He was a sadistic hedonist hiding beneath a fur-rimmed hat. A prairie bandit sporting a Fu Manchu moustache and a nasty disposition who set loose a horde of barbarians to loot the civilized world.
No, no, all wrong. That's what happens when you let your enemies define you, as modern-day political candidates know. The Mongols were always secretive about their revered leader, the man called Genghis Khan. To this day, his burial site has not been found. Over the years, as the Mongols' political influence subsided, anti-Genghis, anti-Mongol propaganda worsened. It became so bad that by the early 20th century the followers of the dubious science of eugenics coined "Mongoloid" as a term to describe retarded children, who, they surmised, must have inherited defective Mongol traits.
Western opinion hasn't been completely lopsided, of course. Geoffrey Chaucer cheered Genghis in the longest of his "Canterbury Tales." But the real turnaround has come in the last three decades as communism waned, opening up Mongolia to Western scholars, and translators finally cracked "The Secret History," an ancient Mongol text once thought indecipherable.
Among those scholars has been Jack Weatherford, who spent years in modern Mongolia learning to love its people and digging into their proud and neglected history. In "Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World" he aims to set the record straight. Take the Renaissance, for example. You probably think it was Europe rediscovering the lost knowledge of ancient Greece and Rome? Well, yes, a little. But it was really the paper, printing, gunpowder, and compass brought from the east by Mongols that set Europeans' thinking caps atwirl. Mongols even changed fashion, convincing European men to abandon their silly robes and put on practical pants.
Genghis Khan was, in fact, considerably less barbaric than his European counterparts, Weatherford argues. Instead of plunging the world into darkness, he let in the light. He punished only those who took up arms against him. He spent much of the 13th century building an empire that eventually stretched from Moscow and Baghdad in the west to India and China in the east. His successors, who divided his realm into four huge kingdoms, ruled so wisely and well that the 14th century became an unprecedented era of peaceful trade and diplomacy that radiated beyond the borders of the empire.
"On every level and from any perspective, the scale and scope of Genghis Khan's accomplishments challenge the limits of imagination and tax the resources of scholarly explanation," Weatherford enthuses.
He has plenty to say to back up that statement. In 25 years under Khan, the Mongol army, never bigger than 100,000, conquered more lands and people than the Romans did in 400 years. All other military geniuses - Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Charlemagne, Napoleon - pale before the great Mongol leader, who developed innovative fighting techniques and elicited total loyalty from his troops. The Mongols had a saying, Weatherford reports: "If he sends me into fire or water, I go. I go for him."
His all-cavalry horde was unstoppable on the open steppes, its spread halted only by oceans (invasions of Japan and Indonesia failed), lack of interest (medieval Europe had few riches or innovative technologies worth assimilating), or unfavorable terrain (Europe again, full of forests and mountains).
Beyond the battlefield, Genghis established religious freedom throughout his realm (many Christians were family members or held high positions, along with Buddhists, Muslims, and others). He created a free-trade zone between Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. He ran a meritocracy: He held the wealthy and high-born to the same standard of justice as peasants, not hesitating to promote shepherds and camel tenders to generals. He judged people on their individual merits and loyalty, not by family, ethnic, or religious ties - a revolutionary act in the family-centric Mongol society, Weatherford says.
True, Mongols didn't create much of anything themselves. But they were oh-so-modern as disciples of the Knowledge Economy. They treated people who had learning and skills as important commodities to be acquired and utilized. They had no interest in turning conquered peoples into Mongols. Instead, they made sure that goods, ideas, and people traveled safely across most of the known world, unleashing an era of unprecedented innovation and prosperity.
Scholars may argue that Weatherford swings the pendulum too far by turning Khan the Oriental Monster into Khan the Entrepreneur and Social Reformer. But readers needn't get caught in any academic crossfire. They can enjoy immersing themselves in the absorbing details of the life of this extraordinary man who forever changed human history.
• Gregory M. Lamb is on the Monitor staff.