Book Review: Makers Of History: Genghis Khan

Makers Of History: Genghis Khan, by Jacob Abbot

One thing I have noticed in my reading of histories of the latter half of the 19th century [1] is that many of them greatly enjoyed writing ethnographic histories and not merely narrative histories. This book is to be praised in that even though it judges the beauty of Mongolian women by Western standards (and not particularly generously at that) and though it contains a great deal of what would be considered racist writing today about the peoples of Central Asia, the book itself has some profound social history that comments poignantly on the cruel fate of commonfolk throughout much of history, and this focus makes it clear that the author (who wrote this book during the Guilded Age) is a good guy as far as his concern for ordinary people is in an age that was not very compassionate towards such folks.

Genghis Khan, in this light, makes an interesting subject for a biography. The author is candid about his savagery and cruelty, points out the context from which it came, and also points out that he had some enemies who managed to slander him even worse than he deserved. By taking the available texts and dealing fairly with them, with a great deal of chivalry and graciousness at times, the author manages to construct a decent and coherent narrative that is mostly chronological and that focuses mostly on the key elements of Temujin’s life–his family background, childhood, rise to power, and the defining elements of his wars against the Kara-Quitay, Naiman, Quitay, and Jurchen, as well as his conquests in Central and Western Asia. He managers to praise honor where he can all around and also ends very abruptly with a discussion of the inevitable collapse of Mongol power in the generations after Genghis Khan’s life in a way that is not exactly very profound.

So, does Genghis Khan deserve to be a maker of history? He took a people that had been divided and on the margins of history and made them, for a few generations, the master of the lands between Japan and Germany, between Egypt, India, Vietnam, and the Arctic circle. His dynasty populated a great deal of Central Asia after depopulating it, and managed to destroy states like the Kievan Rus and the Abbasid Caliphate while creating the last great nomadic empire in existence, which prompted the surviving powers of Russia and China to expand until the various leftovers of the nomadic hordes were completely taken over [2] by civilized states altogether. This book does not examine that greater sweep of history, but as a biographical history with a strong social conscience it is a worthy book to read for anyone who wants to see a fair-minded view of a great conqueror in an age of massive Western imperialism that was not always much more gentle and civilized in its forms. The book again does not make explicit its commentary on that phenomenon, but sometimes mere existence is context enough to reflect on the brutality of the past to avoid being brutal in the present.

[1] See, for example:


About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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7 Responses to Book Review: Makers Of History: Genghis Khan

  1. This book sounds like a very informative read. His grandson, Kubla Khan, is also a leader of note who followed in his footsteps. I guess Genghis Khan was to the Mongols as was Saladin to the Turks–a leader who unified them and treated their crusading captives (the non-warriors) with astonishing civility–during an environment of unspeakable savagery. It’s too bad that the Islamic extremists who hold the latter part of the Quran as their guidebook (it redacts the former), seek to assuage their bloodlust by following its written precepts rather than look to their own history and remember this beacon from 900 years ago–during the very crusades they claim to resurrect–and follow his example instead.

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