If you follow my blog, you know that I like history. I’m both fascinated by stories and I also think history is a good way to learn about what is happening around us in the world. I met recommendations of Genghis Khan And The Making Of The Modern World by Jack Weatherford several times and finally, it was time for me to read it.
This book doesn’t only give you a view on the life of one of the biggest conquerors of all time but also shares a lot about how Mongols lived and what they brought to Europe (apart from death, destruction and later the black plague).
In this article, instead of giving a summary, I’m going to share a couple of surprising facts I learned from the book.
Mongols vs Tatars
While in Western Europe people might think about the Mongol invasion with a certain romanticism, in Eastern Europe it had devastating and long-lasting effects. Thousands and thousands of the elite were killed (as they were the ones fighting those times) in Germany, Hungary, Poland and the smaller states in today’s Russia and Ukraine. These atrocities are explicitly cited and showcased in the book.
Despite all this, there is some confusion about the names. In Hungary, we call those years “Tatárjárás”, so we don’t connect all that happened to Mongols but to Tatars. We are not the only ones doing that.
But Mongols and Tatars are not the same. Genghis Khan was not Tatar. He was Mongol. Both Mongol and Tatar tribes lived on the steppes and Genghis Khan fought them and conquered them. As he usually did, he tried to incorporate the conquered tribe through certain social constructs and through intermarriage between Mongols and them.
For various reasons - this article is short to explain that - European chroniclers often referenced Mongols as Tatars.
Genghis Khan as a father
While Genghis Khan was a spectacular war-lord, politician and I’d even say statesman, he failed as a father. And he knew it.
How did he fail? I’m not saying that he was not there when his children started to walk - though certainly he was not - and he didn’t tell them stories at bedtime. What I mean is that his children were not united as a family, were not properly trained and prepared to take over the huge empire.
Probably the best example of this was a khuriltai organized by Genghis Khan where he wanted to elect his successor. A khuriltai was a political gathering, an assembly among the leaders of the state, mostly family members where they together decided on the future directions of military expansion or on more general matters of the country.
While Genghis Khan favoured his first son, Jochi to follow him, others didn’t even accept him as a lawful member of the family. There were rumours that he was not the biological son of Genghis Khan and he was conceived while Genghis Khan’s wife - Borta - was stolen. It could have been the case because Genghis Khan gave him a name (Jochi) that means visitor or guest. But it might have had a more transcendental meaning as well.
The second eldest son, Chagatai, clearly wanted the powe. The khurlitai was very tense and made Genghis Khan sad. There was too much rivalry and unhandled tension that was the fault of the father.
What was the solution?
Jochi and Chaghatai agreed on the third son, Ogodei, their mellow, friendly, hard-drinking brother.
Not a great choice as a great khan, but then everyone could concentrate on their own territories at least.
Probably most people associate Genghis Khan’s Mongol Empire with merciless cruelty. But if we put things into historical context, we realize that the facts are more nuanced.
Genghis Khan’s army was merciless with anyone who didn’t obey or who did unforgivable things. For example, his army massacred city defenders who didn’t surrender and was particularly cruel with armies who killed the Mongol messengers.
But if you read about European armies from the Middle Ages you will now find them particularly cruel and they were definitely not like that with the general population. The reason behind that is that Mongols were generally vastly outnumbered by the conquered nations and what Mongols needed were safe paths to get back home and trade. So generally while the conquered cities sent their taxes and didn’t act hostile, they didn’t have to face Mongol soldiers.
If we consider religious freedom, the Mongol Empire came centuries ahead of its time. While both in the Christian and Muslim world even branches of the same religion were not tolerated by each other, in the Mongol Empire there was no state religion, missionaries from different religions were welcome and they all flourished for a long time.
Dadu, the new capital of China
One of Genghis Khan’s aims was to conquer the territories of the Chinese Sung dynasty. That was accomplished by one of his descendants Khublai Khan, the founder of the Mongol-led Yuan Dynasty.
He didn’t only unite the dispersed Chinese states into one China that more or less had all the territories of modern China, but he also founded a new capital, Dadu of Yuan. Dadu literally means Grand Capital and that’s the modern-day Beijing.
As Mongols were vastly outnumbered by the Chinese, Khublai Khan tried to be more Chinese than the Chinese in terms of religion, symbols, architecture, etc. At the same time, in the heart of Dadu, he built the Forbidden City where almost only Mongols were allowed to enter and where he created a small steppe-like environment where Mongols could live as Mongols.
Of course, since then the Forbidden City completely changed.
Commerce and the black plague
Mongols were nomad people living on the steppe. They didn’t produce anything in a modern sense. Anything, but great warriors.
To sustain their empire and gain all the things they needed and of course some wealth they needed, the empire had to constantly expand and by pillaging the conquered cities (which they did in an extremely organized way). But even this expansion was not sustainable, something that they recognized relatively quickly.
After that, they operated the widest travel network of its time between the Pacific and Indian oceans and the Mediterranean and the Black Sea. Commerce gave them extreme wealth and access to basically everything from the then-known world.
Yes, it was also commerce somewhere that caused the end of the empire. Their well-oiled commerce machine spread a new virus from Southeast China all around Asia and Europe with extreme rapidity. History repeats itself, doesn’t it? This time, it was the black plague.
With a bit of time, people recognized that if no strangers entered a community, the chance of the plague appearing diminished. Obviously, people started to be more hostile against strangers and merchants and commerce declined. But it was commerce that kept the empire working! With the products not flowing in, the empire declined and eventually fell into pieces.
How long did Genghis Khan’s descendants survive?
Mughal Emperors in India counted themselves as descendants of Genghis Khan. In 1857, the British army removed the last Moghul emperor of India, Bahadur Shah II, and in the following year sent him off to exile in Burma. They also made sure that the dynasty did not survive so they executed the sons and grandsons of the last Moghul emperor.
The last reigning descendant of Genghis Khan was Sayid Alim Khan, the Emir of Bukhara. He died in 1944, in Kabul, Afghanistan, after nearly a quarter of a century in exile. He had to flee the Bolshevik forces.
After the Second World War, “the Soviets purged the known descendants of Genghis Khan remaining in Mongolia in the twentieth century, marching whole families into the woods to be shot and buried in unmarked pits, exiling them into the gulag of Soviet camps across Siberia where they were worked to death, or simply causing their mysterious disappearance into the night of history.”
People from the former the east side of the Iron Curtain know such stories too well.
If you are interested in history, I recommend reading Genghis Khan And The Making Of The Modern World. It will probably put your perception of the Mongol Empire into a different context. You’ll also learn about many things that the Mongols founded, improved or spread. Such as Beijing and the Forbidden City, commerce, paper money and the list could go on.
If you read the book, share in the comments section what was the most surprising learning for you.
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