This weekend, the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia opens an exhibition about Genghis Khan, the 13th century Mongol who conquered most of the known world.
The show was created by a Delaware County man best known for his work with dinosaurs.
From his office in Media, Pa., Don Lessem has written dozens of popular books about dinosaurs and through his company, Exhibits Rex. has established himself as the guy who makes blockbuster exhibitions about dinosaurs. While working on a archeological dig in Mongolia, his head was turned by Genghis Khan.
What Benjamin Franklin is to Philadelphia, Genghis Khan is to Mongolia. His name and image are on currency, passports, airlines, airports, and bars.
“Genghis Khan is an Irish pub,” said Lessem. He put together the exhibition “Genghis Khan: Bring the Legend to Life,” which has been bouncing around the world for five years.
The show contains about 300 artifacts describing the history of Mongolia and its nomadic culture, but Lessem says this is not an artifact-heavy exhibition. It is full of interactive kiosks, hands-on displays, videos, sound, even smells of Mongolia.
Genghis Khan’s first great accomplishment was uniting the warring tribes of Mongolia, creating an undefeatable army that then swept across the Asian continent, conquering everything in its path. His military strategies were unparalleled.
“They had catapults that could launch stuff,” Lessem told elementary students on a field trip to the museum. “Of course they sent rocks and things of fire. They also sent giant squirrels. Squirrels had the plague. They shoot the squirrel in the city, squirrel dies, it gets in the water and all the people get the plague and die.”
While Genghis Khan developed ingenious ways to kill his enemies, Lessem says he also maintained the largest unified society in history, insisting on religious freedom, paper money, and written language. He created a unified set of laws, the Blue Book, applicable to everybody. Some bon mots of wisdom still survive:
If a two-wheeled cart has a broken wheel it can travel no further. Am I not your second such wheel?
I look upon the nation as a newborn child and I care for my soldiers as if they were my brothers. Names and honorifics are not to be especially stressed in speech.The Khan’s name is to be spoken in the same way as that of anyone else.
“This is an amazing guy. This is a statesmen who changed the world,” said Lessem. “Yes, he was a military genius, but also a visionary nation-builder. With a really sort of a kind heart, while at the time he was killing millions of people.
Lessem wants his exhibition to shake the popular Western image of Genghis Khan as a barbarian, or as an Asian John Wayne, who portrayed the Mongol king in the 1956 film, “The Conquerer.”
He says, in this case, history was written by the losers.
“The only reason we are not all Mongols – his army got to the gates of Vienna unopposed. He conquered Russia in winter, which Napoleon and Hitler could never do,” said Lessem of the Mongolian march to Europe under rule of Genghis Khan’s third son, Ogedei. “They got to Vienna, and his son Ogedei dies. The force has to go back for the election of the next Khan. For them, there was no reason to go back to Europe. It was a backwater compared to the riches of the Middle East and China.”