In Mongolia, there’s one man you can never escape. He’s a national symbol, and his name — Chinggis Khaan, aka Genghis Khan — is attached to everything: The capital, Ulan Bator, is served by Chinggis Khaan International Airport, and the Chinggis Khaan Bank lies on Chinggis Avenue, which leads toward Chinggis Square. Even the local expat bar is called the Grand Khaan Irish Pub, where you can order a shot of the famous Chinggis Vodka.
Locals speak of Khan with pride, and 30 miles outside the city stands a 130-foot statue of the famed warlord on horseback, in shining steel, imperiously dominating the desolate steppe landscape. Tourists can climb up and stand on the horse’s head to get a sense of Khan’s historical domination of Eurasia.
History had already made up its mind about Khan, thanks to accounts written by European, Persian and Chinese scholars.
So why all the reverence for a man considered history’s most barbaric and even genocidal conqueror by the West? It’s not just nationalism, though there’s plenty of that. The Chinggis Khaan remembered in modern Mongolia is very different from the one we learned about in school. His diplomatic brilliance allowed him to unify perpetually warring tribes under one national banner, and the empire he created respected religious freedom and diplomatic immunity, used rudimentary passports and credit cards, facilitated international trade, outlawed torture, created public schools and even launched a cross-continental postal service.
Khan “was the greatest conqueror the world has ever known,” writes historian and biographer Frank McLynn: Under his leadership, the Mongols conquered more land and people in 25 years than the Romans did in four centuries. After Khan’s death, the Mongols went on to control the largest contiguous empire in history, covering almost the entire habitable Asian continent and the Middle East, extending into Central Europe in the West and reaching Indonesia in the East.
Europeans had never had contact with Mongols before. So when an unknown enemy speaking an unfamiliar tongue was destroying Russian, Ukrainian and Hungarian cities in the mid-13th century, news spread like wildfire. English chronicler Matthew Pais described them in 1240 as “an immense horde of that detestable race of Satan … rather to be called monsters than men, thirsting after and drinking blood,” as quoted in Jack Weatherford’s book Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World.
Khan refused to allow anything to be written about him while he was alive. But after his death, a “Secret History of the Mongols” was written in Mongolian. It was subsequently lost for centuries, and only eventually rediscovered, decoded and translated by the 20th century, explains Weatherford, a leading historian of the Mongol empire. But by that time, history had already made up its mind about Khan, thanks to accounts written by European, Persian and Chinese scholars, all of whom had been “not only defeated but humiliated” by the Mongols, whom they considered “inferior barbarians,” says Weatherford.
Khan’s history, in other words, was written by the vanquished, not the victors. It’s no coincidence that, a few hundred years later, fear and hatred of the Mongols was so established that the “scientific” classification of races listed Mongol or Mongoloid humans of Asian origin as inferior, closer to the orangutan than Caucasians, with the word mongoloid later being used to refer to children with mental disabilities.
It’s impossible to know exactly what happened during the Mongol conquests, in part because they purposefully spread myths of extreme brutality “to intimidate their enemies,” writes Jeffrey Garten, dean emeritus at the Yale School of Management and author of From Silk to Silicon, which portrays Khan as perhaps the father of globalization. Some of these tales included boiling enemies alive and drinking from their skulls.
In Weatherford’s opinion, the sheer numbers of civilian deaths often credited to Mongol conquests are probably exaggerated “by a factor of about 10.” Furthermore, “every city was offered the chance to surrender and be spared,” he says, and often the reported massacres occurred in retaliation after Mongolian ambassadors or trade envoys had been tortured or killed — offending the Mongol custom of diplomatic immunity. Also, violence and barbarism were a way of life in the 13th century. When fear spread of the Mongols’ impending campaigns, Christians blamed Jews for bringing the Satanic plague, and responded by wiping out Jewish communities across Europe.
The extent of barbarism in the Mongol Empire remains a mystery, but we know it certainly wasn’t unique. The international networks of free trade pioneered by Khan and his successors, meanwhile, changed the world in underappreciated ways: The printing press, gunpowder and the compass were all brought to Europe on Mongol trade networks, Garten notes. Western intellectualism, it seems, is far from perfect when it comes to “historical truths,” so it may be time for Genghis Khan to become a hero of revisionist history.
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