Mongol Hygiene, is it all it’s cracked up to be? – Part II

Dear Readers:

Diving into my review of this piece by author and historian Orynganym Tanatarova.  I couldn’t find much online about this author.  I am assuming “she” is a “she” because of the femininized/Russified surname, hence I will endow her with the pronoun “she”.  Tanatarova’s thesis is that Russian people borrowed much from their Tatar neighbors (and sometimes overlords), with whom they lived side by side, for centuries.  She also wishes to dispel the (racist) notion that Tatar-Mongols of the medieval period were simply violent (and filthy) savages.

Russians of the 13th century were open to new ideas.

She quotes history Professor Vadim Dolgov who wrote a book called “The Secret Life of Ancient Rus” (Moscow, 2009).  Dolgov describes the process of cultural interrelationships.  Russian people of the time possessed personal characteristics such as receptiveness, openness to new ideas and the ability to notice and borrow useful stuff from other peoples.  These qualities (which are not necessarily possessed by all peoples) have served the Russians well over history.  Especially in times of change, and especially during this particular era, which constituted the dawn of Russian statehood.  Dolgov:  “Rus, from the 13th century to the middle of the 16th, was actively following a path of synthesizing the most varied cultural acquisitions.”

This is seen in the Russian language itself, which contains many words borrowed from Mongol-Tatar.  The Mongol influence is also shown in certain “oriental” motifs in the decoration of Orthodox churches.  People usually ascribe this to the Byzantine architectural tradition, but in reality these themes could have been copied by the Russian masters from examples of folk art brought in by Princes of the Golden Horde.

Even the national costume of Russians shows the Tatar influence, according to many historians.  For example, Russian aristocrats wore Tatar-type headgear, namely those pointy caps with fringes.  Many Tatar “clothing” words were borrowed into Russian:  Kaftan, Sarafan, Shuba, etc.

While playing friendly war enactments with their Tatar friends [sarc], Russian weaponry also changed and adapted.  Heavy swords were replaced with lighter sabres, which are way more effective when battling atop galloping horses.

But What About Dental Hygiene?

Well, war is war.  But after a well-fought battle, the soldiers must eat a hearty meal.  And then discover they have all sorts of disgusting things stuck in their teeth.  What to do?

Solution!  Some clever member of the Golden Horde invented the toothbrush.  (Actually, historians agree that the toothbrush was invented in China.  Maybe.)  Archaeologists poking around in the Horde-occupied city of Azak (now known as Azov) discovered a 14th-century toothbrush!  Historians and archaeologists were not especially surprised by this find, but it became a sensation among regular Russians when the news was published by journalist Nikolai Grishchenko in 2015.

The Azov toothbrush consisted of a handle carved from bone, with tiny holes punched in it (where the brushes obviously went).  Archaeologists posited that the toothbrush most likely belonged to a Mongol warrior.

Which makes sense, because all soldiers, throughout history, have been known to be fussy about their appearance.  They don’t mind dying for their leader, but they want to look good (and smell good) while doing so.  And they also don’t mind violently slaying the enemy, but preferably with a sword and not just blasting them dead with their bad breath!

Sidebar on the city of Azov, where this amazing implement was discovered.  According to wiki, this town, situated in the Rostov Oblast of Russia, has a fascinating history.  It is situated on the Don River, just 16 km from the Sea of Azov.  A brief look at the map will show how this area was the crossroads of everybody and everybody.

First known colonists were the Greeks (3rd century BC), they called the River (now the Don) Tanais, and named their settlement after that.

In the 3rd century AD the Goths took over.  In the 5th century it was invaded by some people called Akatziroi, and then handed over to the Huns.  Then was ruled by Turkish Bulgars (not the same as modern Bulgarians), before being handed over to the Khazars.  In the 10th century the Khazar state disintegrated and the area passed to the Slavic princedom of Tmutarakan.  Avid readers of the Russian national poem, “The Tale of Igor’s Regiment”, know that Tmutarakan is mentioned in that beautiful poem.  When I was a child and first read that poem, I found something thrilling about that word Tmutarakan, it sounded so mysterious, like a lost civilization!

“The Gates of Tmutarakan” – painting by Nicholas Roerich (1919)

Anyhow, in 1067 some people called the “Kipchaks” seized this area and named it Azaq which means “lowlands” in Kipchak.  That name has remained, but mutated somewhat to the modern name of Azov.  In the 13th and 14th centuries the Golden Horde ruled over Azov and, as we have seen, introduced toothbrushes to the local population.

I reckon it could be said that, right there, in the ancient city of Tmutarakan, the Tatars declared war on gum disease and dental tartar!

Next:  Mongol Fire Ceremonies and other cool customs…

[to be continued]

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