10 January 2024

You're Byoodiful in Your Wraff


Genghis Khan.  The name conjures up blood-lust and plunder, barbarism and cruelty.  Deservedly so, in some respects.  But historically, the Mongol horde brought a lot less proverbial rape and pillage and a lot more cultural synthesis, engineering skills, and adaptive political function than the popular imagination credits them with.  Absent the Mongols, we quite possibly would never have witnessed the Russian, Indian, or Chinese empires, or the European Renaissance – what we think of, in other words, as the birth of the modern world. 

I picked up a couple of books, lately.  Following on my recent interest in the Ottomans (provoked, I imagine, by Orhan Pamuk’s Nights of Plague), and because nobody seems to know where the Ottomans came from, or how they got where they got, beforehand, I went back a little in time, to the nomadic horse tribes of the Great Steppe.  This biome reaches from Ukraine to Manchuria, and it’s figured for centuries in proto-European history.  In one instance, the Achaeans, the Homeric Greek warriors of the Trojan War, were driven south out of the grasslands above the Black Sea and the Caspian by somebody even more ferocious, and those Greek tribes settled along the coast, driving out or assimilating the earlier Mycenaeans, whose mother culture was Crete.  There have been successive historic waves of predatory nomad armies, Scythians, Huns, Mongols, and the peopling of Europe and India (the Celts, the Mughals) is one result.  Looking beyond a Euro-centric view of history, we see not the barbarian periphery, but a creation myth. 

The two books I’ve been reading, not back-to-back, but in tandem, are Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World by Jack Weatherford, and Empires of the Steppes by Kenneth Harl.  Weatherford’s book is the more readable, in part because it’s more manageable, even though it includes most of the 13th century.  Harl’s book is more unwieldy, covering more ground, in time from Cyrus the Great to Tamerlane, but also literally, across Eurasia.  Reminiscent of Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel, they take it as a given that human migration – cultures, tools, and diseases – move on an east-west axis, like the animal herds before them.

I was fascinated by the Mongols after I read Harold Lamb’s bio of Genghis.  (I was ten or eleven, I’m guessing.)  They rode with their knees, their arms and hands free, and they shot from horseback with compound bows, reinforced with horn, more powerful than the English longbow that defeated the French cavalry at Crecy.  On forced march, legend had it, Mongol horsemen would open a vein in their horse’s neck and drink the blood rather than stop and pitch camp.  They were beyond imagining.  It wasn’t that they were savage, or not that alone; it was that they were implacable.

I’d be the first to admit that The Conqueror (1956) was a disappointment.  Everybody makes fun of the casting, of course.  Wayne is just not the right actor, and he was later embarrassed when anybody brought the picture up.  The only person whose dignity survives even partly intact is Pedro Armendariz, and that’s being charitable.  Still, did we expect historical accuracy?  Robert Taylor in Ivanhoe.  I rest my case.  (Or for jaw-droppingly atrocious, there’s the Omar Sharif version of Genghis, best passed over in silence.)  The real problem with The Conqueror is that it trivializes the whole Mongol thing: the blood-drinking and fermented mare’s milk; riding bareback by the age of six; surviving every season of weather, from snow squalls to burning thirst, in a single day - the Eastern Steppe has the greatest extremes of temperature anywhere in the world – because what’s so fascinating about the Mongols is that they thrived in that environment, and created a social, religious, and military culture conditioned by life on the steppe.  And as poor an imitation as The Conqueror was, I still tore the ears off my Mickey Mouseketeers hat, and pinned a square of black scarf on it to hang down in back, which was the closest I could get to the Mongol costumes in the movie. 

This recent development seems, first of all, like a kind of vindication.  Maybe we all go through a dinosaur phase, when we’re a certain age, or science fiction (which a lot of us never outgrow), but I’m pleased that the Mongols have come back around into fashion.  There are two parallel strands of historiography going on, here.  One is the movement away from Caesar and Napoleon, and an emphasis on the farriers and quartermasters that kept armies on the move.  There’s a famous French guy, Braudel, the founder of the Annales school, who believes the groundlings give us a better picture of the past than the emperors.  This idea led me to a book called The Lisle Letters, about a merchant family’s rise to power under the Tudors, and a revealing social portrait of the era.  The second shift in thinking about history is a de-emphasis of the European.  This appears to have taken hold only since around the year 2000.  We see, for example, new histories of the Americas that don’t talk primarily about what happened after Columbus and the conquest.  And looking east of the Urals, we discover our own deeper heritage.  The horse tribes of the steppe are in our race memory, back behind the curtain, and we can pull it aside. 

Who wouldn’t want to have these people in their genealogy?  It’s not just opening a vein in the horse’s neck, or the fact that they conquered the known world, it’s that they’re us.  This myth, this memory, is ours.


  1. Fascinating, David. Here is one band trying to embrace the culture... https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v4xZUr0BEfE&list=RDv4xZUr0BEfE&start_radio=1

  2. We had to memorize the Coleridge poem in school. Really, memorize it.

    A college instructor I knew was fascinated by the era. She had gerbils named Batu, Kubla…

  3. I've recommended it before, and I will again, Cecilia Holland's historical novel "Until the Sun Rises" about the Mongol invasion of Europe.
    I think the most fascinating thing about the Mongols is that, while they burned stationary cities to the ground from Baghdad to Moscow, they themselves were a traveling city, hundreds of thousands of them, including their wives, children, servants, slaves. It was like a school of sharks who could not be stopped.

    1. DAVID EDGERLEY GATES12 January, 2024 10:47

      Me, too! I've admired Cecilia Holland since The Kings in Winter (great title, too). Genghis, like Alexander, would spare a city that surrendered, and destroy one that didn't; they also took conquered peoples into their armies, and promoted on merit.


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