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

first time.

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

than birth.

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

the right.

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

— or

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

Communist nation.

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,

and goats.

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

summer vacation.

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

Modern Mongolia: Reclaiming Genghis Khan, University of

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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