Commentary Magazine


On Genghis Khan and his Historical Legacy

In his response to my earlier posting on Mongolia, Jonathan Tobin brings up the flip side to Mongolia’s historical legacy:

While we can sympathize with Mongolia’s troubles in the last century, any country that accords Genghis Khan–one of history’s great mass-murdering conquerors–the status of founding father, undermines its stance as a lonely democracy fighting for independence against authoritarian bullies.

Actually, to be a bit of a history nerd, I’d argue that Genghis Khan’s legacy is far more nuanced. The Mongols’ expansion caused immense bloodshed, an occurrence not uncommon during pre-modern times. Many of the empires the Mongols conquered had similar bloody legacies. At the same time, the Mongols’ brief unification of areas from China to Eastern Europe enabled a massive transfer of knowledge and culture going both directions. During the so-called Pax Mongolica, Marco Polo made it to China largely because he was transiting a single territory, while Chinese laborers brought their knowledge westward. The famous blue tiles that adorn mosques in the Middle East and Central Asia are a direct result of this transfer of knowledge. So is paper money. While the late historian Marshall Hodgson goes into this in depth, as I also believe Bernard Lewis does in some of his works, University of Washington Professor Daniel Waugh provides a fair and short summary, here, for those who aren’t rolling their eyes at the Mongolia tangent.

To be even more of a history nerd, I always get chills down my spine when, traveling in Israel, I pass by the little-remembered site of Ayn Jalut, where the Mongol invasion was finally repulsed.