Hurray (itself a word of Mongol origin) for cultural anthropologist and Macalester College professor Jack Weatherford who reclaims Genghis Khan from a much maligned history that defines him as “the quintessential barbarian,” leading an army of “savage hordes lusting after gold, women, and blood.”
Instead, with absolutely meticulous research – including years of extensive travel through thousands of miles of what was once Mongol territory, close collaborations with archeologists and political scientists, and access to the secret coded text of the original Mongolian documents, the so-called Secret History of the Mongols [click here for a full English translation] – Weatherford presents, if not the greatest ruler the world has ever seen, then certainly the ruler who had the most lasting legacy in creating the modern world. Genghis Khan conquered “more than twice as much as any other man in history” – between 11 to 12 million contiguous square miles, some 30 countries (on today’s modern map) with included over three billion people. His own Mongol tribe numbered a mere million, “smaller than the workforce of some modern corporations,” and his elite army of 100,000 warriors was “a group that could comfortably fit into the larger sports stadiums of the modern era.”
“In American terms,” Weatherford wryly clarifies in his “Introduction,” the accomplishment of Genghis Khan might be understood if the United States, instead of being created by a group of educated merchants or wealthy planters, had been founded by one of its illiterate slaves, who, by the sheer force of personality, charisma, and determination, liberated America from foreign rule, united the people, created an alphabet, wrote the constitution, established universal religious freedom, invented a new system of warfare, marched an army from Canada to Brazil, and opened roads of commerce in a free-trade zone that stretched across the continents.”
Indeed, today’s leaders would do well studying the life and practices eight centuries past of the great Khan: he also abolished torture, built a governing system based on merit, loyalty, and achievement rather than social privilege by birth, and attempted to institute a single international law. Even as the Mongol Empire eventually collapsed, Genghis Khan’s descendants continued to rule various parts for centuries, with titles that range from emperor, king, shah, and even the Dalai Lama.
Although Genghis Khan dies (or as the Mongols describe death as “‘ascended into heaven’”) halfway through the book, Weatherford follows Genghis Khan’s immeasurable legacy all the way through the 20th century. The journey is by turns entertaining and aggravating, but always enlightening, filled with countless ‘aha’ moments such as Chaucer’s awe and devotion to Genghis Khan as immortalized in the longest chapter of The Canterbury Tales, the origins of the medical term “Mongoloid” for mentally challenged babies who were proof that “one of the child’s ancestors had been raped by a Mongol warrior,” the roots of the China/Tibet animosity, and the creation of the first global society centuries before the internet made us instant neighbors throughout the world.
While Modern World is a resounding historical reclamation of Genghis Khan and his legacy, it’s simply also an epic story incredibly well-told. Set aside those dry history tomes … let Weatherford take you on this unforgettable adventure across continents and centuries … to read is to believe.