Re-connecting with the past: recent developments in Mongolia

It is summer time and with that comes vacation. Given the current economic situation, most people stay close to home. Traveling to far away places might not be part of our plans. However, that should not preclude us from catching up on what has been happening on the other side of the world: Mongolia.

spot of color
Creative Commons License photo credit: madpai

A recent news release on the BBC website revealed that several crates containing “amazing Buddhist art objects” had been unearthed in the Gobi desert. A total of 64 crates were buried in the 1930s by a Buddhist monk, in an attempt to save historical artifacts during a period of immense upheaval. The monk passed his secret along to his grandson, who dug up some of the boxes in the 1990s and opened a museum. Two additional boxes were uncovered recently, and an estimated 20 boxes still remain buried in the desert.

The Gobi desert is currently also the place where a group of Australians are looking for the Mongolian “death worm”  a creature said to be up to 5 feet long, and able to spit acid. It remains to be seen if this worm actually exists, as it stands, it is part of what we know as cryptozoology.

What is much less controversial and much easier to see is a huge equestrian statue of Genghis Khan located about an hour’s drive outside the Mongolian capital, Ulan Baator. This Texas-size statue, weighing in at 250 tons of stainless steel and standing 131 feet tall is a very visible expression of the renewed interest in Mongolia’s past. A smaller, though still imposing, statue of a seated Genghis Khan can be seen by those who visit the Parliament Building in Ulan Baator.

dsc_0952While the equestrian statue is too large to ever fit in a museum hall, there is currently a copy of the seated Genghis Khan on display at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. The exhibit, entitled “Genghis Khan,” is on display until September 7, 2009. It relates the story of the meteoric rise of the Mongolian Empire. Visitors will learn how, over the time span of three generations, Mongolian armies overran huge parts of Asia, the Near East and Europe. Objects from museums in Mongolia as well as the Hermitage in St. Petersburg illustrate the story. Maps and interactive computers complete the picture. (Those interested in the death worm will have to await the results of the Aussie expedition.)

Never a Dull Moment

chain-mail-armor-resize
A coat of chain mail armor from
the Genghis Khan exhibt now on
display at HMNS. Find out more
here

As the Houston Museum of Natural Science prepares to show the sequel to the hugely popular Night at the Museum, I could not help but think how interesting a “day at the museum” sometimes can be as well. I am not just talking about the different exhibits we currently have at the museum, but also what is going on at the museum behind the scenes.

I have often thought that one of the taglines associated with the museum should be “never a dull moment.” Here is why I think that would be particularly appropriate: consider Tuesday, February 24, 2009. On that day, a crew of museum people as well as representatives from museums in Mongolia and Russia were busy putting the final touches to the Genghis Khan exhibit. That day, we also received the Mongolian ambassador to the US, H.E. Ambassador Khasbazaryn Bekhbat, who was traveling to Houston for the formal opening of the exhibit two days later. Accompanying him was the second secretary of the Mongolian embassy, Dawadash Sambuu. In the weeks leading up to the opening of the exhibit, he had been very busy working in Houston, helping with the set up of the show. Representing the Hermitage Museum, Dr. Mikhail Piotrovsky, flew in from St. Petersburg, Russia that day as well.

darwinAlso on February 24, the museum hosted a lecture as part of the year-long Darwin celebrations. Joining us that day was Dr. Francisco Ayala.  He came in to talk about his research into evolution. Dr. Ayala, a recipient of the National Medal of Science, recently published a book on this subject, entitled Darwin’s gift to science and religion. In a well-attended lecture in the museum’s IMAX movie theater, Dr. Ayala carefully explained his reasons why science and faith can go hand in hand. Dr. Ayala took time to meet with High School students from the Houston area, who are participating in the museum’s Young Scholars program. In a closed meeting preceding his talk, Dr. Ayala explained how he got interested in his field of study and what one needs to do in order to achieve what he did.

On February 24, the museum hosted Mongolian diplomats, a Russian museum official, and a Spanish-born geneticist. While this kind of line up does not happen every day, it does occur often enough to warrant what I wrote earlier: “never a dull moment at HMNS.”

Constructing the Genghis Khan Exhibit

Int he weeks leading up to the exhibit opening, most of the Collections staff at the Museum, not to mention all of the exhibits guys, were totally immersed in the installation of the new Genghis Khan exhibit

With the exception of Antarctica, the Collections and Exhibits staffs have worked with people from every continent on the globe.  Scandinavians, Israelis, Peruvians, Chinese, Ethiopians; the list goes on and on.  From each of these museum colleagues I’ve gotten a little window into their cultures.  So I was delighted to have the chance to learn a bit from our Mongolian guests as we worked on the installation of the Genghis Khan exhibit.

First off, let me ‘fess up that my knowledge about Mongolian culture or language is pretty slight.  As a matter of fact, the language didn’t sound anything like what I had expected.  To my ears it was quite soft sounding and impossible to pick up any particular word, although I sort of got my tongue around hello.  It’s something like sah-no, or maybe it’s not – I’m no linguist.  And, I couldn’t possibly spell the entire names of the women from the Mongolian museums but they graciously allowed us to shorten their names to Tuule and Tuuvya while here.  Their male, English-speaking colleague with the exhibit who actually resides now in Washington, DC, was Ganna.  Nonetheless I bumbled on, the Mongolians were very patient and, thank goodness, a Mongolian couple living here in Houston aided in translation.  Here is some of what they shared with me about a few of the artifacts in the exhibit.

Near the beginning of the exhibit there’s a replica of a Mongolian ger, or yurt.  In it are a variety of household items and common possessions.  I saw a woven basket and a hand-made rake, which didn’t really register with me.  However I soon learned that these are handy items used to gather and carry dried animal dung which is used for fuel.  (And for what it’s worth, because there’s not an example of this in the exhibit, wet manure is used for building shelters for the animals.) 

Also in the ger is a wooden object that resembles an old-fashioned butter churn.  Its actual function is more of a mortar and pestle to “smash” tea leaves.  One of the young Mongolian women fondly remembered that her grandmother had one.  In the center along the ger’s ‘wall’ (for lack of a better word) are two painted boxes.  These would have been used to store valuables, a nomadic version of a safe. 

On the floor of the ger is a board game made from animal bones which look like vertebrae although I didn’t get the opportunity to look closely.  This game is played by both adults and children but mostly children and it can also be used to predict fortunes.

One of my favorite objects in the exhibit is glass encased box with a miniature nature scene.  The Mongolians had a hard time coming up with translatable words for it and finally decided on “family treasure.”  We would probably call it a family heirloom. 

This box contains a tall figurine of a rotund elderly man with a long white beard and he is called The Old White Man.  He symbolizes wealth and longevity.  Also in a corner of the box is a depiction of the old Buddhist fable of the elephant, monkey, bird, and rabbit who worked together as friends to get fruit from a tree.  In the scene’s foreground are a deer, bird, rock, tree, and bubbling spring who along with the Old White Man all symbolize good fortune.  Glass box scenes such as this are kept in the family, handed down from generation to generation, to bring longevity, prosperity, and good luck to the owners.  It’s a lovely thing to pass on, don’t you think?

Here in the West the story of Genghis Khan has been one of romanticized brutality.  This exhibit offers more of a balance through facts and historical objects.  And these explanations of their culture shared by our Mongolian colleagues enlighten us also.

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.