In the West, mention of the Mongols conjures images of barbarians on horseback with bows and an empire that spanned the world. It doesn’t offer up much else though.
This book sets out to fill in the blanks with a history of Temujin’s (his actual name) rise to power and the history of not just his reign, but those of his descendants. It doesn’t cover them all (the last of his line reigned until 1920), but focuses on the ones following his demise.
It draws heavily on a text called The Secret History of the Mongols, written some time after Genghis died on behalf of the Mongol royal family.
What we learn is that Genghis instituted a meritocracy within his ranks (largely, though family were kept close too), that he constantly adapted his battle techniques by absorbing new technologies and skills from those he conquered (though the army did rely on many well-used philosophies time and again) and that he was a big innovator in general.
He was also a big supporter of trade, helping to secure and strengthen the Silk Road. Laws were put in place across his dominion and applied to everyone, high or low. He supported religious freedom, and both he and his descendants wanted to learn more about the religions they encountered, with many Mongols becoming Muslims and Christians, as well as Buddhists and Taoists.
He shared his spoils much more evenly than many rulers, created a vast postal and administrative system to support his empire and employed many craftsman and engineers (albeit often as slaves).
Through his descendants he influenced most of the known world, sparking advances in China, the Middle East and Europe (the Mongols who led China are even credited with starting the European Renaissance).
The book doesn’t shy away from the destruction wrought by the Mongols, though could be accused of glossing over it. There’s a suggestion that their barbarous reputation comes from Timur/Tamerlane, a later ruler known for his cruelty. It also implies he was no worse than any other ruler of his time. Genghis banned torture when it was the norm for many victors.
That said, the Mongols were not averse to laying waste to cities if they resisted. The book even mentions that when his brother was killed during a siege in Afghanistan his sister-in-law demanded the deaths of not just every man, woman and child, but all the cats and birds too.
If I had a criticism it would be that the book asserts all of the history as fact, with very little (if anything) in support of the claims. The primary source was written by a Mongolian so is bound to contain some whitewashing. It argues against some of the accounts recorded by Muslim and European scholars around that period.
The audio version is well read by Jonathan Davis, the only weird thing was the inclusion of an afterword that is actually the introduction in the written version and is out of place.
All in all, a very interesting and enlightening read. It shows how Genghis adopted many things that would later be claimed as the reasons for the rise to dominance of the West. It also shows he wasn’t just a great military leader, but an excellent administrator too.
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Audiobook copy of the book
Reviewed: 7th June 2016