Jack Weatherford is an anthropologist who has spent many years researching the Mongols in general and Genghis Khan in particular. The book is a very sympathetic portrayal of Genghis Khan and his descendants and their impact on world history. It is a very easy read and is an excellent summary of the rise of this amazing man and his (relatively few; a total population of less than a million) people to greatness. And there can be no doubt that Temujin is one of the most remarkable characters in world history; one of those (few) heroes about whom you can confidently say that without them, the history of his people would have been VERY different indeed. He is a one-man refutation of the idea that individuals, no matter how prominent, do not really matter and all we need to study are the aggregate/impersonal/stochastic processes that drive history.
The book relies heavily on the “Secret History of the Mongols” as well as a couple of early Muslim chronicles for most of the details of his early life and family. It is a fascinating story, with almost no parallel in history. It is hard to imagine a more unpromising early life for a future world conqueror (though legend does have him arriving in this world clutching a blood clot in his tiny fist). Born into an unremarkable family in the Mongolian Steppe, he was not yet 10 when his father was poisoned and his family was cast out from the clan and had to survive (barely) on what they could hunt and forage from the harsh environment. Like several “great men” of history, he did have a remarkable mother and the family managed to stay alive, but then he was captured and kept as a slave for several years before making his escape and starting his slow rise to power and glory. Weatherford covers this part of the story very well and does so in more detail than he lavishes on Temujin’s later conquests. In fact, the “military history” side of the book is surprisingly thin, with great campaigns wrapped up in just a few pages; if you are looking for maps and details of battles, this is not the book for you. Still, the main points are all there, and the details he does offer (descriptions of Mongol tactics and innovations in general for example) are fascinating.
The life of Genghis Khan ends about halfway through the book; what follows is an account of his successors, including his less-than-harmoniously-united sons and grandsons, and the surprisingly influential and important women who practically ran the empire for a while before meeting grisly and unpleasant ends (they were mostly outsiders who had married into the Golden Family, including the Muslim Fatima Khatoon). Kubilai Khan in particular gets star billing and there is a detailed account of his reign in China as the founder of the Yuan dynasty (Weatherford wants to credit him as the founder of “China as we know it”, amalgamating many peoples who had been peripheral to the Han Chinese into a unitary Chinese state, ruled from a city that was later named Beijing). The descendants (Hulegu etc) who ruled over the Islamic regions (Central Asia and Persia) get much less attention, and after a relatively detailed description of the first Mongol invasion of Poland and Hungary, the “Golden Horde” and the long Tartar yoke over Russia are hardly mentioned.
Most of the second half of the book is (explicitly) revisionist history and his aim is show that Voltaire could not have been more wrong when called the Mongols “wild sons of rapine” who “detest our arts, our customs, and our laws”. His aim is to show that after they were done with their initial raping and plundering (which he tends to underplay in any case), the Mongols established a Pax Mongolica that hugely outdid the Pax Romana in extent and impact. While he correctly points out that a lot of the bad press the Mongols receive is unjustified (and is partly the result of their enemies propaganda, partly the result of much later European enlightnement mythmaking and partly the result of their own skillful use of propaganda as an art of war, meant to terrify their enemies into submission without a fight), he frequently goes overboard with this theme. This “how the Irish saved civilization” style storytelling and tendency to look for a central role for the Mongols in events like the renaissance, the rise of modern science and modern capitalism is one reason I opted for 3 stars instead of the 4 or even 5 this book could easily deserve on other counts. The other is his tendency to make throwaway statements about other historical events that are mostly pop history stereotypes and sometimes frankly misleading. For example he twice mentions Bahadur Shah (the last Mughal) as if he was an actual ruler whom the British overthrew and whose sons they executed to “finally end Mughal rule”, which is a bit misleading, since the Mughals had lost power (to the British as well as the Marathas and a host of other challengers) a hundred years earlier and poor Bahadur Shah was just a hapless figurehead. The observation is not technically incorrect, just misleading for anyone who is not familiar with Indian history. Still, these caveats aside, this book is worth reading and alongside the much more scholarly “Empires of the Silk Road”, is a good corrective to traditional (and outdated) views of the “barbarians of the steppe”.
Incidentally, the book briefly mentions one of the great (but lesser known) crimes of the 20th century: the Stalinist/Soviet oppression of Mongolia and their vicious attempt to destroy Mongol culture and the memory of Genghis Khan, complete with the slaughter of tens of thousands of Mongols, the destruction of their monasteries and shrines, the disappearance of the spirit banner of Genghis Khan and the 50 year sealing off of his ancestral lands as well as all scholarly attempts at studying his legacy; It is not a main topic of this book, but this book (or even this review) should prompt you to learn more about these horrific crimes; just as this book may revise your opinion of the “barbarians of the steppe”, it should set in motion a revision of opinions about the Marxist-Leninist revolution in Central Asia.
(PS I have not yet read “Genghis Khan: His Conquests, His Empire, His Legacy“, but intend to do so soon.. that is probably the book to read on this subject if you want more details about his conquests; odd, ending a review with a plug for a book I have not yet read but this is the impression I get from other reviews)
The movie “Mongol” is a very good retelling of his early life by the way..