Saturday, February 6, 2010

Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, A History Book Review

Who do you think is the most re-known barbarian in World History? There are probably a lot of names you are thinking of, and I am sure that Genghis Khan is at the top of that list or towards to the top. I have always been curious about the person Genghis Khan as a conqueror and an emperor that established trade networks within his empire. Some questions might be: why is Genghis Khan perceived as a barbarian or what made him do these barbaric acts. These are some interesting questions and when I saw this book while browsing the bookstore, I had to buy it; I was looking forward to the possibility that the author may answer some of these questions.

So I started my journey with Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World written by Jack Weatherford. Dr. Jack Weatherford is a professor of Anthropology at Macalester College, and he also received an honorary Doctorate degree of Humanities from Chinggis Khaan College in Mongolia. He spent time in Mongolia experiencing the life of a steppe nomad while researching Genghis Khan, and after I completed reading this book it was evident that the life and times of Genghis Khan was thoroughly researched and analyzed.

The story covered the entire life of Genghis Khan in three parts: the first part describes the time from his birth to his rise as emperor, the second part describes the Mongol World conquests, and the third part focuses on how the Mongolian Dynasty impacted modern society. The transition between these sections was fluid and logical. The book was an easy read and I also learned a lot of interesting historical nuggets, which I always enjoy. The following from the book captures the essence of Genghis Khan concisely:

“Genghis Khan’s ability to manipulate people and technology represented the experienced knowledge of more than four decades of nearly constant warfare. At no single, crucial moment in his life did he suddenly acquire his genius at warfare, his ability to inspire the loyalty of his followers, or his unprecedented skill for organizing on a global scale……..In each struggle, he combined the new ideas into a constantly changing set of military tactics, strategies, and weapons. He never fought the same war twice.”

The author does answer all the questions I had about Genghis Khan before reading this book and more than that. Along the way he also cites primary source references to support his story. I gained a good appreciation of the life and times of Genghis Khan. He was a survivor of the Mongolian steppe traditions and this means to overcome many dangerous obstacles, such as defending his life from other potential Mongol warlord leaders. He was not only a survivor; he was successful and made the Mongols a force of their time. Although he is much known for the barbaric streak, which is the reason for his rise to be a Mongol leader, he did implement many innovative ideas to enrich and grow his empire. For example he established a trading post network throughout the empire, every region of the empire would have to share resources with each other, and the “capital” region would get a form of tax if you want to call it that from all the other regions. This increased the standard of living throughout the empire.

Furthermore, I found that the author’s inclusion of maps throughout the book (before the start of certain chapters), and not just in the beginning of the book made it easier to follow the changing landscape of the Mongolian Empire (without having to flip back to the front of the book) and also the major cities within the empire.

I wanted to conclude with the following passage from the book, which I thought concisely honed in on the impact of great figures and events is on history:

“The great actors of history cannot be neatly tucked between the covers of a book and filed away like so many passed botanical specimens. Their actions cannot be explained according to a specific timetable like the coming and going of so many trains. Although scholars may designate the beginning and ending of an era with exact precision, great historical events, particularly those that erupt suddenly and violently, build up slowly, and, once having begun, never end. Their efforts linger long after the action faded from view.”

Overall the book was an easy read and provided good information. I would recommend this book to any lover of history and particularly someone that is interested in the history of Genghis Khan.