Upon hearing the word “Mongols” countless images of violence, brutality, and war doubtless cross your mind. Perhaps these Mongols are brandishing spears, battle-axes, daggers, or the Mongol weapon of choice: the composite bow. They are almost definitely on horseback, either roaming the Asian Steppes or riding into battle. Are the fierce warriors you are picturing male? I’d venture most likely. There is nothing inherently wrong with this perception of the Mongols; under their leader Genghis Khan, they managed to subjugate more lands and people in twenty-five years than the Romans did in four centuries. The Mongol army was fierce, clever and deadly. This is indisputable.
But is it valid for this to be the predominant image of the Mongols which has permeated the centuries? Is it enough for us to consider Mongols as these dangerous warriors and leave it there? For certain creators within pop-culture, it is. Take the song titled “Genghis Khan” by Miike Snow – incidentally the reason I wanted to write this article – in which the chorus perpetuates the idea that the Mongols, and Genghis Khan, sought world domination and were possessive over both the Khan’s territories and the ones he had yet to conquer. Even contemporary sources confirm this image of the bloodthirsty Mongols. William of Rubruck, a Franciscan friar writing in 1253, describes the Mongols as “devils” and declares he would happily “preach war against them”. I would argue that the Mongols, while indeed violent, dangerous, and occasionally brutal, deserve to be known not just for these things but also for their contribution to world trade, their encouragement of meritocracy, and their acceptance of different religions.
Aside from pillaging and conquering, the Mongols also contributed to the rejuvenation of the Silk Road, thus promoting the international exchange of goods and information. The Silk Road was a major trade link running between East and West, which stretched 4,000 miles across the continents of Asia, Europe, and Africa. Prior to the emergence of the Mongol empire, the Silk Road was dangerous and a little used route as a result of frequent wars, fighting, and violence.
Ironically, the unrest caused by the Mongols is what brought the Silk Road back to life; as the Mongol empire at its zenith – which was accumulated via slaughter and conquest – covered almost the entire length of the Silk Road. Entirely under Mongol control, the stability and peace that this dominance brought resulted in a less dangerous, more open Silk Road and the route reclaimed importance. Trade, under the Mongols, flourished along the Silk Road, with pearls, spices, ceramics, medicines, and precious metals now being transported to Europe. Furthermore, the goods which were plundered by the Mongols were not hoarded and used to satisfy greed. In fact, they were widely redistributed and went back into commercial circulation, thus feeding their economy further.
Not just goods but information was exchanged along the Silk Road, ensuring that the Mongol Empire was cohesive and connected, with the outside world as well as within. It is clear, then, that the violence and brutality committed by the Mongols was not for the sake of violence itself – their empire dramatically aided world trade and, with it, information, knowledge, and culture. This contribution to the global economy should be just as well-known as the Mongol’s tendency towards ferocity.
It is also worth looking at the positive contributions made by the empire’s most famous leader: Genghis Khan. A fact which quite nicely sums up Genghis’ contribution to history is that he conquered more than twice as much as any other man in history. The empire he spawned spanned between eleven and twelve million square miles at its height – in fact, most people alive today inhabit countries conquered by the Mongols. A great deal of blood was shed in the creation of this vast and diverse empire. But, I would argue, this blood was not shed for nothing. According to Jack Weatherford, he “smashed the feudal system of aristocratic privilege and birth”, prioritising instead loyalty, achievement, and individual merit. In so doing, he transformed the relationship between power and people, he reformed the structure of society which was still dominant in Europe during this time. On this note, Genghis Khan also pledged to hold rulers just as accountable to Mongol laws as those less powerful. Rulers were not exempt from the rules purely because they held the most power. In his society there was an element of fairness and an attempt to prevent corruption. Genghis Khan, alongside murdering swathes of the population, also essentially created the borders of countries which are so familiar to us today: Korea and India, for example. Under the rule of Genghis Khan, a dozen Slavic principalities were merged to form one Russian state. It is clear here that Genghis Khan redefined and redrew world geography. Much more than simply a barbarian with a knack for world domination, was Genghis Khan.
“Accepting” is likely not a word which immediately pops to mind when thinking about the Mongols. But consider this: the Mongols were extremely tolerant of other religions. More so than in other countries at the time, and perhaps even more so than in some countries today. This was essentially because the religion of the Mongols was tied to the land in which they originated, so they did not expect the inhabitants of the lands they conquered to share it. Instead, the Mongol Empire was filled with Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, etc. So, while you would justifiably worry about your life, you wouldn’t have to worry about your religion if the Mongols came knocking.
Additionally, women held a degree of power in Mongol society, a topic which is rarely breached in the discussion of the Mongol Empire and the shaping of it. In fact, women were critical in the shaping of Mongol society, particularly in the matter of succession. As argued by Anne Broadbridge, this is because it was mothers, not fathers, who determined the status of their child and thereby whether that child was able to rule. Furthermore, some women also shaped succession as political advisors, or even as independent political actors. Therefore, the oversimplified impression of the Mongols perpetuated by contemporary and current sources are lacking in demonstrating the more positive aspects of the Mongol empire: that of religious tolerance and the granting of some degree of power to women.
Hopefully, we can now conjure up some more positive adjectives to use in addition to the negative ones when describing the Mongols. The best adjective to use, overall, would be “complex”. The slaughter of thousands of people and the conquering of thousands of miles of land should not be forgotten, but nor should the Mongolian rejuvenation of the Silk Road, one of the most important trade routes of the Middle Ages; or their tolerance of religions which birthed an incredibly diverse empire. No empire, no group of people, and no country has a simple history: history has never been and never will be black and white. The question we need to ask ourselves is: what should we choose to remember and to celebrate? I choose to remember the atrocities committed by the Mongols, and to celebrate their dramatic contribution to trade and global interconnectedness.
Written by Amy Hendrie
Broadbridge, Anne. “Women and the Guard, the Army, and Succession.” In Women and the Making of the Mongol Empire, edited by Anne Broadbridge, 10-134. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018.
Budanovic, Nikola. “Pax Mongolia: How Genghis Khan Settled the Legendary Silk Road.” 2018. Accessed 23 October 2020. https://www.thevintagenews.com/2018/10/21/silk-road/.
Cartwright, Mark. “Mongol Warfare.” Accessed 22 October 2020. 2019. https://www.ancient.eu/Mongol_Warfare.
Ruysbroeck, William van. The Mission of Friar William of Rubruck : his journey to the court of Ghenghis Khan Möngke, 1253-1255, translated by Peter Jackson. London: Hakluyt Society, 1990.
Weatherford, Jack. “Introduction.” In Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, edited by Jack Weatherford, New York: Crown Publishers, 2004.
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