Bryn Hammond's Reviews > Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World

Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World by Jack Weatherford
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Jan 10, 2012

it was amazing
bookshelves: steppe-history, website-widget

Jack Weatherford is a cultural anthropologist whose speciality is tribal peoples. He has written several books I value -- 'Indian Givers', 'Savages and Civilization', 'Native Roots'. He brings to this one on the Mongols a knowledge and understanding of tribal cultures -- that in fact is rare in historians. I feel Weatherford can tell you things 'straight' historians can't, on the Mongols -- because of his areas of study.

It's true that his account of Temujin's life is an interpreted one -- the way fiction interprets -- and you can either be with or against his guesses. The life story of Temujin isn't 'straight' history in that sense. But again, it is informed by his anthropology... I even thought, too evidently so by his work on Native Americans. Nevertheless, he has more ground than most for his guesses, and you know what you have before you is a narrative with speculation.

The latter parts of the book trace ideas about and influence of the Mongols in Europe. This has much you won't easily find elsewhere -- this has things not often said, things unthought of. His claims can be bold, but I think we need boldness here. Better to go too far, when you open up new thought (also my attitude to Christopher Beckwith, Empires of the Silk Road). He explores us on the Mongols. For instance, he traces the history of our medical usage of the word 'mongol'. Even today people say this for Down's syndrome children (I've heard them. She was a friend, and I didn't howl in her face).

With this book Weatherford brought a sympathetic history on 'Genghis' and the Mongols to the bestseller lists, one that argues against our prejudices. That's an achievement. I'd rather see people read this than a few old historians (or not so old) who lack his background in the study of the world's tribal peoples, and lack the equipment on cultures to interpret facts and events. That's what history by an anthropologist can give you. Historians underestimate the differences, and when they make assumptions about 'why this behaviour', they think what people from their own culture might do. I've found this a fault in history, that you need to correct with anthropology, to get to the truth of the past.

To give an example: I have low-starred David Morgan's book that is thought of as the standard history on the Mongols. Not simply because it is outdated -- I think it was always poor history, because he is so distant from his subject. It's an outsider's history that does not even seek an inside view, therefore cannot give insight. More concretely, Morgan does not look for a cultural explanation, for a reason that made sense to a Mongol. I hope this explains why I believe people are better off with Weatherford.

I'll just add that he's been given Mongolia's highest award for foreigners, the Order of the Polar Star, and the President's Friendship Medal. Mongolia even has a new 'Weatherford Prize' for historiography.

I see in the bio on his old college page that his scholarly mission has been to follow in the tradition of Ibn Khaldun, who in the 14th century analysed history in terms of tribal versus civilized societies and values. Ibn Khaldun must have been one of the most original historians who ever lived and his ideas still challenge, are still in contention - and if you ask me, demand more of our attention. That's why we need a Jack Weatherford.
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Reading Progress

Finished Reading
January 10, 2012 – Shelved
January 10, 2012 – Shelved as: steppe-history
October 26, 2012 – Shelved as: website-widget

Comments (showing 1-10 of 10) (10 new)

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Chrissie Have you seen this book: Samarkand? It is concerned with the manuscript of the Rubaiyaat of Omar Khayyam.

I appreciate what you are saying here and this could be a good counterpoint to the book previously read. I guess they just represent different points of view. Maybe reality lies somewhere in the Middle.

Thank you for linking me to your review.


Bryn Hammond I have another of his that I haven't read yet, Leo the African -- I like his topics.

I'm glad you found us useful in the thread, Chrissie. I care about perceptions of the Mongols, funny as that may be.


Chrissie I just bought Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, and it was due to your help and C.P.'s.

I will go check out the other book now too.

Bryn, thanks a lot.


message 4: by Jane (new)

Jane My husband read this last year or so and thought it was wonderful. He was always reading me excerpts. I asked him tonight the name: Genghis Kan and the making of the modern world. I was going to suggest it to you but I see you've already read it and gave it high marks.


Bryn Hammond Absolutely, Jane. I'm an unabashed fan of the author. Whom I had the honour to exchange emails with a while back. He has done so much for the Mongol cause...


message 6: by Jane (new)

Jane Well then, you sold me! My dear hubby got kind of boring [although I'm sure he meant well and only wanted to share his enthusiasm], but with such plaudits of yours, I'll borrow his copy and read it.


Bryn Hammond I'm happy. And that your hubby enthused.


Chrissie Jane, Bryn and another told me about this book too, and I absolutely LOVED it.


John Caviglia Just read the book, Bryn, finding it gripping. And (belated kudos) I loved your review of it, especially as emphasizing that it is written from the perspective of a tribalist, which makes wonderful retroactive sense to me.


message 10: by Bryn (new) - rated it 5 stars

Bryn Hammond Great, John, glad to hear it was a hit. Yup, a tribalist is what he is.


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