The Question: One thing is certain: human beings are resilient creatures. Put us in a harsh environment and we will find a way to make it our own. I would argue that adoption and adaptation are second only to invention in the gifts that have allowed us to become the apex species in the world. No matter where we find ourselves, we eke out every environmental advantage we can. With our gifts for invention and for civilization – the societal and governmental agreement held between us – itself an invention, we rise to the challenge. We survive. But sometimes, in the face of extreme adversity, against all odds, we thrive.
There are examples littered throughout history and across the globe, many still existing today, of societies that have survived harsh environments. The native peoples of the arctic regions of the United States, Canada, and Greenland – the Inuit – have lived among the icy extremes of the far North and continue on to this day. Across the ocean the native peoples of Scandinavia and Russia – the Sami – created a lasting society mostly based around the herding reindeer amid the frozen landscape of their end of the far North. Nestled in the Fertile Crescent, many of the preeminent civilizations of the ages flourished, from the Phoenicians to the Egyptians, spreading scientific understanding across the continent to Roman-Greco Europe and beyond. But I want to bring attention to two cultures in this piece, because I think the creation of anything truly great is born of the seeds of the truly difficult.
The Inca and the Mongols. These two great civilizations were chosen for specific reasons. They were both empires. They both originated in incredibly demanding terrains. And they both had brilliant leaders that took their people to the big time. The timing, the conditions, and the leaders coalesced against all odds to form some of the greatest examples of human perseverance and ambition in all of recorded history.
So I ask the question: what are the conditions that give birth to greatness?
The Where: Mongolia is not for the faint of heart. To the South lies the Gobi Desert, while the North and West are cold and mountainous. Much of Mongolia is steppes – vast, flat expanses where not even trees will grow, and there is no hiding from the cold and the wind. Forested land comprises 11% of the country, but in a place that spans 603,909 sq mi, the 19th largest country in the world today, that is small comfort. The summers are short and hot, with most of the annual rainfall occurring then. The winters are long, with average temperatures in January plummeting as low as -22 degrees fahrenheit. Winter is also visited by the Siberian Anticyclone, which influences the entire country. It is an arid, cold place, where the wind carries and amplifies the cold, unimpeded by the empty steppes. It is a hard place that makes hard people. Food and resources are scarce. The Mongols couldn’t be picky about their food, indeed some of their conquests were so horrified at their cuisine that they mistook it for cannibalism. It was here, forged in some of the strictest living conditions of the age, that Genghis Khan would be molded into a conqueror.
The Where: Cusco. A city-state sitting atop the Andes Mountains at 10,800 feet, in what is now Peru. The Andes Mountains are the longest mountain range in the entire world,,stretching 4,300 miles, with a wildly diverse climate and ecology throughout. The average height of their peaks is 13,000 feet. (A whole host of altitude related illnesses can occur over 8,000 feet.) Food was an issue for the people of Cusco as well. They were wearied of fighting for food when PachaCuti would come to power. They subsisted on many things that today’s Westerner’s would find unwholesome today, including guinea pigs, algae, and insects. What would come to be the Inca weren’t picky about what they ate, in a place as demanding as the Andes Mountains you did what you had to to keep up your endurance.
The When: Genghis Khan wasted no time in consolidating power among the Mongols, rising from a youth of abject poverty and hardship, given the name of a defeated chieftain of his father’s, he would take his Mongols, and the title of Genghis Khan, which essentially meant “universal ruler”, and carve his name into history. By the time he was thirty he had already made a name for himself. During his lifetime he would create an empire that would come to span nearly 13 million square miles and comprise roughly a quarter of the world’s population by the time the empire was fractured by infighting among his grandchildren. His empire would come to be one of the swiftest and most savage rises to power in all of history, beginning with his official ruler of the Mongols in 1206 AD through to about 1300 AD. By this time his grandson and disputed heir, Kublai Khan, would be dead, and infighting over succession between him and Genghis’s other grandchildren would fracture the empire, costing it its seat as the preeminent world power of the time.
The When: The legendary figure Manco Capac is believed to have founded the city-state of Cusco around 1200 AD, which would become the capital and genesis of the Inca people and empire. At the same time Genghis was just solidifying his rule, unknown to the Inca, across world. By the time Pachacuti rose to power in 1438 AD, the Mongolian Empire would be divided between its successors. He was given the title of Sapa Inca, which meant “the only Inca”, and was considered the child of the sun. He took his city-state and within three generations (as with the Mongols) turned it into an empire that spanned the length of the continent of South America. It would end with the death of his grandson Atahualpa in 1533 AD. There was conquest and fighting to be sure, but the Inca were forward thinking, and their imperial expansion was build on what can be considered a socialist regime. Food was the source of fighting between the people of Cusco and their neighbors, and they would assimilate people largely through providing them with food, healthcare, and and public services. They won their enemies over more often than they won over their enemies. It was a remarkably modernized government for the time, with a huge amount of bureaucrats per population. Their strong federalist government and welfare system created a huge empire that stretched a length as great as today’s United States and held as many as 37 million people, according to some historians. The Inca road system that spanned 25,000 square miles and provided access to roughly 1,200,000 square miles of territory, transported trade, people, and most importantly food, throughout the empire, while their Quallqas, food storehouses that lined the great road system, ensured that in times of need the Incan people would never go hungry, and what once had been the cause of wars, became a source of abundance for the people living there.
The How: Genghis Khan is a figure still shrouded in mystery today. We know much of what the man did, but not of who he was. But maybe that mystery makes his unrivaled success all the greater. Figures like Julius Caesar and Alexander the Great were born to wealth and plenty. They had already had the infrastructures in place that would cement their names in history. Genghis Khan took everything he had, nothing was given. He was unapologetically vicious about this and his Mongols’ effectiveness and ferocity in battle is the stuff of legend, even today. He and his successors defeated some of the most well-established and sophisticated armies of their age with little more than military brilliance and veteran soldiers born of the unforgiving Steppes. They were a force honed into a blade by their environment and then honed to a razor’s edge by a genius. They are proof of what you can achieve with unflinching violence.
The How: Pachacuti wasn’t like Genghis Khan, while the great Khan had been born of noble birth, he had little of the trappings expected of it. Pachacuti was the successor of a dynasty. But what makes him great is what he accomplished with what he had to work with. He didn’t command a huge fighting force, he didn’t have the brilliant generals under him as Genghis Khan did. By all historical accounts, what little there are, he was a highly intelligent man, with a highly bureaucratic and administrative mind. This would show in the form his empire took and his preferred path to expansion. He was also said to be a charismatic military leader and avid student of the human mind, taking an interest both in psychology and philosophy. But ultimately, we know more of the man’s deeds than the man. He was the counter-image to the Khan, using what can be argued as loftier ideals, and a vision far more pacifistic than his time should have allowed, and far more visionary than he could know, to literally cut an empire out of the hard rock of the Andes Mountains.
The Impact: Genghis Khan conquered more territory and brought together more people than any of his contemporaries. He brought under his rule, however violently won, an empire that was strictly disciplined and organized. He created a mail system, encouraged education, was tolerant of religions at a time when Europeans were waging the Crusades. He cared nothing for rank or race, elevating his greatest generals from peasantry and scouring his conquered peoples for their greatest minds. However harshly enforced, he was a forward thinking man and one of the greatest minds of the ages, with a powerful personality that was revered long before his fame carried his name across the lands. He connected two worlds through his invasion into Europe, a historical meeting of cultures that has had consequences that reverberate even today. He and his successors did all of this in the span of just 100 years.
The Impact: The Sapa Inca, Pachacuti, was a singular mind in history. He found a way to use effective government for the people in such a way that was groundbreaking. Pachacuti proved to any historians or politicians that would care to look today, that socialism and conscientious ruling can be far more beneficial than self-serving policies, that you can be granted far more by giving than by taking. Some of the highest ranking countries in the world today in terms of overall happiness, healthcare, and education, prove that the ideas he put forth can and do work fantastically well. He was a visionary that, with his descendants, created 25,000 miles of roads that connected what amounted to city-states, into an empire that was like none other in the entirety of the western world, a feat all the more awe-inspiring when you realize it was done in the greatest mountain range the Americas had to offer. Compare this feat to that of the roads built by the Romans, a project that spanned the better part of a thousand years and it becomes scarcely imaginable. Like the Khan, he would achieve this along with his successors in the span of just 100 years.
These two men proved that in the face of unrivaled adversity, we are capable of so much more than we allow ourselves to believe in this day and age. Maybe their tales hold some insight, some answers, to the questions that our leaders today should be asking themselves.