Despite his extraordinary success as a conqueror, the turn of the 15th-century Turco-Mongol leader Tamerlane (or more appropriately Timur or Temür—the English derives from the Persian Temür-i lang, or “Timur the lame”) is usually considered something of an also-ran to the original Mongol empire’s founder Genghis (Chinggis) Khan. But ’twas not always thus: several centuries ago, it was Tamerlane, not his predecessor, that figured in Western culture and thought: a late 16th century play by Christopher Marlowe, Tamberlaine the Great; an opera Tamerlano by George Frideric Handel from 1724; the protagonist in Antonio Vivaldi’s 1735 opera Bajazet. The latter is based on the event that gave Timur much of his currency in the West: his defeat of the Ottoman Sultan Bayezid at Ankara in 1402, which arguably postponed the fall of Constantinople by several decades if not a full half-century. But then Timur fades.

Genghis Khan established the greatest land empire ever known. His heirs saw to it that his accomplishments be remembered in a number of now classic works, like the Secret Histories of the Mongols, the Compendium of Histories by Rashiduddin, and Juvayni’s History of the World Conqueror. But souvenirs of Genghis Khan also survived in folk tales of the Tatar peoples, where they were transformed for cultural and political purposes, as shown in Mária Ivanics’s masterful editing of The Činggis Legend. 

It’s amazing that art historians like Robert Hillenbrand got to study the “Great Mongol Shahnama” at all. 500 pages of Firahdosi’s epic poem, with 300 illustrations, in a manuscript whose leaves are as wide as an ordinary person’s arms. Never completed, never bound, smuggled out of Iran by corrupt dignitaries, and separated and padded out by an unsavory Belgian art dealer.

Sex in the Land of Genghis Khan is a title and subject guaranteed to elicit curiosity. Mongols have not had the kind of study lavished on medieval, premodern, and modern European sex lives. This is the first sustained look at Mongol and Mongolian sexuality through history: a short, accessible but serious book, with a strong throughline and a sense of historical movement—in directions people might not expect.

“Great” is a word that comes easily to mind while handling this book. The author and publishers were apparently determined to make readers appreciate the greatness of this 14th-century version of the Iranian national epic. Included in the more than 500 pages are nearly 300 unique illustrations (more, including close ups) reproduced in actual or larger than actual size, taking advantage of the book’s large format, one foot wide and more than a foot high. The quality of the reproductions are excellent, bringing to life the gold, lapis lazuli and vermilion lavishly employed by the master painters.

The Precious Summary: A History of the Mongols from Chinggis Khan to the Qing Dynasty, Sagang Sechen, Johan Elverskog (trans) (Columbia University Press, March 2023)
The Precious Summary: A History of the Mongols from Chinggis Khan to the Qing Dynasty, Sagang Sechen, Johan Elverskog (trans) (Columbia University Press, March 2023)

The Mongols, their khans, and the empire they built and ruled in the 13th and 14th centuries exert an enduring fascination. Caricatured as a marauding horde that ravaged surrounding peoples, in reality the Mongols created institutions, trading networks, economic systems, and intellectual and technological exchanges that shaped the early modern world. However, the centuries after the waning of Mongol power remain overlooked in comparison to the days of Chinggis Khan.

The tradition of great oral epics survived on the Inner Asian steppe perhaps as long as any other place on earth. At the dawn of the 20th century scholars managed to record bards singing stories that might have been five centuries or more in the retelling, embellishment and polishing. Jangar is one such epic, belonging to the Kalmyk people, once the left wing of Genghis Khan’s armies, now a minority people in the Russian Federation. Russian-educated Kalmyks collected these tales, and their work somehow survived the Russian Civil War and Stalin’s ferocious persecution of the Kalmyks and their literature. Translated into English for the first time by Saglar Bougdaeva, non-Russian, non-Kalmyk readers can now appreciate these tales.