Genghis Khan and the Quest for God by Jack Weatherford - Viking (2016)
Not many of us can claim to have established an empire. The few recognizable founders—Alexander the Great, Cyrus the Great, Romulus of Rome—have come to occupy a rather ambiguous zone in the shared cultural memory. These myth-men, many of whom boasted of divine parentage and did nothing to disprove the wild speculations of their subjects, were paradoxically deified at the moment of their damnation. This is not a revolutionary concept. It is a recognized symptom of empire that these nebulous organisms glow brightest at the instant of collapse. From Shelley’s imagined encounter with the foot of Ozymandias, to the toppling of imperial statues in nineteenth-century Russia, the relationship between ostentatious external ornamentation and internal political decay has been well-established. In most cases, when the likeness of an emperor begins to proliferate in murals and statuary, his remaining years in power can be calculated on a single mutilated hand.
This was not the case with Genghis Khan, a man who founded one of the most extensive, successful empires the world has ever seen, but who somehow manages to look awkward and oppressed beneath the heavy title of ‘emperor.’ In fact, the image of this robust, weathered warrior sitting immobile on a gilded throne and clutching a jewel-encrusted scepter is ridiculous to say the least. Genghis Khan was an entirely different kind of ruler. Ruthless as he undoubtedly was, he never succumbed to material gluttony and excess in the characteristic manner of emperors. Perhaps this is why he seems to roam the outskirts of the historical landscape, and why many historians choose to ignore his impressive conquests, rather than try to make sense of his unusual style of leadership. For if we acknowledge the relative success of a ruler who was neither extravagant nor particularly vain, it would become exceedingly difficult to excuse those behaviors in Western sovereigns whose various sins we overlook as inevitable byproducts of concentrated power. Genghis Khan’s mobile ‘palace’ of tents is an argument against the overwrought bedazzling of Versailles and the inherent evils it represents. In his remarkable book Genghis Khan and the Quest for God, Jack Weatherford presents the Mongol method of governance as a surprisingly grounded and rational alternative to despotic tyranny. By accepting diverse cultures and religions within his cosmopolitan empire, Genghis Khan and his descendants were able to conquer and control a vast portion of the globe stretching from China to Hungary, and from Russia to Afghanistan.
Known for his 2004 New York Times bestseller Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, Jack Weatherford has long exhibited a profound interest in ‘peripheral’ empires and their methods of rule. In addition to three comprehensive accounts of the Mongol Empire, Weatherford has also explored the history of prominent Native American tribes and their contributions to global culture. His anthropological work has led to frequent appearances on The Today Show and All Things Considered. Weatherford is a regular contributor to such publications as The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and National Geographic. In 2006, he was awarded the Order of the Polar Star—the most prestigious Mongolian honour bestowed upon foreigners. A former professor of anthropology at Macalaster College in Minnesota, Weatherford now lives part-time in Mongolia. He is just one of the many Western intellectuals whose disenchantment with a Eurocentric vision of the world has evolved into a fascination with Eastern cultures—especially those which have been silenced and erased by overzealous religious crusaders.
From the earliest days of his youth, Genghis Khan was an unusual candidate for leadership. Ignored by his father and banished by his clan, Genghis Khan spent his formative years foraging for food with his mother on the side of a mountain. In spite of the hardships the future Khan encountered, Weatherford suggests that,
…the intimacy between the young boy and the mountain substituted for what he was missing from his male kinsmen, who had rejected him and left him to die. The mountain became his confidant and guide. He rarely trusted or confided in people and seldom seemed as much at home or as happy as he was on his beloved Burkhan Khaldun. The important principles of his life, and the important relationships, originated there on its slopes, in its forests, and under its shadow.
The difficult circumstances of his youth, as well as their subsequent impact on his values and priorities as an adult, helped to distinguish Genghis Khan from other imperial rulers. He was not born with a silver spoon in his mouth, and his humility enabled him to understand and appeal to the vast majority of his subjects on an unprecedented level. Thus it was that,
The Mongol Empire encompassed people from a greater diversity of faiths than that of any other empire in prior history. Never had one man ruled over followers of so many religions without belonging to one of them: Muslims, Buddhists, Taoists, Confucians, Zoroastrians, Manichaeans, Hindus, Jews, Christians, and animists of different types. Each of the major religions was divided into myriad competing, and often viciously warring, sects. Genghis Khan’s greatest struggle in life was not to conquer so many tribes, cities, and nations—that had come fairly easily to him—but to make them live together in a cohesive society under one government.
Weatherford’s aim in Genghis Khan and the Quest for God is to establish that his subject was eager to understand and incorporate diverse philosophies and religious practices within his hybridized kingdom. He frequently invited religious leaders to his tent to teach him about their particular beliefs, and he organized conversations between them. He had no reservations about combining elements from different systems of belief and observing them side-by-side. Perhaps, as Weatherford suggests, Genghis Khan believed that all the religions he encountered were expressions of the same underlying power—a power he had first experienced in the natural sublimity of Burkhan Khaldun. Although the desire to engage and appease conflicting schools of religious thought might seem like an odd preoccupation to modern readers, Weatherford argues that,
Genghis Khan erupted into history in a century when gods flourished on Earth, when religion ruled the world. Sounds of the muezzin’s call to prayer, tolling church bells, chanting monks, and singing pilgrims filled the air across cities and villages from Japan in the Pacific to Ireland in the Atlantic. Ostentatious displays of religious piety dominated art, literature, architecture, and philosophy, whether at the Sung capital in China, the palace of the caliph in Baghdad, the papal throne in Rome, the court of the Byzantine emperor in Constantinople, the Al-Azhar University in Cairo, the fortress of the sultan in Delhi, of the mosques of Seville and Granada in Spain.
And from a political point of view,
Religion triumphed over secular life. Priests, lamas, monks, and mullahs controlled the calendar, set borders between rivals, and collected taxes. They operated judicial courts, staffed prisons, built universities, opened hospitals, and managed wineries, banks, brothels, and torture chambers.
Genghis Khan spent a significant amount of his precious time mediating between warring religious factions. His efforts were not always successful, and the resulting conflicts must have been extremely frustrating. Nevertheless, his determination to bring about cooperation and meaningful deliberation between religious scholars led to the establishment of one of the most knowledgable and articulate imperial courts in history. Writes Weatherford,
With each future victory on the battlefield, the number of scribes increased as men literate in other languages and cultural traditions were added to the administration. They grew from a simple corps of clerks into language schools that gathered clusters of intellectuals trained in philosophy and literature from rival religions and contrasting intellectual traditions. From this meager beginning would emerge a group of steppe scholars, a sort of new intelligentsia that would become increasingly important in the decades ahead.
In contrast to the campy, rather dimwitted version of Genghis Khan popularized on the Western stage by nineteenth-century Orientalists, Weatherford portrays the founder of the Mongol empire as a compassionate, thoughtful ruler who nurtured a genuine desire to alleviate misunderstandings between religious groups. Weatherford’s examination of Genghis Khan—along with the lessons he distills from the progression of the Mongol’s life and empire—is particularly relevant at a time when religious persecution seems to be scaling new heights of violence and extremism. In fact, Genghis Khan’s informal tent meetings seem to preempt our own attempts at reconciliation. Weatherford’s elaboration of the challenges plaguing Genghis Khan will be painfully familiar to any modern reader. He writes,
Rather than creating a spiritual utopia of art, compassion, and beauty, religion had saturated the world with resentment and hate. History’s earlier wars had been fought mostly for the simple human emotions of lust and greed, but the rise of the world religions had encouraged the hatred and killing of innocent people for no greater reason than that they worshipped God in another way. Religiously motivated or justified warfare posed the greatest threat to world peace and social stability. Wars in the name of competing gods now surpassed avarice, envy, and ethnicity as a source of violence, and these gods proved insatiable.
More than seven hundred years after Genghis Khan’s death, little progress has been made in pursuit of religious tolerance. Perhaps, as Jack Weatherford suggests in Genghis Khan and the Quest for God, it is time to shift our focus, and search for answers in the periphery.