Search the Anthropology Review Database

(cover picture) Juvaini, Ata-Malik
1997 Genghis Khan: the History of the World-Conqueror. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Notes: Original title: Ta'Rikh-i-Jahan Gusha. 1958. Translatedby John Andrew Boyle with an introduction by David O. Morgan. lxvii, 763 p.: ill., maps; 24 cm. ISBN 0-295-97654-3. Price US$40 (pb).
(Check out my bio!) Reviewed 26 Oct 1999 by:
Howard James Martin <>
(Independent scholar) Richmond, Virginia USA
Medium: Written Literature
Mongols -- History -- To 1500
Genghis Khan, 1162-1227

ABSTRACT:    This history by thirteenth century Persian scholar and administrator Ata-Malik Juvaini chronicles the rise of the Mongols, their conquests and empire in Central Asia and the Near East. Juvaini presents invaluable material on warfare, statecraft, religion, ritual and kinship. Superbly translated by John A. Boyle (1958) and republished (1997) with an up-to-date introduction by David O. Morgan, it is an essential primary source for students and scholars of the Mongols and the Near East.

<i>Genghis Khan will appeal to historians, anthropologists, and other audiences. In the first instance, it is a primary source about the Mongols, their campaigns, conquests and empire in Central Asia and the Near East, and mandatory reading for those with a seious interest in the subject. Second, it contains accounts of court rituals, administrative practices and kinship relations, as well as sturdy details of military tactics, elite behavior, and much more that puts the flesh back on Mongol bones. Third, it is an exquisite translation of a gem to savor page-by-page for its language. Juvaini was born into the Muslim Persian cultural elite; his sophisticated knowledge of Islam, politics, poetry and international affairs allowed him to write compelling narrative.

The 1997 edition reviewed here is the republication of a texttranslated and published by Manchester University Professor of Persian Studies John A. Boyle (1916-1978) in 1958. Boyle worked with several manuscripts to complete his translation; in numerous footnotes he comments on differences between these texts. David Morgan's introduction to this edition characterizes Boyle's primary contribution as a translator and etymologist whose painstaking scholarship '...saved everyone in his field a tremendous amount of work' (xviii). Morgan describes the importance of Juvaini's chronicle in the context of Mongol studies. Morgan also contributed a bibliography updating Mongol studies in the forty years between Boyle's publication and this one. Professor Boyle's 1958 bibliography and Morgan's update cover significant European language publications since thenineteenth century; both are invaluable.

Although Juvaini's chronicle is a history, it does not follow current scholarly conventions. It would be surprising if it did. Juvaini's text is a semi-chronological record based on original research and, for some subjects, observation and participation. According to Boyle (xxxvii), 'The History of the World-Conqueror' was begun in Qara-Qorum in 1252 or 1253; and Juvaini was still working on it in 1260, when he had recently been appointed governor of Baghdad'. The book has three sections, each of which presents distinct topics in chapters. Boyle's footnotes make clear Juvaini intended to provide more material for existing chapters, to add new chapters to existing sections, and to write another section. Why Juvaini did not remains a mystery.

The first section begins with accounts of Mongol society beforeGenghis, the story of his rise to dominance and also provides information on his sons. Much of this section is about campaigns devoted to westward expansion in the first decades of the thirteenth century. Representative chapters include ones on subjugating the Turkic Uighur, conquering the great Central Asian merchant and intellectual centers of Bokhara and Samarqand, and campaigning south of the River Oxus. A turning point in thechronicle is reached at chapter 29 (Of the accession of the World-Emperor Qa'an to the throne of the Khanate and the power of the World-Empire) when Juvaini's attention turns to Genghis' descendants, viciously ruthless battles over succession, and court ritual. The narrative is unrelentingly complex, as it is in the entire book; attentive readers will quickly learn to appreciate Professor Boyle's footnotes.

The second section is a history of the Sultans of Khorazm (inpresent-day Iran and Central Asia east of the Caspian and Aral Seas) from their rise in the late twelfth century to their fall to the Mongols in the thirteenth. Juvaini's attention here points away from the Mongols and towards the Muslim sultans; he was a native of the region and learned the history at firsthand through descent and education. Juvaini's mastery of high-culture literary conventions is apparent throughout:

[The Sultan] fixed his camp on the bank at Nuzvar, and within only a few days seventy thousand men of action and spirit had been gathered together. Meanwhile the army of Ghur, with so many troops and elephants and with such bustle and clangour that, had they wished, they could have turned the Oxus into a plain and made the plain an Oxus with blood, pitched their camp opposite on the eastern bank. The Sultan of Ghur ordered them to seek a ford in order to cross the next day and trouble the drinking-place of the Sultan's pleasure. And he began to dispose his elephants and instruct his men in order that next day at dawn they might fashion the cup of battle out of human skulls. (322)
The third and final section of this chronicle is concerned with post-Genghis imperial succession and the destruction of Juvaini's own state and heterodox Isma'ili strongholds in north Persia. Juvaini witnessed some campaigns and provides eyewitness accounts. One problem the reader will encounter is Junvaini's imprecision; for example, following the stages of a Mongol siege directed against an Isma'ili 'castle', imagining a realistic castle, and making reasonable estimates of the size of opposing forces, is not possible based solely on Juvaini's accounts. Most readers will need guidance from experts to develop reliable understandings. Guidance is even more important when the subject is theology, ritual or other social practices. Although Juvaini was a principled scholar and a devout Muslim -- he retrieved scientific instruments and orthodox religious books when the Isma'ili castle at Lamasar fell (719) -- he was also less tolerant of other religions than his Mongol employers were (he burned Isma'ili texts taken from the castle, ibid.).

One charm of reading Juvaini is realizing he did not write for the audience that now reads him; his style is so different from current conventions of scholarly writing that he surprises at every turn and cannot be taken to task for violating precepts about evidence, arguments and conclusions. He is an engaging analyst but is also an author whose opinions strongly influence his writing. Here he is on the Uighur: 'After writing their history we have recorded something of what is found in their books regarding their beliefs and religion; which we offer as a matter for astonishment and not as truth and certainty.' (53). And, on the destruction of the city Merv he writes:

The Mongols ordered that, apart from four hundred artisans whom they specified and selected from amongst the men and some children, girls and boys, whom they bore off into captivity, the whole population, including the women and children, should be killed, and no one, whether woman or man, be spared. The people of Merv were then distributed among the soldiers and levies, and, in short, to each man was allotted the execution of three or four hundred persons. (162)
Juvaini's chronicle cannot be judged by current standards of scholarship. That is, whether he compared sources, correlated evidence to discern lacunae and contradictions, attempted to back-translate sources in languages he did not know and so on are moot points. Clearly, as a partisan Muslim witnessing the destruction of his civilization while in the employ of its destroyers, Juvaini was not an objective observer or uninflected scribe. Both Boyle (xii-xlvii) and Morgan (xx-xxiii) address this tension in his life and work.

Reading Genghis Khan requires attentive effort. It is, first, not a strictly chronological history. Juvaini writes about events (campaigns, succession struggles), people (Genghis, his descendants, Muslim califs and sultans), locations (Samarqand, Herat) and ideas (theological arguments, heresies, shamanic practices) using a generally chronological frame but does not tie the topics together with an underlying macro-historical view or thesis. Individual chapters and sections are not without chronological structure, but readers must supply an overview stitching the pieces together. Even though Professor Boyle's copious footnotes are indispensable, a perusal of related literature would provide an invaluable framework for better understanding Juvaini's text. Reading the book requires patience, imagination and the capacity to accept uncertainty. However, this should not detract from the fascination this remarkable work evokes.

An orthographically complex text, Genghis Khan compares favorably with other recently published monographs that I have reviewed. Although Boyle remarks that Genghis Khan is 'a translation intended primarily for the general reader', he was an erudite etymologist whose working vocabulary required the use of antique and obscure words to render precise translations (xlviii). A good dictionary is a necessary reading companion. The three maps are inadequate; an overlay of current national boundaries, major mountains and climate zones would help orient readers whose knowledge of geography may be spotty.

Last, a few notes on three books that help decode Juvaini.

Marshall, Robert. 1993. Storm from the East: From Genghis Khan to Khubilai Khan. Berkeley: University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-08300-8.
- This is an adequate general introduction to the Mongols and their empire. Copiously illustrated with remarkable images, it is the companion to an educational television series. Mongol campaigns in Russia and Europe receive relatively more attention than the Near East and China; the evolution of European ideas about the Mongols is well treated for a cursory work.

Morgan, David. 1986. The Mongols. Oxford: Basil Blackwell. ISBN 0-631-13556-1.
- Although Morgan remarks (1997, p. xxvi) in his introduction to Boyle's translation that this 1986 book of his is somewhat outdated, it is a readable and lively monograph. The 1986 monograph explains and makes interpretable many passages in Juvaini. He answers, in passing, mundane questions a reader of Juvaini might have (How big were Mongol armies? How many were actually slaughtered in battles? What were Mongol siege tactics?).

Ratchnevsky, Paul. 1991. Genghis Khan: His life and Legacy. Translated by Thomas Nivison Haining. Oxford: Basil Blackwell. ISBN 0-613-16785-4.
- This work is a comprehensive and literate treatment of the title's subject. It is an outstanding scholarly work.

To cite this review, the American Anthropological Association recommends the following style:
Martin, Howard James
1999 Review of Genghis Khan: the History of the World-Conqueror. Anthropology Review Database October 26, 1999., accessed April 17, 2014.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

© Anthropology Review Database
(available online:

Return to ARD Home Page