SUMR Meets Genghis Khan (at The Franklin Institute)

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SUMR Meets Genghis Khan (at The Franklin Institute)

New View of an Asian Ruler Given Short Shift by Western Historians
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[Click images for larger] A small contingent of Penn/LDI Summer Undergraduate Minority Research (SUMR) Scholars took a weekend excursion to the Franklin Institute to experience the Genghis Khan exhibit. Now on national tour, it is the first exhibit to extensively tell the story of the 13th-century Mongol conquerer who created the largest contiguous empire in human history. On the trip (and shown in the Franklin Institute's main atrium) were Omar Mansour of Macalester College; Mei-Lynn Hua of the University of Texas at Austin; Megan Pellegrino, LDI Multimedia Manager; Kelly McClure of Cornell University; Joanne Levy, Director of the Penn/LDI SUMR Program; Tammy Jiang of Brown Unversity; and Safa Browne, SUMR Program Coordinator.
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The entrance to the exhibit features a copy of the Genghis Khan monument that sits in front of the Parliament building in Ullaanbaatar, Mongolia's capital. Conceived and designed by world-famous science journalist and dinosaur hunter Don Lessem who spent years in Mongolia exploring fossil sites, the exhibit aims to fill Western culture's knowledge gap about Khan's overall life and legacy. One of its main points is shown in its maps detailing the unparalleled geographic spread of Khan's empire that ultimately stretched from the Danube River in the East to the Pacific Ocean in the West. That breadth is far beyond anything that either Alexander the Great or Napoleon ever achieved.
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Khan's was a horse-centric world in which he devised new kinds of military tactics and weapons that swept away opposing armies and emptied entire cities of their populations. Routinely viewed as a brutally crude barbarian in the West, Lessem points out that Khan was "far more sophisticated and influential than commonly perceived... (his) empire was adroitly managed by administrators, advisors and generals chosen on merit not lineage, from many cultures. Within its secure borders, international trade flourished and religious freedom was tolerated." Indeed, Khan himself dabbled in Buddhism, Islam, Christianity and Taoism.
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In his era, armies from the areas Khan invaded rode horses whose saddles lacked stirrups -- a curious fact that spotlights the importance of Khan's constant quest for innovations in horsemanship and weapons construction. His own armies' stirrups provided each warrior with superior physical stability and maneuverability including the ability to accurately fire arrows from fast moving horses.
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Khan's corps of engineers devised some of the most ingeniously horrific weaponry the world had ever seen. The "hand cannons" they created used explosions of gun powder to propel projectiles -- and were the world's first guns. An exhibit space lit with red lights (above) mirrors the fiery siege underway in the wall mural and enables visitors to get up-close and personal with a high-powered carriage bow that launched burning spears over the highest defensive walls.
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Among the hundreds of items that make up this largest exhibit of Khan artifacts ever assembled outside of Mongolia, is a complete 13th-century yurt and all its period furnishings and implements.
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Also included in the exhibit are works of Mongol art both old and modern, like this "Jamsran Tsam" mask created in 2005 by Gankhuyag Natsag. Evolved out of ancient shamanist beliefs the masks were later merged into Tibetan Buddhist traditions. The Jamsran figure was believed to be a protective warrior who defended his community against external enemies and "Tsam" is the native word for "dance." Such grotesque masks were used in annual dance festivals that celebrated the beginning of each new year.