13 MARCH 2004, Page 42

With ponies for Panzers

William Read

GENGHIS KHAN: LIFE, DEATH AND RESURRECTION by John Man Bantam Press,120, pp. 388, ISBN 0593050444 From inauspicious beginnings as the fugitive son of a small-time chieftain, Genghis Khan rose to become one of the greatest military leaders of all time, conquering most of China and Muslim Central Asia and making inroads into Christian Europe. His legacy was such that by 1290 Genghis' grandson Kubla was nominal ruler of an empire that stretched from Manchuria in the east to Poland in the west and from Novgorod in the north to Vietnam in the south.

Man does not start well in this biography-cum-travelogue. His maty but lecturing style when he is out and about on the Mongolian steppe and tales of his get ting drunk with the guides and eating the disgusting local food give the impression of being on a sixth-form field trip with a slightly embarrassing geography teacher. His purple descriptions of 'a distant cuckoo and skylark invisible in the eggshell blue' don't help.

Much better to stick to the facts. This is a great story and when Man finally turns historian he deals with them well. Genghis enjoyed a swift rise to power, so that by 1206 he was Khan of all Mongolia and commander-in-chief of the best army in Asia. Operating entirely as cavalry with each Mongol warrior using three fast ponies, they could cover huge distances in a day. As they were nomadic herdsmen they did not have the pesky incumbencies of crops to harvest and fields to tend and so could be away for long periods of time. With their powerful composite bows they could fire armour-piercing arrows up to 500 metres.

With no means of paying his troops, Genghis quickly saw that the only way to maintain the loyalty of his fearsome generals was to keep on conquering. Only then would there be enough booty to go round. First to be hit were the rich Chinese kingdoms to the south of Mongolia. The pasty city boys were no match for the nomadic Mongols. With northern China his nominal vassal, Genghis turned his war machine, strengthened by Chinese siege and gunpowder technology, west: the combination proved unstoppable. One by one the great Muslim silk route cities of Asia fell to Genghis' armies. If any town resisted, the population would be put to the sword. Mass slaughters at cities such as Mery and Urgench, along with charming practices such as slaughtering peasants once they had brought the harvest in, earned the Mongols a deservedly bad reputation across Eurasia. By his death in 1227, Genghis' armies had defeated an alliance of Christian Russian princes to reach the grasslands of Hungary.

Today the Chinese revere him as the founder of the Yuan dynasty, whilst by many Mongolians he is considered to be semi-divine. To explore how a man credited with one of the fastest genocides in history is now worshipped in a huge mausoleum like a Buddha, Man tears about northern China and Mongolia exploring possible birth sites, possible death sites and possible burial sites and talking to those who are into Genghis' spiritual side. Inevitably the naff geography teacher comes back. Man is a sucker for some schmaltz and by the end of the book he is arguing that through 'the formation of study groups and peace institutes and pressure groups' Genghis Khan's life may teach people that 'all conflict should be resolved in peaceful discussion'. Maybe. But I get the impression that if the old scoundrel knew he was being touted as a 'spirit of universal harmony' he would be groaning in his yurt.