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Mongolia's marauding son gets a makeover

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 10, 2002


Genghis Khan: not someone you'd want to bring home for dinner.

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Khan is popularly one of history's bad boys. In school texts, he's a marauding Tatar, an antihero; he's the Mongol who burned and slashed his way through Russia and Poland.

During Mongolia's decades long alliance with the Soviets, not only was Khan vilified for 50 years as an enemy of the people; it was a crime to even speak of the native son whose 13th-century empire stretched from present-day Vietnam to the Danube River.

Now, as this isolated nation of nomads struggles to find a post-communist identity and niche in the world, Genghis Khan is back and undergoing a major rehabilitation.

Mongolians, who complain that their history has always been written by biased outsiders – often the Soviets and paopaJoseph Stalin – feel that the revision is long overdue. Here, the man known as Chenggis Khan is revered as a combination of King Arthur and Sitting Bull.

Indeed, many scholars agree that Khan is a candidate for better historical treatment – a more complex figure than the violent conqueror who cuts a bloody swath through older narratives. Khan's later legal ideas protected women, they say, and forbade the use of soldiers as slaves. Some argue Khan only turned West after the slaying of several hundred Mongols on a peaceful mission to Persia. At the least, the Mongol leader opened the West to the East – a path traced back by Marco Polo, who befriended Genghis' grandson, Kublai Khan.

On May 3 – Khan's 840th birthday – Mongolia proclaimed a series of celebrations for their greatest hero – speeches, art exhibitions, wrestling matches, and an international conference in August.

That might sound unexceptional – except it is the first time Mongolians have ever done so.

So blanked out of history was Khan in Mongolia, that during glasnost, or openness, in the 1980s, when an obscure cultural journal published a photo of him on the cover, few Mongolians recognized him. Khan consciousness was mostly kept alive underground.

"I've discovered that most of what I read about Genghis Khan as a child was wrong," says Gundalai Lamjav, a member of the Mongolian parliament. "The books influenced by Soviet ideology made Khan just awful. The Russians ... always hated him ... and didn't want us to learn anything else."

In the past five years, Ulan Bator, Mongolia's capital, is backing a quiet but steady stream of academic projects, archaeological digs, rewriting of school texts, and documentary films.

New discoveries suggest that the sleepy town of Karakorum was an ancient capital city used by four empires, the Hanna, Turkic, Uighur, and Chenggis dynasties – a potential trove of information. A new film suggests Khan had an unusually close bond with his mother after his father was murdered when Khan was 9 years old. Moreover, as Khan swept West, to avenge the murder of his envoys to Persia, scholars believe he only wreaked carnage after diplomatic efforts failed.