Some interesting excerpts from The travels of Marco Polo
Genghis Khan: Murderer or Modernizer?
Whether you measure it by geographical size of empire, or the number of people ruled, Genghis Khan was the greatest ruler of all time. In the West, Genghis and his Mongol hordes are remembered as murderers and ruthless barbarians –that is the version I learned in school. However, in Mongolia he is worshipped as a national hero, a liberator and a modernizer. There is a giant statue of him in the main square of the capital, Ulan Bator. When you visit Mongolia, you will land at Genghis Kahn International Airport. The nation’s best brand of vodka is named after him. So, which one was he? Barbarian, or hero?
In the 13th Century, the Mongol war machine marched their empire across Central Asia, and stretched it from Vietnam to Korea, from Israel to Poland. The Mongols spread terror wherever they went; entire cities were razed to the ground, civilizations who failed to bow down before them were wiped out of existence. Cities in modern day Iraq and Iran had once represented the richest and most enlightened societies in the world; the Mongols destroyed their libraries, temples and irrigated fields, performing one of the biggest massacres in history which ended a Muslim golden age from which they never recovered. The Mongols were horsemen from the grassy plains who lived in tents, they had no written language, no buildings, no libraries, crafts or sciences. There are no reliable figures, but estimates are that 10 million people died under the wars of Genghis Khan, and another 20 million under his successors. For these reasons, many Europeans still consider Genghis Khan the most brutal barbarian ruler in history.
Unfortunately, by the horrible standards of human history, Ghenghis Khan was not alone. At this exact time, our English ancestors were on the crusades, where they sacked cities and killed every Muslim man, woman and child. Europeans in the middle ages would often engage in torture and mutilation of people of other religions and ethnicities, there is no reason to doubt the crusaders wouldn’t have killed just as many as the Mongols if they’d had similar military success. The Mongols killed, but never practiced torture or mutilation. 10 million deaths is a terrible amount, but Alexander the Great killed 30 million, 30 million died in WWI, and up to 70m died in WWII. More terribly, Stalin and Mao both killed more than 20 million of their own people in communist purges and industrializations. In fact, humanity has come a long way in the last 50 years, after thousands of years of amazing brutality.
Part of the reason Genghis was so abhorred was the Mongols terrible propaganda campaign. For Genghis, you were either with him or against him. Those who surrendered and paid dues to the Mongols would be spared and allowed to function autonomously and, in many ways, with more stability and prosperity under Mongol trade and protection. It was only those who refused to pay dues who were killed, and those cities who murdered Mongol traders or ambassadors would suffer the most drastic consequences.
While the Muslim civilizations suffered most under the Mongols, the Europeans actually did pretty well out of the whole thing. One of the reasons that Western Europe was spared by the Mongols was because –compared to the great civilizations of China and the Middle East- it was too backward and poor to be worth conquering. Europe suffered few of the negatives of Mongol rule, and many of the gains. The Mongol empire was the largest, safest free trade zone the world had ever known. The Mongols were seen as barbarians because they invented nor manufactured little, but they adopted and traded all the good technologies under their lands. Printing, metallurgy, gunpowder, art, the abacus, music, clothing, the compass, food, literature, tea, astrology, warfare: everything in Europe that advanced during the Renaissance period did so as a direct result of Eastern and Arab influence brought over by the Mongols. Europe’s dramatic rise from the middle ages may never have happened if it wasn’t for the globalization of technologies, cultures and learning brought by Ghenghis Khan.
In fact, despite his brutality, Genghis Khan did a lot of good things. In the middle ages, Mongolia and Northern China were a bunch of tribes and peoples constantly warring with each other. Genghis united them forcefully, and brought peace and stability to these regions. The Mongols, and many revisionist histories, now emphasize more the lasting peace and prosperity Genghis brought to Eurasia, rather than the initial violence of his conquests. He made universal laws against theft, murder and adultery, bringing law and order. He created a ruling class and an administration based completely on merit and loyalty, rather than race or aristocracy. Muslims, Christians, Buddhists: all were guaranteed religious freedom under Genghis, which was a completely new concept. Also, at a time when envoys and ambassadors were routinely beheaded, Genghis invented and vigorously enforced the concept of diplomatic immunity –any leaders who breached it would have their cities razed to the ground. He also invented the world’s first postal system in order to manage his empire.
So, was Genghis Khan a barbarian, or a progressive hero? The answer, I think, is that he was both. You cannot excuse the millions of people murdered under his rule, or the destruction of amazing Arab civilizations –other than to say this kind of brutality was pretty much normal for the times. On the other hand, despite the millions he killed, he benefited a hundred times more through bringing the peace, law, and prosperity throughout his empire. In particular, Europe has much to be grateful for Genghis in bringing it out of the dark ages to become the most dominant region in the last thousand years. At the end of the day, I think the Mongols are justifiably proud that one of them, a poor, illiterate herd boy who was raised in a tent, managed to change the world forever.
Back to Homepage