Genghis Khan: Life, death and resurrection by John Man

Genghis the Bogeyman? Christopher Hart remains unconvinced by this colourful attempt to rehabilitate the Mongol conqueror

'Politically to the right of Genghis Khan" is a daft and meaningless phrase, but it does show that the Mongol warlord continues to occupy a place in the collective folk memory. In this new study, John Man, an adventurous Mongol enthusiast, seeks to paint a fresh portrait of Genghis as someone far more complex than merely the destructive bogeyman of Western, and even more, Islamic, imagination; and also to explore the fascinating and bizarre cult that has grown up in Genghis's homeland since his death, where he has attained something like semi-divine status. Genghis has even been declared Chinese ­ by the Chinese, at any rate. The wars are long over, but the culture wars continue.

Enthralling and colourful as Man's study is, his attempt to rehabilitate Genghis as a kind of romantic, Napoleonic figure, a "paradoxical whirlwind of destructiveness and creativity, ruthlessness and generosity", does not entirely convince. What beneficent laws, what roads, what cities, what poetry and songs did his reign leave the world? The first Mongolian book, The Secret History, was commissioned in 1228 ­ a year after his death. And anyway, just how much "creativity" must one exhibit to counterbalance the slaughter of millions?

Creativity aside, Genghis undoubtedly possessed a world-conquering combination of furious energy and willpower, a belief that he was doing God's work, military genius and political nous. It was the last quality that enabled him to unite the squabbling Mongol tribes into a single unit, and to appoint talented generals whom he could trust absolutely. The other key element in his success was military hardware: specifically the uniquely tough Mongolian pony, and the Mongolian bow. This was a world-class weapon.

Fascinating Facts for Boys: the Mongolian bow was a composite of wood and horn, sinew and glue. The combination of materials was devastating, making even the English longbow look puny by comparison. A longbow might fire an arrow 350 yards on a good day, but a composite bow can do 500 yards, and sometimes as much as half a mile. The arrow leaves the bow at 200 mph, around a quarter the speed of a modern bullet; but since an iron-tipped arrow is considerably heavier, it packs an equivalent punch. After covering 100 yards, it can drive easily through an inch of wood. There was little point in the Mongols' enemies burdening themselves with armour.

To draw back the bow, you needed to exert a force equivalent to doing a one-arm pull-up with just three fingers, every time you fired an arrow. Imagine doing that repeatedly, at full gallop across open country, while being simultaneously fired upon yourself, and you get some idea what tough nuts the Mongol horsemen were. As in Roman times, the ordinary soldier of those days must have been at least as fit as any SAS man today. Genghis commanded an army of 100,000 of them, supported by up to 300,000 horses.

Genghis's first target was the old enemy, China. Resistance was feeble and the streets of Beijing, so the chroniclers wrote, were soon greasy with human fat. Leaving the Song Dynasty of Southern China until later, he then turned his attention west, and fell upon the Islamic world with an inexplicable fury. John Man tells us that the slaughter which followed wasn't motivated by any "terrible racial or religious hatred", and imagines that the Mongols slaughtered their captive men, women and children much as they would have slaughtered sheep: quickly and efficiently, without hatred or rancour. From their victims' point of view, however, it can't have been much comfort to know that Genghis's men in no way regarded them as racially inferior. There are other sins besides racism.

The Mongols' pleasure was in conquest, pure and simple; and it was that nihilism of purpose that left European, Russian and Muslim folk memory indelibly marked with the image of bloodthirsty savages appearing out of the steppes to fall upon the great cities of Kiev and Bokhara, Samarkand and Merv, killing for killing's sake and leaving not even a wrack behind.

Around AD1200, Merv was the pearl of Central Asia beside the River Murgab, a city of mosques and minarets, of turquoise tiles whose glimmer could be seen a day's march away across the desert. It covered 100 square kilometres, boasted a library containing 150,000 volumes, and an astronomical observatory where Omar Khayyam himself had worked. When Merv fell to the Mongols after brief resistance, its citizens were marched out of the city, and each Mongol warrior was allotted around 300 to kill. Islamic chroniclers said that the death-toll at Merv was one million. This might seem doubtful, but then John Man reminds us of more recent events in Rwanda ­ 800,000 killed in four months, mostly with machetes ­ and you wonder. Where Merv once stood there is only rubble and desert now.

Medieval Europe had received confused reports of this terror from the east descending upon the Muslim world, and declared that "a new and mighty protector of Christianity has arisen!" Slight misinterpretation. Christian Kiev was devastated next, its princes crushed to death beneath a heavy wooden platform while the Mongol generals had their dinner sitting on top. The Mongols advanced far into Europe, defeated the Polish army at Liegnitz, and a scouting party of eight of them was captured in the Vienna Woods. One of the "Mongols" turned out to be a renegade Englishman called Robert, who had been a chaplain to one of the Magna Carta barons, had gone into exile, lost all his money gambling in Palestine, and ended up working as an interpreter for Genghis Khan himself. What a rogue.

Christendom was saved not by showing a united front, but by the death of the great Mongol general, Ogedei, after which the horsemen turned back for home. Genghis himself died suddenly in 1227, probably from dysentery, and his elevation to divine status began. Today in Mongolia, he is celebrated as the father of his people, and there are pop groups and brands of beer named after him. Man visits his Mausoleum (though the site of his actual burial is unknown), and finds people adoring such relics as the Sacred Bow and Quiver, the Holy Saddle, and the Chamber of the Miraculous Milk Bucket.

Man gives us a further, rather terrifying bit of information from genetics. A single male, active around 1200-1220 in Central Asia, and evidently with the political power and geographical range to impregnate a large number of women at will, is the direct ancestor of some one in 200 men alive today. It seems highly probable that this ultimate alpha-male was Genghis Khan himself. It is a grimly compelling thought that it was this violent, cunning, power-hungry man who passed his genes on most successfully, and not some meek, mild little monk, such as the Taoist sage Ch'ang-ch'un, for instance. Passing by the site of one of Ghenghis's great "victories", 10 years after the event, Ch'ang-ch'un gazed out over the vast field of bones, and vowed to return at a later time to pray. He kept his promise, and for three days and two nights of bitter cold, he knelt there and prayed "on behalf of the lonely dead".

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