History of International Relations Textbook

The Mongol khanates

The Silk Road was not actually a road, but rather a network of inter-connected trade routes running across the steppes and deserts of Central Asia. The routes connected China with India, India with Persia and the Middle East. During the Pax Mongolica, the “Mongol peace” during the thirteenth century, Europe was part of this network too and many exotic goods from Asia were imported. A few Europeans even made the long journey to Asia [Read more: Did Marco Polo Go to China?] and so did the occasional Arab adventurer [Read more: Ibn Battuta, the Greatest Traveler of All Time]. But the first trade routes crossing the Asian landmass were established far earlier, already in the first centuries BCE. A community of traders known as Sogdians took a lead in developing the trade. [Read more: Sogdian Letters]

It was never only silk that was traded here but all kinds of luxury goods, and new ideas and religions too. The Silk Road spread Greek culture from Bactria, and it was along the Silk Road that Buddhist monks left India and traveled to China, and Christian missionaries used it in the 13th century when going to China. It was along the Silk Road that the bubonic plague [Read more: The Black Plague] spread from Asia to the Middle East and Europe.  And yet it can be argued that the trade by sea across the Indian Ocean always was far more important than the rather limited trade across Asia itself. After the Europeans had found a way around Africa in 1498, all trade was conducted by sea, and yet the trade routes continued to be important in Asia itself and only ceased to operate as a network in the early 18th century.

“Silk Road,” the term itself, was invented by the German adventurer Ferdinand von Richthofen who traveled in China between 1868 and 1872. The Silk Road was also the name of a book by the Swedish adventurer Sven Hedin, published in 1938. In the minds of Europeans the name conjures up assorted exotic images which have been exploited by countless TV documentaries and books.

Kalmykia is a republic in the Russian Federation, located just north of the Caucasus and south of the Volga river, between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. The Kalmykian republic has just under 300,000 inhabitants and it is the only place in Europe where a majority of the population are practicing Buddhists. The Kalmyks were nomads who arrived here from Dzungaria, in today’s Xinjiang, in the seventeenth-century, most probably in search of better pasture for their animals. [Box: Khotan to the Khotanese!] Their language is closely related to the language still spoken by the Oirat people in China. In their new location, the Kalmyks became nominally the subjects of the czar, and they were supposed to protect Russia’s southern borders, but in practice Kalmykia constituted its own khanate. The Kalmyks always kept in close contact with their kinsmen in Xinjiang and also with the Dalai Lama in Tibet.

In the eighteenth-century the Russian empire asserted itself in Central Asia — settling Russian farmers here and trying to control the Kalmyks politically. In a desperate move, a large portion of the population decided to return to Dzungaria, but many were killed on the way. In the civil war which followed the Russian Revolution in 1917, the Kalmyks sided with the White armies. And this too turned out to be a terrible mistake. When the Bolsheviks won, many Kalmyks were forced to flee. Some went to Belgrade in Serbia where they established Europe’s first Buddhist temple in 1929 and others went to the United States.

In the 1930s the Kalmyks were forced to join collective farms, Buddhist monasteries were closed, and those who owned the largest herds were labeled “enemies of the people” and deported to Siberia. In 1932 and 1933 alone some 60,000 Kalmyks died. During the Second World War, Kalmykia was invaded by the Germans. In 1943 Stalin declared the Kalmyk people collectively guilty of cooperation with the enemy and they were all deported to various locations in Siberia and Central Asia. In 1957, after the death of Stalin they were allowed to return but would often find that their land had been taken by Russians. Badly planned and badly executed attempts by the Soviet authorities to irrigate the steppe turned grazing land into desert.

Today some 60 percent of the population of the Kalmyk Republic are ethnic Kalmyks, while 30 percent are Russian. The proportion of Russians has been going down since the fall of Communism, above all since the Kalmyks have far higher birthrates. There are still Kalmyks who live as nomads on the steppe. In 1991 the Dalai Lama visited the republic.

Fermented mare’s milk, milk from female horses, is the traditional drink of choice for people on the steppes of Central Asia, including the Mongols. The Mongols call it airag but it is commonly known as kumis, its Turkish name. Kumis is slightly alcoholic but not very much so — only 2-3 percent. Traditionally, the milk was fermented in bags made from horse-hide which were strapped to a saddle and jogged around in order to prevent coagulation. After a day on horseback, it was ready to drink. Often a container was hung by the door to a ger, a Mongol tent, where visitors could give it a good punch as they walked by thus achieving the same effect. In industrial production today, the drink ferments at 27 degrees Celsius and is ready in about five hours.

Kumis is usually drunk chilled and it is traditionally sipped out of a small, handle-less, bowl or saucer known as a piyala. It is a common drink to serve visitors to a ger.

Kumis remains popular on the steppes of Central Asia to this day, but since mare’s milk is a comparatively rare commodity the drink is now usually made from cow’s milk. Yet the two products are not the same. Mare’s milk has more lactose and far more sugar than cow’s milk, but less fat and protein. Due to it’s high lactose content, drinking unfermented milk can give a lactose-intolerant person servere stomach pains. During the fermentation process, however, the lactose breaks down. To come closer to the original flavor, sugar and modified whey are often added in industrial production. The flavor of commercially sold kumis varies considerably from one product to the next. The Japanese drink known as “Calpis” is perhaps the most successful kumis version.

Milking a horse is more difficult than a cow and it yields far less. The mares cannot be milked continuously but only during parts of the year, basically for a few months after the foals are born. A mare typically produces between 1,000 and 1,200 liters of milk during one season.

The Greek historian Herodotus, fifth century BCE, describes mare-milking among the Scythians, and the friar William of Rubruck who visited the Mongols in the thirteenth-century gave an account of kumis drinking. “It is pungent on the tongue,” said Rubruck, “and when a man has finished drinking, it leaves a taste of milk of almonds on the tongue, and it makes the inner man most joyful and also intoxicates weak heads, and greatly provokes urine.”

Kumis drinking caught on as a health fad in the decades before the First World War, in particular in Russia. The Russian composer Alexander Scriabin was prescribed the drink to help his nervous condition, and the athors Leo Tolstoy and Anton Chekhov both tried the “kumis cure.” Chekhov gained considerably in weight during the treatment but his tuberculosis did not improve.

The Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek is named after the paddle used to churn the mare’s milk during the process of fermentation.

Nestorius, the fifth-century patriarch of Constantinople who was condemned as a heretic by the council of Ephesus in 431. among the Assyrian beliefs that Rubruck held to be heretical was that the virgin Mary was the mother of Christ, but not the mother of god. They also differed from Catholics in their steadfast refusal to portray Christ on the cross as a violation of the Mongol taboos on depicting death or blood.

Rabban Bar Sauma, 1220-1294, was a Nestorian monk turned diplomat. Born near present-day Beijing, and apparently of Turkic Uyghur origin. He is known for embarking on a pilgrimage from Mongol controlled China to Jerusalem, accompanied by Rabban Markos, one of his students. Due to military unrest, they never reached Jerusalem but spent instead several years in Baghdad which was controlled by the Mongols. Rabban Bar Sauma was later sent on diplomatic missions from the Mongols to Europe, where he met with the pope and sought an alliance with France. Retiring to Baghdad he wrote stories of his travels, providing a unique account of Europe at the close of the crusading period. In 1287, he embarked on his journey to Europe, bearing gifts and letters from Arghun Khan to the Byzantine emperor, the pope, and European kings. He followed the embassy of Isa Kelemechi, sent by Arghun Khan to Pope Honorius IV in 1285. He traveled with a large retinue of assistants, and 30 riding animals. He had interpreters with him, including Tommaso d’Anfossi, a member of a Genoese banking family. Bar Sauma himself spoke Chinese, Turkish and Persian. He traveled to the Black Sea and then took a boat to Constantinople, where he had an audience with Andronicus II Palaeologus. He provides a very enthusiastic account of Hagia Sophia. Next he went to Italy by boat. He went past Sicily where he witnessed and recorded the great eruption on June 18, 1287. He went on to Rome, but too late to meet Pope Honorius IV, who just had died. Instead he entered negotiations with the cardinals and visited St. Peter’s. He then went to Tuscany, the republic of Genoa and onto Paris. In France he spent one month with king Philip the Fair who responded favorably to the arrival of the Mongol mission, gave him presents and ordered an nobleman, Gobert de Helleville, to accompany him back to Mongolia. In Gascony, in France, which at the time was in English hands, he met with Edward I, the English king. He too responded enthusiastically regarding a military alliance, but was not able to provide troops due to conflicts with the Welsh and the Scots at home. Returning to Rome, Bar Sauma was received by the newly elected pope, Nicholas IV, who gave him communion on Palm Sunday, 1288, and gave him various gifts. He then returned to Baghdad in 1288, with gifts and messages from various European kings. The delivered letters were answered by Arghun in 1289, and forwarded by the Genoese merchants Buscarello de Ghizolfi who was working as a diplomatic agent for the Ilkhanate. After his embassy to Europe, Bar Sauma lived out the rest of his life in Baghdad where he wrote the story of his travels. He died in Baghdad in 1294.

In March 1245, the pope sent an emissary, the Franciscan John of Plano Carpini, to the “Emperor of the Tartars.” In a letter referred to as Cum non solum, the pope expressed a desire for peace, and asked the Mongol ruler to become a Christian and to stop killing Christians. However, Güyük Khan replied only with a demand for the submission of the pope, and a visit from the rulers of the west with tribute.

A second mission sent in 1245 by pope Innocent was led by the Dominican Ascelin of Lombardia, who met with the Mongol commander Baiju near the Caspian Sea in 1247. Baiju, who had plans to capture Baghdad, welcomed the possibility of an alliance and sent a message to Rome via his envoys. They returned a year later with Pope Innocent’s letter, Viam agnoscere veritatis, in which he appealed to the Mongols to “cease their menaces.” On April 10, 1862, the Mongol leader Hülëgü sent through John the Hungarian a new letter to king Louis IX of France, again offering an alliance. The letter explained that previously, the Mongols had been under the impression that the pope was the leader of the Christians, but now they realized that the true power rested with the French monarchy. The letter mentioned Hülëgü’s intention to capture Jerusalem for the benefit of the pope, and asked Louis to send a fleet against Egypt. Hülëgü promised the restoration of Jerusalem to the Christians, but he also still insisted on Mongol sovereignty, in the Mongol’s quest for conquering the world. It is unclear whether or not King Louis IX actually received the letter, but at some point it was transmitted to Pope Urban, who answered in a similar way as his predecessors. In his papal bull, Exultavit cor nostrum, Urban congratulated Hülëgü on his expression of goodwill towards the Christian faith, and encouraged him to convert to Christianity.

Güyük Khan’s response: “You should say with a sincere heart: ‘I will submit and serve you.’ Thou thyself, at the head of all the Princes, come at once to serve and wait upon us! At that time I shall recognize your submission. If you do not observe God’s command, and if you ignore my command, I shall know you as my enemy.”

Giovanni of Plano Carpini, a sixty-five year old cleric, who had been one of the disciples of Saint Francis of Assisi, arrived as the agent and spy for the pope Innocent IV, commissioned to find out as much as possible about these strange people who had threatened Europe. Because of the success of their military campaign in Europe, the Mongols eagerly received Carpini in the mistaken belief that he was bringing the submission of the pope and all the people of western Europe, but his letter carried quite a different message. Pope Innocent IV offered the khan a pedantic synopsis of the life of Jesus and the main tenets of Christianity, all of which was probably well known to the khan through his Christian mother and his frequent attendance of religious services with her. Güyük was likely a Christian himself; if not, he was certainly well disposed towards Christianity and relied heavily on Christian Mongols in his administration. The pope’s letter chastised the Mongols for invading Europe, ordering the khan to “desist entirely from assaults of this kind and especially from the persecution of Christians.” He demanded an explanation from the khan “to make fully known to us … what moved you to destroy other nations and what your intentions are for the future.” The letter informed the khan that god had delegated all earthly power to the pope in Rome, who was the only person authorized by God to speak for Him.

After the Mongol officials found out that Carpini brought no tribute and offered no submission, they mostly ignored him, but in a letter of November 1246 that still survives, Güyük asked Innocent IV the obvious question: how do you know whom god absolves an to whom he shows mercy? How do you know that god sanctions the words you speak? Güyük pointed out that god had given the Mongols, not the pope, control of the world from the rising to the setting sun. god intended for the Mongols to spread his commandments and his laws through Genghis Khan’s Great Law. He then advised the pope to come to Karakorum with all of his princes in order to pay homage to the Mongol Khan.

Rabban made his way to the court of Edward, king of England, the most distant point on his journey. He delivered letters and gifts to each monarch along the route, and he stayed in each court for a few weeks or months before moving on to the next. He used his time sightseeing and meeting with scholars, politicains, and church officials to tell them about the great khan and the Mongols, his subordinate the ilkhan, and their burning desire for peaceful relations with the world. On his way back through Rome, pope Nicholas IV invited rabban to celebrate mass in his lnguage; and then, on palm Sunday 1288, the pope celebrated mass and personally gave communion to the Mongol envoy.

Muhammed Alim Khan, 1880-1944 CE, was the last emir of the Manghud dynasty who ruled the emirate of Bukhara, in today’s Uzbekistan. (See the photo above) The Manghuds considered themselves the direct descendants of Genghis Khan via Nogai Khan, Genghis’ great-great-grandson who was a leader of the Golden Horde. Once the Mongols had been ousted from Russia itself, the Nogai Horde, as it was known, retreated to two main areas, one north of the Black Sea and the other north of the Caspian Sea. From here they conducted raids on Russian territory, absconding with young boys who they sold to the Ottomans in Constantinople as soldiers. The Nogais, that is, were in charge of supplying the Ottomans with janissaries. [read more: The Janissaries and Turkish music]

Little by little, however, the Nogais were pushed south and eastwards by Russian settlers and by the advancing Russian army. In the end they came to inhabit an area in Central Asia known as Transoxania, with Bukhara and Samarkand as its two main cities. Here the Manghud family established themselves as emirs in 1785, but the Russians eventually caught up with them here too and in 1868 they occupied and annexed much of the emirate. The remainder became a Russian protectorate in which the emirs retained full power only over domestic matters. The emirate of Bukhara displayed a multicultural mix of peoples, including Uzbeks, Tajiks and Jews, and the capital became home to prominent poets, calligraphers and scholars. (See the photos below)

At the age of thirteen, Muhammed Alim Khan was sent by his father to Saint Petersburg to study government and modern military techniques. He returned home in 1896 and was appointed governor of one of the emirate’s provinces. In 1910, on his father’s death, he replaced him as emir. Muhammed Alim Khan started out as a modernizing ruler with an ambition to combat corruption but he soon realized that any lasting reforms were bound to make his own position more precarious. He was challenged by modernizers – “Young Bukhara” – who sought more far-reaching change. After the Russian revolution in 1917, these radicals called on the Soviet state to help them and in September 1920 the Red Army intervened and established a “Bukharan People’s Soviet Republic.” Muhammed Alim Khan took refuge in Afghanistan and this is where he died in 1944. He had a son who turned on his father and joined the Red Army. He also had a daughter who first worked for Radio Kabul and, when the Russians in 1979 invaded also Afghanistan, emigrated to the United States and continued to work as a journalist for Voice of America. Muhammed Alim Khan was the only Manghud ruler to add the title of “caliph” to his name and he was the last direct descendant of Genghis Khan to serve as the ruler of a state.

The photo of Muhammed Alim Khan above was taken by the Russian chemist and photographer Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky, 1863-1944 CE. This too is a remarkable story. Prokudin-Gorsky was one of the first Russians to experiment with color photography, having learned the technique from Adolf Miethe in Berlin in 1902. After a successful demonstration before the tsar and his family in 1909, Prokudin-Gorsky was given the official commission to travel around the Russian empire and document its many wonders on color plates. He was given a refitted railway car to use as a lab and until the eve of the revolution he produced up to 10,000 photographs. It was during these travels that he visited Bukhara and took the photo of the emir.

After the Russian revolution, Prokudin-Gorsky was appointed professor by the new regime but he preferred to emigrate to Paris where he opened a photographic studio which he ran together with his children. He died in 1944, the same year as Muhammed Alim Khan. The photographic plates which had been gathering mold in the basement of his Parisian apartment house were sold to the Library of Congress in Washington D.C. in 1948. The collection contains close to 2,000 negatives and is now in the process of being digitalized and put on-line. See link to the right.


The Mongol empire at its height spanned much of the Eurasian continent but it was not the creation of only one man. When Genghis Khan died in 1227, the Mongols had not yet arrived in Europe, not taken Persia, the Middle East, and not yet occupied China. These conquests were for Genghis Khan’s successors, his sons and grandsons, to complete. Family trees are always complicated, and difficult to remember. This is what Genghis Khan’s family tree looks like.

These are the main protagonists:

Börte, 1161-1230, Temujin’s  wife and grand empress of the empire.  The couple was married when Temujin was 17. Soon after that Börte was abducted by a neighboring tribe, but Temujin recaptured her and this event is often cited as the beginning of his career as a conqueror. Börte was not Temujin’s only wife, but the couple seem to have had very fond feelings for each other. She was his trusted advisor with responsibility for her own territory.

Börte gave birth to four sons:

Jochi, 1181-1227. May not have been Temujin’s son since he was born soon after Börte’s return to her husband, but Temujin always treated him as his own first son. He was not, however, accepted by his brothers as the legitimate successor to their father. When Genghis Khan divided his empire Jochi got the western-most part, a territory which later came to constitute the Golden Horde, in today’s Russia.

Chagatai, 1183-1242. Was the leading critic of Jochi and was considered hotheaded by his brothers. He inherited the Central Asian parts of the empire from his father. Later known as the Chagatai Khanate. He was very fond of airag [Read more: How to Make Kumis]

Ögedei, 1186-1241, was the third son and successor to Genghis Khan, as a compromise solution instead of picking Jochi or Chagatai. He expanded the empire into the Middle East and attacked the Jin dynasty and moved into Korea. It was during his reign that the Mongols expanded into Europe.

Tolui, 1192-1232, was the youngest of Genghis Khan’s sons, and inherited the traditional Mongol heartlands from his father. His descendants ruled Mongolia until 1691.

Tolui had four sons who played a prominent role in Mongol politics and territorial expansion, but there were intense rivalries and occasionally wars between them.

Möngke, 1218-1265, occupied much of Western Asia, including Persia, and was responsible for the sacking of Baghdad in 1258, but his forces also lost an important battle at Ain Jalut, 1260, against the forces of the Mamluk rulers of Egypt. His part of the empire became later known as the Ilkhanate, located, roughly, in today’s Iran.

Kublai, 1215-1294, was in conflict with his brothers and fought a war against Ariq Böke, 1260-1264, after which the empire began to fall apart. Kublai was the Mongol ruler who eventually overran China in 1271 and founded the Yuan dynasty which was to last until 1368 when it was overrun by the Ming. He moved his captial to Beijing.

Hulagu, 1218-1265, occupied much of Western Asia, including Persia, and was responsible for the sacking of Baghdad in 1258, but his forces also lost an important battle at Ain Jalut, 1260, against the forces of the Mamuluk rulers of Egypt. His part of the empire became later known as the Ilkhanate, located, roughly, in today’s Iran.

Ariq Böke, 1219-1266. was the youngest son of Tolui. After the death of Möngke in 1260, he claimed the throne but was defeated by his brothers. He was eventually imprisoned by Kublai and when he died, only 45 years old, rumors had it he was poisoned. He represented traditional Mongolian values in opposition to the softer, more Chinese, lifestyle preferred by Kublai.


In 1271, the merchants Niccolò and Maffeo Polo left their native city of Venice and set sail for the east. Niccolò and Maffeo had already done business in Constantinople and in the Crimea, and they had already visited the lands of the Mongols, both in Persia and in China. In fact, when they returned to Europe in 1269 they carried a message from Kublai Khan to the pope in Rome, together with a request that they bring back some oil from the lamp that was burning in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. Having delivered the letter, and fetched the oil, they were now on their way back to the lands of the East. They had a paiza with them, a small tablet in gold, which gave them free passage, lodgings and horses throughout Mongol lands. With them as they left Venice was also Niccolò’s son, Marco, who was 17 years old at the time. After a journey which took them to Armenia and along the caravan trails of Central Asia, they eventually reached Kublai Khan’s capital at Shangdu in 1275.

Marco Polo was to find particular favor with the Great Khan who made him a courtier and an official. Marco learned to speak Mongolian together with several other languages and he traveled around the vast empire visiting lands which no European previously had seen. His account of the splendors of the khan’s palace is particularly famous, together with his description of Kinsay, the city of Hangzhou in the south, with its 12,000 bridges, wide roads and magnificent architecture. Although Marco Polo was trusted by the khan, he was not free to return to Europe, and it was only when an imperial princess was to be escorted to the Ilkhanate in Persia that he saw an opportunity to escape. The Polos returned to Europe in 1295, twenty-four years after they originally had set sail. The Polos came back to Venice as wealthy men and the stories Marco told of his adventures amazed everyone who heard them. He was known as Il milione, referring to the millions of marvelous tales he would tell his astonished European audience.

Although the story of Marco Polo’s adventures in the East is well-known, the documentary evidence in its support is surprisingly shaky. Polo himself never wrote anything down but the account of his travels was instead compiled by Rustichello da Pisa, an Italian author previously known for his romances about chivalric knights. The two men met when they were taken prisoners during the war which Venice fought with Genoa in the last years of the thirteenth-century. Although Rustichello’s text exists in some 150 different hand-copied versions, there is no known original manuscript and we are not even sure in which language the text originally was written. The problem is that the existing versions different considerably from each other, with later editions providing far more elaborate descriptions than earlier ones. A manuscript from Toledo from the middle of the fifteenth-century is, for example, half again as long as earlier versions. This has led some scholars to suggest that instead of being the account of one man’s travels, the story should be seen as a compilation of many different sources.

Some have even argued that Marco Polo never actually visited China. It is striking, for example, how he never mentions Chinese customs such as foot-binding or tea-drinking, and it is strange that his place-names consistently are given in Persian rather than in Mongol or Chinese. It is also peculiar that no items from Mongolia or China were found in his possession at the time of his death. This is not, however, a reason to dismiss the text as such. Despite omissions and mistakes, the book contains many details which we know from other sources to be correct. The book is valuable not least since its relative lack of moralistic judgments contrasts favorably with accounts of China left by the missionaries dispatched by the Church. Marco Polo’s book – or the book associated with a person by that name – had a tremendous impact on European readers, stirring up elaborate fantasies of the exotic East. The most famous reader was perhaps Christopher Columbus who had his own copy of the book – on which he had scribbled extensive handwritten notes in the margins (see the picture above).