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Book Review | Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World

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Jack Weatherford's book

Cover photo of Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World by Jack Weatherford

Everybody knows that Genghis Khan was a blood-thirsty barbarian, right? Not so fast, says Jack Weatherford in Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World. Weatherford, a professor in the Anthropology Department at Macalester College, argues that in many ways Genghis Khan was far ahead of his European and Asian contemporaries in terms of human rights and what we would today recognize as progressive values.

Among the Mongols’ advanced ideas that Weatherford cites, perhaps their dedication to religious freedom stands out most. As they sacked cities throughout Asia and into Eastern Europe, the Mongols always displayed mercy and respect to religious figures from every faith they encountered. Genghis Khan himself was a traditional Mongolian shamanist, worshiping the Great Blue Sky, but he honored Buddhist monks, Muslim mullahs and Christian priests alike, sparing them even when their cities refused to submit, at which time the Mongols generally slew most of the citizens as a warning to other municipalities.

The founder of the Mongol Empire also enforced the concept of diplomatic immunity, ensuring absolute protection of emissaries from other lands, and flying into a fury whenever Mongol emissaries and messengers were abused or killed. Genghis Khan abolished the practice of torture, outlawed cruel and unusual judicial punishments, and banned the practice of stealing brides – all in a time when such practices were widespread in Europe and Asia, and more than 300 years before the Spanish Inquisition.

Weatherford makes these points in a highly engaging and readable fashion. He turns a critical scholarly eye on previous primary and secondary sources, seeking out an accurate reading. This is particularly important with the primary sources, which many previous authors have accepted at face value. Our one remaining Mongol document retelling the story of Genghis Khan’s rise and rule is the Secret History of the Mongols, which is often indirect in style and obviously was written in praise of the great khan. The other primary sources, from places like China and Persia, were written by citizens of the targets of the Mongol expansion. As such, they reflect the terror that people felt at the approach of the Mongols, but they are far from being unbiased sources.

Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World is an exceptional piece of revisionist history. I highly recommend it to anyone with an interest in the creation and governance of the Mongol Empire. For a more standard history of the Mongol Empire, see also The Rise and Fall of the Second Largest Empire in History: How Genghis Khan’s Mongols Almost Conquered the World, by Thomas Craughwell.

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