Genghis Khan: ‘Savage’ who brought civilization to the civilized world


By Rohana R. Wasala

At Sarray, in the land of Tartarye,

There dwelte a king, that werryed Russye,

Thurgh which ther deyde many a doughty man.

This noble king was cleped Cambinskan,

Which in his tyme was of so greet renoun

That ther was no-wher in no regioun

So excellent a lord in alle thing;

Him lakked noght that longeth to a king.

As of the secte of which that he was born

He kepte his lay, to which that he was sworn;

And ther-to he was hardy, wys, and riche,

And pietous and just, alwey y-liche;

Sooth of his word, benigne and honurable,

Of his corage as any centre stable;

Yong, fresh, and strong, in armes desirous

As any bacheler of al his hous.

A fair persone he was and fortunat,

And kepte alwey so wel royal estat,

That ther was nowher swich another man.

(From ‘The Canterbury Tales’, Wordsworth Poetry Library edition, 1995, p. 418)

This is how the Squire in Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales (1395) describes the renowned Mongolian emperor Genghis Khan (Cambinskan, as he calls him) at the beginning of his tale. It is significant that Chaucer devotes the longest story of his work to a ‘Tartar’. Following is my paraphrase of this Middle English verse passage:

‘At Sarray in the country of Tartars there lived a king who waged war on Russia, through which many a brave man died. This noble king was called Genghis Khan. He was of such great fame in his time that there was nowhere in any region so excellent a king in everything. He lacked nothing that was proper for a king. As for the religion to which he was born, he was faithful to its law (teaching), to which he was sworn. And moreover, he was robust, wise, and rich. He was kindhearted, just, and always alike (evenhanded). He was true to his word, benign and honourable. Of his heart (desire) he was unwavering as the centre of any circle. He was young, energetic, strong, and (equally) desirous of (excelling in) arms. Like any young man of all his clan he was a handsome well-favoured person. And he always maintained the dignity of his royal status so well that there was nowhere his equal.’

What a striking contrast to the extremely unsavoury conventional image of the man that has come down to us from European historians and scholars, particularly since the Renaissance, as a bloodthirsty Asian barbarian! Who will forget the ‘Nose of Turk, and Tartar’s lips’ that the Witches add, along with another two dozen similar ingredients, to the hellish broth boiling in the caldron in Shakespeare’s ‘Macbeth’? ( But the ‘Tartar’ in Shakespeare is not a specific reference to the Mongolian hero.) The enthusiastic Chaucerian eulogy of Genghis Khan is a confirmation of the remarkably favourable impression about Mongols that had actually prevailed in Europe before that period. It was Roger Bacon (c. 1219 – c. 1292), the English scientist, who observed that, while demonstrating martial superiority, Mongols "(had) succeeded by means of science" and that despite their eagerness for war they had progressed so far because they "(devoted) their leisure to the principles of philosophy". Roger Bacon was a near contemporary of Genghis Khan, for he was about eight years old when the latter died in 1227 at the age of 65. Incidentally, the reign of our own king Parakramabahu the Great (1153-1186) occurred during the famous Khan’s lifetime. The recently revealed truth about the ancient Mongols is that all aspects of European life – technology, warfare, commerce, art, music, food, clothing – changed during the Renaissance as a result of their influence, according to Jack Weatherford, Professor of Anthropology at Macalester College in America, who is the author of ‘GENGHIS KHAN and the Making of the Modern World’, Broadway Books, New York, 2004, which I had the opportunity to read only recently. Professor Weatherford’s book is actually the main source as well as the joint subject of this article.

The Mongols maintained a strictly observed tradition of secrecy about the homeland of Genghis Khan and the area where he rose to imperial power. According to legend, many groups of warriors were employed to conceal his burial place, and were murdered in turn to prevent the spot being revealed by them to posterity. There were supposed to be original Mongolian documents comprising the so-called the Secret History of the Mongols. These were not only secret, but had disappeared altogether, buried in the unexplored depths of history, even more mysteriously than the great Khan’s grave. In the twentieth century, ruling Russian communists carefully guarded this area from inquisitive visitors in order not to turn it into a place of pilgrimage for nationalist Mongolians (which, they feared, could threaten the stability of the then Soviet Union).

The Mongol army conquered more countries in twenty-five years than the Roman army did in four hundred years, as Weatherford authoritatively claims. Genghis Khan laid such a firm foundation for his empire that its growth continued for another 150 years after his death. For centuries following its eventual collapse, Genghis Khan’s descendants continued to rule a number of smaller empires and some large countries from Russia, Turkey and India to China and Persia. But how was he judged by later generations? Naturally, military conquest involves violence. But in the long run, historians tend to weigh this against a conqueror’s achievements and the common benefits they confer on the victims as well as the victors. Genghis Khan and his sons and grandsons expanded the Mongolian empire through decades of endless fighting. In the absence of any authentic historical record about his life, imaginative painters of the many countries of that vast empire conceived of his physical appearance differently; scholars did the same in composing all manner of myths and stories about him. Inevitably, these portraits and legends were coloured by the fears and phobias they entertained in respect of the Mongolian conqueror, and the picture of him that had survived until a few decades ago was not very complimentary to him.

In the case of his European counterparts such as Alexander, Caesar, Charlemagne, or Napoleon, the atrocities and aggressions they committed in the course of conquest were generally assessed against their accomplishments, and the men involved were saved wholesale condemnation. Weatherford sees a discrepancy between their treatment and the judgment reserved for Genghis Khan by historians and others. His achievements (which were arguably more distinguished than those of the white conquerors named) were allowed to remain forgotten, and his alleged acts of brutality and crimes were exaggerated manyfold. He became the ruthless tyrant, the stereotypical barbarian, and the bloody savage who visited destruction on his victims for its own sake. In the Europeans’ jaundiced view, Genghis Khan, his armies, and to a large extent Asian peoples in general were considered to be outside the pale of civilization, and far inferior to the white races who were ‘civilized’.

Genghis Khan:

At long last, however, in the twentieth century, two developments led to a rare opportunity for students of Mongolian history to solve some of the mysteries surrounding Genghis Khan and his doings and to establish an authentic historical record about him. The first of these two developments was the deciphering of Mongolian manuscripts containing the lost history of this unique Mongolian military man. Mongolian scholars persisted in their efforts to discover the hidden story of their renowned ancestor despite the relentless repression of Soviet authorities, which could sometimes prove deadly. Scholars outside of Mongolia also exerted themselves to decipher the manuscripts and translate them into modern languages. The work appeared, one chapter at a time, in Mongolian and English, under the careful supervision and analysis of Igor de Rachewiltz, a dedicated Australian scholar of the ancient Mongolian language. The second development came in 1990 with the fall of communist Russia, and the subsequent end of Soviet rule in Mongolia. This opened, at last, the Mongol world of Inner Asia to outside researchers, who came with sophisticated technical equipment in search of the tombs of Genghis Khan and his family.

With these developments, Weatherford began, in 1990, his search as a student of the role of tribal people in the history of world commerce and the Silk Route connecting China, the Middle East and Europe. Through extensive travel across much of the vast area that formed the Mongolian empire he gathered a lot information, but failed to gain as much understanding as he had hoped. In spite of this, assuming that his research was almost completed, he arrived in Mongolia in 1998 for what he thought was a brief excursion in the area of Genghis Khan’s youth in order to finalize the project with some background information about that locality. But unexpectedly, this led to another five years of intensive research, Weatherford says. He found that he had arrived in Mongolia at a time when the Mongolians felt overwhelmed by their freedom from centuries of foreign rule and their enthusiasm centred on celebrating the memory of the founding father of their country, Genghis Khan. But the question ‘who was he?’ remained yet to be answered. This was the first time in eight hundred years that the forbidden zone of Genghis Khan’s youth and his mortal end was open for everyone to take a look at andit was also the time that the coded text of The Secret History had been deciphered. Weatherford knew that the task of answering those questions could not be handled by any single scholar. It had to be addressed by a team of researchers from diverse backgrounds. He was able to contribute to the team effort in his capacity as a cultural anthropologist. ‘GENGHIS KHAN and the Making of the Modern World’ is the record of the team’s findings in the five-year long research. Their focus remained on the mission of their work: ‘to understand Genghis Khan and his impact on world history’ as Weatherford puts it.

The book consists of three parts. The first part covers the period from 1162 (Genghis Khan’s birth year) to 1206 (the year that he unified all the tribes and established the Mongol nation); the second part deals with Mongolians entering history through the Mongol World War which lasted from 1211 to 1261, until internecine war broke out among Genghis Khan’s grandsons. The last section is devoted to an examination of the century of peace and the Global Awakening that formed the basis of the political, commercial, and military institutions of our modern society.

Though the book was written twelve years ago, it can still prove a good read, especially for readers belonging to Asian nations, like the Mongolians, including us Sri Lankans, who, due to being non-white, have suffered discrimination as ‘savage nations’ or ‘inferior races’ at the hands of uninformed, narrow-minded, Eurocentric historians, scientists, scholars, and politicians over the past five hundred years of Western colonialism. Though we would like to believe that such discrimination is a thing of the past, signs are that it is not totally gone. In an earlier book entitled ‘Savages and Civilization’ (1994), Weatherford says that the relationship between ‘civilized’ and ‘savage’ peoples involves a surprising degree of cooperation, mutual influence, trade, and inter-marriage, though indigenous peoples fiercely resist the onslaught of global civilization that will obliterate their identities. He demonstrates that ‘our survival as a species is based not on a choice between savages and civilization but rather on a commitment to their vital coexistence’. His later book seems to lend credence to that theory.

animated gif
Processing Request
Please Wait...