American Elephants


Discovering History That I Never Knew by The Elephant's Child
February 13, 2012, 6:57 am
Filed under: China, Europe, History, Iran, Iraq, Middle East, Russia | Tags: , ,

I have mentioned that I never seem to read anything when it first comes out— partly because I usually have a stack of books that I have not yet read, but partly also because you have to be in the right frame of mind for some books.  A good friend recommended Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World to me years ago.  It was published in 2004, but I never got around to it until now.  When I get excited about something I have read, I’m inclined to insist that everyone else read it right now.  So consider yourselves warned.

I knew nothing about Genghis Khan except  the”Mongol hordes,” Ulaanbaatar, the steppes, and the first stanza of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Xanadu” which I recalled word for word from Survey of English Literature quite a few years ago. Not promising. So I read the Introduction.

In 1937, the soul of Genghis Khan disappeared from the Buddhist monastery in central Mongolia along the River of the Moon below the black Shankh Mountains where the faithful lamas  had protected and venerated it for centuries.

Well, who could resist that? Born in 1162, and his soul disappeared in 1937.

Year by year, he gradually defeated everyone more powerful that he was, until he had conquered every tribe on the Mongolian steppe. At the age of fifty, when most great conquerors had already put their fighting days behind them, Genghis Khan’s Spirit Banner beckoned him out of his remote homeland to confront the armies of the civilized people who had harassed and enslaved the nomadic tribes for centuries. …

In conquest after conquest, the Mongol army transformed warfare into an intercontinental affair fought on multiple fronts stretching across thousands of miles.  Genghis Khan’s innovative fighting techniques made the heavily armored knights of medieval Europe obsolete, replacing them with disciplined cavalry moving in coordinated units. Rather than relying on defensive fortifications, he made brilliant use of speed and surprise on the battlefield, as well as perfecting siege warfare to such a degree that he ended the era of walled cities. Genghis Khan taught his people not only to fight across incredible distances but to sustain their campaign over years, decades, and, eventually, more than three generations of constant fighting.

Jack Weatherford  is the Dewitt Wallace Professor of anthropology at Macalester College in Minnesota.  He earned his PhD at the University of California, San Diego, and an honorary Doctorate  of Humanities from Chinggis Khaan College in Mongolia. He certainly knows how to draw in  a reader.

In American terms, the accomplishment of Genghis Khan might be understood if the United States, instead of being created by a group of educated merchants or wealthy planters, had been founded by one of its illiterate slaves, who, by the sheer force of personality, charisma and determination, liberated America from foreign rule, united the people, created an alphabet, wrote the constitution, established universal religious freedom, invented a new system of warfare, marched an army from Canada to Brazil, and opened roads of commerce in a free-trade zone that stretched across the continents.  On every level and from any perspective, the scale and scope of Genghis Khan’s accomplishments challenge the limits  of imagination and tax the resources of scholarly explanation.

That’s all the sampling I shall give you. Here’s the book at Amazon, though every bookstore should have copies.  And here is a young Mongolian musician, Battulga, who plays “Jonon Kharin Yavdal” on a horse headed fiddle which has a skin covered box and horsehair strings (even the bow-string) as in an ancient traditional fiddle. Enjoy.




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