I want to make it clear right from the beginning that I think Genghis Khan and the Mongol hordes have gotten a bum rap in the annals of history. Most of our ideas about the ferocity of the Mongol invasion come from contemporary accounts of Genghis Khan’s admittedly ferocious campaign against the Turkish kingdom of Khwarizim: one of the rare cases where the losers wrote the history.* While there is no doubt that the Mongol invasions were bloody, violent, and cruel, it’s not clear to me that they were any more blood-thirsty than the Vikings**, the Romans ***, or the Crusaders****
The more I learn about the man I like to call Genghis the Great, the more fascinated I am. So I was really excited when a Genghis Khan exhibit opened at the Field Museum here in Chicago.
Like most exhibits at the Field Museum these days, the exhibit is an engaging multi-media blend, with artifacts from Mongolian museums as well as its own collection, filmed interviews, video reconstructions of historical events, and 21st century relatives of that old natural history museum staple the diorama. They do a good job of balancing the different views of Genghis Khan as conqueror, state builder, and father of modern Mongolia, both figuratively and literally. (Recent studies suggest that a substantial proportion of the modern population of Mongolia is descended from Genghis Khan. ) Some of the most fascinating exhibits look at Genghis Khan’s life through the lens of modern Mongolian nomads. Personally, I was fascinated by the working model of a trebuchet and thrilled to see one of the metal passports that gave travelers free passage through the enormous Mongol empire. (Yeah, yeah, I’m a history geek. Who else would write a history blog.)
The exhibit runs through September 3. If you’re in Chicago, make time to see it. If you can’t make it to Chicago, you’ll have another chance. It will open at Atlanta’s Fernbank Museum of Natural History in October.
In conjunction with the exhibit, I’m giving away a copy of Jack Weatherford’s excellent Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World . Just leave a comment on the blog to be included in a random drawing. (Sending me a private e-mail, as many of you do, doesn’t count for this. If you don’t know how to leave a comment, let me know.) My Own True Love will chose a name on 6/26.
* The Persians and Turks had an advantage in the history wars. There was no written Mongol language until Genghis Khan commissioned its creation.
**Whose annual raids were so fearsome that the Christian liturgy in the British Isles included a special prayer: “Save us, oh Lord, from the fury of the Northmen.”
***Who not only sowed salt in the fields of Carthage after they razed the city, but invented a nasty form of execution known as crucifixion. Maybe you’ve heard of it?
****Who by their own accounts practiced cannibalism after the siege of Ma’arra in the First Crusade.