The tomb are called “the pyramids of China” by locals. But anyone who has seen pictures of ancient Egypt’s pyramids would be underwhelmed. About 30 kilometers (18.5 miles) to the west of the modern city of Yinchuan, lies the enormous burial complex of the Western Xia dynasty. The burial complex is quite large, with the tombs taking up 40 square kilometers, or 25 square miles. The sheer size of the complex is a testament to the power of its long-ago empire.
The Western Xia dynasty existed from the 1000s to the 1200s, before it was annihilated by the up-and-coming conqueror, Genghis Khan, because the Western Xia refused to aid him in their conquest of Khwarezm (on the far left of the map). Genghis Khan systematically destroyed Western Xia cities, slaughtering its population, destroying all its written records, and its architecture and cultural artifacts as well. He did his job well: until the 1900s, historians were unaware that Western Xia had existed! When put into context, the imperial tombs become impressive simply for surviving.
When first built, the tombs were more impressive. They were surrounded by two layers of walls, with watchtowers, pavilions, and halls for sacrifices. The mounds themselves had five or seven stories, each story covered with colorful glazed tiles. But the buildings are unrecognizable now. And with the tiles lost to time, the tombs’ inner earth is exposed to the elements. The last survivors of an empire wiped from the map, slowly fading over the centuries, until they, too, are gone.