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, Genghis Khan, and the stories of his successors, sons, grandsons and his favorite daughter-in-law, the Princess Sorghagtani.
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.
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. They conquered the world and no one knew anything about them. Years went by, I frustrated family, literary agents and editors, but I got a scoop, after 700 years. It took me twenty years, but I got my answer. I wrote 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.
Why should the reader care? What does it matter to our time? 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. It is backstory, not looking backward so much as taking the past as a guide to the future.
Today 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 a fear of the ethnic cleansing of the Uighurs, the citizens of Turkish descent who inhabit Xinjiang. (These are different than the Chinese-speaking Muslim minority who are called Hui).
There is the fear of separatism and terrorism, and ethnic identity. This is a paranoid style inherited from the Soviet Union.
Genghis Khan had always had good relations with his Muslim neighbors, and the Muslim merchants, the capitalists who plied the caravan routes that ran across his territory on their way to trading at the Chinese court.
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.
My Silk Road Series tells the story of a family and a period.
Why is this a scoop after 700 years, the reader might ask.
The twin branches of the Old Silk Road went around the Tarim Basin through the region that today is called Xinjiang.
By conquering the trade routes, the Mongol Empire grew vastly wealthy. The empire was about trade. The Mongol Empire was the lone superpower of the medieval period. Genghis Khan and his descendants created the largest land-based empire in world history. It extended from Siberia to Burma, from the Pacific to the Mediterranean. It was connected by roads, and a pony express system. The Supreme Khan was a promoter of trade and he grew fabulously rich from the taxes and tolls collected along the Silk Road and forwarded to the treasury in his capital.
This is the first era of global history. 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 to where we are now.
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. This was overland trade, and the method of transport was the camel caravan, led by Muslim traders.
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.
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. And why not? China produced silk, which was like the petroleum of the Middle Ages, the most gorgeous fabric of the medieval world, 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 silk was manufactured in bolts of dazzling colors. The goods moved on the backs of camels, the caravan traffic that was the lifeblood of the Silk Road. 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.
Once the goods arrived at the trading emporia of the Black Sea, Europeans, including the Polo Brothers, the firm of Marco Polo's father and uncle, moved the goods on ships from the port of Constantinople to Europe. It was much easier to transport porcelain by ship. The manufacture of porcelain, the highly fired ceramic that was almost translucent, was also a state secret. Europe was mad for the products of China. The export of tea was big business.
This was the Old Silk Road. Along the way, 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. It was a lucrative trade.
On the Silk Road in today's Xinjiang, there was the mingling of cultures and languages, the transport of ideas. 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.
Everything Old is Not New Again
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 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.
In deciding to research this story, I became like an archaeologist, a literary Indiana Jones, working with a shovel and a brush, digging out the story.
The subject of my Silk Road Series are the great characters of the Mongol Empire, the successors of Genghis Khan, what happened when he passed from the scene. They were a lively bunch, they were larger than life, characters struggling for power. The story is the story of a family and a period.
Marco Polo, a merchant of Venice, rose from his status as a commoner and became an official at the court of Khubilai Khan. This is the greatest cross-cultural story, the Khan wanting knowledge from Europe, Marco Polo finding a world that he never could have entered in his native land, that of the nobleman as envoy to the Khan.
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.
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.
As I said, this was the first extended contact between China and Europe since antiquity.
Marco Polo 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 expansion of Chinese civilization. This is the position that Xi Jinping wishes to restore, a present is rooted in the glories of the civilization of the past.
It is said by scholars that the Chinese are the greatest historians on earth. 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 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. You have to catch up. In the past, 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. Marco Polo was a pioneer.
Like an archaeologist, my method was discovering fragments of stories in the best sources and piecing them together, like the fragments of old ceramics found on a dig.
This is patient work for the curious personality, namely me. Piecing the fragments together, weaving together the stories from the vast array of sources in a vast array of languages, the tale emerged.
The story of empire does not end with the death of Genghis Khan. The Pax Mongolica or Mongol Peace lasted for a century.
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.
Europe was a backwater. It was poor, still recovering from the fall of the Roman Empire. This had been caused by the barbarian invasions, the Huns, Goths and Visigoths. The markets in the towns of the empire were not functioning. The memory of Attila the Hun and the barbarian invasions of the Roman Empire was not so distant.
This is how my Silk Road Series came into being. I followed in the footsteps of the work done by greatest scholar of the period, and I based my research on his research. I had no idea that decades would pass. I had no idea that the story was so vast.
What happened was better than anything one could make up. I did not have to sensationalize the story, unlike some popularizers. This was the story of the largest land-based empire in world history. I began this when I was a young author, writing my first book. I had to walk around in the skin of a military genius. The first literary agent 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. He knew what I had.
This was not an easy task. 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.
The story had always been told in pieces by specialists. Enough work had come into English after World War II that for the first time, one scholar could tell the whole tale.
But whose point of view? Where did one start? How did one proceed? Just getting it down confounded many editors and literary agents. They fell aside and I soldiered on. I figured out novel ways to support my own endeavor. I endured the slings and arrows of family critique and expectation, but ultimately the story proved to be necessary to the West. Remembrance of things past. There is no greater satisfaction than proving your detractors wrong. So there.
Finally one way of telling the story made sense. The Silk Road Series was the answer. Each book is the portrait of a principal character.
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. In this book is the portrait of the Great General Subudei, after Genghis Khan, the greatest strategist in the Mongol Army.
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. He began in glory and ended in obsession, obesity, depression, gluttony. You must read the book to find out why.
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. This is not an accurate description. The slaughter that came after the battles was a practical matter. He never left an enemy population behind the advancing front line of his army.
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. 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.
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 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.
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.
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. This has been a major excavation of sources from all over the Silk Road. It took me twenty years to dig out the story.
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.