Biran, Michal. Chinggis Khan. Markers of the Muslim World. Oxford: Oneworld, 2007.

Indeed the book published by M. Biran, a leading young historian of pre-modern steppe empires, contains a number of elements that can be found in certain biographies devoted to Chinggis Khan. Nevertheless it brings a lot of new elements that deserve to be mentioned. The volume consists of six chapters preceded by a general introduction (pp. 1-3) simply entitled “Why Chinggis Khan?” In this preamble, the author explains the reason of the insertion of the biography on a non-Muslim conqueror in a collection entitled “Markers of Islam.” The answer is easy: Chinggis Khan and his successors have marked a major turning point in the history of the world of Islam, as it has been underlined over and over again by the historians of the domain.

In chapter 1, “Asia, the Steppe, and the Islamic World on the Eve of the Mongols (6-26),” M. Biran sketches an historical overview of the situation in this vast region before the Mongol conquest. She explains the functioning of great empires like those of the Turks (sixth-eighth centuries CE) and of the Uighurs (744-840), and she shows how at that time already the concept of tengri had acquired enough dimension to permit a single clan to claim legitimacy for itself (p. 13). Although the book was published before the article by Igor de Rachewiltz, the reader can refer to the latter’s “Heaven, Earth and the Mongols in the Time of Činggis Qan in His Immediate Successors (ca. 1160-1260) – A Preliminary Investigation,” in N. Golver & S. Lievens, eds., A Lifelong Dedication of the China Mission: Essays Presented in Honour of Father Jeroom Heyndrickx, CCIM, on the Occasion of His 75th Birthday and the 25th Anniversary of the F. Verbiest Institute k.u. Leuven, Leuven, 2007: 107-44. M. Biran also shows that two main factors have been favouring Chinggis Khan’s rise. The first results from the fragmentation of power in Eurasia at the turn of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The second has its origin in the state models provided by the “inter-regional” entities in which minority nomadic populations were living.

In chapters 2 and 3 (“Temïjin’s Mongolia, 27-46; “World conquest: How Did He Do It?” 47-73), based on the compilation of previous publications, M. Biran rapidly recounts Mongolia’s tribal composition, Chinggis Khan’s seizure of power, the conquests in Inner Asia, the creation of the “Great Mongol State” and the first invasions in the world of Islam. In chapter 4 (“The Chinggisid Legacy in the Muslim world,” 74-107), the author endeavours to show the role played by Chinggis Khan’s successors, by Möngke in particular, in the conquest of the Eastern part of the world of Islam. The seizure of Baghdad by Hülegü and the Ilkhans’ successive attempts for taking possession of Syria and Palestine did raise concern in the whole Dar al-Islam. The Ayyubid princes who were ruling over the Bilad al-Sham at the time of Hülegü’s invasion were extremely divided so the conquest was easy and quick. The Mongol advance under Hülegü’s great emir was stopped in ‘Ayn Jalut in Palestine on September 3, 1260. M. Biran casts light on the necessity for the Mongols to establish an efficient postal system for the control of this immense territory. She also deals in this chapter with the issue of intercultural exchanges. After a first article on this question (“Eurasian Transformations, Tenth to Thirteenth Centuries. Crystallizations, Divergences, Renaissances,” Medieval Encounters 10 [2004]: 339-61), she demonstrates in the book the intensity of exchanges during this period of time, in fields as diverse as history writing, medicine, military techniques, geography, cartography, astronomy or book painting. In these matters she largely relies on the works by Th. Allsen (Commodity and Exchange in the Mongol Empire: A Cultural History of Islamic Textiles, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997; “Ever Closer Encounters: The Appropriation of Culture and the Apportionment of Peoples in the Mongol Empire,” Journal of Early Modern History 1 [1997]: 2-23; Culture and Conquest in Mongol Eurasia, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001). She also tackles the issue of languages, crucial in this period of history considering the amount of different languages spoken in the empire, whence the permanent necessity to resort to translators and the redaction of multilingual dictionaries for traders and administrators, like the famous Rasulid Hexaglot. (On this question: D. Aigle, “De la ‘non négociation’ à l’alliance inaboutie: Réflexions sur la diplomatie entre les Mongols et l’Occident latin,” Oriente moderno 86/1 [2008]: 395-436 ― reviewed supra in No. 103.)

In chapter 5 (“From the Accursed to the Revered Father Back: Changing Images of Chinggis Khan in the Muslim World,” 108-36), M. Biran broaches the contrasted legacy of the Chinggiskhanids. She explains that contrary to Alexander the Great and to the Sassanid kings Chinggis Khan did become part and parcel of the history of the world of Islam (109). This interpretation should perhaps be qualified since in Iran the kings of Sassanid Persia have played a significant role as political models and in the framework of didactical and ethical literature. According to M. Biran a lot of oral histories, of “pro-Mongol” sources have contributed to provide Chinggis Khan with this status. However in a source like the biographical dictionary devoted to Shafi‘i scholars by al-Subki (d. 1361) one finds a mention of Mongol invasion as a genuine tragedy for the world of Islam and Chinggis Khan is introduced as a “savage” (111). The subchapter of M. Biran’s book entitled “Chinggis the Monotheist (112-21)” constitutes perhaps the most innovative part of her work. In a number of historians’ works one can observe a tendency to make a monotheist of Chinggis Khan in order to smooth out the problem for Muslim rulers to refer to a “pagan” conqueror as a source of political legitimacy. The author cites several very interesting mediaeval examples (114-7), among which the example of al-Nuwayri and the legend on Tamerlane. In this legend, Chinggis Khan’s ancestor Alan Ko’a is introduced as a “virgin of the Mongols,” with quotation of the Surat Maryam of the Qur’an. It underlines that the reference to Chinggis Khan was limited to the Iranian and Turkic world. However, legends on Tsar of Russia Ivan IV the Terrible rely him to Chinggis Khan. In 1793 for instance, Nikolai Novikov reports a letter addressed to the Tsar by the Noghai Mirza Belek Bulat, in which the latter refers to Ivan IV as the “son of Chinggis Khan” (Chingisov syn: see Ch. Halperin, “Ivan IV and Chinggis Khan,” Jahrbücher für Geschichte Osteuropas 1 [2003]: 481). Last, M. Biran examines the evolution of Chinggis Khan’s image in the modern world of Islam through Arabic (mainly Egyptian) and Central Asian sources.

In chapter 6 (“Appropriation of Chinggis: A Comparative Approach,” 136-62), M. Biran suggests significant comparisons between Chinggis’ heritage in different regions of his former empire. In the Republic of Mongolia he has become a national hero and his alleged code of laws (yasa) is still considered topical (see also D. Aigle, “La loi mongole vs loi islamique: Entre Mythe et réalité,” Annales H.S.S. 2005/5-6: 996). In China the grave of the Great Khan is supposed to have been discovered in 2000 (152). It is perhaps to be regretted that the author did not develop these comparisons with the Western world, since Chinggis Khan’s entrance into legend, beside a hero like Saladin, is rich in terms of the history of representations. All in all, this book is extremely well constructed. In concise and clear pages it provides an excellent introduction to the Mongol Empire. Moreover, it also offers precise information on still topical heritages and claims. Several innovative chapters shed a new light on Chinggis Khan’s personality and on the manners in which this major figurehead of Eurasian history has entered legend, in the course of time, according to the ideological needs of the moment.

Denise Aigle, Practical School for Advanced Studies, Paris
CER: II-3.1.B-108