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Book Review


Morgan, David O. The Mongols, Second Edition (Malden MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2007).  246 pp, $29.95.

     The first edition of David Morgan's The Mongols has been the best introduction to the study of the Mongols since its publication in 1986. In this new edition, Morgan has fully retained the first edition and added a discussion and listing of the recent historiography of the Mongols since 1986. 

     At first this may strike the reader as an odd way to revise a book.  Yet Peter Brown was able to do this successfully with the revision of his 1967 Augustine of Hippo by adding a chapter on new evidence and one on new directions.  It is from Brown that Morgan takes his inspiration. Morgan, Professor of History and Religious Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, states that he used this approach because he felt the book "continue(s) to be of use without my having to rewrite the entire book."(Preface to the second edition) As a result, he has simply added a ninth chapter, "The Mongol Empire Since 1985."

     The Mongols had the largest contiguous land empire in history. Further, it was able to last over a century, and some parts lasted much longer. Yet we do not know as much about them as we know about other empires in history. In chapter one, "The Study of Mongol History," Morgan explains the problems confronting the historian in trying to reconstruct the Mongol Empire. For example, there is the issue of language. Sources are available in at least ten languages. As a result, can anyone really master all these languages sufficiently to understand the Mongols? As he demonstrates throughout the book, Morgan systematically and logically shows what can be done.  Historians can rely on secondary sources for their synthesis or have a specialist write to his expertise and rely on other experts for other areas.  Morgan opts for the latter approach of synthesizing most of the literature on the Mongols, and does a masterful job.

     Morgan begins by describing nomadic tribes and clans of the Asian steppes. In the tenth century, the Mongols emerged in eastern Mongolia. Morgan discusses the various tribes such as the Khitans, Uighur Jurchens (Chin), and the empires of Qara-Khitai and Khwarazm-shah. All of the areas inhabited by these peoples would fall to the Mongols at one time or another. Here is an example of what might be the only weakness in the book: there is one general map that incorporates all of the major events of the Mongol Empire. It would be much easier if individual maps were included at appropriate places. For example, a map of the above mentioned tribes and empires would be much easier to follow. The same is true for the various khanates.

     Morgan explains why the empire expanded after its initial conquests: "unless something decisive was done with the newly formed military machine, it would soon dissolve into quarrelling factions again, and Mongolia would revert to its earlier state."(55) He takes issue with Bernard Lewis who feels that the Mongols, in comparison to damage inflicted on Europe by Hitler, did not nearly destroy as much as the writers during the Mongol reign would lead one to believe.  Morgan counters by pointing out that the agricultural, food-producing capacity of Europe was not destroyed after WWII, and thus contributed to the relatively quick post-war recovery. In contrast, the Mongols' destruction of the qanats (underground water channels) had devastating effects on agriculture. Morgan does agree with Lewis, however, on another point:  Mongol destruction was not universal.  Only Transoxania (present-day Uzbekistan and parts of Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan) and Khurasan (part of North East Iran today) suffered the extreme devastation often attributed to all the lands conquered by the Mongols.

     Morgan also raises the question as to whether or not the Mongols devised their yam system (similar to the pony express system) or if they got the idea from elsewhere. After dismissing the notion of Middle East influence, Morgan concludes that the system originated with the Khitans in north China. The Mongol approach to government was that they adopt any institution that seemed likely to facilitate effective government, which would be measured chiefly by revenue.

     Contrary to popular belief, Morgan argues that the Mongols did not impose strong centralized government on the Chinese.  Direct Mongol rule only occurred in Metropolitan Province around Peking and some sparsely populated, mainly non-Chinese adjacent regions.  This also was not a time of repudiation of Chinese culture. In fact, he argues that conditions were much less harsh than in the Ming and Qing dynasties, and that Mongol rule represented a time of peace and economic prosperity (at least at first).  North and South China grew closer together, and a spur of the Grand Canal between Hang-chou and Peking was built.

     Morgan next turns to the rise of the Golden Horde and the Persian Ilkhanate. The Golden Horde did not advance beyond Hungary after 1242, primarily because there was not enough land to sustain the Mongols. As horsemen with several horses each, soldiers would have needed adequate land to survive. Morgan explains that a "fully fledged Mongol government" lasted for a shorter period in Persia than in China due perhaps to the greater integration of Mongols in Persian society. In contrast, Morgan argues against the idea that the Golden Horde survived so long because they were Muslim rather than Orthodox Christian. Instead, he argues that the Golden Horde consciously maintained a distance from their subjects in order to avoid "'contamination' by settled civilisation." (151)

     In his final and only new chapter, "The Mongol Empire since 1985," Morgan reviews the scholarship of the last twenty years. His main contention is that there has been a shift away from the military aspects of Mongol rule in this period. In addition to this new chapter, Morgan updates all the major topics covered in his first edition. He discusses new source translations such as The Secret History of the Mongols and Rashiduddin Fazlullah's Jami'ut-tawarikh. These are important documents than can now be compared with other contemporary writings such as those of Rashid al-Din. Also, Paul Ratchnevsky's Genghis Khan: His Life and Legacy, the best biography on the subject, is now available in English. Morgan also offers corrections to some of his earlier assertions. For example, he shows how the Mongols were indeed much more involved in the day to day activities of government than previously argued. He also points out some tantalizing theories that have recently been published. For example, he discusses Colin Heywood's notion that the Mongols might have perhaps been responsible for the origin of the Osmans through the displacement of Turko-Mongol peoples from the Black Sea around 1299.

     Additionally, recent DNA studies have shown that one percent of the global male population is descended from either Chinggis Khan or his immediate family. To Morgan, ". . . this marks something of a change in perception if Chinggis Khan should now be remembered for peopling the world, rather than for depopulating large parts of it."(206)

     This book is a good introduction to the Mongols. It is an ideal backgrounder for anyone teaching World History. It could be used in a senior/graduate seminar course on Asia. Pedagogical features include maps, chronology, dynastic tables, and illustrations. The original reference section is followed by a supplemental section which lists the recent scholarship since 1985. The chronology is particularly useful for anyone approaching this subject for the first time. Aside from the pedagogical issue of maps, the book will remain the standard in the field for years to come.


Sanjeev A. Rao, Jr.
Monmouth University


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