The world as seen through the clarifying lens of the 9th Edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (1875-1889).

Friday, 13 June 2008

19. One of the greatest conquerors the world has ever seen

Managed to catch Mongol: The Rise of Genghis Khan before it closed at our local arts cinema last night. I enjoyed the film, although Mongolian members of the Barleycorn family were less impressed. As the title suggests, the film depicts the early life of the great conqueror, for which the source material is the Mongolian Secret History, a carefully guarded historical tradition, which may well be an accurate record of the facts, but being the sole document relating to the period, that isn't something historically knowable. What is unforgivable about the movie to Mongolian thinking is the reinterpretation of those events. Deep offense was caused in Mongolia when news of the central scene, and the director's invention, depicting the mighty Chinggis locked in a cage for the amusement of passers-by, reduced to catching a live bird and eating it raw. This provoked a similar reaction in my wife to the portrayal in Bill and Ted, of Chinggis as a small Chinese savage, with an uncontrollable lust for women and barbecued chicken.

It's a shame because it seems that the director was really doing his best to make a positive portrayal. It is a constant source of aggrievement that Chinggis is always portrayed by a foreigner, from John Wayne and Omar Sharif in Hollywood versions, to the young Japanese actor Tadanobu Asano in the present case. A big budget Japanese production of the story just a couple of years ago opted understandably to use the language of the cast and crew. Which didn't go down well in the homeland, for numerous reasons, not least being that Chinggis is continually addressed by the Japanese word for leader, which unfortunately sounds a local like the Mongolian word 'zugg-cho' : 'waitress'. My wife may deny it at a future date, but after watching Mongol she had been certain that the lead was Mongolian, so was surprised to learn that this wasn't so, and grudgingly conceded that his mastery of the language for his role was impressive. This is nicely emphasised by a scene towards the end when Chinggis eulogises his mother tongue, and predicts that one day the whole world will understand it. [For a Mongolian perspective on the movie, check out this review from the Asian Gypsy blog, with particular emphasis on the film's skewed portrayal of the shamanistic faith of the Mongols, and also an anecdote about a projected Steven Seagal portrayal of Chinggis that sadly failed to materialise.]

The movie of course strikes a poor note for Mongolians with the "Genghis" choice of spelling. I do not know when the soft g became hard in popular speech, but it's an annoyance to his descendants. A lot of Mongolian words are a struggle for the Western tongue, but Chinggis isn't one of them.

The second volume of EB9 contains the article ASIA, which has a succinct summary of his career and the empire he forged, and opts for a spelling notably close to the native pronunciation.

Chenghiz Khan, a Mongolian chief, having made himself master of Central Asia, established his capital at Karakorum, the precise site of which is doubtful. In 1215 he took possession of Northern China, and then turned westward ; he overran the whole of Turkestan, the countries along the Oxus, Afghanistan, and Persia, and added them to his empire. After his death in 1227, his successors, dividing his kingdom among them, continued their advance against the west.

Later, either due to consensus or personal choice, the spelling shifts, so the great man's full biography is found in volume 13.

JENGHIZ KHAN (1162 - 1227) Mongol emperor, was born in a tent on the banks of the river Onon, in 1162.

There's less about the early days than the movie depicted. Whether this is owing to unfamiliarity with the Secret History or a decision to ignore events less likely to have been fact, I do not know. (Apparently the Secret History was rediscovered some time in the 19th Century, I have not yet found a reference to it in EB9, although I have a dim memory that it is lurking in there somewhere). We do get a neat description of Temuchin(ie the young Jenghiz)'s troubled ascension to the head of his tribe:

The death of [his father] Yesukai, which placed Temuchin, who was then only thirteen years, on the Mongol throne, was the signal also for the dispersal of several tribes whose allegiance the old chieftain had retained by the exercise of an iron rule. When remonstrated with by Temuchin on their desertion of his banner, the rebels replied : "The deepest wells are sometimes dry, and the hardest stones are sometimes broken ; why should we cling to thee?"

Robert K Douglas, the author of this article, does himself no favours with my wife by giving the etymology of Jenghiz as deriving from the Chinese Ching-sze, or "perfect warrior." I am informed that this should be from Tengis, a Mongolian word meaning "ocean". I am not in a position to object that the great empire was otherwise notably lacking in any maritime associations.

Jenghiz' great military successes are given some detail in this article (which I ought inform you at this juncture can be read in full at Jenghiz' bold and effective approach to international diplomacy can be well judged from the missive he sent to the chinese Kin Emperor, in order to bring to a swifter end a military campaign that was growing tiresome to him.

"All your possessions in Shan-tung and the whole country north of the Yellow river are now mine with the solitary exception of Yenking (the modern Peking). By the decree of heaven you are now as weak as I am strong, but I am willing to retire from my conquests; as a condition of my doing so, however, it will be necessary that you distribute largess to my officers and men to appease their fierce hostility."

These conditions were wisely accepted by the Kin Emperor. Less wisely he moved his capital to further from the Mongolian border as soon as Jenghiz returned to Mongolia, prompting the conqueror, doubtless with a world-weary shake of the head, to "once more [march] his troops into the doomed empire."

Jenghiz' attempts to conduct his business in a peaceful manner would again and again be confounded. The state of things could not have been put plainer to the Persian Shah:

"I send thee greeting; I know thy power and the vast extent of thine empire ; I regard thee as my most cherished son. On my part thou must know that I have conquered China and all the Turkish nations north of it ; thou knowest that my country is a magazine of warriors, a mine of silver, and that I have no need of other lands. I take it that we have an equal interest in encouraging trade between our subjects."

Unfortunately, after initially accepting these overtures, the Persians found themselves on Jenghiz' bad side, as a result of executing two of his emmisaries as spies.

The invading force was in the first instance divided into armies : one commanded by Jenghiz’s second son Jagatai was directed to march against the Kankalis, the northern defenders of the Khuarezm empire; and the other, led by Juji, his eldest son, advanced by way of Sighnak against Jend.

Against this latter force Muhammed led an army of 400,000 men, who after a bloody battle with the invaders were completely routed, leaving it is said 160,000 dead upon the field. With the remnant of his host Muhammed fled to Samarkand.

Meanwhile Jagatai marched down upon the Jaxartes by the pass of Taras and invested Otrar, the offending city. After a siege of five months the citadel was taken by assault, and Inaljuk and his followers were put to the sword. To mark their sense of crime of which it had been the scene, the conquerors leveled the walls with the ground, after having given the city over to pillage.

At the same time a third army besieged and took Khogend on the Jaxartes ; and yet a fourth, led by Jenghiz and his youngest son Tule, advanced in the direction of Bokhara. Tashkend and Nur surrendered on their approach, and after a short siege Bokhara fell into their hands.

On entering the town Jenghiz ascended the steps of the principal mosque, and shouted to his followers, "The hay is cut ; give your horses folder." No second invitation to plunder was needed ; the city was sacked, and the inhabitants either escaped beyond the walls or were compelled to submit to infamies which were worse than death.

As a final act of vengeance the town was fired, and before the last of the Mongols left the district, the great mosque and certain palaces were the only buildings left to mark the spot where the "center of science" once stood.

History, it is said, is somewhat repetitive in nature. The Russians of 1222 ought to be able to confirm this. They may, in their defense, not have been fully up-to-date on news from the east.

[T]hey received envoys from the Mongol camp, whom they barbarously put to death. "You have killed our envoys," was the answer made by the Mongols ; "well, as you wish for war you shall have it. We have done you no harm. God is impartial ; He will decide our quarrel." If the arbitrament was to be thus decided, the Russians must have been grievously in the wrong. In the first battle, on the river Kaleza, they were utterly routed, and fled before the invaders, who after ravaging Great Bulgaria retired gorged with booty, through the country of Saksin, along the river Aktuba, on their way to Mongolia.

After this campaign, Jenghiz headed back to China to mete out some more of his own (clearly expressed) brand of justice. Sadly,

While on this campaign the five planets appeared in a certain conjunction which to the superstitiously minded Mongol chief foretold the evil was awaiting him. With this presentiments strongly impressed upon him he turned his face homewards, and had advanced no farther than the Se-Keang river in Kansuh when he was seized with all illness of which he died a short time afterwards (1227) at his traveling palace at Ha-laou-tu, on the banks of the river Sale in Mongolia.

By the terms on his will Oghotai was appointed his successor, but so essential was it considered to be that his death should remain a secret until Oghobati was proclaimed that, as the funeral procession moved northwards to the great ordu on the banks of the Kerulon, the escort killed every one they met. The body was then carried successively to the ordus of his several wives, and was finally laid to rest in the valley of Keleen.

Thus ended the career of one of the greatest conquerors the world has ever seen. Born and nurtured as the chief of a petty Mongolian tribe, he lived to see his armies victorious from the China Sea to the banks of the Dnieper[.]

With my own domestic harmony in mind, I omit Robert K. Douglas' final remarks on the eventual decline of the Mongolian empire and nation.

Read the original 9th Edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica article JENGHIZ KHAN here.

Read the current Britannica Online article GENGHIS KHAN here.

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