A Tale of Two Rulers

This is a story of two powerful rulers. They stand apart from most other rulers because of their achievements; they differ from each other for many reasons. One ruler was much respected, the other was feared. Archaeologists know of the whereabouts of one ruler’s tomb, although they have not excavated it. The location of the other ruler’s tomb is unknown, but that could change. This rather enigmatic introductory paragraph refers to Genghis Khan and Qin Shi Huang, China’s First Emperor.

Genghis Khan ruled over the world’s largest contiguous empire about 800 years ago. (The term “contiguous” is important here; as the British ruled over more territory during the heyday of their empire. However, those territories were dispersed across the globe).

Genghis Khan, or Temuchin (the spelling varies) as he was first called, had a very eventful childhood. Born in 1165 AD, he was betrothed at a very early age. His father was poisoned by the Tartars and his bride was abducted. Genghis was able to regain his wife with the support of other steppe tribes. Temuchin officially became Genghis Khan in 1206. It is thought that this title means “Oceanic ruler,” or “Firm, Resolute Ruler.”

Mongolian
Creative Commons License photo credit: asobitsuchiya

By that fateful year of 1206, Genghis Khan had united the tribes of Mongolia into one tribe. The stage was set for him to embark on one of history’s most astonishing campaigns of conquest. Historians suggest that there may have been several reasons why Genghis Khan went down this road: a quest for treasure, seeking revenge for past offenses, even megalomania. His conquests would take him into China and Tibet, as well as farther west into the Khwarazm empire which ruled over most of what is now called Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Iran, Afghanistan and Tajikistan.

In 1226, during a campaign against the Xi Xia in northern China, Genghis Khan fell from his horse. He died from his injuries in 1227 and was buried in a secret location. Numerous scientific expeditions have been mounted to try to locate his tomb. Currently yet another attempt is being mounted to find Genghis Khan’s last resting place.

The Mongol Empire continued after Genghis’ passing and his descendants continued to expand it. By the late 13th century, it reached from Hungary to the Sea of Japan. By that stage, the empire was divided into four nearly autonomous areas called khanates: China, central Asia, Persia, and Russia.

In 1294, after the death of Kublai Khan, the empire broke apart. There was a brief resurgence in the late 14th century when Timur (the Lame), who claimed to be descended from Genghis Khan, conquered Persia, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and parts of Russia. On the way to attack China, however, Timur died, and the Mongol era was finished.

Pre-dating Genghis Khan by fourteen centuries, an individual by the name of Qin Shi Huang, rose to prominence in what is now China. In 246 BC, when he appeared in the scene, China was going through what historians call its “Warring States” period. In about twenty years, Qin Shi Huang managed to unify the country under one ruler. Qin Shi Huang became China’s First Emperor.  The old feudal system was replaced with a central government. China’s writing and currency was standardized. Commerce benefited from a vast new network of roads and canals. Last but not least, gigantic construction works got started during this emperor’s reign; among them the Great Wall (which would be extended many times in later years) and the Emperor’s mausoleum.

Soldiers
Creative Commons License photo credit:
SmokingPermitted

The mausoleum complex was – and still is – huge, covering approximately four square miles near the modern city of Xi’an. While the tomb itself is not excavated yet, the accompanying army of terracotta soldiers was found and partially excavated.

Both men have left lasting legacies. Without Genghis Khan, there would be no Mongolia today. Moreover, it is said that about 16 million men today can retrace their ancestry back to Genghis Khan. This has led to some people getting their 15 minutes of fame, occasionally incorrectly. China looks back at Qin Shi Huang as its founding father. Many aspects of modern Chinese culture can be retraced to this time period, more than 2200 years ago.

But there is more.

Aside from both rulers featuring in Hollywood made movies – one more recent than the other – both Genghis Khan and the First Emperor are soon taking up residence at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. Come see for yourself what made these two individuals so special.


Terra Cotta Warriors: An army frozen in time

All eyes have been on China for the last few weeks as Michael Phelps, Usain Bolt and many other Olympians have been shattering world records at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Media coverage was intense – but this particular video on the Terra Cotta Warriors caught our eye, because we’re eagerly anticipating May 18, 2009 – opening day for Terra Cotta Warriors: Guardian’s of China’s First Emperor at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. Here, Dirk gives us more context on these extraordinary treasures.
Dateline: 240 BC
Mighty Celtic tribes, far from being barbarians, rule over most of what is Western Europe today. Engaged in long distance trade with the Mediterranean, they will soon fall under the sway of an upstart from that region: Rome. Across the water on the northern shores of Africa another mighty empire blossoms: Carthage. It too will eventually fall under the sway of Rome. Further east, Egypt had long faded from its glory days and is ruled by descendants of a Macedonian general who served under Alexander the Great. The famous library in Alexandria is either in the planning stages or has just opened. Meanwhile, more than 7600 miles away, on a windswept hill in Oaxaca, traders from the city of Monte Alban set off to visit the big metropolis further north, Teotihuacan, to strengthen trade ties between these two cities.
China - Great Wall
Creative Commons License photo credit: mckaysavage

All of these cultures and all of these nascent empires are small fry, however, compared with what is happening in the Far East. There, in China, In 240 B.C. Ying Zheng, ruler of the Qin Kingdom, rose to power. He proclaimed himself First Emperor of the Qin, or Qin Shihuangdi.

Under Qin Shihuangdi’s rule, Chinese script was standardized, as were its currency and system of measurements. The territory was expanded into Vietnam. A huge central bureaucracy directed military and civil officials throughout the empire. This system of government remained virtually unchanged until the collapse of the Qing dynasty in 1911.
Qin Shihuangdi was obsessed with longevity. He sent emissaries to find an elixir of youth to ensure that he would live forever. Unfortunately, death caught up with him in 210 BC while he was traveling far away from the capital. His mortal remains were brought to his tombs, a trip which required his entourage to engage in a number of subterfuges to mask the smell of death in the convoy. It is said that a cart of rotting fish was pulled right behind the imperial sedan chair, to mask the decaying remains of the emperor.
In death, as in life, the emperor remains an imposing figure, leaving us with an incredible and imposing legacy. His tomb (for this link, hit cancel to start the video) has been located, but not yet excavated. According to historical sources, the emperor’s tomb was laid out in such a way to represent the entire empire, with huge pools of mercury representing rivers, lakes and seas. Gemstones set in the tomb’s ceiling represent the night sky. As was becoming a man of his rank, he was accompanied in his tomb by an army of servants and soldiers.
Soldiers
Creative Commons License photo credit:
SmokingPermitted

In 1974, the same year in which Lucy was discovered, a peasant working the fields in the shadow of the imperial tomb, found fragments of a terracotta statue. This chance discovery led to one of the most magnificent archaeological discoveries of the 20th century; the army of terracotta soldiers. Approximately 8000 terracotta statues have been uncovered thus far. All of these require restoration and preservation, with some of these requiring up to one year’s worth of work before they can be displayed.

Until May 17, 2009, you will have to travel 8300 miles from Houston to go see these famous terracotta warriors in their Xi’an museum. However, starting May 18, there will be 20 statues in your own backyard. The Houston Museum of Natural Science will be hosting them until October 16, 2009. More information can be found here.