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KHAN YOU LIVE LIKE A MONGOL?

 Ancient-Origins,  Statue of Genghis Khan , 10 January 2015

Ancient-Origins, Statue of Genghis Khan, 10 January 2015

INTRODUCTION

The early Mongols did not understand the culture and lifestyle of settled living. Their nomadic lifestyle meant that land could not be owned, much like air, or the ocean. Viewed by settled societies as barbarians, the Mongols were first united and conquered by Genghis Khan in 1206, where they eventually formed the largest contiguous empire in history that went on to become the Mongol Empire.

Genghis Khan is important to our understanding of the history of Mongolia because he was the first Great Khan of the Mongol Empire. He united the nomadic tribes of Northeast Asia and with the dominating Mongol army, he lead the Mongols to invade most of Eurasia. The early thirteenth century saw the Central Asian plateau north of China to be divided into different tribes that were displaying hostility in the form of raids and attacks targeted at one another.

After spearheading a number of attacks on neighbouring tribes, Temüjin (the birth name of Genghis Khan), was defeated at the hands of a former blood brother before rising back into power in 1197. During his time of authority over the tribes that formed the Mongol confederation, Genghis Khan broke various Mongol traditions by delegating power based on merit instead of family ties. Upon conquering a tribe, he would not drive them away or kill their villagers, instead, he took under his protection and treated them as his own people.

With his adoption of new technologies and techniques in his approach to warfare, Temüjin eventually conquered and united all of the Mongol tribes to become a single military power. Temüjin took the title of “Genghis Khan” in 1206, which roughly translate to the “true widespread king”. 
 

LIFE BEFORE THE MONGOL EMPIRE

Before the unification by Genghis Khan, Mongolia was divided into five to twenty small nomadic tribes. The Shiwei tribes, mostly Mongolics and Tungusic, were considered the ancestors of the Mongols. The tribes lived independently, each having their own languages. The people of Mongolia in this time were predominantly spirit worshipers, with shamans providing spiritual and religious guidance to the people and their tribal leaders. 
 

MONGOL WARFARE AND GENGHIS KHANS' VISION

The nomadic life of the Mongols equipped them hardy horses that allowed them to be self- sustainable and cover a large distance with minimal resources during times of war. Both the Mongol soldiers and their horses were in the best conditions, possessing the innate ability to adapt to harsh environmental circumstances, which gave them a clear advantage over their Western counterparts.

They worked within an efficient system with strong physical, logistical, strategic and operational capabilities. Prior to the attack, the Mongols spent months and years mapping precise roads and trade routes, winding around fortresses and surpassing hills and vicious terrains. This allowed the Mongol warriors to determine their enemies’ capability to resist invasion as well as force smaller towns to surrender by cutting off their food supply. They even so far as to reroute a stream to flood a nearby town.

The Mongol horses were known to be of the strongest and finest breeds of horses, and they could gallop easily over long distances and were not required to be fed daily! Other than their genetical advantages, the horses were heavily armoured, much like the men who rode them. 

 Mongolian warrior on an armoured horse, using a “recurved bow”,  also known as the legendary bow of history.

Mongolian warrior on an armoured horse, using a “recurved bow”,  also known as the legendary bow of history.

Besides the skilful horsemanship and archers, the Mongols often practiced coordinated tactics such as feigned retreats. With excellent communication, they would flank their troupes in a decimal system where soldiers were divided into separate formations of 10, 100, 1000 or 10,000 accordingly. This forces their foes to withdraw their troops out of fear. When their enemies surrendered, they would spare the life of cartographers, meteorologist and engineers who would work for them. 
 

 A pictorial representation of the Mongol Army’s flanking formation, surrounding the enemy in the Battle of Mohi.

A pictorial representation of the Mongol Army’s flanking formation, surrounding the enemy in the Battle of Mohi.

Genghis Khan had a vision for the empire to be united in commerce under the stability and protection of Mongol rule. Diplomacy and economic agreements were often made before the actual combat to reduce energy in a less optimal condition and to put themselves an advantage from the early beginnings of war.

RELIGION, IDENTITY, FOOD & CLOTHING

There are many similarities between the various Mongolian tribes. During the Mongol empire, Mongolians obtained their primary food resources from reared sheep and goat herds. The animals provided milk and meat as their source of daily food consumption, where a standard meal before the empire grew was often limited to just dairy products and boiled meat. 

In times of peace, Mongolian men would craft weapons to embark on hunts for wild animals and livestock. As the empire expanded, grain products and roasted meats added colour and diversity to their daily plate of monotony, delighting the taste buds of the Mongols. Besides food, other body parts from hunted animals such as their wool and skin would be used in fabricating clothing, rugs and accessories for their garments. What was even more impressive was that the Mongolians even dried animal waste to repurpose as fuel.

 Dung fuel with traditional gathering basket, western Mongolia

Dung fuel with traditional gathering basket, western Mongolia

Clothing and jewellery during the Mongol empire were mainly self-crafted or obtained through trade from other merchants. For example, their national dress, Del, a form-fitting robe made out of silk for both genders, was mainly imported from China. Wide varieties of headdresses were also worn on special festivities and celebrations such as the traditional elaborate Boghtagh. The elite Mongol would don themselves with accessories to display their authority and power as a way to signify the wealth status of their family. 

 Mongolian national dress,  del .

Mongolian national dress, del.

As the Mongolians were always on the move, akin to their nomadic culture, it was ideal to preserve their wealth in small possessions such as jewellery. It would indeed be an uphill task for Mongol women to carry about bulky items merely for the sake of vanity and arrogance while on the move.

The common traditions and activities the Mongolians lived by gave them a common identity as one Mongolian Empire. However, despite the many similarities shared between the people in the Mongol Empire, each Mongolian was given the freedom of choosing his or her own religion. It was interesting that Genghis Khan, arguably the most dominant and ambitious conqueror in Mongolian history, allowed the freedom of choice for religion

In Genghis Khan’s period of rule, the Mongolians managed to diversify into a number of different religions such as Buddhism, Christianity, Manichaeism and Islam, the most famous of which would be Tengerism. What is Tengerism some of you might ask? Tengerism was a shamanist belief system that most of the Mongols practiced, including Genghis Khan himself. While it may seem unbelievable, there were a group of Mongolians who practiced two religions at the same time. Sometimes, you need all the help you can get.

BURIAL CULTURE

Mongolian culture was notable for their “sky burials”, similar to the Tibetans, which means leaving the corpse on a mountaintop to be exposed to the elements or devoured by scavenging animals, such as carrion birds. Sky burials were considered a type of excarnation, which referred to the practice of flesh and organ removal of the deceased before burial, leaving only the bare bones. This tradition was one that stemmed from the belief of the Vajrayana Buddhist; a philosophy that believes that there is not a need to preserve the body after death as the body is now nothing but an empty vessel.

 Marinasohma,  Sky Burial , 15 November 2016

Marinasohma, Sky Burial, 15 November 2016

Apart from the sky burial, there were other funeral practices that the Mongols practiced which included cremation, embalming and the “water-burial”, which was another form of open-air burial, similar to the aforementioned sky burial. The type of funeral practice was often determined by one’s social standing, as well as the cause of death and at times, the geographical location. 

For instance, people who were known as “Reincarnations of Buddha” were usually embalmed and buried in coffins in an upright position. Mongol nobles were also buried in coffins that were surrounded by weapons and horses, a practice originating from the belief that the buried objects would aid them in the afterlife. Additionally, Lamas were cremated to allow their spirits to rise directly to heaven, much like ash disappearing magically into the sky. An exception to cremation was usually made for deaths related to infectious disease to prevent the spread of an epidemic.

 Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (UAB),  Scythian warrior tombs found in the Altai region of Mongolia , 12 November 2012. 

Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (UAB), Scythian warrior tombs found in the Altai region of Mongolia, 12 November 2012. 

What we found to be the most intriguing was the ‘tomb’ of Genghis Khan. With his dying wish, Genghis Khan demanded to be buried in a strangely secretive fashion, ordering his soldiers to ride 1,000 horses over his grave, destroying any trace of his burial. It has been 800 years since his death and his tomb is still yet to be found. Genghis Khan simply did not want his tomb to be found, and his people merely respected his dying wish and even today, it is a taboo to seek his grave in Mongolia. Sounds like this could be the perfect job for Lara Croft. 

There are myths of Genghis Khan being buried on a peak in the Khentii Mountains, as he pledged his return to the hills upon death while hiding from enemies on those very mountains as a young man. However, all these myths have not been proven true due to contradicting accounts from scholars including the forbidding of access to the sacred mountains for every Mongolian other than the members of the royal family. 
 

CONCLUSION

The Mongol Empire, united by their leader, Genghis Khan, was a large and dominating army, armed with superior horses, fighting skills and weapons. They were equipped with tactical advantages that left their enemies confused and in doubt of their ability to compete with the Mongolian army. Traditional norms during the Mongol empire were noteworthy and interesting, as their concept of tombs and burials were unique to any sort of tomb culture that we have in the modern world.

As for the great leader and conqueror of the Mongol empire, Genghis Khan remains, till this day, a warrior with enormous respect from his fellow men, a conqueror that fought with grit and honour, and a leader that united his people as one. The sacrifices he made for Mongolia is what warrants his tomb to be kept untouched and undisturbed. 

 

References

Admin, Mongolian Practice of Burial, 10 February 2009, Mongolia Travel Guide

Biran M., Chinggis Khan, 2007, Google Books

Brosseder U., Xiongnu terrace tombs and their interpretation
as elite burials
, January 2009, ResearchGate 

Columbia University, The Mongols In World History: The Pastoral Nomadic Life; Traditional Clothing and Jewelry, 2004, Asia for Educators Columbia University

Costa L., Daily Life in the Mongol Empire, 24 March

Craig E., Why Genghis Khan tomb can't be found?, 19 July 2017, BBC

Dari E., Remove or leave the cemetery?, 19 February 2013, The UB Post

Harris G., Giving New Life to Vultures to Restore a Human Ritual of Death, 19 November 2012, New York Times

Lamb R., How Sky Burial Works?, 25 July 2011, howstuffworks

Michel H., The Open-air Sacrificial Burial of the Mongols 

Parker D., The World is not enough: The story of the Mongolian Recurve bow, 20 September 2014, BOWMANSHIP

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Thorpe JR., 5 Interesting Death And Funeral Rituals Around The World, From Mongolia To Sweden, 15 July 2015, BUSTLE

Zambri J., Why Chinghis Khan Matters: Reflections on the Mongol Way of Intelligence, 2008