The Mongol khanates

A nomadic state

Once in power Genghis Khan put in place a legal and institutional framework that 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 people other than Mongols. Genghis Khan also decimalized the army, as it were. That is, he divided the men into groups of ten — 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 was treated as a family and thereby as the basic unit not only of military but also of social life. The ten-groups were then multiplied by ten 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 criminalized a number of actions, 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 — a provision which helped to recognize children born from mothers who had been taken away as slaves. Freedom of religion was also officially recognized by the Mongol authorities. Although Genghis Khan himself was a Tengrist, there were Muslims, Christians, and Buddhists among his subjects. Only complete freedom of religion could prevent conflicts among them. The rules of the yassa code were enforced by trials which were held in public and all Mongols, including Genghis Khan himself, were 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. In line with Mongol traditions, these were not wars as much as raids, and the object was, initially at least, 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 himself. 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 was the Jurchen who had made war on the Song dynasty and forced them to move their capital to Hangzhou in the south of China. Other neighbors 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 Jurchen in 1214 and Qara Khitai in 1218. There were rich spoils of war to be had from these conquests, in particular from the Jurchen 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 state, 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 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 fashion. As news of these spectacular attacks reached other parts of the empire, the Khwarazmians lost their self-confidence. Genghis 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 in the Caucasus. 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, sixty-five 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.

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