THE SILK ROAD SERIES: WELCOME TO MARCO POLO'S WORLD
It took me twenty years to dig out the stories of the Silk Road, to dig out the story of the military genius known as The Conqueror, Chinggis Khan, and the stories of his successors, sons, grandsons and his favorite daughter-in-law, the Princess Sorghagtani.
Don't think that this is meaningless in modern times. In the last week of March 2019, Xi Jinping, the President of China, visited Italy and concluded a deal with the President of Italy for a project in Venice, Italy, the culmination of the Old Silk Road. Italy became the first of the G7 countries to join China's Bricks and Road Initiative. The move caused rumbles throughout the European Union.
The port of Venice is where Marco Polo began his epic journey to China where he remained at the court of Khubilai Khan for seventeen yeares. He was employed by Khubilai Khan as a government official in the Salt Monopoly, and he was also the eyes and the ears of the Khan, a spy. The story of Marco Polo and Khubilai Khan is one of the world's great stories in inter-cultural relations and it begins here. The story of the Mongol Empire is one of the greatest stories in global history. Yet the West does not know much about the reign of Genghis Khan. The reason is simple.
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 was told by his enemies, the greatest civilizations of their time, China and Persia, and even medieval Russia, and many others besides. 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.
I had no idea of the scale of the story I wanted to tell when I began my work. One of the greatest sinologists of the twentieth century 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.
I got hooked on the story. I wanted to know what happened to the empire after The Conqueror died? The Chinese histories were silent, because they considered the period a Dark Age. The Mongols conquered the world and no one knew anything about them.
Years went by, I frustrated the patience of my family who did not understand the madness of my obsession, but I was like a detective, gathering clues from books in libraries across the world, piecing together the parts of the story. Literary agents and editors were interested, but some of them dropped off the bandwagon because it took so long for the work to come together. The scale was vast.
Finally. I got a scoop, after 700 years. It took me twenty years, but I found out what happened and I wrote it down in the Silk Road Series.
The Mongol Empire brought all of Asia, the Middle East and Russia under the sway of one ruler who established the peace and opened the trade across the Silk Road. It was an era of peace, prosperity and religious toleration, the first period of global history. Yet the story has been lost to the West.
China had the biggest and most advanced economy in the world. Europe was in the infancy of its development, and lagged behind. All this changed during the Mongol period.
Why should the reader care? The Old Silk Road is relevant to this minute because the President of China, Xi Jinping, has announced his signature project of the New Silk Road. He calls it the Bridges and Road Initiative or the BRI. My story is backstory to today's headlines.
This era is the first period of global history. The empire was so vast that that is why it took so long for me to dig out the story. I sat alone in a room with my library and my computer, obsessed.
During the Mongol Empire, all of Asia and Central Asia and Russia and Eastern Europe came under the sway of one ruler, and that empire came under his Code of Laws, the Yasak. The code enshrined the principal of religious toleration, the first in the world. As long as the people of the conquered regions paid their taxes and served in the military, they were free to practice their religion.
The man known as The Conqueror gave the Muslims of the Silk Road fair treatment, freedom to practice their religion, and he sent an army in to chastise one of his old enemies who was closing the bazaars and the mosques along the Silk Road.
Today on the New Silk Road, the Chinese state has created a totalitarian surveillance state and is pursing a hardline policy of re-educating the Muslims of the region away from their religion. There is an international protest against the ethnic cleansing of the Uighurs, citizens of Turkish descent who inhabit Xinjiang. (These are different than the Chinese-speaking Muslim minority who are called Hui).
The PRC justifies its policy based on its fear of separatism, extremism and terrorism. The policies on ethnic identity are part of the theory on national identity inherited from the Soviet Union. They are not derived from classical Chinese philosophy, which is humanist.
A tectonic shifting of plates occurred. The conquests of Genghis Khan and his successors ended the Muslim dominance of the banking and trade across the world. The world shifted from the caravan routes to ocean-going trade. The Age of Exploration began. This story, the story of the Silk Road, is backstory.
In the medieval world, the Silk Road was a network of roads that went from China through Central Asia, through Russia, where they ended in the ports of the Black Sea. The method of transport was the camel caravan, led by Muslim traders. Goods were shipped from Soldaia, where European merchants had trading emporia. The destination port was Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire. From Constantinople, cargo was loaded into vessels that took the goods of the East, from foodstuffs to luxury goods, to the ports of Europe and also North Africa.
Once the goods arrived at the trading emporia of the Black Sea, Europeans, including the Polo Brothers, Marco Polo's father and uncle, moved the goods on ships from the port of Constantinople to Europe.
The manufacture of porcelain, the highly fired ceramic that was almost translucent, was also a state secret. The Middle East paid astronomical prices for porcelain. All they had was faience, earthenware. Europe eventually went mad for porcelain. The export of tea was big business.
The traffic was heavier going in the direction from the East to the West. The West demanded the goods of the East more than the other way around. Silk was so valuable that one Italian scholar called it the petroleum of the Middle Ages.
Shimmering, woven into many types of cloth, from broadcloth to gossamer gauze, silk was the most gorgeous fabric of the medieval world, Silk was the fabric that marked the elite from the commoner, with its manufacture a state secret and the export of silkworms a crime punishable by death.
The Muslim merchants who dominated the trade that reached across the world had an elaborate system of credit to finance their trips between East Asia and the Middle East. There were regular stops on the Silk Road, in the most important cities of Central Asia, Samarkand and Bukhara, were caravanserais where the merchants and their camels laden with valuable goods, could rest, gossip, eat and continue on their way.
In Bukhara, when a war between two khans stopped all the caravan traffic of Central Asia, Marco Polo lived for three years. A man with a gift for languages, he soon learned the languages of the Mongol court, including Mongolian, Turkish and Persian. He had a gift. He was able to speak to Khubilai Khan in his own language.
On the Silk Road there was the mingling of cultures and languages, the transport of ideas, religion, medicine, artistic styles and techniques. Here was a Buddhist civilization, as the recent show at the Getty Museum illustrated, the site known as Dunhuang, the first entry of Buddhism into China.
One can see the cross-fertilization in the artwork. There was a mixing of artistic styles seen in the sculpture in the Ghandaran style imported from Afghanistan with the folds in the robes of Buddhas carrying the Hellenic influence into Buddhist sculpture of the conquests of Alexander the Great in Afghanistan.
Here musical styles mingled, as well as the cuisines and languages of the Silk Road. One can hear this music today in Yo-yo Ma's Silk Road Orchestra.
Manuscripts came in, with the influence of religion from Persia. A civilization stretched across the oasis towns that lined the double road that extended around the circumference of the Tarim Basin.
One man, Chinggis Khan, was the political master of the largest land-based empire in history. Under the rule, trade between China and Europe prospered for the first time since antiquity. The European merchant princes, such as the Medicis, built the fortunes that financed the Renaissance and the rebirth of science in Europe.
He valued intelligence from the far corners of his empire. To facilitate the flow of information, he invented a pony express system. This was a system of post stations twenty-five miles apart. there the men designated as his Near and Far Arrows, his messenger service, could rest, eat and acquire fresh mounts. The imperial roads allowed them to go about the Supreme Khan's business unimpeded, delivering the latest intelligence and information. They wore insignia stating that they were on the emperor's business. The roads were safe from robbers and brigands.
Not only had the roads opened, peace reigned for a hundred years. Call it the Pax Mongolica. Global trade commenced. Fortunes were made. Cultures intermingled. Cultures influenced each other across the world. As the world is in the second period of global history, this era forms a distant mirror. It tells us how we got to where we are.
In digging out this story, I became an archaeologist, a literary Indiana Jones, digging out the story, working with the tools of the scholar, research and writing. It was a momentous time in history, a time of change from the medieval to the modern, to our own time.
My Silk Road Series focuses on the successors of Chinggis Khan. The heirs and successors were not always the best of men,. There were great warriors among them, and also alcoholics and pleasure-seeking hedomists, who would rather be among the mistresses of the harem than attending affairs of state. They were a lively bunch, larger than life. My story is the story of a family and a period and their struggles for power and wealth. Among them is a woman, the most renowned woman of her age, a princess and a diplomat, determined to put her sons on the throne, and she does.
Marco Polo, a merchant of Venice, rose from his status as a commoner and became an official at the court of Khubilai Khan. Khubilai Khan was an enlightened ruler who employed the European as a spy. Polo was offered nobility and a royal marriage, a status that the mere son of a merchant could never have attained in Europe.
Marco chose to return to his native Venice where he was captured on a warship and thrown into jail. There he wrote the most famous travel book of all time. He must have missed Khubilai KHan, for the people of his own city called him a liar, saying that what he recorded in his travel book could not have been true. He was called Marco Milione, Marco Millions, Marco the Liar. He recorded that he had not written one-tenth of what he saw in China.
The Mongol Empire was as much about trade as it was about war. Europe wanted spices, textiles, porcelains and tea. This was Marco Polo's world.
As to the New Silk Road, on the website of the Bridge and Road Initiative, there is the announcement of the discovery of a Ming map that illustrates the many cities along the Silk Road. The implication is that the global trade on the Old Silk Road was Chinese in creation.
The Ming was a Chinese dynasty ruling from 1368 to 1644. The Mongol era in China came first, from the conquest in 1215 to the fall of Yuan in 1279. The Ming was the successor to the Mongol Dynasty but it did not have a strong enough center to maintain the vast conquests of the Mongol period. Under the Ming, the territory of the Chinese empire contracted, as the maps in the historical atlas of China plainly show.
In other words, the Chinese are lying about the past and attributing the Silk Road to the Han Chinese dynsty. The big expansion of the Silk Road was under the Mongol Empire and the Mongols were not Chinese.
It was the task of every Chinese dynasty to write the history of the dynasty that preceded it. The Chinese have been doing this since the beginning of the dynastic system, some two thousand years ago.
The history of the Mongol Empire states the obvious. This Yuan was not a Chinese dynasty. No matter how detailed the Ming map that is featured on the Bridge and Road Initiative's website, the system of trade developed under the Mongols. The Confucians were not promoters of trade.
So listen up, dear reader. History matters, and true stories are often better than anything one could make up. I did not have to sensationalize the story. I began this when I was a young author, writing my first book, a challenge of the highest order.
I am a woman of a certain age, divorced and living alone. In writing the character of Chinggis Khan, had to walk around in the skin of a military genius. A little-known secret of the author: I modeled my portrait of Chinggis Khan on my father, a lawyer of international repute, with a larger than life personality and a penchant for command. He too was a paradox, a man with a ruthless streak but a fair and compassionate side.
I have to give credit to my first literary agent, who got me onto the story. He wanted the whole story, all of the conquests across the world, for it had been lost to the memory of the West. He was an aficionado of Chinese history. But the story was so big that it could not be squeezed into two big volumes. The record was left in so many languages that it would take a lifetime to master them.
Important works had come into English after World War II. For the first time, one scholar could tell the whole tale.
The subject was important, editors recognized that, but how to support the research and writing, the excavation of the story? I avoided academia, and jobs on magazines and in media. I figured out ways to support my expedition. I endured the slings and arrows of family critique and expectation. Finally I picked the stories of the most outstanding characters. The Silk Road Series was the answer. Here they are:
Chancellor Yeh-lu, the man who saved Chinese civilization.
Princess Sorghagtani, the most remarkable woman of the age, according to the envoy sent by the Pope to find out how much of a danger the Mongol Empire represented to Europe. She put her sons on the throne and changed the course of global history. Mongol women had high status, with clans and herds of their own. The most talented of them served as counsellors to khans, with no loss of masculinity accorded to the khan. All reverence to the point of view of mother earth.
Batu, Khan of the Golden Horde, the grandson of Genghis Khan who conquered Russia and Eastern Europe. In this book is the portrait of the Great General Subudei, after Genghis Khan, the greatest strategist in the Mongol Army.
Hulegu, KHan of Persia, the Khan who laid siege to Baghdad, a man still remembered in Friday prayers today because he brought down the twin power centers of the Muslims in the Middle East.
Khubilai Khan, a man born to the horse, who unified China and ascended the Dragon Throne, ruling as a Chinese Emperor, until he went off the rails. He began in glory and ended in obsession, obesity, depression, gluttony. You must read the book to find out why.
There is a dark side to the Mongol conquests. Medieval warfare was brutal, whether conducted by Chinggis Khan or by Richard the Lion-hearted and Saladin in Jerusalem.
The idea among Western historians was that vast numbers of men, the barbarian hordes, slaughtered their way across the world. This is not true. The hallmark of the Mongol Army was quality, not quantity. The slaughter was the way in which medieval warfare was conducted, by the armies of Christianity and Islam as well as the Mongol Empire.
As a basis for comparison: The armies of both Christian kings and Muslim shahs during the Crusades in the Middle East were every bit as bloody as the Mongol campaigns across the world. It is said that during the battle for Jerusalem between Richard the Lionhearted and Saladin, the great Kurdish warriors, that the streets of Jerusalem ran knee-deep in blood.
There is no masking the dark side of the conquests. Chinggis Khan had a reputation for bloodthirstiness. This is not accurate. The Supreme Khan never left an enemy population behind the advancing front lines of his army. This was for tactical reasons, not for the pleasure of killing.
He was not educated, but he admired educated men. For purposes of governing, he recruited and employed a Chinese chancellor, Yeh-lu Chu-tsai. Yeh-lu was a Buddhist in his private life, opposed to killing. He influenced the worst of Mongol military practices. He did not appeal to Chinggis Khan's compassion, but to his desire for profit.
Yeh-lu argued that the Supreme Khan had more to gain from taxing the population than from killing it. Yeh-lu was a physician and he argued that he had to stem the epidemics of battlefield diseases that ravaged the army. He wanted the Mongol soldiers to bathe. Though it was against the beliefs of shamanism, by the time of the Campaign in the Muslim lands, Yeh-lu got the troops to bathe.
The numbers of troops were inflated and so was the devastation. This is not to make light of the devastationm but the Persian historians record that thirty years after the conquest of Bukhara, Marco Polo passed through Samarkand and Bukhara and the market towns were thriving and doing business. Marco Polo spent two years in a caravanserai in the city because two khans were fighting and commercial traffic was stalled. Even in the space of thirty years, Bukhara was a thriving center of intellectual life and of commerce. Still other places never recovered from the warfare.
The inventor of modern warfare, Chinggis Khan introduced the element of psychology into his warfare. He ordered his generals to deliver Orders of Submission. "Submit and be spared. Resist and be plunged into humiliation."
He terrorized those in the direct line of his army as a signal to those in his line of advance.
He wanted to be spared the difficulty of waging war. He promised good treatment to those who surrendered. He offered command under Mongol generals to Chinese generals who submitted during the Campaign in North China. He used human shields in his conquest of walled cities.
Think of it. China and Russia were both conquered by the Mongols. Neither were as centralized and authoritarian as they later became. Both Russia and China were ashamed of their conquest by barbarians. Their historians were silent.
The Big Silence was a matter of national pride. China was the country that accepted tribute from its neighbors. The ruling class, the educated men, the Confucian scholar-gentlemen believed in their own superiority. What did it say about Chinese civilization if it was conquered by the "uncivilized"? The barbarians were great horsemen, but they were unwashed and unlettered.
Until the invention of the Google search engine, just acquiring the books was a heroic undertaking. This was not like writing about Henry VIII, where there were twenty books of history to consult. On this subject, there was The Big Silence. One needed a rare book dealer, one searched the used book section of the great bookstores in New York, one used the Inter-Library Loan System connecting libraries from all over the world. The travel to peruse archives, the Bibliotheque Nationale, the Vatican Library, the Bodleian, was brutally expensive.
The Mongol victory in Russia, and then in Hungary and Poland, shattered the foundations of European society. The fall of the Roman Empire was not so distant in time that it was not remembered, and the fall had come at the onslaught of previous barbarians, the Huns and Visigoths.
The Mongol generals were poised to conquer Europe, for Europe was divided, its armies no match for the greatest fighting machine of the time. The Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor were engaged in a power struggle with each other, and could not mount a common defense. The Mongol Army would have done beaten the armies of Europe as they beat the armies of the crowned heads of Eastern Europe. Only the death of Genghis Khan's successor, the Supreme Khan Ogodei saved Europe.
We are living in a new era of global history. If China is declaring the New Silk Road, why not take a look back?
In my Silk Road Series, I have given you the characters, the good, the bad and the ugly. Here are the conquests that both Russia and China buried in their histories, for they did not want to admit that their civilizations were defeated by so-called barbarians.
This is an Asian saga. Audiences love a saga, following the highs and lows of human folly against a backdrop of wealth, power and skulduggery in high places. This is the human condition written on a vast canvas.
The Japanese film director Akira Kurosawa was the first to note the similarity between the Shakespeare histories and Asian history. He famously created a version of Macbeth called "Throne of Blood" and of King Lear, called "Ran."
Kurosawa used as his backdrop the Japanese civil war for control of the country. My Silk Road Series is the Chinese part of the story.
When Khubilai Khan unified China and ascended the Dragon Throne in the thirteenth century, he was determined to rule as a true Chinese emperor, a true Son of Heaven.
He became obsessed with Japan submitting and becoming a vassal, as they had done during China's Golden Age, the Tang Dynasty. The Tang was multicultural and international and Khubilai Khan had taken it as a model for his reign. He was a man born to the horse. His honor and his pride were at stake. He was rebuffed.
The boy shogun Tokimune, the ruler of Japan, would have none of it. He rebuked the Mongol envoys and sent them home, across the sea. He said that he had submitted as a vassal to the Song Emperor, the Han Chinese emperor who ruled below the Yangzi, in Southern China.
The demand was an act of hubris, and it led to a bad end. Khubilai Khan's life changed drastically. He began in glory, but became the King Lear of Asia.
I am no spoiler and I get ahead of my story. How do we know all of this? Khubilai Khan had befriended and then hired a European, Marco Polo. Young Marco spoke the languages of the court and could speak to the Khan in his own language. He had no stake in court politics. This is the greatest cross-cultural friendship in global history.
I am of that first generation of scholars for whom so much material has come into English that one does not have to spend a lifetime acquiring the languages to tell the tale.
What you get with the Mongol Empire are wars and romance, victories and defeats. Read how the great khans came to power and about their private lives. In reading my forthcoming series, you too may become obsessed. I have uncovered their stories for modern times, a scoop after 700 years. I will post the notice when the books are forthcoming. Get on your pony and ride.