Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Chinggis, hero or villain? 

One of the books I read while in Mongolia -- which, Chad will agree, is a better activity than watching BBC or CNN International on your satellite TV in your room -- was Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World. Written by Macalester professor Jack Weatherford, it is a relatively revisionist history of the Great Khan's creation of the first Mongolian State. Mongolia is now celebrating the 800th anniversary of its creation. This made hotels in UB very hard to come by. The airport now has been renamed Chinggis Khan Airport, which gives the Manchester Guardian some discomfort.
He is credited with a belief in meritocracy, decimalisation, female emancipation, freedom of religion and flat taxes (after a fashion). He also specialised in mass slaughter, razing cities to the ground (saving only the engineers and artists), and pouring molten silver into the ears of insurgent leaders or, if they preferred, suffocating them under his table while he ate dinner. Neoconservatives still often declare themselves "well to the right" of him.
The Guardian concerns itself with how this plays to the tourist industry (which is a substantial part of service exports in Mongolia) but I can tell you it plays well to the locals. And celebration of Chinggis occurs even among the expatriate community, as this
report in the San Francisco Chronicle notes.
Thousands of Mongolians from across the United States gathered at San Francisco's Golden Gate Park on Saturday to celebrate the 800th anniversary of Genghis Khan establishing the Mongol empire.

They came from Chicago, Washington, D.C., Minnesota, Denver and across California to a small field behind the Conservatory of Flowers for what organizers said was the first such celebration in the United States. Some men dressed in the traditional uniform of a Genghis Khan warrior, and an offering was made to the Mongolian ruler's spirit involving fermented mare's milk - a favorite drink of Khan's and still a popular drink on the Mongolian steppes.

Although much of the world knows Genghis Khan for his ruthless pursuit of an empire, he is revered in Mongolia, where his image decorates everything from vodka to cigarettes to restaurants. There he is called Chinggis Khaan.
The fermented mare's milk, called 'airag', is actually quite tasty. (Those of you who see the word 'arak' there -- that's a Turkish drink that's completely different. But the words probably have the same root, which roughly translates to "drink that will make you stupid.") If you drink kefir from your local Lunds or Byerlys, you've had something similar, except without the alcoholic kick. Frankly, it's better than Chinggis vodka or Chinggis beer, neither of which I would recommend. Poland and Ukraine still win my tastebuds for vodka, and Czech beer is still the cat's pajamas.

Weatherford's book makes the point that since Mongolian shamanism practiced by Chinggis made one's head sacred, many of the violent things he is said to have done make no sense. Weatherford's book seems plausible enough, and the people of the steppe now are serene enough that I think Weatherford's account has some validity. Most of the book is based on translations of "The Secret History of the Mongols", written by scribes contemporaranrously in Chinggis' court. It will be interesting to see whether the book withstands scrutiny as others read the Secret History and write their own accounts.