By Karl Malakunas
Standing in the shadow of an enormous new statue of Genghis Khan in Ulan Bator's central square, 16-year-old Tselmeg offered an unusually balanced opinion of Mongolia's all-conquering warrior.
"He established the Mongol Empire and he tried to unite the world, so surely he was good," the ninth-grade student said as she squinted her eyes under a peak cap bearing the logo of a US sports brand.
"At the same time, he was brutal and he killed many people. But overall, I'm very proud of him."
Tselmeg converged along with thousands of other Mongolians on the central square this week for the unveiling of the statue, part of national festivities to celebrate the 800th anniversary of the founding of the Mongol Empire.
The week has been a time for unrestrained joy among Mongolians, with fond reflections of their empirical past magnified by the enormously diminished state of their nation in the 21st century.
At the height of the Mongol Empire in the 12th and 13th centuries, its territory covered more than 35 million square Kilometers (14 million square miles), stretching from South-East Asia through Central Asia and into Eastern Europe.
In contrast, Mongolia today is a deeply poor nation of just 2.8 million people, with less than 1.5 million square Kilometers of land and completely surrounded by modern-day powers Russia and China.
|Genghis (or Chengez) Khan and his nomadic warriors brought many powerful empires to their knees|
"Genghis Khan is a living, legendary hero for Mongolians," the president of Chinggis Khaan University, Kh. Lkhagvasuren, told AFP. "For Mongolians, he's almost like Jesus Christ. They feel very close to him. They feel attached to him."
The near-worshipping of Genghis Khan in Mongolia is in contrast to the reputation of him in the Western and Muslim worlds as a savage barbarian.
Genghis Khan conquered more land than any other man in history and set the stage for his descendants to lead campaigns of previously unimaginable success.
To take just one example, the Mongol warriors took control of Baghdad, the heart and soul of the Arab world, in 1258, achieving in just two years what the European Crusaders could never do.
All this, according to the popular theory in the Western and Muslim worlds, was due to unparalleled savagery by the Mongolian hordes, leading to the deaths of tens of millions of people and the destruction of cities and civilizations.
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