It took me twenty years to dig out the stories of the successors of Genghis Khan.
His was the largest land-based empire in world history. He left a last will and testament. He named an heir.
What happened to the empire after The Conqueror died? I wanted to know. I became a detective, an archaeologist digging out the story.
As I was to find out, what happened to the was earth-shattering, literally breaking up regions, kingdoms, systems, for it lay the foundations of the times we live in. This was the first era of global history. This was the beginning of the modern world.
Like an archaeologist, my method was discovering fragments of antiquities and piecing them together, not to form a pot or a vase, but to recreate a story. This excavation, digging out the pieces and brushing them off, laying them out in order, took time, but I was rewarded. Marco Polo's world came to life.
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 Eastern Europe, 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 "New Yorker" writer, during the second Gulf War, lamented 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, during the Crusades. Who thinks of the Mongols fighting during the Crusades? The empire was expanding West. They had taken Iran and Iraq. They were offering an alliance to the Christian Kings and warrior monks. They wanted to evict Islamic armies from Jerusalem. The alliance was refused.
Where Obsession Begins
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. Historians from the conquered countries were biased. How could the barbarians win? The great civilizations--China and Persia, and the rising Christian principalities of Russia--did not want to record the story as sympathetic to the other side.
I began reading the fantastic scholarship of the Victorians and those who wrote after World War II. A new picture of an aristocratic nomad culture emerged. It was based on the horse, the military but also on trade. It was 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. Alone in a room with my books and a machine, a computer that allowed me to handle the research, I spent years excavating the story. I wanted to know these characters. I knew that I was on to a scoop even after seven centuries. Here was the background to modern times, the first chapter of global history.
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, the nature of rule. What themes!
The characters and their deeds were amazing, better than anything one could make up. The women were heroic and some were villainous. 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.
The Worst Press In World History
Perhaps the most intriguing of these stories is the obsession of Khubilai Khan who late in life, decided to conquer Japan by sea. The boy shogun of Japan refused to submit to Supreme Khan once he destroyed Southern Song and took the Dragon Throne. Khubilai became a demented Ahab riding out to see with a harpoon 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 barbarians, the bad guys. They were not literate. They did not even have a written language until Genghis Khan gave them a written language.
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.
There is a parallel in the American landscape. In the Old West, the ranchers who were cattleman and the farmers who were wedded to the cycle of seasons battled it out for land and resources.
The chroniclers and historians who left the written record were enemies of the Mongol Empire. They had been conquered by the the greatest fighting force in the medieval world. The Mongol Army was disciplined, trained to a high standard of perfection in cavalry warfare, in exercises developed by Genghis Khan based on the Grand Hunt, the most brilliant spectacle in Asia. The armies of the civilized world were no match for it.
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.
Think of it. 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 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.
If the Princess Sorghagtani had not plotted a coup d'etat, Guyug Khan, the usurper who took the throne, would have made another war on Europe. He intended to rule over Christendom.
The Mongols conquered Russia and ruled Russia for 250 years. Think of it, dear reader. They would have ruled Europe, for Europe was even more divided. The Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor were fighting, and could not mount a common defense.
As I am fond of saying, this is Game of Thrones, only for real.
Marco Polo's World
Welcome to the world of Marco Polo. Before the Mongol Army smashed the Muslim monopoly of trade, Europeans wanted to get into the China trade. If they could only eliminate the middlemen, the Arab/Muslim traders who dominated banking and commerce.
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 him through the empire, the lands of the subordinate Khans. He stopped and visited the Khan of Russia with his fabulous camp on the lower Volga River. He stayed for years in the Central Asian Khanate.
Marco and his father and uncle were attempting to increase their profits by dealing directly with merchants in China. They wanted to get out of the trading of foodstuffs on the Black Sea and into the trade of luxury goods. The trading of gems was in the hands of Muslims and Turks.
Because of a civil war among two khans, caravan traffic was trapped in Bukhara. An envoy from Khubilai Khan's brother Hulegu, the Il-khan of Persia, gave the Polos safe escort to China. Il-khan is the name of the subsidiary khan. 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 spent seventeen years as an envoy at the court of Khubilai Khan. He recorded his travels through China and 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. China had baths heated by coal, paper money, noodles, coins that were perforated for hanging on a string. The court was more splendid than any in Europe. He recorded the customs of many peoples. 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."
I have given you the characters, the good, the bad and the ugly. The wars and the romance. The victories and defeats. Read how the great khans came to power and about their private lives. Once you read my forthcoming series, you too may become obsessed.