Sarai Batu (Batu’s Palace) was established in the mid-1240s by the Mongol ruler Batu Khan, the grandson of Genghis Khan. At that time, it was quite a large settlement with a population of 75,000, making it one of the largest cities in the medieval world.
Sarai Batu was a multi-cultural center in the medieval world
The ancient city of Sarai Batu was located on the lower stretch of the Volga River, about 120 km north of Astrakhan in present-day Russia. It was the capital of the Golden Horde, the western part of the Mongol empire, which flourished from the mid-13th century to the end of the 14th century. In its golden days, the territory of the Golden Horde included most of Eastern Europe from the Urals to the Danube River and extended east deep into Siberia.
One 13th-century Arab traveler from North Africa described Sarai Batu “as one of the most beautiful cities, one which has achieved extraordinary size, filled to overflowing with people, handsome markets and broad streets”. The traveler counted thirteen large mosques and thirteen cathedrals, numerous bazaars, and bathhouses. According to the traveler, Sarai Batu’s population was multi-cultural. In addition to Mongol rulers, he saw Russians, Caucasians, and many ‘merchants and strangers’ from as far afield as Iraq, Egypt, Syria, and Greece, each nation living in its own quarter.
‘One of the most beautiful cities, one which has achieved extraordinary size, filled to overflowing with people, handsome markets and broad streets’
City was quite a large settlement with a population of 75,000 in its golden days
In the 14th century the city was abandoned and the capital was moved to a new location about 180 km northwest of Sarai Batu. The new city became Sarai Berke or “New Sarai”. A city as large as Sarai naturally attracted enemies. Both the old and the new capitals were sacked by the Crimean Khanate in the late 14th and early 16th centuries. The city was eventually destroyed by Ivan IV of Russia in 1556.
The reconstructed city is now an open-air museum and tourist center
In the present days, located just under 5 km northwest of the border of the archaeological site of Selitrennoe gorodishche (the medieval “New Sarai”) is the “Sarai-Batu” open-air museum and tourist center. This was originally built in 2011 as a set for the filming of the 2012 film The Horde, and it was also used as the setting for a few scenes in the 2016 series Sophia. The sets, built of wood covered with cement and then clay, were recovered with clay again in 2013 in preparation for the continued use of the structures. The sets represent several spaces within the Golden Horde city, combining both attention to reproducing genuine details uncovered by archaeologists and an element of fantasy inspired by medieval and pre-modern settlements in the Eurasian Steppes.