Wednesday, October 28, 2009

A Man of Two Faces

By Mark W. Danielson

I always love Jean Henry Mead’s interviews because they introduce us to known as well as lesser-known people. So, for this week, I decided to highlight a misunderstood and brilliant historical figure – Genghis the Great, a man known more as a barbarian than a statesman. A master strategist, he created his empire by uniting warring tribes of the Central Asian steppes, melding his defeated foes into his own forces. Just the mention of his name stuck terror as he advanced his army, turning towns into wastelands. As incredible as it seems, CNN and The Washington Post recently voted Genghis Khan “The Man of the Millennium.” From an impoverished, illiterate and isolated youth, Genghis Khan rose to become the most powerful man of his time. In time, his descendants would build the largest contiguous land empire the world has ever known.

I learned much about this man during a recent visit to the Denver Natural History Museum. Genghis Khan, the exhibit, was developed by Don Lessem, in cooperation with the Ministry of Education, Culture, and Science in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. This travelling display incorporated historical treasures from many lenders including the National Museum of Mongolian History, the Institute of Archaeology of the Mongolian Academy of Sciences, the National Library of Mongolia, the Military Museum of Mongolia, the Dornod Province Museum in Mongolia, the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, and the Kooros and Gotuaco families, the Xinhuan Collection, and Arthur Leeper. Museum guests experience life in 13th-century Mongolia, entering the tents, battlegrounds, and marketplaces of a vanished world. The informative display gives a sense of Genghis Khan’s life and those of his sons and grandsons during the formation, peak, and decline of the Mongol Empire. There are many interactive, family-friendly activities, as well as live cultural performances by traditional Mongolian singers and musicians. Some two hundred rare treasures from 13th-century Mongolia illustrate Khan’s rein, including gold jewelry and ornaments, silk robes, musical instruments, pottery, sophisticated weaponry, and other fascinating artifacts.

Near the end of the exhibit, a short film details Khan’s conquests in a different light. Recent population studies have discovered that over three million men share Genghis Khan’s DNA. This was determined by the genetic material on the “Y” chromosome, which is passed from father to son, intact, so this lineage is with near certainty. Not only did Khan conquer the world, he also helped to populate it through his six wives, five hundred concubines, and first choice of women in townships he conquered.

As one of the world’s most visionary geniuses, Genghis Khan created a nation, a language, religious and political freedoms, a post office, the original Pony Express, diplomatic immunity, a network of international toll roads and a host of other innovations. His military organization was ahead of its time, appointing his best warriors as officers as opposed to maintaining the family hierarchy. It is remarkable that all these innovations sprang from the mind of an illiterate outcast.

Genghis Khan's laws for society and guidelines for personal behavior were communicated through a book of commandments he called the Yasa. The word “yasa” means “order, decree,” but it is much more. It is considered one of the most comprehensive codes of law and morality ever developed. Don Lessem paraphrases these commandments in his booklet, The Wit and Wisdom of Genghis Khan. Khan’s rules not only demonstrate exemplary leadership, but also timeless wisdom. Here are a few of his guidelines.

Religion: Even dying I never forget these highest words: let the Eternal Heaven decide. Destiny is determined by the Eternal Heaven.

Khan believed in God and tolerated all religions. His beliefs in Buddhism and later Taoism had no impact on whatever god his followers chose to worship. Our Forefathers also believed in God and tolerated all religions, and yet today there are movements to remove all references of God from our currency, schools, and politics.

Hygiene: Whoever urinates into water or ashes is also to be put to death. Do not dip hands into water, but use some vessel for the drawing of water. Do not wash clothes until they are completely worn out. Do not say anything unclean.

With the exception of not washing clothes, the rest remains sound advice today. I suppose if you smell like your horse, the enemy might not know you were nearby. Then again, it’s hard to hide thousands of men on horses. As for speaking clean, we seem to have completely lost sight of this notion.

Fiscal responsibility: Whoever takes goods on credit and becomes bankrupt, then again takes goods and becomes bankrupt, then takes goods again and yet again becomes bankrupt is to be put to death after the third time.

Imagine how few politicians would be alive today if our nation had adopted this law. Khan would never have tolerated our national deficit. It’s always interesting how the citizens of this country are expected to maintain a positive cash flow while their government keeps adding to the red.

Organization: Everything must be in its own place. A commander is to personally examine the troops and armament before going to battle, to supply the troops with everything they need for the campaign, and if any soldiers lack a necessary thing, that commander is to be punished.

Too often, our troops have been sent to war unprepared to face their enemy. Our war in Vietnam, and our current war in the Mideast prove that technological superiority is the right weapon for the campaign. I find it enlightening that Khan held his leaders so accountable for their troops.

Justice: Lies, theft, treachery, and adultery are forbidden, and one ought to love one’s neighbor as one’s self . . . Whoever violates these commands is to be put to death.

Again, one must wonder how many of our politicians would survive this commandment. As previously mentioned, it is clear that adultery did not apply to the one making the rules.)

Leadership: For a king it is a shame to not live up to his word. After having conquered . . . it is required to seek the way of mutual understanding. The state for citizens, citizens for the state. The king must be loyal to the state. Commanders must understand the fatigue and discomfort of their soldiers by experiencing it themselves.

These are some of Kahn’s most powerful words. No leader can successfully command an army from a position thousands of miles away, nor understand the hardships of their troops. Some of our worst failures have come from past presidents trying to do just that. A warrior to the end, Khan is rumored to have died on the battlefield.

Unity: The main base of building of the Mongolian state is . . . bringing together many nationalities in agreement.

Although this was the original doctrine of the United States of America, we have lost sight of it somewhere along the line. Two hundred years ago, immigrants came to build a new country. They did so through hard work and learning the common language. Too many of today’s immigrants wave their flags of origin rather than hail this nation’s colors, and make little attempt to learn our language. National pride is at an all-time low. Khan would have never allowed this to happen.

Relationships: My people I consider my children and my soldiers my brothers.

Every successful leader has shared this philosophy because triumph cannot come without the support of the people. George Washington was hailed as “god-like” because he led his troops into battle and later recognized his citizens as equals. No other president has achieved Washington’s success.

Although there are conflicting stories about his death, a hunting accident was thought to be the end of this great warrior. Buried somewhere in the far-off mountains of his childhood, legend has it that all living things along the route were killed, as was his cortege, so that no one could locate his grave site. To this day, his final resting place remains a mystery.


Chester Campbell said...

Very interesting piece, Mark. You're right, when we think of Genghis Khan, what comes to mind is the "Mongol hordes" and destruction. I especially liked your remarks comparing his rules to the mess our current leaders have made.

Anonymous said...

Here's a link to the Genghis Khan television commercial running in Denver.

Jaden Terrell said...

Interesting and well researched, Mark. He was truly a complex individual.

Jean Henry Mead said...

Thank you, Mark. I always enjoy your articles and photos. This Genghis Khan post is great. I had no idea that Khan wielded so much influence or had such rules. I would have loved to have interviewed him. :)

(Snowed in on Laramie Mt.)

Heather said...

Mark - Thanks for posting. Glad you enjoyed the Genghis Khan exhibition! It's actually at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science ( through February 7, 2010. If your readers want more info on the exhibition, they can visit

Mark W. Danielson said...

I stand corrected, Heather. Thanks for pointing it out.

What I find most interesting about Khan is the parallels in his bringing peace through an iron fist. It is questionable whether peace in some regions is possible without this type of leadership.

Helen Ginger said...

How did he adhere to that adultery thing? He had multiple wives, yet took the top woman in every town he conquered. Were his laws for everyone else, not him?

Straight From Hel

Mark W. Danielson said...

Helen, Genghis was a typical politician with a "Do as I say, not as I do" attitude. The only difference is Khan was flagrantly promiscuous so there was no need to apologize for his infidelity. After all, what's the advantage of having power if you can't abuse it?