WASHINGTON – A statue of former Prime Minister Winston Churchill stands outside the British Embassy. Mohandas Gandhi, the spiritual and political leader of India’s independence movement, is honored near the Indian Embassy.
Now the Embassy of Mongolia 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, that 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 suburban Virginia seven years ago. “But the perception of Genghis Khan for Mongolians is Great Khan. Everybody is proud of Genghis Khan.”
This week, Washington is hosting the Smithsonian’s first Mongolian Festival, celebrating 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.
A statue of the warmonger in Washington might be “controversial,” said William Fitzhugh, director of the Arctic Studies Center at the National Museum of Natural History. But Genghis Khan is credited with a host of reforms and progressive actions, he said. 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.”
The Mongolian Embassy and the Mongolian Community in Washington D.C. Area association are leading the effort to erect a statue. “All the talks are at the initial stage,” said Consul General Gonchig Ganbold, emphasizing that neither a potential location nor funding has been identified.
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