To appear as a powerful Chinese leader, Khubilai needed an impressive court located in a real city, not a peripatetic tent court nor the ad hoc structures erected at Shangdu (Xanadu), in modern Inner Mongolia. The place held special importance for him because he had first been proclaimed Great Khan at the khuriltai there, but it had no obvious advantages. Not only was that capital located in a nomadic zone, which the Chinese found quite alien and barbaric, but it had also been the traditional staging area used by his grandfather in the raiding and looting of Chinese cities. Khubilai sought to disassociate himself from the less desirable aspects of that history.
While keeping Shangdu as a summer home and a hunting preserve, he commissioned the building of another city, a real Chinese-style imperial capital, farther south at a place better situated to exploit the agricultural wealth of the lands along the Yellow River. He chose the site of the former Jurched capital of Zhongdu, which had been conquered by Genghis Khan in 1215, the year of Khubilai’s birth. In 1272, Khubilai ordered the building of his new capital, and he connected it by canal to the Yellow River. The Mongols called the place Khanbalik, the City of the Khan. His Chinese subjects called it Dadu, the Great Capital, and it grew into the modern capital of Beijing [‘North Capital’]. Khubilai brought in Muslim architects and Central Asian craftsmen to design his city in a new style that offered more of a compromise between the tastes of the nomadic steppe dwellers and the sedentary civilization.
In contrast to the maze of winding alleys in most Chinese cities of the era, Khubilai’s capital had broad, straight streets run on a north-south axis with east-west streets perpendicular to them; the guards at one gate could see straight through the city to the guards at the opposite gate. From the imperial palace, they built boulevards, more to accommodate the horses and military maneuvers of the Mongols than the wheelbarrows or handcarts of the Chinese laborers. The boulevards stretched wide enough for nine horsemen to gallop abreast through the city in case the native people rose up against their foreign rulers.
Furthering the Mongol interest in profits from international trade, Khubilai Khan designated sections of the city for Middle Eastern and Mongol populations as well as for people from all over what is today China. The city was host to merchants from as far away as Italy, India, and North Africa. Where so many men lingered, as Marco Polo pointed out in great detail, large numbers of prostitutes gathered in their own districts to serve them. Scholars and doctors came from the Middle East to practice their trades. Roman Catholic, Nestorian, and Buddhist priests joined their Taoist and Confucian counterparts already practicing in China. Muslim clerics, Indian mystics, and, in some parts of Mongol China, Jewish rabbis added to the mixture of people and ideas that thronged the empire. Far larger than Karakorum, but with many of the same internationalist principles, the city was a true world capital and fit to be capital of the world.