Review: Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World

Last August, I reviewed a book about the Scots, whose cover suggests Scots invented the modern world. I said in that review that the subtitle to the book was doubtless a publisher’s invention. At least with Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, the author Jack Weatherford does not attempt to say that the Mongols invented the modern world, but certainly their empire connected much of the known world. When at its largest, Mongols ruled an area the size of both North and South America. That’s a lot of land. Their system of commerce joined these areas together, arguably for the first time.

Their impact, principally in the area of trade, has gotten somewhat obscured over the years. Weatherford does a good job of taking us through the remarkable life of Genghis Khan, who founded the Mongol empire, and walks us through an abbreviated summary of its inevitable decline. By the time Marco Polo made his famous journey to China, the Mongol empire was well established. Marco Polo was just one of the first western Europeans to travel the empire and report back.

Much of this book is based on a manuscript that appears to be authentic describing the secret history of Genghis Khan. Even for someone schooled in Mongol, translating the book was very challenging. To help make sense of it, Weatherford spent many years in Mongolia working with local experts, as well as visiting other parts of the formerly vast Mongol empire. At its largest, the Mongol Empire stretched from the China Sea across Asia and encompassed much of Eastern Europe. It included much of India, Persia and the eastern parts of the Middle East. It seems strange that the nomadic Mongols, isolated to the higher altitudes of the Mongolian steppe, could create an empire. For uncounted centuries the Mongols spent most of their time warring with each other. Genghis Khan’s initial contribution to history was to do what no one had done before: unite the Mongols. The story of how he did this consumes the first fourth of the book and it is perhaps its most riveting part. This history is fairly well documented in the movie Mongol, which I reviewed a few weeks back.

The idea of a Mongol empire evolved over time. Mongols lusted after goods that their remote location and poverty largely denied them. It did not take too many campaigns for them to realize they could outwit any opponent strategically. Under Genghis Khan’s direction, Mongols learned how to conquer through working with their assets. They had something other empires lacked: rapid mobility. Their army was essentially a massive cavalry. Genghis Khan smartly organized them into armies of ten thousand, each broken down into units of a thousand. Their tactics rarely changed. Scouts were sent out to get a lay of the land and its people. As the Mongol army approached, they gave the local power the opportunity to surrender, which involved a certain amount of plundering, a certain amount of local control but no loss of life. Surrender rarely followed, so they worked on capturing edge towns, which were poorly fortified, and let survivors send their reports back to the city which caused great consternation and usually made for quick captures. They did not believe in wasting their own lives, and learned the advanced arts of siege, which often consisted of lobbing flaming and then novel explosive projectiles over city walls. Whoever they captured were fair game and were often forced to fight against their own people. Given these amazingly effective tactics, it is not surprising that the Chinese built the Great Wall of China. It was one of the few ways they could defend themselves against a massive Mongol cavalry assault.

It all sounds pretty barbaric and gruesome, but similar and less effective tactics were common at the time. The irony was that Mongols were a reasonably civilized race. Once the looting and pillaging of a conquered city was completed, they usually made benign overlords. A certain percent of a city’s goods went back to the Mongol Empire, which opened up trading routes. The free exchange of goods between far-flung places quickly became possible, facilitated by a common paper currency the Mongols introduced. Many nations conquered by the Mongols ended up more prosperous as a result.

Since the cavalry was the Mongol’s only army, it eventually proved something of a limitation. Their empire could only expand as far as there was plenty of ready pasture for their horses. This spared Western Europe from a likely Mongol conquest.

In our imagination, we often see Mongols as barbarians. For their time they were remarkably enlightened. They did not try to institutionalize any religion, but ensured freedom of religion. They created institutions of higher learning, one of the world’s first paper currencies, and a sophisticated bookkeeping system. Mongol became something like Latin for Asia, a common language for trade. Their rule was generally benign.

Like all empires, they quickly forgot the lessons inspired by their leader. Successor Great Khans were generally less effectual and more insular. While they often intermarried as a way to create a dynastic control of an area, they were more insular than inclusive. The plague, which originated in China, facilitated the empire’s end, and trade routes took it to Europe where it decimated populations there as well. Over time the empire fractured into multiple states and then dissolved altogether, but not before they had connected much of Asia together.

Weatherford’s research as well as extensive tours of Asia that the Mongols conquered makes for an accurate albeit incomplete survey of the Mongol Empire. However, it is readily accessible by a layman. Like all good histories, it gives us an accurate perspective of these times principally in the late 13th and 14th centuries. Maybe the Scots invented the modern world and maybe they didn’t, but they could not have gotten too far without the trade pioneered by the Mongols, whose tentacles extended even into Scotland itself.

Weatherford’s descriptions of Mongolia make me want to visit the place, see the External Blue Sky that the Mongols worshipped and walk the largely unknown paths that seven hundred years ago gave the world one of its most remarkable leaders and an empire that united much of the known world. Perhaps I will make this journey someday.