11 Cultural Breakthroughs Genghis Khan Achieved During His Reign

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Sure, he was a ruthless warlord who decimated armies and wiped out entire civilizations. But it turns out Genghis Khan (real name: Temujin) was anything but barbaric when it came to ruling. His cultural and political policies helped unify a previously disjointed collection of tribes and fiefdoms, creating a Mongol Empire that ruled a vast swath of Asia and Europe for more than a century. Here are a few of Genghis’s practices that were most definitely ahead of their time. 

1. HE ESTABLISHED FREEDOM OF RELIGION.

The great Khan, who was born a Tengrist, passed laws allowing subjects freedom of religion, and even gave tax exemptions to places of worship. This was a strategic move, since Genghis Khan knew subjects would be less likely to rebel. It was also practical, as the Mongol people observed so many different religions that unifying them under a single one would have been impossible. Tolerance aside, Genghis did establish one religious decree: That his was the word of God. 

2. HE BANNED TORTURE. 

In contrast to many civilized armies at the time, the Mongols did not maim or torture their prisoners. Instead, Genghis Khan believed the surest way to inspire terror was through speed and efficiency in battle. Many of the stories about building pyramids out of enemy skulls and boiling people alive, scholars believe, are fear-inspired myths. 

3. HE INCORPORATED ENEMIES INTO HIS ARMY. 

Rather than execute rival soldiers, Genghis Khan often absorbed them into his army. In 1201, when he was nearly killed in battle after his horse was shot out from under him, Genghis asked enemy prisoners who had fired the arrow. A man bravely stepped forward to take the blame, and said he would accept punishment of death or swear undying loyalty if spared. Genghis immediately made him an officer in his army. “Jebe,” or “arrow,” as Khan called him, would go on to become one of the great Mongol field commanders. 

4. HE LEFT CONQUERED CITIES ALONE. 

After capturing a city, Genghis Khan would leave behind a few officials to oversee municipal matters and essentially let people carry on with their lives (provided they were loyal to the Great Empire, of course). Most citizens knew better than to revolt against their minders, but a few did and ended up facing the wrath of the full army all over again. Nishapur, located in what’s today northeast Iran, tried its luck in 1221 and saw every last citizen killed.   

5. HE PROMOTED PEOPLE BASED ON INDIVIDUAL MERIT. 

The feudal system that existed throughout Asia before Genghis Khan’s time primarily rewarded aristocratic privilege and birth. Despite being the son of a chief, Genghis despised this system, and as he swept across the continent he implemented a new one that rewarded loyalty and individual achievement on the battlefield. 

6. HE OUTLAWED SLAVERY. 

Genghis Khan understood the bitterness and economic strain that slavery created. He’d also been a slave himself during his teenage years, when he and his wife Börte were captured by a rival clan. So when Genghis Khan began unifying the Mongol tribes, he outlawed the taking of Mongols as servants or slaves. 

7. HE ESTABLISHED UNIVERSAL LAW.

Adopted from Mongol common law, Genghis Khan’s system of law, known as the Yassa, prohibited theft, adultery, blood feuds, and bearing false witness. Some versions also incorporated the Mongol’s respect for the environment by outlawing bathing in rivers or streams and requiring soldiers to pick up anything that had been dropped on the ground. 

8. AND A UNIVERSAL WRITING SYSTEM. 

To enforce his law, Genghis ordered the creation of a writing system based on the Uyghur alphabet. It wasn’t the first writing system in Asia, but it was the first one to be widely adopted and taught to the people. 

9. HE ESTABLISHED FREE TRADE ALONG THE SILK ROAD. 

Genghis Khan believed in the unifying power of foreign trade as well as using it to gain valuable knowledge (many of his spies posed as merchants). As he swept across Asia, Genghis turned the towns and cities he conquered into waypoints for trade. In time, his conquests into Europe established key trade routes between East and West.    

10. HE CREATED ONE OF THE FIRST INTERNATIONAL POSTAL SYSTEMS. 

Knowledge was power in Genghis Khan’s empire, and that’s why one of his first orders as ruler was the creation of a Pony Express-like courier system known as the Yam. Riders carried messages across a network of huts, and could cover as much as 200 miles a day by constantly changing mounts. In addition to delivering messages, riders also acted as scouts who could monitor enemy forces and keep tabs on assimilated towns and cities. 

11. HE REDISTRIBUTED THE WEALTH HE GAINED. 

Genghis Khan is frequently listed as one of the richest people in history—but only in terms of the land he conquered. Rather than hoard the money and goods he gained through conquering, Genghis gave it to his soldiers and commanders (who were otherwise prohibited from looting without permission), injecting it back into the economy.

10 Questions About Columbus Day

ihsanGercelman/iStock via Getty Images
ihsanGercelman/iStock via Getty Images

Every American student learns that Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue and landed in the New World in 1492. Winifred Sackville Stoner, Jr.'s poem "History of the U.S." has made it impossible to forget the date (although the couplet actually predates her birth), and many federal workers get a day off every October to recognize the explorer's arrival in the New World. You know the who and where, but here are 10 more answers to pressing questions about Columbus Day.

1. When did Christopher Columbus become a cultural icon?

By the early 1500s, other navigators like Amerigo Vespucci and Francisco Pizarro had become more popular and successful than Columbus had been with his off-course voyages. According to The New York Times, historians and writers in the latter part of the 16th century restored some of Columbus’s reputation with great words of praise for the explorer and his discoveries, with his fellow Italians proving particularly eager to celebrate his life in plays and poetry.

2. How did Christopher Columbus's popularity reach the United States?

Blame the British. As the American colonies formed an identity separate from their mainly English roots, colonists looked to figures like the "appointed of God" Columbus to symbolize their ideals. "By the time of the Revolution," writes John Noble Wilford, "Columbus had been transmuted into a national icon, a hero second only to Washington." Columbus's American legacy got another shot in the arm in 1828 when a biography (peppered with historical fiction) by Washington Irving transformed Columbus into an even more idealized figure who sought to "colonize and cultivate," not to strip the New World of its resources.

3. When was the first Columbus Day?

The first recorded celebration took place in 1792 in New York City, but the first holiday held in commemoration of the 1492 voyage coincided with its 400th anniversary in 1892. President Benjamin Harrison issued a proclamation in which he called Columbus a "pioneer of progress and enlightenment" and suggested that Americans "cease from toil and devote themselves to such exercises as may best express honor to the discoverer and their appreciation of the great achievements of the four completed centuries of American life."

If Harrison had had his way, though, the holiday would have been celebrated on October 21. He knew that Columbus landed under the Julian calendar, not the Gregorian calendar we use today—making October 21 the correct date for anniversary celebrations.

4. Did anyone actually celebrate Columbus Day in the 19th century?

Italian Americans embraced Columbus as an important figure in their history and saw celebrating him as a way to "be accepted by the mainstream," the Chicago Tribune notes. The Knights of Columbus, an organization formed by Irish Catholic immigrants in 1882, chose the Catholic explorer as their patron "as a symbol that allegiance to their country did not conflict with allegiance to their faith," according to the group's website. Following President Harrison’s 1892 proclamation, they lobbied for Columbus Day to become an official holiday.

5. When did Columbus Day become an official holiday?

The holiday first found traction at the state level. Colorado began celebrating Columbus Day, by governor's proclamation, in 1905. Angelo Noce, founder of the first Italian newspaper in the state, spearheaded the movement to honor Columbus and Italian American history. In 1907, the Colorado General Assembly finally gave in to him and made it an official state holiday.

6. When did Columbus Day become a federal holiday?

With Franklin D. Roosevelt as president, lobbying from the Knights of Columbus paid off, and the United States as a whole observed Columbus Day in 1934. Thirty-four years later, Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Uniform Holiday Bill, which designated Columbus Day as a federal holiday.

7. Why does the date of Columbus Day change every year?

Columbus Day was originally celebrated on October 12, the day Columbus landed in the New World, but the Uniform Holiday Bill took effect in 1971 and changed it to the second Monday in October, as well as moved the dates of Washington’s Birthday, Memorial Day, and Veterans Day to Mondays (Veterans Day would be moved back to November 11 in 1980 after criticism from veterans’ groups). The act of Congress was enacted to "provide for uniform annual observances of certain legal public holidays on Monday, and for other purposes."

8. Does every state observe the Columbus Day holiday on the same weekend?

In Tennessee, Columbus Day comes with an asterisk. The state’s official holiday observance calendar reads that Columbus Day is the second Monday of October, or "at the governor's discretion, Columbus Day may be observed the Friday after Thanksgiving."

9. Which states don't celebrate Columbus Day?

In Hawaii, the second Monday of October is known as Discoverer’s Day, "in recognition of the Polynesian discoverers of the Hawaiian Islands, provided that this day is not and shall not be construed to be a state holiday," KHON2 writes. According to the Pew Research Center, only 21 states treated Columbus Day as a paid state holiday in 2013. South Dakota, New Mexico, Maine, and the District of Columbia celebrate Native Americans Day or Indigenous People's Day as a paid holiday. Several cities, like San Francisco and Cincinnati, celebrate Indigenous People's Day.

10. How do other places around the world celebrate Columbus Day?

In Italy, Columbus Day (or Giornata nazionale di Cristoforo Colombo) is listed as one of the national or international days of celebration and is still on October 12, but it's not a public holiday. Some countries have chosen to observe anti-Columbus holidays like the Day of the Indigenous Resistance in Venezuela and Nicaragua, Pan American Day in Belize, and the Day of Respect for Cultural Diversity in Argentina.

Quid Pro Quo Has a Nefarious Etymology

MangoStar_Studio/iStock via Getty Images
MangoStar_Studio/iStock via Getty Images

While some altruists will happily lend a hand without expecting anything in return, most of the world runs on the idea that you should be compensated in some way for your goods and services.

That’s quid pro quo, a Latin phrase which literally means “something for something.” In many cases, one of those “somethings” refers to money—you pay for concert tickets, your company pays you to teach your boss how to open a PDF, etc. However, quid pro quo also applies to plenty of situations in which no money is involved. Maybe your roommate agreed to lend you her favorite sweater if you promised to wash her dishes for a month. Or perhaps, in return for walking your neighbor’s dog while he was on vacation, he gave you his HBO login credentials.

No matter the circumstances, any deal in which you give something and you get something falls under the category of quid pro quo. According to The Law Dictionary, “it is nothing more than the mutual consideration which passes between the parties to a contract, and which renders it valid and binding.” In other words, if everyone on both sides understands the expectation that something will be given in return for a good or service, your contract is valid.

Based on that definition, quid pro quo hinges on transparency; all parties must understand that there’s an exchange being made. However, this wasn’t always the case. As the Columbia Journalism Review reports, Merriam-Webster’s dictionary entry states that quid pro quo was used in 16th-century apothecaries to denote when one medicine had been substituted for another, “whether intentionally (and sometimes fraudulently) or accidentally.”

So, if you were an unlucky peasant with a sore throat, it’s possible your herbal remedy could’ve been swapped out with something less effective—or even dangerous. Though Merriam-Webster doesn’t offer any specific examples of how or why this happened, it definitely seems like it would have been all too easy to “accidentally” poison your enemies during that time.

Just a few decades later, the term had gained enough popularity that people were using it for less injurious instances, much like we do today.

[h/t Columbia Journalism Review]

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