Kalmykia, Europe’s only Buddhist republic

Kalmykia is a republic in the Russian Federation, located between the Black and the Caspian Sea. The Kalmykian republic, with some 300,000 inhabitants, is the only place in Europe where a majority of the population are Buddhists. The Kalmyks were nomads who originally arrived here from today’s Xinjiang, in the seventeenth-century, most probably in search of better pasture for their animals. [Read more: “Khotan to the Khotanese!“] In their new location the Kalmyks became nominally the subjects of the czar, and they were supposed to protect Russia’s southern borders, but in practice Kalmykia constituted its own independent khanate. The Kalmyks kept in close contact with their kinsmen in Xinjiang and also with the Dalai Lama in Tibet.

In the eighteenth-century the Russian empire asserted itself in Central Asia — settling Russian farmers here and trying to control the Kalmyks politically. In a desperate move, a large portion of the population decided to return to Xinjaing, but many were killed on the way. In the civil war which followed the Russian Revolution in 1917, the Kalmyks sided with the White armies, and this too turned out to be a terrible mistake. After the Bolshevik victory, many were forced to flee. Some Kalmyks went to the United States, others to Belgrade in Serbia where they established Europe’s first Buddhist temple in 1929.

In the 1930s the Kalmyks were forced to join collective farms, Buddhist monasteries were closed, and those who owned the largest herds of animals were labeled “enemies of the people” and deported to Siberia. In 1932 and 1933 alone some 60,000 Kalmyks died. During the Second World War, Kalmykia was invaded by the Germans. In 1943 Stalin declared the Kalmyk people collectively guilty of cooperation with the enemy and they were all deported to various locations in Siberia and Central Asia. In 1957, after the death of Stalin they were allowed to return home but often only to find that their land had been taken over by Russians. Badly planned and badly executed attempts by the Soviet authorities to irrigate the steppe turned grazing land into desert.

Today some 60 percent of the population are ethnic Kalmyks, while 30 percent are Russian. The proportion of Russians has been going down since the fall of Communism, above all since the Kalmyks have higher birthrates. Although very few Kalmyks live as nomads on the steppe, they are still practicing their religion. In 1991 the Dalai Lama visited the republic.

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Genghis Khan’s family tree


The Mongol empire at its height spanned much of the Eurasian continent but it was not the creation of only one man. When Genghis Khan died in 1227, the Mongols had not yet arrived in Europe, not taken Persia, the Middle East, and not yet occupied China. These conquests were for Genghis Khan’s successors, his sons and grandsons, to complete. Family trees are always complicated and difficult to remember. Above is what Genghis Khan’s family tree looks like.

These are the main protagonists:

Börte, 1161-1230, Temujin’s  wife and grand empress of the empire. Börte was not Temujin’s only wife, but the couple seem to have had very fond feelings for each other. She was his trusted advisor with responsibility for her own territory.

Börte gave birth to four sons:


Jochi, 1181-1227. May not have been Temujin’s son since he was born soon after Börte’s return to her husband, and he was never accepted by his brothers as the legitimate successor to their father. When Genghis Khan divided his empire Jochi got the western-most part, a territory which later came to constitute the Golden Horde, in today’s Russia.

Chagatai, 1183-1242. Was the leading critic of Jochi and was considered a hotheaded by his brothers. He inherited the Central Asian parts of the empire from his father. Later known as the Chagatai Khanate. He was very fond of airag [Read more: How to make kumis]

Ögedei, 1186-1241, was the third son and successor to Genghis Khan, as a compromise solution instead of picking Jochi or Chagatai. He expanded the empire into the Middle East, attacked the Jin dynasty in China and moved into Korea. It was during his reign that the Mongols expanded into Europe.

Tolui, 1192-1232, was the youngest of Genghis Khan’s sons, and inherited the traditional Mongol heartlands from his father. His descendants ruled Mongolia until 1691.

Tolui, in turn, had four sons who played a prominent role in Mongol politics and territorial expansion, but there were intense rivalries and occasionally wars between them.

Möngke, 1208-1259, improved the administration of the empire. During his reign the Mongols occupied Iraq and Syria. After his death a war broke out between his brothers regarding the right of succession.

Kublai, 1215-1294, was the Mongol ruler who occupied China in 1271 and founded the Yuan dynasty which was to last until 1368 when it was overrun by the Ming. He moved his capital to Beijing.

Hulagu, 1218-1265, occupied much of Western Asia, including Persia, and was responsible for the sacking of Baghdad in 1258, but his forces also lost an important battle at Ain Jalut, 1260, against the forces of the Mamuluk rulers of Egypt. His part of the empire became later known as the Ilkhanate, located in today’s Iran.

Ariq Böke, 1219-1266. was the youngest son of Tolui. After the death of Möngke in 1260, he claimed the throne but was defeated by his brothers. He died only 45 years old and rumors had it that he was poisoned.

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The Genghis Khan’s DNA



Genghis Khan in today’s Mongolia

Mongolian nationalists rediscovered Genghis Khan in the early twentieth-century and turned him into a national hero and the “father of the nation.” Yet during the communist period, 1924-1992, when the Soviet Union exercised a strong influence in the country, textbooks used in Mongolian schools described him as a “reactionary” and an “enemy of the people.” However, in commemoration of the 800th anniversary of his birth in 1962, a monument was erected in his honor and an academic conference was held to discuss his life and legacy. The conference ended with applause, cheers and chants for Genghis Khan, and agents for the KGB, the Soviet secret service, who were present at the occasion, reported the event to Moscow. The result was purges within the leadership of the Mongolian Communist Party. Those who had sided with Genghis Khan were regarded as enemies of the Soviet Union.

Since the end of communism, there has been a strong revival of interest in Genghis Khan and he is now once again a national hero. Mongolians are quick to insist that his reputation as a bloodthirsty barbarian is vastly exaggerated. In 2008, Genco Tour Bureau, a private company, erected a 40 meter tall equestrian statue of him in stainless steel at the cost of 4.1 million US dollars. Entering the statue, visitors can take an elevator to the head of the horse on which Genghis is riding and enjoy a panoramic view of the Mongolian steppe.

In today’s Mongolia, Genghis’ name and likeness can be found on products ranging from liquor bottles and energy drinks to cigarette packages and candy, as well as on the bills people use to pay for these items. There have been discussions in the Mongolian parliament about the risk of trivializing Genghis’ memory but the discussions have not so far resulted in any legislation. From 2012, the first day of the first winter month of the year is designated as Genghis Khan’s birthday and a national holiday. The actual birthday of the the Great Khan is unknown.

According to the customs of his tribe, Great Khan was buried in a grave without markings. It is said that 10,000 horses trampled the ground where he was buried, that a forest was planted over the site, or that a river was diverted to cover it. Not surprisingly perhaps the grave has never been located.

External links:

In Our Time: “Genghis Khan”

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The Mongol invasion of Europe

In the winter of 1241 the Mongol armies had arrived at the very doorsteps of Europe. The immediate reason was that the Cumans, a nomadic people who the Mongols regarded as their subjects, had left their normal grazing lands north of the Black Sea and sought refuge in Hungary. The Mongols insisted that the Hungarian king return them, and when he refused they went on the attack.

The Mongols had no problems operating during the winter months — indeed, this was when rivers were frozen and easier to cross — but winter-warfare was not common in Euroep. The Mongols operated with two separate armies —  one in Hungary and one in Poland. Altogether they may have assembled between 100,000 and 150,000 men. Eventually they came as far as the walls of Vienna and reached several towns under the control of the Hanseatic League of merchants. On March 24, 1241, they sacked Krakow in today’s Poland.

After the initial confusion, the Europeans eventually put together a common defense. The Mongols were met by a collection of Polish, Czech and German forces, together with a contingent of chivalric knights sent by the pope. Two battles ensued — at Legnica, Poland, on April 9, 1241, and, in a far larger confrontation, at Mohi, Hungary, two days later. The Europeans were defeated on both occasions. In fact, the European armies seem to have been more or less obliterated. In the summer of 1241, Europe was defenseless against further attacks.

But the Mongols did not move further west. Suddenly news reached them from Mongolia that Ögedei Khan, Genghis Khan’s son, had died in December 1241, and that there was going to be a kurultai where his successor was to be selected. Since several of the Mongol commanders in Europe had pretensions to succeed him, they needed to be back in Mongolia to protect their positions. It also seems Western Europe was of little interest to the Mongols. Europe had large forests which were difficult for their cavalry to penetrate and besides, compared with the prosperous cities of Persia and the Middle East, there was not much to loot. Although the Mongols conducted new raids in Poland in 1259, 1286 and 1287, they never again bothered with a large-scale invasion.

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How to make kumis

Fermented mare’s milk, milk from female horses, is the traditional drink of choice for people on the steppes of Central Asia, including the Mongols. The Mongols call it airag but it is commonly known as “kumis” from kımız, its Turkish name. Kumis is a slightly alcoholic beverage, but not very much so — only 2-3 percent. Traditionally, the milk was fermented in bags made from horse-hide which were strapped to a saddle and jogged around in order to prevent coagulation. After a day on horseback, the milk was ready to drink. Or, in order to achieve the same effect, a container was hung by the door of a ger, a tent, where visitors could give it a good punch as they walked by. In industrial production today, the drink ferments at 27 degrees Celsius and it is ready in about five hours. The fermentation process is caused by a combination of lactic acid bacteria and yeast, similar to kefir. The most popular kumis-like drink today is probably Japanese calpis.

Milking a horse is more difficult than a cow and it yields far less milk. Moreover, mares cannot be milked continuously but only during parts of the year, basically for a few months after the foals are born. A mare typically produces between 1,000 and 1,200 liters of milk during one season.

The Greek historian Herodotus, fifth century BCE, described mare-milking among the Scythians, and the friar William of Rubruck who visited the Mongols in the thirteenth-century gave an account of kumis drinking. “It is pungent,” he reported, “and when a man has finished drinking, it leaves a taste of milk of almonds on the tongue, and it makes the inner man most joyful and also intoxicates weak heads, and greatly provokes urine.”

Kumis drinking caught on as a health fad in the decades before the First World War, in particular in Russia. The Russian composer Alexander Scriabin and the authors Leo Tolstoy and Anton Chekhov all tried the “kumis cure.” The Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek is named after the paddle used to churn the mare’s milk during the process of fermentation.

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The Black death

The trade routes of Central Asia did not only help disseminate goods and ideas but also diseases such as the bubonic plague, known as the “black death.” The contagion first hit the Mongols, then the Arabic world and then Europe – the first wave came in the 1340s, and later waves in the 1360s and 70s. In 1347, the story has it, the Mongols had laid a siege on the prosperous Genoese city of Caffa on the Crimean peninsula, yet their army was already seriously weakened by the plague. In an act of what would come to count as biological warfare, the Mongols catapulted the corpses of their dead across the city walls, thereby infecting the inhabitants. In October the same year a Genoese ship fleeing from the city anchored in the harbor of Messina, Sicily, and by the time they arrived it was clear that its crew too carried the disease. From Messina the plague spread quickly along Europe’s trade routes, reaching southern England already the following year. It is estimated that some 75 million people died from the plague worldwide and 20 million people in Europe alone – perhaps as many of half of the continent’s population. [Read more:The Columbian exchange“]

Although it was obvious that the disease was spread through contagion, no one understood the biological mechanisms involved. Initially it was rats that had become infected, then the rats were bitten by fleas which in turn bit humans. The disease caused the lymph nodes to become very sore and to swell to the size of apples, and in about 80 percent of the cases death would follow within two days.

Everyone looked for an explanation for the disease. Weak and marginal groups were often identified as culprits – Catalans, Jews, beggars and the poor – but the weak and the marginal were dying too and could not serve as scapegoats in the long run. A religious explanation made more sense. The outbreak, various firebrand preachers explained, was God’s punishment for the sins of mankind. Throughout Europe the deaths led to labor shortages and this made it easier for serfs to renegotiate their contracts with their lords or to simply run away and settle on their own land. At least in parts of Europe this contributed to putting an end to feudalism.

External links:

Agroinnovations podcast: “The Black Death”

In Our Time, “Black Death”


Tuvan throat singing

Tuva is a an autonomous region of the Russian republic, located just north of today’s Mongolia, right in the geographical center of the Asian landmass. For some 500 years Tuva was a part of the Mongol empire; in the nineteenth-century it came to be dominated by China; from 1921 it was an independent country; and in 1944 Stalin made it a part of the Soviet Union. Protected by heavy forest, by the Altai mountains, and by Soviet restrictions that kept outsiders out, traditional Tuvan culture has remained strong. A large proportion of the 300,000 inhabitants are still pastoralists — tending sheep, goats, horses and reindeer — or they are hunters and fishermen.

What more than anything has made Tuva famous is its tradition of “throat singing.” Throat singing, overtone or polytonal singing, is a technique which allows you to sing several notes at once. The trick is not only to employ the vocal chords but also other parts of the respiratory tract. In normal song, these other organs are vibrating too, creating what we think of as “timbre,” but the throat singers have found a way of increasing the level of the sound produced in this way. In Tuva there are at least five different version of this technique, varying depending on which part of the human anatomy that is emphasized. The main style, khoomei, is also the Tuvan name for throat singing in general.

Throat singing is common among Mongols too, and Tibetans, and it is widely practices among people of the arctic north, including by Inuits in North America. In Tuva they think of throat singing as a way of imitating the sounds made by rivers, animals and mountains. To sing in this way is thus a way to communicate with nature. The singers often accompany themselves on the igil, horse head fiddle, or on large drums, and the technique play a role in shamanic practices. Today several artists combine throat singing with other musical forms, including jazz and hip hop. Traditionally women were not allowed to use the technique since it was believed it would render them infertile, but today an all-female group such as Tyva Kyzy — “The daughters of Tuva” — is performing to audiences world-wide.

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Rabban Bar Sauma, Mongol envoy to the pope

Rabban Bar Sauma, 1220-1294, was a Nestorian monk who became a diplomat for the Mongol khan and one of the most experienced travelers of his day. Born near present-day Beijing, and apparently of Uyghur descent, he embarked on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, but because of the military situation he was forced to turn back. Instead he spent several years in Baghdad, which was a part of the Mongol, Persian-based, Ilkhanate. It was from here that he was dispatched to Europe on a diplomatic mission to seek an alliance with the French against the Mamluk rulers in Egypt who had defeated both the European Crusaders and the Mongol army itself.

Rabban Bar Sauma began his journey in 1287, accompanied by a retinue of assistants, including an Italian interpreter, and some 30 riding animals. He crossed the Black Sea to Constantinople where he had an audience with the Byzantine emperor. He continued on to Italy, sailing past Sicily where he observed a spectacular eruption of Mount Etna. He arrived in Rome, but too late to meet the pope who just had died. Instead he continued to Florence, Genoa and Paris where he spent a month as the guest of the French king. In Gascony, which at the time was under English control, he met the king of England. Both the French and the English were enthusiastic about the idea of military alliance with the Mongol khans, but the details were difficult to work out. Moreover, Edward I needed soldiers at home to put down rebellions by the Welsh and the Scots.

Going back to Rome, Bar Sauma was received by the newly elected pope who gave him communion on Palm Sunday, 1288. From here he went back to Baghdad with gifts and messages from various European rulers. This is also where he spent the rest of his days, compiling a book in which he recounted his far-flung travels. He died in Baghdad in 1294. The military alliance between the Europeans and the Mongol khan never happened.

Nestorian Christians, by the way, is the branch of Christianity which expanded eastward already in Antiquity, forming thriving congregations in Central Asia, India and China during the Tang dynasty. The Nestorians were independent of Rome and worshiped according to their own rituals. They denied that Christ could simultaneously be both god and man. Today a few hundred thousand Nestorian Christians remain.

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Dreams of the emperor’s palace

One day in October 1797, the English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge took a few grains of laudanum an opium-based extract used as medicine – and sat down to read Purchas His Pilgrimage, a classical collection of travelers’ tales. One of the most famous entries in the book was Marco Polo’s description of the palace of Kublai Khan at Shangdu in Inner Mongolia. In Xanadu,” Polo remembered, “did Cublai Can build a stately palace, encompassing sixteen miles of plain ground with a wall, wherein are fertile meadows, pleasant springs, delightful streams, and all sorts of beast and chase and game, and in the middle thereof a sumptuous house of pleasure, which may be removed from place to place.” Soon Coleridge fell asleep, and in his sleep he had a vision of Kublai Khan’s palace. It was a sublime apparition, Coleridge explained, which inspired both longing and dread:

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
a stately pleasure-dome decree,
where Alph, the sacred river, ran
through caverns measureless to man
down to a sunless sea. …

A savage place! As holy and enchanted
as a’er beneath a waning moon was haunted
by woman wailing for her demon lover. …

A story missing from the collection which Purchas compiled is the account of Kublai Khan’s palace written by the Persian fourteenth-century historian Rashid-al-Din Hamadani. The emperor of China, Rashid-al-Din explained in his version of the story, had laid down to sleep and when he woke up the following morning he told his courtiers about a magnificent palace he had seen in his dream. He promptly instructed his architects to set to work and before long the palace at Shangdu was completed.

Curiously, the palace first appeared in a dream, both to Coleridge and to Kublai Khan himself, and even more curiously, Coleridge could not have read Rashid-al-Din’s account since it was translated into European languages long after he wrote his poem. The Argentinian author Jorge Luis Borges has written about this strange coincidence. It is the palace we see in our dreams which is real and eternal, Borges concluded, whereas the palaces which from time to time are created here on earth only are its ephemeral copies.

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Librivox, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “Kubla Khan”

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Did Marco Polo go to China?

In 1271, the merchants Niccolò and Maffeo Polo left their native city of Venice and set sail for the east. The two brothers had done business in Constantinople and in the Crimea, and they had already visited the lands of the Mongols. In fact, when they returned to Europe in 1269 they carried a message from Kublai Khan to the pope in Rome. Having delivered the letter, they were now on their way back to the East. They had a paiza with them, a small tablet in gold, which gave them free passage, lodgings and horses throughout Mongol lands. With them as they left Venice was also Niccolò’s son, Marco, who was 17 years old at the time.

Marco Polo was to find particular favor with the Great Khan who made him an official at his court. He learned to speak Mongolian together with several other languages and he traveled around the vast empire visiting lands which no European previously had seen. His account of the splendors of the khan’s palace is particularly famous, together with his description of Kinsay, the city of Hangzhou in the south, with its 12,000 bridges, wide roads and magnificent architecture. The Polos came back to Venice as wealthy men and the stories Marco told of his adventures amazed everyone who heard them. He was known as Il milione, referring to the millions of marvelous tales he would tell his astonished European audience.

Yet it may be that Marco Polo never actually visited China. It is striking, for example, how he never mentions Chinese customs such as foot-binding or tea-drinking, and it is strange that place-names consistently are given in Persian rather than in Mongol or Chinese. This is not, however, a reason to dismiss the text as such. Despite omissions and mistakes, it contains many details which we know from other sources to be correct.

Marco Polo’s book – or the book associated with a person by that name – had a tremendous impact on European readers, stirring up elaborate fantasies of the exotic East. The most famous reader was perhaps Christopher Columbus who had his own copy of the book – on which he had scribbled extensive handwritten notes in the margins (see the picture above).

External links:

In Our Time: “Marco Polo”

The Book of Ser Marco Polo, the Venetian, concerning the kingdoms and marvels of the East, volume 1

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