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The question usually asked about the Mongols is: Were they merely pillagers and killers? Not in Mongolian eyes. To Mongolia, Genghis was George Washington, first ruler of united Mongolia. Although modern scholars consider "Chinggis" the best transliteration of the Mongolian, we use "Genghis" in this article since it remains the most popular version of the ruler's name. And in China his grandson Kublai is likewise admired as a unifier. Also, to their credit, the Mongols were more tolerant of other religions than many regimes today. In Genghis’s own clan were Buddhists, Muslims, and Christians, as well as worshipers (as Genghis was) of Tengri, the ruler of heaven. To be sure, mosques and temples were burned in besieged cities, but it was not Mongol policy to punish people for their faith.

Nevertheless, the Mongols killed ruthlessly—opposing armies as well as hapless noncombatants—and subjugated millions as they pursued the dream of empire. The 13th century was one of the most war torn in history, probably exceeded in cruelty only by our own. Crusaders marched in the Holy Land, Chinese dynasties fought one another, and several wars scourged Central Asia before Genghis invaded. Thus Genghis was a man of his time—only more so.

Yet some cities that offered no resistance escaped with payment of a tribute and with looting by the army—standard practices. Many rulers chose to collaborate. From their kingdoms the Mongols drew not only taxes but also troops; thus the Mongol army that sacked Baghdad in 1258 included Georgians, Armenians, and Persians.

Several cities that felt the Mongol fury thrived in what today is Uzbekistan, one of the five Central Asian nations that calved from the collapsing Soviet Union in 1991. In Uzbekistan, for instance, there is Samarkand, and as I stood upon the ruins and looked out on the tawny steppe, it was not hard for me to imagine Genghis's cavalry approaching—"more numerous than ants or locusts," more than “the sand of the desert or drops of rain.”

This florid arithmetic is from the pen of a Persian historian, Ala-ad-Din Ata-Malik Juvaini, who wrote his History of the World-Conqueror as a Mongol civil servant. As I roamed the places of Mongol destruction, Juvaini was my loquacious informant. Historians consider his book an important account of Genghis’s campaigns, but he was writing in part to please his masters, and, like other chroniclers of the time, he never met a fact that couldn't be hyperbolized. So modern historians fall back often on such words as "perhaps."

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