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THE SILK ROAD SERIES: WELCOME TO MARCO POLO'S WORLD
(5 minute read)

It took me twenty years to dig out the stories of the career of the military genius, Chinggis Khan. The story of his empire, the largest land-based empire in history, is where the medieval world comes to an end and where the modern period begins. It is the first era of global history.

 

One man, Chinggis Khan, was the political master of China, Central Asia, Persia and his successors conquered Russia. He connected his empire with a system of roads. He guaranteed the peace and  the roads opened, and trade prospered as the way across the world opened.

 

It was an amazing career. Because of his astounding military success, he was called The Conqueror. He was known for war. but his empire was as much about trade as it was about war. Chinggis Khan established an international peace, the Pax Mongolica, that lasted for a century. Yet this story has largely been lost to the West. 

 

The Mongol conquest of Central Asia and Persia changed the pattern of trade between Europe and China that had exited for centuries. The Abbasid Caliphate, headquartered in Baghdad, was a thriving comercial center for both the overland and  Maritime Silk Road. Further to the East, Bukhara, in today's Uzbekistan, was the hub of trading for East Asia. 

 

Chinggis Khan destroyed the monopoly that the Muslim world had created in banking and finance--it had come into being in the wake of the Muslim imperial conquests of the 7th and 8th centuries. This was the beginning of the development of European capitalism.

 

The Polo Brothers, Marco's father and uncle, were amomg the merchants who ventured into the lucrative China  trade. European merchant princes, such as the Medicis, built the fortunes that financed the Renaissance and the rebirth of science in Europe.

 

The Italian city-states with their sea-going merchants of Venice and Genoa began their rivalry for trade. This rivalry eventually was the cause of Marco Polo, a merchant of Venice, landing in jail and writing the greatest travel book of all time, the book that told the wonders of Khuiblai Khan's China.

 

Like the Romans, Chinggis Khan was a builder of roads. He connected his vast empire with a ponoy express system. To facilitate the flow of information, he invented a system of post stations twenty-five miles apart. The couriers designated as his Near and Far Arrows, his messenger service, could rest, eat and acquire fresh mounts.

 

Why did the Supreme Khan build roads? He valued intelligence from the far corners of his empire. The imperial roads allowed them to go about the Supreme Khan's business unimpeded, delivering the latest intelligence and information. They wore imperial insignia stating that they were on the emperor's business. The roads were safe from robbers and brigands.

 

The Supreme Khan issued a Code of Laws, the Yasak, that was far ahead of its time. He promoted religious toleration, supported trade and preserved the peace for a century. It was said that a virgin could travel from one end of his empire to another, with a sack of gold on her head, unharmed.

 

He was thought to be a barbarian, but although he was unlettered and unwashed, he was the inheritor of an aristocratic horse culture.

 

The Mongol Empire is remembered for war, but it was as much about trade as it was about war. The anthropologist Jack Weatherford has written about how the American Founding Fathers took their principle of religious toleration from the Mongol Empire, a principle that was unique in the medieval world. This was, after all, the era of the Crusades, when Christian and Muslim armies were killing each other in the name of cross and crescent. It is said that Jerusalem ran knee deep in blood in some of the worst battles.  

 

The overland trade was conducted on a network of roads called the Silk Road. Controlled by Muslim capitalists and financed by Muslim bankers, the rulers of the Muslim world had enjoyed a monopoly for seven centuries. When Chinggis Khan became the political master of Asia, this monopoly of trade and finance came to an end.

 

Europe had been a backwater, its local economies and markets devastated by the fall of the Roman Empire and the invasion of the barbarians. European capitalism was in its infancy. 

 

China was the richest and most advanced civilization on earth. The caravanserais in the Muslim centers of trade in the Middle East and Central Asia were the stopping places along the Silk Road where merchants could rest, feed themselves and their beasts and buy supplies for the trip to the Chinese capital.

 

In such a caravanserai, Marco Polo stayed for three years, on his trip to China with his father and uncle, merchants of Venice, on their way to China.

 

The Polo Brothers, Marco's father and uncle, had previously traded from the Crimea and Constantinople and shipped to their home office in Venice.

 

The Polo Brothers had the idea of traveling further east, to eliminate the middlemen. This was an innovation--no Western merchants had penetrated this far into Asia.

 

When the Polos got as far as Bukhara, the trading hub of Central Asia, they found they were isolated from the rest of Central Asia because of a civil war between two khans. The empire was so vast, it was hard to hold it together without modern communication and transportation. The old guard of the Mongol aristocracy thought that Khubilai Khan was becoming too Chinese and abandoning the ways of their ancestors. So they fought for the top job.

 

The war between the khans stopped all caravan traffic in the region. It was not to be the first of many wars between rival khans for the empire was vast and rich  The breakup of the empire into khanates meant the destruction of what had been handed down to them. It is what helped to drive Khubilai Khan to the brink of madness.

 

During the three years in Bukhara,  Marco Polo learned the languages of the court, some Chinese, Turkish, Persian. An envoy of Hulegu, Khubilai Khan's younger brother, who had become the ruler of Persia, rode through on his way to Khubilai Khan's court and provided an escort, The Polos, father and uncle, still had the imperial insignia given to them by Khubilai Khan on their first trip to China.

 

This Mongol Empire ushered in a century of peace, prosperity and religious toleration. The story has been lost to the West. It is a scoop after 700 years like an archaeological treasure buriedin a lost time.

 

I studied under great scholars, I pursued the trail with the ecstasy of discovery, alone in a room with my books and a machine. I asked the questions that all dramatists ask, Who did that? Why did they do it? What happens next?

 

Fortunes were made in the China trade. Along the Silk Road, cultures intermingled and cross-pollinated and influenced each other: the arts, the crafts, cuisine, music, methods and techniques of manufacture.

 

The taste for the blue and white porcelain for which the Middle East went mad, for the creation of porcelain was a trade secret protected by the Chinese state. Its manufacture was unknown in the Middle East, where faience, or earthenware, was the only manufacture of ceramics known.

 

The museum of the Topkapi in Istanbul has one of the great collections of blue and white ware in the world. This blue and white ware was thought to have been created during the Ming Dynasty, a Chinese dynasty, but early samples in the Metropolitan Musum indicate that this was made during the Yuan, the Mongol dynasty founded by Khubiilai Khan. Of course, the Chinese don't like to admit this. 

 

The grandsons of Chinggis Khan brought down the Caliphate at Baghdad, which had been dominating the politics of the Middle East for five centuries. The caliph was both pope and emperor, a spiritual and temporal ruler. This was an event of monumental importance still lamented today in the Muslim world. What the most radical of imams do not preach is that Muslim transnational government of the caliphate had been on the decline for one hundred years. The reason is the same as that of the Chinese historians: the two great divilizations did not want to admit that they had been beaten by someone they considered a barbarian. The Persians left contemporary accounts, and these tell the story.

 

Some contemporary historians say that presently the world has changed from a rules-based Western world order of alliances. They say the world has reverted to the old system of great power rivalries.

 

Today the historians ask, what would the world be like if China were once again the biggest and most powerful economy on earth? Here is an example. China was always the main object of Mongol warfare. China was the richest state in the world, an advanced civilization with the biggest and most advanced economy. Europe was in the infancy of its development, and lagged behind.

 

This world of the Old Silk Road is the world that Xi Jinping, the president of China, wishes to restore with his China Dream. He has named his signature program, the BRI, the New Silk Road. But is the world of the Old Silk Road the same as the world of the New Silk Road? Most decidedly not.

 

 During the Mongol Empire, even under a conquest government, China was governed by its traditional Confucian government with the innovations of Khubilai Khan. It was not a Han Chinese state, but a multi-cultural modeled on the pattern of China's Golden Age, the international and cosmopolitan Tang Dynasty of the 6th to 9th century. This is how far back China's multicultural roots god. 

 

The China of Khubilai Khan was not the one-party state of modern times. The hallmark of the Old Silk Road was the cross-fertilization of cultures. The hallmark of the New Silk Road, in China's Far West, is the surveillance state and re-education camps of the Uighur Muslims.

 

The narrative of Xi is a false narrative of Chinese history. The Mongol Empire institutionalized religious toleration. The new PRC represses the practice of religion because of Marxist doctrine. Everything old is not new again.

 

Writing from jail, Marco Polo left an eye witness account of the Old Silk Road. His fellow citizens of Venice called him a liar, an inventor of tales because no one could believe the splendors he recounted of his years at the court of Khubilai Khan. Marco Polo said that he did not tell half of what he saw.

 

Marco Polo was a young man when he began his epic journey to China--he remained at the court of Khubilai Khan for seventeen years, when he left Venice, the great trading port of the Adriatic.

 

The elder Polos took him on their second trip to China. Khubilai Khan had requested that they return with 100 learned men, people to help him goern and teach him about the West. The Pope had died, and they were not able to fulfill Khubilai Khan's request to bring him one hundred learned men. Instead they brought their nephew, a single youth. This was a disappointment to Khubilai Khan. He wished to rule as a sage emperor as described in the Confucian classics. 

 

Many factions fought for influence at Khubilai Khan's court, notably the Mongol lords who were militarists, and the Confucian scholar-bureaucrats who could govern the country without an army. As a European, Marco had no interest in the factions at court. Khubilai Khan used him as an envoy and as a spy. As a European, he represented prestige for Khubilai, and he spoke the languages of the court.

 

After a trusted courtier, a Han Chinese, fomented a rebellion that had to be put down, Khubilai Khan became paranoid about the power of the Confucians. The Mongols were a conquest army, a small number of people governing a vast country. He feared rebellion.

 

Khubilai needed an ally and a friend..Soon Marco accompanied the Khan on elephant hunts. Marco wove tales of Venice and Khubilai wove tales of China. 

 

Marco was an observer of the most important battle in the conquest of the South, the siege of Xiang Yang, a naval battle. The Khan born to the horse was to take to the sea, to usher in a new era in history, the beginning of the dominance of the oceans. The camel caravans would one day give way to shipping by the maritime Silk Road, for porcelain and silk are easier to ship by boat than by camel. 

 

After the conquest of the South, an important event in Chinese history, Khubilai Khan wanted to peacefully integrate the economy of the South into the North. Khubilai wished to welcome the South back to the Chinese empire. He did not want to treat the South as a conquest.

 

Marco was appointed to a government post, as the head of the Salt Monopoly. The Chinese Imperial governments had traditionally kept monopolies on key essential commodities. It was a way of controlling the populace, for salt was a necessity, and so was iron, an even more important government monopoly, for iron was used in the making of weapons.

 

Khubilai Khan had done for the Chinese what they could not do for themselves, namely, unify the country for the first time in 400 years.

 

There are reasons why today's Chinese leadership are paranoid about China splitting apart. This splitting is part of its history. China had split apart after the fall of the Tang Dynasty, China's Golden Age, in the tenth century. The Tangimperial army could not protect the frontiers, the border from which the mounted nomads of the North invaded China.

A succession of conquest dynasties ruled North China for four hundred years.

 

Like a true Chinese emperor, Khubilai Khan was a patron of the arts and sciences, and a builder of public works. In fact, he almost bankrupted the treasury.  Still the Chinese histories called his dynasty a Dark Age, which it was not. New forms ofliterature and art came into being, and advances in science occured under his patronage.

 

Khubilai Khan believed that if he governmed in benevolence, as a true chinese Emperor, that all nations surrounding the Central Kingdom would come to court to be civilized. This was the theory, but it was soon to be rejected when he tried to force Japan to submit to him as a tribute state. Khubilai was getting on in years, he was suffering from gout, and he had problems of rebellions in the empire. What had begun in glory was cracking up. 

 

The obsession of Khubilai Khan to conquer Japan by sea is one of the great follies of history. A man born to the horse, he takes to the sea and goes to pieces in advancig age. A career begun in glory ends in madness.

 

The seas are the regional seas where today the Chinese attempt to establish regional control. In those days, Korean sailors were the best, the Chinese navy was in its infancy and Japanese pirates threatened both Korea and China. 

 

The story of Marco Polo and Khubilai Khan is one of the world's greatest stories in inter-cultural relations. The story of the Mongol Empire is one of the greatest stories in global history. Yet the West does not know much about it. 
 

The Mongols had not had writing for more than twenty years at the time of the conquests and they had no knowledge of the writing of history. The tale of heroic deeds was told by his enemies, among them the greatest civilizations of their time, China and Persia, even medieval Russia. The tale was told in so many languages that it would take a lifetime to master them. 

 

That is why the story I tell in my series is a scoop, even after seven centuries. My obsession had me digging out the story with a teaspoon, from contemporary sources and from the accounts of adventurous Victorians. I was excavating a lost city underneath the dunes of the dreaded Desert of Taklimakan. I was like an archaeologist, sifting through the chronicles and histories. I was the Indiana Jones of the Mongol Empire.

 

The story was thrilling, an epic vast in scope. It was the ultimate challenge. I was hooked. (I do not ignore the dark side of Mongol rule, but that is not the whole story.) 

 

This period marks a turn in the great wheel of history. It was the beginning of the shift from land-based trade, that of the camel caravan, to ocean-going trade, that of merchant vessels. Trade was changing. Culture was changing. Banking and Finance were changing.

 

The medieval world had come to an end. The modern world, that of mastery of the oceans, would be born from the rebrth of science in Europe, the creation of large ocean-going sailing vessels, precision navigation instruments, and large cannons.

 

I had no idea of the scale of the story when I began my work. I took the word of a professor, one of the masters of Chinese history with whom I had the privilege to study. He had spent his life on the Han Dynasty. I spent mine on the Yuan.

 

The great Bielenstein told his students that if we wanted to make a reputation for ourselves, this was the period to work in. Nothing had been done. He wasn't kidding when he said nothing had been done. The field was a vast expanse of open prairie. It wasn't like writing about Henry VIII or Abraham Lincoln, where there are many biographies and histories of the period.

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The material was daunting, covering many cultures. The record was left in so many languages that no one could master them in a lifetime. 

The story became my white whale, my Everest. I wanted to know what happened: the power strugggles, the romances, the skulduggery in high places.

 

This was Shakespeare in Asia. This was better than anything I could make up. How could it be that this man changed history and no one knew anything about it? I ignored the pleas of my mother for me to stop throwing my life away, to giver her grandchildren, because I was hooked on the quest.

 

I was amazed to discover that women had high status in the Mongol world, and were respected as advisors to khans. It was not a loss of masculinity for a khan to hear the advice of a principal wife, and in Chinggis Khan's case, from his mother who had been the wife of a powerful khan.

 

What was the reason for this, I asked. One reason was to be found in religion, in the old shamanism of the steppes, the sky father and the earth mother in balance. Another reason was practical necessity. While the men rode across the world to make war, the women managed the vast herds and manufacture of products of animal husbandry in their absence.They traded the products of animal husbandry with the caravan merchants who came to the steppes, horses, tanned hides, beaten felt. They were the de facto khans. The somen rode horses and were not the pampered denizens of the palaces as in Chinese and Islamic culture.

 

The Chinese are the greatest historians in the world, but the Chinese histories were silent, because they considered the period a Dark Age. They had been conquered by barbarians. What did it say about Chinese belief in their own civilization if they could be conquered and ruled by the unwashed mounted on ponies?

 

The mounted horsemen from beyond the Great Wall had conquered the world and no one knew anything about them. That situation is about to change. Thanks to a conference for teachers sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the first era of global history will be taught in American schools, from grades K through 12. I know this because my mentor, Morris Rossabi, the biographer of Khubilai Khan, was the head of the conference. The story that was lost is found. It is a grand adventure story and appealing to young people. It is backstory to the world they will inherit.

 

It took years of detective work for the story to emerge. I reconstructed and pieced together the story, like shards of pottery reconstructing a vast. I wrote it down in the Silk Road Series. 

Why should the reader care? The world we live in is in the second period of global history. This Mongol Empire period reflects a former time. It tells us how we got to where we are.

 

My Silk Road Series will be forthcoming, in short books, each dedicated to a different character in the imperial drama. I was inspired by the work of David McCullough in narrative history. The novelist who inspired me was Count Leo Tolstory, with his vast epic of Russia, "War and Peace." A quote from Tolstoy opens my volume on Khubilai Khan. "A King is History's Slave." 

 

Khubilai Khan wished to reign as a true Son of Heaven, a great Chinese emperor. He became the King Lear of Asia. So I was inspired by the great Japanese film director Akira Kurosawa in his rendering of Lear in Asia, his film called "Ran."

 

So dear reader, if you want to read an action-packed saga that took twenty years to bring to the public, get on your pony and ride.

 

@ COPYRIGHT 2019 DIANE WOLFF