Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World

by Jack Weatherford

The Mongol Invasion was a mere apostrophe of history during my schooling and I dimly recall mention of a particularly savage slew of terrifying tribesmen from the esoteric east who touched a handful of easternmost European cities over a relatively short period before disappearing back into the vague lands that spawned them. Jack Weatherford’s book was recently recommended to me and immediately dispelled that notion. It exposed the panic propagated throughout Europe by ignorant, superstitious and hysterical Kings or (drama-) Queens.

Weatherford is an American anthropologist and ethnographer who got side-tracked into a fascination with Mongol affairs while on a research expedition studying the role of tribal people in the development of trade along the Silk Road between China and Europe. He diverted his attention to compiling a history of a Mongol boy named Temujin, born in 1162, who grew to annex the diverse central Asian tribes into one Mongol nation.  As Genghis Khan, Temujin went on to conquer the land from China to Hungary via the Middle East and Russia. As Weatherford points out, this is a greater land mass than any other conqueror in history – including Alexander the Great.

It is only recently that a written history of Genghis Khan has been revealed and the author reminds us that Mongolian nationalism was repressed until the death of Stalin in 1953 and further subdued until the fall of the Berlin Wall. With the Mongolian national identity re-established, translators from around the world worked to decipher the life of Genghis Khan as told in documents found in Beijing in the 19th century. It is only since the 1990s that the deciphered text yielded to revelation and it is this remarkably detailed record that Weatherford exposes in his book. It tells the story of the boy, the teenager, adolescent, husband, father, fighter, leader, conqueror, statesman and dynastic patriarch who only began his life’s work at age 51 (older than an average lifespan at the time.)

In conjoining ‘the Making of the Modern World’ with the Khan’s name in the title, the author is making a bold statement that invites debate if not full-blown argument. Personally I find it to be a bit of a stretch but will happily admit that I was astonished with the achievements of the Great Khan and his descendants and will concede that, indirectly, they indeed played a part in the making of the modern world – but in the manner of the flapping of a butterfly’s wings that eventuated in a hurricane. After reading this account of the Mongol moment in the sun I conclude that, while certainly inventive, they were too capricious to spawn the integration that, say, the Saxons did in England and contributed nothing to the arts or philosophy and little to the sciences. Even the author admits that on the surface they left no signature physical developments, like Europe’s castles and cities. He explains how theirs was a nomadic lifestyle inherited from the vagaries of the Central Asian steppes so there are no lasting settlement features with the notable exception of bridges – a priority for their swift cavalry – and Beijing’s Forbidden City, built to hide the differences between what the Mongols said and what they did in their governing of the Chinese people.

Instead of the usual behaviour of a conqueror, Weatherford sets down how they developed a civilisation that promoted free trade, communications, civic structure, religious coexistence and international law (including the concept of diplomatic immunity). With the creation of these principles, history has since proven that they were ahead of their time and the liberally-minded secularists of today’s world population could be called their spiritual successors.

Weatherford interprets that their governance prototype was cleverly designed to ensure the peace and loyalty necessary to collect the massive income from taxes on trade goods moving between east and west. This liberal-capitalism is one of their accomplishments that never translated fully in the western world, though the author credits this profit-centric theme with playing a part in the demise of serfdom in the middle ages. The culture spread along with the mechanisation of labour that arose from the Mongol invention of war machines. These evolved to become wind or water powered utilities in less bellicose times and perhaps their most tangible legacy to the modern world. I would argue that had they taken this mechanisation a step further they would have initiated an industrial revolution that others capitalised on at a later, definitive moment for the modern world.

The author deals extensively with how efficiently and creatively they concentrated on the maintenance and protection of the Silk Road. Under Genghis Khan and his descendants, new tools, textiles, plants, foods and ideas were carried safely to new markets (though the paper money that the Mongols introduced to facilitate this commerce was scorned by cynical Europeans at the time). Weatherford provides an interesting historical comparison that concludes with the thesis that their rule was civilised when compared to the prevailing world standards of the time – visionary even. The conquered peoples managed their respective territories, collecting taxes on behalf of the Khan and generally prospering under Mongol control. For example, conquered Persians spread their learning to the Mongolian-integrated Arabian neighbours who developed the science and mathematics that moved westward across the Maghreb, upwards to Spain and over the Pyrenees into a dim and fearful continental Europe where those innovations and philosophies sparked the Renaissance – the birth of modern Europe.

The Mongol hoards threatened Europe at a time when life was cheap. Popes went to war, ‘witches’ were burned to death and lifespans were short. German monks invented gruesome instruments of torture while Mongols filled castle moats with still-live bodies to form causeways for attack. This book uncovers the truth that both groups were equally brutal and differed only in the methods they practiced. The Mongols considered Europe a backward, diseased place and soon left to concentrate on their successful takeover of China, allowing medieval Europe to carry on with its own localised brand of barbarity. A distorted version of history is recorded by those who documented the times and so the Mongolian people became forever maligned as the representatives of insidious cruelty and were used by the church of Rome to demonstrate God’s retribution on the sinful. The subsequent misuse of the word ‘Mongol’ continues to disgrace the English language to this day.

For a man who would be more used to writing academic papers, Jack Weatherford makes an able storyteller and a writer who succeeds in crafting a complex chronicle into the form of an interesting, at times fascinating, and always enjoyable narrative that showcases his ability to appeal to all age groups (and in proof of that I thank my son for recommending it to me). If history had been this good at school I would have been better educated.

2 thoughts on “Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World

  1. severalfourmany says:

    This is what history has been like at Macalaster college in St. Paul, MN where Weatherford has been teaching for decades now. He has written a number of excellent book. On of his very first books, Porn Row, is a rather chilling account of research he did on the retail porn trade in Minneapolis in the early 1980’s.

    • How fortunate you are to share a place of learning with the author. I was unaware of the one that you draw mt attention to and will check it out – thank you.

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