PERHAPS more than any other name in history, Genghis Khan holds the popular imagination. The Mongolian leader calls up pictures of ``barbarians'' on horseback conquering chunks of Eastern Europe and Asia around the 13th century.
An extraordinary exhibition, ``Genghis Khan: Treasures From Inner Mongolia,'' surveys not just Genghis's art and times, but also the entire heritage of Khan spanning 3,500 years of Mongolian culture, beginning in 3000 BC and continuing to the era of the celebrated ruler.
This informative endeavor, which brings to light the mythical and historical Khan, opened its national tour early in March at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County and is due to travel to New York and British Columbia.
The show represents a cultural-exchange coup for the United States: A partnership was developed between the Los Angeles museum and the People's Republic of China - where a large number of Mongolian artifacts are preserved.
The Mongols, like most migratory tribes, are thought to have originated near Turkey. They began a mass migration to find food in 1000 BC. As a mobile culture, artifacts were small, war-related, and so tended to become lost. When the Mongols ruled and settled in China from 1200 to 1300, their art and artifacts came to be concentrated around that area. While China was closed to the West, so too was much information on this fascinating civilization.
The exhibition reveals a remarkable cache of objects ranging from early Chinese-influenced pottery, to gold earrings that belonged to Mongol nobility, to solid gold saddle ornaments, and beautifully tooled daggers. History comes alive as visitors walk through the galleries that paint a picture of the mythologized Khan.
By the time of Genghis, the Mongols controlled large parts of Russia, Poland, Palestine, and Japan. The Khan's armies spread from Hungary through most of Asia and conquered an empire wider than that of Alexander the Great.
Many of the finest pieces on display were discovered only in the last few years and have remained unexhibited outside Asia. The opening of channels between China and Western scholars led to the five years of East-West planning and communication and historical research behind this major art event.
Genghis Khan came to power through his father, leader of the Mongol tribes. His given name was Temujin, from the Mongolian tradition of conferring on a male child the name of a murdered enemy. This was said to ensure that the child received the enemy's valor.
Genghis was 8 when he was betrothed and sent to live with the father of his bride, and while there, his own father was poisoned by political assassins.
A kinsman hunted Genghis to keep him from seeking revenge or claiming his father's title. Genghis avoided capture by living by his wits in the hills, and at age 14 or 15 he was known for his horsemanship, physical prowess, and bravery. He rescued his wife from kidnappers and proclaimed himself khan or ``chief'' before he was out of his teens.
All of this history is conveyed through objects in the show. There is a three-footed Mongolian pot that borrows directly the shape of traditional Chinese bronzes.
There is a fine warrior's skullcap of hammered gold with a bird of prey carved from pure gold; the headband that kept the armor in place during battle is shaped to form elongated images of wolves devouring rams.
To visitors familiar with nomadic art from the area around present-day Iran (with animal and flower motifs) will recognize a link between that style and many of the items buried with Mongolian nobles. And those with a knowledge of Chinese art will notice the subtle artistic exchanges that took place between the cultures before and after the Mongols took over China.
The show's emblem is a larger-than-full-sized bronze, presumably of Khan in armor, sitting atop a powerful Eurasian horse, his cape fluttering behind him, and fierce eyes staring outward.
Beyond the images of war and pillage (and there are many), this exhibition showcases the rich culture of the Mongols. They are represented as highly organized, politically astute people who both borrowed from other cultures and developed their own innovations.
* `Genghis Khan: Treasures from Inner Mongolia' continues in Los Angeles until Aug. 14. It travels to the American Museum of Natural History in New York (Sept. 10 to Nov. 27); Tennessee State Museum in Nashville, Tenn. (Dec. 10 to March 5, 1995); and Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria, British Columbia (March 25 to Sept 10, 1995).