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Book Review


Jack Weatherford, Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World (New York: Crown Publishers, 2004) pp. 312+ xxxv. ISBN: 0609610627
     The name of Genghis Khan is often associated with destruction, although in the past few years the image of Genghis Khan, or more correctly Chinggis Khan, has been somewhat rehabilitated. Of course in Mongolia, with the exception of the communist period, Chinggis Khan has always held a good reputation for the simple fact that without Chinggis Khan, there would be no Mongolia. The western world, however, has been rather averse to accepting Chinggis Khan's activities as pivotal in world history and the shaping of the modern world. Thus, the publication of Jack Weatherford's book, Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, is a welcome addition to the literature on the Mongols. 1
     The author, Jack Weatherford, the Dewitt Wallace Professor of Anthropology at Macalester College, has written several books targeted for the non-academic world. Thus, Weatherford writes in a very engaging style, one which many scholars must envy. As a result, Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World spent several weeks on the New York Times Best Seller list. The strength of Weatherford's writing is that he mixes narrative with some analysis that grabs and holds the attention of readers. 2
     The book itself is organized into an introduction, three text sections, and an epilogue. Preceding all of these is a genealogical table showing Chinggis Khan, his sons, and the successor Khanates. In his introduction, Weatherford reveals that he did not set out to write a book about Chinggis Khan. Rather, he intended to write a book on the history of world commerce. It was during his research on the Silk Road that he traveled to Mongolia and began reading about the accomplishments of the Mongols. Like many who have done so, Weatherford was, one might say, "bitten by the Mongol bug" and could not resist the allure of Chinggis Khan. It is due to this that Weatherford began working on the impact of the Mongols on the world. He did much of the research in tandem with a Mongolian team that included a scholar of shamanism, an archaeologist, a political scientist, and an officer in the Mongolian army, thus providing a wide viewpoint and a variety of expertise. 3
     Weatherford's main point in the introduction is that the world changed or began to change from the medieval to the modern because of the Mongols. Weatherford also entices the reader by remarking on the accomplishments of the Mongols such as, they conquered an empire that stretched from the Pacific to the Mediterranean, an area between 11 and 12 million square miles, or roughly the size of Africa. Furthermore he notes that the Mongols accomplished this feat when their population was perhaps a million people, of which only 100,000 comprised the military. Weatherford does well to illustrate the magnitude of this deed by pointing out that many modern corporations have more employees than the Mongol army had soldiers. The author uses these analogies exceedingly well to clarify his points so that the audience can relate to the material. 4
     The first section after the introduction concerns the rise of Chinggis Khan and the unification of Mongolia. As in most of his writing, this section comprising three chapters is very engaging. The first chapter begins with an account of Chinggis Khan's attack on the Khwarazmian Empire, which covered much of Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and the former Soviet Central Asia. Throughout this section, Weatherford provides the reader with a very good sense of the rise of Chinggis Khan to power and how the Mongols viewed warfare, which is to say, honor was not in the methods of war, but rather in gaining victory. Furthermore, Weatherford does a splendid job of illustrating that Chinggis Khan was not a born military genius, a label that is often and understandably applied to the Mongol leader, but rather he learned from his mistakes and from the lessons of others and then applied the lessons. 5
      The second section concerns the expansion of the Mongol Empire outside of Mongolia. This of course leads the Mongol armies into China, Central Asia, the Middle East, and Europe. These chapters provide a discourse on the effectiveness of the Mongol military as well as a comparison with its enemies, including such ubiquitous yet interesting elements such as diet. Weatherford also attempts to put the massacres and destruction conducted by the Mongols into perspective and makes a good contrast between the Mongols and their "civilized" opponents who were often much more prone to torturing and maiming prisoners, often for entertainment purposes. Finally, Weatherford attempts to explain the rationale between each invasion as well as provide the political background behind each event from the Mongol perspective. 6
     The third section is truly the focus of the book: the impact of the Mongols on the world. This section begins with the breakup of the empire and various changes that occurred in the Khanates that would lead to the transformation of the world. Weatherford rightly places his emphasis on the Mongols role in facilitating trade, a practice they used since the time of Chinggis Khan. With their empire secure, caravans and merchants traversed the Mongol realm with much greater security than previous eras. In addition to trade, others took advantage of the secure roads leading to the migration of people (in some cases against their will), ideas, and technology. One particular item that made its way to Europe from the Mongol Empire was quite unintentional: the Black Plague. The effects of the plague on Europe are well known and need no further comment. 7
     In this section Weatherford also makes connections between the Mongols, the Renaissance, and the emergence of modern Europe. Weatherford states it was the importation of the printing press, blast furnace, compass, gunpowder, as well as Persian and Chinese painting styles from the Mongol Empire that spawned the Renaissance. Indeed, Weatherford writes during the Renaissance period, "The common principles of the Mongol Empire—such as paper money, primacy of the state over the church, freedom of religion, diplomatic immunity, and international law—were ideas that gained new importance" (p. 236). 8
     Weatherford states 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 the somewhat ironic agents of destruction in the European mind during Enlightenment; the latter stemming from the rise of European dominance and a growing sense of European superiority to non-Europeans. 9
     It is quite clear that Weatherford is a brilliant writer, blending anthropological insight and incredible enthusiasm with a captivating narrative. It is easy to see why many reviewers and readers have been enthusiastic about it. Yet despite all of Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World's acclaim, it is very clear that Weatherford is not a historian. 10
     In the general narrative, Weatherford is sufficiently accurate. However, in the details, Weatherford is wrestling with material that he clearly does not fully appreciate. For instance, one of the most troublesome aspects is that Weatherford places far too much emphasis on the Mongols' use of gunpowder in warfare, going so far as to insinuate that they used cannons at the siege of Baghdad in 1258 (p. 182). There is no indication of this in the Arabic, Syriac, or Persian sources of this practice, nor of the Mongols using any device like a cannon at other sieges. To be sure, the Mongols did use grenades thrown from catapults occasionally, but gunpowder weapons of any form were not a major component of their arsenal as Weatherford portrays it. 11
     Other errors are simply careless. For instance, in discussing the emir Timur (Tamerlane) (1336-1405), as a successor to Chinggis Khan, Weatherford states that Timur captured the sultan of the Seljuk kingdom in modern Turkey. This is simply incorrect as the Seljuks no longer existed. Rather, Timur captured Sultan Bayazid, the Ottoman Sultan. 12
     Weatherford also undermines his own efforts by dabbling in linguistic matters. This is demonstrated on several occasions. Indeed, it is evinced most obviously in his rationale for using the name Genghis Khan rather than the more proper Mongolian form, Chinggis Khan. This reviewer takes issue with this on two points. In the academic community, Chinggis is the accepted spelling. As a member of academia, Weatherford should raise the bar and use this form over an incorrect spelling, even for a general audience. Why perpetuate this inaccuracy? Furthermore, he states that Genghis is the Persian spelling (p. 287). This also is incorrect. The Persian sources from the period do not use a "g" or a "gh", but rather a "ch" letter. Is this a minor point? Perhaps, but is also raises some concern about Weatherford's accuracy when he clearly does know the language he is discussing. In relation to Mongolian, Weatherford states that the title "Chinggis Khan", means strong, firm, fearless. In this instance, he is correct as Chinggis comes from the middle Mongolian "ching"; Weatherford uses the modern Mongolian equivalent of "chin" which could be confusing to some readers. However, Weatherford then associates it with the Mongolian word for wolf, "chino", which was also the male ancestor of the Mongols (the female ancestor was a deer). Weatherford's lack of familiarity with Mongolian is apparent as while the words are somewhat similar, they bare no relation other than that a "chino" could be described as "ching". 13
     Thus with Weatherford's Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, the reader is left in a quandary. Many may have thought of using this book in a class. Considering the numerous factual errors and misguided etymological speculations this reviewer cannot recommend using this as a standard text for a world history class with the exception of using it as a point of discussion on historiography. While the overall thrust of the book is on target and may promote new discourse on the influence of the Mongols in history, it is undermined by numerous mistakes. Weatherford overstates his case in his enthusiasm for the Mongols, making connections that are often tenuous. Did the Mongols contribute to the modern world? Definitely yes, the evidence (even considering the errors) assembled makes this very clear. It is too much to say that the Renaissance would not have happened without the Mongols. Indeed, eventually artists would have had contact with Chinese paintings and Chinese technology would have crept into Europe at any rate via the Middle East, albeit at a slower rate. One could make the argument that the Renaissance would not have happened without the Crusades as well. 14
     That being said, there is still something to be said for Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World. The errors are almost forgivable considering how well it is written. This reviewer doubts most historians found their love of history in a dusty monograph but rather a well written popular book that they read in their youth. Thus in this respect, while this reviewer would be reluctant to use Weatherford's book in a class, it might still be suggested to someone who might otherwise not have the faintest interest in history. 15
Timothy May
North Georgia College and State University

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