The Barbarian Invasions

An anthropologist's journey from a porn booth to the Mongolian steppes

Jack Weatherford
Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World
Crown Publishers

In one of Saddam Hussein's last communiqués before the collapse of his regime, he drew a weird historical parallel to the looming American invasion. "Hulago, grandson of Genghis Khan, sacked Baghdad in 1258 A.D. and his soldiers looted Baghdad for 40 days and then destroyed every living thing in it," the erstwhile dictator reminded his subjects.

To some, this must have been further evidence of Saddam's frosty relationship with reality--after all, here was a guy who was busy writing Harlequin romances as the Third Infantry rolled up his driveway. To Jack Weatherford, a maverick cultural anthropologist and professor at Macalester College, Saddam's turn of phrase was further proof for a radical proposition: namely, that Genghis Khan, an illiterate bandit from the steppes of Mongolia, is the pivot upon which world history turns.

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"Even though it happened so long ago, this is still fresh in their minds," Weatherford explained recently from his well-appointed Macalester office. "Just think about that: Until last year, the Mongols were the only heathens ever to conquer Iraq." It is Weatherford's contention that the popular image of Genghis Khan--as the bloodthirsty patron saint of Wall Street financiers and soccer hooligans--is largely the vintage of sour grapes on the part of those conquered by the Mongol empire.

In fact, Weatherford's new book, Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World (Crown Publishers), argues that the legendary Mongol warlord was really just a statesman with a PR problem. "Although he arose out of the ancient tribal past," Weatherford writes, "Genghis Khan shaped the modern world of commerce, communication, and large secular states more than any other individual. He was the thoroughly modern man in his mobilized and professional warfare and in his commitment to global commerce and the rule of international secular law."

Genghis Khan is best known as a brutal and efficient military genius, of course. During World War II, the Nazis even sent agents to Mongolia to try to uncover his battlefield strategies. Yet Weatherford draws a far less familiar and far more benign portrait of the Mongol empire: a peaceful, religiously tolerant, commercially booming territory that, at the height of its power, extended from China to the edge of Europe and included more than half the humans on the planet.

"This subject just oozes with relevance for today," Weatherford says. "If we look at world history, there've only been two of these world-spanning powers: the Mongols and America. Maybe the Soviet Union, but it was never the only superpower. If you're looking at Rome, that was just a small regional power. And this vast empire was held together by only a million Mongols--smaller than the workforce of Wal-Mart!"

But Soviet suppression of Mongolian history and Occidental indifference meant that, until recently, Genghis Khan himself was a virtual tabula rasa. Weatherford says that although he was fascinated with Mongolia even as a boy--he grew up on a farm in South Carolina--it's only in the last decade that the mountainous country has opened to scholars. "I had these five stamps from Mongolia that I used to look at through a microscope," the professor recalls. "I remember them because they were the only triangular stamps I had. At the time, I guess I was more interested in Marco Polo. You know, he went off as a young kid of 16. I liked that idea of going away and living on horses and seeking excitement.

"It was only around 1990, as the Soviet Union was opening up, I was interested in tracing the Silk Route. I had sort of forgotten about Genghis Khan by then. But then it hit me: This is the link! Somebody built these roads and connected these towns. It was like this curtain was pulled back." In 1996, Weatherford made the first of many sojourns to Mongolia, riding in jeeps and on horses across nearly impassable terrain.

For an academic, Weatherford seems to have lived a varied and colorful life (though his unassuming manner and slight Carolina twang have a way of making even the most outré story sound like a description of what he had for breakfast). In the late '70s, shortly after completing his Ph.D. at the University of California, he worked as a legislative aide for then-Senator John Glenn. Weatherford wrote a Pop ethnography based on his experience at the Capitol, Tribes on the Hill, in which he compared Washington's grinding bureaucracy to the court intrigues of Versailles or Constantinople. Weatherford also likened America's political elite to patrilineal tribes--the Bushmen being only the latest example.

"I was trying to look at the process of what was going on [in Congress], and it seemed to be getting mired down in these ever greater layers of ceremony that were choking it to death," Weatherford explains. "There was this almost Byzantine process--and I'm using the word Byzantine intentionally here--where people were spending so much of their time in ceremonial events that you don't know where power is really being exercised."

In his book, Weatherford contended that the principal actors in this political theater--Beltway dynasties like the Bushes and Kennedys--consolidate and perpetuate their power in the same way as, for example, the headman of a New Guinean tribe.

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