This is a well-written account of Genghis Khan and his successors, the Mongols who conquered an amazing chunk of real estate. Weatherford debunks the nonsense about "millions" killed in cities of 100,000, and so forth, and correctly notes a lot of this came from Mongol propaganda intended to scare people into submission.
The best thing in the book, to my taste, is Weatherford's own knowledge from anthropological on-the-ground research. He knows the steppe and the feel of a Mongol horse under him. He can thus get a real perspective on how the Mongols actually experienced the world (like the great old-timers--Pozdnyev, Curtin--but unlike many modern Mongolists). Next best is his proper crediting of the Mongols for introducing new knowledge all over Eurasia--gunpowder and printing and much else to Europe, Greco-Persian-Arab medicine and foodways to China.
The worst is his inattention to detail. He makes some astonishing errors. Some reviewers have picked out a few. He retails the old chestnut (reportedly from a romantic novel) that the Mongols introduced noodles from China to Europe. No, Europe had them 800 years earlier. Worse is his repeating (p. 87) the old nonsense about the Mongols eating raw meat warmed between their thighs and the horses' backs. This factoid was spun by Ammianus Marcellinus, talking about steppe nomads centuries before the Mongols. It was almost certainly wrong then, and it is quite certainly wrong for the Mongols. The Mongols had the good sense to avoid raw meat, especially dirty raw meat.
So, read with caution. If this book whets your appetite, the next step is the books by Paul Ratchnevsky (on Genghis) and Morris Rossabi (on his successors and their world). And you might even tackle the Secret History, now made available (though expensive) by the indefatigable Igor de Rachewilz, who is properly acknowledged by Weatherford.
on January 15, 2005
When Genghis Khan and his armies exploded out of the steppe in the early thirteenth century, no one on the Eurasian continent was prepared for his innovative style of warfare. Through years of what was essentially civil war, the Mongols of that period, as well as the surrounding tribes, had already refined various elements of shock warfare. But Temujin - Genghis Khan's birth name - added much to the Mongols' arsenal that was previously missing. He integrated surrounding tribes into his Mongol army; he ensured looting was strictly controlled and that shares of it were divided on a pre-assigned basis; he killed off the aristocracies of the tribes, cities, and empires he defeated, thereby ensuring they would not rally their people to turn on him at a later time; he organized his armies, and even his society, through a decimal system that smoothed the functioning of his eventual empire; he instituted laws that even he, a great khan, must obey.
What resulted from these innovations was unprecedented: an army with the same benefits of speed and maneuver that had always been a part of the traditional tactics of the tribes of the steppe melded together with an effective bureaucratic leadership that was very different from the typical kin-based and ad hoc tribal relationships. This was Temujin's creation, and he perfected it in numerous battles to unify Mongolia under his leadership. In 1206, two years after the final battle to assume control of all Mongolia, he took the name Genghis Khan, and prepared to take his army out into the world.
Jack Weatherford's remarkable narrative of these events captures the creativity of Genghis Khan and the Mongols in a way that no book I've read before ever has. Whereas most histories of the Mongols have long emphasized their unprecedented success in war, Weatherford builds a solid case that shows the social and economic achievements of the Mongols may have been even more remarkable than their adaptations to warfare. The author makes the argument that the Mongols were fairly civilized by the standards of the thirteenth century, almost never engaging in torture, mutilation, or maiming. While they were quick to kill, and left an unprecedented path of destruction in their path, especially to those who resisted their rule, conquest and loot were their goals, not gratuitous death and injury.
After making himself the undisputed ruler of the steppes, an area about the size of Western Europe, Genghis Khan began moving south and west, conquering the Jurched (Manchurian) tribes ruling Northern China and the kingdom of Khwarizm, an empire under the rule of a Turkic sultan that stretched from what is modern Afghanistan to the Black Sea. Khwarizm was an important catch, as the Muslims there were noted for their steel- and glass-making, as well as numerous exotic commodities. As each conquest was assimilated, Genghis Khan took what was special and distinctive about the place and employed it productively. Craftsmen, miners, artisans, interpreters, and specialists in warfare were all absorbed into the Mongol Empire and tasked according to their specialty. The Mongols were nomads, but the genius of Genghis Khan was to recognize the value of even the smallest and most foreign of civilized talents and to use it to his empire's advantage.
Genghis Khan died in 1227 - a mere sixteen years after he began his world conquest. With the exception of India and China, he had conquered everything he set his mind to. It would now be up to his sons and their children to finish what in the shortness of time he could not. (Genghis Khan dies about halfway through Weatherford's book, leaving plenty of space to write about the continued expansion of the empire.) Interestingly, the empire seems to have expanded more by the momentum of its founder's achievements, even after his death, than by the skill of his heirs. Genghis Khan had always been careful not to give his children too much power, as he sought to break away from the traditional kin-based ties of the steppe in order to more smoothly run his empire. In mediating disputes involving his sons, he sometimes took the side of non-kin against them. Until late in his life, he neglected their training as leaders. The consequences of this became immediately apparent in the actions of his son and first heir to the empire, Ogodei.
But, even with sub par and occasionally strife-ridden leadership, the empire continued to expand. Some of the Mongol leaders to follow Genghis Khan were exceptional leaders, while others were not, but the combination of unbeatable virtues in the empire was fixed in a way that it hardly mattered in the first few decades after his death. Nothing outside of the empire could stop it, only enduring struggles from within. As Weatherford details, even as the empire began to split into four quadrants, trade and other imperial activities continued. Two Mongol rulers from separate quadrants could be at war with each other and still allow trade and investments between the sides to continue unmolested. Eventually this relationship would break down, and when it did, it would spell the end of the empire. The Mongols did not create anything. They conquered and looted. And the trade routes needed to move their loot from one part of the empire to another were necessary to keep the empire strong. When those trade routes began to close down, and the economy contracted, the Mongol rulers in each area needed to depend on their local political skills to survive. Some did, but others never made the transition.
Weatherford's book is a marvel - the best of more than half-a-dozen histories I have read on the subject. Writing about the Mongols has always been a complex task for two seemingly contradictory reasons. On the one hand, their widespread empire requires a scholar to dig through a variety of source material written by those conquered by the Mongols, which many find daunting; on the other hand, the Mongols themselves were illiterate and secretive, and so their own literature was almost nonexistent and, when found, difficult to understand. Given these odd circumstances, histories on the Mongols are usually hit-and-miss affairs. Scholars tend to be great at explaining some part of the Mongols, but fail to maintain that quality in other areas. Weatherford's extensive experience in Mongolia, researching Genghis Khan and his empire, makes up for what he loses by not going to the source material outside of English; his accomplishment is a narrative of the highest order.
on September 24, 2006
For the most part, I enjoyed this book. I discovered a great deal about the Mongols and I believe that the author proves his basic case that the Mongol Empire provided an unprecedented flow of goods and ideas between East and West.
Unfortunately, the author is so enthusiastic about promoting the achievements of the Mongols that he often ventures into hyperbole, and worse, miss-statements of fact, especially about the histories of the nations he is comparing to the Mongols. This undercuts his credibility.
The author's claims that the Mongol invasions introduced wearing trousers in battle to the West. In fact, trousers were popular among the Celts (including the Britons) for thousands of years, as they were among invading "barbarians" such as Goths and the Parthians. The Greeks and Romans wore kilts, but many of their neighbors wore trousers long before the Mongols.
The author says that in World War II, the Red Army was imitating the Mongol tactic of feigned retreat when they "lured" the German army deep into Russia to destroy it. In fact, Stalin repeatedly ordered his generals to stand fast and not give an inch. The reason the Red Army repeatedly fell back was because they were repeatedly beaten. This is not an esoteric point. How could a professor writing history on a global scale not know this?
The author says that the last Mogul Emperor's sons were executed in India so that Queen Victoria could take the Imperial title. This is just plain silly. The Emperor himself was sent into exile with other family members. His sons were executed for their purported roles in the Sepoy Rebellion as part of a bloody reprisal. There is no evidence that the motivation for this was to clear the way for Queen Victoria to assume the imperial title -- 20 years later.
There are so many more examples of this kind of factual error and false analogy that at times the book feels more like an overheated term paper by a sophomore stretching a point than the product of a learned professor. Such errors make me wonder how much I should trust the author's other pronouncements in areas that I'm not so familiar with.
The fact that the author is also prone to needlessly repeat himself doesnt help his case. He cites the fact that his source is the "Secret History of the Mongols" so often that I felt like I should be reading that book instead. Maybe I will
on April 9, 2004
This is a revisionist history (isn't it all?) of a truly remarkable figure, who created an empire greater even than the Romans, and he did it from scratch in just a few decades. He was a law-giver who essentially outlawed the culture he came from--transforming it from a Scots-like clan of cattle rustlers and raiders, to a monolithic, highly disciplined cavalry of conquerers. He devised entirely new military tactics that were as successful against the cities of the Chinese as against the armored knights of the West. And they started out as a people, he claims, who did not even know how to weave cloth!
Weatherford here takes up the challenge of accenting the positive impact of his brutal conquests. Among other things he makes the case for his setting the West up for the Renaissance, the introduction of paper money, the postal system, Religious tolerance, and new vegetables. He bases much of this on new scholarship, rather than the hysterical propaganda of the aristocrats whom he threatened. Partly based on the mysterious "Secret History of the Mongols," the author's own travels in Mongolia, and contacts with Mongolian revivalists, he makes this bit of history accessible even to the most prejudiced reader.
Strangely omitted, though, is the fascinating tale that the geneticists have discovered about his Y chromosome, which appears to show that he might just have been the most prolific lover in the last couple of millennia! Too recent, maybe.
One of the remarkable features of his style was that he hated the elite and the aristocrats, and slaughtered as many as he could. He loved the professional men, the teachers and doctors, and especially the craftsmen and engineers, and did not even tax them. My kinda guy!
Weatherford's style of writing is lively and easy to read. The maps are just detailed enough to be informative without overburdening the reader in detail. This is not an exhaustive account of every battle, every city destroyed, which would be mind-numbing history as usually written, but rather a wide survey of events and their impact on the world to come. And I especially enjoyed his description of the military tactics employed by the cavalry, and his use of siege engines and gunpowder, which would be new to most readers.
Perhaps one of his greatest inventions, though, is that of diplomatic immunity. Any city, and there were several, who murdered or mutilated his envoys as a method of rejecting his terms of surrender, would be ruthlessly razed and the inhabitants slaughtered. Even in those days, the word got around...
This is quite a tale, well told.
on September 13, 2006
As Strunk and White advise in the classic guide to writing, _The Elements of Style_, "Do not overstate. When you overstate, readers will be instantly on guard, and everything that has preceded your overstatement as well as everything that follows it will be suspect in their minds because they have lost confidence in your judgment or your poise."
I wanted to like this book, because I find Genghis Khan and his empire to be fascinating, and yet the author so completely overstates the significance of the Mongols that he loses all credibility, and pollutes an otherwise highly readable and interesting set of facts with so much fiction that it is often difficult to distinguish the two. For example, he claims in the introduction that the Mongols had founded the first unified nations of Korea and China, apparently ignorant of the fact that Korea had been unified since AD 668, and that China was first unified by the Qin dynasty in 221 BC. Similarly, he states on p. 237 that "[the Renaissance] was not the ancient world of Greece and Rome being reborn: It was the Mongol Empire, picked up, transferred, and adapted by the Europeans to their own needs and culture." Although the evidence for Greek and Roman influence on the Renaissance is overwhelming, the evidence for Mongol influence is flimsy at best. The more outsized the claim, the less evidence the author seems to provide.
Furthermore, he tries to give the Mongols credit for inspiring Renaissance art, which he calls a hybrid of Eastern and Western styles; he gives the Mongols credit for disseminating Arabic and Indian mathematics (the Arabs themselves had disseminated Indian mathematics throughout the civilized world, long before the Mongols); he gives the Mongols credit for introducing the compass to the West (the compass was mentioned in Alexander Neckham's De Naturis Rerum, written in 1190, before Genghis Khan had even ventured out of Mongolia); and he gives the Mongols credit for inventing the Silk Road, which had already existed for thousands of years.
What the book desperately needs are a fact-checker and responsible editor to curb the author's literary excesses. The author clearly sympathizes with the Mongols and wants to promote their case as responsible bearers of civilization. His biases are so blinding, that he frequently makes irrelevant comparisons to the worst excesses of the Catholic Inquisition to try to justify the mass slaughter of the Mongols, and even tries to deny the scale of Mongol genocides altogether, lamely asserting (p. 118), "It would be physically difficult to slaughter that many cows or pigs, which wait passively for their turn. Overall, those who were supposedly slaughtered outnumber the Mongols by ratios of up to fifty to one. The people could have merely run away, and the Mongols would not have been able to stop them." The gigantic flaw in logic is that the Mongols never faced odds of 50-to-1 at any one moment, but rather wiped out city after city in a process that took many years. His claim the the people could "have merely run away" is laughable, given his constant reminders that the Mongol cavalry were the fastest and most efficient army of the day. He could just as easily have applied the same ludicrous argument to any other historical genocide in order to deny their scale and seriousness.
I still like the subject of Genghis Khan, and Weatherford has whetted my appetite: I may eventually pick up one of the other, more serious and scholarly books on the topic. However, I will never again make the mistake of reading anything written by Mr. Weatherford.
This is a well written, nicely flowing work. The author, Jack Weatherford, traces the life and time of Genghis Khan, born as Temujin, and his descendants. He notes the impact of the plague on the Mongols and how that plague spread, to some extent by the Mongols. And he makes the claim that the Mongols had an appreciable impact on the West's Renaissance.
Weatherford begins by noting the purpose of his book (Page xxxv): "The focus remains on the mission of our work: to understand Genghis Khan and his impact on world history." The book is in three parts: first, Genghis Khan's rise to power and the development of the Mongol Empire; second, the period when the Mongols became a major world player, until the empire began devouring itself with internecine warfare; third, the effect of the Mongols on the development of modern society. There is a useful genealogy at the start of the book; however, the book would have benefited greatly with an ample supply of maps, so that the reader could trace developments geographically.
The book does a terrific job of describing Khan's background--from his youth until he began developing a powerhouse, to his death. His military forces used innovative tactics that baffled his opponents, adapting Mongol warriors' mobility to advantage. The Mongols expanded their sway until--at its greatest point, it was larger than the Roman Empire at its height. It stretched, in 1260, from China to Moscow and Kiev, and to the doorsteps of Vienna, from Baghdad to Samarkand.
Weatherford goes on to discuss the Empire after Genghis Khan's death. It continued to function until the combat among his sons led to more and more internal troubles. This depiction of internal problems, again, is well done.
It amazes me how detailed is the discussion of people and events from so long ago.
However, when he comes to argue that the Mongol Empire sparked the Renaissance and later European history, It appears to me that his grasp exceeds his reach. I am not certain that quoting Chaucer's "The Canterbury Tales" with references to Genghis Khan (as part of his argument) is compelling. Nonetheless, while I did not find his case so convincing, it did cause me to reflect on important historical issues, and that--in itself--is a contribution.
In short, a well done book on the Mongol Empire and its founder. Worth taking a look at. . . .
Genghis (Chingiss) Khan and the Mongols without doubt had a tremendous impact on world history, if only for creating the largest land empire in history. Most historians would argue that their contributions go well beyond that, pointing to the network of trade that emerged, the "Pax Mongolica" and the Yuan dynasty and Mughal empire in central Asia. Were it so that Weatherford had concentrated more on these aspects rather than focusing primarily on the person of Genghis and seeking to vindicate the violent actions and history of the Mongols in their conquest.
The first half of the book is a solid biography of Genghis, although oftentimes I the writing borders on hero-worship (perfectly acceptable in a hagiography, but very out of place in a scholarly work such as this.) The last half was extremely difficult to wade through, particularly given Weatherford's central thesis of a "clash of cultures" (my words) between pastoral / nomadic peoples and settled city dwellers. (This is perhaps the result of his work as a professor of anthropology specializing in nomadic peoples, hence his apparent sympahty with them.) What vexed me the most, however, was the lack of sources - most of Weatherford's book seems to be drawn from "The Secret History of the Mongols" - in itself a useful source, to be sure, but any undergraduate in history can tell you the dangers of basing one's entire thesis off a single source. (To be fair, Weatherford is an anthropologist, but I imagine the same rule applies to this discipline as well.)
Ultimately, there are far better works on the topic. I recommend Genghis Khan and the Mongol Conquests 1190-1400 (Essential Histories), or The Mongols (The Peoples of Europe) for those interested in the topic.
on April 12, 2006
Let me start with what I liked about this book. It sums up the two centuries in which Mongols made their mark on the world in a readable, digestible and informative way. Jack Weatherford is an anthropologist so the strongest parts are the first few chapters dealing with Chinggis Khan's tribal origins, his childhood and rise to power. Weatherford apparently spent lots of time in Mongolia, researching Mongol history on the spot and the first half of the book shows that. It describes the steppe life well, provides many interesting details and is just generally fun to read. Sometimes, Weatherford can even be outright funny.
But in the second half, the book clearly turns for the worse. Once Mongols leave their homeland and become players in world politics, the book has to become less anthropology and more history and that's clearly not Jack Weatherford's forte. He posits all sorts of causal links which sound either dubious or plain ridiculous (Mongols inspired European renaissance, Columbus sailed to America to search for the Mongol empire etc.).
Yet what I found especially inappropriate (and at times almost laughable) was how the author pushes hard to teach us important MORAL lessons through Mongol conquest. For instance, the Catholic Church tortured heretics (as Weatherford often stresses - even in the middle of a passage on the Mongol court, there is an aside about European inquisition) but Chinggis khan never tortured - he killed straight away. What a moral giant! On page 105, we learn that, had it not been for the recalcitrant emir of Bukhara who refused to submit without a fight, Chinggis would have lived out his days "in peace, enjoying his family and horses." See, he was a family man!
His ultimate moral point is to fit Mongol conquests in the framework of the eternal struggle between sedentary and nomadic populations and his moral axis is clearly one where sedentary=evil, nomadic=good. Notice, in the following passage, how the blame for aggression subtly shifts as the author cites the cases to support his point:
"[The struggle of the hunter and herder against farmer] ... was a history as old as the story of the Bedouin tribes that followed Muhammad to smash the pagan idolatry of the city, of the Roman campaigns against the Huns, of the Greeks against the wandering Scythians, of the city dwellers of Egypt and Persia who preyed on the wandering tribes of Hebrew herders, and, ultimately, of Cain, the tiller, who slew his brother Abel, the herder." (p.266)
So there you have it: Chinggis khan was really waging a defensive war against "the civilized children of Cain, who eternally encroached upon the open lands of the tribes" (p.267). How the Polish peasants encroached upon the uncultivable Mongol homelands in the Gobi desert is unclear to me, but Chinggis khan & Sons sure made them pay for it at the battle of Legnica in 1241, as Weatherford relates with glee.
So, is this book worth the money? The first half is; the second half - read it with a skeptical, cynical, distrustful mind.
on May 10, 2005
Like most authors on this subject matter, WEATHERFORD focused his research of the Mongol military campaigns in the Middle East and the brief but devastating incursion in Eastern Europe. Unfortunately, he too, like other authors, lacked sufficient research on the Chinese campaign, which ended in 1279 under Kublai, and was the lengthiest of all Mongol military campaigns. He also misinterpreted the Chinese campaign in more ways than one, and provided little information in terms of the political interactions between China and Mongolia during the 13th century.
The most destructive episode of medieval warfare occurred not in Europe, the Middle East, or the Crusades, but in China proper of the 1200s. Although initiated by Genghis, the Mongol-China War did not end until the reign of Kublai. The campaign included the greatest siege in pre-modern military history, where the fall of the fortified city of Xiangyang in 1273 served as a turning point of the Mongol-China war, and ended with the capitulation of the Sung Dynasty six years later (WEATHERFORD placed a three month siege by the Mongols as being protracted, yet he dismissed the fact that the siege of Xiangyang had lasted six years). Not surprisingly, the campaign drained vast amounts of resources, and millions of lives. The Mongol's China campaign also marked the very first time in history where guns, cannons & other types of firearms were used extensively. Yet, this event in history was ignored by WEATHERFORD, as he focused on the administrative reforms of Yuan China over previous Chinese dynasties, but not the military campaigns that made the reforms possible.
WEATHERFORD also ignored the episode of alliance between Southern Sung and the Mongols as they warred against the Northern Chinese dynasties, the Xi-Xia and Jin. Kublai did not complete the conquest of China out of personal ambitions alone. Rather, with the fall of Xi-Xia and Jin, the Sung Dynasty remained a looming threat to the Mongols. As the Sung continue to demand territories and other compensations, the Mongols had every reason to be cautious of a potential Sung attack from the rear. Kublai had to endure extensive campaigns to subdue northern India, South Asia, even launching an invasion against Japan to completely isolate and eventually terminate any supply and/or trade routes the Song Dynasty possessed. All these efforts were considered necessary in order to subjugate then the most powerful empire on Earth, an empire that accounted for 80% of the world's GDP!
In another blunt assumption, WEATHERFORD suggested that literacy amongst the Chinese were restricted to government officials and gentries. But in fact, China boasted the most flexible system of social mobility and the most sophisticated bureaucracy in the world during the Middle Ages. The Chinese bureaucracy never imposed a system to limit literacy amongst the peasantry. Whenever given an opportunity, peasant families sent their sons to private academies for an education. Technologies such as block printing also encouraged the distribution of written materials, thus promoting literacy. Voluntary civil examinations across China would then act as a measure of talent amongst learned peoples, where the chosen few are ranked and stationed in bureaucratic posts according to their skill. It is not surprising to find many Chinese officials with humble beginnings.
Moreover, WEATHERFORD seemed to imply the rise & subsequent popularity of Peking opera was due to Mongol administration. In fact, the rise of Peking opera was due to educated Chinese having no place to utilize their skills because the Mongols had abandoned civil examination & post selection altogether. Thus one of the few venues for learned men was writing opera scripts and other literature to vent their frustration against the government!
WEATHERFORD also wrote that the Chinese were `amazed' at some of the qualities of their enemies in a tone as to suggest that the Chinese were somehow `unfamiliar' with the Mongols. There is nothing further from the truth. The annals of Chinese military history indicated frequent warfare against the Nomads to the North. As early as the Qin Dynasty (221 BC - 207 BC), expeditions were directed against the Huns (ancestors to the Mongols) with notable successes achieved in later Han (202 BC - 220 AD) and Tang (618 AD - 907 AD) dynasties. Conflicts between the Chinese and Mongols continued until the last Imperial Dynasty of China, the Qing (1616 AD - 1912 AD). Among all Mongol rivals, the Chinese Empire had the most familiarity with the Mongols, and nominally best prepared for war against them. No wonder Genghis Khan, upon his deathbed, would instruct his descendants to complete the conquest of China, as his last will on Earth.
on October 10, 2010
This is an odd book. On the one hand, it is supposed to be a kind of narrative based on new source materials, an intimate biography if you will. As such, the author tries to tell it like an interesting story, with quirky personal details, the ascription of emotion at crucial moments, and some (surprisingly poor) evocative language. On the other hand, as an anthropologist and scientist but clearly not an historian, he tries to analyze the meaning of what the Mongols accomplished in the context of their times. This he does with an overly indulgent bias towards thinking that the Mongols were a force for the good, that much of their fearsome reputation was the result of propaganda from both sides, which he is seeking to moderate while lavishing praise on extremely subjective interpretations.
Genghis was a first-rate military and political genius: from destitute poverty, he first united the Mongol tribes, in the process overcoming centuries-old customs of tribal vendetta, kidnapping, and simple rapine. Once united, he forged a fighting force - based on cavalry without infantry - that was unequalled in its time. He and then his successors over 4 generations or so, created the largest empire that the world has ever known. Once it had reached its apogee under Khubilai Khan, the Mongols created a vast region of trade, technology and art exchange, and a certain kind of law. The unitary Empire was carved up between the grandsons of Genghis Khan, whose cross-ownership in each others' territories of trade networks and manufacturing facilities moderated their war-making on each other. Once the Black Death disrupted their networks, the Empire collapsed as the grandsons started fighting amongst themselves. The book covers these developments competently, and there is nothing whatsoever new in this.
Where the author loses me is that he sees something uniquely positive underlying this, like the Empire was an indispensable predecessor to the modern world. My interpretation is that Genghis Khan turned the traditional hostile energies of his tribesmen on outsiders, basically seeking to overtake and steal as much as his forces could take back home, yes, sacking the richer and more sophisticated civilizations on its ever-expanding borders. Like all empires, his had to pay his soldiers in booty, which required continual expansion. After all, once you expropriate the accumulated goods that someone else built - destroying their cities and even their cultures in the process, making their regeneration all the more difficult - you have to find fresh victims. The victims were given a choice: fealty or destruction. While I do not mean to argue that what they did was any worse than what other empires had done, the destruction cannot be ignored in order to emphasize the positive aspects of what the author claims were later sees as advances.
The author's treatment of the destruction of the Abbasid dynasty, decayed as it was, is a case in point. The Mongols sacked Baghdad after numerous attempts to subjugate it, burning irreplaceable manuscripts, smashing masterpieces of architecture, and murdering an unknown though high percentage of its population. To create grassy pastures for their horses, an ancient and unique irrigation system was also destroyed, creating a desert out of a once fertile region; it has never recovered. This was one of the greatest despoliations of a center of civilization in the history of mankind, but the author glosses over it, mentioning in passing that the Mongols were careful to take skilled craftsmen and scientists back to their homeland in order to use their skills and knowledge.
The most useful part of this book for me (due to my own ignorance) came in the final chapters, mostly about Khubilai Khan and the way he managed his Empire when it had reached it maximum breadth. Describing a Mongol golden age, the author rightly points out the dazzling array of innovations that can be ascribed to his reign: the advent of paper money, passport that provided access to the entire Empire, the syntheses of knowledge that came from all corners of the Empire, bringing together Arab, Chinese, and European savants. I will want to read more on this period and had never thought of the Mongol Empire quite in this way. What I wonder is if it was worth the cost to the conquered - much of this ended after a single generation - and whether it actually served as a beacon of civilization to the Empires that followed, which I doubt.
My greatest disappointment with this book is the near-complete lack of consideration (i.e. learned refutation) of other points of view, which is what a scholar should at least attempt. There are also so many factual errors - he asserts, for example, that the Huns were early Mongols, which is not at all proven - that I was skeptical of his interpretations and assertions. I also didn't like the way he writes: this is writing 101, but he uses too many adjectives, making it sound almost melodramatic at times. Finally, I suspect that there is something anachronistic in the author's assertion that the Mongols were key players in the "making of the modern world".
I would recommend as an interesting, if flawed, interpretation.