Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World

Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World

"Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World" (ISBN 0-609-80964-4) is a 2004 book by Jack Weatherford, Dewitt Wallace Professor of Anthropology at Macalester College. It describes the rise and impact of Genghis Khan. The text is based largely on the "Secret History of the Mongols" and also some parts from other Islamic and Chinese sources. Weatherford follows these sources to present Genghis Khan in a far more positive light than traditional Western historiography. Indeed, the last section of the book deals with historiography of Genghis Khan and traces how, according to Weatherford, his earlier neutral image was converted from an "excellent, noble king" into that of a bloodthirsty pagan during the Age of Enlightenment.

Consequently many see it as a revisionist history which is more sympathetic to the Mongols than earlier works; however it can also be seen as a part of a general re-estimation of Genghis Khan, as in the well-regarded work of Ratchnevsky, who focuses on his knack for forging alliances, his fairness in dividing the spoils, and his patronage of the sciences [cite book
title = Genghis Khan: His life and Legacy
author = Paul Ratchnevsky
publisher = Blackwell
year = 1979
note = translated Thomas Nivison Haining 1991
] . Similarly, Saunders has emphasized the role of the Mongol empire in opening up intellectual interactions between China, the Middle East, and EuropeSaunders, J. J. (1971). "The History of the Mongol Conquests", Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd. ISBN 0-8122-1766-7 ] .


The book highlights the military brilliance of Temüjin (Genghis Khan); while the Roman empire took 200 years to reach its fullest extent, Temüjin's conquests covered an empire nearly four times its area between 1206 and 1227. Eventually, by the 1270s, the Mongol Empire would cover an area"considerably larger than [all of] North America" (p. xviii).

The book suggests that the western depiction of the Mongols as terrible savages that destroyed all civilization wasdue to the Mongol's dealings with the opposing hereditary aristocracies. In battle, the Mongols always annihilated these ruling classes in order to better subdue the general population. Since it was these aristocratic classes that could write, their treatment at the hands of the Mongols was what was recorded throughout history. However, what was less well known was the treatment of the general population (peasants, tradesmen, merchants) under Mongol rule. The book states that in general Mongol rule was less burdensome on the masses due to lighter taxes, tolerance of local customs & religions, less capricious administration, and universal education for all.

These benefits were only enjoyed by populations that surrendered immediately to the Mongol invaders. Those populations that resisted in any way could be annihilated in a massacre as a warning to other towns/cities. These massacres were a method of psychological warfare that was used on populations not yet conquered. The resulting terror helped color the historical portrayal of the Mongols. The book reminds the reader that genocide and other heinous acts were not uncommon during this period of history.

Since the Mongols were horsemen of the steppes and didn't possess any arts or crafts of their own, they were dependent on taxes from the subjugated peoples for wealth and luxury goods. Weatherford's book claims that the Mongols sought to increase that wealth by encouraging their subjects to be more productive and enterprising instead of increasing the tax burden on them. They did this by sponsoring lucrative international trade, and it is alleged that they also encouraged scientific advances and improved agriculture and production methods. Many innovations came from the combination of technologies from different cultures within their huge empire.


The book puts particular emphasis on what it perceives as Genghis Khan's legacy; it attributes many aspects of the Renaissance such as the spread of paper and printing, the compass, gunpowder and musical instruments such as the violin, to the impact of trade that was enabled by Genghis Khan and the Mongol Empire. In a 2005 review, Timothy Maycite web
title = Review: Weatherford:Genghis Khan
author = Timothy May, North Georgia College and State University.
publisher = Humanities and Social Sciences Online
url =
month = March | year = 2005
accessdate = 2007-07-10
] comments that passages such as

:In the end, Europe suffered the least yet acquired all the advantages of contact through merchants such as the Polo family of Venice and envoys exchanged between the Mongol khans and the popes and kings of Europe. The new technology, knowledge, and commercial wealth created the Renaissance in which Europe rediscovered some of its prior culture, but more importantly, absorbed the technology for printing, firearms, the compass, and the abacus from the East. [p.xxiii-iv]

are "without question, controversial. Many would scoff at the notion that a horde of illiterate nomads from Mongolia created the Renaissance. There is something to be said about Weatherford's view"... "presents his case very eloquently and with an abundance of evidence demonstrating not only the indirect influence of the Mongols in Europe but also the transformation of the Mongols from agents of innovation in the Renaissance into agents of destruction in the European mind during Enlightenment."

However, the most controversial statement in the book is possibly the statement that the European Renaissance was a rebirth, not of Greece or Rome, but of ideas from the Mongol Empire:

:Under the widespread influences from the paper and printing, gunpowder and firearms, and the spread of the navigational compass and other maritime equipment, Europeans experienced a Renaissance, literally a rebirth, but it was not the ancient world of Greece or Rome being reborn. It was the Mongol Empire, picked up, transferred, and adapted by the Europeans to their own needs and culture. 237

Some of the points mentioned are:

* Astronomy: "New knowledge from the travel writings of Marco Polo to the detailed star charts of Ulugh Beg proved that much of [the Western] received classical knowledge was simply wrong." p.236

* Paper money: experiments in Persian Il-Khanate (p.204-5), also p.236

* Art: The Franciscans, who had wide contacts with the Mongol court, and Mongol/Persian art influenced Giotto di Bondone and his disciples, so much so that St. Francis' life was depicted in Mongol dress - "literally wrapped in silk". Also, a 1306 illustration of the Robe of Christ in Padua, the golden trim was painted in Mongol letters from the square Phagspa script commissioned by Khublai Khan (p. 237-8)

* Democracy and Government: Suggests that some of Kublai Khan's reforms in China, which localized power and gave political strength to individual farms, was the first democratic experience in China, and continued only when the Republicans and Communists began to reintroduce local government. The author also suggests that the tribal government of the Mongols had many democratic elements, and refers to Mongol leaders being selected by council (khuriltai) as "elections", although, these like the Athenian or Roman versions, may be more properly called election by an elite (an oligarchy). In addition, he repeatedly declares that the Khans ruled through the will of the people.

Beneficial aspects of Mongol empire

The book argues that the Mongol Empire was the impetus for the European Age of Discovery. Europeans two centuries later were trying to reclaim the lucrative global trade that was lost when the Mongol Empire collapsed.

A brief list of some of the ways in which Mongol influence, according to Weatherford's claims, helped shape Renaissance Europe:

* Unprecedented religious tolerance
* Low level of discrimination toward other races
* Low level of meddling with local customs and culture
* The "idea" of rule by consensus within Mongol tribes
* Culture of meritocracy
* Culture that believed in the rule of law
* Strong sponsorship of Eurasian trade
* Building of roads to support trade
* First culture to promote universal literacy
* First international postal system
* First widespread use of paper money
* Reduction of the use of torture in the penal system
* Belief in diplomatic immunity for ambassadors/envoys



During the late Mongol Empire, most European nations had established different degrees of trade relations, and the image of the Mongols in Europe was, according to Weatherford, largely positive, as evidenced by the reaction to Mongol envoys such as Rabban Bar Sawma, (p. 218-219), who was received by the crowned heads of Europe. Weatherford refers to the writings of Bar Sawma to focus on his surprise at the lack of religious freedom in Europe; no religion other than Christianity was tolerated, which was far from the heterogeneity of the Mongol empire.

Geoffrey Chaucer, who had travelled widely in Europe, writing in the Canterbury Tales (14th c.), the tale of the squire: "This noble king was known as Cambinskan / noble king of great renown / That there was nowhere in the wide world known / So excellent a lord in everything" [While Weatherford writes the name as "Genghis Khan", it has been variously spelt Cambinskan or Cambuskan; see The Squire's tale, [ Modern English version] / [ Middle English version] ] . However, the exactitude of Chaucer's knowledge can be challenged since the poem states that the great ruler resided in Old Sarai, which was not under Mongolian control in Genghis Khan's day, was not called Old Sarai at the time and was furthermore situated in Russia, which Genghis Khan never visited. [The Squire's Tale, l.1, Modern English version] / [ Middle English version] ] .


According to the books' narrative, the view of Genghis Khan changed during the 18th century:

:Whereas the Renaissance writers and explorers treated Genghis Khan and the Mongols with open adulation, the eighteenth century Enlightenment in Europe produced a growing anti-Asian spirit that often focused on the Mongols, in particular, as the symbol of everything evil or defective... 254

Montesquieu writes disparagingly of the Mongols, as having "destroyed Asia, from India even to the Mediterranean; and all the country which forms the east of Persia they have rendered a desert." ("The spirit of the Laws", 1748)

Voltaire, in adapting a Mongol dynasty play as an allegory on the present French king, described the Mongols as "wild sons of rapine, who live in tents, in chariots, and in the fields." They "detest our arts, our customs, and our laws; and therefore mean to change them all; to make this splendid seat of empire one vast desert, like their own."

Soon, the Asian inferiority model came to be regarded as the scientific view. The widely influential Frenchnaturalist Comte de Buffon, in his encyclopedia of naturalhistory after many remarks disparaging the Mongol physique, described them as "alike strangers to religion, morality, and decency. Theyare robbers by profession." Translated from French into all the Europeanlgs, his work became one of the classic sources of information during the18th/19th centuries.

The Scottish scientist Robert Chambers wrote in a widely-read book: :The leading characters of the various races of mankind are simply representatives of particular stages in the development of the highest or Caucasian type. ... [in comparison, the] Mongolian is an arrested infant newly born. [Robert Chambers, 1844, "Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation" (a best-selling book of the time)]

Soon it became clear that the Mongoloid race exhibited a closerelationship to the orangutan, not only in facial traits but also inposture; both like to sit with folded legs in the "Buddha" position.

Mongolian features were linked to retarded people (as "arrested children") [John Langdon Haydon Down, 1867: "Observations on the Ethnic Classification of Idiots", "British Journal of Mental Science" 1867. Down was the Medical Superintendent, Earlswood Asylum for Idiotsin Surrey] .


One of the first to re-evaluate Genghis Khan was "an unlikely candidate", the Indian statesman Jawaharlal Nehru. In a series of letters on world history written to his daughter from British jails in the 1930s, he wrote "Chengiz is, without doubt, the greatest military genius and leader in history.... Alexander and Caesar seem petty before him." [Jawaharlal Nehru, Glimpses of World History: Being Further letters to his daughter written in prison, and containing a rambling account of history for young people. New York: John Day Company, 1942. The excerpts are on p. 251 of the book.]

According to Weatherford, during the Second world war Russian and German military tacticians looked to Mongol models for cavalry strategy for managing their mobile artillery units. After great effort, a German translation of the Secret History of the Mongols was prepared in 1941, but it could not be distributed because the stored copies of the books were destroyed during an Allied air raid. However, the idea of blitzkrieg is claimed to be loosely modelled on highly mobile Mongol tactics. Even the Russian strategy of letting the Germans penetrate deep into Russia where they became too thinly spread, is claimed to be based on Subutai's tactics at the Battle of the Kalka River, though the scales involved are utterly different (p.263). Stalin in particular, is said to have entertained a particular fascination for Timur and Genghis Khan.

Major errors

* Weatherford claims that Genghis Khan founded "the first international postal service". What Genghis Khan did was to introduce a postal service which covered the Mongolian empire and was for official use only. Several peoples, including the Romans, had introduced official postal services of the same kind over a millennium previously. [Lionel Casson: "Travel in the Ancient World", The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994, pp. 182-90, 197, 203, 301-3, 314]

* According to Weatherford, the place where the Mongols battled Duke Henry II of Silesia was called Wahlstatt, "the chosen place", because the Mongols chose to do battle there. Apparently, he has the German verb "wählen", "to choose", in mind. However, no source backs up his claim. The generally accepted opinion is that the place was afterwards called Wahlstatt because that is a German word for "battle field". [Friedrich Kluge: "Etymologisches Wörterbuch der deutschen Sprache", Verlag von Karl F. Trübner, 1910]

* Weatherford declares that "the flower of European knighthood" were killed by the Mongols. With the exception of very small numbers of French Knights Templars and Hospitallers, no western European soldiers of any kind came to the aid of eastern Europe during the Mongolian invasion. [James Chambers: "The Devil's Horsemen: The Mongol Invasion of Europe", Cassell, 1988, p.117]

* The reader is told that the Mongols shunned the sight of blood and therefore preferred mounted archers to melee troops. But the Mongolian armies included units of lancers as well as mounted archers. [] [James Chambers: "The Devil's Horsemen", Cassell, 1988, p. 33] "The bulk of Mongol tribesmen could fight only as lightly armoured or even unarmoured horse-archers, so a smaller élite of close-combat troopers was also needed. Such men often rode armoured horses and fought with sword, spear or mace. Their task was to crush a foe once the latter had been dispersed, disorganized, decimated and demoralized by the constant harassment of Mongol horse-archers. Their role was, in fact, a traditionally aristocratic one found in almost all cavalry armies; namely to finish off the foe." [David Nicolle: "The Mongol Warlords", Firebird Books, 1990, p. 32]

* The Mongols, according to Weatherford, promoted trade and the free movement of goods as "silent partners". Economic historians of China state that their greed was so great and their demands for a cut of the merchants' gains so exorbitant that it seriously damaged the Chinese economy. Furthermore, Chinese merchants were discriminated against, whereas merchants belonging to peoples allied to the Mongols were favoured in a great variety of ways, with the result that much wealth went out of China to their own country [Wolfram Eberhard: "A History of China", Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1977, p. 242]

* The Mongols are said to have been the first to use paper money widely. However, the Chinese had done so centuries before. The Mongols took up this system and printed so many bills that they released a major inflation, though it wasn't the first one; the first inflation due to an excess of paper money had happened as far back as during the Song dynasty. ["The Hutchinson Encyclopedia", Helicon Publishing, 1993] [Wolfram Eberhard: "A History of China", Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1977, pp. 242, 250] [Francis T. Lui: 'Cagan's Hypothesis and the First Nationwide Inflation of Paper Money in World History', "The Journal of Political Economy', University of Chicago Press, Vol. 91, No. 6 (Dec., 1983), pp. 1067-1074]

* Genghis Khan is stated to have abolished feudalism. According to all sources, he exterminated any noble family which could threaten his own dynasty but also carefully built up a hierarchical system where his own family was on top and subjected peoples were ruled, on his dynasty's behalf, by princes who often belonged to the old ruling houses. [ [ Wanderlust Tours Mongolia ] ] [ [ Biography of Genghis Khan - biography, autobiography & memoir resources ] ] [James Chambers: "The Devil's Horsemen", Cassell, 1988, p. 202] "At the summit of the military and social pyramid was Genghis Khan's own family, which became known as the "altan uruk" or Golden Clan. Beneath them was a tribal aristocracy of "ba'atut" (nobles), "noyan" (chiefs), "nökud" (free-warrior retainers), "arad" and "qarachu" (commoners), and non-Mongolian "unaghan boghul" (serfs)." [David Nicolle: "The Mongol Warlords", Firebird Books, 1990, p. 28]

* The Mongols are credited with improving the lot of the common peasants of China. No historian of China agrees. "The Chinese peasants had been exploited by the large landowners. The Mongols had not removed these landowners, as the Chinese gentry had gone over to their side. The Mongols had deprived them of their political power, but had left them their estates, the basis of their power. In past changes of dynasty the gentry had either maintained their position or been replaced by a new gentry: the total number of their class had remained virtually unchanged. Now, however, in addition to the original gentry there were about a million Mongols, for whose maintenance the peasants had also to provide, and their standard of maintenance was high. This was a great increase in the burdens of the peasantry." [Wolfram Eberhard: "A History of China", Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1977, p. 241] Furthermore, the Mongols ordered the building of great palaces of a size and magnificence never before seen in China. "They were built by Chinese forced labour, and to this end men had to be brought from all over the empire - poor peasants, whose fields went out of cultivation while they were held in bondage far away. If they ever returned home, they were destitute and had lost their land." [Wolfram Eberhard: "A History of China", Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1977, p. 240]

* Genghis Khan is said to have "introduced regular censuses". The Chinese had conducted censuses for a very long time before he turned up. [Wolfram Eberhard: "A History of China", Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1977, p.145] [ [ T'ang Dynasty ] ]

* The book claims that Russian noblemen were armed with javelins in battle. There is no indication in known sources that they did. [ [ Weapons of a Knight ] ] [ [ The weapons of the Medieval Knights ] ]

* The book states that by "the winter of 1350, the plague had crossed the North Atlantic from the Faeroe Islands on through Iceland and reached Greenland". However, Iceland wasn´t affected by Black Death until 1402. [Einar Laxness: "Íslandssaga s-ö", Vaka-Helgafell, 1998, p. 80]

* One of the more remarkable claims in the book is that the German High Command during the Second World War looked to the Mongols for strategical inspiration. It has not found much support among commentators. "It is not true, to take just one example, that the German High Command based its blitzkrieg doctrine on a study of Mongol cavalry operations circa 1250; the Panzer generals in fact took their cue from such distinctly un-Mongol-like figures as British military theorists J. F. C. Fuller and Basil Liddell Hart." [ [ Alexander Rose on Jack Weatherford’s Genghis Khan on National Review Online ] ]


* The silver tree constructed in Karakorum by a French artisan who had the misfortune to be in Belgrade when the Mongols captured it is declared to be a great marvel. However, such toys were popular at courts all over Europe. [Donald Hill: "A History of Engineering in Classical and Medieval Times", Routledge, 1996]

* It is stated that during William of Rubruck's visit to Mangu's court, William and the Nestorian Christians allied with the Muslims in an attempt to refute the claims by the Buddhist clerics. By William's own statement, he despised the local variant of Christianity, which was heavily infused with what he calls "the Manichean heresy"; he regarded the Muslims as the only true monotheists present beside himself. Weatherford's claim that the Christian clerics started to sing hymns because they had become drunk is not borne out by William's account. [, Chapter XVIII]

* The book claims that the Nestorian Monk Rabban Bar Sawma, who made a pilgrimage from Kublai Khan's capital to the Jerusalem in the Ilkhanate, was then "sent by his superiors" to the courts of Europe to offer a peaceful alliance between the Mongols and the Europeans. That is not supported by the only known narrative of his mission, the one Weatherford himself relies on. Rabban Bar Sawma was asked by the Ilkhan Arghun to offer the Christian monarchs a war alliance against the Mamluk Sultans of Egypt, but the Christian monarchs were not interested. ["The History of the Life and Travels of Rabban Sawma", translated from the Syriac by Sir E. A. Wallis Budge, first published in 1928, esp. chapters III and VII,] Their lack of enthusiasm became the more pronounced since the Mamluks had in 1262-63 secured an alliance with the Golden Horde in Russia, another Mongol principality ruled by the descendants of another of Gengis Khan's sons than the one the Ilkhans were descended from and by now bitter enemies of the Ilkhanate. The Europeans vividly remembered the previous Mongolian invasion of Europe and did not desire a repeat. [David Nicolle: "The Muslim Warlords", Firebird Books, 1990, pp. 117-118]

Possible errors

Several minor errors in the book have been pointed out by Timothy May:
* at the Battle of Kalka River, Weatherford states that the Mongols used a type of arrow that could not be notched into Russian bows. May claims that there is no evidence for this, and laments the lack of footnotes relating it to a source.
* At one point, Weatherford says that Baghdad fell to infidel troops in 1258, and then only to the Americans in 2003. However, the British troops had entered Baghdad in 1917.
* Timurlane is said to have captured the sultan of the Seljuk kingdom in modern Turkey; but actually Timur captured the Ottoman Sultan Bayazid.
* The attempt to link Akbar's open religion of Din Ilahi to Mongol practices of religious freedom may not be correct.
* Regarding the etymology of the name for the Hazara people of Afghanistan, the claim that "hazar" means ten thousand in Persian is incorrect, "hazar" means one thousand.
* The name "Chinggis Khan", derived from "ching" in Mongolian, means "strong, firm, fearless", but it is not related to the Mongol word "chino" for wolf. May goes on to claim that "Weatherford is not a historian" and that the text is "filled with inaccuracies", but no other specific errors are outlined. On the whole, however, May agrees that the book is very well written, and can fire the imagination of the reader more than any "dusty monograph".


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