on 19 October 2014
I came to this title with a long-standing interest in Russian history, but somewhat confused about the Mongol (Tartar) peoples who had such a profound influence on Russia and, indeed, the whole early European world. I wasn't sure about how the initial advance of Chinggis Kahn had then developed into the next stage of conquest, or what the Golden Horde really was. I hadn't understood how a people whose religion was largely shamanistic had evolved into a Muslim culture, or what the real long-term impact of the Mongols was. All these issues and more I wanted to resolve, and I was not disappointed.
Morris Rossabi's book really is in the best tradition of the 'Very Short Introduction' series: well thought through, no wasted words, informed in its opinions and tightly focussed. He explains how the first wave of conquest westwards by Chinggis Kahn was extended by his sons and grandsons to become four great, separate kahnates. He explores how they interacted with each other and the nations and cultures with which they at first collided and later integrated. Historically much has been made of the brutality and violence of the Mongol advance, but Rossabi also draws out the more positive impact that they made and the legacy they left behind. (How much is Russia's politics and its view of itself in the world still shaped today by the Mongol years between about 1240 and 1480?)
This was a fascinating read and a very informative one. My questions were all answered and a lot more beside. If you're curious about it all as I was, this is a great book to read first.
on 10 July 2013
This is a bold and lucid book. At its start, Rossabi offers two divergent views from history of the Mongolians: the first, expounded by a Iranian historian, that the Mongols burnt, slew and raped; the other, from Marco Polo, that the Mongolians were benign and enlightened. As a whole, Rossabi leans towards Marco Polo's line, offering as he does a chapter on the culture promoted and created by the Mongolians, although he includes the alternative view, for example regarding Chinggis's'push westward, even if Rossabi dilutes its seemingly inherent aggression. In the excellent first chapter, Rossabi touches on the geography, the martial education of Mongolian boys(the harshness of which finds a parallel in Sparta's Agoge), animals and religion. Who knew, for example, that camels would carry siege weapons, or that the Mongolians preferred mules to stallions since they were easier to handle and could produce milk? This image of the Mongolians as practical is sustained throughout the book, for example in their valuing of medicine.
If one knew that the Mongolians pushed westward into Europe, the reason for their retreat is murkier. Here Rossabi is bold and inclusive, offering the practical reason of the dearth of grasslands for their steeds, rather than a political reason, in their leader's desire to return to Mongolia because the Great Khan had died. To support this interpretation, Rossabi points out that Batu, the leader of the army into the west, upon returning did not actually take part in the election. However, the cause to return and the return itself may not be linked, especially since later Hulegu, Khubilai's brother, traveled back from Syria to Mongolia after hearing about the death of the Great Kahn.
If the Mongolian push westerward is well-known, Rossabi also reviews their disastrous campaigns eastward, to Japan and Vietnam. This is only one example of the balance Rossabi reaches in an empire with so many theaters, including, for instance modern day China and Iran. Moreover, he includes pictures, archaeological findings and the architecture of the Daidu, the new Mongolian capital, with the latter used to show the Mongolian nod towards Chinese layout of a city.
One feels fairly treated as a reader. For example the view that the Mongolians carried the Black Plague westward is considered and, even if doubt is induced, this view is never dismissed. Instead, as with so many parts of this book, Rossabi provides alternatives in in unfailingly lucid prose, for example including the theory that a fall in temperature forced Chenggnis to wage foreign campaigns. Two main quibbles, however, may be offered. The first, that the Mongolians helped to create an Office of Muslim Astronomy is repeated in the book may make one wary of accepting the line that the Mongolians were cultural fermenters. The second more serious quibble is Rosabbi's claim that Rashid al-Din was the first to attempt a global history. (p84) This view ignores Polybius' Histories whose gaze includes many geographical theaters and indeed ignores Polybius' own words that Eporus was the first universal historian before him. (Polybius. 5. 33)Moreover I would have liked Rossabi to explain why men occupied the left side of the ger and the women the right and also to explain the significance of the name Kahn. These points aside, this is a lucid and extremely balanced book and I can only thank Rossabi for providing such historical nectar to fill my long-standing curiosity about the Mongolians.