A modernizing nation finds identity by embracing its past

"When Mongolia throws a party," goes the old expression, "the rest of Asia locks its doors."

If so, the party Mongolia has been throwing this past week to celebrate its 800th birthday must have prompted some serious door-locking in neighboring China and Russia.

Once banned, recognition of Genghis Khan is now widespread. Here, President Nambaryn Enkhbayar is dwarfed by the conqueror's statue.

The celebration, to extend throughout the year, was planned to start in concert with the annual naadam festival, a mini-Olympics in which Mongolians from all walks of life compete in wrestling, archery and horseback racing throughout the country.

Three hundred VIPs from 33 countries traveled here to take part in the celebration. Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns led the U.S. delegation.

At an unsettling time, Mongolians and their leaders are finding a source of identity.

"We Mongolians must be united and have one goal: to develop our country. Remember Genghis Khan and his great deeds," said President Nambaryn Enkhbayar, who usually wears a suit but dressed in a traditional gold and cream silk robe for the occasion.

The anniversary marks the year (1206) in which a shrewd and ruthless warrior named Temujin (1162-1227) was given the title Genghis Khan ("universal king") in recognition of his leadership of a loosely confederated group of warring clans on the steppes of Central Asia.

The charismatic chief went on to create the largest empire the world has known, extending, at its height, from Korea to Hungary.

Although greatly reduced in size today, Mongolia is still an enormous country (604,103 square miles and 2.7 million people), roughly the size of Alaska. Understandably, Mongolia looks back to its glory days with nostalgia and pride.

During most of the 20th century (1924-1990), when the Soviet Union dominated Mongolia's political, military and economic identity, public recognition of Genghis Khan was banned. Since 1990, however, he has come back with a vengeance.

His face appears on advertising billboards, adorns currency, and graces the labels of everything from instant noodles to premium vodka. The national airport has just been renamed in his honor, and a 10-ton bronze sculpture of him, clad in mail, stands in front of the parliament building on the capital's central square.

In addition, a huge likeness of Genghis Khan has been created in white stones on a grassy mountain slope above Ulan Bator. For the last few weeks, his bewhiskered visage has gazed sternly over a city that has seen explosive growth with democracy and a market economy. To help spur economic development, the United States gives Mongolia about $10 million in aid each year. One hundred Mongolian troops serve with coalition forces in Iraq.

A million people, nearly 40 percent of Mongolia's population, live in the capital. The city's once-quiet streets, where just a decade ago livestock wandered freely, are choked with automobiles, and uncontrolled construction is beginning to overwhelm the city's fragile infrastructure.

Many of the new arrivals have erected gers (the portable felt tents called yurts in other parts of Central Asia) in ragged compounds, where they now live without running water, sewerage, trash and garbage collection, or other city services.

In the glowing light of Mongolia's long summer days, the white domes the newcomers have erected look almost festive, a welcome alternative to the ugly gray apartment blocks of the communist era that dominate the center of town. But a closer look reveals an incompatible convergence of pastoral and urban life, where unemployment has replaced self-sufficiency and squalor has replaced the unfenced grassland of the open steppe. A third of the population lives in poverty.

Genghis Khan, famous for his brilliant use of cavalry in conquering others, forbade the construction of permanent settlements by fellow Mongols. He believed a nomadic people was healthier and less vulnerable to enemy attack than settled ones. One wonders what he would think of the country - and the city - that this week commemorated his achievements, but struggles to manage its own success.

This article contains information from the Associated Press.

Robert M. Peck, a senior fellow at Philadelphia's Academy of Natural Sciences, has participated in five scientific and cultural research expeditions in Mongolia since 1994. He was a member of the presidential delegation representing the United States at Mongolia's 800th-anniversary celebration this week.