Genghis Khan: and the Making of the Modern World is a 2004 book by Jack Weatherford in his series of books about reevaluating the place of certain peoples in history. I got it as a present for my father, who had it on his books-to-read list, and I picked it up after he recommended it (it turns out I already had a copy but that’s neither here nor there). It supposedly illustrates how, unlike our normal ideas about Genghis Khan and his rule, the Mongol Empire was ahead of its time, and was a major factor in the enlightening of our modern era. Is it convincing?
The cover of the (edition I have of the) book says “”Reads like the Iliad… – Washington Post”” I believe that is a terrible thing to say, but then again I don’t like the Iliad. I would be more disposed to saying something along the lines of “it reads like the Iliad would have felt to the audiences of its time”. Meaning, the (first part of the) book is very good; it’s wonderfully written, fascinating, exciting, and enlightening. This first part, which is almost exactly one half of the book, is about Genghis Khan himself, using the (relatively) recently deciphered “Secret History of the Mongols” text and the travelings of the author and his academic companions as a basis for a narrative of the life of Temujin, the man who would become the Great Khan. The detailing is wonderful. The explanation of how Mongol society and the civilizations around them worked are as long as they need to be and not overbearing. Battles are not given an unnecessary (and likely unavailable) amount of detail, and the politics of the relatively complicated situation are related in an understandable way. It was one of the few books where I actively wanted to read more and would take more time out of my schedule to do so. The text in this section is so lovingly crafted, the areas covered so vast and interesting, and the man presented with his faults (but mostly his accomplishments) in such a way that it seemed to be forcing me to read more. And, throughout, one gets the same feeling toward Genghis Khan that they would experience about Caesar when reading a Colleen McCullough book: a grand reverence and fascination.
The same cannot be said about the second half of the book, which the reader collides with almost like a brick wall. This section, detailing the lives and accomplishments (/failures) of Genghis Khan’s dynasty, is at times excruciatingly boring, and seems tacked on and forced. I would get the impression that the author only cares about the history of Genghis himself, but the history of his empire after his death is important only to illustrate how “ahead of their time” (my words, not his) Genghis and the Mongols really were for the relatively short time they were in power. It is, from what I can tell, an accurate summary, if a bit biased toward the Mongols (even as they fail), but there are a lot of accurate technical documents I would rather not read. Compressing the amount of time (more than a few lifetimes of the man himself) into a section the same size as the one about Genghis Khan prevents the type of characterization and wonderful language that made the first half of the book so good, and coupled with the fact that, again, none of these people are people it seems Weatherford actually cares about (I guess they weren’t in the secret history) creates a section that has a very different tone to the previous one. This section that has more in common with a history textbook that bores students than the wonderful tale that came before.
Still I’m not sure the section should have been omitted (perhaps written by someone else) as a book simply about Genghis (with the level of detail in this work) would have been much too short and not have made the intended point. And the book does make a point, however refutable some think it is, while doing a very good job of staying out of the trap of many history-based books with a point, that is, constantly ramming the point down the reader’s throat. It gets worse about this in the latter half but for the most part these retreadings of old ground feel more like helpful little reminders and not an unnecessary constant restatement of the book’s central idea. This main idea is “somewhat” controversial, but perhaps a bit overstated in the title and some of the inside text. What is presented as “the Mongols were the first truly modern empire!” or “the Mongols were so far ahead of ‘X’ civilization!” comes off more like “the Mongol empire and its accomplishments have been largely and unduly overlooked since the Mongols were labeled as ‘barbarians’”. The first two statements are controversial but I feel the third is not so much. And this book does a good job of explaining and showcasing both the triumphs and failures of the Mongol empire, with many of the same lessons that can be learned from studying large empires, but a few that are uniquely Mongolian. It is guilty of minimizing some of the underlying truths; this book and many others are guilty of using the phrase “taken as wives” in place of “kidnapped and raped” to make their “great empires” (and it happened with every empire) less appalling to modern sensibilities. But many books do this, and after all, the point is to showcase the empire’s strengths and “modern-ness” rather than its weaknesses.
A secondary point to the book is how much the Mongol Empire affected the progress of human technology and interconnectedness for the better, an idea that more and more historians have been exploring in recent years. I think it makes the case well that human “progress” was “improved” by the Mongols, and that the state of technology, science, and trade was better during and after their reign that it was before. But then again I came in to the book already believing that idea. Large amounts of land, excess money, and trade (like that accumulated by the Mongols, Romans, British, Arabs, Chinese, and French) always lead to technological improvements and a general raising of the quality of life, though many do have to die for such excess to be available in peace time. The effect the Mongols had in this way is well- (and over-) explained and believable, though I don’t agree with every point. It does seem obvious that the effect of the Mongols on world development has been overlooked. Though I’m still not entirely buying Genghis Khan’s “uniqueness”, the author talks about him like he was doing entirely new things with strategies and technological appropriation, while I was sitting there reading and thinking ‘that sounds a lot like what Caesar did”. And the whole “relying on people based on ability instead of familial connections until it comes to choosing a successor for your empire” thing strikes me as very poor planning.
But moving on to some things about the physical book, which I have little to say about, but more than I do for most books. The printing is superb. It feels like a Penguin book, which are my favorite books to hold. The cover design is fine, but the spine is a problem: it is way, way, to easy to damage. I finished the book without much wear but that was because I had seen several copies before and held the book carefully to avoid it. While it doesn’t really affect the functionality, I do think it is bad design to have a book made in such a way that simply reading through it in a normal way would leave it visibly “damaged” (worn). The copy I picked up second-hand was terrible in this respect. Inside the book has mainly words, but there are some wonderful ink drawings at the beginnings of some chapters, and a few maps. These maps are… not great. They do convey their message, and to me, someone who reads maps a lot, they are quite legible. But to someone unfamiliar with the geography of the area or without a keen sense of gray-differentiation, they will very easily become confusing. I think it would have been very easy to do them better but they also aren’t the main part of the book and don’t distract too much.
I liked the book, and I would recommend that most fans of history books take a look at it. I’m not entirely on board with every idea presented, but it is a fascinating and exciting look at an often-overlooked culture and empire in the grand, usually European, scheme of the world. The very fact that this book is based off of a historical document that was found recounting the events of foundation of an Eastern empire that westerners were allowed to see and interpret is a historical anomaly worthy of looking into on its own. But that the first half of the book was crafted so lovingly and well, and the usual pitfalls of historical books of this nature so well avoided, brings it above the standard historical work and even overshadows the sub-par (but not awful) second half. As a teaching tool or a “book that will change your life/view/the world” I can’t really say it works, but for a more balanced and interesting look at history I would definitely give it a look.