The cult of Genghis Khan

Nearly 800 years after his death, the man who took the title of Universal Ruler is being venerated in his native Mongolia as never before. Andrew Osborn finds out why
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The Independent Online

It's Saturday night in Ulan Bator, Mongolia, and the far-flung capital's fun-loving young things are out on the town - at the Genghis Khan nightclub.

It's Saturday night in Ulan Bator, Mongolia, and the far-flung capital's fun-loving young things are out on the town - at the Genghis Khan nightclub.

Behind the bar, peering from the label of a vodka bottle a familiar face - benign rather than bloodthirsty - stares back with small, dark penetrating eyes.

His face, adorned with a long wispy grey goatee and an immaculately coiffured moustache, Mongolia's most famous son may be long dead but he can still be put to good use selling vodka.

When it comes to paying for drinks, there's also no getting away from the man who dominated the longest continuous landmass in history - killing, raping, and robbing millions along the way. His face features on local "tugrug"banknotes too.

Or, in Ulan Bator, you might find yourself regaled by the local musical talent, a popular group called Black Rose, that has famously penned a rap song in Genghis Khan's honour.

The outfit's lead singer, Amraa Mandakh, is on record as saying he worships the Mongol warlord and views him as an integral and proud part of being a modern-day Mongolian.

Try posting a letter from this barren country sandwiched between Russia and China and you will encounter the fearsome warrior's likeness on a postage stamp.

For decades, Mongolia was a Soviet satellite state ruled by Moscow-friendly Communists who forbade the local populace from mentioning the medieval conqueror's name. The Soviets portrayed him as a tyrant since it was feared that any rebirth of the cult surrounding him might stoke the dangerous already glowing embers of nationalism.

Nor were the Russians too keen on glorifying a man who burnt and plundered the cradle of Slav civilisation: Kiev.

But with the Communists no longer around to write the history books, Mongols are drawing their own - rather positive - conclusions about man who became the Universal Ruler.

Most of what is known about the real Genghis is drawn either from an ancient text called The Secret History of the Mongols written by some of his own generals, or has been passed down through the ages by the ancestors of the people he conquered.

Certain episodes in his life, including his date of birth (generally reckoned to be 1162), are disputed but what is not in dispute is that his life was extremely violent, even by medieval standards.

Known as Temujin in boyhood, his father was murdered by rivals when he was nine. The young Genghis and his mother were abandoned by the clan he was supposed to lead because nobody would take him seriously. That lack of respect would not last long.

In the nomadic desperate years that followed, he allegedly killed his half-brother in a dispute over hunting spoils. Marriage came at the age of 16 but his wife, Borte, was kidnapped and raped.

Genghis took his revenge hunting down and killing all of those responsible. Shortly after he secured his wife's release she gave birth to a son whose paternity must have been in doubt though the child was accepted as his own.

In the years that followed, he forged canny alliances, gradually uniting Mongolia's traditionally warring clans under his own brutal leadership.

In 1206, he was given the title Genghis Khan (universal ruler) and went on to rampage through China, Central Asia, Europe and the Caucuses.

The methods of the invading forces were pitiless. Nomadic horsemen soldiers killed their enemies with particular cruelty, raped their enemies' wives and then laid waste to the places they had captured.

At its height, the empire created stretched from south-east Asia to Europe, covering 13.8 million square miles, a little less than the British Empire with its 14.1 million square miles.

It apparently encompassed half of the then known world's population.

One recent genetic study claimed that one in every 200 men worldwide is descended from Genghis, so widely and violently did he spread his seed, routinely impregnating women.

The number of people the Mongol horde killed in the process is put at 40 million across Europe and Asia, though accounts of the time may have exaggerated his own bloodlust to strike fear into his enemies.

No matter. Fourteen years after the collapse of the Soviet Union Mongolia is frantically searching for its own national identity. Genghis Khan, for all his flaws, has been deemed the sole historical figure capable of resurrecting a sense of greatness. And Mongolia desperately needs something to feel good about.

With a population of just more than 2.5 million, more than one third of this nation's population live beneath the poverty line, average income is estimated at just $1,900 (£950) per year and there have been signs recently that people are disenchanted with the country's supposedly democratic post-Communist rulers.

Genghis has, therefore, been chosen as the country's feel-good rallying point.

Streets and children are being named after him. Chocolate bars and beer bottles bear his portrait; hotels and banks use his name to attract custom and even the country's Prime Minister, Elbegdorj Tsahkia, is not shy about singing the praises of the man.

"Genghis Khan wasn't really a bad guy," he said recently. "He just got bad press."

Neighbouring China, which includes Inner Mongolia, an autonomous Chinese region that borders Mongolia proper, is nurturing the new cult, lavishing $20m on the renovation of a mausoleum to Genghis Khan which it first built in 1954 but which then fell into a decrepit state.

Given the history, Beijing's investment might seem a little odd. Genghis occupied and ravaged the Chinese capital. But modern-day China views him as the precursor of a great Chinese dynasty, as a man who succeeded in unifying the region - albeit with brute force - and as a good tourist attraction in his own right.

In truth, his burial place is one of history's most enduring enigmas. While the Chinese say their mausoleum marks his final resting place, there are at least two other rival claims.

Last year a joint Japanese and Mongolian research team claimed to have identified the actual mausoleum in an area near the ruins of his palace complex, south-east of Ulan Bator. Meanwhile, a joint American and Mongolian team claims it is digging at the right place, near his original birthplace of Hentiy.

Capitalising on the growing interest, some American tourists are even being offered the chance to attend the dig.

For $4,799, excluding flights, Genghis devotees can enjoy a two-week holiday which includes visits to the Gobi Desert and the Karakoram region of Mongolia, where the warlord built the capital of his vast empire. "Consumers will have the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to take part in what could be history's greatest archaeological find to date," George Deeb, the head of iExplore, the travel agent, raved.

"Whether you want to roll up your sleeves and brush off artefacts, or sit back and watch the team in action, a unique experience is promised to all."

But no one can be sure of where Genghis lies. His followers went out of their way to ensure the leader's remains and, indeed, the apparently staggering treasures that were laid to rest with them would not be disturbed - ever.

When he died, apparently in 1227, anyone who crossed the path of the funeral procession was killed - as were all those who attended the funeral - leaving a tiny number of people in the know who took the secret with them to their own graves.

As the 800th anniversary of Genghis' rise to power looms next year, it is not just the Mongolians and the Chinese who are taking a close interest in him. Internationally, his reputation is also being re-evaluated, most recently in a one-hour BBC documentary shot on location in Mongolia that sought to suggest that, although he was undoubtedly one of the cruellest tyrants the world has ever seen, he also had his fair share of redeeming features.

Genghis was a shamanist, but was apparently tolerant of other religions within his empire. He is also credited with establishing a unified legal, system, the Yaffa.

A slew of biographies have also appeared in recent times and another is apparently being planned by British historian Simon Sebag-Montefiore, author of Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar.

Conn Iggulden, the author who made his name by writing a best-selling series of books on Roman emperors, is reported to be planning a historical novel based on Genghis' unsavoury exploits.

One of Russia's most respected directors, Sergey Bodrov, is also poised to shoot a Hollywood-style epic with a budget of $12m chronicling the warlord's difficult early life.

It will simply be called The Mongol and is supposed to be the first in a trilogy of films tapping into a global appetite for stylish historical blockbusters in the Gladiator mould.

Hollywood has already been down that road with mixed results. John Wayne played Genghis Khan in the 1956 Howard Hughes-financed film The Conqueror. "This Tartar woman is for me, and my blood says take her!" was one of the film's livelier moments.

Indeed, the movie raises laughs among film critics today but had a tragic legacy.

Filmed in Utah, the location for American nuclear testing, several cast members including John Wayne himself were later diagnosed with cancer.

Omar Sharif also had a crack at portraying Genghis in 1965 in the imaginatively named movie, Genghis Khan.

But most Western historians and media just do not understand Genghis, according to Black Rose front man Amraa Mandakh.

"Not only Westerners, but even Mongolians don't have the right idea about Genghis Khan," he told a music website in an interview recently.

"Fifteen years ago, there was strong propaganda about what a bad person he was. Society was like that then.

If you said something that evoked national pride, you were in trouble. In an interview, I said I worshipped Genghis Khan. At the time, some young people my age said, 'You are saying strange things.' 10 years later, they approached me and said, "We were just 10 years behind you."

Naturally, Amraa's worship of Genghis extends to wearing his hair in a top-knot, like his idol.

He may be an unlikely choice for a national hero and is hardly a marketing guru's ideal choice of brand but modern-day Mongolia cannot be too choosy.

Nobody else who has called this beautiful, austere country home has made the same impact on the world in the past eight hundred years.