Q & A With Professor David O. Morgan, The Mongols and Post Mongol Asia
The latest issue of the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society is a special double issue which honours the contribution Professor David O’ Morgan has made over many years to the understanding of the Mongols and their fascinating story. We took some time out with Professor Morgan for a Q & A session shortly before he attended the launch event for the special issue hosted by the Royal Asiatic Society.
What or who first attracted you to study the Mongol empire?
When I was 14, a friend lent me Michael Prawdin’s The Mongol Empire: Its Rise and Legacy (1940). There was little else available at the time, and it certainly got me interested, along with looking at a map of the Mongol Empire and wondering why no one seemed to know anything about what seemed to be the largest land empire known to history. Then it turned out that my school library possessed a copy of the great Victorian 4-volume work on the Mongols by Sir Henry Howorth. So I went on from there, and acquired Boyle’s translation (1958) of Juvaini’s History of the World Conqueror, one of the most important Persian sources, as a school prize.
How has the field of Mongols evolved over the last fifty years?
There has been a vast increase in specialised research on a wide variety of subjects. The Mongols are no longer seen as a purely military and indeed destructive phenomenon – though the military side has been more carefully explored, e.g. in recent work by Timothy May, to show how careful attention was paid to organisation, intelligence, logistics etc. The Mongols conquests are no longer presented as those of undisciplined hordes. But the most conspicuous development has been in looking at what happened after the initial conquests, destructive as they undoubtedly were. What has been revealed is that there were important and previously unsuspected positive aspects to Mongol rule, notably an enormous and very significant amount of cross-cultural transfer across Eurasia, which was encouraged, not merely tolerated, by the Mongols. This is associated with a number of innovative scholars, most notably Thomas Allsen, two of whose books on the subject were published in the Cambridge Studies in Islamic Civilization series. The second, Culture and Conquest in Mongol Eurasia (2001) is in my judgement the most signifcant book on the subject to be published since I read Prawdin more than half a century ago.
Over your long career you’ve written many books. Which of all those books was the most satisfying to write?
I think my book The Mongols (1986; 2nd edition 2007). This evolved out of a course I taught at SOAS, jointly with a colleague who was a historian of China. When he moved to the USA, I found I couldn’t face teaching the course solo, so I decided to write it down instead. Effectively, then, it had been tried out in advance on several generations of rather alert students, so I think I had some idea of how to present the subject effectively and accessibly. And I had a surprising amount of fan mail after the book was published, including a letter from a Liverpool docker. I reckoned that if I was writing something that would interest a wide range of readers, not just academics and students, I might perhaps be doing something useful.
During the 1980s and 1990s you were editor of the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society (JRAS). What did you set out to do during your editorship of the JRAS and what advice do you have for the current and future editors?
Before the time of my predecessor as Editor, Professor Charles Beckingham (who very deliberately arranged for me to succeed him), JRAS had tended to become something of an antiquarian journal. Some liked this: I didn’t. The scholarship represented in the articles was generally sound, but in the case of many of them, it didn’t seem to me to lead to anywhere very interesting or significant. So, with the help of others at the Royal Asiatic Society (RAS), notably Peter Collin, who was himself a publisher, I decided to move the Journal, which was produced in house at the RAS, to an established major publisher (which turned out to be CUP). My criterion for accepting articles was to ask, after reading them, “so what?”, i.e. that it was necessary, if an article were to be accepted, that it would point to further research, wider implications than just itself, etc.
I would be very hesitant about offering advice to my excellent successor, Sarah Ansari, who has, I think very usefully, broadened the kind of journal that JRAS is by not invariably sticking to the established pattern of disparate articles and book reviews – e.g. in using it as a vehicle for a Festschrift! (so far as I can make out, this had not been done since 1970, when the honorand was Sir Mortimer Wheeler).
What do you think are the most exciting currents in Islamic history today?
Essentially, Islamic history has been professionalised. When I arrived at SOAS as a PhD student in 1970, a high proportion of the standard works on Islamic history were by non-historians – amateurs so far as history was concerned: they were the work of, e.g., literary scholars. All credit to them – if they hadn’t done it, who would have? But much of it struck me, coming from taking a degree in English and European history at Oxford, as rather inferior. I attended Bernard Lewis’s undergraduate lectures on the Caliphate, which were far superior to anything that could then have been read in a book. This is no longer the case. The best published work on Islamic history is now certainly on a level with the best in any other historical field. Areas is which this is particularly true would include, in my opinion, early Islam, the Seljuks (the first ever serious work of synthesis on them, by Andrew Peacock, was published in 2015), the Timurids, the Safavid period in Persia – and of course the Mongol period! Much of this was usefully encapsulated in the six volumes of the New Cambridge History of Islam (2010), of which the overall editor was Professor Michael Cook, by any standards one of today’s leading scholars of Islamic history.
If you could travel back in time to one particular period in the Mongol Empire, what would that be and why?
I’m a historian, not a time traveller! I’ve always thought that 1945 was a good year in which to be born, provided you took the precaution of being born in Western Europe or North America!
What advice would you give to younger self?
Learn more languages! I was never very good at any of them, but I did the then usual languages at school (French, German, Latin, Greek), and I subsequently learnt Persian and some Arabic. But for study of the Mongol Empire, I really needed Chinese, Mongolian, various varieties of Turkish, etc. etc.
What do you plan to do in your retirement?
The last comprehensive survey of the Mongol period in Persian history was Bertold Spuler’s Die Mongolen in Iran, first published in 1939. I am hoping to have a try at writing such a survey – I have indeed written some of it; and the chapter on the subject I’m currently writing for the Cambridge History of the Mongol Empire will form a basis for it.