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3.0 out of 5 stars History without the warts, 7 Oct. 2012
This review is from: The Mongols: A History (Paperback)
Beware! Jeremiah Curtin's study of `The Mongols' is not an easy work to tackle but it does an excellent job. On the other hand, straightaway, there are good points - a detail chapter contents, an excellent index and a clear familiarity with his materials. You may find the first 78 pages (four chapters) hard going. Curtin is obviously dealing with the complexities of mythology and legend which come from largely oral sources. But, please, persist because you will find it worthwhile.
The opening pages describe the internecine warfare between various Mongol groups - I ignore the distinctions between Tatars, Uigars, Merkits and a myriad other unfamiliar names, just follow the name Temudjin, the key character. Life must have been hell for anybody blessed to be alive then and there - property stolen and destroyed, people casually murdered, wives seized and allocated to new husbands. It reminded me of Thomas Hobbes's dictum that, for primitive man, life was `nasty, brutish and short.' Gradually Temudjin emerges from this chaos, unites the Mongols under the title of Jinghis Khan. He's not an heroic character - arbitrary in judgement, sometimes spiteful and frequently wilful in decision, almost filled to the brim with megalomania - but he's very effective. So by 1212 the Mongols have launched an attack which was to destroy the Kin Empire in China. From now on there are fewer unfamiliar names - but geography and history remain awkward - and the style helps the reader handle the twists that fate had in store for mankind in the 13th century. He reign of misery and terror which Jinghis Khan and his son imposed on central Asia in the wars against the Kwaresmian Empire is summed up on Page 145. `When Jinghis returned to his birthplace Persia was left as a desert behind him...... "In those lands which Jinghis Khan ruined," exclaims the historian, "not one in a thousand is left of the people. Where a hundred thousand had lived before his invasion there are now scarce one hundred."' Note the uncited quotation; that is a major failing in the book - no references and few citations. Jinghis Khan died in 1227 and the picture given by Curtin is of a blood-drenched monster. Whatever benefits the Mongol Empire gave to mankind post-date his reign.
Curtin spends pages 145-97 describing the miseries suffered by Persia and its neighbours during the thirty years following the downfall of Kwaresmian Empire. It's a long catalogue of treachery and massacre full of detail of a region sinking into anarchy and poverty. For a time Jelal-ud-din, the Kwaresmian heir, fought on in apparent heroic fashion but is finally dismissed by Curtin as `no statesman, he had neither forethought nor wisdom; attached to his whims he reconciled no man' (P. 171). Typically he was butchered in obscurity. One hero, described (pages 186-91), was the Uigur, Kurguz, owing his influence to the illiteracy of the Mongol rulers, who brought some order and reform out of chaos, despite the efforts of enemies both Mongol and conquered. In the end he was put to death by Hulagu, Jinghis Khan's grandson and rival in barbarity, which sums up the whole miserable period.
There's a detailed catalogue of the weird upheaval called the Assassin Commonwealth' (aka `the kingdom of murder') and its destruction by Hulagu in 1257 (Pages 197-246). Again. Don't expect analysis: it's pure complex narrative - Curtin has a good excuse in that most Assassin records were deliberately destroyed. I found this section unnervingly like contemporary events. Then Hulagu snuffed out the Abbasid Caliphate at Baghdad (Pages 247-66) and so what passed as a recognised authority in the Islamic world (if only by lip-service), which has still not been replaced to our day.
There is a detailed account of the Mongol subjection of the Kin and Sung regimes which produced the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368). There is also a detailed account of the various kurultais which both interrupted at key moments Mongol advance (e.g. 1241 and 1259) and revealed growing tensions within the Mongol leadership which led to a rapid disintegration of their empire.
However, what is missing is a reasonable account of the governance, communication and other aspects of Mongol rule which weakened the isolation of Europe from China. Also missing is any proper treatment of the Mongol onslaught on Europe (e.g. Leignitz 1241) and the existence and effect of the Golden Horde in Russia till the very late 14th century - this was probably relegated by Curtin to his work on the Mongols in Russia. To my mind this is a major omission as it led to the dominance of Moscow and to lessening of possible Western influence in the development of Russia.
What are the major weaknesses of the work? There's only one monochrome map of the Eurasian landmass which is of limited value. Useful would be (COLOURED?) maps of the Mongol heartlands Persia( ` Ilkhan realm'), China, Russia and the Golden Horde, Tamerlane's Empire. The reader is struck from the start by a deluge of strange names (geographical, historical and personal) and, at the back, there should be a basic family tree of Jinghis (sic) Khan and a list of rulers of the Ilkhan, Golden Horde, Timurid and Yuan regimes. Curtin, especially in the opening pages, uses speeches in antiquated language - e.g. `If I have come hither to help thee why should I stay alone and do nothing'. (P. 24). He has a tendency, a feature of much 19th. Century historical writing, to use an elevated style - e.g. `Temudjin, fearing lest they might be in ambush, sent his half-brother, Belgutai, and Boorchu, with Chelmai to examine and discover' (P.27). I'd regard such language as a relatively minor fault but it can be off-putting. However, far more important is the absence of notes to cite source material and a bibliography of both primary and secondary sources. Then you might have a PERFECT account of the Mongols!
Do not expect an analytical approach, a dissection of the Mongol governance, a review of the impact of economics, culture or learning or those holding. It is not that sort of book. Curtin had an exciting, if murderous, tale to tell and does it well. Read the book perhaps in the same way you might approach `The Thousand and One Arabian Nights', willing to be overwhelmed by strange names and unfamiliar practices, and you will enjoy this work. In brief, this is history without the warts; by `warts' I mean the details beloved in modern histories such as financial systems, political administrations, technical & cultural changes. It is the history which lies close to the oral tradition of heroic deeds and famous heroes - wherein the ,masses are but fodder to be slaughtered, pillaged and tortures. So,I can only award this work 3 stars and, as I remarked at the beginning, BEWARE!
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The Mongols: A History
The Mongols: A History by Jeremiah Curtin
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