Genghis Khan: Treasures from Inner Mongolia

By Kessler, Adam T. | USA TODAY, May 1994 | Go to article overview

Genghis Khan: Treasures from Inner Mongolia


Kessler, Adam T., USA TODAY


Born in relative obscurity in 1167 A.D., Genghis Khan established a legacy throughout much of the world as a ruthless and cold-blooded conqueror. In Mongolia and China's Inner Mongolia, however, he still is revered as a hero. The product of an era of bloodshed and struggle between different tribal factions in northeastern Mongolia, Temujin (his name at birth) grew up to be a shrewd warrior. By 1206, his military initiatives had defeated all competing tribes. These victories endowed him with the power to unify all the tribes of the Mongolian steppe into one empire. He declared that all the people in the empire were Mongols and subsequently he was proclaimed Genghis Khan, the universal ruler of the Mongol chieftains.

Although many of Genghis Khan's acts can be viewed as inhumane, he was not an impulsive conqueror, but, rather, a cunning and highly organized master of his domain. In structuring his army, he made sure to integrate soldiers from different tribal backgrounds together in the same unit. This fostered a loyalty to the Mongol army as a whole, rather than specific heritages within the Mongol culture. Instead of promoting nobility, Genghis Khan awarded his warriors in terms of their skill and allegiance. One of his strongest weapons was the psychological terror he induced not only amongst the enemy, but also within his own troops.

Genghis Khan's empire was the largest of its era, and he quickly realized that an efficient communication system to connect his entire domain was paramount in deterring any potential enemies. To accomplish this, Khan perfected and expanded the "orto" system of horses and relay stations he had inherited from earlier cultures. Similar to the American Pony Express, the orto riders carried messages over vast distances on horseback. Instead of handing the notes over to a new rider after riding 75 miles or so, though, they would switch to a fresh mount at each relay station. This system ensured the strictest security of confidential documents, often forcing the messengers to ride over 200 miles in one day.

Aside from being a master military tactician, Genghis Khan also was responsible for several significant cultural legacies. He adopted Turkic script for the first written Mongol language and, along with his successors, nurtured the creation of a more sophisticated Mongolian material culture. By encouraging the construction of permanent structures that merited luxury furnishings, these Mongolian leaders cultivated a need for an artisan class. Through their patronage of the arts, Genghis Khan and his descendants made a positive and lasting impact on art in the ancient world, including Chinese porcelain, Russian metalwork, and Persian textiles.

When Genghis Khan died on Aug. 8, 1227, news of his death and the burial plans were kept a state secret. Mongol legend recounts that all creatures, human and animal, that encountered the funerary procession on its journey quickly were executed to ensure that his tomb would not be discovered and looted. The efforts to protect their great leader's final resting place succeeded, leaving the tomb of Genghis Khan - and the 40 virgin women and 40 horses rumored to be buried with him - undiscovered to this day.

At the time of his death, the empire of Genghis Khan extended from the Pacific Ocean to the Black Sea and from Siberia to Tibet. In 1279, his grandson, Khubilai Khan, conquered Beijing and founded the Chines-style Yuan dynasty. The broad expanse of Mongol rule made Asia a relatively peaceful region at this time, leaving China accessible to foreign visitors, such as Marco Polo. In spite of the repression the Chinese endured by the enforced Mongol rule, native arts flourished, including calligraphy, painting, and literature.

This era of calm also resulted in the eventual downfall of the Mongol rule. Civil disputes between Mongol princes and the deterioration of the military due to a shift to the more sedentary Chinese lifestyle left the rulers weak in the face of massive peasant uprisings. …

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