The Human Story – The Mongols

It is time to discuss the Mongols!

Now, you probably have a picture in your head of the Mongols as being brutal, blood-thirsty warriors, clad in furs and riding the Eurasian plains on horseback. In short, we imagine the Mongol Empire as stereotypically barbarous – and we are not entirely wrong to think this. The amazing speed and success of their ruthless conquests was truly breath-taking. They conquered more land territory in 25 shorts than the Romans did in 400 years! They controlled 11 million contiguous square miles of land and created nations like Russia and Korea. It has even been suggested that the Mongols smashed the feudal system and created an early form of international law.

Renowned for their religious tolerance of conquered peoples, the Mongols in this new and modern viewpoint created the first great trade zone, similar in many ways to a medieval Eurasian European Economic Area and that is not entirely wrong either.

The Great Khan

Do you remember the herders that we looked at earlier? We briefly discussed them as an alternative to agricultural societies or hunting and gathering. There are four key points to remember:

1) Nomads do not just go out on random road trips. They migrate according to Climate Conditions in order to feed their flocks.

2) Generally, they do not produce manufactured goods and for this reason they tend to live fairly nearby established settlements in order to trade.

3) Because they live close to nature and sometimes in harsh conditions, they have a tendency to be a rather hardy and tough bunch.

4) Pastoral people are also usually more egalitarian, especially where women are concerned. Paradoxically, when there is less to go around, humans tend to share more and both men and women must work for the social order to survive. More often than nought this leads to less patriarchal control over women. (although it is worth mentioning that Mongol women rarely went to war).

If you had to choose one pastoral, nomadic group to come out of central Asia to dominate medieval Eurasia it is unlikely that you would have chosen the Mongol people. For most of their history they had been living in the foothills which border the Siberian forests, mixing, herding and hunting. However, another way to look at it is that they were quietly getting expert at horse riding and archery. The Mongols were also much smaller than other Asiatic nomadic pastoral groups such as the Tatars or Uighurs.

The reason that the Mongols rose to a position of dominance is down to one man: Genghis Khan. It is time to delve into another episode of “Great Man History”.

The story goes that Genghis, or Chingis, Khan was born around 1162 to a lowly clan and named Temujin. His father was poisoned to death, leaving the young Temujin under the control of his older brothers, one of whom, Behter, he soon killed during a heated argument, over a fish that he had brought back and had snatched from him, whilst only 14 years old.


By the age of 19, Temujin was married to his first and most important wife, Börte, who was kidnapped (this was common practice amongst the Mongol people; Temujin’s own mother had, herself, also been kidnaped). In rescuing his bride, Temujin proved his military mettle and soon became a leader of his tribe. However, uniting the Mongol confederation would require a civil war which he won largely down to two innovations. Firstly, Temujin enacted a system of meritocracy, promoting people on merit as opposed to the traditional method of familial position. Secondly, he brought lower classes of conquered people into his own tribe whilst dispossessing the leaders of these conquered clans. Thus, the peasants loved him whilst the rich hated him but that did not really matter as they were no longer rich.

With these two building block policies, Temujin was able to win the loyalty of a growing number of people and in 1206 he was declared as the Great Khan: leader of all the Mongol people. This was done during a council called the Kurultai which was called by a prospective leader. During the Kurultai, anyone who supported the prospective leader’s candidacy for leadership would show up on their horses; and boy did Temujin, now styled as Genghis Khan, have a lot of men and horses show up to his Kurultai.

Once Genghis Khan had united the Mongol people he went on to conquer a vast swathe of territory. By the time that the Great Khan died in his sleep in 1227 his empire stretched from the Mongolian homeland all the way west to the Caspian Sea and east to the northern parts of the Korean peninsula.

The Massive (Fragmented) Empire

So, the Mongols had a fantastic looking empire, sure much of it was pastureland, mountains and desert but the Mongol armies did conquer a lot of people too. With the death of Genghis Khan the empire was really only getting started and his son Ogedei Khan expanded the Empire even further and Genghis’ grandson, Möngke was the Great Khan in 1258 when Baghdad, the fabulous capital city of the Abbasid Empire fell to the Mongol hordes. Another of Genghis’ grandsons, Kublai Khan, conquered the Song Dynasty in China in 1279, establishing the Yuan Dynasty which ruled China until it was ousted by the Ming Dynasty in 1368. If Mamluks had not stopped another of Genghis’ grandsons, Hulagu Khan, at the Battle of Ain Jalut in 1260 in southern Galilee then the Mongols probably would have taken the whole of North Africa too.

Unfortunately for the Mongol Empire its leaders were not always working in unison and although he may have been an incredible general Genghis Khan was not a great statesman and he failed to create one single political unit out of his vast empire. Instead, after his death the Mongols were left with four smaller empires called Khanates:


• Yuan Dynasty in China
• Ilkhanate in Persia
• Chagatai Khanate in Central Asia
• Khanate of the Golden Horde in Russia and Eastern Europe

If this seems a little familiar it is because this is what happened to the empire of another of history’s “Great Men”: Alexander the Great. Another great general who was not much for administration.

The Mongols were so successful primarily because of their military skills and Genghis Khan’s army, which never numbered more than 130,000, was built upon speed and archery. Compared to the foot soldiers and knights that they were up against, the Mongols were more like superfast modern mobile fighting vehicles, sniping their enemies from afar. So, the question begs: why did people not just hole up in castles and behind city walls when they knew the Mongols were approaching? Well, they did. However, the Mongols were incredibly adaptable and even though these nomadic peoples had never laid eyes upon a castle before they began invading foreign lands they soon became experts at siege warfare by interrogating prisoners and adapting gunpowder; most likely introducing it to the Europeans.


As testament to their flexibility, the Mongols, those warriors famed for their horseback blitzkrieg tactics, even built ships with which to attack the Japanese. It may have worked too if it had not been for typhoons, or the “Divine Winds” (Kamikaze). These Divine Winds, incredibly, saved Japan not once, but twice. The First Mongol invasion attempt of Japan was in 1274 and they made a second attempt in 1281. Both spectacular failures which eroded further Mongol naval ambitions.

The blood thirsty reputation of the Mongol armies preceded them, and it must have been a truly terrifying experience to learn that a Mongol army was bearing down on your city. Often, cities would surrender the moment that the Mongols arrived in an effort to avoid the slaughter that usually accompanied them. It is estimated that the Mongol invasions directly killed anywhere between 20 and 60 million people. The vast majority of these deaths were not of enemy warriors, but rather stem from the wholesale elimination of civilian populations. Hundreds of thousands would be executed in a single day and the Mongols did not stop at killing the people, but all the living creatures of a town or city that put up resistance, right down to the cats, dogs and livestock.

The Mongols: A Force for Good?

With this grisly background, let us return to the question of Mongol “excellence”. There are five reasonable arguments to suggest that the Mongols were a force for good in medieval Eaurasia:

1) The Mongols really did reinvigorate cross-Eurasian trade and the Silk Road trading routes that had existed for over 1,000 years by this point had fallen into disuse. The Mongols, however, really valued trade because they could tax it and they did a fantastic job of keeping their empire safe. It was said that a man could walk from one end of the Mongol Empire to the other with a gold plate upon his head without fear of being robbed.

2) The Mongols did a great job of increasing communication through Eurasia by developing a pony express-like system of way stations with horses and riders that could quickly relay information. They called this the Yam system and it also included bronze passports which helped facilitate travel.

3) It was not just goods that travelled along the Mongol trading routes, but also cuisine. For example, it was because of the Mongols that rice became a staple food of the Persian diet.

4) The Mongols forcibly relocated people that were useful to them, like artisans, musicians and administrators. The Mongols were not especially good at administrative tasks like keeping records, so they found people who were good at it and dispersed them throughout their empire. Although this one does not necessarily paint the Mongols in a great light, it had an interesting result: it led to cross-culture pollenisation that modern world historians love to talk and write about.

5) Finally, the Mongols were almost unprecedently tolerant of all religions. They themselves were Shamanistic, believing in nature spirits but since their religion was tied to the lands of their homelands they did not expect others to adopt it and they did not force them to. So, within the Mongol Empire, one could expect to find Buddhist, Jew, Muslim, Christian, Zoroastrian and people of any other religion prospering. It was this kind if openness that has led many historians to go back and re-evaluate the Mongols and view them as a pre-cursor to modernity.

Of course, there is another side to the story of the Mongol Empire too that we really should not forget. So, here are five reasons that the Mongols were not all that excellent:

1) Genghis Khan defined happiness in the following way: “The greatest happiness is to vanquish your enemies, to chase them before you, to rob them of their wealth, to see those dear to them bathed in tears, to clasp to your bosom their wives and daughters.” I am not so sure that you would find too many people nowadays that would find this level of brutality as pleasurable.


2) As an extension to the first point, Genghis Khan’s definition of happiness, the Mongols were seriously brutal conquerors who often destroyed entire cities and the estimated number of people that they killed is in the tens of millions.

3) Their Empire did not last long. Within only 80 years of conquering China they left and were replaced by the rival Ming Dynasty and in Persia they blended in so thoroughly that by the fifteenth century they were completely assimilated and unrecognisable from the local populace.

4) The Mongols were not particularly interested in artistic patronage and architecture and under their rule, the once great cities of Eurasia fell into ruin.

5) Although we viewed their opening of the trade routes as a positive earlier, it also most likely led to the Black Death. By opening up these trading routes they also opened up avenues for the disease to travel in the form of fleas that were infected with Yersinia Pestis and according to one story the Mongols even intentionally spread the plague by catapulting their plague-ridden cadavers over the walls of Kaffa in the Crimean peninsula. Whilst this primitive form of biological warfare may have happened, it is unlikely that it would have caused the spread of the disease. It is more likely that it was the fleas on the rats on the holds of ships that traded with Europeans… but that trade only existed because of the Mongols!

So the Mongols promoted trade, meritocracy, diversity and tolerance but they also promoted wholesale slaughter and senseless destruction. So, all in all, the Mongols probably were not that great after all!

The Rest is History

  1. The Wise Man’s Journey
  2. The Agricultural Revolution
  3. Early Settlement
  4. The Indus Valley Civilisation
  5. Mesopotamia
  6. Ancient Egypt
  7. West Vs East
  8. Hinduism, Buddhism & Ashoka the Great
  9. Ancient China
  10. Alexander…the Great?
  11. The Silk Road & Ancient Trade
  12. The Roman Republic. Or was it Empire?
  13. The Covenant & the Messiah
  14. Fall of the Roman Empire… Rise of the Byzantine Empire
  15. The Rise of Islam
  16. The Dark Ages
  17. The Cross and the Crescent – The Crusades
  18. Medieval Africa and Islam

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