Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World

By Carlos Portocarrero

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When I was a kid, there was a special on the History Channel about the Mongols and how they were the civilization that came closest to conquering the whole known world. Ever. I don’t remember much about it except for one thing: when the Mongol warriors got to Europe, they easily beat the Knights that were covered from head-to-toe in armor. Instead of relying on heavy protection that made them slower and more vulnerable, the Mongols were all about speed and strategy.

But the thing that stuck with me was what they wore for armor: silk shirts. Underneath their leather “armor” (only on the front, not on the back — this way if they turned their backs to the battle they were more vulnerable) they wore a silk shirt because it helped them treat arrow wounds. When an arrow hits human flesh, it causes damage upon removal — but since it won’t puncture silk, you can more easily remove the arrow head without shredding your insides.

Such a simple thing and yet it helped them vanquish the European knights pretty handily. This was all I knew about the Mongols until something perked up my interest again and I decided I had to find out more. When I saw that Mongol, a movie that was nominated for an Oscar, was out in Chicago, I had to go see it. The movie ended up being more about Genghis Khan’s early years instead of the actual building of the empire, so that’s how I came to this book.

The book takes you from the humble beginnings of a very wise man to the eventual downfall of a often misunderstood people. Everything that happens in between is incredibly compelling. The Mongol civilization under Genghis Khan was way ahead of its time in a lot of ways. For one, it espoused religious tolerance for everyone. It didn’t matter what religion you practiced as long as you first considered yourself a Mongol. After that, Genghis Khan didn’t care if you were Muslim, Jewish or Christian. He also set up a code of law that brought order to a nomadic people used to warring and thieving of women and property.

The strategies they used to conquer their enemies is especially interesting because they took everyone on a case-by-case basis. They sent some scouts ahead to see what these people looked like, how they would react, etc. Then they would apply a unique plan to beat them — it didn’t matter if they were knights covered in armor or armies holed up in a castle. The rarely lost a campaign.

I could go on and on about a lot of the little things the book mentions that really piqued my interest, but I’ll let that pass for those that want to read this book. It’s very interesting, entertaining and you’ll learn a lot about a time and people that have gotten a bad rap. Many people now equate Mongols to barbaric hordes of warriors that killed, maimed and terrorized in order to extend their grasp — not quite true. They actually had a code of morals that they followed and because Genghis Khan wasn’t really interested in taking over the world (it was mostly accidental, which is a great part of the story), he wasn’t one of those crazy, power-obsessed leaders. Anyway, I’m obviously biased. Check out the book and see for yourself.

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