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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 story of his empire, the largest land-based empire in history, is where the medieval world comes to an end and where the modern period begins. It is the first era of global history.

 

My Silk Road Series is the story of the sons and grandsons and the daughter-in-law of Chinggis Khan, as well as the man who created the empire along with him. That would be the greatest statesman of the Mongol Empire, Yeh-lu Chu-tsai.

 

These stories have been lost to the West, but in the time of the New Silk Road, a look back at the old Silk Road, the trade routes that crossed the world, offers a brilliant comparison with our own era.This Old SIlk Road saw the way across the world open for the first time since antiquity. This was the first sustained contact between China and Europe for a millennium. It saw the cross-fertilization of culture, religion and philosophy and economics.

 

In our time, the new Silk Road is the vision of the leader of the Chinese People's Republic. It is being created with the resources of the Chinese Communist Party in an attempt to resurrect China's greatness. But what exactly is the comparison with the Old Silk Road?

 

This is important to the modern era because in at least one way, the Old Silk Road is superior to the New Silk Road.

 

One of our most cherished traditions had its origin in the Mongol Empire, according to the anthropolist Jack Weatherford, In his book Genghis Khan and his Quest for God, The principle of religious toleration was enshrined in the Code of Laws established by Chinggis Khan. The principle was unique in the medieval world. This was, after all, the era of the Crusades, when Christian and Muslim armies were killing each other in the Holy Land and Jerusalem ran knee deep in blood in the worst of the battles. Weatherford contends that the Founding Fathers adopted the principle enshrined in the American Constitution from the Mongol Empire.  

 

One man, Chinggis Khan, was not Chinese, but emerged from the steppes as the leader of the greatest fighting force of the Middle Ages, the Mongol Army. He created an empire through conquest. His empire swept across the world and changed it. He was the political master of China, Central Asia and Persia. He was the father of his nation, founded by unifying the warring tribes of the steppes beyond the Great Wall. His first conquest was China, the richest and most advanced civilization on earth. 

 

He was called a barbarian by the civilizations he conquered, but although he was unlettered and unwashed, he was the inheritor of an aristocratic horse culture. He was called The Conqueror, known for being the inventor of modern warfare and psychological warfare, but although he is known to history as The Conqueror, his empire was as much about trade as it was about war.

 

Chinggis Khan established an international peace, the Pax Mongolica, that lasted for a century. This story has largely been lost to the West. 

 

The Russian prince, Alexander Nevsky, surrendered his city to Batu, Khan of all the Russias. As a grandson of Chinggis Khan, Batu grew up with the Code of Laws of the Empire. He would have joined the Mongol Army at the age of 13 and served in the elite Imperial Guards. As an imperial prince, it was the training ground for him to lead troops in battle. The leadership of the Mongol Army was without peer.

 

The Council of Generals planned wars in Chinggis Khan's campaign tent. Batu would have listened to councils of war among the brilliant commanders. He would have ridden at his father Jochi's side in the desert campaign in the Muslim lands by the age of 15. He along with the magnificent General Subudei conquered Russia. Alexander believed that the Russian Orthodox Church would survive under the Mongols, and the Mongols could protect Russia from the crusades of the Pope in Rome who wanted to bring Russia back to the fold of the One True Church of Rome.

 

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.   

 

Alexander Nevsky surrendered his city to the Mongols to prevent it from being burned to the ground. He was young, the prince of Novgorod who turned back the Teutonic Knights of Germany in the famous battle on the Neva River. The young prince chose religious toleration over the forced conversion of Mother Russia to the Pope of Rome. 

 

How was the Silk Road built? A system of roads connected the empire. because Chinggis Khan needed and valued intelligence from the far corners of his empire. He created a pony express system to facilitate the flow of information. This was a system of post stations twenty-five miles apart. Couriers designated by imperial badges were his Near and Far Arrows, his messenger service. On the Khan's business, they could rest, eat and acquire fresh mounts.

 

From his campground in the steppes of Mongolia, Chinggis Khan welcomed the merchants who plied the trade routes across the Gobi to his tent. After all, they traded at the court of China, and China had been meddling in the affairs of the steppes for generations, fomenting wars between the tribes. China's main enemy were the mounted warriors who lived in the steppes outside the Great Wall. If the Chinese could keep the tribes off balance, they would fight each other, and not think about invading China. This was the traditional foreign policy of Chinese emperors. It was called i-i-zi-i, Use barbarians to check barbarians.

 

It was the custom of the Muslim caravan traders to visit the tents of the khans of the steppes and accept their hospitality. They were the capitalists of their era and they traded with the Chinese court. Chinggis Khan was a student of political affairs and he wanted information as to events in the Chinese court. He needed to know when the Emperor was preparing for war or shifting his alliances. After all, the Supreme Khan had lost his father due to the treachery of the Chinese shifting their alliance to the rival Tatar as their vassals and abandoning the Mongols. The loss of his father was at the beginning of his career and it marked him for life. Before he invaded China, he gathered critical intelligence from the Muslims about the oases where he could water his vast herds of horses. Then he and his generals and his three sons led three armies across the vast wastes of the Gobi Desert for a two-pronged invasion of China. It was a stupendous feat.

 

After he conquered China, he intended to retire. China was always the main object of Mongol warfare. Instead, he found himself, as the new political master of Asia, an object of envy. He found himself provoked into war, into Central Asia. There too he defeated an army in a brilliant desert campaign.

 

The Mongol 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. 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 rise of Chinggis Khan meant that the old order fell: his rise marked the end of the Muslim domination of trade and banking in the Middle Ages. They had been ruling the financial system for centuries, ever since the Muslim conquests of the seventh and eighth centures. Under the armies of Hulegu Khan, the grandson of Chinggis Khan, the banking and financial system came to an end. For the caliph's poaching of Mongol conquered territory and revenue, Hulegu Khan was under orders to bring them down. First he brought down the Shia power of the Assassins. Then the Sunni center of power of the caliphate in Baghdad fell.

 

There is a difference between the Mongol campaigns and the Crusades involving Europe and the Muslims. The Mongol wars were not religious. The Muslim powers were in violation of the Code of Law of Chinggis Khan. The new ruler of the empire Mongke Khan would not tolerate a threat to Mongol rule. The completion of the conquests ushered in modern period, and that meant the rise of the West. European capitalists could compete in the markets of the East.

 

The Age of Exploration had begun. 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 the West meant Western dominance of the oceans. The fortunes built in the overland trade financed the Renaissance. This meant the rebirth of science in Europe. The knowledge had never been lost in the Muslim world, but when the Muslim powers fell, the knowledge was rediscovered in the West. 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 Most Remarkable Woman of Her Time

 

While Chinggis Khans'  sons and grandsons completed the conquest of China, Central Asia, Persia and Russia. Chinggis Khan's favorite daughter-in-law, the Princess Sorghagtani, engineered a coup d'etat that put her sons on the throne.

 

This meant that Europe was saved, for the aim of conquest was no longer in the West. It was a certainty that the armies of Europe were nomatch for the superpower of the Middle Ages.

 

Sorghagtani's two eldest sons, Mongke Khan and Khubilai Khan, were talented men, and perhaps Mongke was the greatest ruler after Chinggis Khan. Mongke established the Persian Khanate. Khubilai Khan completed the conquest of Southern China and the unification of China proper to its present borders. Hulegu Khan, her third son, became the Il-khan or subsidiary khan, of Persia, the second greatest civilization of the time. He lived in Persia, and his descendants converted to Islam, one of them who wasw named Ghazan, being of the greatest rulers in Islam.

 

China had split apart after the fall of the glorious Tang Dynasty, China's Golden Age. It was unified for the first time in four centuries during the rule of Khubilai Khan, who had founded the Yuan Dynasty, for the Southern Chinese dynasty of the Song was too weak to take back the North. It took the Mongol Army under the leadership of the great General Bayan to unify China. 

 

Thus, Sorghagtani's diplomacy, her collaboration with Batu Khan to place her branch of the imperial family on the throne, had an effect on the modern world. There were advances in the arts and sciences for Khubilai Khan wished to rule as a true Son of Heaven and was a patron of the arts and sciences.

 

Despite this, Chinese historians considered the Mongol dynasty a Dark Age. If China was the pre-eminent civilization in Asia, how could the barbarians capture it? And if Chinese civilization was superior to that of the nomads, how could they have congtributed anything? In fact, the reason I began this quest for the story was that one of the greatest Sinologists of the twentieth century told his students that nothing had been done on the Mongol period and it was a good place to make a name for ourselves.

 

Sorghagtani, in the style of Mongol imperial women, was a counselor to emperors. The coup d'etat meant the fall of the Emperor Guyug, a fanatic Christian who intended to invade Europe and become the master of all of Christendom. The Princess saved Europe from a Mongol invasion.

 

There is no question that the Mongols would have won. Europe was a backwater, still recovering from the fall of the Roman Empire and the invasion of the barbarians, the Huns, Goths and Visigoths, European capitalism was in its infancy. Europe's local economies and markets and agriculture destroyed. As an adversary, the Mongols were the lone superpower of the Middle Agest. 

 

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.

 

The First Period of Global History

 

The power ruling the Muslim world at the time was the Abbasid caliphate that was headquartered in Baghdad. It was a center of commerce and learning. It had been ruling the Muslim world for almost five centuries but it had been on the decline for a hundred years. One of Chinggis Khan's grandsons, Hulegu Khan, brought it down. The monopoly that the Muslim world had in banking and finance had come into being in the wake of the Arab conquests of the 7th and 8th centuries ended. The roads opened. The Europeans for the first time since antiquity were allowed into the international trade between China and Europe. The Khan's peace brought about the rise of European capitalism.

 

The Polo Brothers, Marco's father and uncle, were amomg the merchants who ventured into the China  trade. European merchant princes, such as the Medicis, built the fortunes that financed the Renaissance. This meant the rebirth of science in Europe.

 

The Italian city-states of Venice and Genoa began their rivalry. Captured fighting aboard a Venetian vessel,Marco Polo;s landed in jail in Genoa where he wrote the greatest travel book of all time.  His cellmate was a writer named Rusticiello who took down the story, the book that told the wonders of Khuiblai Khan's China. The tale was so fabulous that the Venetians called Marco a liar for the tales he told of a civilization far more advanced than the Venice of his time. His response was that he had not told half of what he saw. Marco Polo had been a young man of seventeen when he went to China with his father and his uncle.

 

 

Marco Polo's World

 

The caravanserais in the Muslim centers of trade in the Middle East and Central Asia were the stopping places along the Silk Road where merchants could rest, feed themselves and their beasts and buy supplies for the trip to the Chinese capital.

 

In such a caravanserai, Marco Polo stayed for three years, because civil war had broken out between rival khans. Marco traveled with his father and uncle, merchants of Venice, who had been given official insignia as envoys of Khubilai Khan from their previous visit to China. They were to bring back 100 learned men who could teach Khubilai Khan about the governance of the West. The church was without a Pope, in between elections, and so the Polo Brothers returned without the hundred learned men, but with their nephew, Marco. This was initially a disappointment to the Supreme Khan, but the friendship between the two men proved to be the greatest cross-cultural relatiionship in history.

 

The Polo Brothers had previously traded from the Crimea and Constantinople and shipped to their home office in Venice.

 

The Polo Brothers had the idea of traveling further east, to eliminate the middlemen. This was an innovation--no Western merchants had penetrated this far into Asia.

 

When the Polos got as far as Bukhara, the trading hub of Central Asia, they found they were isolated because of a civil war between two khans. The empire was so vast, it was hard to hold it together without modern communication and transportation. The old guard of the Mongol aristocracy thought that Khubilai Khan was becoming too Chinese and abandoning the ways of their ancestors. So they fought for the top job.

 

The war between the khans stopped all caravan traffic in the region. It was not to be the last of wars between rival khans. The breakup of the empire haunted Khubilai Khan's later years. The breakup of the empire into khanates meant the destruction of what had been handed down to them. It is what helped to drive Khubilai Khan to the brink of madness.

 

Bukhara was a university town, a center of Islamic learning and culture. During his stay of three year at the caravanserai,  Marco Polo learned the languages of the court, some Chinese, Turkish, Persian. An envoy of Hulegu, Khubilai Khan's younger brother, who had become the ruler of Persia, rode through on his way to Khubilai Khan's court and provided an escort, The Polos, father and uncle, still had the imperial insignia given to them by Khubilai Khan on their first trip to China.

 

This was the beginning of Marco Polo's career in China. He was both a spy and a government official, he was an advisor to the throne, and he was the friend of the emperor, who wished to learn about the West. It is one of the great friendships of history, and yet it came to an end when Marco turned down an imperial marriage and returned to Venice. 

 

This Mongol Empire ushered in a century of peace, prosperity and religious toleration. The story has been lost to the West. It is a scoop after 700 years like an archaeological treasure buriedin a lost time.

 

 

The Chinese are the greatest historians in the world, but the Chinese histories were silent, because they considered the period a Dark Age. They had been conquered by barbarians. What did it say about Chinese belief in their own superiority if they could be conquered and ruled by the unwashed mounted soldiers on ponies? After all, the imperial drama in China was of the Celestial Court, surrounded by tribute states, who came to the celestial court to be civilized. The Dragon Throne of China was conquest by civilization, and it was expert in the ritual that was the imperial drama.

 

The mounted horsemen from beyond the Great Wall conquered an empire that becane tge kargest land-based empire in world history and the world knew nothing about them. That situation is about to change. Thanks to a conference for teachers sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the first era of global history will be taught in American schools, from grades K through 12. I know this because my mentor, Morris Rossabi, the biographer of Khubilai Khan, was the director of the conference. 

 

The stories I tell are grand adventure stories, appealing to young readers. It is backstory to the world they will inherit.

 

This Silk Road Series tells us how we got to where we are. It is forthcoming, short books, each dedicated to a different character in the imperial drama.

 

The great scholar of the Mongol Empire, and the only biographer of Khubilai Khan, Morris Rossabi, served as a mentor for this work. I built my research upon his research. I was inspired by the work of David McCullough whose work in narrative history is brilliant. A quote from Tolstoy's War and Peace opens my volume on Khubilai Khan. "A King is History's Slave." 

 

So dear reader, if you want to read an action-packed saga that took twenty years to tell, get on your pony and ride.

 

@ COPYRIGHT 2019 DIANE WOLFF