chariot for the Maidari procession in Ulaan Baatar.
Situated between Siberia to its north and China to its south, the
territory of present-day Mongolia [map] encompasses vast stretches of
steppe and wooded mountains on its northern fringes and stony desert
in the south. Neither the extreme climate – even in summer the temperature
can plummet to freezing overnight -- nor the harsh environment is
conducive to agriculture. The peoples who inhabited this region
had, therefore, to depend on animal husbandry for their survival.
Camels, yaks, sheep, and goats were herded, but it was the horse
that was most fundamental to their livelihood, providing transport
for the herders as they moved their livestock from one pasture to
another. This nomadic existence bred peerless horsemanship unmatched
by the peoples of the sedentary civilizations with whom the nomads
came into contact.
Since for much of their history they lacked a written language,
our knowledge of the nomads derives mainly from the unflattering
portraits painted of them by rival civilizations such as China.
In Chinese historiography, the nomadic tribes are depicted as barbarian
hordes who would sweep down with lightning speed and unbridled ferocity
to ravage and terrorize the settled communities to their south.
Although the lure of luxuries and wealth of neighboring communities
did indeed precipitate nomad attacks, economic pressures stemming
from drought or severe climatic change were also often a factor
in these clashes. And the relationship of nomadic to sedentary community
was not always military. Trade, often disguised as tribute, and
even intermarriage flourished between the two groups.
Coalitions of tribes had from ancient times invaded and sometimes
conquered parts of China. But in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries,
the military genius of Chinggis (Genghis) Khan (Ocean or Boundless
Ruler; reigned 1167?-1227) united the disparate tribes into a single
force known as the Mongols. In an astonishingly brief space of time
Chinggis and his successors created the largest empire the world
has ever seen. At its greatest extent, it stretched from Korea to
Hungary and from Russia to Persia. By 1241 the Mongols were at the
gates of Vienna, which was saved only by the death of Ogodei Khan,
Chinggis’s son and sucessor. China finally succumbed to his grandson,
Kubilai Khan (reigned 1260-94) in 1279.
Ink, gold, silver and colors on cotton; 19th Centruy.
Chojin Lama Temple Museum, Ulaan Baatar
Mahakala, the buddihist diety who inherited many of the characteristics
of the Hindu fot Siva, was first worshiped in Mongolia as the
Lord of the Tent. Images of this terrifying deity were distributed
throughout Mongolia to replace those of the onggon, the idols
of the shaminist ancestors, in the sacred area reserved for
worship in the ger.
While tales of the barbaric cruelty of the Mongolian hordes have
been perpetuated to the present day, an alternate view emerged after
the threat of European invasion had dissipated. The Mongolian empire
guaranteed safe travel across Asia, and European explorers returned
with stories of a civilization that had attained unprecedented heights.
The most famous of these accounts was the Description of the
World, commonly known as The Travels of Marco Polo. Although
The Travels is now believed to have been a concoction of
verifiable fact, hearsay, exaggeration, legend, and out-right fabrication,
the different picture it painted of the Mongol empire and its Chinese
dominions exerted an enormous influence on the European imagination.
By the end of thirteenth century the Mongolian empire, whose leaders
had embraced a form of Esoteric Buddhism called Lamaism during the
Yuan dynasty (1278-1367), had already begun to fragment into separate
fiefdoms, or khanates. In 1368 the Mongols were expelled from China
and many retreated to their native lands. In these backwaters, they
reverted to the nomadic existence of their ancestors, taking up
once again the shamanistic practices that had been overshadowed
by the religions of Islam and Buddhism during their period of empire.
Although Buddhism may have tenuously survived in court circles,
it was not until the sixteenth century that the religion again became
a powerful force in Mongol society. The catalyst was the conversion
of the Mongol leader Altan Khan (1506-1582), who believed himself
to be the reincarnation of Kubilai Khan, the conqueror of China.
Like Kubilai, he adopted Lamaism, the Tibetan version of Buddhism.
It was Altan who ordained the lineage of the Dalai Lama in Tibet,
thus cementing the relationship between Tibetan and Mongolian Buddhism.
While the adoption of Lamaism inspired a cultural florescence, politically
the seventeenth century saw Mongolia increasingly threatened by
the its two powerful neighbors, the Russian empire to the north
and west and the Manchu conquerors of China to the south and east.
In 1727 treaties were signed formally dividing Mongolia between
the Chinese and Russian spheres of influence, distinguished by the
respective terms Inner and Outer Mongolia. While the region that
fell under Chinese sway remains part of China, Outer Mongolia, which
had been attached to the Soviet Union, became an independent state