genghis khan's heir almost died in infancy -- 5/15/18

Today's selection -- from The Secret History of Mongol Queens by Jack Weatherford. The early years of Mongke Khan, fourth ruler of the vast Mongol Empire that had been founded by Genghis Khan, show how difficult it was for children to survive in the forbidding climate of far northern Asia:

"With his father murdered and his mother kidnapped, Batu Mongke passed from hand to hand. His mother, Siker, now the wife of Ismayil, in time had children and created a new family with her hus­band, seemingly without regret for the husband or the child she had lost.

"At first, Batu Mongke apparently lived alone with an otherwise unknown old woman referred to as Bachai of the Balaktschin. In her extreme poverty, she seemed barely able to survive by herself and proved either unable or unwilling to care for the infant. In an excep­tionally harsh and sparsely populated environment such as the Gobi, a child is more dependent on its mother or other caretakers than chil­dren growing up in a benign climate surrounded by people.

"The temperature drops so low at night that, even under blankets, children cannot generate enough warmth to survive. They must sleep next to larger adults or at least clumped together with several other children. During the day, the child must be carefully monitored with frequent rubbing of the hands, feet, and exposed parts of the body to prevent frostbite. In a milder climate, a urine-soaked child might develop painful skin irritations with the potential for longer-term problems, but in the Gobi, the urine can quickly freeze and threaten the life of the child immediately. Even a simple fall outside can quickly lead to death if the child is too slow to get up again. In the fall and spring dust storms, a child can become lost within only a few feet of the ger and gradually be buried and suffocated in the dust.

Mahmud Ghazan (seventh ruler of the Mongol
Empire being breastfed, early 14th century.

"Children typically nurse for several years, and supplement this with the rich dairy products available in the fall, but when winter sets in, the child must eat meat or very hard forms of dried and cured dairy products. To survive on the meat and harsh foods of the Gobi, the child must have the food partially chewed by an adult or much larger child in order to swallow and digest it.

"Bachai did not provide the intensive care the boy needed, and after three years of neglect, Batu Mongke was still alive, but just barely. As one chronicle states, he was 'suffering from a sickness of the stomach.' Another reported that he acquired 'hunchback-like growth.' Man­duhai learned of the child's existence and his perilous situation, and she arranged for allies to rescue him and place him with another fam­ily. Had the existence or location of the only male descendant of Genghis Khan become generally known, it was nearly certain that one faction or another would have tried to kidnap him or kill him in pur­suit of some nefarious plan.

"A woman named Saichai and her husband, Temur Khadag, who is sometimes credited along with his six brothers with being the child's rescuer, became the new foster parents for the boy, and set about try­ing to restore his health and rehabilitate his body. His new mother instituted a long treatment in the traditional Mongolian art of thera­peutic massage or bone setting known as bariach. Gentle massage and light bone adjustment still forms a regular part of child rearing among the Mongols and is viewed as essential to the child's body growing in a properly erect and aesthetically pleasing manner. Older people in par­ticular, such as grandparents, sit around the ger in the idle hours, rub­bing the child's muscles and tugging at the bones and joints.

"Saichai rubbed the child's wounds with the milk of a camel that had recently given birth for the first time. The milk was prepared in a shallow wooden bowl with a veneer of silver over the wood. Both the milk and the silver had medicinal properties important to Mongol medicine. The treatment required persistent massage by rubbing the milk onto the damaged parts of the boy's body and rubbing the warm silver bowl itself against the afflicted area. By this persistent massage of his damaged, but still growing, body, the bone setter gradually adjusted the boy's bones and gently pushed them back into proper alignment. In the words of one chronicle, she wore through three sil­ver bowls trying to repair Batu Mongke's broken body. As is so often the case with suffering, the physical damages proved easier to treat than the emotional ones."



Jack Weatherford


The Secret History of the Mongol Queens


Broadway Books


Copyright 2010 Jack Weatherford


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