Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World Book Review
I knew little about Genghis Khan and the Mongolian Empire. Despite being a history fan and big reader, somehow I skipped this era. Big mistake.
Genghis is a towering figure in the history of the world who often seen as just a blood crazed conqueror. Compare him to the other great warlords of history and how time has seen them rehabilitated. Alexander, Caesar, Napoleon. We think of their victories and generalship not for destruction and chaos.
This book shows that Genghis should be known for skill and openness and thought. The scope of what he achieved is near incomprehensible.
“In American terms, 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.”
The book has three sections. The first, ‘The Reign of Terror on the Steppe: 1162-1206’ documents the rise of Genghis from childhood, through capture and enslavement to ruling the Mongol People.
Next, ‘The Mongol World War: 1211-1261’, is the constant expansion that followed. The Mongols didn’t pause as they flooded out of their homeland and conquered all they came across.
In 25 years the Mongols took over more land than the Romans did in 400. At it’s height the Empire was the size of the continent of Africa. They shaped many smaller countries into larger ones that still exist today. China, Korea and India are barely changed from the time of the empire.
Finally, ‘The Global Awakening: 1262-1962’. Is about the ideas and tools that the Mongols used to run their empire spread across the globe. Today many of these have become common place.
It’s the ideas that set Genghis apart. He started by setting his army up into groups of ten, then hundreds, then thousands. Each group was lead by someone with ties to his family and each man had three or four horses. When the tribes left the steppe they were surprised at how few animals there were. The people outnumbered them ten to one. In their home it was the reverse.
They ate a high fat and protein diet. It left them stronger than their enemies and able to fight for far longer, something to keep today’s Paleo proponents happy.
Their mindset was different than the people they encountered. They fought like hunters and herders not soldiers. When preparing to take an important city they would first devastate the surrounding countryside. Then drive the frightened population towards the city walls. Once there, the terrified farmers would spread fear and strain resources. Often the leaders would surrender without a battle.
They fought smart and did not care for honour or glory in battle. They wanted to win and they didn’t want to die. As they were such good mounted archers they could be as deadly going backwards as forwards. And retreat was a favourite tactic. They would flee before an enemy. Drawing them towards a battlefield that better suited.
And it’s never too late to conquer the world.
Genghis didn’t show signs of world domination as a child. He wasn’t Alexander, dazzling with his brilliance. He kept getting better, until he left the steppe when he was 50 and then went on twenty years of expansion. Genghis learnt from every people he conquered and took those lessons onto the next battle.
By chance I read this book at the same time as watching the second season of Marco Polo. I won’t swear to it’s historical accuracy but it’s an entertaining show with some sweet kung-fu. Hearing the Mongol characters refer to the ‘Big Sky’ and see them hunt and fight was an excellent complement to the book.
If you enjoy history then I recommend Hardcore History podcast by Dan Carlin. It might be the greatest podcast in the world and his Wrath of the Khans series on this time period is astounding.