Book Report: Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World by Jack Weatherford (2004)

Well, I read about the rise of one Khan, so it lends itself to a certain symmetry if I were to follow pretty closely with the rise of another. And so I have.

This book is an overview of the rise of Genghis Khan and the Mongol Empire and the empire after Genghis Khan’s death. The author is a homer, but I prefer that: someone who writes positively of the subject of the book. That’s not to say that the Mongols were not brutal when they were; it just doesn’t stand athwart history, shouting, “Naughty!” and condescending to historical figures with the sensitivites of a modern academic.

The book is a pretty good primer on Asian history from the 13th century and serves as a reminder to a Western reader who has been steeped in Western Civilization that there’s a whole wide world out there with history of its own, and that history went on even during the dark ages. The Mongol Empire was the largest empire in the world, ever. In the 13th century. Also, the Mongols had a pretty large number of Christians among them. The Christians among them were helpful when the Mongols sacked Baghdad, the capital of the Islamic world at that time. The Moslems have not forgotten it.

The Mongols spared Western Europe from most of their predations for two reasons: The heavy forests were not ideal terrain for their horsemen, and Europe didn’t have anything worth sacking relative to China and the Islamic nations of the time.

So it’s chock full of new perspective and whatnot, but unfortunately the last chapter kinda weakens the book. It follows the youth of Ghengis Khan, the rise of Khan, the aftermath of Khan’s death, and Kublai Khan’s rise in China. After the actual history part of the book, the author tacks on a conclusion that talks about how Genghis Khan came to be a symbol of Asiatic man and its inferiority to the West with all the proper sentiments expressed. Then the author LARPs an event out of Khan’s life by riding swiftly on a horse on the Mongolian plains while wearing a deen, the traditional garb. I could really have done without that. Also, as the book progressed, it occurred to me that the legal and civilizationary triumphs of the Mongols that the author celebrates align liberal policies (public education and women’s rights come to mind).

That being said, I feel the need to compare the Mongols under Khan to other personages I’ve read in the last couple of years. The Mongols would have eaten John Hawkwood (100 years later) for lunch. The Aztecs (200 years later)? Not even a snack. They were pretty good at their version of warfare and their administration of the conquered lands. But the book posits the ultimate downfall of the Mongol empire came from the Bubonic Plague, which it carried from its origin in China to the whole populated world at the time.

I enjoyed the book, the last chapter aside, and recommend it. As a side note, I paid full price for this book at a real book store. I’d read an article in the September 2010 History Magazine about Genghis Khan’s law and wanted to learn more, so when I had some time to kill in a mall, I browsed the book store and this book was in it. Kismet. A sign. A worthwhile purchase.

Books mentioned in this review: