Ancient China From Above (2020) s01e01 Episode Script

Secrets of the Great Wall

Allan: Inner mongolia, china.
I'm here on the trail of
a 750 year old legend,
that began with
tales brought home,
by an intrepid
european explorer.
The main reason I've come
here is because of this book.
These are the accounts of
the travels of marco polo.
"there at this place is a
very fine marble palace.
The rooms of which are all
gilt and painted with figures
of men and beasts and
birds all executed with
such exquisite art,
that you will regard them with
delight and astonishment."
what he's talking about here
is the great fabled city of
kublai khan, the
grandson of genghis,
Now with the help
of new technology,
I'm out to discover if marco
polo's descriptions of such an
astonishing city
can really be true?
I'm allan maca.
An archaeologist and expert
in ancient civilizations.
And I'm investigating
china's distant past
from a whole new perspective
Today, state-of-the-art
satellites see the world
in stunning detail.
And reveal hidden archaeology,
enabling us to recreate a lost
ancient world,
invisible to the naked eye.
Working alongside
leading chinese experts,
my team and I are traveling
to some of the country's most
remote and
incredible landscapes,
and with cutting-edge science,
investigating previously
unknown cultures, lost cities
and devastating cataclysms.
This is ancient china as
you've never seen it before.
The vast steppe
of inner mongolia.
An open grassland in one
of the largest and least
populated regions of china.
And, if marco polo
is to be believed,
this wide-open wilderness once
contained one of the greatest
cities on the planet.
Two centuries before columbus
sailed for the americas,
marco polo travelled from
europe along ancient trade
routes, to explore the
distant lands of the east,
keeping detailed
journals as he went.
In 1275, he arrived at
the gates of a great city,
kublai khan's xanadu.
Today, the only clues
left on the ground
are a series of mysterious
mounds rising from the plains.
There's just a lot of grassland,
just a lot of empty space,
it's hard to imagine that
there could ever
be a city here.
I've been hearing
about xanadu all my life.
As an archaeologist I've
studied and taught these
periods but I've
never been here.
Now I'm going to
explore the mystery
of xanadu in a whole new way.
Wow. Amazing!
Ryan: Yeah it
really sort of pops
Allan: With
cutting-edge technology,
can we bring this legendary
city back to life?
Look at this thing.
This is a wild image!
Scouring china for clues,
what can we discover about the
man who ruled over a quarter
of the world's population?
Jenny: This is much
bigger than I expected.
Allan: And how was beijing,
one of today's
great megacities,
born from xanadu?
I think we'll get a great
point of view from up here.
What an expanse.
Close up, it's clear
these mounds are man-made.
Sighting straight down
this east-west wall-line.
It's a perfect
90 degree angle.
This is cool.
But could xanadu
really have been as
magnificent as
marco polo described?
A great medieval city filled
with astonishing architecture
and lavish palaces?
Down on the ground, these
ruined walls don't tell us much.
But from space, 500 miles up
The shape of this lost
city is revealed.
The remains of a
series of massive walls.
Each one guarded by gates
and corner watchtowers.
The outer wall runs for 5 and
a half miles enclosing an area
at the time, even
bigger than london or paris.
And right in xanadu's
center, the faint
outlines of buildings.
Chinese archaeologists have
surveyed and excavated this
central area, but since
becoming a protected site,
further digging is restricted.
Yet, there are other
ways for us to investigate.
Researchers ma he, xi
yaqing and ma qinglong
from peking university
are being joined by eric lo
and ryan kastner from
my tech team.
Together, they'll use hi-tech
sensors on drones to conduct a
whole new survey
of central xanadu.
Eric: So what I'm putting
on is a multispectral camera
which sees in other
bands beyond the visible
red, green and blue
that we normally see
and we're hoping
that this will
see some anomaly,
that might indicate
there's been a structure
there in the past.
Allan: While the
multispectral camera looks for
signs of buildings
beneath the surface.
A second drone captures
hundreds of images to create a
detailed 3d model of
everything above the ground.
Hey what's up guys?
With the results in,
I'm going to take a look with
xanadu expert, bao lige.
What have you got?
Ryan: With the drone imagery
you can see a tremendous amount
more detail than you can see
with the satellite imagery.
So you can see some
of the structures and
obviously the roads.
Allan: And elevation data
from the second drone,
reveals every slight
bump on the ground.
Oh neat, wow! Amazing!
Ryan: Yeah,
it really sort of pops.
Bao: Look at that,
it's really really clear!
Allan: And look at
all these buildings,
I mean there's a
lot going on here.
Ryan: Yeah you can clearly
see a bunch of different
types of structures.
Allan: Straight lines
mean man-made structures
like walls and roads,
and boxes give us the
outlines of buildings.
Revealing these
features in the central zone,
combined with historical
records allows us to recreate
the very heart of xanadu.
A dense concentration of
streets and buildings.
Most prominent of all,
three mighty structures.
Chinese experts have
identified these as
kublai khan's palaces.
Bao: This whole palace
city is arranged along
the central axis,
it's a very
well-established layout.
Allan: The largest palace
is in the north,
this was the mu qing ge,
kublai khan's residence
and a place for official
business and banquets.
There's little known
about how it looked,
but chinese archaeologists
have discovered elaborate roof
ornaments and beautiful glazed
tiles that give us a glimpse
into its magnificent past.
From these grassy mounds,
technology is revealing that
marco polo's descriptions
could really be true.
But why is xanadu here at all,
in the middle of this
remote wilderness?
The city was built by kublai
khan from scratch in 1256.
He was the grandson
of one of history's
most famous warlords,
genghis khan.
50 years earlier, genghis khan
had united the nomadic tribes
and established a
vast mongol empire,
including conquering
most of the dynasties that,
back then, ruled china
and taking control of their
largely han
chinese population.
But the south, ruled by
the southern song dynasty,
remained unconquered.
After genghis khan, the
empire was divided into
mongol kingdoms called khanates
and in 1251 kublai khan took
charge of what today,
is inner mongolia.
He was determined to establish
a new dynasty that he'd call
the yuan, defeat
the southern song,
and bring all of china
under his rule as one
all-powerful emperor.
But first he needed a
secure base from which
to unleash his campaign.
The city of xanadu was born.
I've seen how the center of
xanadu was full of palaces.
But what lies beyond
these inner walls?
To find out, we need to go
back to the satellite images.
Archaeologist sarah
klassen, from my tech team,
is taking a closer
look at the wider city.
Sarah: I can see quite a few
faint impressions on the land
that might be related to
archaeological features like
streets or buildings.
Let me see if I can
enhance this image.
Oh wow, look at this,
this is pretty neat.
Allan: Using infra-red,
sarah can spot differences in
how the vegetation's growing,
that indicate
man-made structures,
hidden just
beneath the surface.
Sarah: So all of those faint
impressions that I saw before
are now very
visible on the landscape.
Allan: These infra-red
satellite images
combined with chinese
archaeological evidence and
historical records, reveal the
whole walled city of xanadu in
stunning detail.
Not just its palaces,
but hundreds of buildings.
Courtyards and compounds.
Defensive towers
and grand gateways.
An incredible megacity.
Marco polo's descriptions
are so far proving right,
but there's a mystery, because
he described another palace
that doesn't show up.
With a golden roof
and lacquered pillars,
experts believe it was a
vast circular building.
Just what was it?
And can we find it?
Lost circular palace that
marco polo said was one of the
wonders of xanadu.
Could its circular shape
indicate a special type of
mongol building
that's still in use today?
I've been invited by enkh bayr
and his family to help out
building a traditional
mongolian house, a ger.
You can see that it's
a latticework pattern
made from willow tree.
And these are thicker
willow posts that hold up this
central structure, that
also can have a slight opening
because of course, there's
going to be a cooking fire in
here as well, and then
you'll sleep over here
on the other side.
These simple round
structures are
the key to a
nomadic lifestyle;
light and easy to assemble,
they're quick to pack up and
move on to new pastures.
Enkh: I've grown up in mongolian
gers since I was a child.
I feel very
comfortable sleeping in one.
They are
well-ventilated and very cozy.
Allan: This tough
nomadic culture is the world
that kublai khan came from.
Could his mongol roots shed
light on one of marco polo's
most vivid descriptions?
He says, "the whole palace
is built of these canes.
The construction of the palace
is so devised that it can be
taken down and put up again
with great celerity and it can
all be taken to pieces and
removed withersoever the
emperor may command.
When erected, it is braced
against mishaps from the wind
by more than 200
cords of silk."
so imagine the
size of this thing.
Could it have been a ger?
A monumental ger?
An imperial sized ger?
Now, using marco polo's
description and
other historical sources,
we can recreate what
kublai khan's palace of
canes might've looked like.
Look at this thing.
This is huge!
This is a wild image.
Circular like a ger,
with a varnished golden
roof made of bamboo canes.
It would've been supported by
lacquered and gilded pillars
decorated with dragons
and stood as high as a
ten-story building!
This moveable palace
hosted lavish banquets
for over 2000 guests.
Even after more
than 750 years,
surely something this huge
would have left some trace.
If our drone images
failed to detect it,
would it help to
look from space?
Sarah: When I look close at
the palace area I can see a
ton of features on the
landscape and even kind of
beyond that until the
second city wall.
And the northwest is
really interesting
'cause I don't really see even
faint impressions of
archaeological features.
I would've thought that this
whole area within the city
walls would've been taken up
with buildings and streets.
Allan: This large
empty space seems strange,
but during the years he
spent at kublai khan's court,
marco polo said he
saw a great park,
stocked with wild animals,
to satisfy a favorite mongol
pastime, hunting.
And he wrote that the cane
palace stood in a grove within
these hunting grounds.
Guided by the
satellite imagery,
the drone team moves in
to take a closer look.
Ryan: We think we might have
found something interesting
in the outer city.
You can see
Allan: Oh yeah, oh yeah!
Ryan: Yeah it's
Allan: Most of xanadu's
structures were built
on platforms to keep
them clear of wet ground.
If a base had also been
laid for the cane palace,
it might have left
a circular trace.
We walked all over this;
we didn't see that
from the ground at all.
Ryan: Yeah it's hard to
actually see any of this
stuff, that's why the drones
or the bird's eye view really
gives you a nice perspective.
Allan: Well the
east side of this thing
very clearly looks
like half of a circle.
Ryan: Yeah.
Allan: It does, it
definitely does.
Could this really be it?
A faint impression of kublai
khan's amazing cane palace?
Allan: I'm hunting for
evidence of one of
the great lost
wonders of xanadu.
A vast moveable palace.
And my tech team
has found something.
Ryan: This is the
digital elevation model,
so the colors
indicate the height,
how high or low, off
the ground these are.
Allan: Could this be the
raised platform that my
team is looking for?
Ryan: It's indented so it's
a little bit more red here,
so you can see it's
a depression, it's a
crater of some sort.
Allan: Yeah very clear.
Ryan: Yeah it's a very
clear depression.
Allan: Sadly, it's not
the relic of a raised
platform, but mr. Bao
has another theory.
Bao: For this kind of
palace, maybe they lifted
the whole platform
up and away on wooden poles.
Or it was a large-scale
imperial carriage with a
temporary palace on top.
Allan: If mr. Bao is right,
kublai khan's
amazing golden-roofed,
imperial ger, really was a
temporary structure with no
permanent base, in true
nomadic mongol style.
So for now, exactly where
it stood remains a mystery,
but the satellite data are
revealing other secrets.
Sarah's spotted
something even further out,
past the hunting
ground and the outer walls.
Sarah: If I look
beyond the walls,
of the city, I can see
some faint impressions.
Take a look at that.
So, there are actually
buildings and roadways that
extend beyond the
walls of the city.
Allan: If these date to
kublai khan's yuan dynasty,
then xanadu even stretched
far beyond its city walls.
And out in this
wider sprawling city,
huge, intriguing structures.
I'm heading east beyond
the outer city walls to
investigate, with
xanadu expert, bao lige.
Bao: We are at xanadu's little
east gate on the main road
that goes through it.
During the yuan dynasty this
eastern suburb served as a
place for the nobility to stay
when visiting the great khan.
Allan: It explains
the impressive walled
compounds revealed on
the satellite images.
And chinese research also
reveals there were sprawling
suburbs beyond the
city walls on every side,
with evidence of
military barracks,
markets and guesthouses.
And right on the edge of the
suburbs there are also two
enormous and
identical structures.
What are they?
So we've got some really
interesting buildings here.
What do you know about
it, what can you tell us?
Bao: In the yongle classics,
it's recorded that xanadu had
two granaries, one in the
west and one in the east.
They measured 150 meters
wide and 290 meters long.
Allan: That's the size of 10
american football fields.
Bao: There wasn't anything
else on this scale in other
areas, or here in
the eastern suburb.
Allan: All the evidence
points to this being
one of xanadu's
vast grain stores.
To explore it in detail,
the peking university
tech team gets to work.
Can we look really closely
at this area you scanned?
Oh wow!
Ryan: You can clearly see
the different structures.
Allan: Combining
our scans with historical
records, reveals this granary
isn't just one large barn,
it's an entire complex.
Bao: I think each different
type of grain would be
stored separately.
This big area in the middle,
you could call it a courtyard.
You could take out grain that
hadn't been used up and re-dry
it in the sun before storing.
Allan: Now, knowing
the layout of this
granary, can our scans help
solve an enduring mystery.
Just how many
people lived in xanadu?
S of a granary
far outside xanadu's city walls,
to see if it can
answer a crucial question.
I'd be really interested
if we can come to
some sense of what was the
population of the city at that
time, by estimating
volume of grain storage,
against what people
would have needed.
Bao: At that time, each
person would have needed
180 kilograms of grain per year.
Allan: Using our
model and chinese research,
we can now estimate
how much grain this
granary could've held.
Eric: Based on these
calculations we could store
21 million kilograms and so we
can see that we'd have an
approximate population that we
could feed of 120,000 people.
Allan: Wow, that's
really substantial.
If you consider that london
in the 13th century only had
about 80,000 people that
says that this was a really
substantial city.
Even though these
figures are based
on rough estimates, they're
for just one of two granaries
at xanadu, which would mean
the potential population could
be more than 200,000 people.
Almost twice the size of marco
polo's home city of venice.
It's no wonder marco
polo was blown away
by what he saw here,
and he must have noticed that
unlike the winding streets
of mediaeval europe, xanadu
was built to a precise plan.
The city is aligned
along a north-south axis.
And even its location
was carefully chosen.
This was geomantically designed.
So it's laid out in
relation to geological
features of the landscape.
Protected by mountains
to the north and
with a river to the south,
this is an ideal setting for
han chinese city builders.
We have a city built here by
nomadic peoples from the north.
And it's incredible
that kublai khan,
as a hereditary
mongol emperor,
is using ancient chinese
principles to design his city.
Kublai even had a
han chinese advisor
draw up the plans, giving it
the square concentric walls
and central palace area.
This is a classic
han chinese city plan.
In building a
permanent walled city,
with a hunting ground
and imperial-sized ger,
combined with a
chinese layout,
kublai khan was embracing
both his mongol roots and
han chinese culture.
The question is why?
And was this blending of
cultures happening elsewhere,
beyond the walls of xanadu?
680 miles to the south west,
in the ancient city of xi'an,
a clue has been
discovered in a tomb that
could hold the answer.
Dr chao-hui jenny liu, our
expert in classical chinese
art and archaeology, is
meeting excavation leader
miao yifei and his team,
who are analyzing this
700 year-old work of art.
Jenny: Here it is, the mural.
(speaking mandarin).
Allan: This mural once
lined the curved walls of
a lavish circular tomb.
Jenny: This is much
bigger than I expected.
This is amazing.
Miao: Once I'd properly
entered the tomb,
I was totally stunned.
This was so beautiful,
I was astonished,
really surprised.
Jenny: It's amazing.
Here you have six
people sitting on this,
sort of a bed with a
screen in the back.
And the center person, we
think it's the husband,
is wearing mongol clothes.
We see this kind of clothes also
on portraiture of kublai khan.
There's a white robe and
then this kind of red hat,
very typical of
mongol clothes.
Allan: But closer
inspection of these
traditionally mongol images,
reveals some surprising details.
Jenny: This is a hunting scene,
where the hunter is
shooting an arrow at the doe,
but there's a little man
underneath here, you see?
And he is milking the doe,
so it completely changes the
picture because a hunting
scene would be yuan dynasty or
mongol, but this story where a
good son milks the doe to give
milk to his parents,
that's a chinese story.
This mural shows that the mixing
of cultures chinese culture,
han culture, mongol,
yuan culture,
they become one, and
you cannot separate them.
Allan: It seems the
mixing of mongol and han
chinese cultures was not just
happening in kublai khan's city;
it was spreading
far beyond xanadu.
And this was all
part of his plan.
He knew he had
the military might to
conquer the rest of china
but to keep control, he'd
need to win hearts and minds.
It reminds me of something
that the legendary
chinese advisor of kublai khan
supposedly said to the great
emperor, he said,
"look you can conquer
a land by horseback,
but you can't administer
a land by horseback"
embracing both cultures was
kublai khan's key to success.
And this plan began
right here with xanadu.
They designed a city,
so that they could control the
population, keep them
happy and administer things.
Not in the way that
mongol horse nomads would,
but the way agricultural
han chinese would.
Xanadu was kublai
khan's power base.
And marco polo described one
building that was the very
heart of operations, a
palace called the da'an ge,
the pavilion of great peace.
The platform that we see
today is not the only
trace that remains.
Once stood at the
very heart of xanadu.
Only rare fragments of xanadu's
palaces have survived.
But in 2003 chinese
archaeologists unearthed
something astonishing.
Wow. Here it is.
This is the legendary
marble pillar from the
da'an ge palace complex.
Look at how big this thing is.
The carving is exquisite.
You have flowers here, which
are symbols of auspiciousness
and good fortune.
You've got the dragon.
Look at it, twisting around
all the way to the tail.
In han chinese culture,
the dragon is a symbol of
imperial power and typically
had 3 or 4 talons, but
this one is different.
So here we have five
talons and a smaller head,
smaller than we see in dragons
from earlier dynasties.
We have a horse nomad
asserting himself as a
great chinese emperor.
People looking at this, they
would have known that this is
kublai khan himself.
He is the dragon,
telling the world,
I am the head of a
new chinese dynasty,
the yuan dynasty.
Now, by combining recent
chinese academic studies
with our drone surveys
of central xanadu,
we can bring kublai
khan's magnificent
pavilion of great peace
back to life, for the first
time in over 650 years.
Woah, this thing was big!
Ah incredible,
incredibly beautiful.
I mean, there's no
question looking at this,
that the da'an ge was
a classically han
chinese building.
The da'an ge sat on a
raised central platform.
Supported by huge marble
pillars this great palace was
taller than a modern
22-storey building.
This was the site of
kublai khan's throne,
the "very fine marble palace"
that astonished marco polo.
I've explored kublai
khan's great palaces,
but the satellite images
also reveal other prominent
structures among the
hundreds of buildings.
Their layout suggests
these are not palaces,
but temples.
But mongols traditionally
practice shamanism with no
need for temples.
So what's going on?
Almost 900 miles
west of xanadu,
close to the city of zhangye,
jenny is searching for answers.
These sheer cliff faces
hold something very special,
an incredible complex of
ancient buddhist temples,
carved deep into the rock.
Buddhists started carving
these shrines centuries before
kublai khan's yuan dynasty.
But what then?
Throughout history, many
invaders wiped out the sites
and shrines of
existing religions.
But here at the
ma-ti grottoes.
Jenny: Wow, look at
all these niches!
Allan: Jenny's noticed
something surprising.
Jenny: The structure
of it, the archway,
this is largely of
the yuan dynasty style.
Allan: Everywhere,
signs that the carving
continued under kublai khan.
Jenny: The dress and
also the hairstyle,
the very peaceful, calm
expression on the face,
the lotus seat too is very
typical of the yuan period.
Allan: This shows
that buddhism didn't just
survive under
kublai khan, it thrived!
And back in
xanadu, li hailiang,
director of the xanadu museum
has evidence that suggests
this went far
beyond just buddhism.
Li: This artifact
is a tomb headstone,
it's got islamic
texts carved on it.
The yuan dynasty implemented
an all-embracing policy
towards all religions.
This kind of freedom of
belief was unprecedented,
so they could build lots of
temples in xanadu at that time;
buddhist ones, mosques,
nestorian christian churches
and so on.
So now we locals call
xanadu 'the 108 temples'.
It reflects very lively thinking
in yuan dynasty society.
Allan: Combining our scans
with historical records,
reveals that these two buildings
were buddhist temples.
But they were just two of
dozens of religious buildings
including mosques, daoist
temples and confucian shrines.
By design xanadu was a melting
pot where different peoples,
philosophies and
religions all came together.
A city every bit as
vibrant and cosmopolitan
as marco polo described.
From where, kublai khan could
now launch his master plan,
to conquer all of china.
Xanadu, became one of the most
important cities on earth.
Kublai khan was named
the next great khan,
with power over mongol
khanates that now reached from
today's far eastern russia,
all the way west to turkey
and ukraine.
But, he still needed to
was still to conquer the
southern song dynasty.
To achieve his goal, he
planned another city,
a second capital closer
to the chinese heartland.
Today, xanadu's sister
city, known as dadu,
lies hidden 170 miles south,
deep beneath the streets of a
very modern megacity.
Now home to over
20 million people,
it's more than twice the
size of new york city.
750 years ago, marco polo's
adventures also brought him
here, to the newly created dadu.
He wrote that it's
palace was so vast,
rich and beautiful that "no
man on earth could design
anything superior to it".
In 2016, the foundations of
kublai khan's palace were
discovered beneath beijing's
famous forbidden city,
lost traces of the
imperial heart of dadu.
Now sarah has come here to see
if satellite images can reveal
any more of kublai
khan's second capital.
Sarah: Oh wow, this
is really interesting.
Allan: About 5 miles
north of where dadu's
palace once stood,
sarah's spotted something,
an unusual line of trees.
Down on the ground, it
starts to make sense.
Sarah: Alright, so this is
what I've been looking for.
So we're on this large
mound, linear mound in
the middle of this city.
It looks like it's
definitely manmade.
You can see that
where I'm standing,
it's actually part of this
longer linear embankment and
it actually looks like it
forms a square around the city.
Allan: Chinese
research confirms,
this is part of an
original city wall of dadu.
Sarah: It's pretty incredible,
that something this old is
still in the middle of the
city of beijing and hasn't
been destroyed over
hundreds of years.
Allan: Adding this city
wall to the satellite image
along with data
from historical maps
reveals something amazing.
Beijing's modern streets still
align with dadu's city walls,
as if kublai khan's capital
was the blueprint for this
21st century city metropolis.
Sarah: So the similarities
between what we can see here
at dadu and what we saw
at xanadu are incredible.
Allan: Kublai khan had
taken the classical
chinese design of
xanadu, and supersized it.
Dadu was ten times bigger.
From dadu kublai khan could
strike out south and by
1279 he'd achieved his goal.
For the first time
in over 350 years,
the nation was reunited.
Kublai khan was finally
emperor of all china.
Kublai khan's incredible
vision allowed this mongol
ruler to found a new dynasty,
that was accepted by the
han chinese people
of his empire.
Under his reign,
china thrived.
He extended trade routes to
reach half way around the globe,
and poured resources
into china's infrastructure,
making its grand canal the
longest anywhere in the world.
With dadu, he'd laid the
foundations for what is today,
one of the greatest
cities on earth.
And it all started with
the wonder of xanadu.
I came here wondering
if marco polo was kind of
pulling our leg, you know,
exaggerating or maybe even
like that this was just
all the raving fantasy
of some mad italian.
And I'm satisfied what marco
polo was telling us was not
some kind of a myth, he was
really giving us a sense of
reality that he saw
with his own eyes.
Now, new technology is finally
revealing kublai khan's
astonishing city of xanadu.
Carefully planned and
beautifully constructed,
it was both mongol
and han chinese,
and on a magnificent scale.
Xanadu really was a
vibrant, cosmopolitan capital,
a cultural melting pot, filled
with amazing temples and
stunning palaces, fit for
an emperor who ruled over a
quarter of the
world's population,
and the biggest
empire on earth.
What we now know is that marco
polo was absolutely right,
xanadu was spectacular.
Captioned by cotter
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