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The best books on Chinggis Khan

recommended by Timothy May

The Mongols by Timothy May

The Mongols
by Timothy May

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He was born Temüjin and was afraid of dogs as a child. He went on to create the largest land empire the world has ever known, but was more than just a bloodthirsty conqueror. Timothy May, Professor of Eurasian History at the University of North Georgia and author of a number of books on the Mongol Empire, separates the facts from the myths and explains how the modern world would have looked very different without Genghis or, more accurately, Chinggis Khan.

Interview by Benedict King

The Mongols by Timothy May

The Mongols
by Timothy May

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Before we get to the books you’ve recommended, can you just tell us very briefly when Chinggis Khan was alive and, in a couple of sentences, what he did?

Chinggis Khan was born in 1162 as Temüjin. His mother was Hoelun. She was kidnapped by his father Yesugei, but she became his primary wife. As well as Temüjin they had a few other children and Temüjin would eventually become Chinggis Khan. Chinggis Khan is a title that means ‘fearless, firm, resolute ruler’. An older view that’s hung around for a while is that it means ‘oceanic ruler’. There’s still some debate on exactly what it means, but it means someone you really don’t want to mess with.

He eventually died in 1227, while on campaign in Xi Xia, which is the modern Gansu and Ningxia provinces of China.

What did he do? He created the Mongol Empire. But what he also did was create the Mongols or Mongolians as a people. Prior to this, there were numerous tribes. The ethnonyms would come and go, depending on the dynasty but, after Chinggis Khan, the Mongols, who had been around since at least the time of the Tang Dynasty, are a consistently identifiable group and they never go away.

Numerous other steppe empires or polities emerged in Mongolia, like the Turks and the Uyghurs. Those names hang around, but not all the other ones. But the fact that there is a Mongolia today, that there are people who identify themselves as Mongols, that there’s a written language and a spoken language, is part of Chinggis Khan’s legacy. The written language came into being because Chinggis Khan made it happen. He remained illiterate, but he wanted all of his children and his people to be able to read and write. Without him it’s really difficult to envision what Mongolia would be like or what we would call it.

Also, the Mongol Empire became the largest contiguous empire in history. He himself conquered the largest amount of territory by any single conqueror—larger than Julius Caesar, larger than Napoleon, larger than Alexander the Great, or anyone else. His is a name that looms large and for a very good reason, whatever you think about him.

Let’s get on to the books, starting with Michal Biran’s Chinggis Khan. Tell us about this book and why you’ve chosen this biography above others.

Michal Biran is a fabulous Israeli scholar. She does incredible work on the Mongol Empire and, academically speaking, you could say she’s carving out her own little empire because she has numerous students coming out of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. This particular book is interesting because it’s part of the Makers of the Muslim World series by One World, which is a British publisher. They commission books on various figures in Islamic history and you look at all those and say, ‘okay, that one makes sense, that one makes sense…’ and then you see Chinggis Khan. And that catches your eye because this is not someone most people normally think about in connection with the Islamic world.

There are many biographies of Chinggis Khan but, as is generally the case with historical figures who have multiple biographies, there are just a few really solid academic ones that don’t lean one way or another, towards the hype, or get too involved in just one aspect or other of the story. This is one of the very best biographies of Chinggis Khan, academic but yet also accessible. That it fits into the Muslim world—or one side of the Muslim world—is what separates it from some of the other ones.

“This is one of the very best biographies of Chinggis Khan, academic but yet also accessible”

It has a standard narrative of Chinggis Khan’s history, good analysis and good discussions of various aspects of his life, but it also looks at his legacy and the legacy of the Mongol Empire in the Islamic world. When the Mongols come into the Islamic world—particularly Chinggis Khan—they’re seen as the punishment of God. Indeed, one source we have relates how he comes to Bukhara, enters the mosque during Friday prayers, goes up to the pulpit and announces that he is the punishment of God. And if not for the sins of their rulers, God would not have sent a punishment like him.

It is unlikely he actually said that, but it does make a good story. The quote is from Juvayni and, at least in my opinion, is basically Juvayni trying to wrap his head around the questions, ‘what has happened to us as Muslims?’ and ‘who is this guy? Where has he come from and why is he here?’—basically trying to rationalise the Mongol invasions.

Khan’s great-great grandchildren eventually all converted to Islam in the Middle East, so they eventually helped to spread Islam but, at the beginning, they’re seen as the end of the world. We have chroniclers such as  Ibn Al-Athir writing in Mosul in the late 1220s and early 1230s, who announces that he was very hesitant to even write about the Mongol invasion because who would want to write about the end of Islam? That’s how bleak and how dire things felt at the time of Chinggis Khan, when the Mongols first arrived in the Islamic world.

Did Chinggis Khan convert to Islam?

No, he did not. He never converted to any religion. His grandson, maybe a couple of them, did and his great-grandsons did. It was a slow process and an individual process of converting to Islam, or, in the eastern part of the Empire, to Buddhism. There were also some who converted to Christianity, but Chinggis Khan, to the best of our knowledge, remained attached to his traditional beliefs in the ‘Mongke Köke Tengri’—the ‘Eternal Blue Sky’, who is the chief god of the Mongol world. If you ever go to Mongolia and out into the steppes, you can see why the blue sky would be a god-figure.

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But he had respect for religious figures. He was always open to the idea of other heavenly powers and he was always looking for what you might call ‘celestial insurance’. He interacted with Buddhists, Daoists, Muslims—all sorts of people. He was very interested in what wisdom they might have to provide. That was the beginning of what is often known as ‘the Mongol Toleration’ for religions. You might argue it’s more of an indifference. They didn’t initially see a whole lot of purpose in converting to another religion, especially when they were conquering its adherents. The Mongols felt that, if they were conquering other people, it wasn’t obvious what their gods could offer the Mongols that they didn’t already have. But, at the same time, they were willing to play the game. They would talk the talk and work with the officials of conquered people to put the Mongol view, not just into the verbal and written language of the subject people, but expressed in terms, and with religious connotations, that they would understand.

How does Biran suggest Chinggis Khan changed the Islamic world, to the extent that he did? What’s the thesis of the book?

The thesis is very much that Chinggis Khan is a maker of the Muslim world. The Islamic world changed drastically because of the arrival of the Mongols. We not only get the Mongols as destroyers—eventually his grandson, Hulagu, ended the Abbasid caliphate and the Chinggisid lineage, rather than descent from Muhammad, became the key to leadership in much of the Muslim world; but also the creation of the Mongol Empire leads to a much wider world for Islam. Because the Mongols did gradually convert to Islam, there is a geographical expansion of Islam and Chinggis Khan initiated all of that. Many Muslims entered the Mongol government in various capacities. And he had contacts among Muslim merchants early on, during his rise to power.

Of course, the image of Chinggis Khan changes over time. In the Muslim world he’s still mainly viewed negatively, just because of the destruction, but I think there’s an increasing understanding of the profound impact he had—both good and bad—across the Muslim world and in the rest of the world.

And what Michal does very well is to discuss how Chinggis Khan’s image is used, not only in the past, but today in Mongolia, China and Russia, and also in the West and the Middle East. She lays it out very clearly. This book is excellent for classroom use and also for someone who wants to know more about Chinggis Khan and doesn’t want just a standard narrative history about every facet of his life, but who wants to really understand the impact of Chinggis Khan.

Let’s move on to Ruth Dunnell’s Chinggis Khan: World Conqueror, which is another biography. Why this one?

This is also one of those biographies that’s very solid academically. Ruth Donnell recently retired from Kenyon University. She wrote Chinggis Khan: World Conqueror as part of the Library of World Biography. This series is primarily intended to be a supplemental series for world history classes. They are short biographies. This is only 119 pages, including the index and things like that. It’s a book you can assign and expect students to read in two weeks, which in a world history class is about all the time you’re going to have for the Mongol Empire. It’s accessible and it handles all of the things that you want it to, like the basic background about Mongolia, its ecology and geography, and also the origins of Chinggis Khan, his early life, how he becomes khan, and how he united Mongolia. Then there’s a nice section on the organization of the Empire and then chapters on his campaigns in China, in Central Asia and on his death. The final chapter looks at his legacy. It covers everything nicely—succinctly, but with enough depth that anyone who reads it will come away knowing a good bit of this history; more than just a service level. They’ll have a depth of knowledge.

“He was the epitome of leadership”

There are tons of biographies that are basically the same book with new analysis. The only difference is often how thick the volume is. Often what you find is that the book extends way beyond Chinggis. It repeats the same stuff over and over again with very little nuance or analysis. But this book has solid analysis, it raises questions and if you’re teaching a class and you want to use a book in the classroom, this is the one that I would strongly recommend.

Does Dunnell have a very different take from Biran on Chinggis Khan?

A little bit in the interpretation,  just because Biran’s focus is more on the Islamic world. Dunnell is a specialist in the history of medieval China and her leanings are more that way. Some of the source material they emphasise varies a little bit. If you read both of them you’re going to get a tremendous education. They’re definitely not the same book and they both have their strengths.

Next up is The Secret History of the Mongols. This is an almost contemporary piece of literature, isn’t it?

The Secret History of the Mongols gets its name because it’s thought that it was only supposed to be read by Mongols, really only by the royal family. It is a book that may have started to be written shortly after Chinggis Khan’s death. We don’t know who the author is. There’s been all sorts of speculation. For a long time it was thought to be by Shiqi Qutuqu, who was an adopted brother, or adopted son—depending on how you interpret the relationship—of Chinggis Khan. There’s also been a suggestion that it could have been written by Ögödei, who was the second ruler of the Empire and the son of Chinggis Khan. And I’ve even seen a suggestion that it might have been a woman within the Mongol court—who, we don’t know.

The authorship of The Secret History remains a bit of a mystery, which is also part of the allure because, depending on who it might be, you can ask why they are emphasising this or that.

It disappeared for a while. We know of it today because during the Ming dynasty it was discovered and it was used to train interpreters and translators in Mongolian. One of the initial texts we had of it was actually in Chinese, but with the Chinese phonemes, or the Chinese characters being used for phonemes, to get the syllables to recreate the work into Mongolian.

But we’ve also found it in other, later Mongol chronicles, where they just took it and inserted it. So, we know when it existed and we have references to it in the sources, but we don’t have an original copy. It’s not like the many versions of Marco Polo’s Travels or something along those lines, where there are 20 different manuscripts.

What’s great about The Secret History of the Mongols is that it has information that is not in other sources. It has a lot of details about the life of Chinggis Khan as a child. What we get from it is the good, the bad and the ugly. We find out that he was afraid of dogs. If you’ve ever met a Mongolian dog, and you’re a stranger, you know why he might be afraid of them as a nine-year-old kid. We find out that he murdered his stepbrother. The Secret History tells us all about it and why it was done. For someone who’s really interested in military history, the other thing about it is the discussion of the battles, his tactics and so forth.

We get the sense of the book’s intended audience through the way they describe things and the terms they use. They never define these terms because the audience would automatically have known what is meant by them. In many ways it’s also a frustrating book because some of the dates don’t work out correctly, there is some muddling of events that takes some time to unravel, but it’s also fascinating because this is how the Mongols viewed the rise of their empire. It’s an official document, but yet, also inaccessible to the public and ‘secret’.

There have been many translations, not only in English, but other languages. In English, there are three primary ones. The first one was by Francis Cleaves, a scholar at Harvard. He made the odd choice of translating it into King James English because he felt that captured its almost scriptural character. However, that also makes it difficult to read for many people.

I can well imagine.

Paul Kahn then took the Cleaves version and made it more accessible. However, the fault with that one was that he got rid of the ‘begats’—’someone begat someone, who begat…’ and so on. This simplifies the text, but I’m very interested in how these lineages develop. So that new version is nice but, at the same time, kind of frustrating.

Then, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, there is also one by a former Russian prince, Igor de Rachewiltz, whose family left the Soviet Union when it was forming. He ended up in Australia and translated it in a series of chapters for the Papers in Far Eastern History, an academic journal and the predecessor to East Asian History. Eventually he went back and re-examined his translation and published it with Brill, which is a very fine academic publisher, but very expensive. It came out in two volumes back in 2004 and then, a few years later, he put out a third volume, which had the corrections to his translation and updates to the footnotes. In the first volume, about half or maybe a third of it is the actual translation. The second volume is all notes and indexes and things like that. The third volume consists of corrections, often going back to the footnotes, updating them on new things he’s learned. For someone like me, a scholar of the Mongol Empire, the translation notes are brilliant. They’re essential. You can’t do without this book.

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But it’s terribly expensive. It’s not something people are just going to order off the shelves of a bookstore—the price is just prohibitive. However, a few years ago, the late John Street, a scholar at the University of Madison, who specialized in Mongolian language and linguistics, went through and made an abridged edition of it, which is an ebook that can be downloaded through the University of Washington Press, with their CEDAR off-print. The text is all there but he eliminated the academic framework with the notes. He kept notes to a minimum as they are primarily useful to scholars. So that is the version I typically use in the classroom. You also get Igor de Rachewiltz’s excellent translation, which is very accessible.

There’s also a third translation I want to mention by Urgunge Onan, who was a Mongolian who came over to the West in the mid-twentieth century. He ended up at the University of Leeds and then, eventually, at Cambridge. His translation is also very good and very accessible, although a little bit skimpier on the notes. It’s a bit less expensive that Rachewiltz’s. There are some differences of interpretation between the translations but, if you read any of them, you’ll get the same basic understanding.

Is The Secret History readable or is it just a very important source? You mentioned that you can tell something about the audience from the way it’s written, which could have been just Mongols or possibly just the court. But why was it written? Was it just commemorative, or is it a kind of handbook on how to build empires so that subsequent generations can carry on the fight?

The book is a cross between a history, a chronicle and an epic. There are sections of verse and then narrative. It was meant for a very specific audience—the royal family and the elites of the Mongol Empire. I don’t know if your average Mongol, if they were literate, had access to it.

It tells us the story of Chinggis Khan. So, it is a memorial to his life. There is a chapter that starts dealing with the reign of his successor, Ögödei, at the very end.

In part, it is a handbook on how you should rule and how you should do things. There are many examples of what is right and what is wrong, how to treat people, how not to treat people and what you should and shouldn’t do. And, in many ways, Chinggis Khan is the exemplar. After he dies he becomes the model of everything. He is the founding father of the Mongol Empire. Just as many Americans venerate the Founding Fathers of this country, perhaps in an exaggerated way, we get the same thing with Chinggis Khan. He is the role model for everyone. And, often, in other sources, when someone is being accused of mismanagement or improper behavior, they are said to have veered from the the yasa and yosun of Chinggis Khan, the yasa being the laws, the yosun being the custom or traditions.

So, it served all sorts of purposes and it’s a magnificent book. You can’t really understand the Mongols without it because it gives you their perspective and also, by reading it, we understand what was important to them.

The ignorant view I have in my head, having never really studied Chinggis, is that he was a great warrior who waded through blood to create a massive empire. But he was a great lawgiver as well, was he?

Yes. He was the epitome of leadership. Today we have this very weird popular view of Chinggis Khan. You often hear people being described as being ‘to the right of Chinggis Khan’. It doesn’t work. He was a social revolutionary. He alienated many aristocrats because he wanted a more equitable distribution of treasure and loot after victories. He reorganized society to make one single people, the Mongols. Of course, a lot of this was done with a lot of screaming and kicking—don’t get me wrong. Many of the people he favoured were former servants and slaves. They rose to high positions and eventually, because he favored them so much, he often extended these benefits to their children and grandchildren, so that they eventually became a new aristocracy.

“You often hear people being described as being ‘to the right of Chinggis Khan’. It doesn’t work. He was a social revolutionary”

Using modern terms or morals to try to describe him is unhelpful. He was a man of the 13th century and he behaved as a man of the 13th century, as a Mongol of the 13th century. But he was also a bit of a revolutionary, not only in society and through his legal system, but also in warfare. He was, simply, a remarkable man, of the kind that doesn’t come around too often. Certainly there were negatives because you don’t establish an empire like that without killing a lot of people. On the other hand, a lot of people were being killed. The last couple of Mongol khans had been executed by being nailed to wooden donkeys by the emperor of the Jin dynasty. It was a pretty gruesome way to die.

It was a rough world. No liberal democracy to speak of in those days.

No.

Let’s move on to Peter Jackson’s The Mongols and the Islamic World. Why have you chosen this?

Because it is quite simply one of the most remarkable books on the Mongol Empire ever published. It covers Chinggis Khan, but then it goes far beyond him. And if I’m going to pick one book to discuss the whole of the Mongol Empire, it would be this one.

Peter Jackson’s now retired from the University of Keele, but it’s basically his life’s work. His use of the sources and just the sheer number and volume of sources is remarkable. His depth of understanding of the Mongol Empire is unparalleled. I wholeheartedly recommend it. It’s also very reasonably priced, in spite of being over 600 pages.

It is an outstanding book, not only covering everything you could possibly want to know about the Mongols, but new analysis. This is a book I think every scholar of the Mongol Empire will be looking at for a very long time.

You mentioned it goes well beyond Chinggis himself. How long did his Empire last?

That’s a difficult question. The Empire never really falls, it just goes through a dissolution. “The dissolution of the Mongol Empire” is a phrase that Peter Jackson coined around 1978/ 1979 in a seminal article by that title, looking at why it split apart. In 1260, there was a civil war that began between Khubilai and Ariq Boke, two brothers of Mongke Khan, the fourth khan of the Mongol Empire, who died in 1259 in the province of Sichuan.

While these two are duking it out over the throne—Khubilai Khan eventually wins, although he was the usurper—the other parts of the Empire go their own way. They would still look to Khubilai as the emperor, but it’s less a question of Khubilai ruling the entire Empire directly, but rather these other parts doing their own thing, often fighting amongst each other.

Eventually we get a partition into four parts. There’s the Middle East; there’s Russia, Ukraine and a large chunk of Kazakhstan and Siberia; there’s East Asia and then Central Asia. All these end at different times, just fading away. You can safely say that a little bit after 1500, by about 1525/1526 the Mongol Empire is done. By 1368 the Mongols are out of China. But there was still a Mongol state in Mongolia, fully intent on re-establishing the Empire.

“The Mongol Empire became the largest contiguous empire in history”

The Ilkhanate, the Mongol power in the Middle East, ends in 1335. After that, we have various Mongol polities who trace their origins back to various Mongol commanders. In Central Asia, we eventually get Tamerlane, who rules but has Mongol khans on the throne. And then there is another breakup of that territory among the descendants of Tamerlane. Other parts of Central Asia were still ruled by the descendants of Chinggis Khan. The last Chinggis who sat on a throne was removed in the 1920s by the Soviet Union.

So, Tamerlane was not the inheritor of the Empire?

He was and he wasn’t. He would technically have been classified as a guregen, a son-in-law of Chinggis Khan. It didn’t matter how far back you had to go, or how far removed you were, as long as you married a princess descended from Chinggis Khan, then you can make that claim to be a son-in-law. So, he viewed himself as a restorer. But, again, he had ‘puppet Khans’ until the last one of them died, when he stopped using them. By the time he died, he had done so much that his own charisma was enough to legitimate his own successors.

And Peter Jackson covers this whole panorama, does he?

Yes, he goes through a lot of it. He focuses primarily on the Mongols and the Islamic world. But he has previously written a book called The Mongols in the West where he focused on the Mongols and their relationship with Europe. It’s a pity that he probably won’t do one on ‘the Mongols in the East.’ I don’t think he knows Chinese but, you never know, now that he’s retired, he might pick it up and do it. I think he would do an excellent job.

Is the Mongolian language related to Chinese? And how is it written? Or how are most of the sources written? Does it have an alphabet like Latin or is it more character-oriented, like Chinese?

Mongolian has no relation to Chinese. Today there are some long Chinese words in Mongolian, but there are also a lot of other loan-words. Mongolian, if you believe in language families (which don’t really exist as we like to imagine them), would be Altaic. It’s more similar to Turkic, to Tungusic languages like Manchu. There are some similarities with Korean and Japanese in structure, but it’s its own language. Originally it was written with what is now known as Mongol bichig, Mongolian script, which was derived from the Uyghur’s script and written horizontally. In the time of Chinggis Khan, Mongolian was written vertically.

Bichig itself is derived from a Syriac script, brought to them by Nestorian Christian missionaries in Central Asia. The Mongols adopt that after they conquer the Naiman, who also had a Nestorian population and were using that Uyghur script.

Who were the Nestorian Christians?

They were known as the Church of the East and viewed as heretics by the Byzantines. Eventually most of them left what was the Byzantine Empire and moved eastward into Iran and Central Asia. They actually had a bishopric in Merv, in what is now Turkmenistan. In the 11th century they sent missionaries into Mongolia and converted some people among the Naiman and the Kereit and also the Onggud in what is now Inner Mongolia.

Today in Mongolia they use the Cyrillic alphabet, which was introduced in the 1940s because of Mongolia’s association with the Soviet Union after it became the world’s second communist state. It was at the time that Stalin was imposing new scripts on various people in Central Asia and elsewhere, getting rid of Latin and Arabic scripts.

There’s a movement to bring back Mongol bichig and, allegedly, it will happen at some point. But I’ve been hearing this since the 1990s, so I’ll believe it when I see it. It’s used for ceremonial purposes. And in Inner Mongolia they do still use it. There is an issue with the Chinese government suddenly imposing Chinese as a more dominant language in education. Many Mongolians are afraid that Mongolian will become more of a ‘kitchen table language’, only spoken in the home, and that they’ll eventually begin to lose their educated literacy in Mongolian.

Let’s move on to Jack Weatherford’s Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World. Tell us a bit about this book and why you’ve chosen it.

For one, it was a New York Times bestseller. Jack Weatherford’s gone on to write a few other books, one about the Mongolian queens. Another very interesting book of his is Genghis Khan and the Quest for God, which looks at Chinggis Khan’s interest in religion.

When this book came out in 2004 it created a lot of buzz. This was his first foray into dealing with Mongols and, like many of us, Jack Weatherford was bitten by the Mongol bug. His enthusiasm is infectious. There are many factual errors in this book, but he’s an incredible writer and, as an anthropologist, he brings a perspective that many books on Chinggis Khan don’t have.

Many scholars don’t like it because there are so many errors. But, at the same time, this is exactly the kind of book that I would give to, say, a high school student who was interested in the Mongols. Because Weatherford writes so well, it captures your imagination. It’s a page-turner. It reads like a novel.

“Using modern terms or morals to try to describe him is unhelpful”

One of the neat things he’s done is to have his books published first in Mongolian and then in English. They’ve become very popular in Mongolia. He lives part of the time in Mongolia—at least he used to—and he’s set up a fund to translate books from English into Mongolian, to broaden horizons. So, he’s done a lot of good things with his success.

His enthusiasm sometimes gets ahead of him, but this was the type of book that brought me into the Mongol world. When I was in fifth grade, I stumbled upon Harold Lamb’s biography of Chinggis Khan. In the 30s and 40s Harold Lamb wrote tons of popular history books. Biographies, histories of the Crusades—you name it, he wrote it. That book is bad history. It’s so outdated. At the same time, it’s what got me interested in the Mongols and, without it, I don’t know whether I would have stumbled upon the Mongols in the same way. I don’t think I would have always had an interest in the Mongols lurking in the back of my mind, so that when I was in college, that would be the direction I decided to go in.

How does Weatherford see the Mongols and Chinggis Khan as the makers of the modern world?

The modern world becomes the modern world because the Mongols completely change everything. That, in itself, is not necessarily a new idea. This book just articulates it a lot better. Sometimes he goes too far. For instance, he says that the Renaissance was due to the Mongols. I don’t know if it’s due to the Mongols, but I would say that it would look a lot different without the Mongols involved. It still probably would have occurred, because you do already have things happening to set it in motion. Europe becomes much more aware of the world, there are new influences coming from the Middle East and so forth because of the Crusades. That also sets up the Italian merchant states, who provide the money that then funds the artists and thinkers that create the Renaissance.

What’s the link between the Mongols and the Crusades?

Eventually the Mongols came into the Middle East and got involved in the Crusades. In the 1220s, they were thought to be the armies of King David—a legendary Christian king of India. It turns out they weren’t, but their presence affected the Fifth Crusade. Then there were several efforts by King Louis IX of France to form an alliance with the Mongols to recover Jerusalem, although at one point the Mongols believed that King Louis submitted to them.

One of the crusader lords, Bohemond VI of Antioch and Tripoli becomes a Mongol vassal. And the Italians do a lot of business with the Mongols in the Black Sea and the Middle East. Once the Mongol collapse starts, this leads to a change. More business went through Egypt because of the chaos taking place in Persia as a result of the Mongol collapse. Spices start to be traded through Egypt to Italy and then throughout the rest of Europe and, ultimately, will lead to Christopher Columbus saying, ‘Hey, there’s got to be a cheaper way of doing this.’ Columbus’s whole purpose was go to India, but also the court of the khans in China. It’s true, the Mongols haven’t been there for 130 years but, as far as he knows, he’s still going to the court of the khans. He still thinks the Mongols rule.

The Italian merchants still would’ve been looking for spices and other goods and so forth without the Mongols, because they were businessmen. The entire economies of Genoa, Venice and Pisa were based on this trade. They were trading before the Crusades, but business really picked up during the Crusades, because suddenly they had access to ports. Then, once the Mongols arrive, they have access to them. The whole reason why Marco Polo’s uncles went to China was because they suddenly could. There were safe routes. It probably would have happened, but it would have been different.

The point is that the existence of the Mongol Empire in those three or four centuries between the 11th/12th century and the 15th provided a huge amount of stability and continuity over the Central Asian landmass, between China and Europe?

Yes, although traders could get cut off because of civil wars. That started a new emphasis on sea routes. There was a lot of contact between Persia and China because of the Mongols that would not have happened in the same way. Whether you’re going by land or sea, the Mongols are involved.

That’s on the economic side. Are there more global social or political legacies that Weatherford points to?

All sorts of things. There’s the cultural aspect, the exchanges of knowledge and culture that get transmitted by people moving around the Mongol Empire; not only people traveling, but people being moved one way or the other—armies marching back and forth, or populations being relocated. The Mongols moved captured populations from Central Asia to Mongolia and elsewhere. We get German miners, who are captured in the invasion of Hungary, being settled down around the Tian Shan mountains to work as miners. Things moved around and this invariably leads to the dissemination of culture and knowledge.

I talked a lot about this in my own book, The Mongol Conquests in World History. But Weatherford really emphasizes how the Mongols change things and how the world is completely changed because of them in a very accessible way. There’s a good reason why this was a bestseller: it’s a page turner.

Is there a reappraisal of the Mongol empire and Chinggis Khan going on in academia as a result of the increasing prominence of the central Asia in the modern world, the rise of China and the one-belt, one-road policy?

I would say so. The study of the Mongol Empire is vibrant, despite the lack of university positions specifically dedicated to it. I can’t keep up with all the publications coming out, both books and journals, and I think there is a much greater appreciation of the merits of looking at the Empire as a whole and not just on a regional basis. Thomas Allsen, who unfortunately passed away in 2019, really showed what can be done if you look at the whole Empire and, because of that, there is more of an appreciation of its legacy. There have been numerous museum exhibitions. One was supposed to take place in France. The Chinese government loaned many objects, but then suddenly asked them not to mention the Mongols or Chinggis Khan at all—so asking them to ignore one of the most pivotal events in history. It was stupid politics.

What was the sensitivity there?

It was related to the issue of crushing the Mongolian language in Inner Mongolia. There were numerous protests in Inner Mongolia. The current Chinese leadership wants to ignore the presence of minorities and just say ‘we’re all Chinese’. They are Chinese, but they’re Mongolian Chinese, just like you have African Americans or Italian Americans. Everyone has an appreciation of their heritage. If you ignore that you miss out on what makes everything unique and interesting.

Interview by Benedict King

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Timothy May

Timothy May

Timothy May is Professor of Central Eurasian History at the University of North Georgia and Associate Dean of the College of Arts & Letters. He is the author of The Mongol Art of War (2007), The Mongol Conquests in World History (2012), The Mongol Empire (2018), and the The Mongols (2019). His most recent publication is New Approaches to Ilkhanid History, on which he served as the primary editor. His research focuses on the military history and evolution of the Mongol Empire, but also studies the larger phenomenon of steppe warfare throughout history.

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Timothy May

Timothy May

Timothy May is Professor of Central Eurasian History at the University of North Georgia and Associate Dean of the College of Arts & Letters. He is the author of The Mongol Art of War (2007), The Mongol Conquests in World History (2012), The Mongol Empire (2018), and the The Mongols (2019). His most recent publication is New Approaches to Ilkhanid History, on which he served as the primary editor. His research focuses on the military history and evolution of the Mongol Empire, but also studies the larger phenomenon of steppe warfare throughout history.