If work or play takes you to Houston between now and September 7, check out the Genghis Khan exhibit at the Houston Museum of Natural History and you’ll never again equate the conquering Mongol with “barbarian.”
The “conquering” part is definitely an understatement. During his
reign Genghis Khan, who died in 1227, brought more land under his
control than either Julius Caesar or Alexander the Great, but the
200-plus treasures (jewels, bows, arrows, armor, silk robes, imperial
gold and other artifacts, many of which had never before left Mongolia)
on exhibit paint a more nuanced portrait. Created and designed by Don Lessem,
who is best known for the dinosaur exhibits he designs for museums, the
Genghis Khan exhibit shows that “we have Genghis to thank for the post
office, passports, paper money, diplomatic immunity, national parks,
even hamburgers, pants, skis, baklava, and yelling ‘hooray,’” Lessem
says. “No one ruled more of the Earth, no one influenced its future like
Genghis,” who brought these innovations to the West. There’s also an IMAX film; the show moves to Denver, Dallas and other North American museums for two years after it closes in Houston.
The exhibit, the most comprehensive assembly of Genghis artifacts
ever displayed, takes aim at the stereotype of Genghis as the barbarian
leader of barbaric “Mongol hordes” who swooped in from the East and
destroyed every civilization they encountered. “Although he was often
referred to as a brutal killer, Genghis Khan achieved his victories
through brilliant tactics, earning him the reputation as a military
genius,” said Dirk Van Tuerenhout, Curator of Anthropology of the
Houston Museum. “However, this special exhibition presents a new image
of the legendary leader,” who not only created the nation of Mongolia
and its written language but (with his descendants) established what
became the borders of countries from India to Iran, Korea to China.
Born into poverty, Temujiin—the future Genghis Khan—built the
greatest military machine the world had ever seen, but Lessem emphasizes
what an accompanying book calls “the civilizing influence of a uniquely
sophisticated ruler too long branded only as a barbarian.” Genghis
established freedom of religion and cultural expression in the lands he
conquered, promoted a meritocracy and created the first efficient mail
system. He even popularized pants (much better for horseback riding).
There is a more literal sense in which there is a little Genghis in all
of us: geneticists estimate that one-quarter of the world’s population
carries his genes.
As Lessen writes in his foreword to the book that accompanies the museum show,
“Genghis Khan was one of the world’s most visionary geniuses. From an
impoverished, illiterate and isolated youth, Genghis created a nation, a
language, religious and political freedoms, a post office, Pony
Express, diplomatic immunity, a network of international toll roads, and
a host of other innovations in what was by far the largest empire in
the history of the world. The greatest of civilizers never slept indoors
and only once set food in a building. He dressed as a common man. . . .
Raising his sons to become rulers, he insisted that the key to
leadership was self-control, and he cautioned them against pursuing a
‘colorful’ life with material frivolities and wasteful pleasures.”
The exhibit includes a male mummy dated to a millennium ago and uncovered with two females in a Mongolian cave by local herdsmen in 1997. He appears to have been murdered when he was between 25 and 30, says Bruno Frohlich at the Smithsonian Institution, his neck twisted and broken, his head bashed in. Truth be told, the date makes him a little old to have been the victim of Genghis’s army, as the exhibit coyly implies, but hey, what museum can resist a mummy?