Mongolia's marauding son gets a makeover

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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

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.

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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.

"The history of Khan is told by Russians, Germans, Chinese, and Americans, and he is usually a bloodthirsty villain," says Mongolian Foreign Minister Luvsangiin Erdenechuluun. "As far as I understand, Genghis Khan was someone who in real life helped introduce the idea of diplomatic immunity. I think the materials need to be reread and reappraised. The authority of outside scholars has been unquestioned."

Yet behind a rally over the 12th-century figure – are 21st-century problems. Mongolian leaders hope Khan will do what they have so far been unable to – unify the country. The question is: How can a land still traditionally nomadic manage to progress in an increasingly globalized world?

Mongolia is a rugged high-altitude land of 2.3 million people and 30 million cattle. Nomads are now moving into the capital, creating suburbs of thick felt tents known as ger. Dingy Soviet-era architecture set amid snowy mountains gives Ulan Bator a frontier feel. Power failures are common, and the streets are dark at night, though restaurant- and Internet-cafe life is growing. The nation is landlocked between what some call "the two Tyrannosaurus rex" – China and Russia. Both levy imports and exports, increasing the isolation. Mongolia distanced itself from the Soviet Union in 1990; but even after "shock therapy," economic reforms have dragged. Copper deposits and tourism are bright spots. But some 20 percent of GDP is from outside loans. Only this month is the main state bank planning to privatize.

"Mongolia is tired and small and not at its best," says Damba Bazargur, a geographer who is leading a team of international explorers on a search for Khan's tomb. "It is important for leaders to realize that they have a great figure in their past that they can think about and learn from."

Khan, reputed to have been born in 1162, is widely acknowledged as one of the most brilliant military leaders of all time. His horsemen were legendary – able to shoot arrows with pinpoint accuracy riding forward or backward. He divided his army into units of 100, 1,000, and 100,000: With hand signals in battle, he moved them quickly – with devastating effect.

Some here warn, however, against overusing Khan as a symbol.

"On what slogans can the Mongols be united?" asks Baabar, a local writer. "There are only two slogans: 'Genghis Khan,' and 'against the Chinese.' The younger generation needs a common mentality for the future. Genghis Khan is a great man. But he can't give us money and food."

Garam Otcir Damba, president of Genghis Khan University, founded in 1994, takes a slightly different view. The school is researching Khan's idea of law, based on recent ancient Mongol texts discovered in Korea. The texts suggest that at the end of Khan's life he was trying to establish something similar to a civil state, Dr. Otcir says – with laws outlining special rights for women and soldiers, plus laws recognizing ownership. "A nation is built on law, and Genghis Khan was moving in that direction," Otcir says.

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