Processional 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 in 1990.