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Shamans as Builders of Empires -- The Legacy of Genghis Khan

Pacific News Service, Commentary/Analysis, Franz Schurmann Posted: Jun 20, 2005

Editor's Note: Does the past have an iron grip on the present and the future? Or can the dreams of the future turn the iron of the past and present into rust? Noted historian Franz Schurmann begins a series in which he proposes that history takes a long time to happen -- or, in some cases, history can be transformed by events that occur in the blink of an eye. Today's headlines need to be read with a long view. This first column looks at a leader who built a global empire in a span of less than two decades.

Genghis Khan, aka Chingis Khan (1172-1227), was the greatest of all shamans. He and his sons and grandsons conquered just about every country in the Eastern hemisphere. But as a shaman -- people in touch with the spirit world who serve as both healers and priests -- the Mongol ruler showed the legacy of shamans as actors in history.

Shamans worship heaven and earth. They go up mountains to be close to one God or several gods. And they have a special relationship with death. Though many expeditions have been launched to find Genghis Khan's grave, none have found his bones or coffin. It's possible that he was not buried or cremated, and that his corpse became animal fodder in the funeral rite of "sky-burial," as is common among Zoroastrians, Tibetans and Mongolians.

Shamans have also created new forms of writing. The Prophet Muhammad, for example, created a new script for the Arabic language. Genghis Khan also adapted a new alphabet from his mother and his wives who were Nestorian Christians, followers of Nestor, a fifth century preacher from Constantinople. In the seventh century, Nestorian churches could be seen all over northern and western China, where the people still spoke Turkic and Iranian languages.

Genghis Khan made an important change to his alphabet. He swiveled the Syrian alphabet 90 degrees to look like classical Chinese texts that read from top to bottom. "To obtain knowledge, travel into China," the Prophet Muhammad had once said.

When in 1206 Genghis Khan discarded his childhood name Temujin (possibly a Turkic word meaning "iron"), the heads of tribes who spoke several languages bestowed on him a word that in English can be rendered "Oceanic."

There are no oceans in Mongolia, but there are in the world's biggest and oldest empire, China. Long before the 13th century, the Chinese believed the world was flat and surrounded by four oceans.

But in the 13th century there were at most 200,000 Mongols spread among many tribes. The generally reliable Chinese records make no mention of the Mongols until the mid 12th century.

In the year 1258 Genghis Khan's grandson Hulegu destroyed Baghdad and, with it, the Sunni Caliphate (successors to the Prophet Muhammad). By the mid-14th century, when the wave of conquests subsided, the big winners were Muslims in Asia and Africa, and the big losers were Christians in Europe.

How was it that a small population was able to conquer most of the countries of the Eastern Hemisphere, let alone destroy the Sunni Caliphate? The answer is that while the Mongols were the elite, they also drew in many soldiers who craved plunder and were also intrigued by these strange people who had won victory after victory.

Meanwhile as Genghis Khan and his descendants set up their empire, the numerous Nestorian churches and stone steles all over China dating back to 781 also vanished.

Why did the Turks plus a large number of Chinese converts suddenly abandon Nestorian Christianity and embrace Islam? A simple answer is that the elites adopted the new creed and the people followed. But a more complex explanation is that many Nestorian Christians were disgusted by the behavior of their Western comrades.

In 1204 the Crusaders, who lost Jerusalem, turned their fury against Christian Constantinople (now Istanbul). Most of the Crusaders took a pro-Rome stance, but most Asians and Africans were pro-Constantinople. The Great Schism between Western Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy had already erupted over papal authority.

Even worse, in 1209, the Christian Papacy began a crusade to uproot a Christian faith in southern Europe called Albigensians or Catharites, which culminated in the Inquisition.

Genghis Khan likely knew what was going on in Western Asia. He is said to have used 200,000 horses to establish the world's first long-distance communication. His grandson Quibilai was the first in the world to use paper currency in long-distance trade, lasting a remarkable 40 years. Genghis Khan and his Jin adviser Yehlu Chucai laid out a "yasa" (kind of code of governance).

Not only China, but also the Middle East and Africa prospered under the Mongol world empire. The Turkish Ottoman Empire re-established the Sunni Caliphate in 1553. The Persian Empire was rejuvenated through the Shiite Creed. And Babur's Mughal (Mongol) Empire not only built the Taj Mahal, but also gave stability and prosperity to India.

All three empires came about in the 1500s, with the Oceanic Genghis Khan laying the foundation. By contrast, in the 1500s, Europe was tearing itself apart in what the French call "the wars of religion," between minority Protestants and Catholics.

Schurmann (fschurmann@pacificnews.org) is emeritus professor of history and sociology at U.C. Berkeley and the author of numerous books.

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