An Internet guide to the realm of Khan


After reading anthropologist Jack Weatherford’s Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World (Crown, 2004), I turned to the Internet to learn more. A site called TimeMap features an applet (for advanced users) that assists in visualizing such things as environmental change, weather patterns, traffic flow, urban growth—and, yes, the spread of empires. Their Animations page show several map animations, including the map at the left that shows how the Great Khan’s realm rapidly expanded to link most of Asia, the Middle East, and Eastern Europe for the first time.

You can find a good overview of Genghis Khan’s rise to power at the BBC’s online radio program “In Our Time.” Host Melvyn Bragg, interviews three British scholars who discuss what is known about the man who launched the Mongol Empire. Almost all the details of Genghis Khan’s early life come from what is called The Secret History of Mongols, a document that was written a few decades after his death. It is the oldest Mongolian literary work. The original is long gone, but it was transcribed over the centuries in China as a primer for learning Mongolian. It was unknown to Europeans until the 1860s, when Palladiy Kararov, a Russian monk and sinologist, discovered it in Beijing and translated the Chinese portion. To access the English translation, not made until 1982, go to this Russian Web site and scroll to the bottom. For a general look at the empire, go to The Mongols, a site by Carol A. Keller, a historian at San Antonio College. Here, under “Scholar Voices,” you can read some of the current thinking on Genghis Khan’s legacy

One of the greatest unsolved archaeological mysteries is the whereabouts of Genghis Khan’s tomb—if one even exists. For more on the search, start with the Outside online story of obsessed Chicago attorney Maury Kravitz, “Genghis on My Mind,” by Michael McRae. There are tantalizing reports of the Kravitz-sponsored search, such as this 2001 announcement from the University of Chicago, “American-Mongolian team finds tombs near birthplace of Genghis Khan.” Most Mongolians would like the Khan to rest in peace.

Genghis Khan was a nomad; he had no need to build a monument to mark his empire. Only toward the end of his life did he choose a capital at Karakorum. The city, like a Mongol camp, left few traces. An often-photographed stone tortoise seems to be all that remains of the royal city. The one ancient structure at the site is the Erdene Zuu monastery. Built in 1585, long after the empire had crumbled, it is the oldest Buddhist monastery in Mongolia. Today it has its own Web site. For a look at the archaeology of Karakorum, go to the University of Washington’s Silk Road Seattle, a public education project using the ‘Silk Road’ theme to explore cultural interaction across Eurasia from the beginning of the Common Era (a.d.) to the Seventeenth Century.” (Visit some of the other Silk Road cites while you’re at the site.) Some good maps—key to understanding Central Asian history—can be found at the Silk Road Project.

Although the trade routes predated the rise of Genghis Khan, his empire revived the east-west movement of goods and ideas, changing societies across Eurasia. For more on this subject, read “Mongols and the Silk Road,” by John Masson Smith Jr., a historian at the University of California at Berkeley.

Apparently, Genghis Khan left his mark in other ways, beyond encouraging pan-Eurasian trade. Geneticists have found that 8 percent of males—some 16 million—in the area formerly dominated by the Mongol Empire share a nearly identical Y-chromosome, and the most reasonable explanation is that they can all be traced back to one man. See “Genghis Khan a Prolific Lover, DNA Data Implies.” Today, whole ethnic groups are thought to be direct descendants of the Mongol invaders, if not of the Great Khan himself. See “What about the Hazara of Central Afghanistan?

To get an idea how the Mongols operated, read “Invaders,” by Ian Frazier, an article in The New Yorker magazine about the sacking of Baghdad in 1258. At the Steppe Nomads and Central Asia page of All Empires (a Web site documenting the rise and fall of our planet’s many warring tribes) you can find five illustrated entries on the strategy behind Mongol conquests, as well as that of other, earlier horsemen, such as the Huns and Uyghurs. Librarian Matthew White’s Selected Death Tolls for Wars, Massacres and Atrocities Before the 20th Century gives grim, best-guess numbers to the carnage: the Mongol conquests ranked third, with some 40 million slaughtered. (The Napoleonic wars ranked nineteenth, with just 4 million dead.)

In recent years, a number of museums have mounted exhibits of art and artifacts dating to back to the days of the Mongol Empire, with much of the content coming either from the Islamic or Chinese regions. Beginning February 27, 2009, visitors to the Houston Museum of Natural Science can see Genghis Khan: The History and Culture of the Mongol Empire and the Yuan Dynasty. In September this exhibit will travel to the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, and in 2010 will appear at the Irving Art Center, back in Texas. The Web site, however, offers details on the exhibit’s layout and photographs of many of the artifacts on loan from museums in Mongolia and Russia. In 2003, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art presented The Legacy of Genghis Khan, which examines the Mongol influence on Iranian and Chinese art.

Unlike many conquers, Genghis Khan imported ideas, craftsmen, and artisans from other cultures to enrich his own. For example, in 1208, after defeating the Naiman people, he used a captured scribe to adapt the old Uyghur alphabet to write Mongolian. Under Mongol rule, some Chinese used the alphabet, but later abandoned it for their previously used characters that number in the thousands. For a look at the Mongol script, go to Omniglot.

If you travel to Mongolia, you will not find great stone edifices built by the khans, but everywhere you will still see the remarkable felt-covered dwellings, the gers, or yurts, little changed from the days when Genghis road the steppes. The best way to appreciate the design of these nomadic homes is to watch one being assembled, as you can in the video clip above. Another fascinating video, Mongolian Felt Making, shows how the Mongols make the thick felt skin of the ger from wool. To get an idea of how the Khans’ lived, go Inside the Biggest Ger in the World. Not bad for a palace that can be put up in few hours. As temporary shelters, they have been catching on around the world.

view counter

Recent Stories

The way they live, the food they eat, and the effect on us

A true but unlikely tale

Story and Photographs by William Rowan

Increasing day length on the early Earth boosted oxygen released by photosynthetic cyanobacteria.

Genomic evidence shows that Denisovans and modern humans may have overlapped in Wallacea.