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The Secret History of the Mongol Queens by…

The Secret History of the Mongol Queens

by Jack Weatherford

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About 25 years ago, I was enlightened by Jack Weatherford's book Indian Givers about the contributions that Native Americans had made to American society -- everything from governmental structures (federalism ala the Iroquois federation) to roadways.

In 2004 he published Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World for which he received the 2007 Order of the Polar Star, the highest award for service to the Mongolian nation. A retired professor from Macalester College, he now resides In Ulaan Batar, Mongolia and his native Charleston, SC. I've not read his earlier book on Genghis Khan, but I couldn't resist Mongol Queens when I came across it.

It's a fascinating tale of Genghis's wives and the daughters who were married into conquered kingdoms along the Silk Road to serve as sheilds in the "son-in-law" states to protect the Mongolian Empire. After Genghis died, a power struggle arose between his sons and daughters, leading to the suppression of women's rights and the slow dissolution of the Empire. From the 13th to the 15th century, the great empire that Genghis had amassed fell into warring states, many of which were taken over by those they had conquered. Weatherford traces the rise and fall of those powers.

Then in the last third of the book, he focuses on Queen Manduhai, the young widow of Manduul Khan, who in the late 15th century, after her husband's death, sought out the child Batu Mongke Kayan, descendant of Genghis and Kublai Khan, and had him declared the Great Khan. She raised him and then married him. She rode into war to subdue the rebellious Mongolian tribes and together they reunited the Mongolian kingdom -- not as an empire, but as a united nation.

Weatherford's history is popular history, and as some critics have pointed out, has some factual errors. But he knows the Mongolians intimately, understands their culture, deeply appreciates their art and history, and recovers the suppressed tales of the Mongolian queens. ( )
1 vote janeajones | Aug 3, 2015 |
[audiobook] Absolutely fascinating! I want to get a hardcopy of this so I can go back through and take notes. My favorite bits were those that revealed some of the personality and character of the historical figures (excerpts from historical documents) and the details about Mongolian culture from the time of Gengis Khan onward. This book also revealed to me how very little I actually knew about the history of Mongolia and the areas that became part of the Mongolian Empire, and about Genghis Khan himself (he was a much more moderate and wise fellow than I ever realized, with some quite enlightened attitudes and laws regarding women (according to this book, at least).

(Be warned: there were several passages that were so gruesome and horrendous that it was hard for me to read them, detailing punishments and wartime acts of extreme brutality) ( )
  devafagan | Jan 2, 2015 |
This is, or has, both speculative history and history told as story--as per his first on the Mongols, 'Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World'. Perhaps I found more quibbles with this one. For instance, his dissolute Ogodei doesn't square with the kindly drunk portrayed in Juvaini 'Genghis Khan: The History Of The World Conqueror'--on which grounds and similar, I thought the good/evil contrast between Genghis' daughters and his sons too strongly put. Nor did I believe the 'war on women' concept. It's true that Mongols' foreign wives, from tribes and peoples who had once been conquests, were soon left with the government to themselves. Did they believe in Mongol values, Genghis' values? It seems they contributed to what quickly became a brawl for family power, Genghis' innovations forgotten. This gist of the story I go along with, but again and again I felt 'too strongly put' or I scrawled a question mark next to the text.

I thought the book too much about queens... true, 'Queens' is the title. But had we seen them against a background of ordinary Mongol women, had women's status been examined, then they wouldn't have stood out as so exceptional, and I think the 'war on women' idea might fall apart. Why? The 13th century was an age of queens, not just at Kara Korum but in Mongol-occupied or Mongol-allied territories--because steppe values spilt over, in a way they never had before. Before the 13th century, Liao and Western Liao had a history of queens in charge, upon which the Mongols drew, and even women in politics in settled states, Tangut and traditional Song China, seemed to say, 'If she can in Liao, I can.' Given this, I don't understand where an anti-woman attitude came from. I need that explained. It isn't like it was there before--before the innovations of Genghis--to rear its ugly head again when he was gone. If there was a mother-son tug of power, I've read about similar in Tangut and in Liao, where widows, left in charge, do not want to hand on to sons once they come of age and the battle's on, that mothers often won (these were part-steppe societies in the couple of centuries before the Mongols).

Still, this is a massively valuable book, just like his other, since Mongol queens weren't talked about in the streets before Jack Weatherford.

For a book that looks at women in steppe societies, and has more on the lives of ordinary women (as much evidence as can be scraped together) and women of power in the lead-up to the Mongols, see: 'Women of the Conquest Dynasties: Gender and Identity in Liao and Jin China'. A book on Western Liao, 'The Empire of the Qara Khitai in Eurasian History: Between China and the Islamic World', tells of further innovations, indeed the first women khans. If Genghis tried to institute power for his daughters, these were the examples he had to follow.

I'd better footnote what I say on the spillover of steppe attitudes to women into settled territories: 'Early Mongol Rule in Thirteenth-Century Iran: A Persian Renaissance' displays this in the west. ( )
1 vote Jakujin | Feb 23, 2013 |
Weatherford writes another reasonably interesting history of the Mongol Empire, but this doesn't seem quite as good as Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World. It's a great topic, though, that should be more well known than it is. ( )
  wanack | Jun 23, 2011 |
Did you know that Genghis Khan was noted as a fair and enlightened ruler? Well, in part. He believed in a fair trial, a code of rules, and women's rights. In fact, his sons were all mostly washouts. But his daughters were pretty darn talented. So he made them administrators and generals and sent them out to maintain order along the borders of his empire. But then he died, and his heirs starting squabbling.

I really enjoyed this. Every once in a while, I got a little bogged down in details. But overall, it was a very interesting read.

Oh, some parts are not for the squeamish. Some super nasty torture descriptions that I would have been happy to skip, if I had known they were coming. Ew. But I loved the story of Queen Mandhuhai the Wise who united the Mongols against the Chinese

Great story and recommended. 4 stars ( )
2 vote cmbohn | Sep 25, 2010 |
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The Mongol queens of the thirteenth century ruled the largest empire the world has ever known. Yet sometime near the end of the century, censors cut a section from The Secret History of the Mongols, leaving a single tantalizing quote from Genghis Khan: “Let us reward our female offspring.” Only this hint of a father’s legacy for his daughters remained of a much larger story.

The queens of the Silk Route turned their father’s conquests into the world’s first truly international empire, fostering trade, education, and religion throughout their territories and creating an economic system that stretched from the Pacific to the Mediterranean. Outlandish stories of these powerful queens trickled out of the Empire, shocking the citizens of Europe and and the Islamic world.

After Genghis Khan’s death in 1227, conflicts erupted between his daughters and his daughters-in-law; what began as a war between powerful women soon became a war against women in power as brother turned against sister, son against mother. At the end of this epic struggle, the dynasty of the Mongol queens had seemingly been extinguished forever, as even their names were erased from the historical record..

One of the most unusual and important warrior queens of history arose to avenge the wrongs, rescue the tattered shreds of the Mongol Empire, and restore order to a shattered world. Putting on her quiver and picking up her bow, Queen Mandhuhai led her soldiers through victory after victory. In her thirties she married a seventeen-year-old prince, and she bore eight children in the midst of a career spent fighting the Ming Dynasty of China on one side and a series of Muslim warlords on the other. Her unprecedented success on the battlefield provoked the Chinese into the most frantic and expensive phase of wall building in history. Charging into battle even while pregnant, she fought to reassemble the Mongol Nation of Genghis Khan and to preserve it for her own children to rule in peace.

At the conclusion of his magnificently researched and ground-breaking narrative, Weatherford notes that, despite their mystery and the efforts to erase them from our collective memory, the deeds of these Mongol queens inspired great artists from Chaucer and Milton to Goethe and Puccini, and so their stories live on today. With The Secret History of the Mongol Queens, Jack Weatherford restores the queens’ missing chapter to the annals of history. [product description from
Amazon 6/15/11]
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A history of the ruling women of the Mongol Empire, this work reveals their struggle to preserve a nation that shaped the world.

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