on June 4, 2006
In the wake of Jack Weatherford's extremely popular "Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World," I'm guessing interest in Genghis Khan and his Mongolian Empire is reaching new heights. I must admit that I, too, was introduced into the fascinating world of the Mongolians through Weatherford's bestseller, so I owe him alot for introducing to me what I consider a new passion in life.
Weatherford's work, while being extremely well researched and well written, is extremely revisionist, and gives a very forgiving and optimistic account of Genghis Khan, his predecessors, and their abilities. Weatherford takes great pains to combat the traditional stereotypes of Genghis Khan and the Mongolians as barbaric, mass-murdering hordes. At the same time, I feel that since for many people Weatherford's book will be the very first people read about the Mongols, alot of people will get an impression of the Mongols that is a little too favorable and optimistic, and this is where David Morgan's "The Mongols" comes in.
"The Mongols" is, in a word, sober. On one hand, it definitely breaks away from the precedent set by medieval scholars in viewing Genghis Khan and the Mongols as purely forces of wanton destruction. Whenever Morgan evaluates a primary source, which he does often, he takes great pains to weed out any political motivations to skewer numbers and accounts that existed at the time, of which there were many. This means that Morgan never overestimates Mongol detruction, but he doesn't underestimate it either, which what Weatherford seems to have done, basing his book on select sources. I therefore recommend "The Mongols" as a good, middle-of-the-road source for establishing the historical events of the 12th to 13th century. When reading "The Mongols," one always gets a sense that Morgan is a level-headed, unbiased thinker, which is the perfect type of historian necessary for a period as tumultuous as the years of the Mongolian Empire. It's a good followup to "Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World," together the two books give an good picture.
Additionaly, since this book is part of "The Peoples of Europe" collection, this book includes a special focus on the Mongols interactions with Europe, including both direct interaction in the invasions of Russia, the Caucasus, and Eastern Europe, and indirect interactions in the forms of the emmisaries, missionaries, merchants, and diplomats that were excanged between the East and the West. Much to my surprise, being a part of "The Peoples of Europe" series did not exclude a very thorough and extensive coverage of Mongol activity in Persia, Central Asia, and China, so when viewed as a whole, Morgan's work is still a very complete coverage.
Morgan's book is easily the best introduction to one of the more interesting peoples of history. It's as much an account of the historiography of Mongol studies as it is a study of the Mongol people, as Morgan details the extant sources available to modern scholars for the subject. This is important, given the scope of the Mongol empire, which at its peak reached from China to Hungary, encompassing all that was in between. Such breadth of conquest places great demands on historians, limiting anybody who is not a polyglot of the languages of the era to base their study on the region in which they specialize and translations of the other languages. A student of Persian, Morgan makes an excellent case for the quality of the sources in that language.
Still, the lack of a written Mongolian language (not developed until the reign of Chingiz Khan) means that much of the history of the empire is lost to us, and that what does exist is produced by outsiders. Nevertheless, Morgan does a first-rate job of describing its expansion and operation. He explains that the Mongols owed their incredible success to their use of mounted warriors, a natural role for a nomadic people. This heavy use of horses both gave them and also limited their conquests: Morgan theorizes that inadequate pastureland may have been a critical factor in the withdrawal of Mongol invaders from both Hungary in 1242 and Syria in 1260. But the most revealing factor of the importance of the Mongol army in its historical achievements lay in the overthrow of Mongol rule; it was in the areas where the Mongols were able to maintain their nomadic lifestyles (and thus their military advantage) that Mongol control proved most enduring. In all, Morgan provides a good, concise overview of a fascinating subject.
on May 18, 2009
This is a very academic introduction to the Mongol people and more particularly, the empire founded by Genghis Khan. Written at the undergraduate level, it provides the basics as well as a sense of the state of the field, i.e. what is known, what is not, and what needs to be done. It is workmanlike in tone, but to put it mildly, very dry.
The beginning seemed designed to turn off all but the most determined reader. It is a scholarly overview of the original sources on the Mongols. While this is very interesting - to read them in the original it would require knowledge of Chinese, Persian, Turkish and Arabic at a minimum - the place for it is an afterward, or even footnotes, not 30 pages of turgid prose, that is, if you want to spark interest in a lay reader rather than count on academic obligation to get through it.
The same is true of the conclusion, which is an overview of scholarship since 1985, i.e. when the first edition was published. There you get served the dullest array of academic controversies, many of which are choices of emphasizing one interpretation over the others, e.g. were the Mongols really as brutal as their reputation or did they bring good to those they governed? An essential question, but the way that it is presented in unspeakably boring and reeks of intellectuals taking a stand in order to develop interpretations (however silly or unrealistic) in order to advance their careers. Indeed, that this is tacked on as a final chapter rather than integrated into the text is a sign of laziness if you ask me. There is no wrapup, but instead this stilted and rambling discussion of who is saying what at the moment.
That leaves a scant 150 pages for all of the historical information on the Mongols. As such, it is very thin gruel, stripped of any storytelling or feeling for how things were in the 13th and 14th century. It is threadbare and flavorless, if essential, reading.
Genghis Khan arose from the nomadic steppe peoples North of China. He raised a great army with a core of ur-loyalists he kept as his bodyguard, otherwise he mixed the people of various tribes. The Mongol warriors' principal strength was their cavalry, which was capable of great coordination and flexibility on the field. Each knight had approximately 5 hourses in tow, in keeping with their nomadic lifestyles on the plains. This was also a limitation, of course, in that they had to find food for them. The difference, it seems, is that Genghis was not only after plunder, but was interested in tax revenues from conquered peoples (in particular the Chinese in the North) and even allowed local elites most of the power to administer in their stead, paying tribute while keeping their prestige, etc. This kind of cooptation is similar to the Romans (without the cultural assimilation component). Upon his death in 1227, he left a vast empire to be divided by his sons, who ruled more or less separately to 100 years, either ejected by collapse or absorbed into local elites.
The legacy of the Mongols remains controversial. Like conquerors of that time, they were extremely brutal, killing entire cities if they refused to capitulate without fighting. While they were impressed with both Persia and China, where they copied their civilizations, they destroyed or melted down many artifacts and irreplacable libraries such as those in Bagdad. They tolerated local religions, eventually adopting the Muslim religion to replace native shamanism, nestorian christianity, and buddhism. Their organizational genius may also have been copied by the Ottoman Turks. Like all empires, their collapse was quick when it occurred - disunited, warring between khanates, and far from supply lines and their cultural sources.
I am glad I read this book, but continually felt disappointed at its mediocre writing and airing of obscure academic controversies. Recommended tepidly.
Of several books on the Mongols I have read (Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World,The Mongols and the West: 1221-1410), Morgan's history is my first choice. From the outset, he begins with a discussion of the challenges scholars of these nomad-conquorers face in terms of access to primary documents: given the breadth of their empire, sources are written in Persian, Chinese, Mongolian, Japanese, Arabic and Latin and the impact and influence they had varies tremendoulsy by region and by time period. In spite of these herculean obstacles, Morgan does an admirable job of giving background, providing context and explaining the influence the Mongols had on the civilizations they encountered. As a part of the "People's of Europe" series, one would expect the book to have a strong European focus - I found this not to be the case, as relative equal attention is given the Il Khans and Yuan dynasty.
Morgan begins with a primer on steppe society and Mongolian political organization, both of which naturally had a strong influence on the way in which the Mongols governed and their attitude towards the people they conquored. From this, he is able to demonstrate why, for example, the Mogols were so religiously tolerant (particularly notable for a time when religious tolerance was rare) and how the Mongol army was able to extend its power - and maintain it - over such a huge expanse. His explanation of Mongol society also provided insight behind the crises of succession as power moved from one Khan to another, not always in a clear dynastic line. The concluding chapters on the decline of the Mongols and "where are they now?" was the weakest part of the book.
Previous reviewers have noted the writing is a bit pedantic; this is true, but Morgan isn't writing for a popular audience. I found him to be detailed, well organized and insightful. His chapter on the Yuan dynasty in China in particular was fascinating. Strongly recommended for those interested in an introduction to the Mongols.
on February 17, 2015
An extremely informative and interesting summary characterization and history of the Mongols and their multifarious invasions, relationships, and contacts with the wider world. As informativeness is inversely related to what's often called "riveting" prose, those seeking a "fun read" may well experience "dryness" or "boredom" -- that's the way it goes with learning, or not. I value this book greatly.
on July 25, 2015
Very good book, well-written, on a somewhat esoteric topic for most of us. You'll get the history of Genghis Khan and what followed thereafter. Not too long, easy read, but you may want to map handy so the geography makes sense.
on April 14, 2013
This is a well written general history of the Mongols. It explains the rise of the Mongol Empire and its disintegration into several successor empires. It is organized more on topics than strictly chronological. It is NOT a detailed military history nor a detailed biography of the various Mongol leaders. I think it does an especially good job of putting the Mongols in the context of the larger historical "picture." The first chapter is a pretty dry academic discussion of source data for historians which can probably be safely skipped. The rest of the book flows pretty well. I very much enjoyed the book and it scratched the itch of "who were the Mongols?"
on July 7, 2007
Morgan writes an academic book of 13th century Mongolian history, culture and building of their societal infrastructure in 1986. Avoiding the titillating slash, burn, rape and pillage aspects of their conquests, a popular depiction of the Mongolian Yellow Horde, his scholarly topics give an insider's view of Medieval Mongolian society, politics, warfare, taxation, communications, laws, and adoption of conquered peoples' technology, culture and religion.
The first illustration is a 2-page spread, Map 1 (of 3 maps) of The Mongol Empire (pxii-xiii) providing an eye-catching beginning, which stretches from Korea to Italy, and emphasizes a central grayed patch of the subjugated Middle East south of the Black to the Aral Seas. The book includes 33 b&w illustrations about 1/2-1 page each, 12 pgs of references, and a 12 pg index in the original 1986 edition (reviewed). The second edition appears to be a briefly re-edited original and adding a final Chapter 9, "The Mongol Empire since 1985," about 20+ pages, unread.
It is amazing that they did this all on horseback, an indigenous part of 13th century Mongolian culture. Siberian and Mongolian peoples have a non-materialistic culture reflecting the resource-limited landlocked region. It is amazing that this was a family-owned enterprise and its Fall was exacerbated by not building a firmer and broader governmental base of infrastructural strength and succession. For example this period included a new adoption of a written formalization of the Mongolian language (p10) (like Arabic) and conversion from a Shamanistic religion towards Islam (p44). Included is the dispersal of Mongolian bloodlines (Chap6) begetting the Cossack, Tatar and Turkic peoples and expansion of the Islamic and Moslem religions adopted from Persia in modern-day Iran.
Morgan's book is a very good read that will broaden and deepen one's understanding on how the Asiatic Mongols created a vast empire, which enslaved more than half of the world's population, during a fundamentally important century in world history. His book's admitted limitation (p6) is his lack of fluency in Eurasian and Middle Eastern languages, so he is inherently limited to English translations and their biases.
Thus his book is limited to compiling previously published works, unfortunately not really getting inside the heads of the Mongolian leadership and uncovering and interpreting the whys and wherefores of their culture and motivation. Even after perusing the 6th Century BC Chinese Sun Tzu, "The Art of War," one is still left with an unsatisfied curiosity and understanding. Perhaps a more intimate multicultural, multidisciplinary anthology on this topic will be researched and written in the future.
The Rest of the Story
The 13th century was an exciting Renaissance era of the High Middle Ages in Medieval Europe. Innovative examples were the start of non-secular universities of higher learning and adoption of the magnetic compass, gunpowder, and printing on paper technologies. Surgical medicine and mechanical clocks was invented at the time and engineers started harnessing super-human/animal power using windmills, belts and gears with machinery. Gothic art and architecture was started at this time with building fortified castles for protection and roads for trade, not war (Roman).
Later in the 14th Century, Eurasia's Black Plague killed off half of its population, a wasting systemic immune disease caused by bacterium in fleas spread by rodent hosts, originally carried by the Mongolians (p133). The spread of this disease was exacerbated by long periods of war, climatic change, crop failures and subsequent famine in conquered China and Europe. This self-limiting event effectively ended the Mongolian empire.
Even with fast horses and a nomadic society with armies of half million (p88) and their supply lines, it is hard to imagine crossing the formidable cold, high deserts of current Central Asia. Serious consideration of recent work in Palaeo-Climatology is needed to believe a century of successful Mongolian conquest. Unbeknownst to the author, a much more favorable lush grass steppes existed 700-800 years ago. Now referred as the Medieval Warm Period, the geologic record in Northern Europe coincides with a peak in solar activity named the Medieval Maximum (1100-1250). Also there is a fundamental Milankovitch theory on cyclic climatic change due to the earth's eccentric orbit and tilt wobble.
The climatological Jet Stream across Central Asia follows a southeasterly direction from the Eurasian Arctic towards the Mongolia and Tibetan plateaus, bringing much more rain to the Middle East and Central Asia, further enhancing the nomadic life style and encouraging imperialism. Palaeoclimatolgists have shown that Central Asia, the Caspian Sea region and Altai Mountain range had "a milder, less continental climate with more precipitation approximately from the 9th to 12th centuries" by analyzing sediment cores in Lake Baikal, the deepest and largest lake in Eurasia, just north of the Old Silk Road in Siberian Russia.
Additionally, NE China was wetter during the Medieval Warm Period upon analyzing pollen cores in the Maili Bog in NE China's (Manchuria) Jilin mountainous province, indicating more monsoon rains during that 200-year period. Thus conclusively palaeoclimatogists have shown that a warmer and wetter climate existed in 13th Century Eurasia thus facilitating a great surge in a hungry, mobile Mongolian population and resulted in conquest, imperialism and world domination.
And the palaeoclimatological Little Ice Age starting in the 14th Century effectively ended the Mongolian Empire precipiated by Europe's Great Famine of 1315-1317.
From teaching in the UK, Morgan emigrated to the States and is now the senior member of a staff of three in Middle Eastern History. He has been Professor of History and Religious Studies (Islam), U Wisconsin, Madison since 1999. He was recruited to grow its Middle East studies program, the smallest part of the Dept of History, College of L&S. He was Director of Middle East Studies, 2002-6, with research interests in the history of Iran and Islamic Central Asia. With a Middle East History section having 1 TA and 5 grad students, even with the CIA's current emphasis on growing America's understanding of Middle East's language, ideology and culture, only a small dent is being prepared at U Wisconsin. BA 1966, Oxford; PhD 1977 U London, thesis: Mongols in Iran; on faculty of U London's African and Oriental Studies program for 24 yrs.
on April 21, 2014
A few years ago, I read three books on the Mongol history, and found them interesting, but somewhat incomplete. I ordered Morgan's book to augment those earlier reads, but so far I have had only time to browse through this current book. I like what I see in a quick browse, but a more definitive opinion will have to wait its turn until I have the time to do it justice!
In other words, a quick perusal looks like it will be worth my time to read it carefully … but a more definitive opinion will have to wait until I can do it justice...
on January 13, 2011
This book is good preparation for further reading about the Mongol conquests. Morgan focuses on Persia and western Asia. If you want information about the Mongols, the book has a detailed discussion of the literature and sources in the first chapter. Morgan seems to me to be a reliable author who has spent a long time studying the Mongols. Some interesting facts about the Mongols: they didn't have a written language until Chingiz(=Genghis); very pragamatic, both for good and bad; needed lots of grassland for their horses; as far as I saw they didn't have a plan, although they did have to move both to get new grasslands and to avoid the problem of becoming sedentary and then being replaced by the next group of steppe nomads; the Horde split into several splinters after Ogedei (Chingiz's third son, by the way the Mongols did not practice primogeniture). It was a fair book and mentioned some things that sounded interesting to me: Marco Polo, the Plague, Islam, the late Roman Empire (see A.H.M. Jones), Persia. Good Mongol scholars: Barthold, Bertold Spuler, J.J. Saunders. Apparently the tomb of Chingiz Khan is in the mountains of north Mongolia somewhere. Neat word: tanistry, the killing off of relatives who are also competing for the Khanate.