Invader to the West, democrat in the East

That the legend of Genghis Khan survived both Chinese and Communist domination of Mongolia didn’t surprise Paula Sabloff at all.

The legend itself, however, did surprise her.

“What surprised me was finding democracy in the story of Genghis Khan, and learning that he preceded the Magna Carta. Who expected that?” said the University of Pennsylvania Museum senior research scientist and organizer of “Modern Mongolia: Reclaiming Genghis Khan.”

Who, indeed. Certainly not most Westerners, who know him as the leader of the Mongol hordes that plundered much of Asia and Europe in the 13th century. But Mongolians revere him as the father of their democracy, and the “Modern Mongolia” exhibit, which opened Oct. 20 at the Museum, shows why.

In unifying the various Mongol tribes into a single empire, Khan incorporated the four basic pillars of democracy: popular government, the rule of law, equality before the law and freedom of speech and religion. A video in the exhibit shows how Khan implemented those principles in his time. Another compares Mongolia’s modern constitution with America’s.

Three gers—traditional Mongolian portable houses—show how ordinary life was influenced by the Chinese and Communist regimes and by the impact of global popular culture today.

Sabloff said that using the ger to tell her story came naturally. “Those of us who grew up in the New York area know the power of the dioramas in the American Museum of Natural History,” she said. “The ger is a natural diorama.”

The explicit connection between politics and culture in the exhibit reflects Sabloff’s own interest in political anthropology.

“I think everyone has to be reminded about the importance of democracy in our lives,” she said. “We tell all these other countries to look to us as an example of democracy, and yet we’re not exercising our democratic responsibilities.” Sabloff noted that in the last U.S. national election, less than half of all eligible voters cast ballots — a stark contrast to Mongolia, where more than 90 percent of voters do so.

For information about the exhibit, which runs through July 2002, call 215-898-4000.

Originally published on November 8, 2001