The ultimate ruler: Genghis Khan
Talk about powerful authoritarians: Genghis Khan and his tribes conquered the most contiguous territory in the history of the world — parts of what we now call Europe, the Middle East and Asia.
And, oftentimes, it wasn't pretty. It was the 13th century, after all.
Now, Portlanders can learn all about the great Khan, from his rise from poverty to preeminent ruler, with "The Life & Legacy of Genghis Khan," the new exhibit at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, 1945 S.E. Water Ave., opening Oct. 24 and showing till Feb. 15.
"He definitely wasn't alone in terms of historical figures who were quite brutal and controversial in a lot of ways," said Jennifer Powers, OMSI's featured hall manager. "What's great about the exhibit, it shows (Khan) in the most unbiased way. Make your own judgment about the person. It'll depend on how you feel. You'll see every side of Genghis Khan — the good, the bad, the ugly."
The exhibit was organized by Don Lessem, an author and president of Exhibits Rex Inc., with curatorial consultation by leading Khan experts and scholars — William Fitzhugh of the Smithsonian Institute and Morris Rossabi of Columbia University — as well as working with Mongolian authorities and museums.
It's a big exhibit, taking up two floors at OMSI, and it touches on several topics (descriptions via OMSI):
• The Grasslands: Discover the daily life of a nomad on the high plateaus of Central Asia and learn about Genghis Khan's earliest struggles as an outcast. Walk into a traditional Mongol ger (yurt) home. Stand in the midst of a herd of stampeding horses.
• Rise of the Mongols: Learn how the young, charismatic Khan united warring tribes in order to form an unrivaled cavalry. Explore the equestrian culture and innovations in weaponry that Genghis Khan mastered in order to control four times more land than any empire in history.
• The Walled City: Enter the recreation of Karakorum, the walled city, which became the capital of the Mongolian empire after Khan's son inherited the kingdom. See how life changed for the Mongols once they had vanquished all of their enemies, when arts and diverse religions and cultures flourished as the need for war subsided.
• The Silk Road: Learn how Khan was a ruthless warrior but also a savvy statesman and benevolent ruler. Understand how he developed a written language and a sophisticated society with fair taxation, stable government, appreciation of the arts, religious freedom and open trade along the Silk Road. Explore this vital trade route that enabled the exchange of both goods and ideas between cultures.
• The Palace of Kublai Khan: Enter the Chinese palace of Xanadu, the center of the empire of Khan's grandson, Kublai, who became the first Mongol to rule in China. See porcelain treasures and a sword with the emblem of a guardian of Marco Polo, among many others.
• Mongolia Today: Understand the distinctive nomadic culture of Khan's time, which persists to this day as the nation and language he created lives on eight centuries after his rule. Mongolia is a country in transition as traditional ways intersect with the modern trappings of life in the 21st century. Through photography and music, catch a glimpse of this remote Central Asian country and its people.
Powers said the exhibit continues a line of historical stories being told, following exhibits on King Tut and Pompeii. It's the first new OMSI exhibit since its reopening, and follows "Body Worlds" as the featured attraction.
"Our community gets to come in and enter a completely different world, and see the cultural differences and time difference," Powers said. "You can experience it and be immersed in it.
"People will walk away with a better understanding with Genghis Khan and the Mongol empire, and what was happening in 13th-century Mongolia. Especially during this time of lockdowns, it's such an escape to come to OMSI and be immersed in an exhibit like that."
The CliffNotes version of Khan's reign: He made strategic alliances with tribes, unifying them as the central leader. They were nomadic, skilled horsemen, and tactical fighters. They ruled parts of China and from Eastern Europe to Baghdad, Iraq to the Korean Peninsula. Once he died, without a succession plan, the dynasty fragmented and crumbled under family rule, as the Chinese Ming dynasty rose to power and other countries pushed back.
The exhibit includes 13th and 14th century artifacts — weapons, costumes, jewels, ornaments, instruments and other relics — as well as modern photography, storytelling and more.
Interestingly, Powers points out, "Genghis Khan refused to let people paint or sculpt his image. Not until after his death (in 1227) were people allowed to have drawings and paintings of him."
It'll be educational and eye-opening, OMSI said.
"'The Life & Legacy of Genghis Khan' provides a rare opportunity for visitors to step back in time to 13th century Mongolia with one of history's most recognized and debated figures," said Erin Graham, OMSI president and CEO. "The experience showcases ways that culture, science and innovation are woven together, and the enduring influence this period in Mongolian history has had on the world. Our educators have also developed fascinating new programming bridging the ancient and the modern focused on Genghis Khan's genetic legacy as uncovered through DNA research."
For more: www.omsi.edu.
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