Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Reading around the world: Mongolia

Mongol tavtai morilno uu! Welcome to Mongolia!

Hamid Sadar-Afkhami has incredible photography of Mongolia and its people! All the photos in this blog are by him - please look here for more of his work. 

As this country is a bit more obscure in western knowledge than North Korea, I'll begin with some basic facts:
  • Mongolia is the least populated country in the world, with a population density of less than 2 per square kilometer.
  • Most people are Buddhist with a small minority practicing shamanism.
  • It is a parliamentary democracy with a directly elected president.
  • Mining and herding are the major industries, and per capita GPD is $4,353
  • 40% of the population remains nomadic, herding livestock through vast territories. This lifestyle is threatened by climate change which has further harshened the Mongolian climate.
  • The capitol city, Ulan Bator, is the coldest capitol city in the world. 
  • For more facts about Mongolia, check out the BBC country profile
A small nomadic tribe rides raindeer much the way the ancient Mongol armies rode horses.

This week I began to add patches of color to my whitewashed understanding of history. I was homeschooled, so as I child I was surrounded by Egyptian gods and mythology from around the world. But when I got older my education had to conform to national ciriculums, and the world became distinctly white. Roman empire. Europe. America. We learn history as if non-white people didn't exist until the Civil war. When our heritage demands we acknowledge the accomplishments a non-white man, like Jesus, we recreate him in our image. So this week I read about the greatest Emperor the world has ever seen – an Asian man we primarily remember as leader of a 'hoard', not a military and social genius. Genghis Khan.

Genghis Khan's empire, in black, versus Alexander the Great's in red. 

I read "Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World" : which, as the title suggests, argues we owe many thing we consider integral to our modernity to Genghis Khan. While he is primarily remembered as a tyrant, Weatherford writes that Genghis innovated many modern values. His army and court were meritocracies, with leaders of small groups of soldiers elected by their peers. Women held positions of power in his court, and sometimes lead troops. He allowed his empire freedom of religion. He was a brilliant social engineer who brought intellectual talent with him around the world, leading to an exchange of ideas which generated much of the innovation of his time. He even changed fashions: Europeans wore robes until the Mongol empire introduced them to pants. The size and scope of his empire was unparalleled until British colonialism many centuries later.

Perhaps the most incredible of all is Ghengi's personal story; which begins as the abused and ignored son of a kidnapped second wife. He and his family barely survived being cast out of their tribe, normally a death sentence in the nomadic Mongolian culture. They lived mostly by the sheer force of will his mother who hunted small game to keep her family alive. When he was 10 he killed his abusive older step brother to prevent him from marrying his mother, and from that day never stopped fighting. In his late teens his wife Borte – his love from childhood – was kidnapped and he forged an alliance with the most powerful Khan in Mongolia to get her back. That began his steady climb to Khan of Mongolia, and from there, a quarter of the world.

Borte, the woman who caused the creation of an empire. 
Art by my talented friend Wendi, check out more of her work here!

The history of a powerful Asian man is a dangerous one. While writers of his time usually described him with a mix of fear and respect, as the centuries passed Genghis Khan transformed into a savage barbarian in western literature. Under Soviet rule, discussion of Genghis Khan was so suppressed researchers were killed for attempting to learn about him. His burial place was turned into a militarized zone to keep out the curious. Academic historical research on him is just beginning.  I can only hope the research continues and the people of Mongolia are fully able to reclaim their heritage: inheritors of the birthplace of the most powerful man to ever live. 


  1. Your comments about learning about the world from the point of view of a white society would probably be an eye-opener for a lot of people. Are most of the people who surround you in Colombo part of the minority or majority population of Sri Lanka? I was surprised to hear that you have found English is a predominant language for many of the people you have been encountering. How do you get to practice your Sinhalese? And do you run into people who speak Tomal?

  2. Anna I love reading your blog and reading around the world! It's all the fun of traveling without any of the expense or jet lag :P