Saturday, May 17, 2014

John Ivison: To the governor-general, Genghis Khan isn’t so much a genocidal warlord as a ‘purveyor of knowledge and enlightenment’

Genghis Khan has garnered bad press over the past 800 years, largely on account of being one of history’s most destructive and genocidal warlords. Pouring molten silver into the eyes and ears of your enemies is generally not considered good reputation management.

But the founder of the Mongol Empire has a high-profile advocate in Canada — the Governor-General.

David Johnston has made repeated references in recent speeches on higher education to the achievements of this “unlikely purveyor of knowledge and enlightenment.”

The Governor-General was in Mongolia last fall and said he learned much about Genghis Khan’s contribution to Western civilization.

“The Mongol conquest of lands stretching from the Pacific Ocean in the east to Vienna in the west, saw Genghis Khan and his descendants spread knowledge, ideas and new technologies — the stirrup, the compass, gunpowder and the printing press — all across the vastness of Asia and Western Europe,” he said in a speech in Los Angeles on the subject of innovation exchange across borders.

Added to that list could also be included siege warfare, the diverting of rivers to flood target cities and the use of enemy prisoners as human shields.

Genghis Khan was clearly a complex and misunderstood character. He is lauded for creating an empire grounded in meritocracy, where ethnicity and race were of little account, and of practicing religious tolerance. In modern-day Mongolia, he is considered the embodiment of Mongol identity — his face is found on the currency and the international airport at Ulan Bator is named after him.

He is less revered the further west you travel, and in the Middle East and Iran, he is considered responsible for the death of millions of people.

Historians have estimated that Iran’s population did not reach its pre-Mongol levels until the mid-20th century.

Still, Mr. Johnston said the ideas spread by the Mongols may have provided insights to Western thinkers like Leonardo da Vinci.

“Scholars are only now beginning to unravel the complex nature of discovery and how ideas are spread throughout human societies. The notion that the Enlightenment may have been sparked, at least in part, by Mongol ingenuity may be new to us but it is consistent with what we are discovering about how ideas travel and how civilizations thrive or fail based on their capacity to innovate,” he said.

Genghis Khan has a deserved reputation for being a quick student, always keen to adopt new technologies and ideas. But, overwhelmingly, that knowledge was used to kill his enemies on an industrial scale. The Mongol conquest of Samarkand was typical in that the vanquished people of the city were forced to evacuate, assemble on a plain outside the city where they were killed and pyramids of their severed heads were raised as a symbol of victory.

An unlikely purveyor of enlightenment indeed.

National Post

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