Tuesday, April 15, 2008
63. Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World - Jack Weatherford

For many, the name Genghis Khan conjures up images of horse-riding, bow-weilding Asian warriors stampeding across the countryside laying waste to everyone and everything in their path. And to be honest, it's a pretty accurate description. But there's a lot more to the story of this great Eastern ruler that most of us don't know.

Jack Weatherford's book takes the reader behind the scenes to get an insider's look at what happens before, during and after the battles, the political intrigues, power struggles, as well as providing a glimpse at the human side of a historical figure few (at least in the west) know much about. Relying heavily on historical accounts from those the Mongols conquered and their own surviving records, we learn about Genghis Khan's childhood and rise to power.

What makes his personal story extraordinary is the fact that he, his mother and siblings were originally abandoned by their tribe and lived a marginal life, shunned by other tribes. Taking advantages of each and every opportunity which presented itself, and often making his own (including the murder of his older brother), Genghis* eventually rose to power and united the various Mongol tribes spread out across the steppes. Stretching out to the south, east and west, before he died in his late 60s, he had amassed an empire which incorporated many elements of the peoples he conquered.

Despite what many people might think, Genghis and his Mongol army (or more accurately cavalry) did not carry out a program of mass slaughter as they moved into new territory. Unlike many of the rulers they encountered, the Mongols granted all ambassadors immunity, encouraged trade (without tariffs) across the empire, spread technology and ideas, allowed religious freedom for all, and essentially changed the way the known world lived. They introduced the first paper currency and can be credited with giving the western world pants.

Much of his gains were for nowt though when he died and the power struggle began among his sons to become the next great Khan. While they managed to expand the empire even further in all directions, most notably into eastern Europe, the desire for power and ever-increasing amounts of wealth resulted in unrest and uncertainty. Ten years of relative peace followed the death of the last son while their mothers and wives ruled before a new Khan was named. As Alexander's generals carved up his empire upon his death, eventually four of the great Khan's grandsons would rule their own seperate empires and their descendants would form some of the great eastern empires.

Weatherford's book is not necessarily a biography of Genghis Khan, but rather a history of the entire Mongol empire, from it's creation and cultural height under Genghis, to it's ultimate breakup two generations later and all the intriguing tidbits in between. I was surprised at how much of what many of us today take for granted we can attribute to the conquests of the Mongols. Genghis Khan and his "mongol hordes" truly helped make our modern world.

I'm not going to say this is a "must read" but I found it extremely interesting. A subject I had really no interest in prior to reading this book, I picked it up because I couldn't find anything else that caught my eye in the book store's history section. By the time I got home, I was sure I'd read 20 pages and then likely toss it aside. Surprisingly, it was one of those books that I didn't want to stop reading once I started and had to force myself to put away otherwise I'd miss my bus stop each morning. If you enjoy history as much as I do, give it a go. And if you're not, try it anyways...chances are you're going to be a bit surprised! Captain recommended.

*His birth name was Temujin. It was the name of a Tartar warrior killed by his father who gave the name to his son who would eventually adopt/be given the title of Chinggis Khan (the west uses the Persian spelling of Genghis): Chin means "strong, firm, unshakable, and fearless and is close to the Mongolian word for wolf chino, the ancestor from whom they claimed descent." Khan means chief or king.


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