Embracing Temujin

by Nathan Hamm on 5/10/2005 · 3 comments

IHT has a great article on Genghis Khan’s renewed significance in Mongolian culture and history.

Historians in the West and in China, India, Iran and other nations that fell to Genghis Khan’s horsemen in the early 1200s see the onslaught of the Mongol hordes as an apocalyptic event that threatened to end their ancient civilizations forever.

But to the Mongolians, one of history’s greatest tyrants has always been the greatest hero. “When we were young people, our parents used to tell us stories of Genghis, of how he was good and strong and kind,” said Naramtsetseg Dolgormaa, 27, who teaches the Japanese language. “I’ll never forget that.”

Differing assessments of conquerors can roil emotions in Asia, where passions over history run high. But since Genghis Khan’s legacy is free of living memory, it is proving easier to revise.

After having read Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, I am fairly convinced that much of Temujin’s bad reputation is undeserved. Yes, he was a conqueror who showed disregard for the lives of those who opposed him, but he was nowhere near the monster that Tamerlane was.

In fact, Weatherford points out in his book that Genghis had a fairly good reputation in Europe until a few hundred years after his death. And in Asia, pan-Asianists have invoked his name and memory as a reminder that Asia was once the dominant continent(if I had the book in front of me, I’d find some examples).

The story hits on the fact that the history is biased.

Baabar said the savage image of Genghis Khan endures only because “his history was written by his enemies.” The Mongols were not scribes, and the only comprehensive chronicle of his times, “The Secret History of the Mongols” (a 13th-century account of Genghis Khan’s life), was lost for centuries.

Weatherford largely relies on The Secret History for his book, and the story seems to indirectly refer to Weatherford’s argument that the Mongol invasions transformed Eurasia by connecting mostly self-contained civilizations and by introducing new economic and legal concepts. And in just about every way imaginable, it’s worth noting that Mongol society was more democratic than any of the societies it conquered.

I again suggest picking up Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World. It certainly helps make clear why it is the Mongols are eagerly putting Temujin back in the center of their identity.

UPDATE: OTB is talking about this story as well. I’m all for lots of people talking about Temujin.

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– author of 2991 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Nathan is the founder and Principal Analyst for Registan, which he launched in 2003. He was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Uzbekistan 2000-2001 and received his MA in Central Asian Studies from the University of Washington in 2007. Since 2007, he has worked full-time as an analyst, consulting with private and government clients on Central Asian affairs, specializing in how socio-cultural and political factors shape risks and opportunities and how organizations can adjust their strategic and operational plans to account for these variables. More information on Registan's services can be found here, and Nathan can be contacted via Twitter or email.

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hulegu May 10, 2005 at 12:00 pm

On the contrary, two of the best 13th century sources for the Mongols were written by their supporters: Juwayni’s “History of the World Conqueror” and Rashid al-Din’s “Successors of Genghis Khan”. However, much of the hyperbolic nonsense written about Chinngis Qan is derived from Juzjani’s Tabaqat-i Nasiri. The most famous example is of the estimated figure of 2.4 million for the number of people killed in Herat, based solely on a somewhat dubious report that 600,000 bodies were found in one quarter of the city alone.

Anyhoo, having greatly enjoyed studying the MOngols in my undergrad days, I’m glad to see this period of history undergoing a renaissance.

prokrn May 11, 2005 at 12:25 am

I especially liked how Weatherford draws a parallel between the Mongol Empire and the U.S., both guarantee security to the nations within their respective domains. Inside the domain, trade occurs and nations prosper. Nations outside the domain, either they are crushed or ignored. Weatherford wrote an excellent book.

Chirol May 11, 2005 at 4:16 am

Thanks for the book recommendation. If it’s good enough for Registan it’s good enough for me. Off I go to Amazon.

I’ve been reading a lot on Central Asia lately and have been looking for something on the Mongols anyway, fantastic timing!

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