Sunday, January 9, 2011

The Great Mongol Horde

About 60,000 years ago human beings were migrating out of Africa and discovering the landmass of the Earth. They (we) fanned out into India and China and the Middle East and the Mediterranean Sea. They did not move too far north, except for a few probes by groups of people. One such probe crossed a frozen wasteland now known as the Bering Sea and came into the Americas. But, that group (or collection of groups), like most of humanity left in deeper Africa, didn’t account for much of world history until more recent times.

The peoples that most affected humanity and the Earth centered themselves in the aforementioned four geographic areas of the landmass. In these places the first great civilizations rose and fell for thousands of years as agricultural prowess evolved along with such things as canal building and wall construction for fortified cities and large temples and palaces.

Such things as war, famine, disease, climate change (more specifically climate change within the context of geography) combined to affect human things like the growth of commerce and the social development of these peoples over the course of the last 12,000 years. It is the story of these last 12,000 years that Ian Morris attempts to tell and theorize about in a book I am currently reading by him entitled Why the West Rules – For Now.

I am a little over halfway through the book and Morris has me on the edge of my seat with this fascinating look at history. I just finished the chapter in part containing 4-5 pages regarding the Mongol Empire around 1200 to 1300. In the grand scheme of time, the Mongols warrant about that many pages compared with everything else Morris is talking about. So, this post is about a very minor point he covers in the course of his work.

In the West, the Roman Empire has fallen, though the Byzantine Empire still remains to its memory. All major powers are at war with each other and none of them is very great in size or wealth. Occasionally, Europe rallies enough cohesion to attack the Muslims who have a growing empire of their own and control Jerusalem. The city exchanges hands several times through the decades in horrific fighting.

Meanwhile, in China the city of Kaifeng stands as the industrial giant of the Earth. Over one million humans live there making it the most populous and wealthiest place on Earth. Vast stretches of forests have been wiped out trying to both house and feed the people as well as support the first mass industry on Earth, prodigious iron works far beyond the scope of anything in Europe. With wood becoming scarce from the regional denuding, the Chinese discover they can heat their factories with coal. A huge mining industry, unlike anything in the West, develops. China is on the verge of the First Industrial Revolution.

Suddenly, disease and famine strike China. Large sections of the population die. Internal conflict leads to a split in the empire between its northern and southern sections. But still, industrialization progresses, albeit at a slower pace. There is vast economic potential. The rivers and coastlines swell with gigantic merchant ships carrying all sorts of commercial cargo and large crews of hundreds of men. China is the greatest power on Earth.

Then, Genghis Khan comes out of Mongolia (of all places) and damn near conquers the entire globe in his lifetime. Morris calls Genghis “history’s greatest conqueror” and “the most brilliant of all nomad chiefs.”

He integrated “city-dwelling engineers into his cavalry armies so well that he could storm any fortification as easily as he could defeat any army. He plundered his way from the Pacific to the Volga…so far as we can tell, he intended to steal everything, drive the peasants off the land, and convert the whole of northern China into winter pastures for his tough steppeland ponies. In 1215 he destroyed more than ninety cities, leaving Beijing burning for a month.

“When Genghis Khan died in 1227 his son Ogodei had replaced him as the Great Khan, but Genghis’s grandsons had immediately started maneuvering to see who would succeed Ogodei. Some of them, worried that letting Ogodei conquer China would put too much power in his hands and would favor his son in the succession struggle, pressured the minor Mongol chiefs to back a gigantic raid in the far west instead. In 1237 they got their way, and the main Mongol hordes abruptly wheeled westward.” (pp. 389-391)

Morris doesn’t point it out but this saved southern China from the Mongol threat. “The Mongols overwhelmed the massed knights of Germany and Hungary and probed as far as Vienna. But then – just as suddenly as they had abandoned China – they departed, turning their ponies around and herding their prisoners off into Inner Asia. The whole point of the European raid had been to influence succession to the khanate, and so when Ogodei died on December 11, 1241, Europe abruptly lost all significance.” (page 391)

Europe was a backward wilderness to these nomadic warriors of history's sudden, largest empire. They urgently returned to civilization in China to work out the politics of Mongolian power.

“When the Mongols did look west again, they sensibly chose a richer target, the Muslim core. It took them just two weeks to breach Baghdad’s walls in 1258. They left the last of the caliphs without food or water for three days, then threw him into a pile of gold and told him to eat it. When he did not, he and his heirs were rolled into rugs and trampled to death.” (page 391) The Mongols did not blink an eye. They wiped out all life young and old in countless villages, towns and dozens of cities. It was nothing to them. They took all, life and wealth. They conquered all “without judgment” as Marlon Brando's character ponders the minds of the Viet Cong in Apocalypse Now.

This reflects a hardness almost unimaginable and certainly unacceptable to our squeamish enlightened, progressive, and postmodern sensibilities. The Mongols were the Klingons of Earth and far more interesting, even though I enjoy Star Trek. History, for me, is more interesting than fiction though I appreciate good fiction. The Mongols turned back East just in time as far as the West was concerned.

“Because they did not sack Cairo it remained the West’s biggest and richest city, and because they did not invade western Europe, Venice and Genoa remained the West’s greatest commercial centers. The Mongols definitely abandoned their Western wars when one more khan died and his successor, Khubilai,…finally determined to finish off China. This was the hardest war the Mongols had ever fought, and the most destructive. It took a five-year siege of the great fortress Xiangyang to break Chinese resistance…” (page 302) Along with famine and epidemic, the Mongols brought down the great social culture of China. The Industrial Revolution would begin some 400 years later in the West not the East.

Morris’s book clearly shows that Genghis Khan’s karma contributed to China’s industrial regression at the same time that his grandsons destroyed much of eastern Europe and western Asia. But where the Mongols did not pillage allowed Europe to develop faster socially. Before long, by assimilating Chinese industrial culture and all the social infrastructure and knowledge to make such a culture grow, Europe was able to close the gap with the more advanced Chinese world.

Genghis Khan and the Mongol Empire have interested me for years. His feat would be impossible today. As head of what we now call a superpower he’d be labeled the anti-Christ, a ruthless dictator who makes Hitler seem childish, a monster of a human being. But, of course, his Being was entirely human. We can be monsters as much as anything else.

Last year I read the first volume of a well-researched historical fiction trilogy about Genghis Khan’s life by Conn Iggulden. I have the second volume and will probably buy the third when it comes out in mass paperback this year. I understand the next two books are as well received has the first one so I look forward to completing this epic, historic journey in novelized format. It is a story that rivals any tale Tolkien invented and surpasses most of them.

Genghis strikes me as certainly one of the very few extraordinary human beings, singular and remarkable, that define the possibilities of what being human is. You might not like the definition he provides, but I submit it is as fundamental as anything, historically speaking, about human Being. (Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, and Afghanistan [by both sides] come to mind in more recent times.) Genghis was an extremist like Einstein or Buddha or Beethoven; each extreme with their particular style of genius. The spectrum of human possibility is diverse indeed, especially when you look across the millennia of history as Ian Morris does in this fascinating book.

But what happens after the Mongol Empire, like all before it, faded in power? I’m still reading…

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