Scattered over the flat plains surrounding Xi’an are dozens of large mounds which archaeologists have only recently identified as tombs of the Han and Tang emperors, their wives, concubines and generals. Lying on the west side of the city around the slopes of Mount Liang, the largest concentration is at Qianling.

The site’s grandest mausoleum holds the remains of Emperor Gaozong and his consort, the Empress Wu Zetian – the only woman ever to rule China. Flanked by beautifully preserved statues of winged horses, lions, ostriches and (headless) dignitaries, a paved pathway known as the ‘Spirit Way’ leads to the Empress’s tomb. At its head stands one of the great enigmas of Chinese archaeology: the Wordless Stele, an epigraph which for reasons to be established, the empress instructed was to be left blank. Wu Zetian’s 1,300-year-old tomb remains unexcavated, but others at Qianling have been cracked open, including several retaining superb murals depicting scenes from the Tang court.


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