The large archaeological site known as Por-Bajin sits on an island in the middle of Tere-Khol Lake, between the mountains of southern Siberia, and it is still one of the most mysterious ancient sites in Russia. The name Por-Bajin translates from the Tuva language as a “clay house”, and the excavations suggest that it was built in the 8th century AD, first as a palace and later converted into a monastery. The construction was probably destroyed first by an earthquake and then by a fire, leaving behind many questions and mysteries. The construction method shows that Por-Bajin was built according to the Chinese Tang architectural tradition.
The site was explored for the first time in 1891, but no archaeological excavations were carried out until 1957-1963. The first in-depth studies on Por-Bajin were only begun about ten years ago, in the period of 2007-2008, but the answers to the questions that have arisen over the decades are still lacking.
Experts believe that Por-Bajin dates back to 757 BC, for a complex covering an area of about 35,000 square meters. Inside the outer walls, which reach a height of 12 meters, there are over 30 buildings, with a central structure built in two parts connected by a covered passage.
A small number of artifacts have been recovered from the island, a rather strange circumstance for such a large structure. Among the buildings there are also no traces of any heating system like fireplaces or hearths, a detail that seems impossible given the altitude of the place (2,300 meters above sea level) and the Siberian area, certainly not famous for the mild temperatures.
Some of the objects found on site are clay tablets, colored drawings, fragments of burnt wood, tiles, an iron dagger, a stone goblet, a silver earring and iron nails. None of the artifacts suggests an answer as to why the structure was built, and what its uses were. Por Bajin is located in a remote place, on the outskirts of what was the nomadic Uyghur Empire, built in Chinese style but without any sign of permanent residence, and abandoned after only a short period of use. So, why was it built, how was it used and why was it abandoned?
Since its discovery, Por-Bajin has been linked to the Uyghur Khagante empire (744-840 AD), composed of a group of nomads of Turkish origin who moved between Mongolia and southern Siberia. The location of the site, however, was far from the settlements and traditional trade routes, so it could not be built with the aim of becoming a point of exchange or refreshment on any commercial route. The style of construction so majestic and impressive is atypical compared to the Uyghur fortresses of the same period, and leads scholars to speculate that Por-Bajin played only a ritual role.
The construction, however, is in perfect Chinese style, partly different from that of Uyghur. Furthermore, within the site, religious buildings have not been found, and the construction conformation is typical of a Buddhist monastery, while the Uyghurs were Muslims.
If the purpose of the building is practically a mistery, the methods of occupation of the island are also unclear. Many early theories seemed to jump to the conclusion that it was a military fortress due to the large outer wall, but its secluded location (on an island in the middle of a Siberian lake) and lack of daily accouterments has poked lot of holes in that thinking. Archaeological evidence suggests that Por-Bajin was inhabited for a very short period of time, another inexplicable circumstance with respect to the effort required to build such a fortress. The assumptions regarding the abandonment of the site concern both the political instability of the region and the lack of propensity of the inhabitants to resist the winter temperatures of the area.
2007/2008 researches suggest a hypothesis for the purposes of the building and its abandonment. The palace may have been a summer residence built by Khagan Bogu, converted into a Manichean monastery after some damage caused by an earthquake. After the death of the hierarch and the abolition of Manichaeism, the monastery was abandoned. The now empty site was subsequently destroyed by one or more earthquakes and fires that ended the demolition work. Whatever the site’s original purpose or the reasons it was abandoned, Por-Bajin continues to fuel the minds of archaeologists and visitors in equal measure: there are many enigmas and mysteries relate the history of this ancient place, and probably nothing will be able to unravel the mysteries that still surround Por-Bajin.