43 pages 1 hour read

Jack Weatherford

Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 2004

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Summary and Study Guide


Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World is a nonfiction book divided into three parts and dealing with the early life and rise to power of Temujin, the man who would become known as Genghis Khan. The text details his conquests and the establishment of the Mongol Empire, and the changes undergone by the empire after his death, and up until its collapse. Throughout, Weatherford makes the argument that the Mongol Empire played a pivotal—and underappreciated—role in shaping the modern world as we know it. The historical narrative is a product of Weatherford’s own research in the wilderness of modern Mongolia as well as his work with the medieval text, The Secret History of the Mongols.

The book’s first section, “The Reign of Terror on the Steppe,” describes the political and cultural situation in Mongolia prior to the birth of Temujin. Weatherford then details Temujin’s early life in a family outcast from its tribe, his marriage, his wife’s abduction and rescue, his friendships and rivalries, and his forging of alliances with powerful warlords. As Temujin consolidates his power and takes the name of Genghis Khan, he both adheres to traditional Mongol customs as well as reforms them in radical ways. The section concludes with Genghis’s resolve to expand Mongol power beyond its traditional borders.

The book’s second section, “The Mongol World War,” begins with Genghis Khan’s conquest of the Jurched kingdom of Manchuria. He defeats the Jurched and the vast Central Asian empire of Khwarizm but is unable to subdue the Sung dynasty of China. Genghis dies in 1226 and is succeeded by his son, Ogodei, who departs from tradition by building a permanent capital city. Genghis’s other sons and generals conquer large portions of Eastern Europe and the Near East. Ogodei dies in 1241 and is succeeded by his son, Guyuk, and, after Guyuk’s death, by Mongke. The empire reaches its “high water mark” under Mongke, who is succeeded in turn by his brother, Khubilai.

The third section, “The Global Awakening,” focuses on the cultural and economic triumphs of the empire under Khubilai. The empire reaches its greatest territorial extent and trade flourishes as a result. Printing and literacy increase across Europe and Asia, and the free flow of ideas, skills, and commodities between the empire and the outside world enrich both. However, the more successful the empire becomes, the farther its rulers seem to depart from their warrior origins. Already fragmented into four sub-realms which are increasingly isolated from each other, the empire is dealt a crippling blow by the Black Death between the years 1328 and 1332. The plague causes social, economic, and political upheaval across the empire and the world. With their military strength and commercial power suddenly compromised, the Mongol rulers are severely weakened. The empire collapses in the wake of rebellions in Persia (1335) and China (1368) into several smaller states, though the illusion of a unified Mongol nation persists in Western Europe.

In the Epilogue, Weatherford returns to his personal account of his research expedition in the Mongolian wilderness, recounting the reverence of his Mongolian companions for the memory of the imperial rulers of the past. Ultimately, he invites his audience to reassess the legacy of Genghis Khan and his empire.

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By Jack Weatherford