Across the barren steppe totem flags flap in the cold winds that blow from the Altai mountains beneath a bright blue sky. The world’s last wild horses run in the distance as herds of goat, sheep and cows graze on the sparse grass. A shaman’s drum beats rhythmically across the land while a woman in a sheepskin deel robe emerges from the lone white tent standing out against the blue sky to gather dried dung for the evening fire. A few hundred kilometers west of the Soviet built capital of Mongolia, Ulaan Baatar, the nomadic life continues much as it has since the time of the Great Khan. Somewhere nearby lies the Shankh Buddhist monastery, one of the oldest in the country, built by the khan’s lama descendant Zanabazar, and purportedly where for hundreds of years thousands of monks from the Yellow Hat sect of Tibetan Buddhism protected the great horsehair staff banner – the sulde, which represented Genghis Khan’s soul – from the weather and the harsh environment of the steppes, foreign invasion and civil wars, yet could not withstand the rising tide of Soviet Totalitarianism, and mysteriously disappeared in the early 20th century.

Religious tolerance, open markets, secular politics, paper money, playing cards, a universal alphabet: do these libertarian ideas scream Genghis Khan? Click To Tweet

This is just one more of the mysteries left to us by the founder of the Mongol Empire. What is it we know about Genghis Khan? Weren’t we taught to believe via pop-cultural stereotypes as well as formal education that the Mongols were a barbarian tribe who raped and pillaged for no knowable reason, or am I mixing them up with the Huns, their earlier ancestors? Does it matter? Religious tolerance, open markets, secular politics, paper money, playing cards, a universal alphabet: do these libertarian ideas scream Genghis Khan? What about the rise of Europe from the Dark Ages of the 13th century: the liberating Mongolian warrior army? Connecting Chinese clerical ability with Middle Eastern technical know-how: the Mongol idea of expanding a global culture and promoting free commerce?

In American terms, the accomplishment of Genghis Khan might be understood if the United States, instead of being created by a group of educated merchants or wealthy planters, had been founded by one of its illiterate slaves, who, by sheer force of personality, charisma, and determination, liberated America from foreign rule, united the people, created an alphabet, wrote the constitution, established universal religious freedom, invented a new system of warfare, marched an army from Canada to Brazil, and opened roads of commerce in a free-trade zone that stretched across the continents.”

He created Russia, united China (bringing Tibet into the fold) and established the much of the borders of Korea and India that hold to this day. When he was born China and Europe were still mysteries to one another, but before he died they had established lines of trade and communication that persist today. The Silk Road was around before him, but he modernized, organized and administered it in a way which created the first truly international free market economy.

Genghis Khan – Man of the Millennium

Genghis Khan – Man of the Millennium

The Making of the Modern World, Jack Weatherford (Crown, 2004)

Though Genghis Khan (pronounced Chinggis Kon) never lived to see the full shaping of the world he begun conquering- and it is largely due to his sons and grandsons constant infighting that the Mongol Empire imploded in the 15th century- he, Temutin, lowly son of the steppe-dwelling Mongol tribe, is credited by author Jack Weatherford in the thoroughly researched page-turner Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, as the man of the millennium. Rightly so, it would seem. Weatherford quotes Francis Bacon as saying that printing, gun powder and the compass were the three technological wonders – introduced to Europe by the Mongols – which changed the world forever. Yet more so, it is the change stemming from these inventions, and the Mongol ideas that more than technology itself, but rather novel thought and ways of ordering public life are what led to the Renaissance, the birth of science, and literally, to the founding of the new world.

As Weatherford travels across Mongolia searching for the khan’s birthplace and grave, he reminds us that the Mongols never invented anything, didn’t write any great novels or poetry, couldn’t farm very well nor did they even make bread, but what they could do was spread culture. Thanks to the highly organized mind of Genghis Khan, who after conquering a region would absorb the best a culture had to offer, combine it in ways previously unthought of (Chinese gunpowder, Persian flamethrowers, and European metal casting created the cannon), and spread it throughout the rest of his empire: maps, calendars, primary schools, Christianity in China and Buddhism in Persia. It’s true that we have inherited the warlike word horde from the time of the Mongolian invasions, but we also have the celebratory hurray and by extension coffee and yoghurt from Turkic, assassin, satin, algorithm from Persian, among hundreds of others from the conquered and coalesced. More than war, the Mongols brought culture, cross-pollination of ideas and fostered the beginning of what we now call the global community.

They did this with trade, via the long road from Japan, Korea and China in the far east through India, Persia and Turkey in the middle east and all the way to Hungary, France and England in the west. It was through the great Khan’s conquering of the largest empire the world has ever known that Europe rose to power. From the east, to the largely backward, religiously dominated and still feudal west, China introduced the use of paper to the Europeans who were using the complicated and time-consuming- not to mention bloody- method of writing on tanned sheep skin. Add to that creating a universal language, the use of a movable letter printing press, and the idea that people be allowed to practice whatever religion they like without persecution and ipso facto, you have Gutenberg’s printing of the bible, the coming of the information revolution and Martin Luther’s 95 theses heralding the Protestant Reformation.

Genghis Khan - Man of the Millennium

Genghis Khan - Man of the Millennium

It was not all golden ages for the golden family. Before he was known as Genghis Khan (a title, according to Weatherford, posthumously appended), Temutin’s rise to power was bloody, chaotic and a political minefield. It wasn’t until he was almost forty-five (by this age Napoleon had already been self-coronated Emperor and was well on his way to his first exile) that he had subdued the numerous warring factions within his own land: Naiman, Tatar (or Tartar), Uyghur, Khitan, Manchu, Tayichiud, Kereyid, Merkid, and the Turkic tribes and then turned outward in a flurry of blitzkrieg style invasions (likely where Hitler got the idea) to conquer more land than the Romans took four hundred years to spread over, in just twenty-five. Boldly successful throughout his lifetime in wresting control from those who lorded it over him, he became known for destroying the aristocrats and elevating professional men of talent, be they of whatever race, creed, color or religion. It was only after his death when it all went wrong. Despite the empire’s continued growth for another fifty years (which was likely just his leftover inertia), without Genghis’ astute mind for warfare tactics and organizational prowess for the spoils of war, his sons, grandsons and all those who claimed lineage following him (be they of true descent or not, i.e. Tamerlane), slowly ran his name, and with it the Mongolian culture, nationality and Asians in general, into the hard steppe ground.

Free market proponents out there will say that coercive regulation and subsidization are two of the main reasons why government should keep its inept hands off of economic markets. Paired with the utopian ethos of small government, one of Reaganomic’s main commandments goes something like,  “Let the market regulate itself.” Despite all current evidence to the contrary that this actually is how the system works, take for example the Mongolian consolidation and expansion of the Silk Road in the 14th century, and it’s not hard to see how unregulated markets can bring unwanted, and even non-monetarily-connected consequences. Much as now, the majority of goods flowed outward from China, which operated as the manufacturing hub for the Mongol empire, but when a mysterious plague began killing people along the ancient caravan route in horrible ways (much is written about the Black Plague in Europe, yet about half of China’s population -from 120 to 60 million- died, to little note) and the infectious bacterium- spreading via fleas on rats nesting in food, clothing and other shipments, it didn’t matter where you hid, how fast you ran or sailed away or which people you persecuted, the market had spoken: the Black Death was hellbent on a hostile takeover of the west.

Genghis Khan – Man of the Millennium

Mongolia then and now

Weatherford, author of the excellent History of Money (Crown, 1997), tells how the open market philosophy espoused in the Pax Mongolica was new for the largely isolated imperial systems of China, India, Persia and Europe, who benefited from reduced local taxes, more secure shipping lines, greater access to new markets, and a wider variety of technological advancements from which to choose. Coinciding with the Mongolian Postal service –the Yam– which had post offices one day’s horse ride away all throughout the route, running from the Pacific Ocean to eastern Europe, trade flourished, borders opened and everyone’s coffers were repeatedly filled. The faucet was full on and for more than one hundred years the fresh flow of trade from far east to feudal west blinded everyone to the potential dangers of not just lack of regulation, but any oversight whatsoever. Despite no one knowing what the Bubonic Plague was, let alone, how it was being transmitted, most eventually figured out that it was coming with the mail, which soon stopped, cutting off all communication and basically ending the Central Mongolian rule. Much like the Mongol invasions themselves, various superstitious European cities assumed the plague was a kind of divine punishment and looked for history’s scapegoats– killing massive amounts of the various Jewish population, who then sought refuge in other towns, taking the plague with them and altering immigration tendencies for centuries to come.

Seeing the end of their reign right around the corner, the respective Mongol reigns attempted to take steps to ensure their continued rule by converting to the local religion and appeasing the natives with conciliatory measures, but too little too late. Everywhere the local elites recognized the power vacuum left by an empire which had abandoned Genghis’ pragmatic and well-planned approach to government, now exemplified by Khubilai Khan’s often Caligulan style of rule:

Khubilai Khan awaited the flocks of cranes in the countryside, stretched out on his silk couch covered with tier skins in a beautiful gilded pavilion mounted on the backs of four elephants brought to him as part of the plunder from Burma. Too fat to ride a horse and pained by gout, he hunted from the more comfortable confines of this special and elaborately mounted chamber. The procession included hunting tigers riding in mobile cages pulled by powerful oxen, as well as leopards and lynx riding on the hind quarters of horses…When prey appeared, Khubilai dispatched one of his trained predators to bring it down. Dogs sufficed for the bears and smaller game, leopards for the deer, and tigers for the large wild asses or bulls. A phalanx of archers stood ready to shoot at whatever target their master might command…Khubilai’s processions across the countryside including a large number of astrologers, diviners, Mongol shamans, and Tibetan monks, whose work…consisted of clearing the path of clouds, rain and any other form of inclement weather…He kept a tumen (ten thousand men) spread out to his forward left, and another to his forward right, who, according to Marco Polo, spread the distance of a whole day’s journey in both directions.

Though some of the Great Khan’s descendants continued to rule for centuries (India, Moghulistan, Uzbekistan), it was via the now disparately connected Silk Road that the survivors of the largest pandemic the world has ever seen began spreading not disease but invective, recreating Genghis Khan as the uber-barbarian who disseminated destruction only for the sake of his bloodlust. To the many budding scientists of the 17 and 18th centuries, he became the figurehead of the inferior Asian races and his small steppe-based clan the namesake (Mongoloid) of the mentally disabled. Famous authors like Voltaire also further fanned the flames of purported scientific examination by erroneously claiming he was “motivated by the basic barbarian desire to ravish civilized women and destroy what he could not understand,” which gave added racist justification for materialistic western imperialistic forays into Asia.

Regardless, the Mongol civilization crumbled from within and was severely punished and ruled by their Asian brethren, specifically the Chinese, until the early part of the 20th century when, with strong Soviet influence, it declared independence from the collapsing Qing dynasty, only to fall under Stalin’s predictable pogroms and eventual Soviet rule until the 1989 freedom movement which helped to establish it, alongside Korea and Japan as the only other nation that has practiced actual democratic elections in the modern era. We don’t know where the great Genghis Khan’s spirit banner – his sulde, is, though the belief among the people persists that it is out there somewhere, amongst the centuries of herdsmen ranging their flocks over thousands of inhospitable kilometers, somewhere in the miles of rivers rushing toward the mountains decorating the horizon, where sits the wild Ibex atop his perch crooning upward, otherwise known to the Shaman as the Eternal Blue Sky, or the God of the Great Khan.