13th Century: Genghis Khan (c.1167-1227)

The world conqueror swept through Asia like an apocalypse and set in motion forces more powerful than the sword

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The great Khan's strategies led to the subjugation of the advanced civilizations of northern China and Persia. His sons and grandsons would extend the empire. Batu would command armies that struck deep into Russia and swept through Poland into Germany, Hungary and the Balkans. Kublai Khan, who would later build his stately pleasure dome in the city of Shangtu (Coleridge's Xanadu), conquered southern China and Burma. His brother Hulegu would not only destroy Baghdad but also devastate its irrigation network. Mesopotamia has never fully recovered.

The immense wealth of the Mongol empire and the suddenly free passage from west to east attracted merchants and adventurers, whose goods and tales would change the world. Marco Polo's stories became the dreams of Christopher Columbus. The quest for a passage to Cathay, the medieval name for northern China, would propel countless explorers through serendipitous discoveries in America. (In 1634, for example, the Frenchman Jean Nicolet left Quebec in search of China and discovered Green Bay, Wis.) Meanwhile, Franciscan missionary diplomats sent by the Pope to seek an alliance with the Khan against Islam brought back a black powder to a fellow Franciscan, the Oxford scientist Roger Bacon, the first European to write about gunpowder.

However, the most indirect, though by no means benign, gift of the Khan was the plague. Originating in the jungles of southern China and Burma, bubonic plague traveled with Mongol armies and then from caravan to caravan till it reached the Crimea in 1347. From there it would take a third of all Europeans. Bereft of labor and talent, the fledgling nation states were pressed to maximize tax collection, bureaucracy and state control of the force of arms, leading to the heightened competitiveness of the West just as Europe's ships sailed for the riches of a distant empire. The rest is the history of another world conquest.

--By Howard Chua-Eoan

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