The Ming Tombs cover an area of 80 square kilometres, situated in a valley bordered on three sides by the Yanshan Mountains. Located about 50 kilometres from Beijing, it contains the tombs of the 13 of the 16 Emperors of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) as well as a number of tombs of concubines and eunuchs. Construction started in 1409 and ended when the Ming Dynasty collapsed in 1644.
The first Ming Emperor was Hong Wu (1368-98) who was succeeded to the throne by his grandson Jian Wen. Within a few years, Jian Wen was deposed by his uncle who was to become the Emperor Yong Le. It was he who moved the capital from Nanjing to Beijing and constructed the Forbidden City.
In 1409 Yong Le selected the area, and construction of his Mausoleum began in the area that was to become the Ming Tombs. Yong Le (also known as Zhu Di) was to become the first Emperor to be buried there, although all the remaining Emperors were then buried in that location. According to burial rules and customs during the early Ming Dynasty, an imperial mausoleum was for the Emperor and the Empress, although later the Emperors were buried with their consorts.
The last Ming Emperor to be buried there was Chong Zhen. He committed suicide by hanging himself following his overthrow by a peasant rebellion in 1644, and was buried in the tomb of his concubine consort. The tomb was later declared an imperial mausoleum.
Visitors to the site would enter through a large marble archway, leading to the main Great Palace Gate, consisting of three passageways.
The next building along the route is the Steele Pavilion. Inside the pavilion is a 6.5 meters high stele resting on the back of a stone tortoise weighing 50 tons. The stele was named Tablet of the Divine Merit and Sage Virtue of Changling of the Great Ming. On the front is a 3,000-word inscription and on the reverse is a poem by Emperor Qian Long of the Qing Dynasty. The stele tells of the renovation of the Ming tombs by Emperors Qian Long and Jia Qing of the Qing Dynasty.
Once through the pavilion, the Sacred Road (or Spirit Path) stretches towards the tombs. Along both sides of the path are 18 pairs of stone animals and human figures each being carved from a single piece of white marble. The Sacred Road built in Changling times later became the pathway of the entire Ming necropolis connecting with all the other Ming tombs.
At the end of the Sacred Road is the Lattice Gate with its three archways. It is also known as the Dragon and Phoenix Gate. Through that is the Seven-Arch Stone Bridge leading to a zigzag path to the Changling tomb, the tomb of Emperor Yong Le (1360-1420) and his empress Xushi. Changling Tomb was the first mausoleum built in the Ming Tombs. It is also the largest and best-preserved of the thirteen of the Tombs. Three of the Ming tombs are open to visitors: Changling, Dingling and Zhaoling; although during the authorís visit only the underground tomb of the Dingling could be visited.
The Changling tomb complex consists of a number of buildings. The stone gateway leads to the Gate of Eminent Favour leading past burners and into the Hall of Eminent Favour. This grand hall is made of a rare type of hardwood known as Phoebe nanmu. The hall covers an area of 1,956 square meters. The columns of the hall are single nanmu tree trunks 12.5 meters tall. In the centre of the hall is a statue of Yong Le which has display cabinets around it displaying a selection of artefacts.
Behind the Hall of Prominent Favour is a set of five glazed pottery altar sacrificial vessels into which many tourists throw money, which is said to bring them luck. The building behind this is known as Minglou (the Soul Tower), which contains a stele inscribed with the name of the Emperor. Behind this is a tomb mound where the Emperor and Empress were buried. The tomb of the Emperor and Empress is located below the earth mound, which would have been accessed via the Spirit Tower. The mound is surrounded by a wall, the purpose of which is to protect the tomb but also to retain the earth used for the tomb mound.
The Ming Tombs were listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2003, together with the tombs of the Qing Dynasties.
To see more photographs and take a virtual tour of the site click on the photoshow below.