ULAN BATOR, Mongolia — His name is on streets, schools, a brand of vodka and many a newborn baby. Now, 800 years after Genghis Khan inspired terror on two continents, Mongolians are taking their reverence for the great conqueror to new heights.
The Mongolian capital’s airport is being renamed after him. Construction crews are working 24 hours a day to build a $5 million statue of the Great Khan and his sons in the city’s central square. There are even suggestions that Ulan Bator, which means Red Hero in an echo of the communist era, should be renamed Genghis City.
The fervor reached a peak this week with the start of Naadam, an annual festival of traditional martial arts, such as horse racing, wrestling and archery, as well as heavy drinking. This year’s celebration coincides with the 800th anniversary of a seminal event: In 1206, warring tribes united under a warrior who took the title Genghis Khan and conquered an empire.
The government expects about 500,000 tourists this year in the country of 2.8 million, thanks to a state-backed international promotion campaign. Hotel rooms are so scarce that the U.S. Embassy is advising Americans to think about other destinations for summer travel.
Getting into the spirit, the legislature granted amnesty to 1,590 prisoners, Ulan Bator authorities ordered 285 chronic alcoholics into drying-out clinics and the president urged Mongolians to party, though not too hard.
“Let’s keep our streets clean and orderly,” President N. Enkhbayar said on television. “Let’s sing our national anthem together. Let’s drink vodka moderately.”
The celebration of Genghis Khan shows how much has changed since 70 years of Soviet-backed communist rule ended in 1990. The communist authorities suppressed Genghis’ name and signs of his legacy, viewing him as a feudal oppressor and a nationalist rallying symbol, and killed many Mongolian aristocrats who claimed to be his descendants.
Democracy is evident in the half-dozen groups of protesters that pitched traditional tents opposite the new Genghis Khan monument last month, arguing that the $16 million being spent on festivities should be used to ease poverty.
To the rest of the world, Genghis Khan may be a synonym for barbarism, but to Mongolians he represents order, civilization and an empire that stretched across Asia to Central Europe.
He is a touchstone of national identity to a nation sandwiched between Russia and China and wary of being swallowed up by either.
The World Academy of Chinggis Khan, a private group, which uses an alternative spelling of the Great Khan’s name, has called for a return to the shamanistic, pre-Buddhist rituals popular in Genghis’ day.
“If Mongolians again perform these rites, Mongolia will be blessed and will prosper,” said P. Davaanyam, the academy’s president, who claims to be a 30th-generation descendant of Genghis Khan.
China, which controls Inner Mongolia on Mongolia’s southern edge and whose vibrant enterprises threaten to overwhelm Mongolia’s indigenous industries, also claims rights to Genghis Khan. It says his tomb is in Chinese territory, a claim that has not been verified independently, and is promoting tourism to Inner Mongolia for the 800th anniversary.
A DNA-analysis company in Britain has made headlines in recent years by theorizing that many modern Caucasian men probably carry Genghis genes, because it was the warlord’s practice to massacre the men in the territories he conquered and then impregnate the women.
The widespread use of the Genghis name for promotional purposes rankles with some who consider themselves stewards of the Khan’s legacy.
D. Enkhtaivan is a former member of parliament and president of the Genghis Khan Management Association, a private group that promotes the study of Genghis Khan. It was he who came up with the idea of changing Ulan Bator to Genghis City, “just as Russians named St. Petersburg” after Peter the Great “and Americans named their capital city after George Washington.”
But he wants such things regulated to prevent frivolous exploitation.
“We should have a law on the use of Genghis Khan’s name,” he said.