‘Genghis Khan and The Making of The Modern World’

“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 […].”

A Mongol bomb thrown against a charging samurai during the Mongol invasion of Japan.

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.

The Chinggis Khaan Statue Complex is located just an hour’s drive away from the capital of modern day Mongolia, Ulaanbaatar.

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.

 Professor Jack Weatherford’s Genghis Khan and The Making of The Modern World is available on Amazon with the Kindle version priced at just £1.89.


Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History: Wrath of The Khans

In one of the most violent outbursts in history, a little-known tribe of Eurasian nomads breaks upon the great societies of the Old World like a human tsunami. It may have ushered in the modern era, but at what cost?” – Wrath of The Khans I

I recently finished a mini-series of podcasts called Wrath of the Khans, a five-part offering from Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History about the Mongol Empire of Genghis Khan and his descendants. It was every bit as mind-blowing as Blueprint For Armageddon, Carlin’s mini-series on the First World War, and so I felt compelled to write this recommendation and share this incredible catalogue of work with as many people as possible.

Before the series, I knew very little about the Mongols. To my mind, they were nomadic tribespeople specialised in raiding on horseback who, united by Genghis Khan, mercilessly rampaged through Asia. That’s it. So, for those of you as unfamiliar with their story as I was, here’s a little something to whet the appetite. When Genghis Khan died in 1227, his empire was about four times the size of those of the Romans or the Macedonians at their respective peaks and, by 1279, his sons and grandsons had spread Mongol control yet further, as far as Eastern Europe.

Astoundingly, the Mongol army never numbered more than 100,000 warriors, yet subjugated more lands and people in twenty-five years than the Romans conquered in four hundred, building an empire that stretched from Siberia to India, and from Korea to the Balkans, dramatically redrawing the map of the world through their merging of disparate kingdoms to form modern, recognisable borders that stand to this day.

Ruled by Genghis Khan’s sons and grandsons, the extent of the Mongol Empire by 1279.

If you love history and you’re curious about Genghis Khan and his remarkable Mongol Empire, Hardcore History is a perfectly accessible entry-point to the subject, designed, as Carlin says, “for other ‘history geeks’ like me, for the group that sat around a pizza and some beers after history class and got into the weird, fun questions on history”. Now, I know that’s me, and I know I have friends out there who are the same.

And it is hardcore. A Dan Carlin mini-series is more akin to an audiobook than a podcast; his one-man shows often appearing less like a monologue, and more, as here, like a glorious 8.5 hour-long conversation. Yet, it’s immense length is never problematic – except maybe for your iPhone memory. Instead, it is precisely this sustenance that makes it so brilliant. Each episode is a smorgasbord of facts, figures, analogies and conjecture, with Carlin impressively wrangling rich detail and several developed perspectives into an easily-digestible narrative that is both entertaining and educational, without the need for academic examination.

Carlin is, in essence, just recounting a great story – and he does it well. Wrath of The Khans, like all Hardcore History shows, is an intense, blow-by-blow account of the meteoric rise of the largest contiguous empire in history, and of an army responsible for between 35 and 50 million deaths, all of which were, of course, inflicted by hand. It describes the natural strengths, intuitive tactics and unique history of the Mongols, tracing in detail their relentless assault against countless Eurasian peoples.

With the help of their own Secret History of the Mongols and other historical sources, Carlin describes the Mongols’ ingenious strategy, epic battles and gruesome submission of the likes of Jin China and the Khwarezmid Empire, alongside incredible death statistics and accounts from witnesses, in so much as they exist. For a glimpse into the ‘gore in-store’ with Hardcore History, there are surrendered civilians deployed as human shields during assaults on their still besieged neighbours, building fires accelerated by the fat of the dead, and wagon after wagon loaded with sacks full of single ears, severed as a way of counting enemy losses. It is hardcore, but it’s a fantastic show for so many other reasons too.

Also addressed, for example, is the historiography of the Mongol legacy, and the tendency of revisionist historians to gloss over the deaths of 35 to 50 million people while eulogising about the societal, cultural, and technological revolutions ushered in by Mongol devastation. The Mongols, who introduced both the first international postal system and the first international paper currency, have also been credited with: religious and cultural tolerance; the promotion of universal literacy, meritocracy and diplomatic immunity for envoys; the abolition of torture; the sponsorship of infrastructure to facilitate Eurasian trade; and the spreading of revolutionary technologies like printing, the cannon, compass, and abacus. These innovations are advanced by some as evidence of Mongols laying the foundations of the modern world. But at what cost?

Carlin concertedly emphasises those who “paid the bill”, drawing provocative comparisons between the Mongols and Caesar’s Romans, or Alexander The Great’s Macedonians, similarly ruthless in their day, yet later hailed as revolutionary. Opening on that theme with a controversial book title suggestion for brave, budding authors, “The Long-Term Benefits of the Third Reich”, he asks: will we one day forgive Hitler’s bloodshed in this same way? If history offers any indication, says Carlin, the pendulum will, perhaps in hundreds of years, swing that way. I should mention that, with such unconventional conjecture aplenty, Carlin frequently laces his narratives with the disclaimer that he is not a historian by trade but a journalist, qualifying his opinions in self-deprecating asides in which he confesses to being an amateur, a mere “fan of history”.

Carlin though, is a virtuoso orator. Part storyteller, part analyst, he is a master of the art of dissecting a multitude of angles equally, and it is this, combined with his unconventional narrative style, that renders his podcasts so unique. As I said, Hardcore History is a one-man show, 8.5 hours is a long time, and it’s true that his gravelly, dramatic intensity may take some getting used to. Nevertheless, an eventual succumbing to his eloquently rhythmic description of even the most harrowing events is inevitable.

If Hardcore History sounds right up your street, have a listen. You’ll love it.

The ten most recent episodes of Hardcore History are available free on iTunes, including the six-part, 24-hour series, Blueprint for Armageddon, on the subject of the First World War. Alternatively, Wrath of The Khans is available for $1.99 per episode from DanCarlin.com.