Genghis Khan, the 12th century Mongolian conqueror who amassed the largest contiguous land empire in world history, is the subject of a special exhibition currently featured at the Field Museum.
Born in 1162, the child called Temujin overcame horrific hardships and imprisonment to unite warring clans on the steppes of Mongolia, earning the title “Genghis Khan,” (oceanic ruler) in 1206. In just 25 years his armies conquered more lands and people than did the Romans during their entire 400-year rule.
The exhibition does a convincing job of documenting the two sides to this visionary yet ruthless figure who changed the map of the world, establishing international boundaries and practices that survive to this day.
Demonized by the West for centuries, Genghis Khan has been getting some better press in the last decade. He is now rightly credited with the creation of an international postal system and monetary exchange, as well as introducing the concepts of wilderness preservation to the steppes, mass-produced printing of documents and international passports. Instituting a surprisingly enlightened code of law and written language that enabled millions of people speaking different languages to communicate, he opened trade between Europe and Asia. His policies fostered education and the establishment of merit-based social systems that would allow an illiterate, low-born outcast like himself to achieve unprecedented power.
Yet this same innovator conducted a decades-long reign of terror throughout Asia and Europe, leveling entire populations and civilizations. He ordered the brutal, systematic slaughter of untold numbers of innocents who just happened to reside on whatever piece of real estate he was intent on occupying. There are indeed two sides to this story.
Having just completed a fascinating if not somewhat biased read, anthropologist Jack Weatherford’s Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, our book group was largely captivated by the exhibit’s more than 200 artifacts. On display were weaponry, silk robes, religious relics, coins and the recently-discovered mummy and tomb treasures of a Mongolian noblewoman.
The largest collection of 13th century Mongolian artifacts ever assembled was supplemented with 21st century innovations such as interactive floor maps and widescreen video simulating the sights and sounds of a Mongol invasion.
We most enjoyed the replica of the ger, the ancient cylindrical canvas and felt nomadic dwelling in which apparently up to one-third of the modern day Mongolian population still resides. Now, however, along with the spare furnishings and wood-fired stove, these digs might boast a satellite TV and passable cellphone reception.
The final section of the exhibition introduces visitors to Kublai Khan, the famous grandson of Xanadu fame whose achievements laid the foundation of modern China. Also mentioned are the generations of descendants who would remain in power for more than 700 years, until Emir Mohammed Alim Khan ceded control of Bukhara to the Bosheviks in 1920.
The exhibit concludes with the fascinating assertion, documented through a groundbreaking genetics study published in 2003, that perhaps 16 million men alive today are direct patrilineal descendants of Temujin, Genghis Khan.
When you visit, take time to wander the permanent exhibition halls and simply drink in the splendor of this vintage Chicago landmark. Originally incorporated in 1893 as part of Chicago’s famed Columbian Exposition, in 1905 the museum was renamed the Field Museum of Natural History in honor of its major benefactor, Marshall Field. Relocating from the original Jackson Park location in 1921 to the Chicago Park District property now known as the Museum Campus, the Field and its neighboring institutions the Shedd Aquarium and Adler Planetarium are widely regarded as among the finest of their kind in the world.