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revisionist interpretation full of assumptions, omissions, and factless assertions
on 8 August 2011
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.
Where the author loses me is that he sees something uniquely positive underlying this, like the Empire was an indispensable predecessor to the modern world. My interpretation is that Genghis Khan turned the traditional hostile energies of his tribesmen on outsiders, basically seeking to overtake and steal as much as his forces could take back home, yes, sacking the richer and more sophisticated civilizations on its ever-expanding borders. Like all empires, his had to pay his soldiers in booty, which required continual expansion. After all, once you expropriate the accumulated goods that someone else built - destroying their cities and even their cultures in the process, making their regeneration all the more difficult - you have to find fresh victims. The victims were given a choice: fealty or destruction. While I do not mean to argue that what they did was any worse than what other empires had done, the destruction cannot be ignored in order to emphasize the positive aspects of what the author claims were later sees as advances.
The author's treatment of the destruction of the Abbasid dynasty, decayed as it was, is a case in point. The Mongols sacked Baghdad after numerous attempts to subjugate it, burning irreplaceable manuscripts, smashing masterpieces of architecture, and murdering an unknown though high percentage of its population. To create grassy pastures for their horses, an ancient and unique irrigation system was also destroyed, creating a desert out of a once fertile region; it has never recovered. This was one of the greatest despoliations of a center of civilization in the history of mankind, but the author glosses over it, mentioning in passing that the Mongols were careful to take skilled craftsmen and scientists back to their homeland in order to use their skills and knowledge.
The most useful part of this book for me (due to my own ignorance) came in the final chapters, mostly about Khubilai Khan and the way he managed his Empire when it had reached it maximum breadth. Describing a Mongol golden age, the author rightly points out the dazzling array of innovations that can be ascribed to his reign: the advent of paper money, passport that provided access to the entire Empire, the syntheses of knowledge that came from all corners of the Empire, bringing together Arab, Chinese, and European savants. I will want to read more on this period and had never thought of the Mongol Empire quite in this way. What I wonder is if it was worth the cost to the conquered - much of this ended after a single generation - and whether it actually served as a beacon of civilization to the Empires that followed, which I doubt.
My greatest disappointment with this book is the near-complete lack of consideration (i.e. learned refutation) of other points of view, which is what a scholar should at least attempt. There are also so many factual errors - he asserts, for example, that the Huns were early Mongols, which is not at all proven - that I was skeptical of his interpretations and assertions. I also didn't like the way he writes: this is writing 101, but he uses too many adjectives, making it sound almost melodramatic at times. Finally, I suspect that there is something anachronistic in the author's assertion that the Mongols were key players in the "making of the modern world".
I would recommend as an interesting, if flawed, interpretation.