Monday, October 2, 2006

He’s one of the most famous names of the last millennium, and he’s the father of his country, which turns 800 years old this year.

That’s why the D.C. region’s Mongolian community would like to see a statue erected of Genghis Khan, the George Washington of Mongolia.

The Mongolian Embassy in Georgetown has inquired with the State Department and had preliminary discussions with a contractor who works with embassies.

Supporters of the statue say that the popular image in the West of Genghis Khan as a ruthless barbarian invader gives Americans a misconception of a leader who some historians say was ahead of his time and progressive in many ways.

Genghis Khan established an empire based on religious tolerance in an age where the Crusades and religious wars were commonplace, his advocates say. He was an ardent free trader and established principles of diplomatic immunity.

A statue would be a good way of highlighting some of those overlooked traits, said Gonchig Ganbold, the embassy’s consul general.

“We are eager to make the people of both cultures get to know one another,” Mr. Ganbold said. “Genghis Khan is the one person who best represents what Mongolia stands for.”

Getting it built may be difficult, though. Statues require approval from either the National Park Service, if on federal land, or the District, if on city land.

The particular spot eyed by the Mongolians, near their embassy, is on city land.

Michael Johnson, a spokesman for the city’s Office of Planning, declined comment on whether Genghis Khan would be an appropriate historical figure to honor with a statue, saying he didn’t want to prejudge an issue before a formal application is made.

But he said that the city gives strong preference to local figures rather than foreign ones.

Still, many statues in the city honor foreign heroes.

The world famous excommunicate, Martin Luther, is honored at Thomas Circle, and one of the tallest statues in the city honors South America’s Great Liberator, Simon Bolivar.

Other statues include Joan of Arc; Jose Artigas, the father of Uruguayan independence; Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko; and French artist Louis Daguerre.

In academic circles, Western historians have begun taking a revisionist view of Genghis Khan.

A 2004 book by anthropology professor Jack Weatherford, “Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World,” spent several weeks on the best-seller list and offered a more sympathetic portrayal.

Still, the popular view of Genghis Khan as a warmonger is hard to dispel. And it is not baseless.

While cities that acquiesced to Mongol rule received relatively enlightened treatment, the Mongols did indeed engage in wholesale slaughter of those who refused to submit. They were particularly quick to kill aristocrats from resisting cities — an uncommon practice at the time.

What’s more, they encouraged the few who were allowed to survive to go out and spread the word to other cities about the consequences of resistance, which helped enshrine their reputation as ruthless, bloodthirsty conquerors.

“I think we’re suffering from the mind-set of the vanquished,” said William Fitzhugh, an anthropologist and director of the Arctic Studies Center at the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History. “But people are now more willing to take a look at the other side.”

The Smithsonian, in conjunction with the Mongolian Embassy, is sponsoring a Mongolian Family Festival this weekend that will include lectures and demonstrations of Mongolian wrestling and throat singing and a celebration of the Mongolian state’s 800th anniversary.

Part of the reason Americans know so little about Mongolia, Mr. Fitzhugh said, is the nation’s isolation during its communist era.

In the last decade, though, the D.C. area and Arlington County, in particular, have seen rapid growth in the Mongolian population.

With an estimated Mongolian population of 2,000 to 3,000, the D.C. area now rivals a more established community in Denver as the largest Mongolian enclave in the United States.

The Mongolian community’s ability to emigrate and rapidly adapt to American life is not surprising, since Mongolians have long been a nomadic people.

“Mongolians have always proven adept at adjusting to new situations,” said S. Dawadash, the embassy’s second secretary.

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