September 23, 2004, 2:29 p.m.
A Kinder, Gentler Khan
From the June 14, 2004, issue of National Review.

By Alexander Rose

Genghis Khan and the
Making of the Modern World by Jack Weatherford (Crown, 352 pp., $25)

For years the more robust souls here at National Review have prided themselves on being to the right of Genghis Khan. Now, however, comes Jack Weatherford, a professor of anthropology at Macalester College, to make the case for a kinder, gentler Genghis in his revisionist history of the fast rise and quicker fall of the Mongol Empire.

Blessed with an eye for the main chance, and a capacity for killing friends and family at propitious moments, the boy born in 1162 as Temujin dominated his tribe and, by 1204, captained it to triumph over its rivals. As they exerted their majesty over an expanding realm, this shaggy steppe-chieftain and his descendants became the emperors of kings.

Genghis sportingly offered enemies a choice: surrender or die. If they decided to fight, the khan was as good as his word, and they died — all of them, men, women, and children — but those who elected to pay fealty to the conqueror lived in peace under Mongol protection. The price of this privilege for the defeated was the mass-sacrifice of their native aristocracy and the export of their treasure to his coffers.

So far, Genghis Khan may not sound like a compassionate conservative, but Weatherford argues that his subject was a great deal more tolerant and far-sighted than his barbaric reputation suggests. Suborned peoples, of all creeds and cultures, were permitted to conduct their affairs autonomously — so long as they recognized his paramountcy. He was the first of the great free traders, a meritocrat, and, by the lights of his time, a nicely enlightened despot. You could do worse than being ruled by Genghis Khan, and many did.

After his death in 1227, his heirs bickered, yet still the empire grew, an achievement owed to the enterprising generals Genghis had nurtured, who continued their mentor's policy of attacking the world, as well as to the swift, and expertly regimented, Mongol cavalry. Much of China fell under the Mongols' sway, and, far to the west, the sultans, the Caesars, and the throned dynasts of Europe trembled at the approach of these strange and fierce Asiatics.

But within a couple of generations, this rags-to-riches tale turned into a cliché, with a cliché's inevitable ending: The descendants of the great khan, swaggering with booty and rather too fond of their mighty pleasure-domes (which they did decree), lost their will to power. There were the usual civil wars, several failed campaigns, a spate of poisonings, and a few palace coups. Ominously, no longer were the Mongols feared. And then, in the mid-1300s, the Black Death visited itself upon the Mongols as on others. Trade ceased, as did the flow of tribute. The Mongol periphery lost contact with the Mongol core, and soon afterward the Mongol Empire just up and slipped away.

The Mongol overlords, who were often outnumbered by their subjects by a thousand to one, were either absorbed or expelled. The Russians and the Arabs threw off the Mongol yoke, while the Turks, Chinese, Koreans, Persians, and Indians fused their cultures with that of their satraps to create hybrids (the most famous of which was India's Mughal dynasty, which lasted until the British Raj). Here and there, Mongol princes clung to power in third-rate fiefdoms, but they were pathetic creatures, living mostly on sufferance. The last ruling descendant of Genghis, Alim Khan, emir of Bukhara, was deposed in 1920 by the Soviets, heralds of a new world empire.

Despite its titanic expanse, its wealth, and its impressive accomplishments, this empire created nothing and left little of use (apart from a few lexicographical relics — horde, hurray, mogul — and a tongue-twister that I recall went something like this: "How many boards could the Mongols hoard if the Mongol hordes got bored?"). They left no monuments or distinctive architecture, no formal religion, no scientific breakthroughs, no enduring economic, philosophical, or legal system, no great art, and hardly any literature.

The Mongols were the thieving magpies, not the busy beavers, of the Middle Ages: Instead of diligently building and developing things, whenever they saw something new and shiny they needed or liked, they took it. And, for some time, they needed a lot, for, owing to their nomadism, the Mongols were ignorant of such basics as how to bake bread or make pottery. Later, Muslim mathematicians, Chinese anatomists, German miners, Persian merchants, Italian silversmiths, English translators, Indian astronomers, all trekked — sometimes involuntarily — to the court of the khan and performed their miracles.

But despite the cosmopolitanism and sophistication of their empire of illusion, one can't help feeling that the Mongols remained, at heart, a hunter-herder steppe people who lucked out and made it big, yet were happiest when down home on the range: They were the Beverly Hillbillies of history's conquistadors.

Weatherford devoted years to this very fine book, and it stands as a necessary corrective to the Enlightenment-invented view of Genghis Khan as an unbridled savage. The author followed the trail of the Mongols through "Russia, China, Mongolia, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkmenistan," and then, for good measure, undertook the "sea route of Marco Polo from South China to Vietnam, through the Strait of Malacca to India, the Arab states of the Persian Gulf, and on to Venice." There is excellent editing throughout — only a single typo, the irresistible "Genghis Kahn" — and just a couple of stylistic infelicities (I briefly sighted the monstrous phrase "snuck in") amid its many splendid passages.

Two other small cavils. First, Weatherford's enthusiastic determination to prove that the Mongols "made" the modern world can sometimes lead him astray. It is not true, to take just one example, that German High Command based its blitzkrieg doctrine on a study of Mongol cavalry operations circa 1250; the Panzer generals in fact took their cue from such distinctly un-Mongol-like figures as British military theorists J. F. C. Fuller and Basil Liddell Hart.

Then there is Weatherford's over-reliance on a single source, The Secret History of the Mongols, an enigmatic 13th-century biography of Genghis Khan. As any medievalist will tell you, never ever unquestioningly cite military estimates given by contemporary chroniclers, who are invariably fabulists in this regard. Nevertheless, Weatherford repeatedly quotes impossible numbers without raising an eyebrow. Were there really "hundreds of thousands" of Mongol cavalrymen at Khubilai Khan's command? How likely is it that "25,000" Europeans were killed at one clash alone in 1241? Consider that at the near-contemporaneous battle of Evesham in England in 1265, which was regarded by medieval observers as a bloodbath of unbelievable savagery, some 30 barons were massacred, along with perhaps another several hundred foot soldiers. Or that Field Marshal Haig lost 20,000 troops dead on the first day of the Somme in 1916, but that stupendous figure out of 600,000 men.

But these are mere quibbles. Thanks to Weatherford's excavation of the great khan and his era, we mighty can again look on Genghis's works, and despair!