A fantastic treasure

Sakıp Sabancı Museum is hosting an exhibition, ‘Genghis Khan and His Heirs’, on the 800th anniversary of the legendary conqueror’s founding of the Great Mongol Empire.

“The lands of Mongolia were ruled up to the 13th century by the Hun Empire, and the Göktürk, Uighur and Karakutay states. The first Mongol State was founded in Mongolia in 1205 by tribes united and organized by Genghis Khan. When Genghis Khan died in 1227, the Mongol Empire was divided among his sons and continued to exist until the 17th century as, first, the Yuan Dynasty, then the Golden Horde and finally the Ilkhanid State.”
These soporific tales that we’ve been reading in the history books for years can finally be laid to rest. For an exhibition is currently under way in Istanbul that will lead you to question their truth value: ‘Genghis Khan and His Heirs - The Great Mongol Empire’.  This comprehensive exhibition, which invites us to rethink not only the history of Central Asia but our own history as well by laying out the facts in documents, runs through 8 April at Sabancı University’s Sakıp Sabancı Museum.
We might say that this is the perfect time to make an extended journey to Mongolia, now when the film, ‘The Stone Council’, based on Jean Christophe Grangé’s novel of the same name, is so much in the news. For the 800th anniversary of the founding of the world’s largest land empire is being celebrated around the world in a host of events. Nazan Ölçer, Director of Sakıp Sabancı Museum, sums up the importance of the exhibition, which has been mounted as part of these celebrations, as follows: “We can see here, in one place, many valuable objects pertaining to Genghis Khan and his sons from museums in Europe, as well as some that would otherwise never have left Mongolia. And the fact that the ancient history of the Turks was also written in these lands makes this exhibition even more appealing to us. In a time like ours when prejudice is rife, we wanted to view history without preconceptions. In this sense, it is an historical exhibition that also sheds light on our own past.”

LIVES LIVED ON HORSEBACK
The vast Mongol lands provided temporary ‘yurts’ to a people who lived on horseback, unattached to any particular place. Tents, known as ‘ger’, which could be pitched quickly thanks to their collapsible wooden frames, were the sacred yurts of a people who migrated indefatigably summer and winter. Round and covered with felt and cloth, these tents were light and easily portable. Their doors always faced south, away from the harsh steppe winds. They were divided into two sections, the left for the men, the right for the women. Come the end of October, hundreds of families with their herds of thousands of cattle, sheep and goats would cross over mountains 3000 meters high, migrating between winter and summer pastures at least four times a year to graze their animals. So did they live, and they continue to do so even today. The ‘morin huur’, traditional instrument of the steppe where life without folk songs is unthinkable, accompanied their songs dedicated to the steppe, the family and the animals. Every year at new year’s the Tsam (it means ‘masked dance’ in Tibetan) Festival is held to drive away evil spirits. This ritual, which exhibits traces of Hinduism, paganism, shamanism and Buddhism, is taught in Mongolia today to the younger priests by the older ones of mature years. Incomparably more impressive than their counterparts in other countries, the Mongolian masks are thereby brought to light, and find their way into this exhibition.

‘ARCHITECT OF GLOBALIZATION’
A passage from a talk given at a symposium organized in Beijing on the occasion of the 800th anniversary celebrations describes the importance of Genghis Khan as follows: “... Genghis Khan introduced Europe to the production of paper and printing techniques. His campaigns to Europe brought about the opening of the Silk Road. And in this sense we must regard him as ‘the architect of globalization’. A renaissance was experienced in the lands of the Mongol Empire long before the Italian Renaissance...” Consider how the multi-culturalism of the empire that Genghis Khan succeeded in unifying under a single confederation of nomadic Turks is described by Wilhelm von Rubruk, a monk sent out by the French king of the period, Louis IX: “There is a market and many streets in the place where the Arabs live, and they engage in trade. Most of the Chinese are artisans. Different nations, religions and faiths co-exist here. There are 12 temples in the city. And on the outskirts of the city two mosques and a church...”
Religious tolerance and communication between different languages contributed to the development of trade and the expansion of the government administration. Nazan Ölçer sums up this period, known as the ‘Pax Mongolica’, as follows: “Journeys undertaken during the period known as the Pax Mongolica brought with them large trade delegations, an exchange of knowledge and culture, and a reliable system of transportation and communication that made it easy for artists to go from one place to another. It is thanks to all that that many products could be exchanged, making trade both safer and more convenient. The products of the East could go to the West and those of the West to the East. An artistic or religious movement could be borne from one population center to another, taking on new interpretations in the process. What we’re talking about here is a tolerant environment in which religions of every stripe were recognized. An environment in which no one was forced to change his religion... The Pax Mongolica should be thought of as one of the earliest and most significant factors that brought about the unification of East and West.”

TORTOISES OF KARAKORUM
Excavation continues today at Karakorum, capital of this empire whose impact spread all around the world, and the archaeological finds unearthed there constitute a major part of this exhibition. Sculptures of tortoises, regarded as sacred by the Mongols, surround the city of Karakorum on four sides. Regarded as a symbol of immortality because of their longevity and as a symbol of strength for their ability to defend themselves against external threats, their longevity and immortality are only evidenced further by the fact that one of them can be exhibited here today. Bracelets, votive tablets, family trees and astronomical maps, statuettes, costumes, warrior uniforms, shields, manuscripts, musical instruments, porcelains, miniatures, seals, decorations... these are just a few of the 600 objects, culled from 38 different collections, that invite us into a fantastic world of four-leaf clover, phoenix, stag, horse, eagle and tree motifs. A world that only becomes more profound the deeper one delves into the details, a world we think we know but on whose door we have scarcely even knocked...