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I know that I should like Jack Weatherford’s Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World.

It is a detailed, well-documented, well-researched look at the rise of Genghis Khan and the Mongol Empire. Actually, I should say “empires” since the unified domain that Temujin created in the 13th century on his way to becoming Genghis Khan (which means “strong, wolf-like leader”) was quickly fragmented among four branches of his family.

Weatherford’s 2004 book is filled with insights into the culture of the Mongols and their methods of war-making. He examines the seemingly endless ways in which the Mongols, in their empire-building, had an impact on every corner of Asia and Europe.

So why do I come away from the book dissatisfied?

The fault, I acknowledge, may lie with myself. Perhaps Weatherford provided so much information and perspective new to me that my circuits overloaded, and I just couldn’t hold my own as a reader.


Three faults?

I can’t help thinking, though, that there were perhaps three faults of the book that caused me to lose my way.

The first is that Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World is ostensibly a biography of Genghis Khan — and it is for its first 128 pages. Yet, for even more of the book (143 pages), it tells the story of what happened after he died.

So, in essence, this is a book about the rise and fragmentation of the Mongol Empire. Temujin leads his people to unheard of victories. His relatives expand it even further, and then it breaks into four smaller empires.

In a biography, the subject provides a focal point for the writer and for the reader. That focal point is there for the opening half of Weatherford’s book, and then it isn’t. I don’t think Weatherford found an adequate way to focus the information in the second half.


Lack of analysis and synthesis

The second and third faults with Genghis Khan — if they are faults — have to do with what I found to be a lack of analysis and synthesis. S. Badral...In a 20-page introduction and throughout much of the book’s second half, Weatherford frequently compares the Mongol culture with that of Europe and finds Western civilization wanting. The Mongols are more tolerant than Europeans. They don’t engage in torture. When they conquer a city, they only slaughter the rich whereas the Europeans kill the poor and ransom the rich. And so on.

He does this in a way that’s hard for a reader to respond to. Instead of using perhaps a chapter to address these differences, Weatherford lards them throughout the introduction and second half. (In general, Weatherford’s approach to providing the reader with information struck me as laying down one layer of facts atop another layer atop another layer, and on and on.)

I’m not saying that he’s wrong when he says the Mongols were more tolerant. But the way Weatherford presents this information is as a bald fact, without context.

His point, I suspect, is to correct many misconceptions that, over nearly a millennium, have been built up in the West about Genghis Khan and the Mongols. He is emphasizing the ways in which they were admirable.

However, Weatherford seems to me to have gone overboard. What’s missing is some perspective, some weighing of positive and negative.


Like a tornado

The third fault that I found in Weatherford’s book is related to the second.

The Mongols rose because of the brilliance of Temujin’s military strategy. Their culture appears to have been able to meld with those of conquered peoples in such a way as to create strong, unified nations that operated more efficiently, tolerantly and profitably.

And then what?

I’m not sure. It appears that, after the fragmentation of the empire, the Mongol element was woven into, but not dominant over, the developing local cultures. That seems to be why we today don’t think of the Mongols as true empire-builders.

I think that might be what I find as the greatest fault with Weatherford’s book. The sense I get from Genghis Khan is that the Mongols were like a tornado that comes and nothing can stand in its way, and then it’s gone. By its nature, it has no staying power. S. Badral...That’s what I wonder about the Mongols — their staying power, or lack thereof.


The Mongol staying power

Were their victories ultimately fruitless since the Mongols, in the long run, couldn’t capitalize on them? They spread themselves so thinly that their impact was only temporary — if a century or more can be said to be temporary.

Weatherford makes the point, early on, that the Mongol Empire at its greatest was much larger than the Roman Empire. Yet, the Roman Empire lasted for half a millennium, and its influence is still being felt today throughout the world.

The Greeks, who never controlled much real estate, have been influencing world thought and action for thousands of years.

The Mongols?

Weatherford would say they had great Impact. But I’m not sure. How does one define impact? Most Westerners know little about the Mongols, and much more about the Greeks and Romans.

As I said at the beginning, I may be wrong-headed in all of this. Perhaps I am asking too much of Weatherford. Or maybe not enough of myself as a reader.

It’s just that, after reading this book, I know so much more about Genghis Khan and his people.

Genghis Khan Monument, Sukhbaatar Square, Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

Genghis Khan Monument, Sukhbaatar Square, Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

And not much at all.

Patrick T. Reardon

Written by : Patrick T. Reardon

For more than three decades Patrick T. Reardon was an urban affairs writer, a feature writer, a columnist, and an editor for the Chicago Tribune. In 2000 he was one of a team of 50 staff members who won a Pulitzer Prize for explanatory reporting. Now a freelance writer and poet, he has contributed chapters to several books and is the author of Faith Stripped to Its Essence. His website is


  1. Mike Desautels December 3, 2017 at 9:07 am - Reply

    Thanks for your review – I found it most helpful.

    I have this book on hold from my local library, but I am eighth in line, and they have only one copy. This seems strange to me, as I live in Calgary, a city of a million plus, and the book is now thirteen years old.

    I have read the entire introduction at the local bookstore, where a small softcover edition can be had (three copies left). This too is strange.

    Obviously there is renewed interest.

    The free youtube video “Mongol” was released in 2007, and it is an international movie, quite excellent, despite the sub-titles, actually, because of them – authentic.

    I have Eric Hildinger’s “Warriors of the Steppe”, which I will re-read, and a massive National Geographic “Cultural History” which depicts the scale of the Mongol impact.

    I have a fascination with ‘tribal’ values as opposed to ‘civilized’ values, which appear to be leading us rapidly towards extinction, or at least its non-trivial possibility.

    It makes sense that we have underestimated Genghis Khan – a cultural, civilizational bias.

    Despite the faults you mention in Weatherford’s book – I think he is on to something very important.

    Have we placed too much faith in our institutions, to be precise, and forgotten the individual, both the common man and Cicero’s “noble, invincible spirit” ??

    Michael Desautels, B.Sc.,
    Calgary, Alberta

    • Patrick T. Reardon December 4, 2017 at 3:38 pm - Reply

      Michael — I agree with you that there is a tendency in modern history writing — academic history writing, not so much popular history writing — to underestimate the single person and the effect that that person can have. I think Genghis Khan is well-wroth learning a lot about. Thanks for your comment. Pat

  2. Roque Testai September 3, 2022 at 2:37 am - Reply

    We have so many untold or fake history in Western and Americans’ (,all 3 North, Central, South) education, that is hard to see how they manipulated, killed important personalities and forged thoudands of mediocre ones.
    History has been conveniently told to us, by our Western rooths, moreover dictated by the christianism major entity, the Catholic church, since its foundation in the 4th. century A.D.
    Of course, in the 13th. Century, with the crusades in dispute for power agains the rising Islam, the mongols caught everyone in Rome, Constantinopla and Paris, by surprise.
    For everything I’ve read, it seems Genghis Khan never wanted to conquer the world, at least the world known at that time as we know. He just wanted to unify all mongolian tribes, it means, all neighbor tribes in his view. Remenber that at that time, there were no borders, no states as we know today. So, the crescent Mongol army wipped all contenders in their path to honor their great master. Needless to say the arrow they certainly threw onto Catholic church’s heart, by defeating Persians, Arabs, Turks, Chinese kingdoms, submiting and charging tributes, but allowing them exercise their own faith and religion.
    Henghis Khan was iliterate, and may not had interest in registering and telling his own history. He also seemed to be a simple man, who never built a palace for himself. But we know he was a formidable leader and strategist, that had his tales and part of his deeds writen by his comrads, people, travelers, monks, even enemies.
    The Mongolian DNA is today spread all over Asia, South, North and Eastern Europe, as a sign of mixing cultural relationships.
    São Paulo, Brazil

    • Patrick T Reardon September 3, 2022 at 2:42 pm - Reply

      Thanks for your comment. Pat

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