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Lost Loulan Kingdom in Xinjiang

Ruins of a three-roomed building, probably the government office of the Loulan Kingdom Photo:


The Xiaohe Tombs Complex, where well-preserved mummies are found. Anthropological studies suggest that ancient Loulan residents were a people of mixed blood. Photo:


The ancient and mysterious Loulan Kingdom in today’s Xinjiang is regarded as “the Pompeii in the desert” and a “holy land for archaeologists”.


Like Pompeii, an ancient Roman city, which was partially destroyed and buried under ash and pumice in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD, Loulan was swallowed up by the shifting sands of the Taklamakan Desert some 1,400 years ago, which transformed the once beautiful kingdom into a barren and perilous desert landscape. This inexplicable event has whetted the curiosity of archaeologists and scientists over the years.


The ruins of the kingdom are located on the western bank of the Lop Nur Lake, in the northeast of the Tarim Basin. Once a vast lake in ancient times, the Lop Nur has now entirely dried up. It is now a lake only in name.


In March 1900, the lost kingdom was brought into the light again when a Swedish adventurer Sven Hedin (1865-1952) was exploring Lop Nur area. Hedin accidentally discovered the ruins of the kingdom buried under the yellow sands of the Taklamakan Desert.


It was the beginning of the modern rediscovery story of the Loulan Kingdom. This historic discovery immediately triggered a great sensation worldwide. Many archaeologists, historians and explorers from all over the world went to this site, excavating a wealth of fascinating remnants of this lost civilization, including coins, wood carvings, lacquer and copper ware, silk fabrics, as well as numerous documents and splendid murals. They lifted the veil of the ancient kingdom and allow us to catch a glimpse of its splendid history and culture.

A CGI image of Loulan at its prime Photo:


The ruins unearthed so far cover an area of over 100 thousand square meters, filled with the ruins of city walls, residential buildings, palaces, temples, workshops and towers, as well as broken beams and pillars littered here and there.


The kingdom used to be a regime based in the oasis city of Loulan, which was traversed by a limpid river and was situated on the northwestern edge of the Lop Nur. Loulan had a population of over 14,000 people, and as a key traffic hub on the ancient Silk Road, it served as an important trading center between China and the West, welcoming streams of camel trains loaded with exotic goods from many parts of the world. Many of the visitors and caravans were from the Mediterranean region.


Loulan was established as a kingdom in 176 BC, flourished for over 800 years, and then it suddenly vanished from all recorded history without a trace. The rapid disappearance of such a large, prosperous kingdom, and even its exact whereabouts, were for centuries one of history’s major puzzles.


The once prosperous area fell into oblivion after the Tang Dynasty. Loulan had been abandoned as early as in the 3rd century. It has drawn wide interest and debates in what factors caused its abandonment, some of which are listed below:


1. War of conquest in which the kingdom fell and inhabitants went in exile.

2. The Tarim River, the city’s main source of water, changed its course.

3. The peripatetic movements of Lop Nur Lake.

4. A certain plague that struck the kingdom.

5. The opening of the northern route of the Silk Road which diverted most of the trade traffic away from the southern route (via Loulan).

The seasonal Tarim River is winding through the Takalimakhan Desert. The changing of its course was probably the main factor to Loulan's abandonment. Photo:


Further debates center on which race(s) the Loulan inhabitants belonged to. Mummies excavated from the region prove extremely helpful in this regard. The Loulan Beauty, a female mummy discovered in 1980, has distinct Caucasian features, with light-color hair, high brows, and steep nose bridge. However, other excavated items seem to suggest that the lifestyle of Loulan residents was closer to ancient Afghans.


Today, archaeologists and historians worldwide are still working hard to resolve the continuing mystery of this ancient kingdom. And, without doubt, the ruined city of the Loulan Kingdom is also a great place for tourists interested in both history and adventure to explore.


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