engine. The $80,000 car purrs out of the parking garage beneath Chicago's Mercantile Exchange and into rush-hour traffic.

It's a mild winter evening, and we're headed up to the Gold Coast, to Gibson's Steak House, for some serious eating and dreaming. On tonight's menu, apart from a couple of slabs of corn-fed beef, is a conversation about Kravitz's consuming passion and what he hopes will be his ultimate destiny: to become The Man Who Found the Tomb of Genghis Khan--and perhaps the greatest treasure the world has ever known, a pile of loot that, as he puts it, "would eat the Tut exhibit for breakfast."

Wherever Kravitz goes in Chicago, people hail the man whose license plates say temujin, the Khan's given name. (Kravitz's sailboat, a 38-foot Hans Christian, bears the same name, which translates loosely as "one who forges iron" or "man of iron.") Tonight is no exception. As we ease into traffic, a spotless green Jaguar with vanity plates reading mr. hill pulls alongside. The driver taps his horn and lowers the passenger window. "Packed your bags yet?" he yells.

Kravitz smiles and waves. "My mind," he shouts back in his gravelly voice, "is already in Mongolia."

Over the past three decades, the flamboyant 64-year-old commodities broker has devoured some 400 books and rare manuscripts about the great Genghis Khan, the legendary ruler whose Mongol hordes rose up from the steppes in the late 1100s and conquered nearly half the known world, from northern China to the Volga River. Eight years ago, browsing his library on a sleepless night, Kravitz grabbed the first volume that came to hand, and the book fell open to a "rather explicit" clue about where the Khan was laid to rest. Though he guards it as tightly as a royal flush, Kravitz will say that the clue concerns a rather quotidian event in Genghis's life, "an incident so insignificant that many books never refer to it." For Kravitz, it was an "almost omenistic" revelation all the same, and it set him on a course that he is now certain will lead to the grave.

For centuries the legend of Genghis Khan's lost tomb has been a matter of interest not only in Mongolia--where he is still regarded as a national hero, if not a deity--but also worldwide, among scholars and archaeologists who still consider his vast empire one of the great riddles of Central Asian history. Though there are many conflicting accounts of the Khan's death and funeral, and details are at best extremely sketchy, the prevailing legend is that he was buried in 1227 beneath a spreading tree in a beloved mountain place that he had picked out years before. Forty horses were said to have been buried alongside him for use in the afterlife. Soldiers killed all witnesses to the funeral, including animals, and then killed themselves, so that no living being could possibly know the tomb's location. In time, the story goes, saplings grew so thick around the grave that it became swallowed in an impenetrable forest, never to be seen again.

Two summers ago, Kravitz returned from a scouting trip to Mongolia even more convinced that he is on the right track. Never mind that a recent Japanese team searched in vain for three years using the best available technology, including helicopters, magnetometers, and satellite images. Or that respected scholars have long doubted that the tomb exists at all. Or that an influential faction of Mongolians vehemently opposes the quest on religious and nationalistic grounds. Having signed a five-year contract with the Mongolian Academy of Sciences, Kravitz firmly intends to mount what he calls "the last great expedition of the twentieth century," an $800,000 undertaking that he plans to launch early this month. Though Kravitz certainly wants his share of the glory, he won't stand to gain anything materially from his quest. His contract stipulates that anything the expedition turns up will become the property of the Mongolian government.

When the Chicago Tribune broke Kravitz's story under the headline "Indiana Kravitz and the Lost Khan," the announcement struck a nerve. According to Kravitz's friends, Steven Spielberg promptly called to inquire about the movie rights (though Kravitz himself demurs on this, and Spielberg's publicist could not confirm the call). The Discovery Channel dispatched a documentary film producer. European radio stations were phoning Kravitz's palatial home in the Chicago suburb of Highland Park at 3 a.m. His office was inundated with mail from around the world, from well-wishers, romantics, and would-be adventurers seeking to join the expedition. A Sri Lankan psychic offered her services. One woman mailed an epic poem she'd composed about the Khan. An artist sent an original watercolor of the emperor thundering across the steppes on horseback. Kravitz was overwhelmed by the response--and by the sheer volume of unsolicited kitsch that arrived, from personalized coffee mugs to baseball caps emblazoned illinois kravitz, another of his media-coined sobriquets.

"People love this stuff," says Kravitz. "It's Errol Flynn and Captain Blood. It reaches into the movies of the thirties, when pure entertainment was nothing more than swashbuckling pirates. Genghis Khan sets a fire under people." Still, if it weren't for the lost tomb and "the possibility of the greatest accumulation of spoils the world has ever seen," Kravitz doubts that his proposed quest would have ignited so many imaginations. "It's Indiana Jones," says Kravitz, "that rides this horse."

At Gibson's Steak House, Kravitz leaves the BMW with a parking valet and lumbers inside. The place is heaving with high rollers and sounds like the currency pit at the Mercantile Exchange on days when the dollar is plummeting--total chaos. Having spent 30 years in the pit, Kravitz is perfectly at ease. Dressed to the nines in a gorgeous, muted Italian wool-and-silk sport jacket and a vibrant designer tie, he cuts an imposing figure as he strides through the bedlam. Heads turn. At our table, he orders the usual: Absolut on the rocks and the 20-ounce porterhouse. The display cut of raw meat that our waiter brings for my perusal is as thick as a yak tongue.

Earlier, in Kravitz's office, I was trolling for clues about the tomb's whereabouts. The book he pulled down during his bout of insomnia contained certain topographical references to the grave site, he said. So what was the title? Kravitz chuckled and winked. "Ask me after I've found where he's buried."

Still, while paging through a photo album of his scouting trip, he lingered fondly over one landscape, that of a sprawling steppe strewn with tiny wildflowers, rolling away to a distant range of mountains.

It was a magnificent scene, and I could appreciate why he'd paused to savor it. Those mountains were part of the Hentiyn Nuruu range in northeastern Mongolia, he noted in a perfunctory way, and then quickly turned the page.

At the time, nothing clicked about the photograph. But the mystery has been gnawing at me--just as it did when I first learned of the legend of the lost tomb on a 1989 trip to Mongolia, just as it seems to eat at everyone who hears about it. Was the Hentiyn Nuruu the site of the tomb of Genghis Khan?

It would make sense that the Khan would want to be buried there, because the range is in the vicinity of the Mongols' ancestral homeland, described in ancient chronicles as a mountainous region in northern Mongolia, where the Onon and Kerulen Rivers rise. One of the peaks in the Hentiyn Nuruu is locally referred to as the Burkhan Khaldun, or Buddha's Cliffs, and is the place, legend has it, where the Khan took refuge from his enemies as a youth, a place he always loved.

Now, over dinner, I play my one and only card: On his scouting trip, did Kravitz possibly visit a place called Burkhan Khaldun in the Hentiyn Nuruu? Is that where his search will concentrate?

He stops eating and studies me. "Yes," he says after a moment. "I do believe he is buried in the Burkhan Khaldun. That is a real name of a very real mountain. All Mongols know it. If you ask any herdsman, he'll be happy to take you to the local tourist attraction called Burkhan Khaldun. There are dozens of them."

A nearby table erupts with a raucous chorus of "Happy Birthday." When the racket subsides, Kravitz leans across the table. His blue-gray eyes are intense, burning.

"Burkhan Khaldun is the site," he says. "But nobody knows where it is except me. I know where it is."

There are plenty of experts who would scoff--and have scoffed--at Kravitz's audacity. The notion that an "amateur archaeologist" could find a tomb whose existence is a matter of debate galls some academics. Other scholars, such as John Woods, a prominent professor of Middle Eastern history at the University of Chicago, are merely dubious. "If his only goal is to find the tomb, I don't think that will happen," says Woods. On the other hand, he points out, the expedition might well make other notable finds that could shed light on the Khan's dimly understood reign. Woods's desire to create a geographic history of the Khan's life, along with the lure of a possible chair endowment at the university, prompted him to accept the position of academic coordinator for the expedition.

His influence on Kravitz has been noticeable, and the expedition has begun to look less like a childish treasure hunt and more like a legitimate research endeavor. Kravitz's original plan--to take a group of gung-ho Harrison Ford wannabes over to Mongolia and provide them with Humvees to drive across the steppes and ice makers for cold drinks--has been modified somewhat. "We have to show the seriousness of the expedition's academic purpose," Kravitz concedes. "We might just have to settle for dipping our cups in a cold stream."

Woods's influence has extended to the university as well, and it has now agreed to officially back the expedition. "Normally the university would turn someone like him away as a crackpot," Woods says. "But if we are able to establish a chair, someone has to take a chance. It's worth a shot." The august Mongolia Society, an Indiana-based scholarly organization of which Kravitz is a member, thought otherwise and declined to endorse the expedition. "As a group we felt too much skepticism about the project," says John Krueger, a board member and past president of the society, "though if Mr. Kravitz were to succeed, I would be the first to congratulate him." Of course, Kravitz is quick to point out that the society's current president, Professor Thomas Allsen of Trenton College, is serving as a board member for the expedition.

Another eminent doubter is Morris Rossabi, the author of Khubilai Khan: His Life and Times and professor of Mongol and Chinese history at Columbia University and the City University of New York. Kravitz courted Rossabi to serve on the board. "I am quite skeptical," explains Rossabi. "It is unclear what exactly happened to Genghis's body. One story is that it was left out in the desert, which would be typical of the Mongols. There was no tomb culture among them at the time of his death."

Kravitz, for his part, thinks it's "totally ridiculous" to believe that the absolute ruler of such a vast domain would be given the unceremonious funeral of a lowly warrior--tied to a horse and sent galloping off across the steppes to be eaten by scavengers. "He was buried," Kravitz insists, "not dumped in some field."

Other leading Mongolists offer no clear conclusions about how the Khan died, how or whether he was buried, and what became of the spoils from his brutally efficient campaigns or the tribute that flowed from the farthest reaches of his empire. Says Rossabi, "The problem is that there are no primary sources that are valid about his death." Because the Mongols were largely illiterate and many early manuscripts were destroyed or lost, Rossabi explains, most of what is known about Genghis Khan comes to us secondhand and thirdhand, through sources that are liberally embellished with mythology.

Much of the legend of Genghis Khan was inspired by a document known as The Secret History of the Mongols, an elaborate thirteenth-century epic written in Uighur-Mongolian 13 years after the Khan's death and later translated into Chinese. After being lost for hundreds of years, several copies surfaced in China in the late nineteenth century. According to The Secret History, Genghis died after he was thrown from his horse while hunting (though other sources say it was during a campaign to pacify the disloyal Tangut people in northwestern China). Still another version reports that the Khan bled to death when the wife of the executed Tangut king "pressed a small piece of metal into her sexual organ," thereby lacerating his penis.

Most of the various accounts agree on one point: that the body of Genghis Khan was borne back to a burial site he'd chosen many years before--the spot Maury Kravitz claims he read about seven years ago and believes he can find.

None of the descriptions of the death, however, says anything about the Khan having been buried with an enormous treasure. Yet Kravitz maintains that a conqueror of such legendary acquisitiveness would certainly have been laid to rest with at least a portion of his booty. And, he enthusiastically notes, not a single artifact from the Khan's vast spoils of war--the jeweled weapons from the Chinese empire, the gold coins from Samarkand, the religious artifacts from Russian Orthodox churches--has ever turned up in any museum or private collection.

"These things," he insists, "did not just dissolve into molecular invisibility."

Kravitz polishes off the last of his porterhouse and waves his hand dismissively. "Let people be skeptical," he says. "How much skepticism was there when Howard Carter found Tut's tomb or Heinrich Schliemann discovered Troy?"

Organizing the last great expedition of this century will require, among other commodities, plenty of chutzpah and charm. Kravitz has great quantities of both, and he's counting on them to generate the third important ingredient: cash, in the form of $800,000 in corporate largesse. If anyone can sell a Fortune 500 company on the wisdom of underwriting such a huge and speculative venture, it's Kravitz. He has the commanding physical presence of an Orson Welles. He wears a gold neck chain, sports a crop of graying designer stubble on his voluminous jowls, and bellows for his secretaries. "He's bubbling, abrupt, not a polished individual," says John Woods. "But his enthusiasm is seductive. It has to be recognized that this project is largely an extension of his will. I see myself as along for the ride."

As a bibliophile, Kravitz has a bottomless appetite. He is especially well versed in the so-called Imperial Period, from the birth of Genghis Khan in 1167 (or 1162--the date is disputed) to the end of his dynasty in 1368. Holding forth on his favorite subject, he can slip into what he calls "never-never land," zipping past his freeway exit or spacing out an appointment to do a radio interview. His monologues on the subject of the Khan are never dry or pedantic. "I am not a stodgy historian who has been on a university staff for 40 years," he says. "At the bottom of my soul there is an incurable romantic."

There is also a ruthless risk-taker. Kravitz made millions in the seventies and eighties trading gold futures--how many millions he declines to say--and though he has slowed down, he is still very much a part of the scene at the Merc. "He was the biggest gold trader ever to walk the floor of the Mercantile Exchange," says Jeff Brady, the floor manager for International Futures and Options, the firm in which Kravitz is a partner. "He would buy millions of ounces of gold in a day. He put his balls on the line every time he walked down there. He's like a Hall of Fame athlete."

A poster-size photo in Kravitz's office depicts a huge, grimacing, dark-haired young man amidst the knees-and-elbows melee of the pit: the fearsome Kravitz in his heyday. "He had a legendary temper when he traded," recalls Larry Kraut, a sailing buddy and business associate. "People were afraid of him."

Kravitz doesn't deny it in the least. "I was an unforgiving, vicious broker in my day," he says. "My allegiance was to the customer. I was not a consoling figure when people got into trouble."

Which was an effective strategy for another formidable character, one who forged an immense empire seven centuries ago. "I'm a strong man; he was a strong man," says Kravitz of their similarities. "I'm very military in my attitude, and that was certainly part of Temujin. He paid particular attention to rewarding loyalty. In 98 percent of their battles the Mongols were outnumbered. The loyalty of his men allowed Genghis to prevail; they were totally devoted. In this sense you could say I have patterned my life in business after him. Every failure I have had has revalidated this lesson."

Nowadays Kravitz rarely visits the scene of his lucrative victories. He holds the fort in his cluttered, windowless, suffocating little cubicle on the Merc's 21st floor, laying plans for the expedition while tracking commodities on his computer screen, a Diet Coke at his elbow. The computer beeps periodically, and he grabs the phone with a meaty hand to place an order. His fingernails are gnawed down to the quick. A bookshelf holds copies ofBasic Mongolian and Spoken Mongolian. (His tutor, a young woman from Ulan Bator named Bolormaa Bolor, drops by twice a week.) There are also three bulging binders of letters from expedition hopefuls: emergency-room doctors, frustrated archaeologists, writers, retired couples. "Hundreds of them," says Kravitz, paging through the stack.

Kravitz says that finding a fabulous treasure is but frosting on the cake, not the main objective of his quest. "I am as much interested in Genghis Khan's birthplace, his battles, and the place where he was ordained as in the burial site," Kravitz explains. "There are huge gaps in the record. I'm trying to clear some of the cobwebs away." In fact, Kravitz and his new all-academic crew will not even begin searching for the burial site until some of the other, earlier gaps have been filled in. According to Kravitz, some Mongolian scholars would like to explore and document every inch of Genghis Khan's immense kingdom. "It would take upward of ten years--it's unrealistic, but it would sure be great," he muses.

Another of Kravitz's goals is to soften the Khan's dark reputation. "I am not trying to make him out to be an Albert Schweitzer, but he was not an Attila the Hun either," Kravitz says, referring to the ruthless fifth-century king of the Huns, who is often confused with the Khan. "Genghis was a man of his times--a great conqueror, a good family man, a loyal and devoted friend."

He ticks off some of the Khan's achievements: establishing a pony-express system that spanned his entire empire; enacting a code of laws resembling the Ten Commandments; and developing military tactics that today are studied at West Point.

Kravitz hopes that his expedition will contribute to the resurgence of interest in the Khan that has recently been sweeping Mongolia. Seventy years ago, when this still largely medieval state became a Soviet client, Mongolia's new Marxist leaders considered the Khan a dangerously potent symbol of nationalist pride and an object of folk adoration not to be trusted. Temujin became, in effect, a nonperson.

Only in the last decade, with the advent of glasnost and the loosening of ties to Russia, has it become politically acceptable to discuss the Khan and his legacy in public. Now he is experiencing a nationwide rehabilitation, his image sprouting on hotels and road signs, his name invoked to lure the Western tourists who were shut out all those years.

If a treasure were to be discovered and sent on a world tour, Kravitz thinks it might help focus world attention on the plight of the Mongolian people. The country's economy has been in ruins since the collapse of the Soviet Union, which supported Mongolia for seven decades as a shining example of progress under socialism. "My expedition could be the key to opening the country," he contends.

But not everyone in Mongolia buys his altruism. Those who regard the Khan as a deity oppose the idea of the grave's discovery, especially by a foreigner; in their view, once the body has been disturbed, the spirit is forever violated.

Kravitz refers to such opponents as the Spirits of the Past People and tries to win them over with sheer enthusiasm and sincerity: "I explain that I believe Genghis Khan would say, 'I have been in the ground almost 800 years. My people need me now. It is time to let these riches be disgorged, to let my people be relieved of their suffering.'"

More problematic are the ultranationalists. Upon returning home from a scouting trip to Khan country, Kravitz learned that Mongolia's state-owned newspaper, Ardiin Erkh, had branded him as a "would-be Indiana Jones [who is] using science to cloak a lust for profit" and that certain government officials were backing away from his pact with the Mongolian Academy of Sciences.

Kravitz categorically denied the charges in a bristling, beseeching six-page reply and sent a copy to Mongolia's prime minister, a powerful ally. "This is not a treasure hunt!" Kravitz wrote. "The 'fortune' I seek is the solution to unanswered questions about...one of history's greatest personalities." The letter appeared on Ardiin Erkh's front page and defused the controversy, at least for now. "The government has said, 'This expedition will go forward,'" Kravitz insists.

And if not? "I would be shocked," he says. "I'd despair, be disappointed, and then go on with my life."

The seed that flowered into Kravitz's magnificent obsession was planted around 1960, when he was in his late twenties. Reading Harold Lamb's book Genghis Khan: The Emperor of All Men, he was struck by one of the opening lines about the hardships of life in Mongolia. "Lamb wrote that children 'were not hardened to suffering; they were born to it,'" Kravitz recalls. "It was a nice turn of phrase, and it has stayed with me for 35 years."

He himself tasted something of the hardships of life as a boy. The son of Russian ‹migr‹s, he was born Mischa Andreyev Krivitsky on May 27--Genghis Khan's birthday, alas--in 1932, the height of the Depression. His late father, whom he refers to as "my very best friend," was an eccentric scholar who spoke 38 languages, wrote six books on theology and mysticism, and earned a meager living writing for foreign-language newspapers serving Chicago's ethnic neighborhoods. One of Kravitz's most vivid boyhood memories is of his father reading to him from hieroglyphic tablets at Chicago's Field Museum of Natural History.

"He lived at night and slept in the day," Kravitz says. "He was not a good provider. He spent his entire life as a student and a poor man. When I was 11, my parents had to explain why they could not afford to buy me a bicycle."

Kravitz chose not to emulate his father's disregard for the material world. The house that he and his wife, Mona, built in Highland Park is a monument to prosperity. It borders a 160-acre nature preserve and resembles, on the outside, a modern art museum. Lining the grand hallway are photographic portraits of some of Kravitz's personal heroes, from Stanley and Livingstone to David Ben-Gurion to Moe Howard of the Three Stooges; each frame holds an original signed letter. The sunken library is filled from floor to ceiling with his vast collections on Mongolia, Asian studies, and military history. Kravitz is so passionate about the last of these that in the basement is a 12-by-12-foot diorama of the 1898 Battle of Omdurman, in which Lord Kitchener defeated the Sudanese.

Hanging at the library entrance is an oil portrait of a noble-looking warrior, wearing a white beard, a plumed red hat, and a leather breastplate. This is the Genghis Khan that Kravitz reveres, the man whose bones he dreams of finding. "In all of my years of studying I have despised the only rendering of Genghis that has come down to us," says Kravitz, referring to the Chinese depiction of a very fat Mongolian with a wispy goatee and catlike yellow eyes. The more respectful, lovingly rendered canvas on his wall was painted by an impoverished Mongolian artist whom Kravitz met while he was wandering the yurt ghettos of Ulan Bator two summers ago.

"I paid him an absurd price, about $35, brought it home with tender loving care, and put it in a $550 gold frame," he says, admiring his find. "It is one of my greatest acquisitions."

After stumbling upon the first clue in the wee hours that fateful morning, Kravitz began resifting his entire collection on Genghis--everything he had read over the course of three decades--looking for other references to this same tantalizing little incident. After four years spent plowing through the 400 volumes, he found 11 other references that pertained to the topography around the spot that the Khan had chosen as his future grave site.

"As I went through this investigative period, I kept honing down the location," Kravitz explains. "It was like a jigsaw puzzle with 12 pieces; the first piece was corroborated by the 11 others."
But he faced a problem: Two place names did not appear on any map he could find. He consulted private cartography collections. He went to Britain's Royal Geographical Society, the National Geographic Society, rare manuscript libraries--even, he says, the CIA--but he kept coming up short.

In January 1994 he appealed to the Mongolian Academy of Sciences. "I needed to verify that the two names still existed," he says."But how could I do that by mail without telling them where the grave was?"

His solution was to compose a list of 70 place names--some real, some fabricated--for verification. Among them were the two critical names. "I put the list in the mail biting my lips," he says. "In 16 days a reply came back. I looked at it with great anxiety. As I went down the page, I saw that the two names could not be identified. I was crushed. It was like being led through a series of doors, and when the last one opened there was only a brick wall."

As a last resort, Kravitz went to Mongolia. He took along his friend, James Kersting, a mechanical wizard who will be his maintenance czar on this summer's expedition. Fortunately, one of their hosts in Ulan Bator happened to be a master cartographer, Damba Barzargur. As Kravitz pored over Barzargur's exquisite maps illustrating the geography of The Secret History, his heart leapt.

It was one of the two missing place names. "There it was, staring up at me," he says. "It was like it grabbed my throat."

After some evasive sight-seeing, the party traveled to the secluded spot high in the Hentiyn Nuruu. "I saw that the topography converged precisely as it was described," Kravitz says. "That night in the tent we started laughing. It was like a nervous release. We laughed so hard that the guides in the other tent all started laughing, too."

Unable to sleep, Kravitz took a long walk. The night was bitterly cold. He sat on a rock, listening to a rushing river as he gazed up at the sky. "I was filled with the romance of the moment," he says. "I thought, No one has come closer to the resting place of the conqueror."

Today, the location report about the site is locked in Kravitz's safe-deposit box. In case he dies before confirming his hunch, he has willed it to his two daughters, Sheryl, 33, and Franie, 28.

Nowadays, Kravitz spends his time sweating over the final logistical details of this summer's trip. "I wake up in the middle of the night wondering who's going to worry about extra shoelaces," he says. "You have to think of things like--forgive me--toilet paper."

When Kravitz and his team descend on the Mongolian steppes early this month, they will begin at the Khan's beginning, searching for his birthplace. But Kravitz is already dreaming of the grand finale. "With any luck," he says, "someday the headlines in the Chicago Tribune will read, 'KHAN'S TOMB FOUND: CHICAGO'S MAURY KRAVITZ FULFILLS HIS DESTINY.'"

Michael McRae is a contributing editor of Outside and the author of Continental Drifters: Dispatches from the Uttermost Parts of the Earth, published by Lyons & Burford.

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