Genghis Khan Revisited

First a little bit of business. Last week I announced that I was giving away a copy of this book:



As promised, this morning My Own True Love drew a name out of my favorite summer hat.  The winner is Jessica, who blogs about books at Quirky Bookworm. Send me an e-mail with your address and I'll send Genghis Khan on this way.

Now,  back to Genghis Khan

Genghis Khan's influence didn't end with his death in China in 1227. The Mongol army took his body back to the Central Asian steppes and buried it in secret. His soldiers sealed off the area around it for several hundred square miles. Known as the Great Taboo, the area was closed to everyone except members of Genghis Khan's family and a cadre of specially trained warriors who were sworn to kill intruders. For more than 150 years, his descendants ruled over his empire, expanding it and finally divided it into four separate khanates. Long after the khanates collapsed in the fourteen and fifteenth centuries, Mongols continued to guard the Great Taboo against intruders.

When the Soviets captured Mongolia in 1924, they feared the memory of Genghis Khan would become a nationalist rallying point. They squashed the name of the Great Taboo, but continued to guard the area, which they termed a Highly Restricted Area (basically, another way of saying Great Taboo). In fact, the Soviets went a step further than the Mongols and surrounded the Highly Restricted Area with an equally large Restricted Area. Instead of Mongol warriors guarding the borders, a Soviet tank base blocked the entrance into the security zone The dual forbidden zone was not governed as part of the surrounding province, but controlled directly from Moscow.

Soviet concerns were not entirely unreasonable; since the end of the cold War, Mongolia has celebrated Genghis Khan as their greatest national hero.

A Grab-Bag of History Documentaries

As part of their first-anniversary celebration*,, a curated resource for watching documentaries on-line, hand-picked a selection of history documentaries for me to share with you.  They're very much in keeping with the non-Western, eclectic nature of History in the Margins. I think you'll find them fascinating.

Make yourself a bowl of popcorn, kickback, enjoy the show--and wish the folks at Documentary Storm a happy anniversary.

The Emperor's Tram Girls:Hiroshima, 1945. The Emperor's Tram Girls were trained to drive tens of thousands of Japanese troops through the town. The drivers were young, pretty, bubbly girls who were picked for their winning personalities. They had their whole lives ahead of them. Then the bomb dropped.

The Pyramid Code, Part One: The Band of Peace. The Band of Peace is the area in which six different sites sit, among them the Great Pyramid at Giza. One scholar insists the pyramids were not built by slaves. So who actually built these structures?

Last Christians of Bethlehem. Barely any Christians still live in the birthplace of Jesus Christ. Christians have lived in Bethlehem for centuries, but in today's political climate, they have fewer reasons to stay. See why.

Secrets of the Maya Underworld. Unlike other great empires, much of the Mayan world is in fact devoid of even the smallest river or lake. Then why did they populate Yucatan? The Maya believed that the freshwater pools, ëcenotesí, dotted across the area were sacred portals to the underworld.


*History in the Margins recently passed the one year mark, too.  I just had my head too far down to notice.  Why don't we consider this a double celebration.

History on Display: Genghis Khan

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.