No one to mess with

A 13th-century bronze-and-silver paiza was a diplomatic passport that guaranteed the bearer safe passage throughout the Mongol Empire.

Traditional Mongolian clothing from the 19th century is on display at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science.

This porcelain vase dates back to the Mongol Empire's 13th-century Yuan Dynasty.

This Jamsran Tsam mask is worn by a Tsam dancer as part of a Buddhist dance-drama and religious ritual.

PHOTOS FOR THE CHIEFTAIN/STEPHEN M. VOYNICK -- A life-sized statue of a fully armed, mounted Mongol soldier is part of the Genghis Khan exhibition at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science.

Genghis Khan exhibit takes closer look at legendary Mongol warrior
DENVER - His people revered him; his enemies feared him. And both had good reason.

Genghis Khan, the 13th-century ruler whose unified Mongol nation formed the foundation of the largest contiguous land empire the world has ever known, was a bold and brilliant military strategist. He also was an illiterate peasant who nevertheless managed to give his people their first written language. And he was a gifted statesman who established a sophisticated society that championed religious freedom and open trade, supported the arts, believed in self-determination and the rule of law, and embraced - and often improved upon - the ideas and inventions of other cultures.

Yet despite his broad-mindedness, Genghis Khan was still someone you didn’t want to mess with.

The wildly dichotomous nature of this great leader is highlighted in Genghis Khan, a special exhibition at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science now through Feb. 7. “Yes, Genghis Khan was a ruthless warrior and history’s greatest conqueror,” says Jennifer Moss Logan, the exhibition’s lead educator. “But he was also a man very much ahead of his time who introduced incredible innovations to his people. This exhibition goes beyond black or white, good or bad, and lets visitors discover the nuances of the actual human being behind the legend.”

Housed in the museum’s newly renovated, 14,000-square-foot Phipps Special Exhibits Gallery, Genghis Khan traces the rise of this powerful sovereign from his humble beginnings as a member of an outcast peasant family left to perish on the harsh steppes, to his 21-year reign over a 12-million-square-mile territory which, at its peak, encompassed nearly 30 conquered nations and extended from the borders of Eastern Europe north to Siberia, south to India, and clear across China to the Sea of Japan.

More than 200 artifacts, most dating from the 13th and 14th centuries, reflect the lives of Genghis Khan and his descendants and the rise and decline (by the late 15th century) of the Mongol Empire. These include weapons of war such as swords, helmets, maces, shields, leather armor and a variety of arrowheads (larger for up-close killing, smaller for shooting at a distance), along with finely crafted household and personal items like golden bowls and goblets, colorful glazed ceramics, musical instruments, handwoven silk robes and exquisite silver, gold, turquoise and carnelian jewelry.

Gold and silver coins bear inscriptions glorifying Genghis Khan as “Khan of Khans, the Just, the Most Mighty . . . the Great,” while rare manuscripts recount the history of his reign. Medallion-like “passports” called paizi reflect his emphasis on diplomatic relations: Envoys, traders and government representatives carrying paizi were guaranteed safe passage throughout the empire; anyone failing to honor this edict could be put to death.

There are displays focusing on the “four Khanates,” the semi-autonomous kingdoms ruled by Genghis Khan’s four sons and their families after their patriarch’s death in 1227 at age 65; Karakorum, the walled city that became the empire’s capital during the reign of Ogodei, Genghis Khan’s third son and chosen successor; and China’s Yuan dynasty, governed by Genghis Khan’s most famous grandson Kublai, who completed his grandfather’s conquest of China and played host to Venetian merchant and traveler Marco Polo. The exhibition concludes with a look at modern Mongolia and a tribute to Colorado’s 2,500-member Mongolian community, one of the largest of its kind outside of Mongolia.

Hands-on and interactive exhibits take visitors inside a Mongolian ger, a tent-like nomadic dwelling, where they can compete at knucklebone, a children’s game originally played with real sheep bones. There are live cultural performances by Mongolian folk dancers, contortionists and musicians; tables for making paper replicas of a traditional Mongolian hat; and demonstrations of such Mongol weaponry as the catapult-like traction trebuchet. (Fortunately, the museum’s miniature model only fires pingpong balls.) A life-sized, lifelike statue of a fully armed Mongol warrior on horseback and two nearly full-sized siege engines, along with giant video screens depicting a loud and furious Mongol raid on a walled city, make me feel like I’m actually going to war with the mighty Genghis Khan and his highly organized and disciplined, 120,000-member army. These expert archers were also superb horsemen who could accurately launch arrows while facing backward in the saddle or clinging to a mount’s flank for protection.

But while Mongol men and women both learned to ride horses almost as soon as they could walk, women rarely played direct combat roles (although one of Genghis Khan’s daughters is recorded as having led a successful attack). Instead, women were sent into the field after a battle to collect arrows for re-use - and to dispatch wounded enemy soldiers.

Nothing instilled terror quite like the sight of an approaching Mongol horde - unless it was the eerie, frightful noise made by their “whistling” arrows or the dreadful siege engines that hurled not just stone projectiles but also the disease-ridden bodies of dead animals in an early form of biological warfare.

If these weapons didn’t force an immediate surrender, Genghis Khan could always employ psychological warfare, putting straw “soldiers” on horseback to make his army appear even larger, or using captives - often the neighbors, friends or relatives of besieged defenders - as human shields.

Even his own people suffered from his ruthlessness. Genghis Khan once ordered three of his strongest wrestlers to ambush and kill his overly ambitious chief shaman by breaking the man’s spine. And as a teenager, he launched his own career by making himself the head of his family - after joining forces with a brother to murder their half-brother.

What a guy, huh?

“That depends on who you talk to,” says museum public relations manager Heather Hope. “I think the real question is, ‘Was the world better off with or without Genghis Khan?’ And I’d say with him, because he was politically adept, he single-handedly created the world’s greatest empire, and he is still honored and celebrated today, 800 years later, as the father of his country.”

Actually, his paternal reach was much broader.

According to a 2003 study in the American Journal of Human Genetics, Genghis Khan’s direct patrilineal descendants make up 0.5 percent of the current world population. That means 16 million men are walking around today carrying his Y chromosome.

It also means that modern technology has discovered yet another field in which Genghis Khan excelled.

Sunday, December 6, 2009 (Pueblo Chieftain newspaper of Colorado, USA)


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