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Genghis Khan: Savage or saint?

india Updated: Jul 15, 2006 17:47 IST
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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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However a much more positive view is emerging in the West through scholars such as American anthropologist Jack Weatherford, who wrote the 2004 New York Times best seller: "Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World".

Much of Weatherford's work focused on the positive legacy of Genghis Khan and the Mongol Empire, achievements he believes have been overlooked over the past 800 years of demonization.

Two of Genghis Khan's greatest legacies were his commitment to religious freedom and establishing the concept of diplomatic immunity, Weatherford told AFP in a phone interview.

Genghis Khan's establishment of trade routes between Asia and Europe should also be taken into account when assessing his life, according to Weatherford.

"So far as we know when Genghis Khan was born no-one had ever heard of Europe or ever been there and as far as we know no-one from Europe had ever been to China," Weatherford said.

"And yet by the time he died the far east and China and the far west of Europe had been united in a way that has not been broken until this day."

Weatherford attributed Genghis Khan's dark reputation in the West to a lack of understanding, from 800 years ago to today, about Asian cultures and thought. 

 
 Jack Weatherford's bestselling novel looks past the centuries of demonisation of the Great Khan

"A large part of it is ignorance of the east rather than prejudice although prejudice is a factor," Weatherford said.

"It's hard to believe that a man (from Asia) could be so thoughtful and could have created so much... it's more out of ignorance than anything else."

In Mongolia, Genghis Khan's legacy is assessed firstly by the fact he subdued and brought the constantly warring nomadic tribes of central Asia into the Mongol Empire.

"For Mongolians, his great achievement was he united all the separate tribes on the steppe under one nation," Lkhagvasuren from Chinggis Khaan University said.

"On the world stage, his greatest achievement was he connected the east and the west, Asia and Europe, by founding the Silk Road. And it wasn't just goods that crossed the world. It was an exchange of everything, ideas and skills."

For good or bad, Lkhagvasuren and others point out that one of the Mongols' most important legacies was the unifying of warring tribes, cities and civilizations.

Most significantly the borders of modern-day Russia and China were basically established under the Mongols.

"Because of Mongolians, there is now China and Russia," Lkhagvasuren said.

As Weatherford pointed out in his book, Genghis Khan's grandson, Khubilai, did what no Chinese person could do in unifying the country when he overthrew the Sung and created the Yuan dynasty.

In doing so, he created a China that encompassed the Tibetan, Uighur and Manchurian civilizations, with the nation five times as large as the area inhabited by Chinese speaking people.

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