“The Mongols swept across the globe as conquerors, but also as civilization’s unrivaled cultural carriers.” – Genghis Khan and The Making of The Modern World
It’s fair to say that The Mongols have become a real fascination of mine in recent months. It all began with Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History mini-series Wrath of the Khans, after which I immediately set about scouring the internet for more histories of The Mongols. First up for me was Professor Jack Weatherford’s Genghis Khan and The Making of The Modern World.
Like Dan Carlin, Weatherford traces Genghis Khan’s rise to power on the remote steppes of Mongolia, his development of revolutionary military strategies and weaponry, and his emphasis on rapid attack and siege warfare which would overwhelm opposing armies across Asia, shatter the Islamic world, and render the armoured knights of Europe obsolete.
“When their highly-skilled engineers from China, Persia, and Europe combined Chinese gunpowder with Muslim flamethrowers and applied European bell-casting technology, they produced the cannon, an entirely new order of technological invention […].”
Weatherford, an anthropologist who has spent forty years working around the former Mongol Empire, is the only Western scholar ever to be allowed into Genghis Khan’s homeland and forbidden burial site, and his impassioned work is thusly perhaps the epitome of the revisionary tendency to gloss over the atrocities of Mongol conquest in light of the societal, cultural and technological revolutions ushered in by their rule.
To that end, Weatherford firstly tackles the portrayal of Genghis Khan as a bloodthirsty barbarian at the head of a savage band of nomadic warriors ruthlessly looting the civilised world – and he is quiet on the atrocities and butchery described in such classically gruelling detail by Hardcore History. Instead, he presents the Mongols not only as ingenious masters of conquest, but as instituting progressive and benevolent rule, accentuating the positive changes brought to the vast territories conquered, such as the assurance of religious freedom, the lowering of taxes, the establishment of meritocracy, and the creation of public schools.
“As he smashed the feudal system of aristocratic privilege and birth, he built a new system based on individual merit, loyalty, and achievement. […] He lowered taxes for everyone [abolishing them for doctors, teachers and educational institutions]. His was not an empire that hoarded wealth and treasure; instead, he widely distributed the goods acquired in combat so that they could make their way back into commercial circulation.”
Indeed, Weatherford offers Genghis Khan the visionary leader whose irrepressible conquests joined backward Europe with the flourishing cultures of Asia, establishing vast networks of trade routes which became lucrative pathways not only for commerce, but also for the revolutionary ideas, technologies, and expertise that later triggered a global awakening, an unprecedented explosion of culture, science and progress that rapidly transformed the European way of life during the Renaissance. It is in part this connecting of such disparate kingdoms that Weatherford advances as evidence of the Mongols laying the foundations of our modern world.
“At the time of [Genghis Khan’s] birth in 1162, the Old World consisted of a series of regional civilizations each of which could claim virtually no knowledge of any civilization beyond it’s closest neighbour. No one in China had heard of Europe, and no one in Europe had heard of China, and so far as is known, no person had made the journey from one to the other. By the time of his death in 1227, he had connected them with diplomatic and commercial contacts that still remain unbroken.”
Weatherford emphasises not only the Mongol development and spreading of revolutionary technologies such as printing, the cannon, compass, and abacus – all of which would only later reach Europe courtesy of the vast Mongol trading network – but also innovations perhaps less striking to the modern reader, such as an international paper currency and postal system, which were in equal part crucial and groundbreaking. Having been spared from total Mongol conquest due to the superior Eastern spoils, the Europe of the Middle Ages appears to have benefitted cheaply from Mongol rule through its absorption of such varied technology and innovation.
Why, then, has history remembered Genghis and his comrades so ungenerously? Whereas Geoffrey Chaucer admired Genghis Khan, considering him “so excellent a lord in all things”, this early portrait of the Mongols bears little resemblance to that of Voltaire in The Orphan of China, and that of later books and films that portray Genghis Khan and his irresistible army as savage hordes lusting after gold, women, and blood.
Such a contrast is perhaps the result of Genghis Khan’s enduring mystery and the ensuing speculation, or of the fearful and bitter accounts from witnesses that the Mongols encouraged, tales of fear and doom brought from the ruins of one city to that next in line for conquest. Perhaps, alternatively, it is a further example of the pseudo-scientific racism that, in the latter half of the last millennium, sought to distort the history of an Asian steppe tribe and discredit its formation of an empire greater than those of the Romans or of Alexander The Great.
Either way, Weatherford’s lively analysis somewhat restores the Mongol reputation, though this revisionist history does far more than just paint an unprecedented portrait of a great leader and his legacy; instead, it does indeed challenge us to reconsider how the modern world was made.