Face Music - History of Mongolia
  • History of Mongolia

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P & C December 1998
- Face Music / Albi

- last update 03-2016

- more information in German

Little research has actually been done about what happened during the thousand years before Christ in the eastern part of the north-eastern Asiatic steppe belt, where at that time nomadic tribes of horsemen of Mongol origin lived on cattle breeding. During summer time they wandered with their huge herds to the high-lying pastures and spent wintertime in the low-lying steppes. They owned oxen and cows, sheep, goats, yaks, camels and horses, of course. Actually, unlike those tribes of the Siberian forests or of the high mountains, they weren't huntsmen. They considered hunting rather something like a sport, just like horse racing or wrestling matches.

Their religion recognised only one uniform godly power, localised in the celestial vault. They also worshiped certain natural phenomenon (wells, trees, thunderbolts), and they believed in a life after death in the form of spirits (demons). Their priests, the so-called shamans, entered into contact with them.

During excavations in the region north of the Gobi desert, in Transbaikalia, and in Northern Mongolia, in the mountains of Noin Ula, situated north of Ulaan Baatar, precious textiles were found, dating from the time of Christ's birth. These were home made textiles as well as of Chinese or western provenance. It is assumed that the burial sites of the princes of the legendary Hsiung-nu - that mighty people of whose battles we find repeatedly reports in Chinese sources from the Han period - were found.

Findings in the forest steppe southeast of Lake Baikal, especially on the Selenge River (it flows near the frontier to Russia and is a confluence of the River Orchon at Suchbataar, which flows into Lake Baikal) are proof of the existence of even older tribes. They processed bronze and familiarised themselves with the metallurgical tradition of China, similar to the Tungus of our days. Their way of life and their graves differ from those of the other tribes. They lived in permanent settlements and practised surface burials. Other findings in this area also point to other tribes such as the Yüe-chi, a nomadic people of western origin.

By connecting existing earth banks with the Great Wall, between 221 and 210 BC, under the Tsin dynasty, and with the turn to the 2nd century BC, the Han dynasty established itself in China. The Hsiung-nu, under their ruler Mao-tun, experienced their biggest successes at the same time. They pushed the Yüe-chi westwards. During the subsequent wars, going on for a couple of decades, the highly organised China showed itself superior. Slowly the Hsiung-nu lost their position at the southern edge of the Gobi desert and China secured the control over the Tarim basin and therewith the commercial routes to the west, the famous "Silk Road".

see: map sketch Mongolia

The Hsiung-nu were pushed further west. Later on in history, they became the Huns, who transferred their attentions towards Europe and unleashed the first migration of nations.

After the decline of the 2nd Han dynasty, which meant also the end of a strong central power, the table started turning and a part of the dispersed Hsiung-nu empire installed itself in the Northeast of China, today's Manchuria, and founded Chinese dynasties. This southern horde slowly adopted Chinese cultural values and buddhistic faith and assimilated with their subjects.

The northern horde, however, kept to their nomadic and predatory-warlike way of life, as much as to their shamanism. The pressure of the Han Empire and their allies, the southern hordes, made them move west by the end of the pre-Christian period, and they penetrated into the region of the Aral Sea. Some troops conquered Northern India. The rise of the Kushan Empire and later the Third Magdha Empire under the Gupta kings stopped any further advance towards south. The strengthening of the Sassanide Empire in the Iranian highland blocked their way to Mesopotamia. Meanwhile, the southern horde had settled down and became the ruler of the eastern regions, thus preventing the Huns from penetrating Northern China. Therefore, they invaded Southern Russia and advanced into the Germanic settlement area by the middle of the 4th century. They were pushed back from there by Charles the Great only four hundred years later.

During the 13th century, Genghis Khan ruled over the entire Central Asia, from China up to Eastern Europe. Under his sons, this huge empire split up rapidly. With the Mongolian tribes, who had become Muslims, the leader Timur-lenk established once again a big empire extending from the borders of China to Egypt and from Moscow up to Northern India, with Samarkand in its centre.

After the Mongols had been driven out of China in 1367/68, and Tsar Ivan III had pushed the Khanate of the Golden Horde up the Volga River and they retired to Mongolia. Today they live in the region of Outer Mongolia, which is the Mongolian Republic of our days, and in Inner Mongolia, which belongs to China. It is in this southern part that the majority of the Mongols have their homeland. There are also members of Mongolian tribes living in Manchuria and in today's Buryatia, on the banks of Lake Baikal. The Kalmucks, who had been living northwest of Astrachan near the Volga and on the Caspian Sea up to the end of World War II, and the Torguts in Kirgizia, are Mongols, too.

Mongolia today

Today Mongolia is sparsely populated. The population confesses to Buddhism in the lamaistic form. Only 2.5 million people live on a surface of almost the size of the whole of Western Europe. The distance from the west to the east of the country measures 5'500 kilometres (3420 miles approx.).

The different tribes living in Mongolia have their own costumes, musical instruments, singing traditions and speak different dialects.

The largest group, the Khalkha, lives in Central and Eastern Mongolia; the Bayad, the Dorbet, the Khotan, the Altai-Uryankhai, the Torgut, the Olöt, the Dzakhchin and the Mingat live in the West; in Eastern Mongolia live the Dariganga, the Barga, the Üzemchin, the Buryat and the Chamnigan, and in the North the Chotgoid, the Darchat, the Chöwsögöl-Uryankhai, the Tsaatan and the Khakhar. Also the Kazakhs, who are Muslims, live in the Altai.

The artwork of the people, their great poetic talents, their epic works and the lyric poetry are outstanding. Singers and poets used to walk from camp to camp, singing their songs and epics of heralds to the accompaniment of the lute "tovshuur" or the "horse-violin" "morin khuur".

The songs talk about love, everyday life or animals, especially about horses. They reflect the expression of freedom and the immensity of the Mongolian steppes. Special songs are sung at ceremonies, at festivals, on special seasonal occasions and to accompany rituals.

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