GENGHIS KHAN AND THE QUEST FOR GOD
How the World’s Greatest Conqueror Gave Us Religious Freedom
Thirty-one years ago, while on a railway journey between London and Hong Kong, I stopped off in Mongolia and to a briefly illustrative encounter.
At the time the British had the sole Western embassy in Ulan Bator — at 30 Peace Street, if I remember — and I thought I might interview the ambassador and present him, as it was early December and he was said to cut a lonesome and homesick figure, with a Christmas plum pudding. I rang the mission’s doorbell and must have looked faintly taken aback when it was opened by a young man of evidently Caribbean origin.
“Don’t be startled,” he said cheerfully, in a broad Welsh accent. “I’m Trevor Jones, first secretary. From Cardiff. I think I’m the only black man in the diplomatic service, and look see, they pack me off to bloody Ulan Bator!”
Back in 1985 that set the tone. Mongolia. Utterly out there. Grass. Ponies. Wrestling. Forgotten. Of no importance. Genghis Khan maybe. A brute. Otherwise, a place consigned to geographical oblivion in the minds of most.
That was then. Now, thanks in large part to the restored reputation of Genghis and the many successor Khans — a restoration achieved in no small part thanks to the literary diligence of Jack Weatherford — Mongolia has come roaring back, being currently a highly modish place to visit (tourism has tripled in the last decade), a place to revere, be amazed by and in awe of. As a minuscule country that for a few shining centuries — rather like Britain, six hundred years later — expanded and held sway around a goodly part of the globe, from Vietnam, Burma and China to Hungary, Thrace and Poland.
Weatherford (an anthropologist whose fathomless wellsprings of curiosity once led him to clerk in a Capitol Hill porn store to write a book that remains discreetly unlisted on the Also By page here) would like us to believe that those centuries of Mongol rule did indeed shine, and were, as far as imperial adventures go, among the best of their kind.
It was in an earlier best-selling volume that Weatherford persuasively argued that the 25-year blitzkrieg mounted by Genghis and his cavalries — who, in “the most extensive war in world history” beginning in 1206, swept mercilessly and unstoppably over the Altai Mountains to their west and the Gobi Desert to their south — brought civilization, fairness, meritocracy and avuncular kindliness to legions of undeserving satrapies across Eurasia. Those who believed Genghis to be a tyrant of monstrous heartlessness have thus lately come to think otherwise: Weatherford’s writings present us revisionist history on a grand scale, but one as scrupulously well researched (with ample endnotes) as such an intellectual overhaul needs to be.
Now, with “Genghis Khan and the Quest for God” he has taken his thesis still further, arguing with equal fervor and conviction that the Khan, though godless himself, favored total religious freedom for his subjugated millions. While his empire encompassed “Muslims, Buddhists, Taoists, Confucians, Zoroastrians, Manichaeans, Hindus, Jews, Christians and animists of different types” (Weatherford’s passions for lists can sometimes seem like stylistic overkill), he was eager that all should “live together in a cohesive society under one government.” No walls to be built, no immigration bans, no spiritual examinations.
To be reminded of such secular civility is one thing; but what is most remarkable about this fine and fascinating book is Weatherford’s central claim that the Great Khan’s ecumenism has as its legacy the very same rigid separation of church and state that underpins no less than the American idea itself. The United States Constitution’s First Amendment is, at its root, an originally Mongol notion.
Many might think this eccentric in the extreme, until we learn that a runaway 18th-century best seller in the American colonies was in fact a history of “Genghizcan the Great,” by a Frenchman, Pйtis de la Croix, and that it was a book devoured by both Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. Moreover, the quoted rubric of the Mongol and United States laws is uncannily similar: Among other passages, Mongol law forbids anyone to “disturb or molest any person on account of religion,” and Jefferson, after reading its strictures, went on to suggest in his Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, a precursor of the First Amendment, that “no man shall . . . suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief.”
The link between Genghis and Jefferson may seem tenuous to the point of absurdity; but Weatherford argues his case very well — and in doing so offers further amplification of the notion that so many of the West’s claimed achievements in fact have their true origins in the East, and that countries like Mongolia, far from being, as those hapless British diplomats once believed, at the utter ends of the earth, are very much more central than most of us nowadays like to imagine. In a sense we are all Mongols; we are all one.