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The Good Revisionist - Genghis Khan - The Sunday Indian
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Saturday, July 21, 2018


The Good Revisionist


GENGHIS KHAN | Issue Dated: April 5, 2016, New Delhi
Tags : Jack Weatherford | Anthropology | Macalester |

The history of Eastern rulers and conquerors has been a history of short shrift. In the popular imagination, fuelled by the Orientalists, the Eastern rulers have always occupied the image of brutal savages leading the hordes of illiterate, blood-thirsty barbarians who ransacked whatever was good and beautiful in the rest of the world. Nothing can be further from the truth.

Perception building through history has been a controversial exercise. Years of conditioning have left us with a skewed way of looking at things. Take for example Alexander. Alexander has rarely been addressed with any sobriquet than Alexander the Great. However, it is a matter of perception. Talk to Iranians, Scythians or any other nation that he conquered and subjugated and you come out with a less than rosy picture of the boy king. At the time of his conquest of Persian Empire, Greece, his home, had no meaningful superiority in science, technology, literature or philosophy over its conquered Eastern enemies. He brought nothing new to Asia. The destruction of Persepolis, probably the world’s best city then, was an added insult to the injury. Now compare this to the conquest of Genghis Khan and his progenies.

No doubt that the Mongol conquest was horrific in its brutality and scale. But was it any more horrific than Western conquests? Is there a method to quantify it? No. Then why has all the rancour and hatred been reserved for him and the love for Alexander?

Jack Weatherford's Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World tries to address these issues and much more. Jack Weatherford is the Dewitt Wallace Professor of Anthropology at Macalester College, and has a history of writing historical books targeting those who are not very comfortable with academic works and find them cumbersome both in their physicality and content.

Weatherford, in his own admission, admits that he wanted to write a book on the ancient exchange of goods and ideas between East and West and was astounded to see the impact that Genghis Khan and the Mongol conquest had on the world. He quietly dropped the previous idea for the book and started researching on Mongols.

Part luck and part effort meant that Weatherford ended up with the treasure trove of original documents that was hitherto unavailable. Around the time he started research, the Secret History of Mongols, the final word on Mongol history was deciphered fully.
Also, he was one of the few writers who also depended heavily on non-Western sources such as the Tareekh-e-Jahan-gusha of Juvayni and the Jami al-Tawarikh of Rashid-al-Din Hamadani. And if that was not enough, Weatherford also became the only Western scholar till then to have ever been allowed into Genghis Khan's homeland and hitherto forbidden burial place.

The result is this very refreshing take on the issue. Weatherford concludes that contrary to his popular image in the West and in the other lands that he conquered, Genghis Khan was a rather visionary king whose conquests brought the then backward and dark Europe closer with the superior and vibrant civilisations of Asia and instigated a truly global awakening, which ultimately lead to hitherto unparalleled explosion of commerce, philosophy, science and technologies.

Weatherford admits that Mongols, in themselves, did not invent anything, provided no literature or art, produced no ideas; however, they were instrumental in bringing the lot together. In ways more than one, this amalgamation also helped them militarily. Take for example the Mongol conquest of Bukhara.

“The Mongols devised and used weapons from the different cultures with whom they had contact, and through this accumulation of knowledge, they created a global arsenal that could be adapted to whatever situation they encountered. In their flaming and exploding weapons, the Mongols experimented with early forms of armaments that would later become mortars and cannons. In the description of Juvaini, we sense the confusion of the witnesses in accounting for exactly what happened around them. He described the Mongol assault as "like a red-hot furnace fed from without by hard sticks thrust into the recesses, while from the belly of the furnace sparks shoot into the air." Genghis Khan's army combined the traditional fierceness and speed of the steppe warrior with the highest technological sophistication of Chinese civilization.”

The book has some drawbacks as well, especially in the sections where Weatherford delves into the subject of linguistics, which does not appear to be his forte. He mixes up quite a few words and their origins and it is jarring at times. But such errors are few and far between and in no way reflect upon the authenticity of the research that has gone in this book. In totality, this book remains a triumph.

This will always be considered as a book that attempted to change the perception of Genghis Khan.  

Jack Weatherford Crown
Edition: Paperback
ISBN: 9781491513705
Pages: 312
price: Rs 599

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017