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23.04.07 Morton, The Mongol Storm

23.04.07 Morton, The Mongol Storm

The publications of popular books about the Mongol Empire have increased dramatically in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. They have appeared after a series of scholarly books on Chinggis Khan, Khubilai Khan, the roles of Mongol women, and the Mongol contributions to trade and to global history, as well as museum exhibitions on the Mongols’ impact on the arts, which have initiated changes in the perceptions of the nomadic conquerors. The popularizers have, by and large, often presented reliable depictions of Mongol history for a wide audience, but a few have produced exaggerated and false analyses and descriptions in their works. Those who present a vulgarized portrait assert, for example, that Chinggis Khan believed in democracy, was an advocate of international law, and was a supporter of women’s rights.

Thus, it is a pleasure to read a popular work that is designed to reach a wide popular audience but is not full of distortions. Professor Morton has read and incorporated most of the important secondary sources. Still very young, he has completed six books on the medieval era. His interest in West Asia or what he calls the “Near East” prompted his study of the Mongols in that time. He could not read the primary sources, but he consulted excellent works on the Mongols.

Professor Morton had good intentions, but did he actually fulfill his objective of producing a readable account of West Asia during the Mongol era? The results are mixed. He sticks to military history and politics. As a result, one confederation or group after another follows in the text. A typical example is: “Ultimately, the kingdom of Jerusalem’s leaders sided with the Templars and accepted the Damascene offer. The Templars then arranged a treaty with al-Salih Ismail in which the kingdom of Jerusalem committed itself to supporting the Damascenes and by extension their allies, the rulers of Homs and Kerak” (123). This kind of citation of different groups is typical; while accurate, they will puzzle the general educated reader. To be sure, the book is titled “The Mongol Storm,” which implies a focus on the Mongols’ conquests. Yet the book explains that the invasions “left an indelible mark on” West Asia (4), and the focus on a literal accounting of military and political developments limits attempts to explore the impact of Mongol rule.

Only one paragraph is devoted to the IlKhan Ghazan and his policies and reforms. The reigns of the other IlKhans are also not accorded much attention. Such descriptions would perhaps have invoked the changes in the “Near East” to which Professor Morton refers. Without a consideration of the actual policies the Mongols pursued in ruling, comprehension of the transformation of the region, which would have attracted the general reader, is limited.

Tangible evidence of transformations would have surprised and provided food for thought for the reader. For example, the Pax Mongolica permitted interchanges among various sections of the Mongol domains, which led to significant changes. Professor Morton mentions the Mongols’ support for trade but devotes scant space to the ensuing ramifications and transformations. For example, he cites a few developments in Persian astronomy but fails to dwell on the fact that the Yuan dynasty invited or, in some cases, commanded Persian astronomers and physicians to arrive in China to infuse the Chinese sciences with their knowledge and techniques. Although they did not alter the basic principles of these sciences in China, they, nonetheless, contributed to the construction of an observatory, the development of a new Chinese calendar, and the establishment of a number of hospitals. Persians adopted a type of rice from China, and the Yuan dynasty had considerable influence on the Persian arts, including porcelain, tile work, illustrated manuscripts, and textiles; the Mongols supported Sufism. Description of these influences, including innovations in military organization, technology, and strategy, on the “Near East” would have bolstered the reader’s understanding of the transformations that Professor Morton cited.

Errors are bound to creep in when writing about such an inclusive subject. In this case, they are generally minor. Rabban Sauma did not travel to England (314). Instead, he met King Edward I in Bordeaux, which was under English jurisdiction at the time. Professor Morton’s transcriptions of Chinese are inconsistent. On occasion, he uses the Wade-Giles system, but at other times, he employs pinyin. Thus, he writes Xiangyang (in Wade-Giles, Hsiangyang), but then he uses Chin (in pinyin, Jin). These errors and inconsistencies do not, in any major way, detract from the book.

In sum, Professor Morton’s book, based on a reading of the principal secondary sources, is well-written and generally reliable but incomplete, if he wishes, as he explains, to provide a narrative of the changes wrought by the Mongol invasions in the “Near East.” He focuses on the military conquests but does not devote as much attention to the transformations he mentions.