Xanadu – A Metaphor for a Splendor and an Opulence


In Xanadu did Kubla Khan

A stately pleasure-dome decree:

Where Alphs, the sacred river ran

Through caverns measureless to man

Down to a sunless sea.

So two five miles of fertile ground

With walls and towers were girdled round:

And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,

Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree;

And here was forests ancient as the hills,Enfolding sunny spots of greenery…

So begins the famous poem Kubla Khan or AVision in a Dream. It is a master piece written by English poet and philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 1797. The poem is considered as one of the most famous examples of Romanticism in English poetry, and is one of the most frequently anthologized poems in English language.

Thanks to the poem by Coleridge, Xanadu became a metaphor for a splendor and an opulence in Europe.

One of the best movies of all time, Citizen Kane, directed by Orson Welles in 1941, begins with these words:

Today almost as its legends, Florida’s XANADU is known as the largest private pleasure ground in the world.  On the deserts of the Gulf Coast, a private mountain was commissioned and it was successfully built for its landlord. Here in a private valley, as in the Coleridge poem, “blossoms as many as incense-bearing trees”, which is  “a miracle of rare device.”

Here, for Xanadu’s landlord, will be held in the biggest and strangest funeral in 1940’s; here this week is laid to rest a potent figure of our Century – America’s Kubla Khan – Charles Foster Kane.

In the Kurt Vonnegut novel, Timequake, Xanadu is the name of a retreat for prolific writers in a resort on Cape Cod. Xanadu was featured in the short story by Ray Bradbury called A Miracle of Rare Device, written in 1962. Then in 1968, UK pop/rock group Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich had a UK number one hit with The Legend of Xanadu. And here not all of them are listed…

It is believed that Coleridge composed his poem one night after his opium experience and dreamed after reading the book Pilgrimes, or Relations of the World and Religions Observed in All Ages and Places Discovered, from the Creation to the Present, by the English clergyman and geographer Samuel Purchas, published in 1613. The book contained a brief description of Xanadu:

… In Xanadu did Khubilai Kan build a stately Palace, encompassing sixteen miles of plain ground with a wall, wherein are fertile Meddowes, pleasant Springs, delightful streams, and all sorts of beasts chasing and gaming, and in the midst thereof a sumptuous house of pleasure, which may be moved from place to place.


This description was based upon the writings of the Venetian explorer Marco Polo who have visited Xanadu about in 1275. Between 1298–1299, he dictated a description of Xanadu, which included these lines:

And when you have ridden for three days from the city last mentioned (Cambalu, or modern Beijing), between north-east and north, you would come to a city called Chandu, which was built by the Khan’s reign. There is a very fine marble Palace at this place, of which the rooms are all gilt and painted with figures of men, beasts, birds, and a variety of trees and flowers that all were performed with such exquisite arts regarded as the genuine delight and astonishment.

The palace is rounded with walls built enclosing a compass of 16 miles, and the inside Park are built with fountains, rivers, brooks, and beautiful meadows, with all kinds of wild animals (excluding such as are of ferocious nature), which the Emperor supplied food for his gyrfalcons and hawks, which he keeps there in mew. …

Marco Polo Travels

Marco Polo also mentioned about a large portable palace made of gilded and lacquered cane or bamboo which could be taken apart quickly and moved from place to place.

So who was Kubla Kan and what was this mysterious city of Xanadu?
In fact, Kubla Kan is a wrong transcription of the name of the founder of Mongol Yuan empire – Khubilai Khan. Khubilai was the grandson of Chinggis (Genghis) Khan and succeeded his elder brother Munkh (Mongke) as the Great Khan of the Mongol Empire in 1260.

Khubilai khan

Khubilai khan (1215-1294) 

In order to take the throne, he had to defeat his younger brother Arig Bukh (Arik Boke), who was lawfully elected at a Khurildai meeting of Mongolian feudal lords, in a civil war lasted until 1264.

Khubilai’s real power was limited to Mongolia and China, though as a Great Khan he still had influence in the Ilkhanate and,  in the Golden Horde as to a significantly lesser degree. If one counts the Mongol Empire at that time as a whole, his realm reached from the Pacific Ocean to the Black Sea, from Siberia to what is now Afghanistan.

At the beginning of the civil war in 1260, he had to transfer his capital from Karakorum, the capital of Mongol Empire to Shand or Xanadu.

In 1255 Munkh Khan issued a decree and the city was built from 1255 to 1259 on the banks of river Shand. And shand in Mongolian language means a cold spring. The main feature of this city was its coolness in the hot summer, suitable for Mongolians.

Khubilai Khan transferred his capital to Khanbalgas or Khan’s City (modern Beijing) in 1264, he declared Shand as the summer capital of his empire. And, he constantly continued to build and refine the city.


According to contemporaries, it was a really beautiful and majestic city, with an original mixture of nomadic and classic cultures. The layout of the Shand or Xanadu is  square shaped with sides of about 2,200 m; it consists of an “outer city”, and an “inner city” in the southeast of the capital, which has also roughly a square layout with sides about 1,400 m, and the palace, where Khubilai Khan stayed in summers. The palace has each sides approximately  550 m, covering an area of around 40% of size of the Forbidden City in modern Beijing. At its maximum, over 100,000 people lived within its walls.

In 1271, Khubilai established the Mongol Yuan Empire, which ruled today’s Mongolia, China, Korea, Myanmar and Cambodian territory and some adjacent areas.

But in 1368 when Chinese Ming dynasty defeated Mongol Yuan Empire, Shand was occupied by the Ming army and was put to the torch. The last reigning Khan of Yuan Empire, Togoon Tumur, fled the city that was abandoned for several hundred years.

Nowadays, the reminants of Shand are located in Shuluunkhukh khoshuun, Shiliin Gol aimag of Inner Mongolia in China, a distance of 350 kilometres north of Beijing.

City of Shand

The place where the city of Shand was located is noticeable enough because of its remains of mud walls, brick foundations and fortifications. The archaeological zone where Shand once located was declared  as a World Heritage Site of Humanity in 2012.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *