Photo courtesy of BBC Timewatch
When we think of Genghis Khan (pronounced jen-giss kon) we might think of a terrifying barbarian who stormed Asia, viciously killing and raping. The armies were known to have boiled humans and cut off the breasts of virgins to use as dainties for chiefs. Stories describe Mongols who, when they ran out of mare’s milk, would pierce the veins of their horses and drink their blood.
But in a recent revisionist account Genghis Khan is presented as a more civilized and heroic man. Tribal scholar Jack Weatherford, in his book Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, has recast the warrior as a chief who abolished legally-sanctioned torture, accepted all religions, and believed in meritocracy.
Genghis Khan conquered more than double the territory of any other singular leader in the world. At its height the Mongolian empire was the largest contiguous empire in history, spanning all of China, Russia, and the Middle East.
Guided by The Secret History of the Mongols, a book written shortly after Genghis’ death in 1227, Weatherford spent seven years retracing the routes of the Mongols. Navigating the steppes, examining the rivers and plains where battles had supposedly taken place, Weatherford and his team attempted to redraw history.
During the Renaissance, Chaucer presented Genghis as noble, “piteous and just.” It was later, during the Enlightenment, that a revisionist history marketed him as a brutal tyrant who laid “the fields of Asia [to] waste.”
Now in the 800th anniversary year of Genghis Khan’s title, Theme spent a morning talking with Weatherford as he offered us his view of a kinder, more refined emperor of kings.
Illustration by Allister Lee
Theme: So do you think Genghis Khan was a kind and thoughtful person?
Jack Weatherford: Well, I think he was a very stern person. As a son I think he was obedient. As a father I think he was very poor. As a husband I think he was excellent. I think his greatest relationship in his life was with his first wife, Borte, to whom he never wavered in his commitment.
Is it true that he started his first battle to recover his kidnapped wife from an enemy tribe?
He did, but he stopped fighting as soon as he got her back. He did not continue on to completely defeat or annihilate them.
But we all know Genghis didn’t hang up his helmet after that first battle. Surely he developed a taste for it?
I think at first he fought the other steppe warriors because it was like, well, these were your enemies, they raid you, now you raid them. Then it became paramount in his head to find a way to stop [the in-fighting among the Mongolian tribes]. And he tried several different things as a way of stopping it and uniting everyone under his control.
How did he go from that to mass conquering? What was his ideology?
It seems odd to say, but I think at first he really was trying to create peace on the steppes of Mongolia. But his success in uniting the tribes was through the constant distribution of goods to people, and to get more goods he had to conquer more land. Then the whole system became self-replicating—he had to keep conquering on a larger scale in order to keep [the Mongolians] well-supplied with goods.
What was superior about the Mongol army?
In Genghis Khan’s armies each man was completely trained in two things: riding a horse and shooting arrows. They were the best bowmen in the world, it was a part of their everyday life. With their bows and arrows they were able to avoid close-up, hand-to-hand combat, and were able to do it from a distance. In that regard it was much more like a modern use of firepower. Very few people in other armies could use the bow and arrow while on horseback. So it was cavalry and artillery combined in a way that really had not occurred in history.
Describe The Secret History of the Mongols you used in your research.
Because Genghis Khan didn’t let anything be written about him, as soon as he died somebody sat down and wrote the history of his family. It’s a very intimate portrait. It’s not about the cities and armies he conquered, it’s really about what his mother said to him, or what his brother said—it was very much a collection of family rememberences.
It was written in the Mongolian language, in the script that Genghis Khan had created in 1204 (the Mongolians were illiterate). Because it was a secret family document, it was not made commonly known.
The Ming Dynasty overthrew the Mongols in 1368. A part of every Chinese dynasty’s obligation is to chronicle the history of the previous dynasty. And they gathered documents pertaining to it, and apparently one of them was The Secret History of the Mongols.
He wasn’t the most powerful warrior; it’s been recorded he wasn’t the best shot with the bow and arrow. But I think he was very determined, willing to do whatever it took.
What characteristics made him so successful as a warrior?
He wasn’t the most powerful warrior; it’s been recorded he wasn’t the best shot with the bow and arrow. But I think he was very determined, willing to do whatever it took. He had a willingness to learn by trial and error, rather than any kind of commitment to a set of beliefs or ideology about how war should be done. He used every resource around him in a very innovative way. He learned to be very quick in his judgment about what worked, and which people work. And he was able to put that together to build his army.
Can you give us some examples?
One of his first encounters with a city was against the Tangut people, and before this he had never, to my knowledge, seen walls. He had not been around buildings, they were new to him and, having only raided nomadic camps before, he didn’t know how to tackle it. But he came up with the idea of diverting a river, and even though it initially failed and he flooded his own camp, he eventually figured out how to do it. It was that willingness to innovate, to try something new. He was also very good at adapting old hunting techniques from the steppes.
During group hunts the Mongols would surround a large area and drive the hunted animals toward a central point. As the animals became more crowded, they became more panicked. And basically that’s what he did with an area. He would drive people towards the city and with them they would bring tremendous panic, and they would strain the resources of the city. There would be great confusion.
Were Genghis’ innovations purely military, then?
No, psychology also had a tremendous impact. On the steppes he was always trying to understand what the factions were of any group he was going to attack, so he could try and “win away” some part of the group. One of the more important things he discovered was the factionalism of religion—he discovered it was something that divided people. If he could get, say, an oppressed people of one religion and win their allegiance by promising them good things, then he had a better chance of winning. He did this over and over.
Growing up the way he did, he did not have an allegiance to a particular civilization or set of writings, scriptures, beliefs. And yet all around him were Buddhists, Christians, Muslims. Genghis was willing to tolerate all of them; he was able to see good and usefulness in all those people and in all those religions.
Sounds thoughtful for a conqueror. So where did all the raping and pillaging come into this? And the “bloodthirsty savage” part?
Mongolians have this tremendous fear of blood, they think of it as a sacred entity. The concept of a rape is very against the Mongolian sensibilities because of this aspect of blood and the possibility of blood. To get someone’s blood on you is a form of severe pollution, because that’s a part of their soul.
[According to Mongol beliefs] blood should not fall to the ground or even see the light of day. It is considered a pollutant both to the ground and to the sky. It is the same with other body substances, like urine and spit. Mongols never urinate in the direction of the sun, they always urinate away from it.
Wait a second: If they couldn’t handle blood, how did they deal with the post-battle cleanup? Like entering a newly conquered city and such?
They wouldn’t enter the city.
The Mongols almost never entered the cities—they made the people come out. They would have allied people or tribes from that culture enter the conquered cities for them. Genghis didn’t have Mongols who could run a city; they didn’t know how. They couldn’t run a settled empire. So he appointed people who could.
Illustration by Ken Perkins
Quite a contrast from, say, George W. Bush and the current situation in Iraq. Interesting since both leaders attacked Baghdad.
Bush is no Genghis Khan, that’s for sure. Genghis would always find some group of people, from within the larger group of people being attacked, who would ally with him. Whether it was a religious group, a clan, a certain family. He realized how effectively you could use one group against another, and then he would appoint leaders from that group and that place. In the Mongol conquest of Baghdad, for example, he appointed a Muslim to be the governor of Baghdad.
He also started moving capable people around from one place to another. He realized that the fewer loyalties they had to that place, the more loyalty they would have to the Mongols. In particular he brought a number of Muslim administrators into China.
The United States tries to make the Shiites and the Sunni get along. The Mongols did the opposite; they wanted to exploit the rivalries and conflicts among these groups, with peace imposed over it. Rather than cooperation, it was more a balance of power in opposition.
The American Journal Of Human Genetics published a paper that points to Genghis Khan as being such a prolific lover that there are 30 million male descendents of his alive today. That’s half of one percent of the male population. How likely is this?
One problem with this theory is that within Mongolia, his own family almost died out in the late 1400s. But there were descendents from his brothers and uncles, who were much more common, so it could be that the lineage relates to him. But from the papers I’ve read on this – their studies show that the ancestor goes back to a couple of hundred years before Genghis Khan, so it’s unlikely that the lineage points directly to Genghis Khan.
What do you think the Mongols brought to the modern world?
They really did not give us anything new in terms of items and inventions. But as far as we know, at the time Genghis Khan was born no one from China had ever been to Europe, and vice versa. By the time he died, Europe and China were in direct contact, which obviously has not been broken to this day. Marco Polo was able to make his trip because of the Mongols.
[Genghis Khan was raised] illiterate, probably never spent a night in a building or house, had never been to a temple. And yet he conquered more civilizations than any other person in history.
And yet this image of the “barbarian Mongol hordes” persists.
Yes, it’s even been said that when the Mongols ran out of food, they would kill one man in ten in their army and eat him. But really, as an army that besieges a city—if they’re going to eat anybody, they’re going to eat prisoners! They’re not going to eat each other! A victorious army doesn’t eat its own people, it’s totally illogical.
There was a time, early on, in the West, when Genghis Khan was seen in a much more positive light. The real change occurred during the Enlightenment with Voltaire. In his play The Orphan of China, Voltaire portrayed Genghis Khan as a villain. It was a veiled way of writing about the abuse of power of the monarchy in France, without directly attacking the king. This is where the seeds of negative image started, and it just grew.
How can we tell what’s actually the truth, then?
If I had read my book [Genghis Khan] before I had researched it, I would be very skeptical of it. It’s only by doing the research step-by-step that I came to these conclusions. I may be wrong, but based upon my work and research this is what I believe. I am not there to persuade, just to offer this to people.
How does Genghis stack up in the “Greatest Military Conquerors of All-Time” category with guys like, say, Alexander the Great or Napoleon?
I think he’s head and shoulders above everyone else in history. You look at Alexander, he started as a prince with a kingdom, educated by Aristotle. He had advantages in life—and then he ends up conquering only 25 percent as much territory as Genghis Khan! Plus he ends his life in drunkenness and debauchery,and his empire died the day he died.
You look at Napoleon, he ended his life in exile and he never conquered what he wanted to conquer. He did not conquer Russia. He got to Moscow, and failed. The Mongols conquered and held Russia for hundreds of years—along with China and the Middle East. It was just amazing, I mean no one comes close.
[Genghis Khan was raised] illiterate, probably never spent a night in a building or house, had never been to a temple. Here was a person who grew up outside of civilization, intellectually, emotionally, and physically. And yet he was able to conquer one civilization after another. He conquered more civilizations than any other person in history. And that is a great wonder with an army of only 100,000. Even the entire population of the Mongols was only around one million—smaller than the workforce of WalMart. It’s hard to imagine someone could take the workforce of WalMart and literally conquer much of the world with it. And yet that’s exactly what he did.