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Sympathy For The Mongols & How The Rise Of The West Was Sheer Dumb Luck

   Note: I can't find Daniel Foss. If he or someone who knows him reads this, contact me. This essay is provocative and deserves wide circulation. It appeared on the History@finhutc list (now defunct). I didn't save the first essay he mentions. Regardless, the second essay gives pause for thought.

Date: Mon, 29 Apr 91 14:57:18 EDT
From: "Daniel A. Foss"
Subject: Historical Objectivity (2)

Although the reader is presumed to have dismissed the previous essay as a pastiche of commonplaces and preposterousnesses, let me first of all assure you that the letter in question represented no more than a capsule summary of what those disposed to high-nebulosity locutions characterize as "orientations" or "where I'm coming from." Herewith I get down to some cases.

    In the April 26 communication from G.L. Penrose of Hope College there is an example given of an indubitable historical fact, "say the Mongol conquest of Baghdad in 1258." Why this "event" in particular? Well, It's a fact or "event" whereof one supposes only a person literate in history to know. Also, it has come down to us as a story of such frightfulness as to epitomize or eo ipso mark a caesura in medieval Islamic civilization; and is as a rule stressed as such by Islamicists: Islam was struck a blow in its heartland, an exogenous catastrophe, wherefrom it was not to meaningfully recover and wherefor Islam itself can hardly therefore be blamed. As a direct consequence Islam/Islamic/"Islamicate" civilization rigidified, stagnated, ossified by contrast to its earlier creativity and dynamism, and thereafter was "deep-frozen" in the guise of the "gunpowder empires" after 1450. Small wonder given what we "know" to have Objectively happened: In 1258 Hulagu led an expeditionary force, presumed overwhelmingly large, to Persia and Iraq having subdued the remaining powers of Turkish Central Asia including assorted trading city-state khanates and the realm of the Khwarizm Shah. [None of these entities represented much capacity to resist.] The ruler of Iraq, the last as it turned out of the Abbasid Caliphs al-Nasir, refused to surrender [self-evidently without prospect of success] and for his heroism died horribly at Mongol hands. For resisting the city was relegated to massacre and pillage. Death toll estimates begin at 200,000 inhabitants; they go as high as 800,000: The waters of the Tigris ran red with human blood for days, weeks, on end. Irreplaceable cultural treasures were lost: So many libraries perished that the waters of the Tigris ran black with ink from destroyed books. (See NY Times Magazine Section, Sunday 28 April 1991.)

    All that stood between Islam and total perdition was the still-shaky regime (since taking power from the last of the Ayyubids in 1250 in an ill-planned coup lacking a non-slave candidate for the throne) of the Mamluks in Egypt, whose first Sultan, Qutuz, defeated Hulagu at Ayn Jalut, Syria, in that same year, 1258.

    For some reason we draw conclusions as to the mighty feat of arms achieved by the heroic Qutuz, not the weakness of Hulagu's expeditionary force. [Crusader Acre held out against him, Bybars, and Qalawun till after the latter's death. Then again, we should but do not bear in mind Batu's having turned the mailed chivalry of Hungary, led by Bela IV, into a pile of rusty scrap in 1242; the Egyptian cavalry was lighter, less formidable, easy prey to deadly Mongol archers one would think.]

    We might, but never do, sit up with a start, suddenly aware of the anomaly of the Abbasid Caliph holding power. There had after all been Abbasid Caliphs since 750; Baghdad was founded in 764. But didn't we learn in the third grade, or third year of graduate school, whatever, that the Arab Empire's political eminence and territorial integrity did not long survive the supreme effort expended in suppressing the grave Revolt of the Zanj (imported African slaves) in southern Iraq (868-883); and that even before this the Caliphs had become playthings of their Turkish soldiers' commanding officers like 5th century West Roman Emperors of German counterparts. Persia and Iran were at this time given over to the peregrinations of nomadic turkish tribes and their flocks, nomadic anarchy suspended for two or three generations by the power - after 1313 the Islamic power - of the Mongol Ilkhan mini-empire. More conscious, deliberate anarchists abounded, too, in the form of the terrorists of the Order of Hashishin, an offshoot of Ismaili ("Sevener") Shi'a Islam.

What had happened was the disappearance of "serious" government, i.e., of orderly dominion over respectably sized territorial units, had disappeared even before the Mongol arrival, leaving a power vacuum such that the only imaginable last-gasp possibility of rulership over the former Empire's core territory, Iraq, reverted perforce to of all people the legitimate monarch! Al-Nasir, "a nice man who meant well," dutifully if bemusedly assumed his responsibility to govern Iraq faute de mieux; although he at times strangely continued to act as if he were still a figurehead e.g. hoarding his personal Caliphal treasure, not urgently expending it on the exigencies of defense as the situation urgently warranted. Heir to centuries of political impotence, the last Caliph made a poor showing, preserving his dignity as opposed to governing a state. A ruler of, say, mediocre competence might have deflected Hulagu, who was in a hurry, with lesser disaster. [His dignity prevailed: When the Mongols rolled him up in a rug and stomped him to death, this was a tribute to royalty; it spared a victim dismemberment of the body.]

    How much of a disaster was it, actually? Baghdad lost the caliphate which was normally a cipher anyway which Sunnis long ago learned to live without and Shi'ites always despised. Yet business was good, in large measure due to the immense stimulus to trade imparted by the vastness of the Mongol Empire itself. Baghdad and Iraq recovered their prosperity. The Hashishin were wiped out; the Ismaili activist wing of Shi'ism gave way to Jaafari ("Twelver") which encouraged a clean nose kept to the grindstone. Turkish tribal wars abated until the Ilkhanate fell whereafter Black Steep Turks fought White Sheep Turks.

    The fall of Baghdad was memorable for reasons which were largely or wholly false. Islamic civilization had hit a rough patch some decades before the Mongols appeared. Thereafter the Mongols even if acting in their own interest, not that of Islam, greatly promoted trade, peace, and order. Muslims greatly exaggerated the massacre in Baghdad of more people than the city's total population; and it recovered in numbers and prosperity thereafter: The importance of the Fall of Baghdad was psychological, like that of Constantinople in 1453; and unlike the latter was due more to political stupidity, less to overwhelming odds (had that is sensible precautions been taken).

    To this day in English, the words "Mongol" and "horde" have strongly negative connotations. But this is as nothing to the perduring horror Mongols evoke in countries they actually conquered, like Russia and China; and here the tendency is for foreign historians to have taken and to still take to this very day the word of the locals as to what evils were attributable to Mongol malign essence.

    Mongols can have done no right. As barbarians all their acts were barbarous performed barbarously. The ethnic stereotype of Fanatical Asiatic Hordes has been wedged like foreign matter into the history o[f] widely separated countries in the place of facts whereof some of which we would like to know, others we are more comfortable not knowing as these facts might well be found discrepant with our Reality, whose "tradition" - in the sense I have used the word in the first essay, is a tale of the inevitable, inexorable comint-to-the-fore of the innate, intrinsic, immanent Superiority of the West which made it certain that the West and the West alone could have given rise to Modern Society and then only in the form whereby it is familiar to us.

    Though "Tradition," every society's folk-tales of its alleged past, changes repeatedly as dictated by the spurious - i.e., ideologically represented - present. Every "Reality" - in the sense I used in the first essay - imparts "a sense of time-immemoriality" to the inception of the present. Crudely put, since Time Immemorial the West has been Rising; and Western Civilization is the Booster of the launch vehicle whereof the Second Stage is the "Bourgeoisie." It is not true that we typically say something not far different in meaning from, "Since Earliest Times the Bourgeoisie has been Rising"? [Observe that to establish ourselves teleologically we have forcibly stolen - where necessary by military might - the civilization of Classical Greece from what once was called the East and stuck it in the West, or at least the imaginary past of the West. Down indeed to the detail of having The White Man, a recent invention of the West, perforce exist then-there, if then-there is to precur the West.]

    Historians of China have to this very day represented the Mongol period as a time of oppressive cruelty and incessant terror. During the Mongol Yuan Dynasty however, Chinese scholar-intellectuals berated the Mongol regime for laxity, permissiveness, and undisciplined administration. (Who knows if this might also prove true of the "Mongol yoke" in Russia?) The Chinese have for five centuries attributed huge reductions in their population, from 125 million by official count in 1317, to 65 million (inflated by modern estimates to 80 million) in 1393, to Mongol genocidal inclinations whose victims were supplemented by the death toll incurred in the national effort to throw the hated barbarian rulers out of the country back into the northern deserts whence they came. Western historians by and large believe them.

    Right now I have lying on my lap a slim book of readings for an undergraduate history course. The title is, The Black Death: A Turning Point In History? It was known or believed in Europe in the years just before 1350 that the Bubonic Plague had originated somewhere in the East, China possibly, and had been brought to the shore of the Black Sea by a Mongol army. If the Bubonic Plague was largely responsible for demographic collapse in China as it was in Europe, the misattribution of population losses to Mongol genocide and struggle against Mongol rule may represent one of the greatest unhappenings cum rehappenings of the past of this kind in history (where "history" here is used in the sense of objective history in the ultimate sense). 57 Varieties of social theory are invoked by social scientists of every stripe to identify some Disease of Chinese Civilization such that China could not and could never have developed Modern Capitalism. Where China was Diseased the West was hale and healthy; hence The Rise of the West culminating in the Rise of the Bourgeoisie which endureth forever: As of 1989 any projected possibility that there might exist some point beyond which the bourgeoisie might Rise no more has been banished, dead-and-buried, we-told-you-so. Quite plausibly some of the things we do not wish to be told - yet which have been established beyond question by contemporary China scholarship - include that up through the first third of the fourteenth century the Chinese were a couple of centuries closer to the dubious paradise of Capitalism than were the Western Europeans of the same period. And the lead furthermore was widening.

    Then Chinese Civilization ran into bad luck: Something happened such that its advantages turned into drawbacks; some Disease of Western Civilization was in a critical situation turned into a stimulus for cancerous growth, here borrowing the imagery of Philip Slater to the effect that what cancer is to the organism, Capitalism - as a system of production of material goods without limit - is to the Planet Earth.

    Suppose it can be shown that something like this was Objectively True in history, that is, in the Ultimate sense. Is there anyone around with sufficient Historical Objectivity - do you see what I'm getting at yet? - to take it with good-natured scholarly equanimity?

    And, mark my words, I do not even claim Historical Objectivity in making my case. I am going to suggest that the Rise of the West Was Sheer Dumb Luck out of sheer Sour Grapes: (1) The game of life is crooked, whether for the single human organism or for human aggregates like classes (which once existed a very great deal but do not exist quite so much any more), genders (which have always existed and still exist), races (which barely exist at all though their importance exists enormously more than the things themselves), nations (which started existing a quite short time ago and should exist for a while yet since the worst-put-together nations posit vested interests in the continued existence of nations merely because they haven't got in their licks as of yet), or the homo sapiens sapiens species as a whole (which having spent 45 years on the very edge of nonexistence may yet prove to have been better off that way, as in the statistical sense its well-being seems to have peaked out sometime around the year 1400, says Braudel, and is not going to get any better). (2) Nobody is any better than anybody else, though a few may be worse (which is not what Tom Jefferson meant by "all citizens of the male gender are created equal"). (3) I suspect that there are situations wherein historical objectivity is at best superfluous for the purpose of arrival at objective history (Do you get what I mean?).

Daniel A. Foss
State University of New York at Stony Brook