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 Empire was vast. The story is unique.
In a period of twenty years, Chinggis led his army, the greatest fighting force of the medieval world, and conquered the largest land-based empire in world history. This is where the medieval world comes to an end and where the modern period begins. This is the first era of global history. In modern times, we are living through the second period of global history.
This era ushered in the first sustained contact between China and Europe since antiquity. Along the Silk Road, a cross-fertilization of culture, religion and philosophy and economics took place. That is the story of the Mongol Empire, an empire of movement of talent, goods and technology across the world.
These stories have been lost to the West, but I have been the Indiana Jones of the Silk Road, using the most authoritative historical sources, a bibliography built on the research of the godfather of Mongol Empire studies, Morris Rossabi, digging out the stories and telling them in contemporarty prose for the modern reader.
Why the Silk Road? The Mongol Empire was as much about trade as it was about war. After conquest came trade. The overland Silk Road, was a network of caravan trails and trading towns that crossed the world.
My Silk Road Series: The Heirs of Chinggis Khan (Genghis Khan) tells the story of the sons and grandsons and the daughter-in-law of Chinggis Khan.
There are five books, each one based on a different character. The characters appear in each other's books. Each book is set in a different part of the empire.
The first book in the series is Batu, Khan of the Golden Horde: The Mongol Khans Conquer Russia.
Batu, Chinggis Khan's grandson, was the Khan of Russia. Because it was furthest west, Russia was considered the attack wing of the empire; Queen Sorghagtani was Chinggis Khan's favorite daughter-in-law, an upright woman, the most remarkable woman of her age. Faced with the prospect of the designated heirs of Chinggis Khan driving the empire into ruin, Sorghagtani and Batu formed an alliance and put her sons on the throne.
The life and times of Batu Khan are of tremendous interest to a young reader because Batu would have been thirteen at the time he entered military service in the Imperial Guards. He would have had his first command at the age of sixteen or seventeen, approximately the same age as the reader.
The story of Princess Sorghagtani is about the most remarkable woman of her age, the woman who put her son on the throne, with the partnership of Batu.
She also made her second son, Khubilai Khan, the Khan of China. Khubilai Khan wanted to rule China as a true Son of Heaven, a benevolent emperor. He wanted the world to acknowledge him. He wanted Japan to submit. When the boy Shogun did not submit, being a true samurai and unimpressed with the Mongols, Khubilai decided to invade Japan by sea. He built an armada of 2300 war junks that went down in a taifun. This was the kamikaze, the Divine Wind.
Her third son became the Ilkhan of Persia and conquered the Old Man of the Mountain, the ruler of the Order of the Assassins, and the caliphate at Baghdad. Then he set up a government. The Mongol Empire had a boundary with the warring Christians and Muslims in the time of the Crusades. The Mongols even offered the Crusader Kings an alliance, and offered to evict the Muslims from Jerusalem, but the Europeans turned down the alliance.
The Khubilai Khan story marks the beginning of a transition to the maritime Silk Road, when goods were transported by ship. It was the begiining of the rise of the West, for science was reborn in Europe, financed by the fortunes in the overland trade with China. With science came precision navigational instruments and the building of bigger ocean-going vessels and cannon. It was the beginning of the Western dominance of the seas.
An Offer He Couldn't Refuse: A Man of Letters in a Military Government tells the story of the man who stood beside Chinggis Khan and created his government in Central Asia, in the Muslim lands This was Yeh-lu, the great statesman recruited by Chinggis Khan after the fall of North China. He was recruited as an expert in government. He was also a physician and an astrologer. He had an education that the Great Khan put to use.
The first foreign war was in the Muslim lands in Central Asia. Then the Mongol Army waged a campaign in Russia. The Russian prince, Alexander Nevsky, surrendered his city to Batu, Khan of all the Russias. This is the story told in my new book Batu, Khan of the Golden Horde: The Mongol Khans Conquer Russia.
Batu's camp was built on the Lower Volga River, astride the trade routes that carried goods between China and Europe. Batu taxed the trade routes and the merchandise and became fabulously wealthy. In his camp were mosques and Christian churches and the boiling cauldrons of oil for those who practiced to old religion of the steppes, shamanism.
Although Mongol warfare was ruthless, and that ought not to be ignored, the Empire was as much about trade as it was about war. Chinggis Khan guaranteed the peace on the Silk Road and wealth flowed into his treasury.
Cultures mingled and interacted in the fields of art, food, ideas, religion, technology, music, design and much more. It was said that a virgin could walk from one end of the empire to the other with a sack of gold on her head and go unharmed and unarmed. The way across the world opened for the first time since antiquity.
The Muslim monopoly on trade and finance was broken. The old order fell: China was the richest and most advanced civilization on earth. Persia was the second richest civilization. Europe had been a backwater ever since the fall of the Roman Empire. Local markets and local economies had been devastated by the invasions of the Huns and Goths. Over the course of a century, evrything changed.
European merchant princes,like the Medicis, built the fortunes that financed the Renaissance. This meant the rebirth of science in Europe. This meant the building of large ocean-going vessels, precision instruments of navigation, and large cannon. Science and technology advanced at a rapid rate, and with it, the power of the West.
The Age of Exploration began. The old land-based trade, the transport of goods by camel caravan, gave way to the ocean-going trade on the Maritime Silk Road. The rise of Europe had begun.
The Most Remarkable Woman of Her Time
A woman of power and influence, a talented and persuasive diplomat, the favorite daughter-in-law of Chinggis Khan, Queen Sorghagtani, engineered the coup d'etat that put her sons on the throne. She saved the empire from the weak men who were the successors of Chinggis Khan, but then Chinggis Khan never believed in inherited rule anyway. He had destroyed too many kingdoms ruled by weak heirs.
Europe was saved, for Guyug, who succeeded Ogodei, was determined to make war on Europe, had delivered Orders of Submission to the Pope in Rome, and demands to King Louis IX of France.
Ogodei passed over his son Guyug and named his grandson Shiremun as his successor. Guyug disregarded his father's wishes, engineered an election and usurped the throne. A fanatic Chrsitian, his idea was deliver Orders of Submission to the Pope and if necessary, to wage war to become the ruler of Christendom. Sorghagtani was convinced this would be a disaster.
Sorghagtani's son Mongke was a military hero and a capable man. With Mongke enthroned, the Mongol Empire was no longer ruled by the house of Ogodei. It was now in Tolui's branch of the family. This was one of the most momentous political events of the thirteenth century. It had tremendous consequences for world history, yet it is unknown in the West. It was a matter of vision and strategy.
Mongke was a miser and hated the excesses of his spendthrift cousin Guyug, who spent the treasury on his flatterers and hangers-on. Mongke was an excellent choice for he proved himself to be the most talented leader after Chinggis Khan. His reign was characterized by movement, of talent, technology and funding wherever it was needed in the empire.
After Mongke died, his younger brother Khubilai Khan came to the throne. He called a Great Assembly not in the Mongol homeland as was traditional, but on his own territory. The shadow of illegality hung over him. Khubilai Khan understood what it was to rule a great civilization. He was to unify North and South China for the first time since the fall of the Tang Dynasty in the tenth century. My book Taifun begins when he takes the throne.
Khubilai was an innovator. He was opposed by the Nomad Traditionalists led by his younger brother Arigh Boke. The Old Guard wanted to rule as they had always done, from the steppes, preserving the nomad traditions of mobility. They saw no use in the using the institutions of the conquered. They thought Khubilai was abandoning his heritage by taking on the emperor's symbolic role in Confucian culture.
Arigh Boke, Khubilai's younger brother, fought him for the throne. The fight for the succession continued, ultimely culminating in the breakup of the vast empire.
Sorghagtani's support for her sons to rule using Chinese methods came from another brilliant alliance, with the man who was the greatest statesman of the empire, the man who served as Chinggis Khan's Chancellor, Yeh-lu Chu-tsai. By focusing on the establishment of khanates in China and Persia, the two most advanced civilizations, Sorghagtani's diplomacy saved Europe from Guyug Khan's intention to invade Europe.
The alliance between Batu Khan and Queen Sorghagtani is a story of enlightened and talented people outmaneuvering their rivals for power. Sorghagtani was well-born and well-connected and she got the votes from her years of cultivating the nobility. Her diplomacy put a strong and talented man on the throne. Batu and Sorghagtani saved and restored an empire. For a time, all was well.
Mongke paid the outstanding bills of his spendthrift cousin and put the empire back on the road of conquest. His ultimate objective was to defeat the Southern Song Dynasty, a Han Chinese dynasty that occupied the imperial throne in Southern China. It is said that Southern Song was the first modern society. South of the Yangzi, a rich mercantile culture had grown up, a total departure from the old military feudal culture of the North and a far richer prize than Europe. With the riches of Song flowing into the treasury, the Mongol Empire was rich beyond anything previously known.
In the second book of the Silk Road Series, Taifun: Khubilai Khan Invades Japan by Sea, we find the relationship between Khubilai Khan and Marco Polo, the greatest cross-cultural relationship in global history.
The story of Marco Polo is of special intrest to young readers because he went to Asia with his father and uncle at the age of seventeen and remained there for seventeen years. He was trained as a merchant and so he knew finance. He served as a government official as the manager of the Salt Monopoly after the conquest of Southern China. He was an observer, informant and spy for the Khan. Because he was European, he had no political leaning.
Then he returned to Europe to tell the tale, and wrote the most famous travel book of all times. The world of the caravanserai of Central Asia is where he acquired the languages, when all camel caravan traffic halted because of a war between two khans. His is a story with tremendous appeal to the young reader.
Marco appears in the Khubilai Khan book, Taifun: Khubilai Khan Invades Japan by Sea and also in the new standalone story, Cobalt Blue: Marco Polo in Dadu.
THE CRACK-UP: THE LATE PERIOD OF A LEGEND
Though many people are familiar with the story of the glorious achievements of Khubilai Khan, few are acquainted with the period of the crack-up, the splitting up of the Mongol Empire. The usual portrait of Khubilai Khan is at the peak of his powers, ruling in splendor, the richest and most powerful man in the world.
But Khubilai Khan aged. Even an emperor is no stranger to tragedy and Khubilai Khan had his share. His most devastating loss was the death of his life partner, the Empress Chabi, his favorite wife. The death of his son Jinggim, the Heir Apparent, was a profound and unexpected loss because Jinggim had been raised to be an accomplished emperor. When his cousin Khaidu rebelled against the empire, Khubilai Khan tried to keep Central Asia. He sent troops and he sent his son Nomughan to lead them. Mongol soldiers kidnapped Nomughan and for years, he was held captive. Chabi had objected to sending Nomughan. Khubilai had prevailed. Chabi was devastated. Finally Khaidu sent word to Khubilai that he had not commanded nor authorized the kidnapping. Nomughan was returned after many years, but the damage had been done.
This was a time of departure for Khubilai. His best friends, his emotional and psychological support, either died or left government service. Gone was Liu, his Chinese chancellor, who built Xanadu and convinced Khubilai Khan to found the Yuan Dynasty, the move that went against Mongol tradition. Chancellor Liu tutored Khuiblai Khan in the ideal Confucian relationship between a sage emperor and a loyal minister. Liu was wise, and his counsel was missed.
Gone was his lama, the Pakpa Lama, Khubilai's spiritual tutor, This was the former child prodigy, the master of the vast canon, who tutored Khubilai in the practice of compassionate rule. Khubilai strove to becomea Buddhist sage-king, a Chakravartin, for his Buddhist subjects in China, Tibet and elsewhere.
Even his favorite general, Bayan, the conqueror of Southern Song, retired from court.
This is what I call Khubilai Khan's Lear period, the period of old age, when he became obsessed with the idea that if Japan did not submit to him, he would not be a true Chinese emperor. He would not be a Son of Heaven.
The only problem was, Japan had a vigorous military culture, the samurai, and the boy Shogun Tokimune, who was sixteen, refused to submit to the man he called The Robber of the North. A great archer and swordsman, Tokimune defied the Mongol ambassadors, and the result was a naval campaign against Japan. A man born to the horse took to the sea, with disastrous results. Not one, but two fleets of war junks went down in a Divine Wind, a kamikaze.
This is a portrait of the late period of Khubilai Khan and it is new and original. A scoop after eight centureis.
Each book in the Silk Road series is the story of one character in a family saga about a family and a period, about the struggle for power, about the nature of warfare and governance, about the relationship between barbarism and civilization, Shakespeare in Asia.
My Silk Road Series tells us how we got to where we are. Each book is dedicated to a different character, a successor to Chinggis Khan. These stories I tell are grand adventure stories, appealing to young readers and to the general reader. My Series is backstory to the world we have inherited.
A quote from Tolstoy's War and Peace expresses my theme: "A King is History's Slave." An eminent literary agent, Elaine Markson, suggested to me that the structure I should use was the multiple point of view structure that William Faulkner used in As I Lay Dying. This proved to be the solution to telling the tale, allowing the story of each character to be explored in full. My present literary agent Alex Hoyt gave me the approach of breaking down the epic story into the critical events. This was the beginning of the linked story structure that opened up the story of the vast empire. The structure of the stories imitated the structure of the empire.
So dear reader, if you want to immerse yourself in an action-packed saga that took twenty years to put down on the page, get on your pony and ride.
ADVANCE PRAISE FOR BATU, KHAN OF THE GOLDEN HORDE:
To understand Russia today, we must understand the Mongol conquest and rule, and to understand the Mongol conquest and rule, we must understand Batu Khan. Famous in Russian history, but little known in the West, Chinggis Khan's grandson Batu Khan's influence lingers in Russian government, culture, and psychology even now. Diane Wolff brings him alive and introduces this neglected world figure to us.
Jack Weatherford, Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World
ADVANCE PRAISE FOR TAIFUN: KHUBILAI KHAN INVADES JAPAN BY SEA
Diane Wolff's work is a powerful reminder that those who want to see the future must first understand the past. Taifun is the prelude to the modern world. Although set nearly eight centuries ago, her book reveals how modern Asia developed and in particular how the complicated relationship between China and Japan was shaped. Her unique analysis of Khubilai Khan reveals him as a skilled strategist and tactician of a kind so rare in the past but sorely missing in the modern world.
Jack Weatherford, The Secret History of the Mongol Queens, Genghis Khan and the Quest for God