Genghis Khan
And His Successors

    Jack Weatherford, a historian of the Mongol Empire, has written a cracker-jack biography of its founder Temujin (who became known as Genghis Khan), his successors - - - and the vast empire they created.

    At its greatest extent, the Empire stretched from the Pacific to the borders of what is now Germany and Austria. After having defeated the flower of Polish, Hungarian, and German knighthood in 1241, the Mongol armies were poised to overrun western Europe when word reached them that the great Khan Ogodei, the son of Genghis Khan, had died. Thereupon, they halted their campaigns and rode 4000 miles back to Mongolia to elect the new Great Khan. Their armies never returned to central Europe, although they controlled Russia for another two centuries.

    Nonetheless, the extensive trade routes which the Mongols established and made a point of maintaining brought technologies and ideas from Asia to Europe from the 13th century on. Weatherford argues that this influence was a very important source of what we now call the Modern World.

The Mongols adopted printing technology very early. In addition to the printings sponsored by Torogene [wife of Ogodei, Genghis' son and successor], during the reign of her husband beginning in 1236 Ogodei ordered the establishment of a series of regional printing facilities across the Mongol-controlled territory of northern China. Printing with moveable letters probably began in China in the middle of the twelfth century, but it was the Mongols who employed it on a massive scale and harnassed its potential power to the needs of state administration.

General literacy increased during the Mongol dynasty, and the volume of literary material grew proportionately . . . The number of books in print increased so dramatically that their price fell constantly throughout the era of Mongol rule. Presses throughout the Mongol Empire were soon printing agriculture pamphlets, almanacs, scriptures, laws, histories, medical treatises, new mathematical theories, songs, and poetry in many different languages.

Whether in their policy of religious tolerance, devising a universal alphabet, maintaining relay stations, playing games, or printing almanacs, money, or astronomy charts, the rulers of the Mongol Empire displayed a persistent universalism. Because they had no system of their own to impose upon their subjects, they were willing to adopt and combine systems from everywhere. Without deep cultural preferences in these areas, the Mongols implemented pragmatic rather than ideological solutions . . .

They searched for what worked best; and when they found it, they spread it to other countries. They did not have to worry whether their astronomy agreed with the precepts of the Bible, that their standards of writing followed the classical principles taught by the mandarins of China, or that Muslim imams disapproved of their printing and painting. The Mongols had the power, at least temporarily, to impose new international systems of technology, agriculture, and knowledge that superseded the predilections or prejudices of any single civilization; and in so doing, they broke the monopoly on thought exercised by local elites.

In conquering their empire, not only had the Mongols revolutionized warfare, they had also created the nucleus of a universal culture and world system. The new global culture continued to grow long after the demise of the Mongol Empire, and through continued development over the coming centuries, it became the foundation for the modern world system with the original Mongol emphases on free commerce, open communication, shared knowledge, secular politics, religious coexistence, international law, and diplomatic immunity . . .

One technological innovation after another arrived in Europe. The most labor-intensive professions such as mining, milling, and metalwork had depended almost entirely on human and animal labor, but they quickly became more mechanized with the harnassing of water and wind power. The transmission of the technology for improving the blast furnace also arrived in Europe from Asia via the Mongol trade routes, and it allowed metalworkers to achieve higher temperatures and thereby improve the quality of metal, an increasingly important material in this new high-technology era . . .

In Europe, as a result of the Mongol Global Awakening, carpenters used the general adze less and adapted more specialized tools for specific functions to make their work faster and more efficient; builders used new types of cranes and hoists. There was a quick spread of new crops that required less work to produce or less processing after production: carrots, turnips, cress, buckwheat, and parsnips became common parts of the diet. Labor-intensive cooking was improved by mechanizing the meat spit to be turned more easily. The new tools, machines, and mechanical devices helped to build everything, from ships and docks to warehouses and canals, faster and better.

Something as simple as preparing a single page document on vellum or parchment required the labor of a long line of skilled workers [to produce parchment from animal skin] . . .The replacement of parchment by paper, a Chinese innovation already known but only rarely used in Europe prior to the Mongol era, required more skill in one worker but far fewer steps and thus, in the overall process, less energy and labor. The increased demand for paper arose with the spread of printing . . .

Joannes Gutenberg completed the adaptation with his production of two hundred Bibles in 1455, and started the printing and information revolution in the West. The new technology made the relatively minor trade of book making into one of the most potent forces of public life. It stimulated the revival of Greek classics, the development of written forms of the vernacular languages, the growth of nationalism, the outbreak of the Protestant Reformation, the birth of science, and virtually every aspect of life and learning from agriculture to zoology.

As early as 1620, the English scientist Francis Bacon recognized the impact that changing technology had produced in Europe. He designated printing, gunpowder, and the compass as three technological innovations on which the modern world was built. Although they were "unknown to the ancients . . . these three have changed the appearance and state of the whole world; first in literature, then in warfare, and lastly in navigation." More important than the innovations themselves, from them "innumerable changes have been thence derived."

In a clear recognition of their importance, he wrote "that no empire, sect, or star, appears to have exercised a greater power and influence on human affairs than these mechanical discoveries." All of them had been spread to the West during the era of the Mongol Empire.

Under the widespread influences from the paper and printing, gunpowder and firearms, and the spread of the navigational compass and other maritime equipment, Europeans experienced a Renaissance, literally a rebirth, but it was not the ancient world of Greece and Rome being reborn: it was the Mongol Empire, picked up, transferred, and adapted by the Europeans to their own needs and culture.

--- Genghis Khan and
The Making of the Modern World

Jack Weatherford
©2004, Broadway Books
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