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Review | The Rise and Fall of the Second Largest Empire in History

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Review | The Rise and Fall of the Second Largest Empire in History

Journalist Thomas Craughwell retells the story of the Mongol Empire in an engaging and very readable style in The Rise and Fall of the Second Largest Empire in History. Craughwell ably synthesizes a number of earlier works on Genghis Khan and his descendants, with particular emphasis on grandson Kublai Khan, founder of the Yuan Dynasty in China. He relies upon secondary sources, rather than consulting primary source materials (now available in translation).

The Rise and Fall of the Second Largest Empire in History is a perfect introduction to the received wisdom on Genghis Khan and the Mongol Empire, and makes an excellent starting-point for any student or history buff who is fascinated by the great khans. However, Craughwell seems to accept his sources without question, citing for example the oft-quoted chestnut about the 40 million people left dead by the Mongol conquests. As Jack Weatherford points out in Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, in many areas the cited death toll is actually several times larger than the entire population! This is not to say that the Mongols were peace-loving and gentle conquerors who left no bodies in their wake – far from it. Genghis Khan had an interest in exaggerating the ferocity of his hordes, since he wanted to frighten the people of walled cities into surrendering without the trouble of a siege. This is just one example of the uncritical eye that Craughwell brings to the secondary source material on Genghis Khan.

My other minor quibble with this particular book is the title, which seems more like two subtitles pasted together. Why not “The Mongols: Rise and Fall of the Second Largest Empire in History,” for example?

The bottom line is that Thomas Craughwell’s work, The Rise and Fall of the Second Largest Empire in History: How Genghis Khan’s Mongols Almost Conquered the World is a fun overview of previous books on the great khans, much more readable than other works on the topic like Sam Djang's Genghis Khan: The World Conqueror. I hope, however, that readers will treat this as an introduction to the topic, rather than as the last word on Genghis Khan.

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