The Barbarian Invasions

Darin Back
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.

"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.

Wanting to explore the nocturnal habitats of Washington, D.C., as well, Weatherford subsequently took a job as a clerk at a porn shop called the Pink Pussy. Sort of like the Capitol, the Pink Pussy was contested ground--this time in a turf war between organized crime syndicates. The clerk whose job he'd filled had been murdered, Weatherford learned. And, after he'd collected enough material for his second book, Porn Row, and moved on, his replacement at the Pink Pussy was beaten nearly to death.


Weatherford used the receipts from Porn Row to finance a research trip to South America. There, he indulged his scholarly interest in the interaction between America's indigenous civilizations and European colonizers. His work resulted in two books: Indian Givers and Native Roots, both about the technological and political contributions of native societies to the modern world.

Though Weatherford's work has sometimes drawn him to remote and dodgy corners of the world, he seems largely unimpressed by danger. Once, he says, while researching the cocaine trade in Bolivia, he was forced into a shack by narco-traffickers and surrounded for an entire day by machete-wielding thugs on motorcycles.

"Those kinds of things happen," he says with a little shrug. "The thing is just not to panic. Certainly, to me, working in Washington, D.C., was more dangerous, because there, there were so many things you couldn't control."

As one might expect, fieldwork in Mongolia presents its own set of difficulties. There are the extreme temperatures, which can range from smoldering heat to Siberian cold. Then there are the flooded rivers--one of which carried away Weatherford's jeep. Not to mention the traditional Mongolian wooden horse saddles.

In addition, the Great Taboo, the vast, uninhabited expanse where Genghis Khan's tomb has lain undisturbed for centuries, is holy ground to Mongolians, and recent American archaeological expeditions to the area have met suspicion and resistance. "It's so sacred to the Mongol people," explains Weatherford. "To just go in and start digging would be like going to the Holy Land and saying, 'Oh, yeah, I just want to find the remains of Jesus. I just want to dig him up and study him. You don't mind, do you?'"

But, Weatherford notes, all these discomforts are minor compared to those endured by Mongolian scholars. While the Soviets dominated that country, all mention of Genghis Khan was suppressed for fear that it would fuel nationalist sentiment. The Soviets turned the Great Taboo into a high-security military facility. Even Genghis Khan's name was verboten. In the '60s, a high-ranking Mongolian government official had the temerity to propose a symposium exploring the Mongol empire's legacy. For his trouble, communist apparatchiks hacked him to death with an ax. Yet knowledge of Genghis Khan was passed down, primarily through an ancient document called The Secret History of the Mongols, an intimate, eyewitness portrait of the Mongol leader.

Weatherford grabs an old copy of The Secret History from his bookshelf. It's written in a near-indecipherable pidgin of English and Chinese characters. Until fairly recently, Weatherford explains, no one had produced a decent translation of the highly coded document. He says he is the first Western scholar to use The Secret History to explore the geography of Genghis Khan's homeland. This, combined with his flattering portrait of Mongolia's national hero, has made Weatherford a celebrity in that remote land. The publication of his book in Mongolian last year was even celebrated by Mongolia's president.

Using The Secret History as his primary source meant that Weatherford's portrait of Genghis Khan wouldn't be filtered through the eyes of bitter vanquished nations. "Previous books on Genghis Khan have mostly been based on Chinese and Persian accounts," he says. "But that's like if you wrote about U.S. history only from the perspective of Nazi or Soviet propaganda." Even so, Weatherford notes, not all non-Mongol sources from Genghis Khan's time paint such unflattering pictures of the Mongol emperor. In The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer wrote that "he lacked nothing that belonged to a king." Francis Bacon recognized the importance of the Mongols as a conduit between East and West. Even Jawaharlal Nehru, the father of Indian statehood, considered Genghis Khan a visionary.

This collective wisdom, Weatherford reasons, trumps those scholars who believe he is whitewashing one of history's great mass murderers. "If Chaucer, Nehru, and I can agree on something, there must be something to it," he says. Charges of historical revisionism seem beside the point: What is history, anyway, except the calcification of contemporary prejudices?  

Weatherford is slightly cagier about teasing out specific parallels between Genghis Khan's bid for global imperium and 21st-century America. "I don't want to say too much about that because that would get into my own thoughts, and I want to let individual readers draw their own conclusions from what's there," he says. "It's interesting that this great empire was held together because of the benefits to its people. There were always these strong regional and religious sentiments. But even Muslims were willing to live under Mongol rule because they got so much out of it."

Yet, Weatherford notes in his book, the prosperous Mongol empire lasted only a few generations. The hardy Mongol warriors became spoiled by their success and settled into a decadent, sedentary lifestyle. Meanwhile, the nationalist and religious sectarianism they had suppressed boiled over in Mongolian client states. One of the first successful rebukes to centralized Mongol rule came from the Jalayirids, a penny-ante local dynasty based near Baghdad.

Somewhere therein, perhaps, is the lesson for any nation that would remake the world in its image. Civilization is only skin deep; ancient hatreds go all the way to the bone.

As Genghis Khan might say: Step lightly, and carry a big horde.

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