In the thirteenth- and fourteenth-centuries, the Mongols created the largest contiguous empire the world has ever known. In 1206 CE, Temüjin, an orphan and a former slave, united the many feuding clans which occupied the steppes to the north of China and took the title “Genghis khan.” Once this feat was accomplished he turned to military conquests abroad. The Mongols armies were spectacularly successful. Their soldiers, consisting only of cavalry, were fast, highly disciplined and well organized, and they wielded their bows and lances while still on horseback. Since most land between Europe and Asia was sparsely populated and quite unprotected, the Mongols quickly overran an enormous territory while most of the actual warfare consisted of sieges of towns. Once they had mastered the art of siege warfare, the cities too fell into their hands. But in addition the Mongols fought in the jungles of Southeast Asia, they built a navy, and tried to invade both Java and Japan. In 1241 they completely obliterated the European armies that had gathered against them and in 1258 they besieged, sacked and burned Baghdad. At the height of their power, the Mongols controlled an area which stretched from central Europe to the Pacific Ocean – northward to Siberia, eastward and southward into the Indian subcontinent, Indochina and Iran, and westwards as far as the Arabian peninsula and the coast of the Mediterranean. It was a territory about the size of the African continent, considerably larger than North America. Although the Mongols counted only about one million people at the time, the lands they once controlled comprise today a majority of the world’s population.
The Mongols were known as merciless warriors who destroyed the cities they captured, sparing no humans and occasionally killing also their cats and dogs. Yet apart from their military superiority, they had nothing much to impart to the rest of the world. The Mongols made no technological breakthroughs, founded no religions, built no buildings, and they had not even mastered simple techniques such as weaving, pottery or bread-making. Rather, by conquering such a vast territory, and by unifying it under the same administration, they managed to connect parts of the world which previously never had been connected, or not connected as closely and efficiently. The results were profound and revolutionary. Throughout the land the controlled, the Mongols guaranteed the security of travelers and they encouraged trade by reducing taxes and facilitating travel. During the so called Pax mongolica, the “Mongol peace,” exchanges along the caravan routes of Central Asia became more intense than ever before. This was when Persian businessmen would go to China on regular visits and when a diplomatic envoy from Mongol khan could visit Paris and take communion with the pope in Rome.
The Mongol empire lasted only some 150 years. The political structure began to crack already by the middle of the thirteenth-century and in the early fourteenth-century it was disintegrating. In 1368, the Mongols lost control over their most prized possession – China. One important reason was the perpetual infighting which took place among Genghis Khan’s descendants. When his grandchildren by the middle of the thirteenth-century were ready to take over the realm, the question of succession turned out to be impossible to settle. The outcome was a civil war which turned brothers against each other and eventually resulted in the division of the empire into four separate realms – the Golden Horde in Russia, the Ilkhanate in Persia, the Yuan dynasty in China, and the Chagatai khanate in the traditional heartlands of Mongolia. Although these entities were intimately related to each other in various ways, there were also constant conflicts between them. In addition, the Black Death, a contagious disease which spread quickly along the caravan routes in the fourteenth-century, decimated the population and made travel and exchange into deadly activities. At the end of the fourteenth-century, the Mongol empire was once again a small kingdom confined to the steppes north of China. Its last remnant was swallowed up by the Qing dynasty in 1635. Other vestiges of the Mongols and their descendants lived on, most successfully in the form of the Mughal empire in India, founded in 1526 by Babur who counted himself as a direct descendant of Genghis Khan. [Read more: “The Mughal empire”]
The boy who was to become Genghis Khan was born in 1162, not far from the current Mongolian capital of Ulaanbaatar. He was given the name Temüjin. As legend would have it, he was born with a clot of blood in his hand, a sign that he was to become a great conqueror. Like all Mongolian boys, Temüjin learned to ride a horse at a very early age, to tend the family’s animals and to hunt. His father was a chieftain, and well respected within the society of nomads, but there were many chieftains on the steppes. Indeed, the people we call the Mongols were only one of many nomadic tribes, and there were several others – Merkits, Naimans, Keraits, Tatars, Uyghurs and so on – and the Mongols were not even the largest group among them. Each tribe was divided into clans and lineages, and many of them were in perpetuals conflicts with each other – over grazing rights, horses, women and treasure. They traded with each other to be sure, but they also raided each other’s camps looking for women to take as wives and concubines or for children to capture and keep as domestic slaves. Indeed kidnapping was a common way to obtain a wife, especially for those who were too poor to be considered eligible husbands. Yet as a rule this constant, low-intensity, warfare did not result in many casualties. The object was to obtain productive resources, not to kill people or to conquer land.
Then disaster struck. Temüjin’s father was killed and the family was cast out by their clan who decided that they did not have enough food to feed them. Instead, at the age of only eight, Temüjin had to help his family to eke out a living gathering plants on the steppe and hunting in the forest. Remarkably the family survived, although their camp was raided and Temüjin taken prisoner and made into a slave. At the age of 17, he managed to escape his captors and marry a girl, Börte, to whom he had been engaged already while his father was alive. Yet Börte too was abducted by a rivaling tribe. This event, however, was to be the beginning of Temüjin’s career as a conqueror. Together with a small band of followers, he attacked the kidnappers and took back his wife. He meted out a terrible revenge – killing the men and by enslaving their women and children.
Temüjin’s skills as a raider soon attracted wider attention and before long he concluded a treaty with a one of the traditional chieftains which gave him access to a far larger contingent of men. This was the band of warriors which he went on to leverage into an ever-increasing force as every successful raid attracted ever more of a following. The people who were loyal to him, he treated as family members while those who crossed or betrayed him were given no mercy. In 1206, Temüjin called a kurultai, an assembly of the leading chieftains, where he was elected khagan, the khan of khans. He took the name “Genghis Khan.” There is no consensus on what “genghis” actually means and in any case the pronunciation, in Mongolian, is closer to “chinggis.” The people he united came to be called “Mongols” after the name of his own tribe. Genghis Khan was now the supreme leader of perhaps one million people and some 15 to 20 million horses, sheep and goats.
Once in power Genghis Khan put in place a legal and institutional framework which would help break the cycle of violence in Mongol society and prevent the kinds of events that had wreaked havoc in his own life. One aim was to abolish the traditional divisions into tribes, clans and lineages. Consequently Genghis Khan abolished aristocratic titles and promoted people according to merit. He was also keen to advance the careers of people from other tribes than his own – or indeed, once the foreign conquests had begun, of other people than Mongols. In fact, most members of his inner circle of advisers were not family members. Genghis Khan also decimalized the army, as it were. That is, he divided the men into groups of ten men – known as arban – drawn from different sections of Mongol society. Each arban was then ordered to live and fight together as loyally as brothers. From the point of view of the government each group of ten men were treated as families and thereby as the basic unit not only of military but also of social life. The ten-groups were then multiplied by 10 to produce groups of 100, 1,000 and 10,000 soldiers. A group of 10,000 men, that is, soldiers, was known as a tumen.
A new legal code, the yassa, was also established which turned a long range of actions into criminal offenses, in particular those which Genghis Khan knew to be a cause of conflict. Thus the abduction of wives, and the sale of women, were declared illegal together with the enslavement of fellow Mongols. Theft of cattle or horses became a capital crime and anyone who found a lost animal was obliged to return it or be condemned to death as a thief. There were further laws against raiding and looting and regulations for where and during which times of the year animals could be hunted. All children, moreover, were regarded as the legitimate offspring of their parents regardless of the circumstances under which they had been conceived and born – a provision which helped to recognize children born from mothers who had been taken away as slaves. Freedom of religion was also official recognized by the Mongol authorities. Although Genghis Khan himself was a Tengrist, there were Muslims, Christians and Buddhists among his subjects, and only complete freedom of religion could prevent conflicts among them. [Read more: “Tengrism“] The rules of the yassa code were enforced by trials which were held in public and all Mongols, including Genghis Khan himself, were in theory bound by the letters of the law. All important matters, including questions of succession and foreign policy, were to be discussed and decided on in a kurultai, the parliament of chieftains.
What more than anything brought the Mongols together, however, was the decision to embark on military conquests abroad. Foreign conquests directed their attention outward and united them against their common enemies. Yet in line with Mongol traditions these were not wars as much as raids, and the object was not to occupy land or kill enemies, but to loot – horses and slaves at first, and later grain, treasure and all kinds of productive resources. This more than anything was how Genghis Khan built support for his regime. Every city they captured was looted according to a set formula, with shares for everyone, from the 10 percent given to Genghis Khan and his family down to smaller shares for orphans and widows. Yet the expectations of the Mongol people multiplied over time and no one was ever quite satisfied with what they already had acquired. This is what set the Mongols on the path to loot the whole world.
To the south of the Mongols, between themselves and the Song dynasty in China, were a number of tribes who had managed to establish kingdoms of their own. The most successful of these were the Jürchen who had made war on the Song dynasty and forced them to move their capital to Hangzhou in the south of China. [Read more: “China and East Asia“]. Another neighbor were the Tanguts, a kingdom of Tibetan-speaking people, and the Khanate of Qara Khitai, a kingdom located further west on the steppes towards Russia. Genghis Khan took on these kingdoms and their armies one by one and before long he had defeated them all – the Tanguts in 1210, the Jürchen in 1214 and Qara Khitai in 1218. There were rich spoils of war to be had from these conquests, in particular from the Jürchen who controlled some of the trading routes which brought Chinese merchandise to Central Asia and beyond.
These military successes put the Mongols in contact with the Khwarazmian Empire in the far west. The Khwarazmians were the rulers of Persia, but also of present-day Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and much of Afghanistan. Yet the Khwarazmians were a city-based empire, not a band of nomads, and they laid claims to all the resources and the historical heritage of the Persian states of antiquity. From the Khwarazmian point of view, the Mongols were nothing but an annoyance and initially Genghis Khan was convinced that the Khwarazmians indeed were too powerful to attack. Instead he dispatched a diplomatic delegation to their court asking for the right to trade. When some of the envoys were killed and others were returned with their faces mutilated, Genghis Khan was outraged. He dispatched another delegation which was treated in much the same fashion. After this experience Genghis Khan he had no choice but to attack. And in 1220, after an exceptional ride through the Taklamakan desert, his mounted warriors descended on the city of Bukhara, in today’s Uzbekistan, and caught the Khwarazmians by surprise. Genghis Khan gathered the local potentates in the city’s biggest mosque and explained to them that he was God’s punishment for their sins. Then he killed them all and thoroughly looted the city. The neighboring city of Samarkand was captured in the same manner. As news of these spectacular attacks reached other parts of the empire, the Khwarazmians lost their self-confidence. Ghenghis Khan gave them an ultimatum – to surrender without a fight or to be annihilated. Within a year the entire empire was in his hands.
After this spectacular victory the Mongols were no longer simply a loose federation of horsemen but a proper empire in control of some of the richest cities in the world. They had possessions and thereby responsibilities. They were also suddenly a Middle Eastern power and before long they continued their raids with attacks on the Caucasus – Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan. Georgia, a Christian kingdom, was to become a particularly loyal ally. Once the Mongols had established themselves in the Caucasus, in turn, they came into contact with the Kievan Rus, the fledgling Russian state in present-day Ukraine. However, in 1227 an unexpected uprising among the Tanguts forced Genghis Khan to return home. This is also where he died, 65 years old, under rather mysterious circumstances. Some say that he was wounded in a battle, others that he fell off his horse, or perhaps that he was killed by a Tangut woman he had taken as a concubine. In any case, his body was buried in a grave without markings according to the customs of his tribe. By the time of his death the Mongols controlled the center of the entire Eurasian landmass – from the Pacific Ocean to the Black Sea. [Read more: “Genghis Khan in today’s Mongolia“]
The key to the military success of the Mongols was their extraordinary army which consisted entirely of cavalry – soldiers mounted on the backs of fast Mongolian horses. Although all men up to the age of 70 were conscripted, the army comprised no more than 100,000 men. Often they were divided into several armies that operated independently of each other. What they lacked in numbers, they made up for in terms of speed and mobility. For one thing, they had no supply train. Instead the soldiers carried strips of dried meat and curd with them in their saddle bags which they could eat while on the move. Each soldier had access to several horses which he could switch between. The horses would graze on the land which they covered and they could be eaten by the soldiers, milked, or tapped for blood to drink. Dead soldiers would simply be left to decompose where they fell or be picked at by wild animals, in accordance with Mongol custom. In addition the Mongols had no slow-moving engineering corps. Instead the engineers built what they needed – bridges or assault machines for attacking city walls – with the help of whatever material they found on the spot. The Mongol armies were used to fighting in winter when most other armies took time off and they could wade rivers at night. Their horsemanship was of course second to none. They had been on horseback since they were toddlers and Mongol warriors were particularly notorious for their ability to fire off arrows, or use their lances, while in full gallop towards an enemy. Their bows were so tightly strung that it took two men to do it.
Compared with the armies of agricultural empires, the Mongols used different battlefield tactics too. They fought sneakily, with no regard for chivalric conduct or fair play. A favorite ruse was to feign defeat and to beat a retreat. As the enemies pursued them, they would be ambushed and picked off one by one. Another ruse was to make an assault at night, and make fires which made the Mongol army look far larger than it really was. They would then proceed to attack from all directions at once. The Mongols were also notorious for using hostages as human shields by marching them in front of their own forces. Battlefield tactics such as these required discipline and a high level of coordination among the troops. These skills were initially honed during the hunts, known as the nerge. The Mongol chieftains would organize vast hunting parties, comprising thousands of participants, which encircled herds of deer and other prey, driving the animals before them as they gradually tightened the circle. As each man quickly learned, any failure of discipline and coordination allowed the prey to escape. On the battlefield these lessons were adapted to military use by commanders who relied on torches, whistling arrows and flags to direct their troops. The chief aim of the Mongol generals was to strike terror in their enemies. To loot a city in a spectacular manner was not only a way of getting one’s hands on treasure, but also, and above all, a way of sending a message to the people in the next town that all resistance was futile. By striking terror in their enemies, their will to resist was broken. However, in relation to the cities that surrendered peacefully the message was equally clear: as long as you behave yourselves, and faithfully pay a ten percent tax, your assets will be safe and your inhabitants protected.
After Genghis Khan’s death in 1227, his sons and grandsons continued these wars. [Read more: “Genghis Khan’s family tree“] In 1235, his son Ögedei, who replaced him, called in a kurultai to decide on the future direction of the conquests. After some debate it was decided to make a move on Russia and Europe. Subutai, the leading general, was the one who first discovered Europe in the 1220s. He had already tested the military capabilities of the Russians and found them wanting. When the new campaign began in 1236, he set his sight on the Volga river, inhabited by the Bulgars, and this was where a three-year long campaign began. The Mongols quickly discovered that the various Russian city-states were divided among themselves, and that they were only weakly defended. In accordance with their custom, they began by dispatching diplomatic envoys, asking the Russians to submit willingly. Only a few cities took up the offer, however, and those who did not were promptly attacked. Ryazan, 200 kilometers s outheast of Moscow, was first in line. In December, 1237, the city was thoroughly looted. From here the Mongols moved on to Kiev, the main city in Russia at the time; the city was captured in December, 1240. In the end only a few towns, such as Novgorod and Pskov in the north, survived the onslaught. One long-term consequence was that Kiev lost influence throughout Russia and that Moscow gained in prominence. The prince of Muscovy, who sided with the Mongols, acted as an intermediary between the foreign invaders and the various Russian leaders.
Now the Mongol armies suddenly found themselves on the doorstep of Europe. In the spring of 1241, in a two-pronged attack, they simultaneously moved into Poland in the north and Hungary in the south. The Europeans, like everyone else, were completely taken by surprised, but eventually a combined army of Czech, Polish and German knights was assembled. Two battles ensued – at Legnica in Poland on April 9, 1241, and at Mohi, Hungary, two days later. On both occasions, the European armies were destroyed. [Read more: “The Mongol invasion of Europe“] The Mongols continued swiftly across eastern Europe and into the lands of the Holy Roman Empire; meanwhile the scouts who preceded them came right up to the city walls of Vienna. This, however, was when news reached them from Mongolia that Ögedei Khan had died and that a kurultai was to be assembled to elect a new leader. Since Ögedei’s brothers all recently had died too – either in battle or under some distinctly suspicious circumstances – it was clear that the title of khagan this time would be given to one of Genghis Khan’s grandchildren. Since several of the potential candidates for the job were engaged in the European wars, they had to return home to fight for the position. Despite the brilliantly executed campaign and their decisive victories, the Mongols left Europe never again to return. Perhaps Europe was too far away, perhaps there was not sufficient forage for the horses, the forests were too dense, or perhaps there was simply not enough treasure to loot. [Read more: “Kalmykia – Europe’s only Buddhist republic“]
Yet the Mongols stayed on in Russia. Here they maintained a presence in the new capital they built for themselves on the Volga, named Sarai, which quickly became one of the largest cities in the world with some 600,000 inhabitants. This was where various Russian princes showed up to pledge allegiance to the foreign rulers and to receive their jarlig, a tablet which identified them as legitimate rulers recognized by the Mongol khan himself. In the latter part of the thirteenth-century, this Russian part of the Mongol empire known as “the Golden Horde,” came increasingly to assert its independence. As a result, the Golden Horde came into conflict not only with external enemies but also with other parts of the Mongol lands. But it would take until 1480 before the Russian princes finally assembled a united army that was strong enough to defeat them. Even then, however, instead of simply disappearing, the Golden Horde broke up into smaller units which took up their places among the other Russian city-states. In 1556, Sarai was conquered and burned, but the successor-states lived on, in particular the Mongol khanate on the Crimea peninsula which was annexed by the Russian state only in 1783. The last descendant of Genghis Khan to rule a country was Alim Khan, the emir of Bukhara. [Read more: “Alim Khan and Russian imperialism“]
Once the Mongol princes returned from Europe in 1241, a prolonged struggle ensued over succession which pitted Genghis Khan’s grandchildren against each other and which for a while resulted in an open war between them. During the coming decade, the Mongols were too occupied with this conflict to pay much attention to their empire. It was only with the election of Möngke Khan in 1251 that the foreign conquests resumed. This time around the first target were the Muslim caliphates in the Middle East. Although Persia had been conquered already by Genghis Khan himself, the Abbasid caliphate in Baghdad, despite its military weakness, had not been subject to sustained attacks. It was Hülëgü, Möngke’s brother, who was in command of these armies and in accordance with the traditions of Mongol diplomacy he began by dispatching envoys to Baghdad with a list of grievances and demands. In November 1257, after the caliph had refused to provide him with the answers he wanted, Hülëgü marched on the city. Baghdad was besieged and, once gunpowder had been used to undermine the walls, it surrendered. Baghdad was probably the richest city in the world at the time, and the loot lasted for a full seventeen days. In the end the caliph was rolled up in a carpet and trampled to death by horses. In the confusion the attackers set fire to the city. The destruction of Baghdad, 1258, is remembered to this day as the event which put an end to the Arab “golden age.” [Read more: “Arabian nights“]
Their presence in the Middle East put the Mongols in contact with the Mamluks in Cairo. The Mamluks were slaves in the service of the sultans and they were soldiers who in several respects resembled the Mongols themselves. [Read more: “A caliphal international system”] Many of them were descendants of nomadic tribes and they too were highly trained and disciplined. In September 1260, at Ain Jalut, in what today is Israel, the Mongols were defeated by the Mamluk army. Although they had lost battles before, the Mongols would always come back to avenge their losses and exact a terrible punishment on their enemies. Yet after Ain Jalut this did not happen and the Mongols never made it to Cairo. This victory, and the way Cairo was spared while both Baghdad and Damascus were looted, decisively transferred power within the Muslim world to the Mamluks. From the fourteenth-century onward it was Cairo that was the center of Muslim civilization. After the defeat at Ain Jalut it was clear that the enormous Mongol empire had found its westernmost frontiers. This in itself was a problem, however, since the success of the Mongol armies depended on constant expansion. There were now no more spoils to distribute.
Their presence in the Middle East also put the Mongols in contact with the Faranj, the “Franks,” known in Europe as “the Crusaders.” To the Europeans, the Mongols seemed at first to be heaven-sent. Any enemy of the Muslims, they argued, must be a friend of ours. According to one interpretation, common at the time, the Mongol forces were those of Prester John, a legendary Christian ruler who was said to have founded a mighty kingdom somewhere in the Far East. Even once they realized that this was not the case, however, the Crusaders remained keen to form an alliance with the Mongols since they were in a position to attack their Muslim enemies from the east. The Europeans started negotiations and several diplomatic missions were dispatched both by the Mongols and the Europeans. [Read more: “Rabban Bar Sauma, envoy to the pope“] Yet although Hülëgü’s armies invaded Syria several times, they never coordinated their attacks with the Crusaders in a meaningful fashion. In the end not only the Mongols but also the Faranj were defeated by the Mamluks.
Soon enough the Mongol armies who had conquered and sacked Baghdad came to think of themselves as a separate political entity, and their leader, Hülëgü, to think of himself not as a general or a governor working for the Great Khan in Mongolia but as a khan with a khanate of his own. This realm, made up of Persia and big chunks of Central Asia and the Middle East, came to be known as the “Ilkhanate,” or “subordinate khanate.” Much as the Arabs who had conquered these lands before them, the Ilkhanate khans and their courts came to be heavily influenced by the local, essentially Persian, culture. That is, in a radical transformation of their own ways of life, the Mongols got off their horses and settled down in cities. They also adopted Islam as the official religion of the state and the khans became great supporters of scholarship and the arts. The most celebrated example is the astronomical observatory at Maragheh which in addition to astronomers had mathematicians, philosophers and medical doctors in residence. Yet, and much as in the case of the Golden Horde in Russia, the Ilkhanate began to fall apart already in the first half of the fourteenth-century, and eventually it was broken up into a number of small successor states. The most famous successor was the state which Timur, or Tamerlane, in the fourteenth-century once again for a short while turned into an empire.
The only neighbors which the Mongols had not yet successfully attacked were the Chinese. This is surprising given both how relatively close China was to the Mongol heartlands and how singularly wealthy the country was. Although already Genghis Khan successfully had occupied the nomadic buffer states which were located between the Mongols and the Chinese, he made no sustained attacks on China itself. It was only once Möngke was elected khagan in 1251 that China came back into focus. China at this time was equivalent to the Song dynasty, 960–1279 CE. The Song is one of the most celebrated dynasties of China, responsible for economic prosperity, rapid technological advances, and some of the best ink paintings in the history of Chinese art. [Read more: “China and East Asia“] Militarily, however, they were weak and the Jürchen had already forced them to relocate their capital to the southern city of Hangzhou. Although this move surely constituted an embarrassment for them, the Song continued to thrive economically, and they still controlled some sixty percent of China’s population. Hangzhou, amazed visitors reported, had no fewer then 12,000 bridges across the canals of the city and the most beautiful women in the world.
Möngke Khan had picked his brother Kublai to be in charge of the invasion of China, but Kublai had no aptitude for war and besides he was far too fat to ride a horse. He moved only reluctantly against the Chinese, complemented by the generals who Möngke himself had dispatched to support him. The strategy was to attack the Song court in a diversionary pattern, starting with an invasion of Sichuan to the west and Yunnan to the south-west. If the Mongols gained control of these areas, went the plan, they could attack the Song from all sides at once. Yet the death of Möngke Khan in 1259, and the subsequent struggle over succession, meant that China once again became a less important concern. Although the wars eventually resumed, it took another twelve years before Kublai Khan could declare himself emperor of China, and another ten years after that before he decisively had defeated the last pockets of Song resistance. Eventually the last Song emperor, an 8-year-old boy, committed suicide together with his prime minister and 800 members of his family. From 1279 it was Kublai Khan who held the Mandate of Heaven as the leader of a new dynasty, the Yuan. In fact, Kublai was not only emperor of China but he continued to claim the title of khagan of all Mongols, although his right to this title always was disputed by other of Genghis Khan’s descendants.
While the attacks on China were taking place, the Mongols successfully invaded the Korean peninsula where the kings agreed to pay regular tributes. Kublai Khan also tried to invade Japan. He assembled an army of some 100,000 men for the purpose, but the ships which they constructed were not quite seaworthy and besides the invaders were unlucky with the weather. [Read more: “Kamikaze“] A first invasion in 1274 had to be aborted and a second invasion in 1281 failed miserably. Japan, as a result, was never occupied. Cut off from China by the presence of the Mongols, Japan came to depend on its own resources. Kublai Khan also tried to invade Java, in today’s Indonesia, and his armies conducted campaigns in Vietnam, Thailand and Burma. But the weather in Southeast Asia was hot and humid, the expeditions were hampered by disease, and in any case the tropical terrain and the thick jungles were not suitable for soldiers on horseback.
Kublai Khan’s favorite wife died in 1281, and his favorite son and chosen successor died in 1285. After that he grew increasingly despondent and withdrew from the daily business of government. He fell ill in 1293 and died himself in 1294. The last years of the Yuan dynasty were characterized by famines and distress among ordinary people. The reigns of the later Yuan emperors were short and marked by intrigues and rivalries. Uninterested in administration, they were separated both from the army and from people at large. The Yuan dynasty was eventually defeated by the Ming, a native Chinese dynasty, which replaced them in 1368. The Mongols retreated to Mongolia, forming what is known as the “Northern Yuan dynasty,” 1368–1691 CE, but they never rescinded their claims to the Chinese throne. They ruled Mongolia until 1635 when they were deposed by the Manchus, descendants of the Jürchen tribes which Genghis Khan had defeated so easily four hundred years earlier.
In the first part of the thirteenth-century, the Mongols invaded next to the entirety of the Eurasian landmass, yet already by mid-century their empire began to disintegrate. As long as Genghis Khan’s descendants could agree on the election of a khagan, the empire can be described as united, but after the death of Möngke Khan in 1259 no such consensus could be reached. Möngke’s brothers – Hülëgü, Kublai and Ariq Böke – began fighting with each other and the conflict soon escalated into a civil war – the Toluid Civil War, named after Tolui, their father – which resulted in four separate Mongol khanates being established: the Golden Horde in Russia, led by Batu Khan; the Ilkhanate in Persia, led by Hülegü Khan; the Chagatai Khanate, comprising the traditional heartland of the Mongols, led by Chagatai Khan; and the Yuan dynasty in China, led by Kublai Khan. As we saw, these entities had asserted their independence for some time already, and the outcome of the Toluid War only confirmed the situation on the ground. And yet, throughout these conflicts a number of communalities remained. If nothing else, they were united by personal ties and a shared commitment to a Mongol identity. The result is an international system with quite distinct characteristics. Perhaps we could talk about “the international system of the Mongol khanates.”
One distinct feature was the fact that Genghis Khan’s descendant had strong economic interests in the countries they ruled. The ten percent share they received of all loot soon came to constitute considerable economic assets. What they owned was not just treasure but productive resources as well – men, animals, fields, factories and ships. Before long they developed extensive personal stakes in the economic activities, and in the economic well-being, of the entirety of the Eurasian landmass. The khans, from this perspective, were more like leaders of a multinational corporation than leaders of armies or states. Yet this particular multinational cooperation was also a family business. At the kurultai not only military matters were discussed but also questions of how the family assets should be invested and managed. When the empire came to be divided into four separate realms, the economic stakes were impossible to divide in the same fashion since all khans maintained large assets – known as khubi, “shares” – in each other’s territories. Thus Hülëgü in the Ilkhanate owned twenty-five thousand households of silk workers in China which was ruled by his brother Kublai, but he also owned entire valleys in Tibet and had claims on furs and falcons from the steppes of the Golden Horde. He also had the title to pasture, horses and men in his native homeland of Mongolia. Such cross-cutting ownership was duplicated in the case of the other khans and their families, creating an intricate pattern of economic interdependence. This interdependence reduced the risk of war and helped restore peace if conflicts broke out.
Although the khanates became ever-more rooted in the societies they ruled, they did maintain a distinct Mongolian identity. Or at least, they made considerable efforts to do so. [Read more: “Tuvan throat singing“] This shared sense of descent helped integrate the khanates even as they increasingly asserted their independence. For example: they insisted on using Mongolian in communications with officials and adopted a version of the Uyghur alphabet in order to use the language in their official correspondence. Meanwhile knowledge of Mongolian was forbidden to non-Mongols – although the princes of Muscovy must have ignored the ban since speaking Mongolian became popular at their court. When Kublai Khan moved his capital to Beijing in 1264, he reserved a large area in the center of the city – corresponding roughly to what today is known as the “Forbidden Palace” – where he and his court set up their ger, their tents, which they continued to prefer to regular buildings. There were hills in this enclosure too and animals which members of the court could hunt in the traditional Mongolian fashion. [Read more: “How to make kumis“]
The key aspect of this identity were the experiences which all Mongols shared as nomads on the steppes of Central Asia. The logic of nomadic societies differs from the logic of sedentary societies in crucial respects. According to the Confucian rhetoric, farmers were considered the most important social class since they produced the food which fed all other social classes. Merchants, by contrast, were the least important since their labor contributed nothing which did not already exist. To the Mongols, however, this made no sense. As their own example clearly demonstrated, the farmers’ way of life was nowhere near as important as the Confucians pretended. It was obviously possible to feed a nation which did not farm or put stakes into the ground. Thus the Mongols demoted farmers to one of the lowest ranks in society, below prostitutes but above beggars.
They also thought of land quite differently. The Mongols were interested in booty but not in territorial acquisition. They would take what they could get their hands on and then move on. Since they never cared much about land, the Mongols never had to defend a fixed position. To them there was no military difference between attack and retreat; they were as happy to defeat an enemy who pursued them as they were to defeat an enemy when they themselves were on the attack. This is also why their empire left no monuments in the form of buildings. The Mongols did not build things since buildings cannot move. This applied even to their own capitals. During Genghis Khan the Mongols did not even have a proper capital. Instead Genghis would take his court and his advisers with him in a ger mounted on a cart which was pulled by a set of particularly strong horses. He toured the country, and the world, accompanied by his capital. It was only during Ögedei’s reign, in 1235, that Karakorum became more than a collection of tents, but even then the city was used mainly for storing the treasures that the soldiers brought back home. The Mongols left a very light footprint on the land they occupied and as a result there is not much left of the empire for us to see today. Even cities such Karakorum and Sarai have only left traces which you have to be an archaeologist in order to appreciate.
The only thing the Mongols built were bridges. Bridges were crucial in order to move armies and to give merchants free passage. The Mongols built them whenever they were needed. They were also experts at breaching walls. They recruited Chinese engineers who taught them how to construct siege engines. Before long they were able to build their own catapults, trebuchets and battering rams. Indeed, the Mongols made military innovations of their own – siege warfare being the only area in which the they made technological advances. Before the thirteenth-century the defenders had usually had the advantage during a siege, but after the Mongol invasions this was no longer the case.
The Mongols built bridges and breached walls also metaphorically speaking and thereby helped facilitate communication and interaction between all the corners of their far-flung empire. It was during the Pax mongolica that Europeans first acquired a taste for Asian luxury goods and that Chinese inventions first reached Europe. The most obvious part of this trade-friendly infrastructure was physical. Although the various routes which made up the “Silk Road” had been in place for a long time already, the Mongols radically improved them, making travel easier, safer and quicker. They referred to the system as örtöö, a network of interconnected relay stations, or caravanserai, where travelers could stop to rest and replenish their supplies, change horses, engage in trade or swap information and gossip. The relay stations were set approximately thirty kilometers apart and each station required about twenty-fine families to maintain and operate it. The network was used for government officials too and for communicating with generals and administrators throughout the empire. Important travelers would carry an imperial seal, known as a paiza – a small tablet made from gold, silver or wood – which assured them protection, accommodation and transportation but also exemption from local taxes and duties. The paiza worked as a combination of passport and credit card. [Read more: “Sogdian letters”]
In addition to the physical infrastructure, the Mongols provided legal and institutional infrastructure. One example is the standardization of weights and measures. By making sure that goods were weighed and measured in the same fashion throughout the empire, the Mongol authorities made it easier to compare prices. This too facilitated trade. Money was standardized in a similar fashion. In 1253 Möngke Khan created a department of monetary affairs which issued paper money of fixed denominations. This made it possible to pay taxes in cash instead of in kind. This vastly improved the state’s finances. Even time itself was standardized, or at least the days and months of the year. At observatories in both the Ilkhanate and in Mongol-run China, calendars were produced which showed the same astronomical data.
However, it was not only people and goods that traveled along the örtöö network but also disease. [Read more: “The Black death“] In the latter part of the fourteenth-century, the bubonic plague hit first China, then the Mongols, the Arabic world and finally Europe in a series of successive waves. It is estimated that some 75 million people died worldwide and that China lost between one-half and two-thirds of its population and Europe perhaps half. The disease had a profound and immediate impact on commerce and on the Mongol empire itself. Although contemporaries had no notion of epidemiology they understood that the disease was spread through contagion and that people who suddenly appeared in their midst from infected lands were potential carriers. As a result, people became suspicious of travelers, merchants, foreigners and mendicant monks. With a sharp reduction in trade, the complex örtöö network temporarily collapsed.
The Mongols have had a singularly bad press. They are known as bloody-thirsty barbarians who annihilated entire cities, killing all inhabitants together with their cats and dogs. And the Mongols did indeed use terror as a means of defeating their enemies, but it is not clear that their way of making war was substantially more cruel than that of other people at the time – or, indeed, more cruel than wars fought today. Another question concerns the long-term impact on the societies they invaded. In China, Russia and the Middle East, the Mongols have often been blamed for causing economic and cultural stagnation. Arab scholars have pointed to the destruction of Baghdad as the event that ended their “golden age” – right at the time when the revival of learning was making Europe increasingly dynamic. Chinese scholars have similarly faulted the Mongols for ending the Song dynasty – during which China came tantalizingly close to embarking on an industrial revolution of their own. Some Russian scholars, meanwhile, have blamed the Golden Horde for the fact that Russia never managed to keep up when the rest of Europe was modernizing. Yet apart from the direct destruction they wrought, it is not at all clear that the impact of the Mongols on the whole was negative. Indeed the opposite case can be made – that the Mongols spurred commerce and innovation by transmitting goods, services and new ideas. The exchange facilitated in this fashion had a civilizing impact even as it irrevocably destroyed the local culture. [Read more: “Lev Gumilev and Eurasianism“]
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