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312 pages, Paperback
First published March 16, 2004
The tragedies his family endured seemed to have instilled in him a profound determination to defy the strict caste structure of the steppes, to take charge of his fate, and to rely on alliances with trusted associates, rather than his family or tribe, as his primary base of support.My issue with the book was more due to it not holding up the promise of the title. It is clear that Weatherford has a great passion for Mongolian history but I fear he bit off more than he could chew with his title. I will certainly concede that the Mongolian Empire was unique for its time. The Mongols were always a minority where they ruled so they could not use the traditional tool of Empire building, the fist of the army, as their only strategy. Instead they had to adapt to the people they conquered and look everywhere they could for innovative means of preserving their power and influence.
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.This universalist and pragmatic approach certainly generated qualities that we find in today's modern world: religious tolerance, secular governance, emphasis on technological achievement, paper money, state support of long distance trade, etc. But these qualities did not have any sort of lasting impact on the world. Because of their universalist outlook and light (for the times) footprint on their conquered populations the Mongol Empire left little in the way of lasting cultural achievements. Many were merely absorbed into the local culture even as Mongol Dynasties continued to rule. Their legacy was written by the people they conquered (China) or threatened (Europe) and that history did their legacy no favors.
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.