The Mongols and Where They Came from

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The Mongols were a nomadic group that originated in Central Asia, now Mongolia. They are traditionally characterized as amazing horsemen and conquerors and are credited with forming the largest empire to date. This empire lasted from 1206-1368 and was spear-headed by their leader Genghis Khan. Khan rose from humble beginnings and untied the nomadic tribes together to form one union.

Genghis Khan’s early years were not the best. His father stole his mother and forced her into marriage. At that time the nomadic tribes on the central Asian Steppe were constantly fighting and stealing form each other. He grew up in a very violent and unpredictable atmosphere. When he was ten his father was poisoned by an enemy clan. He succeeded his father’s title of chieftain, (the leader of a clan), however the tribe had a hard time listening to him because he was so young, so his family was forced to flee the area and fend for themselves in the wilderness on the Steppes. 

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By the time he became a young adult Khan had grown into a feared warrior and a charismatic figure. He was a champion for gathering followers and establishing alliances with other Mongol leaders. He set out to unite the Mongols after his defeat of a rival tribe that had kidnapped his wife. This defeat helped him to realize that he was a force to be reckoned with and he could conquer any tribe by force. He organized a military force composed of neighboring clans and tribes.

“Genghis Khan had been a reject among his people and had been persecuted by rival lineages. When he achieved power, he established the rule of law, which applied equally to everyone, and to himself. This policy allowed him to amalgamate the various defeated clans into one nation, while destroying the traditional power of the ‘white-bone’ lineages that had oppressed the people.”

The Embassy of Mongolia characterizes Mongolia as a country of people originally formulated by a large number of ethnicities that formed confederations from time to time that eventually rose to prominence. In 1206 Genghis Khan founded the largest empire in history, the Mongol Empire. They ultimately split into four separate groups after his death, but the empire grew rapidly under his rule and that of his descendants, who sent out invading armies in every direction. “The Mongol Empire’s territory extended from present-day Poland in the west to the Korean peninsula in the east, from Siberia in the north to the Arab peninsula and Vietnam in the south, covering approximately 33 million square kilometers.” At its peak, it covered some 9 million square miles (23 million square km) of territory, making it the largest contiguous land empire in world history.

Under Genghis Khan the Mongols were known for destructive warfare but simultaneously praised for their uncanny way of promoting peace. It is said that he is the second famous person second to Christ. He is credited with conquering Russia, this is important because neither Napoleon or Hitler was able to execute this feat. So, the question is, what made the Mongol troops so successful? Answer, they were leaps ahead when it came to military technology and they were blessed with quick and mobile archers.

“With one stroke a world which billowed with fertility was laid desolate, and the regions thereof became a desert, and the greater part of the living, dead, and their skin and bones crumbling dust, and the mighty were humbled and immersed in the calamities of perdition.’ They built a reputation from this unmentionable violence. The Mongols were obsessed with numbers due to their traditions as nomads. They would much rather have a town surrender under their “surrender or die” policy as opposed to having to fight. As a result of this, many of the surrendered troops were rewarded with relatively good treatment. During the time of these conquests Genghis Khan was remembered for three important attributes; a brilliant organizer, a gifted strategist and cruel. “First, he was a brilliant organizer. 

He assembled his Mongol warriors into a mighty fighting force. Second, Genghis was a gifted strategist. He used various tricks to confuse his enemy. Sometimes, a small Mongol cavalry unit would attack, then pretend to gallop away in flight. The enemy usually gave chase. Then the rest of the Mongol army would appear suddenly and slaughter the surprised enemy forces. Finally, Genghis Khan used cruelty as a weapon. He believed in terrifying his enemies into surrender. If a city refused to open its gates to him, he might kill the entire population when he finally captured the place.” The Mongols did not harm any of the troops that chose to surrender without resistance. There are no signs that Genghis favored cruelty. Everything he did had a purpose.

“Historians have learned that Mongols were not merely ruthless slaughterers, but a progressive nation which contributed to the overall development of Western culture.” Genghis Khan and his successors were motivated by his mission to rule the world. This ideological imperialism had no foundation in nomadic society. “At the time, Mongolia’s nomadic farmers relied on the land to sustain them. Their flocks of goats, sheep, horses, and other animals were dependent on abundant grass and water, and Mongols had to travel frequently to sustain them.” Genghis often admired other cultures and used them to benefit his own ambitions so the “one world, one ruler” ideology most likely originated from the Chinese.

“The creation of nomad empires in the steppes and the attempts to extend their rule over the more settled parts of central Asia and finally over the whole known world may also have been influenced by the desire to control the routes of intercontinental land trade. The desire for plunder also cannot be ignored, and it was certainly not by accident that the first attacks by nomad federations were usually directed against those states which benefited from the control of trade routes in central Asia such as the famous Silk Road.”2 The Silk road was a great trade route originating from Chang’an in the east and ending in the Mediterranean linking China with the Roman Empire. It was named the Silk Road in 1877 because silk was heavily traded on this route.

The Mongol Empire is comparable in size to present day Africa. This transcontinental empire essentially connected the East to the West allowing the distribution and exchange of trade, technologies, commodities and ideologies across Eurasia. Many were slaughtered during the thirteenth century and some have assessed that the Mongol attacks…“killed more people than any other war, where up to 5% of the planet may have been killed during the invasions” but this destruction give way to a number of new developments that fundamentally changed the course of history for Europe and Asia.

Both overland and maritime trade flourished. The Mongols welcomed foreigners who included Russians, Arabs, Jews, Genoese and Venetians.” Amongst these foreigners was Marco Polo. He was a Venetian traveler that is believed to have traveled across Asia at the height of the Mongol Emperor. He eventually became a tax collector in the court of Kublai Khan, Genghis Khan’s grandson. Polo was often sent out on official business by Khan; he was once sent to Jerusalem to pick up holy oil and on his way back he picked up gifts and papal documents.

The Mongol invasions encouraged travel in the conquered section of Asia and they inspired a demand for a sea route to Asia indirectly leading to Europe’s “Age of Exploration” in the 15th century. The Mongols however were not too involved in the trade, but they encouraged others by promoting no fighting in the empire thus inspiring the Pax Mongolica. Eurasia was unified and the otherwise opposing cities were no longer fighting with each other. Everyone could move about with their goods without the fear of violence. Goods made it from China to Eastern Europe and vice versa. Pax Mongolica is latin for “Mongol Peace” and is used to describe the easy communication and commerce the unified administration helped to create. 

This period came right after the Mongol conquests. The Pax Mongolica was important to the empire because historically, nomads supplemented their economy by trade and raiding and needed to maintain a safe passage for all who participated in trade. They never developed a merchant class of their own however but traded animals, fur, and hides for grain, tea, silk, cloth, and manufactured items with Chinese and Russian trading companies on a regular basis.

One of the issues of the trade route was the metals that the merchants used as payment. Kublai Khan became increasingly frustrated with the weight of the metals because they added more weight to the merchants and thus inhibited quick trade. Thus, he was the first to put in country-wide use of paper currency. Merchants had to convert foreign metals into paper money when they crossed into China.5 Paper currency quickly became popular because of its two major advantages over money made from silver, gold, copper and iron. It was easier to carry around the metals could be used for everyday purchases. The paper certificates represented the same amount of the metals. Names and seals were printed on the paper money by the government officials who issued them. 

“The Chinese invented paper and had been using a movable type printing press since around 1041; the Mongol Empire used paper instead of parchment and transported it to the Middle East, from where European merchants brought it to European cities.”4 When Marco Polo traveled to the Mongol territory in the 13th century he was so impressed with the use of paper money that he wrote about how it was made and used. Excessive printing of paper money year after year soon flooded the market with depreciated money and eventually caused inflation. The value of the money no longer bore any relation to that of its counterpart, silver. Nonetheless paper money inspired present day exchange of payment. After the Mongol empire collapsed paper money was not used in Europe until the 17th century.

The nomads also organized a regular tax system for the peasants. Kublai Khan gave strong support to the peasant community in China and believed that the peasant economy success would bring additional tax revenues and profit for the Mongols. Under the new tax system peasants would know exactly what was required of them rather than having to guess. The people would not pay their taxes to the local collectors but would make just one payment to the central government. The government then paid the nobles.”9 Taxes also affected the peasants in Russia. Most of the Russian peasants became lifetime manual laborers to the nobility. They were tied to the lands that they worked and indebted by the small number of nobles that owned those estates.

The Mongol conquests also proved to be a decisive turning point in Russian history. They introduced a change in the way the Russian military was organized from tactics to the political style of the Russian rulers. “Genghis wanted his army loyal to him, not to their tribal leaders. He broke up the tribes when he assigned men to various units in the army to ensure their basic loyalty was to their units and to him. Genghis then organized his army by the decimal system in groups of 10, 100, 1000 and 10,000 with leaders at each level. 

Each unit could fight at the unit level or in combination with all the other units, generally without constant supervision.” This Mongol example may have influenced the desire of the Russian elite to want to centralize their control and minimize the limitations placed on their power. Their most important contribution to the Russians however was Genghis’ rule of law which protected Russia from attacks from much more powerful kingdoms like Poland, Lithuania and Hungary.

To bring everything into perspective, all of the conquered regions and stated underwent a social, ethnic, and linguistic transformation through Mongol domination.3 Genghis Khan and the Mongols are arguably the most dominant force in history. They singlehandedly shaped Eurasia and consequently the modern world. They should be remembered not for the destruction they brought but for what they managed to build because of it. The world could have been a worse place without the influence of the Mongols. The rule of law may have never been implemented thus keeping regions and states fighting and maintaining the distrust between the states.

The rulers of the Mongol Empire displayed a persistent universalism. They had no system of their own so they “borrowed” from systems everywhere. Genghis Khan maintained that it was better for them to adopt from known successes that invent one that may not work. They did not believe in favoring one culture over the other. Every region was allowed to keep their original faith and customs. There was no centralized way of life present in the area that Genghis ruled. “Without deep cultural preferences in these areas, The Mongols implemented pragmatic rather than ideological solutions. They searched for what worked best; and when they found it, they spread it to other countries.”

The black plague or black death is widely recognized to be the end of the Mongol empire. In 1331 an outbreak erupted and killed over five million people in the span of 3 years. In many ways the black death can be seen as the most unlikely reason for the fall of the Mongol Empire. In any good story the hero is always rewarded by an honorable death. In this story however that did not happen but conversely in any good story the Mongol Empire is remembered for their many contributions in shaping the world we know today. They should be remembered not for their destruction but for their innovations.  

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