The Mongol khanates

An international system of khanates

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 fall apart. 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 — Hülegü, 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 commonalities 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 descendants had strong economic interests in the countries they ruled. The 10 percent share they received of all loot soon came to constitute considerable economic assets. What they owned was not just treasure but productive resources — 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. 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 Hülegü in the Ilkhanate owned 25,000 households of silk workers in China which were 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. Such cross-cutting ownership was duplicated in the case of the other khans and their families, creating an intricate pattern of economic interdependence.

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. This shared sense of descent helped unite 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.

The key aspect of this identity was the experiences that 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 everyone else. 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 assumed. It was obviously possible to feed a nation that did not 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 really in territorial acquisitions. They would take what they could get their hands on and then move on. As a result, 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 one they themselves pursued. This is also why their empire left no monuments or buildings. During Genghis Khan’s reign, 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 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 home. The Mongols left a very light footprint on the land they occupied, we might say. Even a once large city such as Sarai in the Golden Horde has 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 building their own catapults, trebuchets, and battering rams — siege warfare being the only area in which 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 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 where travelers could stop to rest and replenish their supplies, change horses, engage in trade or swap information and gossip. The relay stations, or caravanserai, were set approximately thirty kilometers apart. To staff and maintain these stations was a way to pay one’s taxes and twenty-five families were responsible for each one. 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 duties. The paiza worked as a combination of a passport and a credit card.

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 easy to compare prices. Money was standardized too. In 1253 Möngke Khan created a department of monetary affairs that 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. 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 örtöö network temporarily collapsed.

The Mongols have had a singularly bad press. They are known as bloodthirsty 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 destructive than that of other people at the time — or, indeed, more destructive than wars fought today. Another question concerns the long-term impact they had 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 pivotal 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 its 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 encouraged commerce and innovation by transmitting goods, services, and new ideas to every corner of the enormous Eurasian landmass. The exchange facilitated in this fashion had a civilizing impact even as it undermined or destroyed the local culture.

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