Friday, June 25, 2010

Graveyard of Empires?

The term is applied to Afghanistan because western powers—the British, the Soviets, and now the Americans—have found it difficult to overcome. By a rather convoluted route that began with thinking of “Alph the sacred river” of Coleridge fame, I came across an empire that evidently had had no problem mastering the region. The empire? The Mongol Empire of Kublai Khan. Here is a fascinating map of the region as of 1280 (courtesy of Wikipedia). I note that at its greatest extent, circa 1241, it covered the place of Brigitte's birth in Poland and my birth in Budapest and extended eastward all the way to the Korean peninsula. This was the extension of Ghengis Khan’s realm by his grandchild the Kublai Khan (1215-1294), founder of the Yuan Dynasty in China. It was a simpler world then, one supposes. Here was a man who managed to rule over Russia and China at the same time, the tip of his boot well inside Europe, with ports that could simultaneously access the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans. The image of the Mongols as wild men riding horses and staying briefly before retiring to ferment mare’s milk in yurts needs a corrective it seems to me. Coleridge tried: “In Xanadu did Kubla Khan a stately pleasure dome decree: where Alph the sacred river ran, through caverns measureless to man, down to a sunless sea…”


  1. What was the estimated population? What brought this empire to its knees? Did the beginning of the fall not come from the south eastern corner...

  2. Michelle: The Mongolian Empire had 100 million inhabitants at its greatest extent. If we start with Ghengis Khan’s completed conquests, the empire lasted 162 years, but weakened and then recovered and then weakened again along the way. It was built up originally by the unification of Mongol tribal areas. The first weaknesses were shown when tribal leaders again reasserted their independence, beginning in the north, with the region occupied by the Great White Horde. Loosening and tightening of control cycled throughout the history of this empire, it ceased to exist as a centrally coordinated realm with the end of the Yuan Dynasty (which Kublai Khan had founded) in 1368. Afghanistan played no more of a role in this Empire’s march to the grave than did Marco Polo’s visit…

  3. And a P.S., Michelle:

    The Journey to Ixtlan is like a visit to Xanadu, sailing down Alph, the sacred river...

  4. So, it's only modern empires that have had such troubles in what is now Afghanistan...

    This post caused me to look up the Coleridge poem from which you cite a line. What a pleasure to read that again. Thanks!


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