When I was a Sophomore in high school, I became fascinated with Eastern culture, a trend that soon became more interesting after I moved to Japan. In the West, we highly value the cultures that we inherited such things as freedom of religion, philosophy, and government from, namely the Romans and Greeks among others. While history classes during this time normally fixate on Western Civilizations, Eastern Civilizations often go unnoticed, even though the Chinese were, for example, using a Gutenberg printing press hundreds of years before the invention of the press in the West.
In military history, much emphasis is placed on the Roman legions and the Greek Spartans. We often miss one of the most incredible armies that ever existed: Genghis Khan and the Mongols. Jack Weatherford is not a historian, but rather an anthropologist who went to Mongolia, China, and the Middle East to research the Mongol Empire of the 12th and 13th centuries. He begins the book with a synopsis of Genghis Khan’s life, moves into the height of the “Golden Horde’s” empire in the 13th century, and it’s decline.
Weatherford describes Genghis Khan to be as intelligent as the founding fathers of America: he developed the first empire where freedom of religion became a reality, adopted paper money, was a military genius in both tactics and strategy, and conquered much of Asia and the Middle East. His story begins in the Steppes of Mongolia where he grew up. My only contention with Weatherford’s analysis here is that there really is not enough solid information from sources of the time to construct a historically reliable account of Genghis Khan’s upbringing. Weatherford quotes extensively from a book called “the Secret History of the Mongols” which is not a reliable source. It is full of legends and cultural traditions rather than facts. Nonetheless, an interesting look at Mongolian culture is seen from the many stories that weave together Genghis Khan’s early life.
The biggest challenge to the Steppe people from transforming their tribes into an empire was unification. After many years of fighting, Genghis Khan became the supreme ruler of all the tribal Steppe peoples. He formed an army and began conquering. He began first with China, where he was able to conquer the largest cities in the world at the time. Genghis Khan was unique because he did not adapt the Mongolian culture to the lands he conquered. Rather, he required the scholars, scientists, and philosophers meet with him to discuss various subjects from building war machines to politically policy in the fledgling empire. In this way, religion was entirely up to the individual, creating one of the first societies ever that allowed the freedom of religious beliefs. Christianity, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Islam all flourished throughout various parts of the Mongolian Empire.
As mentioned, the Mongolians were tactical geniuses. Strategy on the battlefield consists of maneuvers to defeat the enemy during a fight. Tactics are the logistical side of war. The Mongols rode on horse back and because of their diet (consisting mostly of protein to include cheeses and yogurt, fermented milk, meat that was like a modern jerky, etc). They could ride for days without creating a fire which allowed them to move quite quickly. Strategically, they obliterated the most powerful armies of the day with little casualties (you can read more about the “feint attack” and others here). They were able to succeed in conquering Russia, where both Napoleon and Hitler failed.
There’s much that I could talk about considering the Mongolian Empire. How they developed the first paper money and the first “postal” system, their excursions in the Middle East (the fall of Bagdad to the Mongolians would be the last time a foreign army would conquer this city until the American and British forces entered Bagdad in 2003), among others. There is too much discuss in this small post, but I would recommend this book if you are interesting to demythologizing the Mongols. I’ll leave with one more fact: the Roman Empire conquered most of the known world in about 400 years. The Mongols were able to accomplish this and more in about 75 years. The Mongolian Empire constitutes the number one most fearful and devastating army that probably ever existed in human history.