Genghis Khan and his Mongol Horde were good news for the world. Really. Not convinced? Consider the following:
1. Genghis Khan was an advocate of humanGenghis Khan and his Mongol Horde were good news for the world. Really. Not convinced? Consider the following:
1. Genghis Khan was an advocate of human rights, specifically freedom of religion, freedom from torture and free trade (he got two of the Four Freedoms right, which is pretty impressive by medieval standards, especially when they still, like, burned heretics and unbelievers in Europe and elsewhere). GK forbade the use of torture in trials and as punishment. He also granted religious freedom within his realm, though he demanded total loyalty from conquered subjects of all religions. His own immediate family was religiously diverse: besides those who were Shamanists or Buddhists, a significant number were Monophysite Christians --- and later also Muslim converts. As for the free trade thing, it was more of a byproduct of the commercial opportunities that developed along the Silk Road (“history’s largest free-trade zone”), once the interior of the Eurasian landmass became safe enough to travel under the Pax Mongolica. Free trade as human right is still a pretty iffy concept, anyway.
2. GK created a hitherto unprecedented egalitarian society where men and some women (more on this later) advanced through “individual merit, loyalty and achievement”, instead through birth and aristocratic privilege. This egalitarian society was also incredibly diverse, comprising of people of different religions and nations. The Mongols hired European artisans to decorate their HQ in Xanadu, Chinese engineers to man their siege engines, and Muslim astronomers to chart their horoscopes. And they might have hired an Italian guy called Marco Polo to govern the city of Hangzhou --- who knows? But there’s no independent proof of it whatsoever.
3. GK was a proto-feminist --- well, he was sort of pro-woman, in the context of his era. He made it law that women are not to be kidnapped, sold or traded. Through marital alliances, he installed his daughters as de facto rulers over conquered nations. In Mongol culture, when the men went off to war, the women ruled the roost. And since Mongol men in the time of GK went really far away to conquer distant nations and did not return for years, the wives and daughters were the real boss at home (and also at the various Mongol courts, when many of GK’s male descendants turned out to be drunken incompetents). A successful queen like Sorkhothani, the wife of GK’s youngest son, was able to rule in her dead husband’s stead and made all of her sons Great Khans. Failure, however, could doom such women into cruel and unusual punishments, such as being sewed up naked into a rug and then pummeled to death (Mongols abhorred the sight of blood, thus the rug).
4. The Mongols promoted pragmatic, non-dogmatic intellectual development in the countries that they ruled. Although himself an illiterate, GK and his family recognized the value of learning and actively encouraged the development of the sciences. Under the Mongols, learned men did not have to “worry 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.” New technology, such as paper and printing, gunpowder and the compass were transmitted through the Mongol realm to the West and sparked the Renaissance a few generations later.
5. The Mongols were for low taxes. GK lowered taxes for everyone, and abolished them altogether for professionals such as doctors, teachers and priests, and educational institutions.
6. The Mongols established a regular census and created the first international postal system.
7. The Mongols invented paper money (it was soon abandoned because of hyper-inflation, but they got the right idea) and elevated the status of merchants ahead of all religions and professions, second only to government officials (this is in contrast to Confucian culture, which ranked merchants as merely a step above robbers). They also widely distributed loot acquired in combat and thus promoted healthy commercial circulation of goods.
8. The Mongols improved agriculture by encouraging farmers to adopt more efficient planting methods and tools, as well as transplanting different varieties of edible plants from country to country and developed new varieties and hybrids.
Okay. So Pax Mongolica was basically good for the world. But wait, how about all of those terrible massacres, rapine and wholesale destruction of cities? Didn’t Genghis Khan famously stated that “the greatest joy a man can know is to conquer his enemies and drive them before him. To ride their horses and take away their possessions. To see the faces of those who were dear to them bedewed with tears, and to clasp their wives and daughters in his arms?”
Actually, Muslim chroniclers attributed that quote to him and it is highly unlikely that he ever uttered it. Muslims writers of the era often exaggerated Mongol atrocities for Jihad purposes.* The Mongols were very aware of the value of propaganda as a weapon of war and actively encouraged scary stories about themselves.The Mongols decimated cities that resisted them, such as Baghdad, the capital of the Abbasid Caliphate, but they generally let those that surrendered remain unmolested. At the end of the fourteenth century, Tamerlane piled up pyramids of heads outside the cities that he conquered, and as he (flimsily) claimed to be a Mongol, “his practices were anachronistically assigned back to Genghis Khan.” Three centuries later, Voltaire adopted a Mongol dynasty play to fit his own personal political and social agenda by portraying GK, whom he used as a substitute for the French king, as an ignorant and cruel villain. So basically, GK got an undeservedly bad rap.
Yay for Genghis Khan!
* “…more conservative scholars place the number of dead from Genghis Khan’s invasion of central Asia at 15 million within five years. Even this more modest total, however, would require that each Mongol kill more than a hundred people; the inflated tallies for other cities required a slaughter of 350 people by every Mongol soldier. Had so many people lived in the cities of central Asia at the time, they could have easily overwhelmed the invading Mongols. Although accepted as fact and repeated through the generations, the (inflated) numbers have no basis in reality.” ...more
For the Celebrity Death Match Review Tournament, Macbeth vs The Complete Sherlock Holmes
When I glance over my notes and records of the Sherlock HolmesFor the Celebrity Death Match Review Tournament, Macbeth vs The Complete Sherlock Holmes
When I glance over my notes and records of the Sherlock Holmes cases between the years ’82 and ’90, I happen to come upon a half-forgotten adventure that is probably the strangest of them all. My faithful readers, who are no stranger to odd going-ons involving my famous friend’s cases, would be reminded of stories such as The Hound of the Baskervilles or The Sussex Vampire. Yet, this particular case is particularly odd and as such I have never set it on writing, as its features are so fantastical that it is scarcely believable. Even after all these years, I am still not quite convinced that it really happened.
It was in the latter days of September, and the equinoctial gales had set in with exceptional violence. All day the wind had screamed and the rain had beaten against the windows, so that even here in the heart of great, hand-made London we were forced to raise our minds for the instant from the routine of life and to recognize the presence of those great elemental forces which shriek at mankind through the bars of his civilization, like untamed beasts in a cage. As evening drew in, the storm grew higher and louder, and the wind cried and sobbed like a child in the chimney. Sherlock Holmes sat moodily at one side of the fireplace cross-indexing his records of crime, while I at the other was deep in one of Clark Russell's fine sea-stories until the howl of the gale from without seemed to blend with the text, and the splash of the rain to lengthen out into the long swash of the sea waves. My wife was on a visit to her mother's, and for a few days I was a dweller once more in my old quarters at Baker Street.
"Why," said I, glancing up at my companion, "that was surely the bell. Who could come to-night? Some friend of yours, perhaps?"
"Except yourself I have none," he answered. "I do not encourage visitors."
"A client, then?"
"If so, it is a serious case. Nothing less would bring a man out on such a day and at such an hour. But I take it that it is more likely to be some crony of the landlady's."
Sherlock Holmes was wrong in his conjecture, however, for there came a step in the passage and a tapping at the door. He stretched out his long arm to turn the lamp away from himself and towards the vacant chair upon which a newcomer must sit.
"Come in!" said he.
The woman who entered was cloaked in black, her head covered with a peculiar conical hat. A heavy veil hid her countenance, which judging by the sinewy and leathery appearance of her hands was not a rosy-cheeked youthful one. A faint smell of something suggestive of sulphur accompanied her. She was silent for a while, and then she spoke with an eerie, quavering voice,
“Fair is foul and foul is fair. Hover through the fog and filthy air.”
“I beg your pardon, madam”, Holmes said, “are you here for a consultation? I am afraid that you must speak more clearly so that I can hear you.”
“I shall kill thou like the swine thou art, But I’d rather send thou sailing on a sieve To the Thane’s abode shall thou depart Here I give thee a wind!”
At the end of the sinister incantation, our rooms were enveloped in a thick grayish mist, thicker even than the fog that habitually descended upon the streets of London. The room seemed to swirl before our eyes and when the mist finally cleared, it became apparent that we were not in our Baker Street den anymore. I was too stunned to speak, but my eyes gradually became used to our gloomy surroundings. Dimly, I perceived that we were in a stone room with a high vaulted ceiling.
“Holmes!”, I cried with mounting alarm. “Where are we?”
It took some time for him to answer. “ I believe that we are in a sort of a castle, my friend, though I have no idea how we got here. Or whether this whole thing is not an extremely elaborate, albeit an astonishingly convincing illusion.”
Before I had the chance to react to this astounding pronouncement, I heard a man shouting, “awake, awake! Ring the alarum bell, murder and treason!” We ran toward the source of the commotion, our steps clattering through the cold flagstones, only to find ourselves in a great hall, evidently of a great age, filled with a number of people. They were dressed strangely, not quite a few in what appear to be kilts. They were too noisily agitated to notice us. After a while, some of them rushed into another part of the castle, Holmes and I hard on their heels.
“Holmes”, said I in an aside, “how come that there are always murder and treason whenever you come into the picture?”
“Whoever --- or whatever brought us into this place probably desperately needs my expertise, Watson. So let us dispense with rational explanations now and follow the scent. The game is afoot!”
We came into a grand room furnished with rich tapestries, in the center of which stood a heavily carved, canopied bed. In the center of that bed laid an old man in a bloodstained nightgown. He was as dead as a doornail. On the foot of the bed sprawled two young men, utterly insensible, unmannerly breeched with gore. A pair of bloody daggers were strewn upon their pillows.
“There’s the victim!”, said I. “Obviously, these lads killed him while in a drunken stupor. How vile!”
“Tut-tut! Not so fast, Watson. I believe that these were merely scapegoats --- red herrings to distract us from the real murderers!”
“And pray tell me, who are they, Holmes?”
With a dramatic flourish, his face keen with excitement like a hound hard on the chase, he pointed to a couple standing next to the bed.
“These are the murderers! The Thane of Glamis and his lady, Whose hands are stained with royal blood, A stain that shall not be washed clean Until Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane hill Shall come against him.”
“What? Why are you speaking in such a peculiar way, Holmes?” I asked in amazement.
Because we are in the Bard’s play, Macbeth to be precise. Where everyone speak in verse, Unless they madmen or villains be.
I have not the faintest idea, Watson But anything that involves ruinous-butt Cannot be good for certain.
Thou meddling spur-galled vile worm! Thou tottering base-court bum-bailey!
There she goes again, Holmes!
[LADY MACBETH slowly brandishes a blood-stained dagger]
Let us escape while we can Here take this from my hand ---
[Throws an object at WATSON]
What is this?
‘Tis the eye of newt or toe of frog, Or perhaps wool of bat or tongue of dog. I cannot be certain of its substance I pilfered it from the witches when I had the chance, And shall it be the means of our return!
[HOLMES and WATSON escape through an opening in the wall while thick fog obscures the stage]
Did I imagine it all? Were I caught in a dream, induced by certain substances that I knew Holmes habitually indulged in during those days? We never spoke of the strange incident, and the vivid memories slowly faded, but whenever I sat in front of the fire with a volume of the Bard’s works in my lap, I habitually turned to the Scottish play. I fancy that I heard these immortal words from the doomed Thane of Glamis himself and shuddered in awe.
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player That struts and frets his hour upon the stage And then is heard no more: it is a tale Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing. ...more
A reasonably entertaining popular account of the Third Crusade, focusing on the storied relationship between Saladin and Richard Coeur de Lion, the fo A reasonably entertaining popular account of the Third Crusade, focusing on the storied relationship between Saladin and Richard Coeur de Lion, the fodder for so much romantic tales concocted by medieval troubadours. However, Reston seems to be unable to decide whether he wanted to write history or historical fiction, resulting in passages such as this:
“These affections were prophesied by no less a figure than Merlin the magician, who proclaimed that “the eagle of the broken covenant shall rejoice in her third nesting.””
(- 1 star)
He also seems to be inordinately fixated on Richard’s alleged homosexuality (“Richard himself, in all the glory of his masculinity and homosexuality, called the Griffones “effeminate”.”) and his supposed affair with his fellow Crusader/ nemesis Philip II of France. Brief googling reveals that there is no consensus between historians regarding the first allegation, and hardly any evidence to support the latter. To analyze any interaction between Richard and Philip through the angle of this imaginary affair is misleading, as well as annoying.
(- 1 star)
The real history is dramatic enough by itself, involving not just the chivalric exploits of the protagonists, but also epic sieges, storm-tossed voyages and savage assassinations (by the original Assassins, disciples of Hassan-i Sabbah’s murderous Ismailli sect, a fascinating topic by itself) --- but Reston’s questionable assumptions and general lack of credible citations make for a highly suspect read. Why not just make a historical novel out of it and dispense with pesky historical facts altogether?