Genghis Khan and the Modernization of Mongolia

Many modern-day Mongolians are still nomadic herders who live in gers. With droughts and harsh winters, herders face the loss of their animals and poverty. But as of May 2015, a company called Rio Tinto obtained a lease to build one of the largest copper mines in the world, Oyu Tolgoi, which could bring $1 trillion dollars to the country and create new jobs (Critchlow). Rio Tinto tweeted that “developing the underground mine will place Oyu Tolgoi at the center of the global copper market.” Some Mongolians are concerned that mining will erode their unique herding culture, but the Telegraph news site says that 56% of Mongolians want the mine to “lift the country out of poverty” (Critchlow). Even the most remote parts of Mongolia can’t escape globalization; after all, Genghis Khan, whom many Mongolians admire as the founder of their national identity, sought to make the whole world into his empire.

Although Genghis Khan lived in a time of Mongol prosperity, he sought to expand Mongolia across the globe. However, Genghis Khan did not necessarily view his conquests as empire-building; the nomadic Mongols didn’t have a concept of “country” (their language didn’t even have a word for it). Wherever he went, Genghis Khan pillaged. In The Secret History of the Mongols, a biography of Genghis Khan written around 1228, the word “plunder” is used 40 times, and the phrases “while plundering” or “after plundering” seem almost commonplace (Unon). Obviously, the Mongols had no objections to looting as long as it enriched them. I don’t mean to compare Rio Tinto or the Mongolian people to looters, only to say that Genghis Khan’s conquests had economic motives.

Urgunge Unon, a Mongolian historian, translated The Secret History of the Mongols into English and wrote a highly researched summary of Genghis Khan’s life. Genghis Khan began his globalization by united the Mongol tribes and then the nearby tribes who spoke similar languages. Next he conquered most of Eurasia. The Mongols set up “horse relay stations” which were like a 13th century version of the Pony Express. In this system, messages could travel over 200 miles a day, connecting the empire in a way the Romans hadn’t dared to imagine. In battle, the Mongols used the latest technology, gunpowder and bridge-building (Unon).

So although modern-day Mongolia is bound to the traditional herding lifestyle, attempts to modernize the country aren’t something new. Genghis Khan and Kublai Khan tried it almost 800 years ago–and the traditions of Mongolia survived. Copper mining is not meant to replace herding, but to bring much-needed income to an impoverished, indebted country. Maybe one day the nomads of Mongolia will be as successful as they were in Genghis Khan’s time (although their wealth won’t come from plundering).

It’s hard when traditions change, even for us Minnesotans. In a way, we can’t let them go because they are our past and define who we are. Yet as the world around us changes, we have to adapt to it without changing ourselves, balancing the past and present. I hope that the Mongolian people can find that balance.


Critchlow, Andrew. “Mongolia to be Transformed by Giant Rio Tinto Copper Mine.” The Telegraph. 23 May 2015. Web. 25 Nov. 2015.

Onon, Urgunge. Introduction. The History and the Life of Chinggis Khan: The Secret History of the Mongols. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1990. Web. 25 Nov. 2015.

Rio Tinto (RioTinto). “JS Jacques: developing the underground mine will place Oyu Tolgai at the center of the global copper market.” 23 Nov. 2015, 9:41 p.m. Tweet.


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