Crowdsourcing the Search for Genghis Khan's Tomb

In my Pragati article Secrets of the cellars, I wrote, “If the government cannot find a specialist to translate the royal records, it should have them carefully digitised and published online, so that the job can be crowdsourced.” While writing this I did not have any particular precedence in mind and so it was interesting to hear that this crowdsourcing idea is actually being used to find the tomb of Genghis Khan.
This may be a fool’s errand as we have no idea if there is actually a tomb or not, but Albert Lin of UC San Diego is in Mongolia with funding from National Geographic searching for the tomb. To narrow down the spots they have taken aerial photos of possible sites and are now asking the public to help them. Here is the video which explains how you can help. Also listen to Albert Lin explain this in an interview with Boston Public Radio

Book Review: Genghis: Birth of an Empire

An important moment arrives in Temujin’s life when he spots three riders coming towards his ger. While he is sure that they are enemies, he is unsure if they belong to an advance raid party or if they are just three independent raiders who have come to burn, rape and kill. The 17 year old turns to his mother, Hoelun, for advice. “You have prepared for this Temujin”, she says. “The choice is all yours.”
Temujin decides to fight. But first he sends off his mother and younger siblings to hide while he and his older siblings wait for the men. This is a battle between three  kids against experienced fighters. Few years back Temujin’s father, the khan of the Wolves tribe, was killed by a Tartar raiding party. Following this murder, the khan’s bondsman took over the tribe and expelled Hoelun and the children, leaving them to die in the unforgiving harsh winter of the steppes. 
Surviving without a tribe or the protection of a khan is hard. If the winter did not kill them, a herder would. But they survive by catching birds, animals and fish for food. They also practice with the bow and sword for such a day. But that didn’t help eventually. Temujin was captured and taken to the Wolves camp, humiliated and marked for death. But the man would not die. He escapes, makes it back to his family and starts building a tribe by collecting the wanderers and offering them a family. According to Malcom Gladwell’s Outliers, to be proficient in a skill, you need to put at least 10,000 hours of work. By that measure Temujin had put more than that.
Con Iggulden’s novel — the first part of a trilogy — is about the rise of Genghis Khan and how he unites the tribes of the steppes. One question that is of interest for anyone who has read about Genghis Khan is this: what motivated him to unite the tribes which had been at war with each other for millennia?  There is no direct answer, but a partial one. He sees the Chin envoy using the tribes to cater to their needs. In this specific case, the envoy requests Temujin to join forces with another tribe to take care of the Tartars. A foreigner meddling in the affairs of the tribes, rattles him. Genghis Khan unites the tribes, initially to fight the Tartars and later the Chin. As Iggulden writes in the epilogue, “If Temujin had not come to see the Chin as the puppet-masters of his people for a thousand years, he may well have remained a local phenomena.”
Besides the vision, another important issue was survival. First, he survived the winter, which eliminated the weak. Second important point was luck:  his father’s bondsman could have killed him, but he did not. Even towards the end of the book, there is a scene where the bondsman of another tribe walks into Temujin’s ger to kill him. The khan is drunk and asleep and he could have been easily killed. But the man who came to assassinate was once pardoned by the Temujin and he felt that the debt should be repaid. So he wakes the khan and confesses.
Iggluden’s novel draws a great verbal picture of the life of the steppes where everything belonged to whoever had the strength to take and retain it. Even though they fought each other, relations were cemented through marriage.There were customs — like guest rights — which were followed by all. The horse was man’s best friend: during a battle, the Mongol would nick the vein, drink the blood and patch it with dust and water. Thus during war, no supply lines were required.
From a structural perspective, it would have been boring if the novel only had Temujin’s point of view. Instead, whenever possible, multiple threads are introduced. When Temujin is expelled from the tribe, there is a thread that follows the life of the bondsman who expelled him. There is another thread which follows Wen Chao, the Chin ambassador who is out to manipulate the tribes. When Temujin is taken as captive, we also get to see how his siblings survived. This keeps the excitement flowing, as well adds depth.
Iggluden masterly narrates huge battles. First Temujin starts with simple raids and then expands to capturing various tribes in his ruthless quest for power and revenge.There is a final battle which involves at least four major tribes against the Tartars involving thousands. The archery and maneuverability of his troops as well as their fast riding ability is what won his his battles; a picture well painted in the book.
Segei Borodov’s 2008 movie, Mongol, too dealt with the same span of Temujin’s life. Both these works claim to be based on the The Secret History of the Mongols, an anonymous Mongolian account of Genghis Khan’s life, but they differ vastly. In Bodorov’s movie, the love between Borte and Temujin was the main thread.  Iggulden’s novel is about Temujin’s survival and execution of the vision of uniting the tribes. They differ even on minor points. In the movie, Temujin’s father is poisoned; in the novel he is attacked by Tartars. In the movie, Borte is kidnapped by a rival gang and she spends some time with them before she is rescued; in the novel, she is rescued within a few days. In the movie there is a whole story of Jamukha, his blood-brother which is absent from the novel. Basically both of them have taken creative liberties. We probably need to use Richard Feynman’s concept of multiple histories to figure out what really happened. Or we could read the primary source.
Genghis: Birth of an Empire: A Novel by Con Iggulden, Paperback: 416 pages, Publisher: Bantam (July 13, 2010)

Briefly Noted: Mongol(2007)

Sometime in the 12th century, a boy was born in a small nomadic tribe in steppes of north-east Asia. Little did anyone guess that this boy, born in a society which did not have agriculture or cities and grew up drinking mare’s milk, would one day unite not just the warring tribes but  unify China with the Muslim and Christian kingdoms to create an empire. That boy, Temüjin — who later asked the Pope to come and submit to him — is better known as Genghis Khan.  Sergei Bodrov’s big-budget movie shows the life of the most famous Mongolian till he becomes the Great Khan.
The boy did not grow up amid unsurpassed luxury. Life in the steppes is hard; the Mongol tribes face extremities of weather as well as competition from other tribes for resources. Besides the usual existential threats, the boy had to face death, not once, but at least three times. Once when a rival leader takes over the clan after Temüjin’s father’s assassination, he is marked, but spared because he is a boy. This event repeats once more. The third time, as an adult, he is sold into slavery and kept in a cell with one window. He survives all adversities like Louie Zamperini, the hero of Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption.

But the movie is a love story as well – between Börte whom he chose as his wife when he was 9. When she is abducted by a rival tribe, Temüjin with his blood brother rescue her. When Temüjin is held as a slave in the far away Tangut kingdom, Börte offers herself as a concubine to a merchant to hitch a ride and bribes the guards to save her husband. Börte is a strong woman which is not surprising. When the men go off to war, it is the women who watch the animals and take care of the tribe; When a Khan dies, until a new one is elected, his mother or wife is in charge of the tribe.
Besides this, the Mongols are driven by two other relationships to reduce conflict. One is that of the blood brother: when two individuals from different tribes become blood brothers each one is obliged to help the other. When Temüjin was once almost frozen to death as a child, he was saved by another kid, Jamukha, who becomes his blood brother. It is this blood brother who later helps him save  Börte. But these relations are not forever; it is the same Jamukha who sells him into slavery. The second relationship is with the Khan. Once someone is recognized as a great leader, people remain loyal to him. The Khan, in return for this loyalty, offers booty.

A large part of Mongol life is spent in skirmishes: over women, over horses, over resources. It is after attaining freedom from the Tangut prison that Temüjin thinks of putting an end to hot-tempered personal ambitions and  unifying the tribes with shared values.  In the movie he does that by defeating his blood brother turned enemy Jamukha in a lavishly filmed battle scene. He also comes up with some rules of conduct — “Don’t kill women or children. Don’t forget debts. Fight enemies to end. Don’t betray the khan”. Not shown in the movie is the fact that Temüjin  also used the Pakistani strategy  of channeling anger towards an external enemy. It works and Genghis Khan is born. The movie ends here, but according to the reliable Wikipedia, Sergei Bodrov is working on the second part of the trilogy.
(Credits: Image via Wikipedia)