I really enjoyed reading this book. Having grown up in the UK we don't often hear anything about Genghis Khan other than the usual phrases, "barbarian" or "savage". This book will make you realize just how wrong those interpretations of the man really are.
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.
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!
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.
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.