Corrections or additions?
This article by Phyllis Maguire was prepared for the November 21,
2001 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Genghis Khan Rides
Most Americans would have to think a long time about
Genghis Khan before the notion of "democratic leader" would
pop into their heads. But that is how the nation of his descendants
— the 2.4 million people who live in modern Mongolia — see
his legacy. After a turbulent century in which Mongols had to shake
off both Chinese feudalism and Soviet tyranny, the newly democratic
Mongolian Republic has spent the last decade implementing the
principles first instilled by their infamous ancestor.
A new exhibit entitled "Modern Mongolia: Reclaiming Genghis
at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and
in Philadelphia, tells the story of the last 100 years of this nomadic
society buffeted by its giant Central Asian neighbors to the north
and the south, Russia and China. The exhibition’s social and political
sweep is brought to life through three life-sized dioramas of
the Mongols’ traditional, tent-like mobile home.
These dioramas are part of an exhibit of more than 200 costumes,
and photographs brought from the National Museum of Mongolian History
in Ulaanbaatar, the nation’s capital, and seen in the U.S. for the
The conquerors are conquered
Genghis Khan (Genghis is a title that means
Ruler" and is pronounced JEN-gis, not GEN-gis) did indeed burn
and pillage, amassing the biggest empire ever ruled by a single man,
one that stretched from what is now Beijing to the Caspian Sea. By
1206, he had united the warring Mongolian tribes, organized a
efficient army, and established four essential democratic principles,
says curator Paula L. W. Sabloff.
"Rule by law, participatory government, equal protection under
the law, and personal freedom," she says, ticking them off during
a tour of the exhibit. "Nine years before Britain’s King John
was forced to sign the Magna Carta, Genghis Khan willingly
those principles into his reign."
It was far from what we would consider true democracy, she continues.
Women, for instance, had as much overt participation in Mongolian
government as they did in ancient Greece — which was none. But
Genghis Khan still relied upon an elected assembly to help set policy,
Sabloff points out, and promoted men on the basis of merit rather
His sons and grandsons (including one famous grandson, Kubilai)
the empire’s enormous reach to include much of modern China, both
Koreas, and Russia, as well as a hefty slice of the Middle East. Yet
within 150 years of Genghis Khan’s death, the Mongol Empire began
to fall apart; by the end of the 1600s, Mongolia was taken over by
the China’s Manchu Dynasty.
Now fast-forward some 300 years to the beginning of the 20th century,
when the time period covered by this exhibition begins. Here is the
first diorama of a Mongolian ger, the culture’s traditional
round dwelling of skin and felt lashed over a wooden lattice.
17-feet in diameter, the ger is windowless with a central hearth and
a smoke hole penetrating the top of the structure. The ger
is also the perfect aerodynamic design to survive Mongolia’s
steppes. It is designed to be put up and broken down in less than
The exhibit’s first diorama represents the life of a wealthy Mongolian
nomadic family of the early 20th century — a time when 90 percent
of Mongols were nomadic herders. A Tibetan Buddhist altar stands in
the place of honor, directly across from the door. Rich brocades and
ornately carved and painted wooden chests line the walls. A wooden
Mongolian saddle sits against the circular wall, while a huge bag
made of goat skins used to make airag, the drink of fermented
mares’ milk that is supposed to have healing properties, hangs to
Both men and women are dressed in boot-length tunics called
(and pronounced dells), but it is the wife’s outfit that catches the
eye. Her deel of Chinese silk is accessorized with a hugely
elaborate headdress, as well as hefty necklaces of coral, turquoise,
and seed pearls.
"The woman is the bank of the family," Sabloff explains, for
in this nomadic society, family wealth was converted into hair
and jewelry worn by the women.
But most Mongolians were desperately poor under Chinese
rule. The Tibetan Buddhist ruling class levied heavy taxes,
the people. As the text accompanying the feathered costume of a lama
explains, shamanism — the country’s traditional religion —
also flourished. But since it attracted as many as 100,000 lamas
half the country’s male population — shamanism also drained the
isolated country’s meager resources.
More than two centuries of Mongolian resistance came to a head when
the Manchus decided to forcibly settle, and intermarry, in Mongolia.
(The Communist Chinese later deployed the same brutal tactics in
Desperate for independence, Mongolia appealed to the United States,
Japan, England, and France for help, and were ignored. The Bolsheviks,
however, were willing to listen. By 1921, a Mongolian-Bolshevik
had forced the Chinese out, and Mongolia became the world’s second
Back to Democracy
The exhibit features photographs of Damdiny Suhbaatar,
the country’s dashing revolutionary hero, as well as his riding crop
with the secret compartment he used to carry messages to the
But Suhbaatar met a mysterious death after suggesting that the
should bow out after the coup. When Stalin came to power in the
he became dictator of Mongolia as well as of the Soviet Union, and
the country would have to wait 60 years to get out from under Soviet
One brilliantly colored poster shows the new Mongolia sweeping away
the priestly castes. Another has a Mongolian on horseback leaping
over the black sludge of capitalism. One deel on display is
festooned with medals, the Communists’ reward for service or
one is the Glorious Mother medal, given to women who have given birth
to at least eight children. There is also a set of silver statues
given out for exemplary herd production, one each for the Mongols’
important herds: camels, horses, cattle (either cows or yaks), sheep,
In the ger representing the country’s Communist era, there
is no religious altar. Instead, a shrine with photographs of family
and political leaders has taken its place. Men’s belongings are still
grouped to the left in the home, with women’s to the right, but there
are signs of technological improvements: The hearth in the middle
of the ger has been replaced by a stove that burns wood or
dung, and there is now a sewing machine. And since the Communists
ended the ownership of private herds, the ger of this era was
probably situated within a collective. Many more Mongolians also lived
in cities and worked in factories under the Communists: Whereas 90
percent of the population had been herders at the beginning of the
century, by 1960 that percentage had dropped to 60 percent.
Sabloff notes some advantages Mongols had under Soviet rule: Their
literacy rate shot up almost to 100 percent, and medical care improved
markedly. But religious persecution had been extreme, and tens of
thousands were killed in purges. By the time the Berlin Wall fell
in 1989, the Mongols were more than ready for their own revolution.
A video within the exhibit tells this story. Featuring many of those
who participated, it explains that the Mongols held massive
as well as hunger strikes, to successfully persuade the Communist
government to resign. By 1990, democratic elections were being held,
and by 1992, an elected parliament ruling under a new democratic
was in place. The country has spent the past 10 years reforming its
entire economic, educational, and judicial systems and learning to
survive without Russian help.
Why did the Mongols take so quickly to democracy? "We think it’s
because they inherited that 800-year-old tradition from Genghis
says Sabloff. In the third and final ger, this one representing
the present day, a Buddhist altar once again holds pride of place.
And although almost half the nation’s population now lives in cities,
even modern-day city-dwellers take to the country in gers for
But there are many more Western touches to be found here: A picture
of Michael Jordan is included, as well as one of the Dalai Lama, and
the children’s mannequins are dressed in sweatshirts and Yankee caps.
English schoolbooks lie about, along with newspapers produced by the
country’s newly free press.
And hanging from the wall is a woven rug with the image of Genghis
Khan. While the history of Mongolian culture was suppressed under
the Communists, Genghis Khan has come roaring back into the
of his newly independent country. There are labels displayed for
beer and Chingis Khan Vodka (40 proof). But there is also a photograph
of his statue that now sits in the national honor ger in the
courtyard of Government House, the site of the country’s elected
It is the place, Sabloff explains, where the nation’s leaders now
come to be photographed, standing within Genghis Khan’s long shadow.
— Phyllis Maguire
Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, 33rd and Spruce
Streets, Philadelphia, 215-898-4000. The museum is open Tuesday
Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; Sundays, 1 to 5 p.m. Call for
and recommendations on where to park. Admission $5 adults; $2.50
and seniors. Free admission on Sundays until Memorial Day. Show
through July 2002.
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