C. BallTOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on 22 Feb. 2010
This book is as good an example as any of the oxymoronic nature of that old phrase, 'historical fact'. There is of course no such thing. History is written by people, by cultures, by civilisations, and as such is subject to a huge array of prejudices, biases, grudges and agendas. Western history tells us almost nothing about Genghis Khan, short of casting him in the role of the stereotypical Eastern barbarian. Western history lauds the achievements of conquerors such as Alexander the Great or Julius Caesar, and says nothing of the man who came from nowhere to singlehandedly conquer and establish one of the largest empires in history.
Genghis Khan, or Temujin, his actual birth name, is an amazing figure. Considering his family were outcasts, herders, the lowest of the low, from a minor tribe in Mongolia, the fact that he rose to become one of the greatest figures of the past 1000 years is astonishing. Add that to his achievements as Great Khan - the establishment of a paper money currency, the promotion of global commerce, the rule of international secular law, the promotion of freedom of religious worship, the idea that not even a ruler was above the law, his role in the creation of the modern states of Russia and China - and it seems truly criminal that such an important figure was ever dismissed as a 'barbarian'.
This is a wonderful book. I honestly couldn't put it down. Weatherford writes with such evident love and enthusiasm for his subject, and whilst I did have to reserve a certain skepticism for some of his claims for the Mongolian Empire (the influence on the European Renaissance, for one) he has certainly convinced me of the greatness of the Great Khan.
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This is an odd book. On the one hand, it is supposed to be a kind of narrative based on new source materials, an intimate biography if you will. As such, the author tries to tell it like an interesting story, with quirky personal details, the ascription of emotion at crucial moments, and some (surprisingly poor) evocative language. On the other hand, as an anthropologist and scientist but clearly not an historian, he tries to analyze the meaning of what the Mongols accomplished in the context of their times. This he does with an overly indulgent bias towards thinking that the Mongols were a force for the good, that much of their fearsome reputation was the result of propaganda from both sides, which he is seeking to moderate while lavishing praise on extremely subjective interpretations.
Genghis was a first-rate military and political genius: from destitute poverty, he first united the Mongol tribes, in the process overcoming centuries-old customs of tribal vendetta, kidnapping, and simple rapine. Once united, he forged a fighting force - based on cavalry without infantry - that was unequalled in its time. He and then his successors over 4 generations or so, created the largest empire that the world has ever known. Once it had reached its apogee under Khubilai Khan, the Mongols created a vast region of trade, technology and art exchange, and a certain kind of law. The unitary Empire was carved up between the grandsons of Genghis Khan, whose cross-ownership in each others' territories of trade networks and manufacturing facilities moderated their war-making on each other. Once the Black Death disrupted their networks, the Empire collapsed as the grandsons started fighting amongst themselves. The book covers these developments competently, and there is nothing whatsoever new in this.Read more ›
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This is not just a history, it is re-invention of our world. No one has told Genghis Khan 's story as effectively. Texts by other historians like Paul Ratchnevsky may consult more primary sources [JW bases his work on the Secret History of the Mongols, Juvayni, and Rashid-ad-Din, Ratchnevsky consults some additional Chinese sources like the Shenwu qinzheng lu]. Texts such as Saunders may be more scholarly and are more nuanced in their conclusions, but this footnote-free story (notes are indexed to sentences only at the end) is eminently readable, and like Timothy May has said in a review, it is the kind of writing that, unlike "dusty monographs", can fire one's "love for history".
Writing with rare lyrical sensitivity, Weatherford brings across a dramatic narrative of the military conquests. The first part deals with Genghis Khan consolidating the tribes of Mongolia (Chapters 2-3). Most of the book (Chapters 4-8), deals with world conquest. Genghis Khan launched his series of conquests when in his late 40s, and within fifteen years (1212 to his death in 1227), he had conquered four times the territory of the Roman or Macedonian empires at their peak; after his death, it would be grow half as much larger.
However, the most interesting aspect of the book is its discussion of the impact of this large trade-friendly empire, lasting over 200 years, may have had (Chapter 9). Printing, firearms, the use of the compass in navigation, bowed instruments such as the violin, all came to Europe through Mongol interactions.Read more ›