An Improbable Debate

When Genghis Khan was getting old, people around him were bickering more than ever. Too much was at stake. The one who could influence him most won not only for the time being, but also for the time after his impending death. He was old, forgetful, often dozing off during meetings. He couldn’t digest the traditional Mongolian food very well and had to opt for less meat and diluted kumis (fermented horse milk). About ten years prior, he caught a mysterious illness when he was fighting the Jurchen Jin at Zhongdu in the summer heat when infectious disease became rampant among his troops. Now the illness came back to haunt his old body.

He had himself to blame for all the arguments around him. He had already settled how to split his fractured empire after his death with his four sons, but he had never expressed any opinion on religion. It is a topic that he thought he should express as little as possible, by which he meant he welcomed all and preferred none. However Buddhists, Christians, Muslims, Manichaeists, Tengriists, Taoists would not leave him alone. “No preference is unacceptable,” they claimed, each vying for his ears. His son Ogodei married a Christian woman, and so did his son Möngke. While his two other sons were influenced too, one by Islam, and another by Manichaeism. They both wanted to convert.

Genghis was especially annoyed with Manichaeists since they couldn’t stop talking about the battle between angels and devils, which is the central point of their religion. Somehow Genghis, although quite inattentive to their endless babbling to his ears, suspected that they were probably comparing him more to the devil than to the angle behind his back. Some people can really talk themselves out of popularity.

The fight got so bad that Genghis had to make a decision. “I hope all of you just stop arguing for one day.” He said weakly, “I don’t like this one bit. How about we have a big debate. I invite all of you to come to Xenada. Bring your scripts, your entourage, your argument. We will stage a two-week festival during which you can argue as much as you want. And I will make a decision.”

It was the summer of 1220 AD when this festival started. The problem was that Xanadu was so far away from other major cities that people had to travel for months in order to reach there. Wherever there’s the attraction of power, the distance is no obstacle. They all came.

Genghis built many seats, each twenty feet high. The priest of each religion had to climb the ladder to reach their seat. There they sat and started this improbable debate. Actually it’s not really a debate since Genghis separate the seat from each other in a way that one priest could not hear another priest very clearly. He deliberately did this to prevent a heated argument. It ended up each priest, since he couldn’t hear others well, sang his own praise and criticized other religions without being heard. The servants waited on the ground, ready to climb the ladder to attend to every need of their priest master. For two weeks, this went on. The last day came and everybody expected that Genghis came to announce his verdict. Which religion was he going to choose?

He sat down and started to dispense rice wine and arkhi, an Mongolian alcohol. It’s very tasty. Some of the priest claimed that they were not allowed to drink alcohol, but Genghis cut the water supply, fruit, and vegetable to the party. If anybody was thirsty, alcohol was the only thing they could have. The Buddhist priest was the most stubborn, but after seven hours of preaching and eating meat jerky, a Mongolian delicacy, he almost died of thirst. His servants climbed up the ladder and force fed him rice wine to revive him.

The result was just as Genghis expected all along. Everybody was drunk. When they woke up from the drunken stupor, Genghis had already given his verdict and was gone. However nobody knew what he said.

This is a fiction based on the true events of religious debates in Xanadu during Genghis Khan’s life time.

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