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Monday, December 5, 2022
HENTEI, Mongolia, Aug 28 1997 (IPS) - More than eight centuries after Genghis Khan died, debate is smouldering over the real birthplace of the ancient warrior who once lorded it over one of the largest empires in history.
Far from an abstract academic argument, or petty rivalry between two tiny counties in Mongolia’s vast grasslands vying for the honour of being Genghis Khan’s birthplace, the question goes to the heart of the Mongol nation’s identity.
At its peak in the 13th century, the Mongol empire stretched across the globe from Korea and Vietnam in the East to Russia and modern Syria in the West — the largest contiguous land empire ever.
But for decades till recently, any debate over the birth and death of Genghis Khan was taboo. During Mongolia’s 70 years as a Soviet satellite state, people who dared go in search for this lost piece of the Mongols’ great past vanished in purges staged by Soviet advisors to the country’s communist leaders.
These days, a furious debate is stirring the academic circles of this country of the steppes. The search for real birthplace of Genghis Khan, whose cavalry in thr 13th century had conquered half the people on earth is fast gaining momentum.
In recent years the county of Binder has been challenging the county of Dadal for the honour of being the Mongol conqueror’s birthplace in 1162.
Dadal held this crown during the Soviet era. But new research conducted in Mongolia’s last several years of democratic rule has identified Binder as the place of Genghis Khan’s birth.
“It was convenient to choose Dadal as Khan’s birthplace in the 1960s,” says Professor Badamdash, who is behind the new research.
At a time when China and Russia were competing for leadership of the communist world, political reasons determined the choice for Mongolia, a country of 2.3 million people sandwiched between these two powers. The issue of where the Mongol conqueror was born and died became a casualty of this rivalry.
In 1962, the year marking 800th anniversary of Genghis Khan’s birth, the Chinese announced they were building a mausoleum to the memory of the great Mongol, in the place where they like to believe he died in 1234.
Likewise, the descendants of Genghis Khan established one of the mighty Chinese dynasties, the Yuan dynasty (1206-1368). His grandson Kublai Khan had conquered China.
For their part, the Soviets tried to erase the name of the Khan from Mongolian national memory, fearing it would spark a resurgence of nationalism.
Apart from discouraging research on Genghis Khan since the late twenties, Moscow worked to portray the king of the Empire of the Steppes as a cruel tyrant and barbarian who brought destruction everywhere he went.
To demonstrate its great influence over Mongolia, Moscow had local officials arrange festivities for Genghis Khan that had to be bigger, more impressive than the ones held by the Chinese.
“Science had nothing to do with the choice of Dadal as Genghis Khan’s birthplace,’ Badamdash pointed out.
Instead, officials only had a short time within which to find an appropriate site to host the Khan’s birthplace. Dadal was chosen because of legends handed down by local people. A large stone monument was erected and festivities were held there.
But the real site, Badamdash says, lies some 100 kms east from Dadal, on the banks of Onon river. To support his assertion that Genghis Khan was born in Birden, he cited the ‘Secret History of the Mongols’, probably written in 1240 and the only genuine Mongol to have survived that period.
The ‘Secret History’ said the Khan was born on a hill called Deliun Boldog on the Onon River.
“It is definitely here,” Badamdash said, pointing to a low hill some 2 kms from Binder, which he identified as Deliun Boldog. “Here, Genghis’ mother would have walked up with two companions when her waters burst,” he added.
Experts say it does not help that the places and people described in ‘Secret History’ — once restricted only to certain clans — are obscure, with many contradictory details that make the case all the murkier.
“I am a bit leery of this,” said Morris Rossabi, a professor of Chinese and Inner Asian history at Columbia University in the United States. “It is hard to authenticate because there is only one written source, ‘The Secret History of the Mongols’, which provides clues to the Khan’s birthplace.”
Before the 800th anniversary of the Khan’s birth, the Soviets had maintained that he was born in Chita, located in Siberia — or north of the places described in the ‘Secret History’.
There is also debate about where the Mongol conqueror was buried. Genghis Khan died in China, in the territory of what is now Inner Mongolia in the Ordos desert.
There are different theories on where he was buried. Some say he was brought back to the buried at his birthplace, making the search for the Mongol leader’s birthplace even more crucial.
Since Badamdash’s assertions became public in 1989, his theories have have stirred controversy and triggered other efforts in search of the Khan’s birthplace.
In May this year, a group of Mongols announced they had identified most of the places where Genghis Khan grew up and pointed to Birden as his birthplace.
In an expedition akin to the one German archaeologist Shliemann undertook to discover the ancient site of Homer’s Troy, the Mongolian team tried to recreate all events and identify all places linked to Genghis Khan’s childhood.
“We traveled by horseback and jeep investigating local legends and trying to retrace the events and places mentioned in the ‘Secret History’,” said Ayush, a researcher who took part in the expedition.
The group’s concluded that the only location that fit all evidence was Birden, the same site designated by Badamdash.
Still, Rossabi says the disclosures about Genghis Khan may be more a product of fervour than historical accuracy. “This is part of the outpouring of nationalism and a feeling that this will give legitimacy to the present society,” he said. “I am not entirely convinced by the arguments.”
But the Mongolian people’s biggest gain may lie in the fact that after decades of imposed silence about one of their greatest figures, they are now free to talk about Genghis Khan’s life and conduct research into it.
“I can’t say if this is really the place,” said Lhamsuren, the lama in Birden county. “But now we are free to believe what we want and to speak of Genghis Khan without fear.”
But for all the furor over his life and death, the Great Khan of the Mongols may find the debate irrelevant if he were reborn today.
He may not even recognise his native land, where he learned to ride a horse some 800 years ago. Zundui Davga, a hunter in Dadal who firmly believes Genghis Khan will be reborn someday, predicts that the Khan would be angry.
Said Davga: “He would be shocked to see that his people have built Russian-style houses and factories and littered rubbish everywhere.”
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