It took me twenty years to dig out the stories of the successors of Genghis Khan. What happened to the empire after he died, I wanted to know. It was the largest land-based empire in world history. He left a last will and testament. He named an heir. And what happened was earth-shattering, for it lay the foundations of the times we live in.
I was like an archaeologist discovering fragments of antiquities and piecing them together to form a whole story. This digging of the story took time, but I was rewarded for my diligence.
Each of my volumes is a portrait of a principal character. The stories concern the heroes of their time: Chancellor Yeh-lu, the man who saved Chinese civilization. Princess Sorghagtani, the most remarkable woman of the age. Batu, the grandson of Genghis Khan who conquered Russia, and Hulegu, the Khan who ;aid siege to Baghdad, still remembered in Friday prayers today because he brought down the twin power centers of the Muslims in the Middle East.
Not only the stories, but even the names had been lost to the West. One writer I read during the second Gulf War openly lamented in "The New Yorker" magazine, that he kept coming across the name Hulegu, but who was Hulegu? Search no more. My volume tells the story. The Mongols were in the Middle East, right at the end of the Crusades, offering an alliance to the Christian Kings and warrior monks, to evict Islamic armies from Jerusalem. The alliance was refused.
One might say that I developed an obsession for the first chapter of global history. The reason was that no one knew anything about it. The classical historians had a bias against the barbarians. Nobody thought they had a story worth telling. The great civilizations did not want the story from the other side.
I began reading all of the fantastic scholarship after World War II that painted a whole new picture of an aristocratic nomad culture based on the horse founded by a military genius who was ruthless, but no more ruthless than the Crusaders and the great Muslim warriors of the Middle Ages.
I could not stop, even when I spent years excavating the story. I wanted to know how the story turned out. I wanted to know these characters.
I knew that I was on to a scoop even after centuries. I figured that if the stories had a hold on me, dear reader, they would have a hold on you. This was a tale about power at the top of the world. Heroes and villains, skulduggery in high places. Weapons, ponies, strategies, feats of valor, barbarism against civilization. What themes!
The characters and their deeds were amazing, better than anything one could make up. The women were heroic and also villainous as well. They had more power than any other women in the world. They rode horses. They owned property. They ruled while their husbands were away, conquering the largest land-based empire in world history. They were the counselors of khans.
Perhaps the most intriguing of these stories is the obsession of Khubilai Khan who late in life, decided to conquer Japan by sea. Japan refused to submit to him once he took the Dragon Throne, and Japan became his white whale.
Why have these stories not been told, you might ask.
In the histories and chronicles left by the civilized countries, the Mongols are called barbarians, even though they had an aristocratic nomad culture based on the herding of the horse.
The medieval world was composed of agricultural societies that were formed around cities and villages, and the pastoral societies formed around the herding of animals.
The story even repeats itself in the American landscape, in the Old West, where the ranchers who were cattleman and the farmers battled it out for land and resources. Film audiences have seen the scenario played out in countless westerns.
The chroniclers and historians who left the written record were enemies of the Mongol Empire. They had been conquered by the the Mongol Army, the greatest fighting force of the Middle Ages, trained to a high standard of perfection in cavalry warfare, in exercises developed by Genghis Khan himself. It was well-equipped and brilliantly led. The standard of warfare was ruthless and brutal.
The historians, men of the book, had their revenge--Chinese, Russian, Armenian, Persian, Arab, Japanese, Hungarian sources gave the Mongol Empire the worst press in history. China and Russia were both conquered by the Mongols and both considered the Mongol period a Dark Age. The biography of Khubilai Khan written by my mentor Morris Rossabi shows the dynasty founded by Khubilai to be an age of innovation and development in the arts and sciences and also in the creation of the modern Chinese state. This was a stunning bias. The tale told by the conquered.
The chroniclers had an unfair advantage. They had the literary skills to create a written record. The Mongols had only had a written language for twenty years at the time of the conquests. They knew nothing of the writing of history. Their story was told in the languages of their enemies. It has taken many centuries to tell the story from the other side. There has been a silence, which is why these stories are new. This is why I entered the world of Marco Polo. It is relevant to modern times.
These stories about the descendants of Genghis Khan and their struggle for power had an effect on global history, the history that we live today. If the Princess Sorghagtani had not plotted a coup d'etat, for is she had not poisoned her nephew Guyug, if the branch of the Mongol imperial house that was removed from the throne had remained, there would have been a new campaign in Europe and Europe would not have won. The Mongols ruled Russia for 250 years. Think of it, dear reader. They might have ruled Europe for longer, for Europe was more divided.
As I am fond of saying, this is Game of Thrones, only for real. Welcome to the world of Marco Polo, part 2.
As a young man, Marco traveled across the Silk Road on the way to the court of Khubilai Khan. He returned to Venice by way of the maritime Silk Road seventeen years later.
He left his impressions of the court and the country of the Supreme Khan for the the Mongol Empire under Khubilai Khan ruled everything from the Sea of Japan to the Danube.
Polo's journey from Soldaia, a European trading town on the Caspian Sea, took young Marco through the empire, across the lands of the subordinate Khans, including the Khan of Russia with his fabulous camp on the lower Volga River.
Marco and his father and uncle were attempting to eliminate the middle man and deal directly with merchants in China.
Their travel across Central Asia was halted by a civil war among two of the Supreme Khan's relatives. All caravan traffic was trapped in Bukhara, until the Khan's brother Hulegu gave the Polos safe escort to China. In the rich Ferghana Valley, Bukhara was famed as a center of Islamic learning, and was also an important center of trade.
Marco was young and gifted. During the three years he stayed in Bukhara, he learned the languages of the Great Khan's court. He was an eyewitness, he was fair, and he wrote the greatest travel book of all time.
He was called a liar upon his return to Venice, because no one believed the amazing stories he told about China. Many centuries later, the great Victorian-era explorers set out for Asia using "The Travels" as a guide, to prove that what was written in his books was true.
When Christopher Columbus set out on his voyages to find a new sea route to Asia, he carried with him a copy of Marco Polo's "The Travels."
Once you read my forthcoming series, you too may become obsessed.