Xanadu in New York

National Palace Museum, Taipei
Liu Guandao: Kubilai Khan Hunting (detail of a hanging scroll), 1280


The Mongols inhabited a vast, featureless grass plain where the soil was too thin for crops. They raised horses, cattle, yaks, sheep, and goats, and subsisted almost entirely on meat and milk and milk products. The women milked the cows and the men milked the mares. They had no fixed houses and lived in yurts made of greased felt that they hauled on ox-drawn carts. Inside the yurts, hunks of meat hung on the horns of goats. They never washed their clothes or washed their vessels; bathing in running water was punishable by death. The women were excellent equestrians and archers, but female corpulence was prized and the wealthiest among them became too obese to ride. They had no written language and only rudimentary skills in metallurgy; unlike the Crusaders, they never made horseshoes. Their human genius was in military organization and tactics, and in politics as war by other means.

Nomads continually need greater territory for fresh pasture, and the peoples of the grasslands—Mongol, Tatar, Merkit, Uriyankat, Oirat, Tumet, Kerait, Naiman, Ongut—were at war for centuries. As early as the third century BCE, the settled and agricultural Chinese had begun construction of the Great Wall to keep them out. This was only sporadically successful. By the thirteenth century, the Tanguts in the northwest had already founded the Xi Xia Dynasty, and most of the rest of northern China was under control of the Jurchens, who had established the Jin Dynasty after conquering, in turn, the Liao Dynasty, ruled by another northern tribe, the Khitan.

In 1206, a Mongol of obscure birth, Temüjin, after much internecine warfare, united the tribes of the steppes and was declared the Chinggis (Genghis) Khan, the “universal ruler.” Within a few decades, he and his successors controlled an empire that stretched from Korea to Poland. They destroyed dynasties that had governed for centuries and some of the most cosmopolitan and sophisticated cities on earth. Samarkand and Bukhara never recovered their glory; in the Silk Road city of Merv, perhaps the largest in the world, a million and a half people were killed; in Balakh, it was said that only a few dogs were left barking in the empty streets. Moscow and Kiev, Isfahan and Damascus fell; 800,000 were killed in Baghdad; a million in Chengdu; in Aleppo only the craftsmen were spared; in Poland they cut off one ear of every surviving male and collected them in bags. It was merely the fortuitous deaths of Chinggis’s successors that kept them out of Egypt and Europe all the way to the Atlantic.

The Mongols overran one fifth of the earth with forces inferior in number, but unmatched in military tactics and political skill. Among warring kingdoms, they would join with one side to defeat the other, and then destroy their…

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