Book Review: Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World by Jack Weatherford.
Everybody loves the Mongols.
Well, except for the millions of people they killed and/or conquered, but still. The Mongol Empire was one of those stretches of history I was vaguely familiar with, in that I knew a bunch of guys on horses conquered a whole bunch of stuff, but I was a little short on details.
And, looking to fix that, I read a book!
I heard about Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World in passing, and finally decided to track down a copy. It is, as one would expect, about the life and empire of Genghis Khan. While the “great man” theory of history has a lot of unfortunate implications, there’s no arguing that Genghis Khan left an indellible mark on history. I mean, he went from a poor, illiterate peasant to to the greatest conqueror in history– just add some dragons and wizards, and you’ve got yourself a fantasy novel.
Weatherford starts the book detailing Genghis’ early life, based on a document known as The Secret History of the Mongols. To be honest, this part’s a little slow. On the one hand, it’s interesting to see where Genghis came from … but on the other, The Secret History of the Mongols is really the only source Weatherford has for Genghis’ early life, so I’m honestly not sure how accurate the account could be. Weatherford touches on this in passing, but for the most part he takes The Secret History of the Mongols as fact, especially given the thorough detail that’s given about certain places in Mongolia.
Things pick up (and sources become more diverse) as the Mongols start building an empire– and this is where we really see Weatherford’s thesis take off. Basically, the Mongol Empire was the first “modern” state: it had a separation of church and state, it made extensive use of trade and propaganda, and encouraged the development and use of new technologies. The Mongols were a pragmatic people, and so they pretty much cherry-picked the most useful bits of culture and technology from people they conquered. The Mongol empire was responsible for inventions that would go on to become cornerstones of the modern world: gunpowder, the printing press, and even playing cards. In turn, Weatherford posits that the Renaissance was less a rediscovery of ancient Greek thought, and more the transplanting of Mongol-based technology and ideas to Europe.
And, yes, the Mongols did kill a whole bunch of people, and enslaved many, many more. It’s kind of a weird thing to look at from a modern perspective. On the one hand, the Mongols encouraged tales of their terrifying exploits (see the mention of propaganda above), but on the other hand, they did raze several cities. Sometimes they had it coming (protip: never kill a Mongol’s messenger) and sometimes … not so much.
And in one of those twists of fate, the source of the Mongol Empire’s strength ultimately led to its downfall. Trade and mobility was key to the Empire’s prosperity … which allowed the black plague to spread like wildfire. The resulting devastation broke the Mongol Empire into a bunch of isolated little kingdoms, and so we don’t speak Mongolian today. Whoo?
Weatherford does a good job detailing the rise and fall of the Mongols in an entertaining and approachable way. I learned a great deal about Mongolia– and really about world history in general. It’s well worth a read for anyone with an interest in world history, so go ahead and check it out!