Genghis Khan Statue Sought

By Sue Anne Pressley Montes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 6, 2006

A statue of former prime minister Winston Churchill stands outside the British Embassy on Massachusetts Avenue NW.

Mohandas K. Gandhi, the spiritual and political leader of India's independence movement, is honored near the Indian Embassy, also on Massachusetts Avenue NW.

Now the Embassy of Mongolia on M Street NW in Georgetown and the region's rapidly growing Mongolian community would like to add their national hero to the list of monuments and memorials in the U.S. capital: Genghis Khan.

For centuries, in the Western world, that name has been synonymous with a distinctly negative image: bloodthirsty warrior, brutal conqueror, barbarian on horseback. Lately, Genghis Khan's reputation has been improving, thanks to a deeper look since 1990 at Mongol history, when the country's communist regime collapsed. But to Mongolians, the fierce 13th-century leader has long been considered the father of their country, a revered figure akin to George Washington in the United States.

They understand, however, how others may not see him that way.

"That's not really the fault of the Western people, because writers and historians have described him as a bad person," said Gombosuren Ganzorig, a lawyer who emigrated from Mongolia to northern Virginia seven years ago. "But the perception of Genghis Khan for Mongolians is Great Khan. Everybody is proud of Genghis Khan."

The quest for the statue comes as the area's emerging Mongolian population, which numbers about 3,000 and is comparable to communities in Denver and Chicago, is seeking a higher profile. It also is a time of growing interest in Mongolian culture. Beginning today, the Smithsonian will hold its first Mongolian Festival, a three-day affair that will highlight the country's folk arts and educate others about a land that seemed remote and mysterious until recently. The festival celebrates the 800th anniversary of the formation of the Mongolian state in 1206, a move that would eventually create the largest contiguous empire in world history, stretching from Korea to Hungary.

William Fitzhugh, director of the Arctic Studies Center at the National Museum of Natural History, has been focusing on Mongolia for the past five or six years, and he said he finds the people friendly and the country "fascinating." Larger than Alaska and with only 2.5 million people, Mongolia has a landscape that reminds him of Montana, he said. He compares Genghis Khan's foul reputation to that of the Vikings, perpetuated by those who "were on the wrong end of the sword."

A statue of the warmonger in Washington might be "controversial," Fitzhugh said. But Genghis Khan is credited with a host of reforms and progressive actions, he said. Among other things, he was an early champion of religious tolerance and women's rights, allowing women to speak in public and express opinions. He also was an early supporter of diplomacy, offering protection to envoys from other lands.

"A lot of terrible things happened during the conquest era," Fitzhugh said. "They massacred whole cities sometimes, and those are the bloodthirsty stories you hear. But after things calmed down, it was a mammoth empire and it was ruled with a lot of precision and care."

Jack Weatherford, an anthropology professor at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn., did much to revamp Genghis Khan's reputation in the West with his 2004 bestseller, "Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World."

"He is probably one of the greatest leaders in world history, and there is so much we can learn from him today, but it's our ignorance that stops us," Weatherford said in an interview. "We don't know enough about him, and we are so biased toward the West and European history that we can't imagine learning from an illiterate warrior out of the steppes of Mongolia."

The Mongolian Embassy and the Mongolian Community in Washington D.C. Area association are leading the effort to erect a Genghis Khan statue. "All the talks are at the initial stage," said Consul General Gonchig Ganbold, emphasizing that neither a potential location nor source of funding has been identified. "The land issue is also very delicate and is not finalized yet."

Michael Johnson of the D.C. Office on Planning said that the groups, like any others wishing to erect a statue on city land, must apply to the agency's Commemorative Works Committee with detailed plans and designs. He said "greater weight" usually is given to honorees with a local connection but declined to comment on Genghis Khan. Approval must come from the U.S. Park Service to place a statue on federal land.

Iveelt Tsog, a Fairfax accountant who heads the Mongolian community association, said such a statue could do much to buoy national pride among immigrants.

"For so many years, the communists suppressed the idea of Genghis Khan -- they were promoting communism and their way of life," Tsog said. "Now our history has come back, and this gives us a symbol and an identity and a reason to be proud."

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