00.07.16, Hartog, Genghis Khan

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Felicitas Schmieder

The Medieval Review baj9928.0007.016


Hartog, Leo de. Genghis Khan: Conqueror of the World. New York: I. B. Tauris, 2000. Pp. ix, 230. ISBN: 1-860-64375-2.

Reviewed by:
Felicitas Schmieder
J. W. Goethe-Universitaet

The biography of Cingis Khan on review here--"primarily addressed to the general reader"--was first published in the Dutch language in 1979. For the English hardcover edition of 1989 the bibliography was supplemented by the latest titles which were also added to the footnotes; the paperback of 1999 seemingly remains unchanged. Already in 1989, the work was welcomed by the scholarly world as a brilliant, if popular study with broad scholarly background.

The permanent and special interest in Cingis Khan, the great builder of a Mongol empire around 1200 (died 1227), is adequate to his importance in world history. It has its long tradition in his own nation as well as for the peoples in the Far and Near East and Eastern Europe whose histories were deeply influenced by the successful Mongol onslaught and occupations of the thirteenth century. But also in Western Europe his memory has been preserved ever since his people, then led by his sons and grandsons, violently and terrifyingly attacked Poland and Hungary in 1241 and had then been contacted by the first Western European travellers to Eastern Asia from 1245 on. Although the Mongols never permanently occupied the Western realms, their appearance and their big continuous empire gave the opportunity to Westerners, especially merchants and missionaries, to travel and explore and broaden their world view. So Western European mental history was influenced considerably--and as a consequence also American history, since the Europeans, once departed, did not stop before they had reached the New World; Columbus was trying to reach the Great Khan expected to reign in China. Through all centuries Cingis Khan, as first reason for all this, has been dammed and glorified, his person, his deeds, his fate have always been fascinating human imagination--so that now Mongolia is building up its new national identity on him, in Russia the discussion of the historical impact of the "Mongol yoke" are discussed publicly in the newspapers, and in Western Europe numbers of people are visiting exhibitions or lectures and are reading the widely printed journals and books.

All this interest is in inverse ratio to our real knowledge about the conqueror: there is no historiographical source written in his lifetime telling about him. The Mongols themselves in Cingis Khan's lifetime seemingly did not yet write down their history (or at least no historiographical work is preserved). Only in stories, poems, and songs the memories seem to have been kept alive. Since oral tradition changes in the course of time and actualises facts according to present needs and wishes, the Mongols on the climax of their power and extension of their empire remembered a transfigured image of their hero. Even the earliest Mongol historiographical text preserved in its relevant passages was written at the earliest in 1228, thus after the death of Cingis Khan, and moreover had been worked up later: surely, the so-called "Secret History of the Mongols" is of high value for the early perceptions of this nation since it is obviously portraying the customs and rites before lamaistic and other foreign ideas entered. But for the first Khan it is a history of success, written ex post facto, knowing about the happy ending.

Also, the details in non-Mongol sources which report about the beginnings of their empire were written later. Two of them are of special importance because of their closeness in time and space: in the first place the work of the by the Persian author Ala ad-Din Yuwaini. He lived in Mongolia at the court of Great Khan Mongke, grandson of Cingis Khan, in 1252-60 in Qaraqorum and wrote a "history of the world conqueror" (who is, for him, Mongke, so that Cingis Khan's deeds are a necessary previous history, but only a previous history). Although he wrote from a courtly glorifying perspective he could use singular valuable information from eye witnesses and presumably also lost Mongol written material. Secondly, the rich systematic description of Mongol life and history by the papal envoy John of Plano Carpini (1245/ 47), well-informed and with the certain distance of a non-subjective recorder.

Any biographer of Cingis has to deal with this situation. As is common--presumably because of the lack of sources--the present biography ends years after the death of Cingis, around the year 1245; not so much in order to show the completion of his work (it would, then, have been necessary to go further past 1245), but in order to make full use of Yuwaini's book and also to reach the first western travel accounts, in the first place Carpini, as a kind of completion.

The lively story full of images is spread over 15 chapters, starting with an overview on Mongolia's geography, climate, and social conditions on the eve of the rise of Cingis. The deeds of the young "chief" of "obscure" origin, beginning his "elimination process" and securing his rule among the "tribes living in felt tents"--the old legends which several times have been used for movies--(chs. 2-3) are followed by his reconstructable achievements of inner consolidation of his empire by interference into law and social order (ch. 4 is a presentation of his famous Yasa, his law code; ch. 5 by his equally famous reorganization of the Mongol army). Then Cingis, as any good Central Asian nomadic conqueror, turns to the south, to China: the "rapacious barbarian" against the "art-loving Sung" (ch. 6), and a little later conquers ("liberates") Tukestan (ch. 7)--which was only the "prelude" to overrunning Transoxania and the Chwarezm empire, destroying the "work of centuries", (ch. 8) and then for the first time sending troups--"a cavalcade of terror"--to Russia (ch. 9). "After the storm" (ch. 10) the conqueror who left behind "a broken world" has only time for a very short "last campaign" (ch. 11), again to the south, and dies already on page 136, being subsequently appreciated as a "world conqueror" (ch. 12). The last three chapters trace the sons of Cingis Khan in the "footsteps of the father" again to Persia, the Caucasus and China and to the "martydom of the Korean people" (ch. 13), watch the "end of old Russia" and "Central Europe at the edge of the abyss" (the idea still usual today, but nevertheless very dubious, that only by lucky chance did the Mongols not permanently conquer all of Europe--ch. 14), and the "last phase of unity" (ch. 15)--the "Ogodeis" end in the "twilight" of the non- accomplished (betrayed ?) mission of Cingis Khan. Eight maps of different Asiatic and Esatern European regions and a not very clear genealogy are added to the clearly structured and very colourfully written book.

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Author Biography

Felicitas Schmieder

J. W. Goethe-Universitaet