It took me twenty years to dig out the stories of the Silk Road. In particular, to dig out the story of the military genius known as The Conqueror, Genghis Khan and also the stories of his successors, his sons and grandsons.
In the medieval world, the Silk Road was an array of roads that went from China through Central Asia, through Russia, culminating in the ports of the Black Sea. The destination port was Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire.
From Constantinople, vessels took the goods of the East, from foodstuffs to luxury goods, to the ports of Europe and also North Africa. From the East, the goods moved on the backs of camels, the the caravan traffic that was the lifeblood of the trade, conducted by Muslim merchants who had an elaborate system of credit to finance their trips between East Asia and the Middle East. Europeans ran the emporia of the Black Sea, including the Polo Brothers, the firm of Marco Polo's father and uncle. From the Black Sea, the goods moved on ships.
During the 13th century, one man built an empire that brought the world under the rule of one leader. This was Genghis Khan. He was not known as a diplomat, nor as a lawgiver and builder of roads, but under his rule, free trade prospered, and the European merchant princes built the fortunes that financed the Renaissance and the rebirth of science in Europe.
His empire was the first in the world that proclaimed religious toleration as guaranteed by his Code of Laws, the Yasak. He was the builder of roads and to keep himself informed of events at the far corners of his empire, of a post station system like the Pony Express in the American West, where his Near and Far Arrows, his messenger service, could rest, eat and get fresh mounts while bearing intelligence and information.
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.
The great civilizations were unable to admit that they had been beaten by the barbarians. They credited his victories to vast hordes of troops and bloodthirstiness. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The Pax Mongolica lasted for a century but the world changed forever, for it ushered in the rise of the West and the Age of Exploration, when the oceangoing powers of Europe mastered the oceans of the world.
The Khan destroyed some of the most important empires of his day and they were sore about it. The world came under the rule of one power, a stable power that promoted free trade and religious freedom. The way across the world opened, through the land routes, the caravan trails of the old Silk Road and the sea routes of the maritime Silk Road. It is a grand and glorious story with brilliant characters.
Genghis Khan had an unparalleled military career and he built the largest land-based empire in world history. His army was superb. His conquests were astonishing. He invented modern warfare. He was the founder of a nation, a giver of written language and a giver of laws, but his image is that of a bloodthirsty savage. The image is not true and only the Persian historians wrote the story of his successors. This story, the lives of the greatest characters of the empire, is a scoop, after 700 years. Reader, you heard it here first.
The way across the world opened for the first time since antiquity. In the ancient world, Chinese silk covered the Coliseum in Rome to protect the audience members for public functions in Rome from the rain. Textiles were the petroleum of the Middle Ages and there was a demand for the specialty fabrics of the Middle East and East Asia in Europe and the rest of the Silk Road. These fabrics were elaborate silks and cotton, the silks a product of China and cottons from Persia.
China had been conquered by the Supreme Khan and through the Silk Road, was connected with Europe, an era of extended contact between East and West.
One code of laws and one stable empire controlled along the trade routes made possible the interaction of cultures, the exchange of science, goods, culture, art, ideas and music.
Genghis Khan, called by his peopleThe Conqueror, had unified Mongolia and brought it under his banner. From there, he and his successors conducted an era of military victories unparalleled in world history. The Pax Mongolica lasted one hundred years.
This era of global history marked the shifting of the tectonic plates of the world order. This was the beginning of the modern world.
The new era marked the end of the dominance of trade and banking by the Islamic world. The Caliph of Baghdad, the pope/emperor of the world and the head of the greatest institution in Sunni Islam saw his empire defeated. The Mongol Empire replaced the old order. This was the beginning of the rise of the West. It was the beginning of the rise of capitalism in Europe, devastated by the barbarian incursions and the fall of the Roman Empire.
The scholarly world has been re-interpreting and revising the biography of Genghis Khan ever since World War II. The Supreme Khan had the worst press of any ruler in history. That is because the Mongols had only had a written language for twenty years at the time of the conquests. They had no experience in writing history, so their story was left in the writings of their enemies.
Genghis Khan was called a barbarian. What was a barbarian anyway? Some might called it racist, but a barbarian was defined as the unwashed. Literally. The Chinese elite bathed in water heated by coal. The mounted warriors from outside the Great Wall revered the spirits of the rivers, covered themselves in bear grease against the cold, and did not bathe.
Chinese civilization was agricultural, with the rhythm of the seasons controlling the life of the peasants. The nomad horsemen were pasturalists, herders of animals, the Five Snouts, as they called them. They migrated with the seasons and did not live in fixed dwellings, in villages, with the culture that comes with the village.
The Chinese were in possession of a collection of classics, the Confucian classics, that defined their civilization, their mode of governing, the relationship of the minister to the emperor based on the family, their way of perceiving nature and human events, and their strategy in war and foreign policy. This was a code of ethical conduct, that of the Confucian scholar-gentleman. This defined the contract between the emperor, his relationship to the cosmos, and his relationship to the people he governed. The barbarians were unlettered.
Before the post-war generation of scholars, specialists stuck to their own civilization, Russia, Persia, China, Japan. They stuck to their own discipline. Not enough had come into English for a scholar to cover the vast story. All that changed.
The new image of The Conqueror emerged. He became the lone superpower of the Middle Ages. His career consisted of breaking up the great empires of the past and laying the foundations of modern times.
He left a last will and testament. He left an heir, but his immediate successors proved to be less than stellar leaders. Women had status and power. Women ruled in the absence of their men, the khans, making war.
One of them was the most remarkable diplomat of the age, Genghis Khan's favorite daughter-in-law, handpicked by him to marry his youngest son Tolui, his chief of staff, the son who rode beside him in every campaign.
The story was vast, it took place on many continents, and the record was left in so many languages that it would take a lifetime to master them.
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. One might say I got obsessed. I wanted to be the trail-blazer. I wanted to know. What happened to the empire after The Conqueror died? It took me twenty years, but I got my answer. Years went by, I frustrated family, literary agents and editors, but I got a scoop, after 700 years.
The roads opened. Peace reigned. 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.
I was the archaeologist, working with a shovel and a brush, digging out the story. This is the subject of my series on the great characters of the Mongol Empire. They were a lively bunch and they were larger than life, characters struggling for power.
During the Middle Ages, the world was composed of islands of civilization surrounded by nomads. The ranchers who raised the livestock and the farmers who grew the food, to make the comparison to the American West.
The civilized countries were those who lived in villages and practiced agriculture. They were lettered and produced culture. The uncivilized were the nomads, unlettered and not living in a fixed place. They migrated with the seasons to find pasture for their animals. In the case of the Mongol Empire, the animals were called The Five Snouts. Horses were the prized animals. In the case of the Mongol Empire, the stubby Mongol war ponies, the hardiest horses on earth. Not that these horses were lookers. They were not like the thoroughbreds and their ancestors, first domesticated in Central Asia.
The Mongol Army was the lone superpower of the Middle Ages, superbly commanded, trained and equipped.
The Supreme Khan had a mystique. He believed he was destined to govern all peoples, that he had the blessing of the Eternal Blue Sky, the deity of the shamans. He wore the same uniform as his men, he slept in a felt tent like his men, and he rode at the head of his army. His troops were fanatically loyal to him and he rewarded them with riches, the great task of a nomad khan.
Genghis Khan probably had the worst press of any leader in world history. He was misunderstood and maligned. He was called a barbarian, when in fact he came from an aristocratic nomad culture. He was called bloodthirsty, which he was not. He was called a barbarian, but modern scholarship has rescued his reputation.
Those who leave the written record, the historical record, have the advantage. They tell the tale. The men of the book in the lands conquered by the Mongol Army had their revenge on the people who defeated them. They could not believe it. Chinese, Russian, Armenian, Persian, Arab, Japanese, Hungarian--these chroniclers left the written record, the sources that gave Genghis Khan and his successors the worst press in history. It has taken time for the post-World War II generations of scholars to paint a more balanced portrait. I belong to those generations.
We are in a new period of global history thanks to modern transportation and communication. China has announced the New Silk Road, the rejuvenation of the old Silk Road that formed the artery of trade between east and west during the Mongol Empire. This is the new curriculum for students of all grades across the U. S. To understand the present, the student must understand the past. That is why my Mongol Empire series is relevant to our time.
First the character of the man. He was the founder of the nation. It is true that Genghis Khan was a military man, but he was a promoter of free trade and he made religious toleration the law for his empire. This was a first in the world.
He was called the Man of Iron. He fought fifty pitched battles and never lost one of them. He shared the fate of his men and they were fanatically loyal to him. He rode at the head of his army and wore the same uniform as his men. He was a nomad, the khan of hundreds of thousands of clans, the proud owner of herds. He lived in a round felt tent and loved the mobility, the free open life of the pastoralists.
Genghis Khan was the giver of a written language to his people, and to a Code of Laws that was more lenient than the Tang Code of China. He was a builder of roads and he guaranteed the peace along the roads. It was said that a virgin carrying a sack of gold upon her head could travel from one end of the empire to the other and remain unharmed. His reign brought peace for one hundred years. His law protected trade. Europe got into the international trade with Asia. The world order changed. The Arab/Muslim dominance of the world's trade and banking systems came to an end when the Mongols entered the Middle East. This brought about the rise of the West.
This was like an earthquake. The plates of the world order shifted. Europe had been a backwater after the fall of the Roman Empire. After the invasion of the barbarians. Even the local markets had collapsed.
All that changed with the coming of the Mongol Army, the army that guaranteed the safety of the caravan trade. The fortunes made in the trade between China and Europe financed the Renaissance in Europe. The merchant princes, the Medicis and others, paid for the rebirth of science and technology. Science and technology gave Europe the edge.
The rise of the West was built on science and technology.
Europe was in the infancy of capitalism, but through its shipbuilding and navigational instruments, it rose to dominate the world's oceans. Europeans mastered open ocean sailing. The vessels were bigger, they precision instruments were better for navigation, they had big cannon on board. The China trade ushered in the Age of Exploration.
Before the mastery of the oceans was the world of the camel caravan, overland trade, and a maritime trade that did not include open ocean sailing. The Maritime Silk Road was a coastal trade.
Trade during the era of the Pax Mongolica was lively: Europe was mad for spices, textiles, porcelains and tea. This was the world of the Silk Road, Marco Polo's world. The trading houses of Genoa and Venice had emporia on the Caspian Sea. There they traded for the goods of China, sent them via the ports of the Black Sea to Constantinople, the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, and from there the goods went by ship to Europe and North Africa.
The Mongol world was not simply about war. The Mongol world was about trade. The opening of the roads opened the world. This was the first extended contact between China and Europe since antiquity.
Marco Polo, a merchant of Venice, rose from his status as a commoner and became an official at the court of Khubilai Khan. He was the greatest travel writer of all time. He left such a vivid account of the amazing things that he witnessed at the court of the Khan that when he returned to Venice, he was called, Marco Miliones, the man of a million tales. In other words, he was branded a liar. No one in Venice could believe that the Chinese had paper money, printing, and heated baths. Marco Polo famously said that he did not tell half of what he saw, for he would not be believed.
He was correct. Why is this important today? The backdrop of this story is the glory of Chinese civilization that the present president of China, Xi Jinping, wishes to restore. This is the psychology of the present, and it is rooted in the glories of the past. The Chinese are the greatest historians on earth, so listen up, dear reader. You have to catch up. This was a different time. The Chinese were on top of the geopolitical heap and Europe was on the bottom.
Marco's father and uncle had opened a branch of their Venetian emporium in the trading city of Soldaia on the Caspian Sea. This was a European outpost in Asia where European merchants could eliminate some middlemen and increase their profits. From the Caspian, the goods went to Black Sea ports and Constantinople, and from there to Europe and North Africa.
Like an archaeologist, my method was discovering fragments of stories in the best sources and piecing them together. This was like the method of an archaeologist piecing together the fragments of old ceramics. Piecing the fragments together, the shape emerges. One has the antique vase. Weaving together the stories from the vast array of sources, the tale emerged.
The stories did not end with the death of Genghis Khan. The sons and grandsons and the daughters-in-law carried the tale for generations. For example, there was a battle for the throne at the top of the Mongol world, and one of the khans won. He was the best of the rulers after the founder, the military genius known as The Conqueror.
This grandson was a military hero. He was a miser. He had a philosophical turn of mind, and he knew how to use the resources of empire to fill up the treasury that his two drunken predecessors had emptied.
Europe was a backwater. It was poor, still recovering from the fall of the Roman Empire. The memory of Attila the Hun and the barbarian invasions of the Roman Empire was not so distant.
The great Mongol general Subudei decided not to wage war in Europe. One successor of Genghis Khan, the most able grandson, focused on China and Persia, two rich civilizations. He created a battle plan for the conquest of the Middle East during the time of the Crusades. His general brought down the caliphate at Baghdad and the Order of the Assassins in Iran. In so doing, Mongke Khan rewrote global history.
This is how my Mongol Empire series came into being. I followed in the footsteps of the greatest scholar of the period, and I based my research on his research. I did not sensationalize the story, but I told it like it was, unlike some popularizers.
This was not an easy task. I confounded many editors and literary agents in the process. Until a solution presented itself. The story was so big that I had to create each book as the portrait of a principal character. The stories concern larger than life heroes:
A Chinese, for the viewpoint of civilization and the barbarians: 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.
Batu, the grandson of Genghis Khan who conquered Russia and Eastern Europe.
Hulegu, 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.
Why were the Mongol conquests so vast? How were they able to conquer the greatest civilizations of their time, China and Persia? The armies of the civilized world were no match for nomad cavalry. These were men born to the horse. Their fellow nomads in Central Asia were the men who invented the saddle and the stirrup.
The Mongol Army was disciplined, trained to a high standard of perfection in cavalry warfare. The Supreme Khan was an innovator in cavalry technique. He developed exercises and tactics based on the Grand Hunt, the greatest spectacle in Asia. The men fought as units, timed and in formations, connected by signal flags, over great distances.
Enemy forces fought as individuals, most of them wearing metal armor. Mobility was the great advantage of Mongol warfare. Light armor made of leather was preferred.
They fought in formations designed to defeat the enemy line. They adapted to terrain. The opposing generals had never seen anything like it. They wore heavy armor and they fought, not as units, but as individuals.
The Supreme Khan developed the art of siege warfare, once he encountered wall cities in China. The Mongol generals brought siege engines from China, and then when they conquered the Muslim armies of the Shah of Central Asia, they incorporated the siege engines of the Muslim world.
It is said that the German general Rommel based his tank warfare in North Africa in World War II on the battle tactics of Genghis Khan, using tank divisions as the Khan used cavalry.
The victories were chalked up to the idea that vast numbers of men, the barbarian hordes, slaughtered their way across the world. 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.
Genghis Khan had a reputation for bloodthirstiness. Not so. 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 Lion-hearted 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. 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. 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 Genghis 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.
The numbers of troops were inflated and so was the devastation. This is not to make light of the devastation. Thirty years after the conquest of Bukhara, 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, Genghis 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 the line beyond.
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 of these civilizations were ashamed of their conquest by so-called barbarians. Both produced histories that considered the Mongol period a Dark Age.
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.
The period of Mongol rule in China was always considered a Dark Age. That is why there was no story left behind. Yet, consider this. The Mongols did for the Chinese what they were unable to do for themselves, namely, put China proper together again. Khubilai Khan, a man born to the horse, took to the sea for his conquest of Southern Song, the battles that reunified China for the first time in 400 years.
Khubilai Khan founded a Chinese dynasty that lasted for a century. His dynasty was called the Yuan. It was a time of innovation in the arts and scientific advancement. He built works of civil engineering, he restored the Grand Canal so that he could ship rice from Southern China to the North. He built a Chinese capital and ruled as a Chinese sage-emperor.
This period saw the birth of new forms in literature, the court drama and the novel. It also saw the invention of a whole new category of painting, horse painting, for the Mongols loved their horses and were great customers for the genre.
Neither China nor Russia was as centralized and as authoritarian before the coming of the Mongols as afterward. As for Russia, before the coming of the Mongols, the Russians ELECTED their princes.
The great Russian hero Alexander Nevsky saved Mother Russia from the Teutonic Knights sent by the Pope of the Church of Rome to bring Russia back to the fold of the One True Church. The problem with Russia was not that the Mongols conquered Russia but that they ruled Russia for 250 years.
What did it say about the Russian Orthodox Church if God allowed Russia to be defeated? What did this say about the Chinese imperial system, the Central Country receiving tribute from its neighbors, if the greatest civilization in Asia could be defeated?
For me, as an author, this was an obsession. Until the invention of Google, 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.
Think of it, dear reader. The Mongol victory in Russia, and then in Hungary and Poland, shattered the foundations of European society. 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 it is true that the past is prologue, then the reader will derive a great benefit from knowing what has gone before. The patterns of trade are just as fascinating as the annals of war. If China is declaring the New Silk Road, one must know the true story of the Old Silk Road.
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.
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. Once you read my forthcoming series, you too may become obsessed. They were a lively bunch and I have uncovered their stories for modern times. Get on your pony and ride.