The marauding Mongol
Reviewed by Parshotam Mehra

Chingiz Khan: The Life and Legacy of an Empire Builder
By S. A. H. Haqqi.
Primus Books. 
Pages xxx + 321. Rs 995.

In sharp if striking contrast to its vast if empty expanse (1.56 sq km) and a measly population of less than three million (2.57 mn to be precise), today’s Mongolia, with the Russian Federation to its north and the People’s Republic of China to the south, wields little if any clout in its neighbourhood. Even less so on the international stage. Not that long back, though the Mongols were a power to reckon with while their lord and master literally bestrode the then known world as a veritable Colossus.

Variously spelt as Jenghiz, Genghiz or Chingiz Khan (1167?-1227), the great Mongol conqueror and a brilliant military leader swept away most of the Chin empire of north China (1218-24) while subduing Turkistan, Transoxiana and Afghanistan. In the event, he did for all practical purposes re-draw the map of Eurasia and led the shaggy nomads of the Gobi "from excessive destitutions to inordinate affluence, from the desert of poverty to the palace of delight". Nor was that all, for Chingiz raided Persia and Eastern Europe and in a major campaign, stormed Khawarazm. The latter was a long drawn-out affair and the destruction that followed was terrible, the city for most part being reduced to ashes. The Mongol chief now ruled one of the greatest land empires known to history from his capital at Karakorum.

The struggle for existence and power was the first law of the steppes and its chief was not unlike a father to his clan; he had to feed and guide his flock, comfort and protect them against the enemy. In a refreshing contrast to his contemporaries, Chingiz’s cruelty was calculated, neither capricious nor purposeless. He never relished the needless torture of his captives. Nor did he enjoy (even as Tamerlane is said to have) the sight of his victims being covered with brick and mortar, their bodies cemented into the wall!

The Mongols led a pure and "uncorrupt" life. Prostitution was unknown while promiscuity was practically non-existent. Besides, strict and severe punishment held in check the unfortunate few who did not acquire a wife. The great Khan was the supreme commander of the imperial forces—standing, auxiliary as well as quasi-feudal. Whether on the march or in camp, his troops held their places only with reference to their chief. In the field of battle, he formed the pivot and the focal point around which the whole army was organised, guiding and controlling its actions. Chingiz could not take on China but undertook a probing expedition to the Great Wall and the suburbs across it. As a matter of fact, the Middle Kingdom was late in coming under Mongol control and the least influenced by the internecine conflict within the ruling family. It did, however, fall to Mongol arms in the reign of Qubilai (d. 1294) who thereby completed the unfinished mission of his forebears.

Of great personal charm, Chingiz made people stick to him even in the darkest of days. He was not a reckless adventurer like his contemporary the Shah of Khawarzm or even a warlord. His moves were well calculated as demonstrated in his military campaigns. Relieving himself of the responsibility and burden for the maintenance of costly and apparently unproductive military machine, he delegated the responsibility and burden of its maintenance to his commanders.

A large-size tome embellished with a number of sketch maps and a couple of appendices, the book breathes an air of scholarship and meticulous planning. Of special interest to this reviewer was the last chapter, Retrospect: The Mongol Phenomenon, which heavily underlines the fact that the Mongol conquests brought about changes in social and military organisation and administration that were of "catalytic importance" for developments in the succeeding centuries. More, that the Mongol invasions marked an "indelible dividing line" between mediaeval and modern times. Appendix 1, A Note on the Authorities, carries a detailed essay on The Secret History of the Mongol Dynasty, one of the earliest accounts of the life and times of Chingiz Khan. The sketch map, The Mongol Dominions 1304-1405, juxtaposed with that of The Ottoman Empire, makes for an instructive if revealing comparison between the Mongol dominions and those of the Ottoman Turks.

A former teacher at Aligarh University, the author has done a commendable job not so much in "judging" as in "understanding" Chingiz, his work and its legacy. He assesses the Mongol ruler’s political thinking as well as his administrative policies and tries bravely, albeit not that successfully, to wash away the "tags of barbarianism and bloodthirstiness" that unhappily "still linger".