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Monday, June 16, 2014

“Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World”, by Jack Weatherford

312 pages, Broadway Books, ISBN-13: 978-0609809648

Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World a well-written book that gives a good overall insight into the life of Genghis Khan and his conquests – but it suffers from an overly positive view of the man and overstatement of the Mongol empire’s effect on history and the modern world. Surely, Genghis Khan is one of history’s greatest conquerors and military tacticians, but going as far as to say that his empire was a precursor to the Renaissance in Europe (which owes a whole lot more to ancient Rome and Greece) and the subsequent “modern civilization” is going way overboard. Also, the author too easily excuses the unprecedented mass murder, plundering, rape, and destruction that the Mongols left in their wake. These oversights sour what is otherwise a well-researched and well-written book about the great conqueror. Genghis Khan is certainly a great historical figure with a fascinating story, rising as he did from enslavement to a rival tribe to uniting all the Mongol tribes and amassing the largest contiguous land empire in the history of mankind. Genghis was one extremely determined individual with an iron will and extraordinary charisma to lead a nation of illiterate nomads to conquer so many nations and cultures in a relatively short period of time…but in the macro view of world history, the Mongol empire’s legacy simply isn’t all that great – certainly not comparable to the empires established by Alexander the Great or the Romans.

What I find irksome amongst the Genghis Khan biographers and historians is that they always point out how much larger his empire was than that of Alexander or the Romans as though how much territory Genghis Khan overran and plundered is the sole overriding factor for who the “greatest” conqueror was. Things have to be observed and analyzed in the context of the times, the geography, and political situations of the surrounding areas, and upon doing so it becomes obvious that what Genghis Khan achieved definitely isn’t quite in the league of Alexander, Caesar and Napoleon (it’s akin to saying that Canada and Russia are both larger countries than the United States or China’s population is much greater than that of the United States and Europe combined – hence, they must be greater).

In the great scheme of things, the Mongols were simply marauders on the grandest scale with Genghis Khan at the helm organizing them into an efficient and disciplined fighting organization. As the book itself makes quite clear, the motives were simply to acquire luxuries like silk and jewelry that the Mongols had never ever seen before they embarked on their initial conquests. Once they tasted this kind of booty, their appetite and the means to acquire even more booty knew no bounds, and if a distant kingdom refused to submit and hand over their goods and treasures, the Mongol cavalry would come and kill every single inhabitant to acquire them. No matter how you look at it, this is all that the Mongol conquests boiled down to. What positive things did the Mongols really have to offer to those that they conquered? There is no doubt that the effects of the Mongol conquests were felt for centuries to come and the greatest benefit was that they speeded up the trade and cultural exchanges between the West and the Far East; this was first documented by Marco Polo, for Christ’s sake. Still, Weatherford too often extrapolates exchanges like these into something far greater through circumstantial evidence and conjectures. While I agree that Genghis Khan was a pivotal figure in history, the claims of just how far-reaching the effects of his empire were are overwrought and exaggerated to the point of absurdity.

Like other conquering historical figures, historical evidence for or against Genghis Khan is often scarce and difficult to substantiate, but it isn’t too difficult to disseminate the flow of history before or after that particular figure’s era. When examining Genghis Khan, we see that his main legacy is of plunder for plunder’s sake; he was the ultimate businessman who made a simple request: your booty or your life. Once that “transaction” was established, Genghis Khan and his offspring organized something more sophisticated to keep the booty flowing into their coffers. There were no ideals of spreading Mongol literature, philosophy, culture, arts, education, religion, or goods to the lands and cities they conquered (indeed, there is debate if there is, in fact, such a thing as Mongol literature, philosophy, culture, arts, education, religion, or goods).

I am taking a rather cynical view here of Genghis Khan and the legacy of his empire, but if you look at it all afar from a macroperspective covering many centuries right before or after his era, it’s evident that the Mongol empire has had very little lasting effect except the legacy of plunder and murder on an unprecedented scale. Weatherford too often twists historical facts and opinions alike into something that puts Genghis Khan in an overly positive light. This effort by Weatherford is only too evident as you read page after page of gushing about what amazing feats the Mongols accomplished and how they were the very first to do this and that and how those tactics and inventions were adopted by so and so at a later date by so and so, etc. It’s an interesting book but not something I’d recommend for someone looking for a more balanced and unbiased look at Genghis Khan. The largest contiguous land empire in history was hardly the greatest.

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