Celebrating Genghis Khan's Big Year - Archaeology Magazine Archive

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Celebrating Genghis Khan's Big Year September 29, 2006
by Eric Powell

Eight centuries on, the Mongolian conqueror continues to influence culture worldwide.

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Mongolians love their Khan.

Before I traveled to Mongolia last year to report a story on Bronze Age nomads, I'd read about the country's devotion to a man known throughout the rest of the world as the most ruthless and bloodthirsty conqueror in the planet's history. But I was still surprised by the ubiquity of his presence in the capital city Ulaanbaatar (sometimes spelled Ulan Bator, or "Red Hero" in Mongolian). Not only is his visage (sometimes benevolent, sometimes fearsome) found in the usual places like stamps, money, and public squares, but it's also emblazoned on restaurant menus, cigarettes, and toiletries that bear the name Genghis, or even Temuujin, his given name.

Instead of the scourge of civilization, Mongolians see Genghis as not just the founder of the Mongolian state, but as a force for progress and development during the Middle Ages, a leader whose legacy still has profound implications today, especially now that Mongolia is a democracy. The Khan was even the consensus vote for "Man of the Millennium" in surveys of historians a few years ago, a development that the Mongolian government still trumpets proudly in promotional material.

This was a big year for the Man of the Millennium. Mongolians celebrated the 800th anniversary of the formation of the Mongolian Empire. The somewhat arbitrary date of 1206 is the year that Genghis unified all the Mongolian tribes, his first step toward establishing the vast empire that eventually stretched from China to the Caspian Sea.

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How to celebrate the anniversary? In addition to a number of academic conferences and other events marking the occasion, there is some talk about changing the capital's name to Genghis City. Some 30 miles from Ulaanbaatar, the government has a 130-foot-tall statue of the Khan in the works at the spot where, in 1177, young Temuujin found a horsewhip lying on a hilltop as he rode past. Horsewhips being lucky, he took it as an auspicious sign for his plan to re-unite the Mongols.

At ARCHAEOLOGY, we can mark the occasion easily. Few historical figures have invaded popular culture as successfully as Genghis. Caesar and Cleopatra come to mind, but that's about it. The Khan has appeared in museum exhibitions, of course, but also books (scholarly, popular, and pulp fiction) and film (including The Conqueror, a 1956 movie with John Wayne improbably cast as Genghis).

Genghis Khan casts a long shadow in the archaeological record, too. And it turns out quite a few of us are even carrying the conqueror's DNA around. A genetic study done by Oxford geneticist Brian Sykes shows that 16 million people worldwide, eight percent of Asian men, are descended from the prolific Khan, who it turns out did more than put whole cities to the sword. The Khan had four legitimate sons, but it seems he had many, many more progeny than history records. And his four sons were known to be prolific as well. This year there was a great deal of publicity surrounding one purported descendant, Tom Robinson, a middle-aged accounting professor at the University of Miami who submitted his DNA to Sykes's Oxford Ancestors company. An initial analysis linked Robinson to Genghis. "I'm not sure we have too many similarities," he told the London Times. "I obviously haven't conquered any countries, and though I've headed up accounting groups, I've done nothing as big as Genghis Khan." However, Robinson, like any good accountant, asked for a second test to be performed once the publicity spiraled out of control and a movie company offered to fly him to Mongolia. The second analysis showed that he was in fact not related to the Khan. (For an amusing summary of the whole Genghis-Robinson DNA affair see Tom "Ex-Khan" Robinson's blog.)

Some of the Khan's more merciless moments are stamped indelibly in the archaeological ruins of cities scattered across Central Asia. Two of the biggest sites that suffered the most at the hands of the Khan's warriors are Merv, in Turkmenistan and Otrar in Kazakhstan. Both cities were virtually wiped out by during Genghis's campaigns, their populations put to sword. Their mud-brick remains today are the focus of preservation efforts by UNESCO and other organizations.

And though he was a nomadic emperor, Genghis left his fair share of archaeological sites in Mongolia. The most important of these is Karakorum, the Khan's capital city. Once the capital of the Khan's fierce rivals, the Naiman tribe, Karakorum served as Genghis's military headquarters during his conquest of China. Though the Khan rarely spent much time in the city, and the "capital" of the empire was in fact wherever the Khan's palatial yurt happened to be, Karakorum during the Khan's day was the site of a fixed garrison that marked the heart of the empire. Genghis's son Ögedei built Karakorum into a true city. Destroyed in 1380 by a Chinese army, the city's ruins eventually became the site of the Buddhist monastery of Erdene Zuu, which is still active today.

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Karakorum excavation site (German Archaeological Institute)

A joint Mongolian-German archaeological team has been excavating at Karakorum since 1999. They've found evidence that shows the city was once a cosmopolitan center that drew people from across the Mongolian empire, from Persia to China. The team has also discovered the remains of the Palace of Eternal Peace, Ögedei's once sumptuous, and perhaps ironically named, residence.

Karakorum is the marquee site associated with Genghis that archaeologists can actually survey and dig. But it's the long sought final resting place of the great Khan that keeps archaeologists and adventurers across the world up late at night.

Legend has it that all the soldiers and laborers who built the tomb were killed to keep its location secret. And it's no stretch to say that the site remains one of archaeology's greatest mysteries. Dozens of expeditions have been launched to find the tomb and millions of dollars have been spent, much of it by Chicago attorney and commodities trader Maury Kravitz, whose Genghis Khan Geo-Historical Expedition made headlines a few years ago with their well-publicized but ultimately fruitless search for the Khan's tomb.

In 2001, a Mongolian-Japanese team found the foundations of a site they believed to be Genghis's mausoleum, raising hopes that the tomb would be found nearby. Five years later, the tomb remains undiscovered, a fact that pleases Mongolians I spoke with last summer. Even some Mongolian archaeologists I discussed the subject with feel that the great Khan is better off resting in peace.

That won't keep future generations of romantically inclined scholars from dreaming about finding the tomb. I still remember the catch in my college advisor's voice when he talked about Genghis. Normally a gruff and no-nonsense sort who had spent some of his earliest years in the field working on sites in the Gobi desert, he once spoke to me about returning to Mongolia and finishing his work there. He then surprised me by saying he had a theory about where the Khan is buried. But he wasn't about to tell it to me.

Eric Powell, senior editor at ARCHAEOLOGY, is not to his knowledge descended from Genghis Khan.

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© 2006 by the Archaeological Institute of America
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