Top critical review
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Heavy going in parts
on 4 August 2016
The explosive spread of Islamic rule within less than a century of Muhammad’s death in 632 is well known: by 750 it extended from the Pyrenees to North-West India.
But this was as nothing compared with the expansion of the Mongol Empire from the birth of Ghengiz Khan in 1162 to the death of Kublai Khan in 1294: it included what is today most of Ukraine, the Russian steppes, the Caucasus, Eastern Turkey, Eastern Syria, Eastern Iraq, Iran, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyizstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Western Pakistan, Mongolia, North Korea – and the whole China, and with the Baltic states and Northern Russia being tributaries. Mongol raiders had also ravaged Georgia, Southern Ukraine and the Volga Basin between 1221 and 1223, and Poland, Hungary, parts of Austria and Bulgaria between 1236 and 1242.
The conquests of Islam had involved little, if any, deliberate killing off the battlefields. By contrast, the slaughter by the Mongols, the extent of their plunder and the destruction they wrought on any cities that had resisted them were horrendous and quite unparalleled in history. The only positive feature of their rule was religious toleration.
While the general impression is fairly easy to grasp, the book is difficult to read because of its sheer complexity. And it is impossible to follow the text – especially, but not exclusively, about campaigns – because there is a quite scandalous absence on the just four maps of many places named in it. (Maps on the internet or in the Times Atlas of World History are not of much help either.) This absence is the reason for my giving the book a three-star instead of a four-star rating.
The story begins with the life of Genghiz. By 1189 he was undisputed master over the whole of his native Mongolia and had been acclaimed as Khan. By 1216 he had conquered the Jin Empire in northern China, its capital Bejing ransacked and the scene of an enormous massacre. Then he drove westward along the Silk Road (Samarkand, Bokhara, Merv etc.) and down into Afghanistan: those cities that surrendered to him without a fight were spared; the populations of those who resisted were massacred. From that base, the Mongols made plundering raids into Georgia, Southern Ukraine before returning to base via the Volga basin.
Genghiz Khan died in 1227. He had four sons:
Batu, the son of the ELDEST of these would be the founder of the Kipchak Khanate, better known as the Golden Horde, in Russia. It reached its apogee when in 1251 Alexander Nevsky, Prince of Novgorod, a principality with a Baltic coast, submitted to the Golden Horde. Man devotes just three pages to the history of the Golden Horde: the Kipchak Khanate would break up into separate khanates in the 15th century which over the next two centuries would fall to Poland, Russia and the Ottoman Empire.
The SECOND son would found the Chaghadai Khanate in Central Asia, based on Samarkand. Man’s account of this Khanate and its final collapse in 1347 is the sketchiest of the lot (just over one page; and the last 76 years of the Il Khanate – see below – takes just three pages). Man’s interest is overwhelmingly in the history of the Great Khanate.
Ghengiz Khan had nominated his THIRD son, Ogedei, to succeed him as the Great Khan. His lands were Mongolia and Northern China. Ogedei was a heavy drinker and personally rather ineffective, but he had able subordinates: Yelu Chucai who was made governor of the parts of Northern China that had been conquered, and who introduced rather good government in that area; and Subedei, a brilliant general who, with Ogedei’s nephew Batu, expanded the empire to the West and made the spectacular raids of 1236 to 1242, referred to above, before withdrawing to Batu’s base on the Volga.
When Ogedei died in 1241, there was some dispute among the family about who should succeed him as Great Khan. It took three years to resolve (without bloodshed), and in 1245 Ogedei’s son Guyuk was acknowledged as the Great Khan. After he died in 1248, there was another three-year-long dispute about the succession before that was resolved, in a bloodier manner than last time.
The next two Great Khans were Möhnke (1251 to 1259) and his brother Kublai Khan (1260 to 1294). They were the descendants of Ghengiz’s FOURTH son. Möhnke expanded his empire into the Muslim world, taking advantage of the weakening Abbasid Empire to create the Il-Khanate of Persia under his third brother, Hulegu. Baghdad, the Abbasid capital, fell to Hulegu’s armies in 1258 with the slaughter of its 800,000 inhabitants, including all the members of the Abbasid dynasty. Next the Mongols overran Syria and moved into Egypt; but there the advance was checked: on the news of Möhnke’s death in 1259, the Mongols withdrew some of their forces, and the remainder were defeated and exterminated by the Mamelukes of Egypt in 1260. The Il Khanate would simply expire with the death of the last Il Khan in 1335.
Möhnke had died while he and Kublai were each leading an army invading the Song Empire in southern China. Kublai succeeded Möhnke as Great Khan in 1260. It took him five years to put down a challenge for the Great Khanate by the youngest of his brothers and to subdue a rebellion of a war-lord in Northern China.
Kublai had already created a new quasi-capital at Xanadu. (The official capital of the Mongol Empire was Karakoram, which had replaced Genghiz Khan’s capital of Avraga under Ogedei.) In 1264 Kublai created an additional capital just outside the former North Chinese (Jin) capital at Beijing, on the site which was to become the Forbidden City; and he commuted between Xanadu and Beijing. The Mongols had already relied heavily on Chinese for their civil service, and by building the great palace at Beijing, Kublai Khan wanted to signal that the dynasty was now as much Chinese at it was Mongolian, and it was now called the Yuan dynasty. Today the Chinese recognize it as a Chinese dynasty, and as Ghengiz Khan was its progenitor, they honour him retrospectively as one of the founders of China, and one guide even told Man that Genghiz was Chinese!
In 1268 Kublai sent his generals to finally conquer Song China. It took eight years before the Chinese government surrendered, and two more before the last resistance was bloodily crushed. Kublai was now the ruler of the whole of China (and of Tibet which had submitted without a fight, in 1269). We have seen that in the course of the 14th century the other three khanates would collapse, and so, for that matter, would the Yuan dynasty; but the legacy of Kublai Khan in creating the idea of a united China was much more enduring than that of the other three khanates.
After the ferocity of the conquest of China, the rule of the Mongols, though firm and centralized, was largely sufficiently benign and efficient to be acceptable to its people. The Mongols were on top, but all other ethnicities were involved in administration and all religions were tolerated. The economy and culture flourished. (But a later chapter shows that Kublai’s top financial minister in China for fourteen years was extortionate, corrupt and hugely unpopular. He was murdered in 1282.)
But towards the end of Kublai’s reign his attempts to expand his empire still further were failures:
To conquer southern China, with its mighty rivers, the Mongols had constructed a fleet, and this was now used in attempts to spread Mongol power to Japan. After an earlier failed attempt in 1274, in 1281 a huge fleet of some 1,500 warships and 3,500 landing craft, carrying 150,000 men between them, tried again. Their landings met with fierce resistance and the invaders were defeated in several battles. Then a typhoon approached: most of those who had landed hurried back on board and the fleet tried to head out to sea to avoid being dashed on the rocks; but when the typhoon struck, most of the fleet was smashed and 65,000 men perished at sea and thousands more were killed on the beaches.
Attempts to subjugate Burma in 1286, Vietnam in 1288 and Java (again by sea) in 1292 also failed. Kublai Khan died in 1294, in his eightieth year.
Man gives a sketchy account of the disintegration of the Mongol Empire in China after the death of Kublai Khan. Ten Yuan Great Khans ruled during the next 74 years, each weaker than his predecessor, until in 1368 the last of the dynasty was overthrown by a Chinese warrior who founded the Ming dynasty. The Yuans held on in Mongolia until 1635 when Mongolia would be absorbed by the then Manchu rulers of China.
Man’s last three chapters reflect, in part, on the history of the preceding twenty-three. Most notable is his comment that the Mongols, unlike other great empires like those of Rome, of Alexander the Great and of Islam, they made no contribution to the history of ideas: they had no ideology, no philosophies, no ethical systems, no literature or art of their own. They stood for nothing except for the idea that they had the Mandate of Heaven to conquer the whole world.