Genghis Kahn: War lord's image is everywhere

Statue of Genghis Kahn (Photo by Robert Peck)

Although he has been dead for almost eight hundred years, Genghis Kahn [sometimes spelled Chinggis Khaan] is more popular in Mongolia today than he was when he controlled an empire that extended from Korea to the edge of Western Europe - though, on reflection, I suppose that isn’t surprising, as popularity was probably never one of his strongest suits.

This is a relatively recent phenomenon, for any invocation of his name or image was strongly discouraged during Mongolia’s Communist era (1923-1990), lest too much national pride give the Mongolians any thoughts of moving their allegiance away from their Soviet overlords.

Over the last several decades, however, he has come back into his own, and then some. He is now as close as a person can come to being a national icon (without the power of the state to enforce such a position).

From the moment one arrives at Genghis Kahn International Airport, to one’s last night of revelry at the Genghis Kahn Dance Hall and Karaoke Bar, paid for with bank notes bearing his fierce face withdrawn from a bank named in his honor, Genghis Kahn’s name and image are everywhere.

In honor of the nation’s 800th birthday in 2006, the tomb of one of the country’s previously revered (and, by many, reviled) communist leaders was quietly removed from the central square and replaced with a twenty times larger than life bronze sculpture of the former war lord. At the same time, on one of the hills that cradles the capital his image appeared in white stones on a scale that made it visible from just about anywhere in the city.

Even Genghis might be surprised to see his formerly ruthless reputation being simultaneously burnished and rehabilitated to fit a contemporary need for a national hero of international stature. A spate of recent publications have portrayed the former warrior as a champion of equal rights, legal prudence, and religious tolerance.

DNA studies have suggested that his blood line can now be traced through countless millions of people around the world. The “man of the millennium,” as Mongolians are fond of calling him, seems to have had something to offer to just about everyone, except, of course, those who got in his way.

Because there is no authoritative, contemporary portrait of Genghis, he is an advertiser’s dream, for he can be depicted in what ever way best suites the product he is being used to promote.

From fearless warrior to wise ruler, he has become the ubiquitous pitchman for everything from noodles to vodka.

I think I can guess which he would prefer.