Genghis Khan Mongolia's hero again

Genghis Khan Mongolia's hero again

Jesus Christ looms over Rio de Janeiro, a quartet of American presidents gazes from the face of Mount Rushmore and Lenin keeps watch over St Petersburg. But if there were a global contest to honour larger-than-life men on a colossal scale, Mongolia might just vanquish them all — again.

Genghis Khan, the legendary horseman who conquered half the known world in the 13th century, has returned to the steppes of Mongolia, and this time he charges admission.

About an hour’s drive from Ulan Bator, Mongolia’s drab capital, at Tsonjin Boldog, the Khan first appears on the horizon as a twinkling speck, rising on the plains like a shimmering mirage.

As one approaches, he takes the breath away: a 131-foot-tall giant on horseback, wrapped in 250 tonnes of gleaming stainless steel. Visitors can even take an elevator and emerge from between his legs to gaze at the lush Mongolian steppe from a deck atop his steed’s head.

“All Mongolian people are proud of this statue,” said Sanchir Erkhem, 26, a Mongolian sumo wrestler living in Japan who was posing for photographs on the platform during a trip home. “Genghis Khan is our hero, our father, our god.”

The giant statue of Mongolia’s most famous personage, known locally as Chinggis Khaan, is the latest in a horde of monuments and products that have appeared in Mongolia, since the country threw off Communism nearly 20 years ago. Planes now land at Chinggis Khaan International Airport, students attend Chinggis Khaan University and tourists can stay at the Chinggis Khaan Hotel. The Khan’s bearded visage graces cans of energy drinks, vodka bottles and cigarette packs, as well as the money to pay for those goods.

Politicians have been eager to join the Khan’s bandwagon. In 2006, the government unveiled yet another statue of the conqueror, this time sitting Abraham Lincoln-like on the capital’s main square. In recent years, parliament has been debating whether the government should retain sole power to license Genghis Khan’s face and image, although the legislation has yet to pass.

National identity

The rush to venerate — and profit from — the founder of a great transcontinental empire comes at a time when Mongolians are seeking a national identity after centuries of dominance by foreign powers. Already touchy over Genghis Khan’s global reputation as a bloodthirsty villain responsible for the deaths of countless people, Mongolians are revelling in new opportunities to rebrand him and, by proxy, their country, which has long been overshadowed by its neighbours, Russia and China.

The massive steel-clad statue, part of a planned theme park called the Chinggis Khaan statue complex, is perhaps the most ambitious and costly manifestation of Genghis pride.

The Genco Tour Bureau, a Mongolian company, has so far spent about $4.1 million on the statue.

Still unfinished are plans for a complex of 200 gers, or round felt tents, which will house sleeping quarters for visitors, restaurants and gift shops, all arranged in the pattern of the horse seal used by 13th-century Mongol tribes.

Inside the two-storey base of the statue, which opened in September 2008, visitors can see a replica of Genghis Khan’s legendary golden whip, sample traditional cuisine — heavy on horse meat and potatoes — and experience some decidedly un-nomadic customs, like billiards.

Although there is no evidence to back up its claim, the company contends that the site is where Genghis Khan found the whip, traditionally considered an auspicious omen, that inspired his future conquests. Like Genghis Khan, the company is intent on expanding its empire. Several miles away at a ‘13th-century national park,’ the more adventuresome can milk horses, spin wool and watch a shaman ceremony. A spa, hotel and golf course are also in the works.

“This is about national pride,” said Damdindorj Delgerma, chief executive of the Genco Tour Bureau. “Mongolians are happy when they see this statue, and now people from all over the world will come to learn about the importance of Mongolia in history.”

Delgerma said 40,000 people had already visited the complex, although on a recent weekday it was practically empty. Still, local residents say they are hopeful that the site will bring much-needed income to the steppe, which has been hit especially hard by the global economic crisis, as well as educate those who come to gawk at the statue.

“Foreigners have no idea who Chinggis Khaan really was,” said Khaliun Ganbold, 21, a tour guide who was biding her time near the gift shop. “All they know is the bit of information they read on Wikipedia.”

The public relations war over Genghis Khan and his reputation has been raging for centuries. First revered by nomadic Mongolians as a brilliant military leader who unified warring tribes to found the world’s largest empire, the man who was born Temujin but later became known as Genghis Khan, or universal ruler, was mythologised as a shaman before Buddhist monks appropriated him as an incarnation of a deity descended from a line of Indian and Tibetan kings.

Soviet Union effect

According to Christopher P Atwood, a professor of Central Eurasian studies at Indiana University, Bloomington, Mongolians rediscovered Genghis Khan’s role as fighter during their quest for independence in the early 20th century and swiftly reclaimed him as a national icon. In 1949, however, the Soviet Union and its minions in Mongolia began a revisionist campaign to tarnish him as a ‘reactionary’ figure who damaged the ‘productive forces’ during his wars of expansion. Rituals honouring his legacy were banned, and stamps adorned with his face were destroyed.

“It was impossible to treat him an as uncomplicated national hero, which is what Mongolians wanted,” said Atwood, author of the ‘Encyclopedia of Mongolia and the Mongol Empire’.

With its unalloyed glorification of Genghis Khan, the theme park avoids any such nuance, although tourists may come away thinking Genghis is more Mickey Mouse than Mongol, based on the mugs, hats and T-shirts emblazoned with his image that are for sale.

Ganbold, however, does not see any conflict between history and marketing.

“Mongolian tradition respects our grand ancestors’ names,” she said. “To really honour him, it’s much better to use his name on only premium merchandise.” Other Mongolians skew a bit more toward realpolitik in their devotion to Genghis Khan, even if they are happy to drink to his memory.

“He was a cruel man but he led our country to greatness,” said Toguldur Munkochir, 25, a bank teller unwinding at the Chinggis Khaan bar later that night. “If you look at Lincoln, Hitler and Julius Caesar, it’s kind of the same thing.”