In the aftermath of a clash in Turkistan in 1221, a woman held captive by Mongol soldiers admitted she had swallowed her pearls to safeguard them. She was immediately executed and eviscerated. When pearls were indeed recovered, Genghis Khan “ordered that they open the bellies of the slain” on the battlefield to look for more. [p23] Such was the consequence of pearls for the Mongol Empire.

As this review goes to press (5-12-21), the value of a single Bitcoin is about $56,000 U.S. dollars—dwarfing the price for an ounce of gold at a mere $1830—an astonishing number for a popular cybercurrency that few even accept for payment. Those ridiculing the rise of Bitcoin dismiss it as imaginary currency. But aren’t all currencies imaginary? The paper a dollar is printed on certainly is not worth much, but it can be exchanged for a buck because that United States government says so, subject to inflation of course. All else rises and falls on a market that declares a value, which varies from day-to-day. Then why, you might ask, in the rational world of the twenty-first century, are functionally worthless shiny objects like gold and diamonds (for non-industrial applications) worth anything at all? It’s a good question, but hardly a new one—long before the days of Jericho and Troy people have attached value to the pretty but otherwise useless. Circa 4200 BCE, spondylus shells were money of a sort in both Old Europe and the faraway Andes. Remarkably, cowries once served as the chief economic mechanism in the African slave trade; for centuries human beings were bought and sold as chattel in exchange for shells that once housed sea snails!

The point is that even the most frivolous item can be deemed of great worth if enough agree that it is valuable. With that in mind, it is hardly shocking to learn that pearls were treasured above all else by the Mongols during their heady days of empire. It may nevertheless seem surprising that this phenomenon would be worthy of a book-length treatment, but acclaimed educator, author and historian Thomas T. Allsen makes a convincing case that it does in his final book prior to his passing in 2019, The Steppe and the Sea: Pearls in the Mongol Empire, which will likely remain the definitive work on this subject for some time to come.

The oversize footprint of the Mongols and their significance to global human history has been vast if too often underemphasized, a casualty of the Eurocentric focus on so-called “Western Civilization.” Originally nomads that roamed the steppe, by the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries the transcontinental Mongol Empire formed the largest contiguous land empire in history, stretching from Eastern Europe to the Sea of Japan, encompassing parts or all of China, Southeast Asia, the Iranian plateau, and the Indian subcontinent. Ruthlessly effective warriors, numerous kingdoms tumbled before the fierce onslaughts that marked their famously brutal trails of conquest. Less well-known, as Allsen reveals, was their devotion to plunder, conducted with both a ferocious appetite and perhaps the greatest degree of organization ever seen in the sacking of cities. No spoils were prized more than pearls, acquired from looted state treasuries as well as individuals such as that random unfortunate who was sliced open at Genghis Khan’s command. Pearls were more than simply booty; the Mongols were obsessed with them.

This is a story that turns out to be as fascinating as it is unexpected. The author’s approach is highly original, cogently marrying economics to political culture and state-building without losing sight of his central theme. In a well-written if decidedly academic narrative, Allsen focuses on the Mongol passion for pearls as symbols of wealth and status to explore a variety of related topics. One of the most entertaining examines the Yuan court, where pearls were the central element for wardrobe and fashion, and rank rigidly determined if and how these could be displayed. At the very top tier, naturally, was the emperor and his several wives, who were spectacularly identifiable in their extravagant ornamentation. The emperor’s consorts wore earrings of “matched tear-shaped pearls” said to be the size of hazelnuts, or alternately, pendant earrings with as many as sixty-five matched pearls attached to each pendant! More flamboyant was their elaborate headgear, notably the tall, unwieldy boot-shaped headdress called a boghta that was decorated with plumes and gems and—of course—many more pearls! [p52-53]

Beyond the spotlight on court life, the author widens his lens to explore broader arenas. The Mongols may have been the most fanatical about acquiring pearls, but they certainly were not the first to value them, nor the last; pearls remain among the “shiny objects” with no real function beyond adornment that command high prices to this day. Allsen provides a highly engaging short course for the reader as to where pearls come from and why the calcium carbonate that forms a gemstone in one oyster is—based upon shape, size, luster, and color—prized more than another. This is especially important because of the very paradox the book’s title underscores: it is remarkable that products from the sea became the most prized possession for a people of the steppe! There is also a compelling discussion of the transition from conquering nomad warrior to settled overlord that offers a studied debate on whether the “self-indulgent” habit of coveting consumer goods such as “fine textiles, precious metals, and gems, especially pearls” was the result of being corrupted by the sedentary “civilized” they subjected, or if such cravings were born in a more distant past. [p61]

While I enjoyed The Steppe and the Sea, especially the first half, which concludes with the disintegration of the Mongol Empire, this book is not for everyone. Academic writing imposes a certain stylistic rigidity that suits the scholarly audience it is intended for, but that tends to create barriers for the general reader. In this case accessibility is further diminished by Allsen’s translation of Mongolian proper names into ones likely unfamiliar to those outside of his field: Genghis Khan is accurately rendered as Chinggis Qan, and Kubalai Khan as Qubilai Qan, but this causes confusion that might have been mitigated by a parenthetical reference to the more common name. And the second part of the book, “Comparisons and Influence,” which looks beyond the Mongol realm, is slow going. It seemed like a better tactic might have been to incorporate much of it into the previous narrative, strengthening connections and contrasts while improving readability. On the plus side, sound historical maps are included that proved a critical reference throughout the read.

The Mongol Empire is ancient history, but these days a wild pearl of high quality could still be worth as much as $100,000, although most range in price from $300 to $1500. It seems like civilization is still pretty immature when it comes to shiny objects. On the other hand, this morning, an ounce of palladium—a precious metal valued for its use in catalytic converters and multi-layer ceramic capacitors rather than jewelry—was priced at almost $3000, some 62% more than an ounce of gold! So maybe there is hope for us, after all. I wish Dr. Allsen was still alive so I could reach out via email and find out his thoughts on the subject. Since that is impossible, I can only urge you to read his final book and consider how little human appetites have changed throughout the ages.