Monday, November 1, 2010
At the time of his death in 1227, Genghis Khan's holdings extended from the Caspian Sea to the Sea of Japan, embracing virtually all of central Asia, down into China, up into the remote northern steppes. The sheer immensity of his conquests makes Alexander the Great look like a neighborhood bully by way of comparison. Likewise, the Roman Empire and Muslim Caliphate come across as mere subdivisions. Not to be outdone, his successors overran eastern and central Europe, much of the Middle East, and coaxed the rest of China into the fold. In the process, the Empire split into four separate Khanates, but nevertheless kept operating as a fairly cohesive entity.
Historians refer to the 13th and 14th centuries as the "Pax Mongolica." While Europe was contending with war and religious intolerance, Mongolian-ruled Eurasia was enjoying a time of unprecedented peace and prosperity, thanks to the vision of its unlikely founder. Against all odds, young Genghis survived a brutal childhood as part of an outcast family before going on to unite his feuding klansmen into a force to be reckoned with. A brilliant organizer and visionary, he applied the lessons of the remote and inhospitable steppes to managing the world, continuing to learn as he faced new challenges.
The legacy he passed onto his successors included rule of law, secular government, religious toleration, cultural diversity, promotion of learning, free trade, patronage of the arts, the spread of technology, paper currency, appointment by merit, administrative accountability, and much more - one people under one sky.
Suddenly, a seller in China could find a buyer in Europe. Over a now secure Silk Road and new sea routes, goods and ideas flowed in all directions while the standard of living kept improving. The printing press, paper, gunpowder and the compass came west while Arabian science and other advances diffused everywhere. On and on it went, the best of all worlds nurtured by a strange new ruling class unfettered by old conventions.
As Jack Weatherford explains it, "most empires of conquest imposed their own civilizations on the conquered." By contrast, the Mongolians came to the table empty-handed but open-minded. "They did not have to worry about 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."
Likewise, the rulers of the new Mongol Empire had nothing in common with the parasitic aristocracies of the lands they conquered, keepers of the old prejudices. These they killed off wholesale at the slightest pretext.
Of course, nothing lasts forever. Universal ideals were already yielding to the inadequacies of human nature when the largest empire in history was brought down by the humble flea. The bubonic plague broke out in China in the 1330s and spread throughout the rest of the known world on the very trade routes the Mongols had opened up. One-third of China succumbed to the Black Death and anywhere from a quarter to a half of Europe's population met their untimely end.
The plague hit hardest in populated urban centers, literally wiping out the brains of the empire. Commerce and communications ceased. Lands near and far lost touch. The Mongols lost control of their empire and became absorbed into the populations they once ruled. The old order reasserted itself, insular and intolerant, walling the rest of the world out, themselves in.
The Pax Mongolica became a distant memory, but enough after-effects remained to inspire new generations to start thinking outside the box again and shake things up. Ironically, the winds of change blew hardest in backward Europe. History would never be the same ...