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Genghis Khan at the Tech

A new exhibit looks at the legacy of the Mongol emperor Genghis Khan

HE CONQUERED half the world. He wiped out entire civilizations. He was both a warrior and a statesman. His brutal childhood and his nomadic heritage helped shape him as an unparalleled leader.

When he died, his territory stretched from the Korean Empire to the Aral Sea—the largest contiguous land empire ever known. Originally, he was the one who opened up trade and exchange across Asia. He established what is referred to today as international law.

His people introduced stringed instruments to medieval Europe and brought the passport, the postal system, and even by some accounts, the hamburger, to the Western world.

At first, one might not perceive a direct connection from Genghis Khan to Silicon Valley, but after one experiences the new exhibit at the Tech Museum, it won’t matter. There’s enough of a tenuous technological backstory here to please even the most grumbling of nitpickers. During the press opening, Tech Museum president Peter Friess explained that the museum is “helping the city become a destination for large exhibitions, not just ones that are science-based.”

The exhibition was previously shown in Houston and Denver, but nowhere else in the United States. In fact, no other institution was originally planned to host the show, but as it was closing in Denver, the folks at Team San Jose and the Tech Museum jumped into the fray and were able to land another “blockbuster” as they call it. At the opening, curator Don Lessem recalled flying back to Mongolia and negotiating another appearance for the exhibit, just so San Jose could get its time in as well.

He also went on to explain that Genghis Khan has gotten a bad rap in the West. “He’s been black-tarred as a barbarian,” said Lessem. “We were the barbarians. We wouldn’t have pants, glasses, the post office or the Pony Express. He was an incredible civilizing influence.”

The exhibit begins with a statue—a one-sixth scale model of the statue that sits at the entrance to the parliament building in the Mongolian capital of Ulaanbaatar, looking down on the city center. After that, various timelines, maps and charts grace the next few walls. Entire placards displaying Genghis Khan’s descendents are there for perusal. An authentic life-size ger, a felt-lined wood-framed nomadic dwelling, sits in one corner, complete with pottery, clothing, cooking utensils, scrolls and more.

As one continues through the exhibit, more and more is revealed. Each section provides a different angle on Mongol history, weaponry, tactics, strategies, logistics and even the role horses played. “The Mongol warrior was completely at home on his horse,” one display declares, adding that the warrior was responsible for everything—weapons, food, equipment and mounts. He was an entirely self-contained combatant, an ideology probably passed down from Genghis himself.

Genghis Khan’s father was murdered when Genghis was just 9 years old. His family was abandoned by their tribe and forced to live in poverty. Genghis subsequently developed natural talents for self-preservation, ambition and survival. He never received the normal guidebook for life.

Talking to a few reporters, Lessem said he originally became interested in Genghis for exactly that reason: “I was fascinated that this person came from nothing. It’s a fascinating and mysterious question, because he was an outcast and not part of any organized system. He did things differently. And when you’re an outcast, you see things differently and do things differently.”

And here’s one for the conspiracy theorists. One room in the exhibit talks about the Yasa Code, the Law of Genghis Khan. He conceived the Great Yasa, his laws for society and guidelines for personal behavior, intending to create the structure for a new kind of “World Society.”

It doesn’t stop there. Another room says: “Genetic studies indicate that at least 16 million men living today are descendents of a Mongolian male who lived around 1,000 years ago.” You may even be a Mongol yourself.

Genghis Khan
The Tech Museum,
San Jose