This is an article from the July-August 1998 issue: Mongolia

Those Astounding Mongolians

Those Astounding Mongolians

Genghis Khan (approx. 1162-1227) fatherless by the age of nine, he built an empire that was largely friendly to religion. A most significant law was "All men are to believe in one God, creator of Heaven and earth."

Mongolia boasts a larger population of horses than humans. That fact may not serve to change its reputation as an obscure, isolated land, free from modernity. Today it is among the world's poorest nations. But Mongolia was once the richest nation in the world. Yet the Mongols are the holders of an even more prestigious prize: Beginning under the great Genghis Khan they established the largest empire in the history of humanity.

In considering a brief history of this hidden land, north of China, south of Russia and a good three days on land from the nearest ocean port, you cannot help but be reminded that it was Genghis Khan who made this people great. In fact, you're reminded of his presence today at each point of purchase--his face is on the Mongolian currency, the Tugrik bills. Perhaps more illuminating is Genghis Khan's "recent conversion" to democracy. Or at least that is what the ruling Democratic Union Coalition would have you think. In the literature leading to the June 1996 parliamentary elections the democrats announced Genghis's posthumous support of the democratic opposition party.

It worked--despite whatever disdain Genghis himself may have had for democracy. The Mongolian Democratic Union Coalition took control of this fledgling democracy that had been under elected Communist rule since 1990 when it gained independence from the dissolving Soviet Union. Under this newfound freedom Mongols have a flowering national pride that the Soviet Union diligently sought to eradicate for 66 years.

The Great Genghis Khan

When Genghis Khan initially came onto the scene Mongolia was a disrupted land of tribal feuds. Sources vary, but up to 30 tribes lived and fought and shepherded livestock high on the steppes and mountains northwest of China. Genghis himself was born under the name Temujin. His keen leadership and survival through struggle is conveyed in The Secret History of the Mongols, a curious ancient text compared to the Odyssey of Odessius. In an act of revenge, his father was poisoned by Tatar tribesman, leaving Temujin fatherless at age nine. In his early battles, it was the Tatar tribe that received his first brutal, retributive justice. After this ruthless attack, the Tatar tribe nearly ceased to exist. All those not enslaved were destroyed.

In his ascendant struggles Temujin fought a number of tribal battles, including two against his closest friends--his blood brother Jamuqa, and Toghril. These brief but fierce fights are told in the Secret History in a way thought by some to be eerily similar to the Old Testament story of David, Saul and Jonathan. Though believed to be factual the parallels are not likely coincidental. The civil servant and author of the Secret History was probably a Christian.

If the story of the Mongol empire is to be understood with a backdrop of Christian faith, that backdrop is Nestorian Christianity. The theology attributed to the Nestorians was born out of a fifth century East-West conflict clothed in theology, debating how the divine and human nature of Christ should be defined and articulated. Reacting against the elevation of Mary as "mother of God," the Nestorians made a clear distinction between the human and divine natures of Christ. Nestorian Christianity, though not necesarily affiliated with their namesake theology, flourished in Asia through the 14th Century. Still, they were accused of fragmenting Christ's organic union and branded "heretics." They were also some very zealous missionaries.

True to the Biblical parallel, Temujin took David's mantel and, in 1206, he was given the title Genghis Khan-- "strong ruler" or "oceanic ruler." Under the Great Khan the world would meet what historians have called the most warlike empire the world has known. The creation of a unified homeland, a "Mongolia" was bought by crushing force (and very little diplomacy). The basis of this newfound nation was a number of tribes, including the Kerait, Naiman, Ongut and Merkit. In some ways, Khan has been placed in Mongolian's collective memory as the man who took a smattering of tribes who were not a people and made them a people.

>From his elevated position Genghis Khan would embark on a series of military campaigns that sent terror into all who heard even a whisper of their vulnerability for attack. Though not necessarily the largest army in the world (estimates are it never exceeded 110,000) their agility on horseback, their skill with bow and arrow and their striking superiority in military strategy sent fear into their opponents. He not only made Mongolians a people, he made them great.

Subsequent to the death of Genghis, the Golden Horde of Batu, grandson to Genghis, pushed across Russia, towards Poland, knocking on Europe's eastern door. As this seemingly unstoppable force swept accross Asia all the way to Kiev, according to historian Samuel Hugh Moffett, "all of Christendom trembled."1 Providence had it that the death of another Khan, Ogetai, saved Europe from the onslaught of the Golden Horde. All the Mongolian chieftains were called to the homeland for the selection of the next Khan. Had they continued their aggression, they would have taken Europe, for no military force had been able to stop them.

The Khan dynasty would peak under Kublai Khan, another grandson to Ghenghis who ruled from 1260 to 1294. Under his leadership the empire ruled China and had vast territories that stretched from the present-day Istanbul to Moscow and the edge of Poland all the way to Korea. The Khans' established great ruling centers in China, Persia, Turkestan and southern Russia. Ironically, the terrific conquering force of the Mongol army would serve to weaken their long-term strength. Their territories were far too vast and their administrative abilities too weak for effective governance.

Kublai's mother, the great princess Sorkaktani, was known to be a Nestorian Christian. Though Kublai was friendly to Christians, he did not share her faith. This may explain the tolerance he demonstrated to religion generally and Christianity in particular.

Writing in the 13th Century, the Hebrew Jacobite historian Bar Hebraeus captured the sense of religious freedom in Mongolia. But he also noted the need for strong, unflinching subordination. With regard to religion, he wrote, "there is neither slave nor free man; neither believer nor pagan; neither Christian nor Jew" but as to loyalty, the Mongols demanded "strenuous service...beyond the power of man to deliver."2 Only later, with the rise of Muslim fundamentalism did the Khans exercise their brutal force against a people of faith, seeking to conquer growing Muslim zeal.

While the breadth of the empire peaked near 1280, the marked decline in its strength was not evident until the 1350's when the inter-family struggles and the sheer enormity of the empire began taking its toll. Roughly speaking, the Khan years have been considered 1206 to 1367, with a decline by self-destruction more than a death caused by any outside force.

With the dissolution of their empire the Mongols returned to engage in tribal warfare somewhat similar to the time before Temujin united them. Certainly, they left behind some beneficial legacies. For example, they valued law and order, and established a great deal of both. But, by and large, the world remembers the Mongols as the inflictors of terror in their push to dominate the globe. To the Mongols themselves, the Khan legacy is one of unity, identity, strength. While the rest of the world may have forgotten, there was a time when the Mongol empire, not the Romans, not the British Crown, not the United States was the preeminent military and financial power of the world.

With the decline of the Mongol empire went any trace of Christian faith that had been there. But it would be wrong to assume that the Christian faith was entirely absent from the earlier empire. In 1245, Friar John of Plano Carpini, a Franciscan missionary and emissary travelled some 14 months to Guyuk Khan's throne to deliver a message from the Pope. Approaching with great trepidation, he was alarmed to find himself surrounded by Nestorian Christians. As the empire faded, so did the number of Christians. Moffett captures the disheartening history:

They had made [Mongolia] the richest country in the world. As the Mongols faded away, all Asia north of the Himalayas was once more either Muslim or Chinese. If there were any Christians left, here and there, no one noticed them.3

Mongolia: Current population 2.3 million, roughly 1/4 that of Paris on a mass of land that could swallow all of Western Europe. As recent as 1983 it was labelled the "most unreached nation on the face of the earth."

After the Great Khans

A brief revival of Khan-like rule was seen in 1507 when Altan Khan united the Khalkha tribe. He waged a war with China that was fruitless, due in part to the Great Wall the Chinese had built to prevent the mounted warriors from penetrating their empire ever again. The Wall is perhaps one of the greater, backhanded compliments to the strength of the Mongols. Altan Khan's more lasting legacy was his national embrace of Buddhism, with Tibetan Buddhism remaining the dominant faith in Mongolia today.

With the passing of Altan Khan, Mongolia returned again to tribal warfare and more self-destruction. Instead of conquering China ever again, Mongolia was subjected to Chinese rule in 1732. This rule was relatively peaceful until 1800, when the Manchu emperors brutalized the Mongol people, taxing them severely and torturing them for the slightest sign of rebellion. This explains their wariness of China to this day.

Certainly, it was a factor in their somewhat self-imposed subjugation to the Soviet Union, beginning in 1924. At minimum, it assured them freedom from China. The world's second Communist nation, Mongolia would remain under Soviet control until 1990, and in contrast to the pattern of most post-Soviet states, in the very first elections the Communists themselves were voted in by the people, taking 85 percent of the upper legislative house--and the presidency.

Protestant missionary efforts over the last 200 years have been few and nearly fruitless (see "Mongolia", p.10). James Gilmour, who died of exhaustion after pouring out his soul for the Mongols from 1870 to 1890, complained of how he "felt drawn to suicide."

Of the Mongols, he often reported there is "nothing cheering to report." Perhaps the Gospel seed was planted deep in Mongolian soil. Today, Brother Gilmour, there is indeed a cheering report. In fact, there is a harvest.

  1. Moffett, Samuel Hugh, A History of Christianity in Asia, v.I, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1998., 406

  2. ibid., 433 3.

  3. ibid., 488


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