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Genghis Khan and the Modern World

In Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, Jack Weatherford provides a litany of benefits that arose from the Mongol Empire created by Genghis Khan and his descendants for a long time. The topics are an intriguing mixture of (future) international law norms and concepts people usually associate with a more modern era.

The international law norms include restraint from (gratuitous) torture; protection of foreign envoys (and harsh retaliation for other leaders who killed or tortured envoys); and prosecution of piracy to maintain the flow of tribute and commerce. “Progressive” concepts (compared to the norms of the day) perpetuated by the Mongol Empire include respect for religious freedom; public education in China (under the Yuan dynasty founded by Kublai Khan); and a decade or so when women ruled the empire. Genghis Khan also organized all but the highest levels of “government” by merit, rather than family ties.

His sons did succeed him, with each one taking a third of the original empire holdings, while retaining some rights to the top personnel and products of the other two regions he did not directly govern. The Mongolian Empire also had a Pony Express system. The Pax Mongolia and the expansion of trade led to an overall improvement of the standard of living in the world, until the bubonic plague broke out, facilitated by the shipping channels of the empire.

While the Mongols didn’t torture often and they sometimes offered conquered leaders a honorable (e.g. bloodless) death, they did routinely kill off conquered aristocrats and appropriate any needed foreign professionals (such as doctors, astronomers, and miners). They also used conquered peasants as human shields and even human battering rams, at times. The main goal of a military campaign was a Mongol victory with the least loss of Mongol life, even if a little trickery or sacrifice of non-Mongols was required.

Genghis Khan also held himself (and other leaders) subject to the Supreme Law, a foreshadowing of the the prosecution of heads of state at Nuremberg after World War II and at the ad hoc international criminal tribunals of the latter part of the twentieth century. As previously mentioned, while he himself worshiped the Great Sky, he was tolerant of other religious, though his Wikipedia article mentions some limitations placed on other religious, such as requiring Islamic butchers of animals to use Mongol methods rather than halal method.

One of Prof. Weatherford’s primary resources is the Secret History of the Mongols, an interesting document that was written in a coded version of Chines to recount the achievements of the Mongol Empire, which primarily had an oral tradition.

Selected Resources

Denise Aigle. The Mongol Empire: Between Myth and Reality: Studies in Anthropological History (2014). OhioLINK

Pita Kelekna. The Horse in Human History (2009). OhioLINK

V.A. Riazanovskii. Customary Law of the Mongol Tribes, Part I and II. Law Stacks KPJ19.2R53 1979

V.A. Riazanovskii. Mongol Law: A Concise Historical Survey. 23 Wash. L. Rev. & St. B. J. 166 (1948).

V.A. Riazanovskii. The Influence of Ancient Mongol Culture on Russian Culture and Law. 20 Chinese Soc. & Pol. Sci. Rev. 499 (1937).

V.A. Riazanovskii. Mongol Law and Chinese Law in the Yuan Dynasty. 20 Chinese Soc. & Pol. Sci. Rev. 266 (1936).


One single comment

  1. Donna Ertin says:

    A new book by Jack Weatherford: Genghis Khan and the Quest for God: How the World’s Greatest Conqueror Gave Us Religious Freedom was just reviewed in the NYT on Dec. 9th. Among other things, the author claims that the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment is, “at its root, an originally Mongol notion.”
    The bad rap Genghis Khan and the Mongols have historically received as barbarians interested primarily in plundering, destroying and killing is receiving, deservedly,a second look.