A museum exhibit opening February 27 in Houston could reshape the way people think about Genghis Khan. The show presents the great Mongol emperor not as a bloodthirsty barbarian, but as "the great civilizer," an enlightened ruler who bridged European and Asian cultures.
The exhibit, opening at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, is called simply Genghis Khan. It has been seven years in the making and is billed as the largest collection of Mongol objects ever, "from the first-ever printing press and paper money, to imperial gold, silk robes and sophisticated weaponry of the world's most visionary ruler and his descendants," according to the exhibit's web site.
According to the show's organizer, Don Lessem, a popular science writer and exhibit creator, who is known professionally as "Dino Don," the exhibit took so long to come together because he had trouble convincing backers that there was interest in Genghis Khan. "He was the Man of the Millennium, but the museum world didn't take him seriously," Lessem said. "I had to do surveys in six [American] cities to prove that interest in Genghis Khan was enormous."
He collected the artifacts from museums in Mongolia, the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, and from some private American collectors. The exhibit was to have included items from museums in Inner Mongolia, now part of China, but the Chinese government withdrew its participation only a month before the exhibit was to open, Lessem said. Ostensibly, the reason for the withdrawal was a problem with the permit that the museum in Inner Mongolia needed in order to loan the objects to the American exhibit. But Lessem said he believes Beijing rethought its participation because of worries the exhibit might highlight the role of minorities in China.
Lessem's surveys found that there was a great popular misunderstanding of the Mongol ruler. While scholars over the last 20 years have significantly revised their views on Genghis Khan's era, that reassessment has not entered the popular consciousness, said Morris Rossabi, a Mongol expert at Columbia University and one of the advisers to the exhibit.
"Until about 20 years ago, the Mongols and Genghis Khan were treated as simply plunderers, murderers, rapists, pillagers," Rossabi said. "Then about 20 years ago, those in the Mongol field began to reevaluate and look at how the Mongols brought the world together, that the Mongols had specific policies that encouraged and fostered trade, encouraged artisanship, became patrons of the arts. ? We didn't ignore the massacring and the plundering, but there's another side to it."
"The general audience still has this image of the Mongols as savages, and you see that, in fact, there are beautiful objects, that interesting and extraordinary technology was sponsored by the Mongols and in some cases commissioned by the Mongols, so you get quite a different picture," Rossabi continued.
Some of the objects displayed in the exhibit will include bronze and silver "messenger passes" that were carried by diplomats and traders on the Silk Road. Issued by the Mongol rulers, the passes, depending on the material they were made of, entitled the holder to a range of privileges, from just safe passage through the various parts of the Mongol Empire to broad administrative powers.
Also included are items like ceramics and silver chalices from the Golden Horde, the part of the Mongol Empire in what is today Russia. The objects illustrate how Mongol rule stimulated craft production in southern Russia (between the Black and Caspian Seas), which previously had been wracked by inter-tribal warfare, said William Fitzhugh, an archeologist at the Smithsonian Institution and another adviser to the exhibit.
The items from the Golden Horde come mostly from The Hermitage and are rarely seen outside Russia. "Many of the items from The Hermitage do not get out very often, so that's really, really exciting," said Alicia Campi, a Mongol expert who is not affiliated with the exhibit.
The reevaluation of the Mongols has, however, swung too far in the opposite direction, many academic Mongol experts say. Some sloppy scholarship -- most notably the bestseller Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World by Jack Weatherford -- has led to some misconceptions, such as that Genghis Khan was a democrat and invented international law.
"When Mongolia opened up in the 1990s, after communism, they were looking for some means of bolstering their national identity, which is involved with Genghis Khan, and pointed out all sorts of positive aspects to Genghis Khan that some credulous westerners picked up on, like democracy, and it's nonsense," Rossabi said.
"They claim that because the nobility would get together and elect a new khan, that was democracy. But it was 15 people electing the khan, and you basically had to be descended from Genghis Khan. That's not democracy," Rossabi added. "And this idea that Genghis Khan founded international law, it's absurd."
Nevertheless, the claim that Genghis Khan was a pioneer of international law is in the exhibit's promotional materials. Lessem chalked it up to a difference of opinion, and that he was splitting the difference between Weatherford and Rossabi. "I think the truth is in the middle, the more I read," he said, adding, "I'm not an expert, I'm a fan."
The exhibit will run in Houston until September 7, then will move to the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. Future stops have yet to be finalized, Lessem said, but they will include sites outside the United States.
For more information about the exhibit click here.