The Secret History of the Mongol Queens
The Secret History of the Mongol Queens by Jack Weatherford
Reviewed by Luigi Kapaj
The Secret History of the Mongol Queens by Jack Weatherford, to be released February 16th 2010, restores some of history's most important figures to their rightful prominence. Weatherford rejects the common failure of most historians to judge history through the prejudice of their own culture.
Modern scholars may easily see the failing of monk recording Beowulf only to censor out the religious references he found to be heresy. But most people don't think twice at how much attention is paid to the male leader on the battlefield, yet dismiss the female leaders as little more than consorts or how so little is known of the women who ruled the empire.
Their rule was not without contention. The struggle for power on the steppe became so bewildering that contemporary recorders and modern researchers alike struggle to find all the pieces. Jack Weatherford tackles that struggle like a Mongol horde on a great hunt to surround and capture all of the truth.
The book reads like an action thriller with footnotes and bibliography befitting one of the top scholars in his field. It is written for a wide audience. 700 years following the largest and most powerful empire, and its ruling family, through its rise and fall and rebirth is of importance to the world's history.
However, this is also a history of the Mongol people, and fills in many details, connects many lose ends, which even the most ardent reader of Mongol history would be painfully aware had been lacking before its publication. The Secret History of the Mongol Queens brings a scholar's attention to detail as readable literature for the masses.
Perhaps one of the greatest challenges for any historian is not only to remember history, but to relate its lessons as they apply to the modern day. Weatherford succeeds on that front as well. The book was first published in Mongolia, in Mongolian for Mongolians. The lessons of their past glory lay in the strength of the nomadic wisdom of just how to harness and manage their resources from the standing of their women to the protection of their environment to their adaptability to any situation. The lessons of hardship from losing touch with that nomadic wisdom relearned time and again in different generations such as the Yuan Emperors ousted from China with no knowledge of how to hunt or prevent overgrazing.
But the lessons of history often apply to far more than just their descendants. One could read volumes into a chain of events such as Genghis Khan outlawing torture and rising to the absolute height of the Mongol Empire's power, and when one of his successors reintroduced torture under a legal sidestep of a foreigner not being offered the protection of Mongol law it led to the fast shattering of the empire.
The Secret History of the Mongol Queens highlights the struggle of large and small nations, male and female rulers, nomadic and sedentary society, and how such history applies to a single region and the entire world.
The book is divided into three main sections.
The first part details how Genghis Khan built the empire and relied on the leadership of the women of his family to govern and control it. They are placed in the context of their culture and their time so that their importance is best understood. Like how the mother was the center of the family while the father was off tending the herds, so was the khatun (queen) the center of the empire while the khan was off to war.
The second part shows how the sons and grandsons of Genghis Khan turned on the women of their family. The Mongol Empire was never conquered, it imploded from within and never before has anyone so clearly explained how or why this happened. In this part, the book also explains just how tenuous the fate of the Mongol people, and that of the ruling Borijin clan of Genghis Khan's descendents, turned on a single warlord's temper or a single loyal soldier's skill on horseback.
The third and final part focuses on perhaps the second most important person in Mongol history, yet a name seldom heard outside of Mongolia: Manduhai Khatun. It goes from her humble beginnings through the hard choices and her ultimate accomplishments.
Queen Manduhai the Wise was a brilliant strategist
who personally commanded her soldiers on the field. It was her descendants who created the title Dalai Lama and later recognized as the fourth incarnation. She is credited with rebuilding the Mongol nation and giving it the cohesiveness to continue to exist without shattering the way the empire of Genghis Khan had.
Ironically for an avid Mongolphile reading a Mongol history, one of the most powerful lessons in the book is about censorship. The theme is constantly hidden between the lines and only occasionally surfaces during attempts to piece together missing sections of primary sources which very peculiarly omits important names and events where the name of a daughter or queen belongs.
The author only overtly comments on it briefly in the epilogue but it becomes one of the most valuable lessons of the book. So much important history was hidden from us by censorship, and the book's greatest victory is to overcome it and reveal that history to the world.
Regardless of your gender, nationality, politics, or depth of interest in history, The Secret History of the Mongol Queens is a fascinating book which will grip your interest from the first page to the last.