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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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on 15 November 2012
I am in two minds about this book.
Firstly, it is a very interesting read. It is well written, engaging and intelligently organised. I learnt a huge amount, and enjoyed it enormously.
On the other hand, and in line with one or two of the other reviewers, there are one or two warnings to be aware of whilst reading it. Firstly, the author is an anthropologist rather than an historian. Although he does make this clear, I found myself querying some of his assertions from an historical point of view. Secondly, he clearly loves the Mongolian people and culture. Again, this is not a problem as such. It is just that I think this has coloured his overall conclusions rather more than the evidence suggests.
So in conclusion, this is a very interesting version of the history of Genghis Khan and his successors. Just don't assume that it is the universally accepted version!
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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.

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.
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on 17 August 2007
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. Furthermore, processes such as codification of laws, lightning mobility in war (the inspiration for Nazi "blitzkrieg"), religious freedom, and participative government, all taken for granted today, were practiced in the Mongol Empire and may have influenced European thinking during the Renaissance that immediately followed the breakup of the empire.

Maybe he over-dramatizes things when saying: "Under the widespread influences from the paper and printing, gunpowder and firearms, and the spread of the navigational compass and other maritime equipment, Europeans experienced a Renaissance, literally a rebirth, but it was not the ancient world of Greece or Rome being reborn. It was the Mongol Empire, picked up, transferred, and adapted by the Europeans to their own needs and culture." But on the whole he presents overwhelming evidence of our debt to the Mongols, an aspect that was covered up during the Age of Enlightenment (Chapter 10 deals with this historiographical process).

I found the book extremely thought-provoking; it led me to read Ratchnevsky and I am now looking through Saunders. I also went to several online sources simply to verify the claims he makes; I found most of them well-corroborated. Reading this book was absolutely eye-opening. It has completely changed my world view.
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on 22 April 2005
This is one of those rare and irresistable books, which provide another side of the coin (history). A truly facinating book with detailed facts and descriptions making it both a very good read and thought-provoking one.
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on 23 June 2015
It only took me three days to read this relatively thin paperback. Genghis Khan had a huge role in history and there is rather a dearth of information on him, considering the massive scale of the Mongol Empire he created. At its peak, it ran from the Pacific in the East to the Mediterranean in the West, bigger than the Roman Empire and that carved by Alexander the Great. The author based his account primarily on new revelations prompted by his research team re-examining the Secret History of The Mongols, an ancient document which was very difficult to translate and had laid hidden for many years due to the political upheavals in the region. Genghis has a mixed reputation throughout history, with the likes of Chaucer elevating him and Voltaire and Montesquieu later deriding him. The Mongols uniquely placed world culture in a position to develop into what we now know, with international trade, religious tolerance and mass migration of peoples. The Mongols are perhaps looked down upon for not bequeathing us anything unique from their own culture, but rather amalgamating and developing existing ideas from the races and civilisations of other people’s they conquered. They practised some novel ideas for the time such as diplomatic immunity, not torturing prisoners, allowing all religions to flourish under the empire with an emphasis on secular law. The book covers the rise of Temujin from his downtrodden youth, to the height of his power and then looks at the maintenance of his legacy after his death, with the separation of the great Khanate into four primary regions. It is a great look at medieval history from an Asian perspective and has enlightened me about various subjects from that time and added to knowledge I already had on the Crusades, Marco Polo, the Black Death and The European Renaissance. The decline of the Empire was sudden and could only arise through a natural disaster which engulfed the whole world, in the Great Plague. What would have occurred had this devastating illness never erupted? The book was brief and precise and covered a vast array of topics though in my opinion for such a good subject matter, it could have been more expansive in volume. It has given me a taste for Genghis Khan and I shall try to dig out some more similar biographies on the great Steppes people.
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on 17 February 2010
Fantastic book. Make no mistake this is an historical narrative but written in such a way as to keep the reader's attention. Informative and interesting.
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on 21 May 2008
This is a fantastic book, very well written, the more I read the more I couldn't put it down!!
Incredible how advanced Genghis Kahn ideas were, especially about religion.
Do yourself a favour and read this book!
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on 11 August 2009
After reading the reviews of all the available books about Genghis Khan i decided this would be best. I was NOT dissapointed. A book extremely well constructed, explains much more than i expected and does its its best to dispell some modern myths. Some of the reviewers of other Genghis Khan books should read this before giving opinion based on legend and thier own bias. If you choose one book on this subject matter choose this one.
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on 12 February 2015
This book would serve as a half decent introduction to a very wide ranging subject. Rather unfortunately it felt at times like I was reading a National Geographic documentary on the subject. But in amongst the predictable, suposition and at times needlessly speculative there are some real gems. For example, there is a reference to the only known contemporary description of Temujin.
Overall I feel it could benefit from a different style of writing which at times feels shorn of an academic voice. It is a solid if unspectacular work that is rewarding if you persevere but would be nice if you didn't have to work at it.
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