Thursday, March 15, 2012

Book Review: Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World

book coverIt’s a commonplace that our view of history is shaped by where and when we’re born. If you’ve been born since, say, the Renaissance and in the West (and that’ll be true of almost anyone who reads this blog) you’ll probably have a negative view of the Mongols. Anthropologist Jack Weatherford knows this and asks us to reconsider, even radically revise, our view of Genghis Khan and his Mongol descendants. It didn’t seem likely that such a book would become a bestseller a few years back, but it did.

Tartars, Tatars, Mughals, Moghuls, Moal, The Golden Horde: the names are diverse because their influence was so widespread. A mere listing of the names starts a mild reevaluation in the mind. Starting with these names, and a small array of facts, Weatherford builds an elaborate structure whereby we can begin to see the Mongols as not categorically something unpleasant. Gradually, we realize that they influenced the West mostly for the good (although, admittedly, that’s partly because they could never conquer Europe). Weatherford doesn’t say that everything we know about the Mongols is wrong, only that most of it is. He doesn’t stint at criticizing the reasons they invaded most of the known world, or the methods they used in doing so. But he does reveal the enormous benefits they brought to that world, and it’s an impressive list indeed: religious freedom, the rule of law, an international postal system, a regular census, the abolition of torture, diplomatic immunity for ambassadors, enormously high literacy rates, and an improvement of the status of women. These things held during the era of Mongol greatness, if not always in the long era of decline. And that decline was long indeed: Alim Khan, the last Mongol ruler, was deposed in Bukhara in 1920.

Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World focuses almost entirely on the classic Mongol era, the period of Genghis, Ogodei, Guyuk, Mongke and Khubilai Khan. An ongoing stream of insights and details keeps the reader fascinated. In addition to the benefits mentioned previously are other compelling topics such as ingenious military tactics (I’ve always been bored stiff by this topic but Weatherford changed me); the fact that many prominent Mongols were Christians and one Great Khan probably was; the Mongols ever-increasing desire for more things which led to conquering ever more lands (some things are sadly eternal); the staggering achievements of Khubilai Khan (I’ve read Marco Polo’s wonder-filled book, but the account here is still pretty amazing because it’s more sober); the Mongol transfer of Arab-preserved European classical culture back into Europe. This last is probably the greatest gift to the West from the Mongols.

The Mongols weren’t exactly Gandhians when it came to waging warfare. But that’s only a small slice of the total pie. You will come away with a new admiration of what the servants of the Blue Sky gave to the world. This is history that needed to be redressed. At the very least, you’ll never look at pants, painting, or carrots the same way.

Submitted by Richard Grooms
Fiction Department
Central Library

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