The name Genghis Khan brings to mind thundering hordes of Mongol horsemen, slashing and burning their way through civilized nations. Most of us know little about the Mongol ruler. In 1956, Howard Hughes made a movie about Genghis Khan called “The Conqueror” with John Wayne in the title role which was less than historical and is best forgotten.
In Genghis Khan andthe Making of the Modern World, author Jack Weatherford illuminates the rather obscure origins of this 12th and 13th century leader. According to Weatherford, “Whether measured by the total number of people defeated, the sum of the countries annexed, or by the total area occupied, Genghis Khan was the most successful conqueror in world history, and he redrew the boundaries of the world.”
Genghis Khan or Temujin, his original name, does have a bloody back story. He murdered his own brother to allow himself to become leader of the family clan and did not hesitate to dispatch by the sword long time friends and family members who opposed him. Despite this violent beginning, Weatherford argues that the Mongol leader became a gifted leader whose innovative military tactics and creative methods of governance transformed the world and laid the foundation for trade routes, customs, and nations that survive until today.
This ruler who came from humble origins not only valued the education and skills of those he conquered, but he sought to incorporate loyal and talented individuals—no matter their race or religion—into the governance of his empire. Although he was a follower of “the Eternal Blue Sky,” a tribal religion based in the mountains of his homeland, he promoted religious tolerance for all faiths and included Jews, Muslims, Christians, and Buddhists among his advisors. When representatives from the Pope tried to proselytize and make exclusive claims about the Christian faith, however, they were ejected from the court.
Weatherford writes, “At a time when most rulers considered themselves to be above the law, Genghis Khan insisted on laws holding rulers as equally accountable as the lowest herder. He granted religious freedom within his realms, though he demanded total loyalty from conquered subjects of all religions.” At a time when Western Europe lived in squalor and fear, Genghis Khan was building an empire that promised peace and prosperity for all its citizens, not matter their social or racial status.
Weatherford’s book provides an informative background to modern culture and civilization. As we seek ways to bring people of different cultures together today, we need to understand how we got to where we are. Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World helps to provide this background.