Embrace the inner Genghis
A new biography argues that the maligned ruler of the Mongols was a great entrepreneur and social reformer
By Gregory M. Lamb
The Christian Science Monitor
March 23, 2004
He was a sadistic hedonist hiding beneath a fur-rimmed hat. A prairie bandit sporting a Fu Manchu moustache and a nasty disposition who set loose a horde of barbarians to loot the civilized world.
No, no, all wrong. That's what happens when you let your enemies define you, as modern-day political candidates know. The Mongols were always secretive about their revered leader, the man called Genghis Khan. To this day, his burial site has not been found. Over the years, as the Mongols' political influence subsided, anti-Genghis, anti-Mongol propaganda worsened. It became so bad that by the early 20th century the followers of the dubious science of eugenics coined "Mongoloid" as a term to describe retarded children, who, they surmised, must have inherited defective Mongol traits.
In "Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World" [scholar Jack Weatherford] aims to set the record straight. Take the Renaissance, for example. You probably think it was Europe rediscovering the lost knowledge of ancient Greece and Rome? Well, yes, a little. But it was really the paper, printing, gunpowder, and compass brought from the east by Mongols that set Europeans' thinking caps atwirl. Mongols even changed fashion, convincing European men to abandon their silly robes and put on practical pants.
"On every level and from any perspective, the scale and scope of Genghis Khan's accomplishments challenge the limits of imagination and tax the resources of scholarly explanation," Weatherford enthuses.
He has plenty to say to back up that statement. In 25 years under Khan, the Mongol army, never bigger than 100,000, conquered more lands and people than the Romans did in 400 years. All other military geniuses — Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Charlemagne, Napoleon — pale before the great Mongol leader, who developed innovative fighting techniques and elicited total loyalty from his troops.
Beyond the battlefield, Genghis established religious freedom throughout his realm (many Christians were family members or held high positions, along with Buddhists, Muslims, and others). He created a free-trade zone between Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. He ran a meritocracy: He held the wealthy and high-born to the same standard of justice as peasants, not hesitating to promote shepherds and camel tenders to generals. He judged people on their individual merits and loyalty, not by family, ethnic, or religious ties — a revolutionary act in the family-centric Mongol society, Weatherford says.
True, Mongols didn't create much of anything themselves. But they were oh-so-modern as disciples of the Knowledge Economy. They treated people who had learning and skills as important commodities to be acquired and utilized. They had no interest in turning conquered peoples into Mongols. Instead, they made sure that goods, ideas, and people traveled safely across most of the known world, unleashing an era of unprecedented innovation and prosperity.