What a dreaded name! Genghis Khan! Or, as the new “The Great Empires of Asia” spells his name: Chinggis Khan! But, before you start shuddering, consider this head-snapping truth: The Mongol Empire he established reigned for more than 160 years and was a startling example of stability, free trade and even a cosmopolitan approach to interfaith relations. There’s a whole lot we don’t know about Asian history. And, as events churn around the world, it’s clear that we probably should start learning.
Earlier this week, we introduced travel writer Judith Fein’s new book, “Life Is a Trip.” We also published an interview with Judith Fein about rethinking the nature of travel. And we reported on a compelling new documentary from China, “Last Train Home.”
Today, we’re recommending this wonderful new full-color book from the University of California Press and we’re demonstrating the book’s value by focusing on …
6 surprising facts about Genghis Khan & Mongols
1.) The Mongols ran the world’s biggest empire! Hollywood blockbusters like to portray Rome as ruling the world’s biggest empire—or perhaps Alexander the Great. Nope! The Mongol Empire stretched from the Sea of Japan and the Korean peninsula—across Russia and China—into eastern Europe. That’s a land mass roughly four times larger than the U.S., including Alaska. It’s an area greater than the entire continent of Africa. And this wasn’t a brief moment ruled by a single conqueror riding roughshod across Asia. Genghis Khan, born in 1162, unified Mongolia by 1206, but then his empire expanded even after his death and held sway in its central regions until 1368.
2.) The “normal” balance of world power lies to the East. As Westerners reading an online magazine today, we assume that the world has always revolved around Greece, Rome, central Europe and perhaps the United States. But, in the broad sweep of history, the new “Empires of Asia” argues: “For much of the past thousand years, and particularly up to and around the 1600s, Asian kingdoms dominated the world’s political geography and it was Asian empires that constantly challenged the states of Europe, rather than the reverse.” Historians can split hairs about whether East or West logged the most centuries in dominating global power, but the point is that Asia isn’t suddenly gaining influence for the first time. Asian power is a “norm” in world history. If you’re especially interested in Christian history, read our earlier interview with Philip Jenkins about “Lost Christianity,” in which he makes a similar argument.
3.) Genghis Kahn was hardly a barbarian. He was a warlord and a fearsome military leader, born with the name Temujin. By 1206, when he became supreme leader of the Mongols, he was given his famous title that means Resolute Ruler. He was masterful in administration, reorganizing military forces into a decimal system with units of 10, 100 and 1,000. This was a radical depature from most medieval military forces. Genghis Kahn’s reorganization gave him more modern tactical advantages of deploying units in a wide range of strength—even dividing his forces along various fronts. He was well aware that his military forces were the scourge of Asia. He once proclaimed his mission in apocalyptic terms: “I am the punishment of God. If you had not committed great sins, God would not have sent a punishment like me upon you.”
4.) The empire moved from Hell to Heaven. Genghis Khan’s son Ogodei, who took over in 1230, turned his father’s terrible boast on its head. Many of the Mongols followed religious traditions that today might be described as shamanistic. Ogodei declared that Mongol rule wasn’t Hell—it was Heaven. Or, at least, blessed by a sky god with a destiny to rule the Earth. He had a lot of evidence of that destiny, since his armies were conquering regions including Iran, Armenia and Georgia. They even marched into Hungary and Poland before Ogodei died in 1241. Was this heavenly rhetoric all a demented boast? Well, the new book argues that Ogodei took control of a vast territory that peacefully allowed commerce and travel to flow. Said one observer, “Wayfarers now ply to and fro without fear or dread.”
5.) Marco Polo exaggerated (a lot) and his “Khan” wasn’t Genghis. Again, thanks to Hollywood productions and other popularized versions of world history, Marco Polo sometimes is envisioned as the first European to reach the heart of the Mongol empire. We might easily guess that he met the great Genghis Khan. In fact, that first great Khan had been dead for half a century by the time Marco Polo arrived. Polo traveled, supposedly at the invitation of Qubilai Khan, the fifth of the great Mongol Khans. Marco Polo certainly was the most famous European traveler from that era, but he was one among many. He claimed that he ascended to the highest levels of Mongol leadership, but he probably was only a regional assistant to the imperial government. The Mongols had discovered that it was very useful to employ outsiders, who would not be biased in favor of local ethnic groups.
6.) Protecting religious diversity was good business in the Mongol empire. If you want a great historical example of pragmatic support for religious diversity—turn to the Mongols. Some Mongol leaders followed ancient shamanistic traditions. But, some Mongol queens were Nestorian Christians. (See that Philip Jenkins link above for more on that.) Their bottom-line policy was: Peace and security depend on freedom of worship. “All sects were welcome to practice as they desired, and clergy of all faiths received respect and, generally, exemption from taxes. The sole requirement was to say prayers for the Mongol rulers—viewed, from the Mongolian perspective, as celestial insurance. Mongol rulers, queens and other elites patronized various religions, but rarely exclusively.”
Surprised? Well, that’s just a tiny tip of the iceberg of Asian insight you’ll get in this big new book!
You can order “The Great Empires of Asia,” at a discount from Amazon.
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(Originally published at readthespirit.com.)