The Mongols Page Two

Founding of the Mongol Empire by: Henry Howorth

Genghis Khan

The Yuan

Akbar and India

Mongols in China (Marco Polo)


The Mongols

The Last Great Nomadic Challenges - From Chinggis Khan To Timur

Author:     Robert Guisepi

Date:        1992





     From the first explosion of Mongol military might from the steppes of

central Asia in the early decades of the 13th century to the death of Timur in

1405, the nomads of central Asia made a last, stunning return to center stage

in world history. Mongol invasions ended or interrupted many of the great

empires of the postclassical period, while also extending the world network

that had increasingly defined the period. Under Chinggis Khan - who united his

own Mongol tribesmen and numerous nomadic neighbors into the mightiest war

machine the world had seen to that time - central Asia, northern China, and

eastern Persia were brought under Mongol rule. Under Chinggis Khan's sons and

grandsons, the rest of China, Tibet, Persia, Iraq, much of Asia Minor, and all

of southern Russia were added to the vast Mongol imperium. Though the empire

was divided between Chinggis Khan's sons after his death in 1227, the four

khanates or kingdoms -which emerged in the struggles for succession -dominated

most of Asia for the next one and one-half centuries. The Mongol conquests and

the empires they produced represented the most formidable nomadic challenge to

the growing global dominance of the sedentary peoples of the civilized cores

since the great nomadic migrations in the first centuries A.D. Except for

Timur's devastating but short-lived grab for power at the end of the 14th

century, nomadic peoples would never again mount a challenge as massive and

sweeping as that of the Mongols.


     In most histories, the Mongol conquests have been depicted as a savage

assault by backward and barbaric peoples on many of the most ancient and

developed centers of human civilization. Much is made of the ferocity of

Mongol warriors in battle, their destruction of great cities, such as Baghdad,

in reprisal for resistance to Mongol armies, and their mass slaughters of

defeated enemies. Depending on the civilization from whose city walls a

historian recorded the coming of the Mongol "hordes," they were depicted as

the scourge of Islam, devils bent on the destruction of Christianity,

persecutors of the Buddhists, or defilers of the Confucian traditions of

China. Though they were indeed fierce fighters and capable of terrible acts of

retribution against those who dared to defy them, the Mongols' conquests

brought much more than death and devastation.


     At the peak of their power, the domains of the Mongol khans, or rulers,

made up a vast realm in which once-hostile peoples lived together in peace and

virtually all religions were tolerated. From the Khanate of Persia in the west

to the empire of the fabled Kubilai Khan in the east, the law code first

promulgated by Chinggis Khan ordered human interaction. The result was an

important new stage in international contact. From eastern Europe to southern

China, merchants and travelers could move across the well-policed Mongol

domains without fear for their lives or property. The great swath of Mongol

territory that covered or connected most of Europe, Asia, and the Middle East

served as a bridge between the civilizations of the Eastern Hemisphere. The

caravans and embassies that crossed the Mongol lands transmitted new foods,

inventions, and ideas from one civilized pool to the others and from civilized

pools to the nomadic peoples who served as intermediaries. Like the Islamic

expansion that preceded it, the Mongol explosion did much to lay the

foundations for more human interaction on a global scale, extending and

intensifying the world network that had been building since the classical age.


     This section will explore the sources of the Mongol drive for a world

empire and the course of Mongol expansion. Particular attention will be given

to the nomadic basis of the Mongol war machine and the long-standing patterns

of nomadic-sedentary interaction that shaped the character, direction, and

impact of Mongol expansion. After a discussion of the career and campaigns of

Chinggis Khan, separate sections of this chapter will deal with Mongol

conquest and rule in Russia and eastern Europe, the Middle East, and China.

The chapter will conclude with an assessment of the meaning of the Mongol

interlude for the development of civilization and the growth of cross-cultural

interaction on a global scale. In both their destructive and constructive

roles, the Mongols generated major changes within the framework of global



The Mongol Empire Of Chinggis Khan


     Mongol legends suggest that the ancient ancestors of the Mongols were

forest-dwelling hunters, and the hunt persisted as a central element in Mongol

culture. By the time the Mongols are first mentioned in the accounts of the

sedentary peoples, who traded with them and periodically felt the fury of

their lightning raids, most of them had adopted the life-style of the herding,

horse-riding nomads of the central Asian steppes. In fact, in most ways the

Mongols epitomized nomadic society and culture. Their survival depended on the

well-being of the herds of goats and sheep they drove from one pasture area to

another according to the cycle of the seasons. Their staple foods were the

meat and milk products provided by their herds, supplemented in most cases by

grain and vegetables gained through trade with sedentary farming peoples. They

also traded hides and dairy products for jewelry, weapons, and cloth

manufactured in urban centers. They dressed in sheepskins, made boots from

tanned sheep hides, and lived in round felt tents that were processed from

wool sheared from their animals. The tough little ponies they rode to round up

their herds, hunt wild animals, and make war, were equally essential to their

way of life. Both male and female Mongol children could ride as soon as they

were able to walk. Mongol warriors could literally ride for days on end,

sleeping and eating in the saddle. Ponies were the Mongols' most prized

possessions. Deprived of their horses on the harsh and vast steppes,

tribespeople could not survive long. Thus, horse stealing became a major

object of interclan and tribal raids and an offense that brought instant death

if the original owners caught up with the thieves.


     Like the Arabs and other nomadic peoples we have encountered, the basic

unit of Mongol society was the tribe, which was divided into kin-related clans

whose members camped and herded together on a regular basis. When threatened

by external enemies or in preparation for raids on other nomads or invasions

of sedentary areas, clans and tribes could be combined in great

confederations. Depending on the skills of their leaders, these confederations

could be held together for months or even years. But when the threat had

passed or the raiding was done, clans and tribes invariably drifted back to

their own pasturelands and campsites. At all organizational levels leaders

were elected by the free males of the group. Though women exercised

considerable influence within the family and had the right to be heard in

tribal councils, males dominated positions of leadership. The elected leaders

normally exhibited the qualities and skills that were essential to survival in

the steppe environment where rash action or timid hesitation could lead to the

destruction of a leader's kinsmen and dependents.


     Courage in battle, usually evidenced from youth by bravery in the hunt,

and the capacity to forge alliances and attract dependents were vital

leadership skills. A strong leader could quickly build up a large following of

chiefs from other clans and tribal groups. Some of these subordinates might be

defeated rivals who had been enslaved by the victorious chief, though often

the life-style of master and slave differed little. Should the leader grow old

and feeble or suffer severe reverses, his once-loyal subordinates would

quickly abandon him. He expected this to happen, and the subordinates felt no

remorse. Their survival and that of their dependents hinged on attaching

themselves to a strong tribal leader.


The Making Of A Great Warrior: The Early Career Of Chinggis Khan


     Indo-European and then Turkic-speaking nomads had dominated the steppes

and posed the principal threat to Asian and European sedentary civilizations

in the early millennia of recorded history. But peoples speaking Mongolian

languages had enjoyed moments of power and actually carved out regional

kingdoms in north China in the 4th and 10th centuries A.D. In fact, in the

early 12th century, Chinggis Khan's great-grandfather, Kabul Khan, had led a

Mongol alliance that had won glory by defeating an army sent against them by

the Qin kingdom of north China. Soon after this victory, Kabul Khan became ill

and died, and his successors could neither defeat their nomadic enemies nor

hold the Mongol alliance together. Divided and beaten, the Mongols fell on

hard times.


     Chinggis Khan, who as a youth was named Temujin, was born in the 1170s

into one of the splinter clans that fought for survival in the decades after

the death of Kabul Khan. Temujin's father was an able leader, who managed to

build up a decent following and negotiate a promise of marriage between his

eldest son and the daughter of a stronger Mongol chief. Just when the family

fortunes seemed to be on the upswing, Temujin's father was poisoned by the

agents of a rival nomadic group, according to Mongol accounts. Suddenly,

Temujin, who was still a teenager, was thrust into a position of leadership.

But most of the chiefs who had attached themselves to his father refused to

follow a mere boy, whose prospects of survival appeared to be slim.


     In the months that followed, his much-reduced encampment was threatened

and finally attacked by a rival tribe. Temujin was taken prisoner in 1182,

locked into a wooden collar, and led in humiliation to the camp of his

enemies. After a daring midnight escape, Temujin rejoined his mother and

brothers and found refuge for his tiny band of followers deep in the

mountains. Facing extermination, Temujin did what any sensible nomad leader

would have done: he and his people joined the camp of a more powerful Mongol

chieftain, who had once been aided by Temujin's father. With the support of

this powerful leader, Temujin revenged the insults of the clan that had

enslaved him and another that had taken advantage of his weakness to raid his

camp for horses and women. These successes and Temujin's growing reputation as

a warrior and military commander soon won him allies and clan chiefs eager to

attach themselves to a leader with a promising future. Within a decade, the

youthful Temujin had defeated his Mongol rivals and routed the forces sent to

crush him by the Tartars and other nomadic peoples. In 1206, at a kuriltai, or

meeting of all of the Mongol chieftains, Temujin -renamed Chinggis Khan -was

elected the khaghan, or supreme ruler, of the Mongol tribes. United under a

strong leader, the Mongols prepared to launch a massive assault on an

unsuspecting world.


Building The Mongol War Machine


     The men of the Mongol tribes that had elevated Chinggis Khan to

leadership were in many ways natural warriors. Trained from youth not only to

ride but also to hunt and fight, they were physically tough, mobile, and

accustomed to killing and death. They wielded a variety of weapons, including

lances, hatchets, and iron maces. None of their weapons was as demoralizing

for enemy forces as their powerful short bows. A Mongol warrior could fire a

quiver of arrows with stunning accuracy without breaking the stride of his

horse. He could hit enemy soldiers as distant as 400 yards (compared to a

range of 250 yards for the English longbow) while charging straight ahead,

ducking under the belly of his pony, or leaning over the horse's rump while

retreating from superior forces. The fact that the Mongol armies were entirely

cavalry meant that they possessed speed and a mobility that were demoralizing

to enemy forces. Leading two or three horses to use as remounts, Mongol

warriors could spend more than one week in the saddle and, when pressed, cover

80 or 90 miles per day. They could strike before their enemies had prepared

their defenses, hit unanticipated targets, retreat back to the steppes after

suffering temporary reverses, and then suddenly reappear in force.


     To a people whose very life-style bred mobility, physical courage, and a

love of combat, Chinggis Khan and his many able subordinate commanders brought

organization, discipline, and unity of command. The old quarrels and vendettas

between clans and tribes were overridden by loyalty to the khaghan, and

energies once devoted to infighting were now directed toward conquest and

looting in the civilized centers that fringed the steppes on all sides. The

Mongol forces were divided into armies made up of basic fighting units called

tumens, consisting of 10,000 cavalrymen. Each tumen was further divided into

units of 1000, 100, and 10 warriors. Commanders at each level were responsible

for the training, arming, and discipline of the cavalrymen under their charge.

The tumens were also divided into heavy cavalry, which carried lances and wore

some metal armor, and light cavalry, which relied primarily on the bow and

arrow and leather helmets and body covering. Even more lightly armed and

protected were the scouting parties that rode ahead of Mongol armies and,

using flags and special signal fires, kept the main force apprised of the

enemy's movements.


     Chinggis Khan also created a separate messenger force, whose bodies were

tightly bandaged to allow them to remain in the saddle for days, switching

from horse to horse to carry urgent messages between the khaghan and his

commanders. Military discipline had long been secured by personal ties between

commanders and ordinary soldiers. Mongol values, which made courage in battle

a prerequisite for male self-esteem, were also buttressed by a formal code

that dictated the immediate execution of a warrior who deserted his unit.

Chinggis Khan's swift executions left little doubt about the fate of traitors

to his own cause or turncoats who abandoned enemy commanders in his favor. His

generosity to brave foes was also legendary. The most famous of the latter, a

man named Jebe, nicknamed "the arrow," won the khaghan's affection and high

posts in the Mongol armies by standing his ground after his troops had been

routed and fearlessly shooting Chinggis Khan's horse out from under him.


     A special unit supplied Mongol armies with excellent maps of the areas

they were to invade, based largely on information supplied by Chinggis Khan's

extensive network of spies and informers. New weapons, including a variety of

flaming and exploding arrows, gunpowder projectiles, and later bronze cannons,

were also devised for the Mongol forces. By the time his armies rode east and

west in search of plunder and conquest in the 2d decade of the 13th century,

Chinggis Khan's warriors were among the best armed and trained and the most

experienced, disciplined, and mobile soldiers in the world.


Conquest: The Mongol Empire Under Chinggis Khan


     When he was proclaimed the khaghan in 1206, Temujin was probably not yet

40 years old. At that point, he was the supreme ruler of nearly one-half

million Mongol tribesmen and the overlord of one to two million more nomadic

tribesmen who had been defeated by his armies or had voluntarily allied

themselves with this promising young commander. But Chinggis Khan had much

greater ambitions. He once remarked that his greatest pleasure in life was

making war, defeating enemies, forcing ". . . their beloved [to] weep, riding

on their horses, embracing their wives and daughters." He came to see himself

and his sons as men marked for a special destiny; warriors born to conquer the

known world. In 1207, he set out to fulfill this ambition. His first campaigns

humbled the Tangut kingdom of Xi-Xia in northwest China, whose ruler was

forced to declare himself a vassal of the khaghan and pay a hefty tribute.

Next the Mongol armies attacked the much more powerful Qin Empire, which the

Manchu-related Jurchens had established a century earlier in north China.


     In these campaigns, the Mongol armies were confronted for the first time

with large, fortified cities their adversaries assumed could easily withstand

the assaults of these uncouth tribesmen from the steppes. Indeed, at first the

Mongol invaders were thwarted by the intricate defensive works that the

Chinese had perfected over the centuries to deter nomadic incursions. But the

adaptive Mongols, with the help of captured Chinese artisans and military

commanders, soon devised a whole arsenal of siege weapons. These included

battering rams, catapults that hurled rocks and explosive balls, and bamboo

rockets that spread fire and fear in besieged towns.


     Chinggis Khan and the early Mongol commanders had little regard for these

towns, whose inhabitants they regarded as soft and effete. Therefore, when

resistance was encountered, the Mongols adopted a policy of terrifying

retribution. Though the Mongols often spared the lives of famed scholars -whom

they employed as advisors -and artisans with particularly useful skills, towns

that fought back were usually sacked once they had been taken. The townspeople

were slaughtered or sold into slavery; their homes, palaces, mosques, and

temples were reduced to rubble. Towns that surrendered without a fight were

usually spared this fate, though they were required to pay tribute to their

Mongol conquerors as the price of their deliverance.


First Assault On The Islamic World; Conquest In China


     Having established a foothold in north China and solidified his empire in

the steppes, Chinggis Khan sent his armies westward against the Kara-Khitai

Empire established by a Mongolian-speaking people a century earlier. Having

overwhelmed and annexed the Kara-Khitai, in 1219 Chinggis Khan sent envoys to

demand the submission of Muhammad Shah II, the Turkic ruler of the Khwarazm

Empire to the west. Outraged by the audacity of the still little-known Mongol

commander, one of Muhammad's subordinates had some of Chinggis Khan's later

envoys killed and sent the rest with shaved heads back to the khaghan. These

insults, of course, meant war, a war in which the Khwarazm were overwhelmed.

Their great cities fell to the new siege weapons and tactics the Mongols had

perfected in their north China campaigns. Their armies were repeatedly routed

in battles with the Mongol cavalry. Again and again, the Mongols used their

favorite battle tactic in these encounters. Cavalry was sent to attack the

enemy's main force. Feigning defeat, the cavalry retreated, drawing the

opposing forces out of formation in the hopes of a chance to slaughter the

fleeing Mongols. Once the enemy's pursuing horsemen had spread themselves over

the countryside, the main force of Mongol heavy cavalry, until then concealed,

attacked them in a devastating pincers formation.


     Like the Russians, Hungarians, Chinese, and numerous other adversaries,

the Khwarazm never seemed to catch on to these well-executed ruses, and many a

proud and much larger army was destroyed in the Mongol trap. Within two years,

his once flourishing cities in ruin, his kingdom in Mongol hands, Muhammad

Shah II, having retreated across his empire, died on a desolate island near

the Caspian Sea. In addition to greatly enlarging his domains, Chinggis Khan's

victories meant that he could incorporate tens of thousands of Turkic horsemen

into his armies. With his forces greatly enlarged by these new recruits, he

once again turned eastward, where in the last years of his life his armies

destroyed the Xi-Xia kingdom and overran the Qin Empire of north China. By

1227, the year of his death, the Mongols ruled an empire that stretched from

eastern Persia to the North China Sea.


Life Under The Mongol Yoke


     Despite their fury as warriors and the horrible destruction they could

unleash on those who resisted their demands for submission and tribute, the

Mongols proved remarkably astute and tolerant rulers. Chinggis Khan himself

set the standards in this regard, and most of these were followed by his more

able successors. He was a complex man. He was capable, as we have seen, of

gloating over the ruin of his enemies, but was also open to new ideas and

committed to building a world where the diverse peoples of his empire could

live together in peace. Though illiterate, Chinggis Khan was neither the

ignorant savage nor the cultureless vandal often depicted in the accounts of

civilized writers - usually those who had never met him. Once the conquered

peoples had been subdued, he took a keen interest in their arts and learning,

though he refused to live in their cities. Instead he established a new

capital at Karakorum on the steppes and summoned the wise and clever from all

parts of the empire to the lavish palace of tents with gilded pillars where he

lived with his wives, closest advisors, and personal bodyguards that now

numbered over a thousand of the best and most loyal troops.


     At Karakorum, Chinggis Khan consulted with Confucian scholars about how

to rule China; with Muslim engineers about how to build siege weapons and

improve trade with the lands farther west; and with Daoist holy men, whom he

hoped could provide him with an elixir that would make him immortal. Though he

himself followed the shamanistic (focused on the propitiation of nature

spirits) beliefs of his ancestors, all religions were tolerated in his empire.

He was visited by Muslim mullahs, Buddhist and Daoist monks, and Christian

missionaries. The followers of these faiths, as well as smaller religious

communities, such as the Jews and Zoroastrians, worshipped without fear of

persecution throughout his empire.


     Chinggis Khan and his advisors sought to establish the basis for lasting

peace and prosperity in his domains. Drawing on the advice and talents of both

Muslim and Chinese bureaucrats, an administrative framework was created. A

script was devised for the Mongolian language in order to facilitate record

keeping and the standardization of laws. Chinggis Khan promulgated a legal

code that was enforced by a special police force. Much of the code was aimed

at putting an end to the divisions and quarrels that had so long occupied the

Mongols. Grazing lands were systematically allotted to different tribes, and

harsh penalties were established for rustling livestock or stealing horses. On

the advice of his Chinese counselors, Chinggis Khan resisted the temptation to

turn the cultivated lands of north China into a vast grazing area, which of

course would have meant the destruction of tens of millions of peasants.

Instead he ordered that the farmers be regularly taxed to support his courts

and future military expeditions.


     Above all, the Mongol conquests brought a peace to much of Asia that in

some areas persisted for generations. In the towns of the empire, handicraft

production and scholarship flourished and artistic creativity was allowed free

expression. Chinggis Khan and his successors actively promoted the growth of

trade and travelers by protecting the caravans that made their way across the

ancient Asian silk routes and by establishing rest stations for weary

merchants and fortified outposts for those harassed by bandits. One Muslim

historian wrote of the peoples within the domains of the khaghan that they

"enjoyed such a peace that a man might have journeyed from the land of sunrise

to the land of sunset with a golden platter upon his head without suffering

the least violence from anyone." Secure trade routes made for prosperous

merchants and wealthy, cosmopolitan cities. They also facilitated the spread

of foods such as sorghum, sugar, citrus fruits, and grapes; inventions such as

firearms, printing, and windmills; and techniques ranging from those involving

papermaking to those for improving irrigation from one civilization to

another. Paradoxically, Mongol expansion, which began as a "barbarian" orgy of

violence and destruction, had become a major force for economic and social

development and the enhancement of civilized life.


The Death Of Chinggis Khan And The Division Of The Empire


     When the Mongols had moved west to attack Kara Khitai in 1219, support

was demanded from the vassal king of Xi-Xia. The Tangut ruler had impudently

responded that if the Mongols were not strong enough to win wars on their own,

they were best advised to refrain from attacking others. In 1226, his wars in

the west won, Chinggis Khan turned east with an army of 180,000 warriors to

punish the Tanguts and complete a conquest that he regretted having left

unfinished over a decade earlier. After routing a much larger Tangut army in a

battle fought on the frozen waters of the Yellow River, the Mongol armies

overran Xi-Xia, plundering and burning and mercilessly hunting down any Tangut

survivors. As his forces closed in on the Tangut capital and last refuge,

Chinggis Khan, who had been injured in a skirmish some months earlier, fell

grievously ill. After impressing upon his sons the dangers of quarreling among

themselves for the spoils of the empire, the khaghan died in August of 1227.


     With one last outburst of Mongol wrath, this time directed against death

itself, his body was carried back to Mongolia for burial. The Mongol forces

escorting the funeral procession hunted down and killed every human and animal

in its path. As Chinggis Khan had instructed, his armies also treacherously

slaughtered the unarmed inhabitants of the Tangut capital after a truce and

surrender had been arranged.


     The vast pasturelands the Mongols now controlled were divided between

Chinggis Khan's three remaining sons and Batu, a grandson and heir of the

khaghan's recently deceased son Jochi. Towns and cultivated areas like those

in north China and parts of Persia were considered the common property of the

Mongol ruling family. A kuriltai was convened at Karakorum, the Mongol

capital, to select a successor to the great conqueror. In accordance with

Chinggis Khan's preference, Ogedei, his third son, was elected grand khan.

Though not as capable a military leader as his brothers or nephews, Ogedei was

a crafty diplomat and deft manipulator, skills much needed if the ambitious

heads of the vast provinces of the empire were to be kept from each others'



     For nearly a decade, Ogedei directed Mongol energies into further

campaigns and conquests. The areas that were targeted by this new round of

Mongol expansion paid the price for peace within the Mongol Empire. The fate

of the most important victims -Russia and eastern Europe, the Islamic

heartlands, and China -will be the focus of much of the rest of this chapter.

As we shall see, the Mongols were by no means finished with their efforts to

build a world empire and to alter the course of global history.


The Mongol Drive To The West


     While in pursuit of the Khwarazm ruler, Muhammad Shah II, the Mongols had

made their first contacts with the rich kingdoms to the west of the steppe

heartlands of Chinggis Khan's empire. Raids of reconnaissance into Georgia and

across the Russian steppe convinced the Mongol commanders that the Christian

lands to the west were theirs for the taking. Russia and Europe were added to

their agenda for world conquest. The subjugation of these regions became the

project of the armies of the Golden Horde, which was named after the golden

tent of the early khans of the western sector of the Mongol Empire. The

territories of the Golden Horde, which covered much of what is today

south-central Russia, made up the four great khanates into which the Mongol

Empire had been divided at the time of Chinggis Khan's death. The khanate to

the south, called the Ilkhan Empire, claimed the task of completing the

conquest of the Muslim world that had begun with the invasion of the Khwarazm

domains. Though neither Europe nor the Islamic heartlands were ultimately

subdued, Mongol successes on the battlefield and the fury of their assaults

affected the history of the regions that came under attack, particularly

Russia and the Islamic world.


The Invasion Of Russia


     In a very real sense the Mongol assault on Russia was a side campaign, a

chance to fine-tune the war machine and win a little booty while en route to

the real prize, western Europe. As we saw in Chapter 15, in the first half of

the 13th century when the Mongol warriors first descended, a more united

Russia had been divided into numerous petty kingdoms, centered on trading

cities such as Novgorod and Kiev. By this time Kiev, which had originally

dominated much of central Russia, had been in decline for some time. As a

result there was no paramount power to rally Russian forces against the

invaders. Despite the dire warnings spread by those who had witnessed the

crushing defeats suffered by the Georgians in the early 1220s, the princes of

Russia refused to cooperate. They preferred to fight alone and be routed



     In 1236, Chinggis Khan's grandson Batu led a Mongol force of upwards of

120,000 cavalrymen into the Russian heartlands. From 1237 to 1238 and later in

1240, these "Tartars," as the Russian peoples called them, carried out the

only successful winter invasions in Russian history. In fact, the Mongols

preferred to fight in the winter. The frozen earth provided good footing for

their horses and frozen rivers gave them access rather than blocking the way

to their enemies. One after another, the Mongol armies defeated the often much

larger forces of local nomadic groups and the Russian princes. Cities such as

Rizan, Moscow, and Vladimir, which resisted the Mongol command to surrender,

were razed to the ground; their inhabitants were slaughtered or led into

slavery. As a contemporary Russian chronicler observed, "no eye remained to

weep for the dead." Just as it appeared that all of Russia would be ravaged by

the Mongols, whom the Russians compared to locusts, Batu's armies withdrew.

The largest cities, Novgorod and Kiev, appeared to have been spared. Russian

priesti thanked God; the Mongol commanders blamed the spring thaw, which

slowed the Mongol horsemen and raised the risk of defeat in the treacherous



     Salvation yielded to further disasters when the Mongols returned in force

in the winter of 1240. In this second campaign, even the great walled city of

Kiev, which had reached a population of over 100,000 by the end of the 12th

century, fell. Enraged by Kievan resistance -its ruler had ordered the Mongol

envoys thrown from the city walls -the Mongols reduced the greatest city in

Russia to a smoldering ruin. The cathedral of Saint Sophia was spared, but the

rest of the city was systematically looted and destroyed, its inhabitants

smoked out and slaughtered. Novgorod again braced itself for the Mongol

onslaught. Again it was, according to the Russian chroniclers, "miraculously"

spared. In fact it was saved largely due to the willingness of its prince,

Alexander Nevskii, to submit, at least temporarily, to Mongol demands. In

addition, the Mongol armies were eager to move on to the main event, the

invasion of western Europe.


Russia In Bondage


     The crushing victories of Batu's armies initiated nearly two and one-half

centuries of Mongol dominance in Russia. Russian princes were forced to submit

as vassals of the khan of the Golden Horde and to pay tribute or risk the

ravages of Mongol raiders. Mongol exactions fell particularly heavily on the

Russian peasantry, who had to yield up their crops and labor to both their own

princes and the Mongol overlords. Impoverished and ever fearful of the

lightning raids of Mongol marauders, the peasants fled to remote areas or

became, in effect, the serfs (see Chapter 16) of the Russian ruling class in

return for protection.


     The decision on the part of many peasants to become the lifetime laborers

of the nobility resulted in a major change in the rural social structure of

Russia. Until the mid-19th century, the great majority of the population of

Russia would be tied to the lands they worked and bound to the tiny minority

of nobles who owned these great estates. Some Russian towns made profits on

the increased trade Mongol links made possible, and sometimes the gains

exceeded the tribute they paid to the Golden Horde. No town benefited from the

Mongol presence more than Moscow. Badly plundered and partially burned in the

early Mongol assaults, the city was gradually rebuilt and its ruling princes

steadily swallowed up nearby towns and surrounding villages. After 1328,

Moscow also profited from its status as the tribute collector for the Mongol

khans. Its princes not only used their position to fill their own coffers,

they annexed further towns as punishment for falling behind on the payment of

their tribute.


     As Moscow grew in strength, the power of the Golden Horde declined.

Mongol religious toleration benefited both the Orthodox church and Moscow. The

Metropolitan, or head of the Orthodox church, was made the representative of

all the clergy in Russia, which did much to enhance the church's standing. The

choice of Moscow as the seat of the Orthodox leaders brought new sources of

wealth to its princes and buttressed Muscovite claims to be Russia's leading

city. In 1380, those claims received an additional boost when the princes of

Moscow shifted from being tribute collectors to being the defenders of Russia.

In alliance with other Russian vassals, they raised an army that defeated the

forces of the Golden Horde at the battle of Kulikova. Their victory and the

devastating blows Timur's attacks dealt the Golden Horde two decades later

effectively broke the Mongol hold over Russia. Mongol forces raided as late as

the 1450s, and the princes of Muscovy did not formally renounce their vassal

status until 1480. But from the end of the 14th century, Moscow was the center

of political power in Russia, and it was armies from Poland and Lithuania that

posed the main threat to Russian peace and prosperity.


     Though much of the Mongolnimpact was negative, their conquest proved in a

number of ways a decisive turning point in Russian history. In addition to

their meaning for Moscow and the Orthodox church, Mongol contacts led to

changes in Russian military organization and tactics and the political style

of Russian rulers. Claims that the Tartars were responsible for Russian

despotism, either Tsarist or Stalinist, are clearly overstated. Still, the

Mongol example may have influenced the desire of Russian princes to centralize

their control and minimize the limitations placed on their power by the landed

nobility, the clergy, and wealthy merchants. By far the greatest effects of

Mongol rule, however, were those resulting from Russia's relative isolation

from Christian lands farther west. On the one hand, the Mongols protected a

divided and weak Russia from the attacks of much more powerful kingdoms such

as Poland, Lithuania, and Hungary as well as the "crusades" of militant

Christian orders like the Teutonic Knights, which were determined to stamp out

the Orthodox heresy. On the other hand, Mongol overlordship cut Russia off

from key transformations in western Europe that were inspired by the

Renaissance and led ultimately to the Reformation. The Orthodox clergy, of

course, would have had little use for these influences, but their absence

severely reduced the options available for Russian political, economic, and

intellectual development.


Mongol Incursions And The Retreat From Europe


     Until news of the Mongol campaigns in Russia reached European peoples

such as the Germans and Hungarians farther west, Christian leaders had been

quite pleased by the rise of a new military power in central Asia. Rumors and

reports from Nestorian Christians, chafing under what they perceived as the

persecution of their Muslim overlords, convinced many in western Europe that

the Mongol Khan was none other than Prester John. Prester John was the name

given to a mythical, rich and powerful Christian monarch whose kingdom had

supposedly been cut off from Europe by the Muslim conquests of the 7th and 8th

centuries. Sometimes located in Africa, sometimes in central Asia, Prester

John loomed large in the European imagination as a potential ally who could

strike the Muslim enemy from the rear and join up with European Christians to

destroy their common adversary. The Mongol assault on the Muslim Khwarazm

Empire appeared to confirm the speculation that Chinggis Khan was indeed

Prester John.


     The assault on Christian, though Orthodox, Russia made it clear that the

Mongol armies were neither the legions of Prester John nor more partial to the

Christians than any other people who stood in their way. The rulers of Europe

were nevertheless slow to realize the magnitude of the threat the Mongols

posed to western Christendom. When Mongol envoys, one of whom was an

Englishman, arrived at the court of King Bela of Hungary demanding that he

surrender a group of nomads who had fled to his domains after being beaten by

the Mongols in Russia, he contemptuously dismissed them and Batu's demand that

he submit to Mongol overlordship. Bela reasoned that he was the ruler of a

powerful kingdom, while the Mongols were just another ragtag band of nomads in

search of easy plunder. As had so often been the case in the past, his foolish

refusal to negotiate provided the Mongols with a pretext to invade. Their

ambition remained the conquest and pillage of all western Europe. That this

goal was clearly attainable was demonstrated by the sound drubbing they gave

to first the Hungarians in 1240 and then to a mixed force of Christian knights

led by the German ruler, King Henry of Silesia. In both battles, the Mongols

used the time-tested tactic of retreat and envelopment. In the first

engagement 70,000 Christian soldiers perished; in the second, 40,000 Europeans

died, many of them the elite of eastern European knighthood.


     These victories left the Mongols free to raid and pillage from the

Adriatic Sea region in the south to Poland and the German states of the north.

It also left the rest of Europe open to Mongol conquest. Just as the kings and

clergy of the western portions of Christendom were beginning to fear the

worst, the Mongol forces disappeared. The death of the Khaghan Ogedei, in the

distant Mongol capital at Karakorum, forced Batu to withdraw in preparation

for the struggle for succession that was under way. The campaign for the

conquest of Europe was never resumed. Perhaps Batu was satisfied with the huge

empire of the Golden Horde that he ruled from his splendid new capital at

Sarai; most certainly the Mongols had found richer lands to plunder in the

following decades in the Muslim empires of the Middle East. Whatever the

reason, Europe was spared the full fury of the Mongol assault. Of the

civilizations that fringed the steppe homelands of the Mongols, only India

would be as fortunate.


The Mongol Assault On The Islamic Heartlands


     After the Mongol conquest of the Khwarazm Empire, it was only a matter of

time before they struck westward against the far wealthier Muslim empires of

Mesopotamia and North Africa. The conquest of these areas became the main

project of Hulegu, another grandson of Chinggis Khan and the ruler of the

Ilkhan portions of the Mongol Empire. As we saw in Chapter 12, one of the key

results of Hulegu's assaults on the Muslim heartlands was the capture and

destruction of Baghdad in 1258. The murder of the Abbasid caliph, one of some

800,000 people who were reported to have been killed in Mongol retribution for

the city's resistance, brought an end to the dynasty that had ruled the core

regions of the Islamic world since the middle of the 8th century. A major

Mongol victory over the Seljuk Turks in 1243 also proved critical to the

future history of the region, because it opened up Asia Minor to conquest by a

different Turkic people, the Ottomans, who would be the next great power in

the Islamic heartlands.


     The opening sieges of Hulegu's campaigns had also destroyed the

Assassins, who had posed a major threat to Sunni Muslims for centuries. The

hundreds of mountain fortresses of the sect were captured and destroyed. One

of these, Alamut, held out for three years despite the Mongol siege engines.

Finally, the leader of the sect was taken prisoner and sent to the khaghan at

Karakorum. Refused an audience, the last of the Assassins' commanders was

murdered by his captors.


     Despite the removal of the Assassin menace, it is understandable that

Muslim historians treated the coming of the Mongols as one of the great

catastrophes in the history of Islam. The murder of the caliph and his family

left the faithful without a central authority; the sack of Baghdad and

numerous other cities from central Asia to the shores of the Mediterranean

devastated the focal points of Islamic civilization. The Mongols had also

severely crippled Muslim military strength, much to the delight of the

Christians, especially those like the Nestorians who lived in the Middle East.

Some Christians offered assistance in the form of information; others,

especially the Nestorians from inner Asia, served as commanders in Hulegu's

armies. One contemporary Muslim chronicler, Ibn al-Athir, found the

tribulations the Mongols had visited on his people so horrific that he

apologized to his readers for recounting them and wished that he had not been

born to witness them. He lamented that:


     . . . in just one year they seized the most populous, the most beautiful,

     and the best cultivated part of the earth whose inhabitants excelled in

     character and urbanity. In the countries that have not yet been overrun

     by them, everyone spends the night afraid that they may yet appear there,

     too. . . . Thus, Islam and the Muslims were struck, at that time, by a

     disaster such as no people had experienced before.


     Given these reverses, one can imagine the relief the peoples of the

Muslim world felt when the Mongols were finally defeated in 1260 by the armies

of the Mameluk, or slave, dynasty of Egypt at Ain Jalut. Ironically, Baibars,

the commander of the Egyptian forces, and many of his lieutenants had been

enslaved by the Mongols some years earlier and sold in Egypt, where they rose

to power through military service. The Muslim victory was won with the rare

cooperation of the Christians, who allowed Baibars's forces to cross upopposed

through their much diminished, crusader territories in Palestine. Hulegu was

in central Asia, engaged in yet another succession struggle, when the battle

occurred. Upon his return, he was forced to reconsider his plans for conquest

of the entire Muslim world. The Mameluks were deeply entrenched and growing

stronger; Hulegu was threatened by his cousin Berke, the new khan of the

Golden Horde to the north, who had converted to Islam. After openly clashing

with Berke and learning of Baibars's overtures for an alliance with the Golden

Horde, Hulegu decided to settle for the sizeable kingdom he already ruled,

which stretched from the frontiers of Byzantium to the Oxus River in central



The Mongol Impact On Europe And The Islamic World


     Though much of what the Mongols wrought on their westward march was

destructive, some benefits were reaped from their forays into Europe and

conquests in Muslim areas. By example, they taught new ways of making war and

impressed on their Turkic and European enemies the effectiveness of gunpowder.

As we have seen, Mongol conquests facilitated trade between the civilizations

at each end of Eurasia, making possible the exchange of foods, tools, and

ideas on an unprecedented scale. The revived trade routes brought great wealth

to traders such as those from north Italy, who set up outposts in the eastern

Mediterranean, along the Black Sea coast, and as far east as the Caspian Sea.

Because the establishment of these trading empires by the Venetians and

Genoese provided precedents for the later drives for overseas expansion by

peoples such as the Portuguese and English, they are of special significance

in global history.


     Perhaps the greatest long-term impact of the Mongol drive to the west was

indirect and unintended. In recent years a growing number of historians have

become convinced that the Mongol conquests played a key role in transmitting

the fleas that carried bubonic plague from central Asia to Europe and the

Middle East. The fleas may have hitched a ride on the livestock the Mongols

drove into the new pasturelands won by their conquests or on the rats who

nibbled the grain transported by merchants along the trading routes the Mongol

rulers fostered between east and west. Whatever the exact connection, the

Mongol armies unknowingly paved the way for the spread of the dreaded Black

Death across the steppes to the Islamic heartlands and from there to most of

Europe in the mid-14th century. In so doing, they unleashed possibly the most

fatal epidemic in all human history. From mortality rates higher than half the

population in some areas of Europe and the Middle East to the economic and

social adjustments that the plague forced wherever it spread, this accidental,

but devastating, side effect of the Mongol conquests influenced the course of

civilized development in Eurasia for centuries to come.


The Mongol Interlude In Chinese History


     Soon after Ogedei was elected as the great khan, the Mongol advance into

China was resumed. Having conquered Xi-Xia, the Mongol commanders now turned

to the Qin Empire to the east, which had proven the most resistant of all the

kingdoms assaulted under the leadership of Chinggis Khan. During the Mongol

campaign, the Chinese Song ruler to the south, seeing a chance to weaken the

long-standing "barbarian" threat from the northeast, made the mistake of

allowing Mongol armies to pass through his lands to attack the Qin and even

sent troops to help with the siege of the Qin capital. By 1234 the Qin had

been overwhelmed, and the buffer between the Song and the Mongols had been all

but destroyed. But the Mongols still did not occupy most of the Qin domains or

attempt to govern them directly. The Song rulers then betrayed the Mongol

alliance by attempting to garrison some of the cities they had jointly

besieged. The Mongols returned in force, making short work of the rump state

of Qin and sweeping onward into the Song-ruled south.


     In the campaigns against the Song, the Mongol forces were directed by

Kubilai Khan, one of the grandsons of Chinggis Khan and a man who would play a

pivotal role in Chinese history for the next half century. Even under a

decadent dynasty that had long neglected its defenses, south China proved one

of the toughest areas for the Mongols to conquer. From 1235 to 1279, the

Mongols were continually on the march; they fought battle after battle and

besieged seemingly innumerable, well-fortified Chinese cities. In 1260,

Kubilai assumed the title of the great khan, much to the chagrin of his

cousins who ruled other parts of the empire. A decade later in 1271, on the

recommendation of Chinese advisors, he changed the name of the Mongol dynasty

to the Sinicized Yuan. Though he was still nearly a decade away from fully

defeating the last-ditch efforts of Confucian advisors and Chinese generals to

save the Song dynasty, Kubilai ruled most of China, and he now set about the

task of establishing Mongol control on a more permanent basis.


Kubilai Khan And The Mongol Presence In China


     Kubilai had long been fascinated by Chinese civilization. Even before he

had begun the conquest of the Song Empire, Kubilai had surrounded himself with

Chinese advisors, some Buddhist, others Daoist or Confucian. His capital at

Tatu in the north (present-day Beijing) was built on the site occupied by

earlier dynasties, and he introduced Chinese rituals and classical music into

his own court. But he did not then, nor later when he had conquered the south,

listen to the pleas of his Confucian advisors to reestablish the civil service

exams, which had been discontinued by the Qin rulers. Thus, from the outset,

Kubilai was ambivalent in his attitude toward the ancient civilization that

was slipping piecemeal under Mongol control. He was determined to preserve

Mongol separateness and to keep the scholar-gentry from gaining too much power

-hence the refusal to reintroduce the exams. But he also adopted a Chinese

life-style, was anxious to follow Chinese precedents, and became a major

patron of the arts and a promoter of Chinese culture in general. Despite his

efforts to preserve Mongol identity, Kubilai's choice of China as the site of

his capital and his deep involvement in Chinese affairs signaled, in effect,

the passing of an overarching command of the far-flung Mongol Empire. From the

late 13th century onward, the main divisions of the empire were ruled and

governed as virtually independent realms.


The Mongol Elite


     Kubilai promulgated many laws to preserve the distinction between Mongol

and Chinese. He forbade Chinese scholars to learn the Mongol script, which was

used for records and correspondence at the upper levels of the imperial

government. Mongols were forbidden to marry ethnic Chinese, and only women

from nomadic families were selected for the imperial harem. Even friendships

between the two peoples were discouraged. Mongol religious ceremonies and

customs were retained, and a tent encampment in the traditional Mongol style

was set up in the imperial city, even though Kubilai usually resided in a

Chinese-style palace. Kubilai and his successors continued to enjoy key Mongol

pastimes such as the hunt, and Mongol military forces remained separate from



     In the Yuan era, a new social structure was established in China with the

Mongols on top and their central Asian nomadic and Muslim allies right below

them in the hierarchy. These two groups occupied most of the offices at the

highest levels of the bureaucracy. Beneath them came the north Chinese and

below them the ethnic Chinese and the minority peoples of the south. Though

ethnic Chinese from both north and south ran the Yuan bureaucracy at the

regional and local levels, they could ordinarily exercise power at the top

only as advisors to the Mongols or other nomadic officials. At all levels,

their activities were scrutinized by Mongol functionaries from an enlarged and

much-strengthened censors' bureau.


Gender And The Cultural Barriers


     Mongol women in particular remained aloof from Chinese culture, at least

Chinese culture in its Confucian guise. Like their counterparts in the Tang

era, some of the wives of the emperors exercised considerable political power

at the court. Perhaps the most notable in this regard was Kubilai's wife,

Chabi, who not only gave him critical advice on how to counter the schemes of

his ambitious brother but also promoted the interests of the Buddhists in the

highest circles of government. At one point, she intervened to frustrate a

plan to turn cultivated lands near the capital into pasturelands for the

Mongols' ponies. After the conquest of the Qin, Chabi convinced Kubilai that

lenient treatment of the survivors of the defeated royal family was the best

way to reconcile the peoples of north China to Mongol rule.


     It was not just the imperial consorts who enjoyed a remarkable degree of

influence and freedom compared to their Chinese counterparts. Mongol women

refused to adopt the practice of foot-binding that so constricted the

activities of Chinese women. They retained their rights to property and

control within the household and the capacity to move freely about town and

countryside. No more striking evidence can be found than accounts that

describe Mongol women riding to the hunt, both with their husbands and at the

head of their own hunting parties. The daughter of one of Kubilai's cousins

even went to war, and she refused to marry until one of her many suitors

proved able to throw her in a wrestling match. Unfortunately, the Mongol era

was too brief to reverse the trends that were lowering the position of Chinese

women. As neo- Confucianism gained ground under Kubilai's successors, the

arguments for the confinement of women multiplied.


Mongol Adoption Of Chinese Ways


     Though Kubilai Khan was much more taken with Chinese culture and eager to

adopt Chinese ways than most of his Mongol followers, those who settled down

in China invariably became Sinified to varying degrees. This was perhaps

inevitable when one considers that at most there were only a few hundred

thousand Mongols residing in the midst of a Chinese population of perhaps 90

million. Much to the dismay of Mongol purists fresh from the steppes, Kubilai

modeled much at his capital and court at Tatu after Chinese precedents. His

palace was laid out like those of Chinese emperors and made up primarily of

Chinese-style buildings, despite the tents in the parklands and altars for

sacrifices to the Mongol deities. The upper levels of the bureaucracy were

organized and run, minus the civil service exams, along Tang-Song lines.

Kubilai put the empire on the Chinese calendar, listened to Chinese music, and

offered sacrifices to his ancestors at a special temple in the imperial city.

He also summoned the best Confucian scholars to give his son a proper Chinese

education, a move that perhaps more than any other demonstrated his

determination to civilize his Mongol followers.


Mongol Tolerance And Foreign Cultural Influences


     Like Chinggis Khan and a number of other Mongol overlords, Kubilai had an

unbounded curiosity and very cosmopolitan tastes. His generous patronage drew

to his splendid court scholars, artists, artisans, and office seekers from

many lands. Some of the most favored came from regional Muslim kingdoms to the

east that had also come under Mongol rule. Muslims were included in the second

highest social grouping, just beneath the Mongols themselves. Persians and

Turks were admitted to the inner circle of Kubilai's administrators and

advisors. Muslims designed and supervised the building of his Chinese-style

imperial city and proposed new systems for the more efficient collection of

taxes. Persian astronomers imported more advanced Middle Eastern instruments

for celestial observations, corrected the Chinese calendar, and made some of

the most accurate maps that the Chinese had ever seen. Muslim doctors ran the

imperial hospitals and added translations of 36 volumes on Muslim medicine to

the imperial library. Though some of Kubilai's most powerful advisors were

infamous for their corrupt ways, most served him well and did much to advance

Chinese learning and technology through the transmission of texts,

instruments, and weapons from throughout the Muslim world.


     In addition to the Muslims, Kubilai welcomed travelers and emissaries

from many foreign lands to his court. Like his grandfather, Kubilai displayed

a strong interest in all religions and insisted on toleration in his domains.

Buddhists, Nestorian Christians, Daoists and Latin Christians made their way

to his court. The most renowned of the latter were members of the Polo family

from Venice in northern Italy, who traveled extensively in the Mongol Empire

in the middle of the 13th century. Marco Polo's account of Kubilai Khan's

court and empire is perhaps the most famous travel account written by a

European. Marco accepted fantastic tales of grotesques and strange customs,

and he may have cribbed parts of his account from other sources. Still, his

descriptions of the palaces, cities, and wealth of Kubilai's empire enhanced

European interest in the "Indies" and helped to inspire efforts by navigators

like Columbus to find a water route to these fabled lands.


Social Policies And Scholar-Gentry Resistance


     Kubilai's efforts to promote Mongol adaptation to Chinese culture were

overshadowed in the long run by countervailing measures to preserve Mongol

separateness. The ethnic Chinese, particularly in the south, who made up the

vast majority of his subjects were never really reconciled to Mongsl rule.

Despite Kubilai's cultivation of Confucian rituals and his extensive

employment of Chinese bureaucrats, most of the scholar-gentry regarded the

Mongol overlord and his successors as uncouthhbarbarians whose policies

endangered Chinese traditions. As it was intended to do, Kubilai's refusal to

reinstate the examination route to administrative office prevented Confucian

scholars from dominating politics. The favoritism he showed Mongol and other

foreign officials further alienated the scholar-gentry.


     To add insult to injury, Kubilai went to great lengths to bolster the

position of the artisan classes, who had never enjoyed high standing, and the

merchants, whom the Confucian thinkers had long dismissed as parasites. The

Mongols had from the outset shown great regard for artisans, often sparing

them the slaughter meted out to their fellow city dwellers because of their

useful skills. During the Yuan period in China, merchants also prospered and

commerce boomed, partly owing to Mongol efforts to improve transportation and

expand the supply of paper money. The Mongols developed -with amazing speed

for a people who had no prior experience with seafaring -a substantial navy

that played a major role in the conquest of the Song Empire. After the

conquest of China was completed, the great Mongol war fleets were used to put

down pirates, who threatened river and overseas commerce, and, toward the end

of Kubilai's reign, for overseas expeditions of conquest and exploration.

Thus, during the Yuan period, artisans and traders enjoyed a level of

government backing and social status that was never again equaled in Chinese



     Ironically, despite the Mongol's ingrained suspicion of cities and

sedentary life-styles, both flourished in the Yuan era. The urban expansion

begun under the Tang and Song dynasties continued, and the Mongol elite soon

became addicted to the diversions of urban life. Though traditional Chinese

artistic endeavors, such as poetry and essay writing, languished under the

Mongols in comparison with their flowering in the Tang-Song eras, popular

entertainments, particularly musical dramas, flourished. Perhaps the most

famous of Chinese dramatic works, The Romance of the West Chamber, was written

in the Yuan period, and dozens of major playwrights wrote for the court, the

rising merchant classes, and the well-heeled Mongol elite. Actors and

actresses, who had long been relegated by the Confucian scholars to the

despised status of "mean people," achieved celebrity and some measure of

social esteem. All of this rankled the scholar-gentry, who bided their time,

waiting for the chance to restore Confucian decorum and what they believed to

be the proper social hierarchy for a civilized people like the Chinese.


     Initially at least, Kubilai Khan pursued policies toward one social

group, the peasants, that the scholarly class would have heartily approved. He

issued edicts forbidding Mongol cavalrymen from turning croplands into pasture

and restored the granary system for famine relief that had been badly

neglected in the late Song. Kubilai also sought to reduce peasant tax and

corvee-labor burdens, partly by redirecting peasant payments from local

non-official tax farmers directly to government officials. He and his advisors

also formulated a revolutionary plan to establish elementary education at the

village level. Though the level of learning they envisioned was rudimentary,

such a project - if it had been enacted - would have provided a major

challenge to the elite-centric educational system that hitherto had dominated

Chinese civilization.


     If the scholar-gentry were upset over reports of the impending

educational reforms, the peasants grew disgruntled about a further rural

project that was put into effect. All peasant households were organized into

50-unit clusters that were intended to enhance peasant cooperation, improve

farming techniques, and increase productivity. Because each cluster was

supervised by state officials and each household was responsible for reporting

misdeeds by members of the others, the scheme was also clearly a device for

asserting state control. Because in practice its control functions were

favored at the expense of its potential for agrarian improvement, the

reorganization was increasingly resented by the peasants, whose discontent had

much to do with the rapid demise of the Yuan dynasty.


The Fall Of The House Of Yuan


     Historians often remark on the seeming contradiction between the military

prowess of the Mongol conquerors and the short life of the dynasty they

established in China. Kubilai Khan's long reign encompassed a good portion of

the nine decades that the Mongols ruled all of China. Already by the end of

his reign, the dynasty was showing signs of weakening. Song loyalists raised

the standard of revolt in the south, and popular hostility toward the foreign

overlords was expressed more and more openly. The Mongol aura of military

invincibility was badly tarnished by Kubilai's rebuffs at the hands of the

military lords of Japan and the failure of the expeditions that he sent to

punish them, first in 1274 and a much larger effort that was mounted in 1280.

The defeats suffered by Mongol forces engaged in similar expeditions to

Vietnam and Java in this same period further undermined the Mongols' standing.


     Kubilai's dissolute life-style in his later years, partly brought on by

the death of his favorite wife Chabi and, five years later, the death of his

favorite son, set the tone for a general softening of the Mongol ruling class

as a whole. Kubilai's successors lacked his capacity for leadership and cared

little for the tedium of day-to-day administrative tasks. Many of the Muslim

and Chinese functionaries to whom they entrusted the finances of the empire

enriched themselves through flagrant graft and corruption. This greatly

angered the hard-pressed peasantry who had to bear the burden of rising taxes

and demands for forced labor. The scholar-gentry played on this discontent by

calling on the people to rise up and overthrow the "barbarian" usurpers.


     By the 1350s, the signs of dynastic decline were apparent. Banditry and

piracy were widespread, and the government's forces were too feeble to curb

them. Famines hit many regions and spawned local uprisings that grew to engulf

large portions of the empire. Secret religious sects, such as the White Lotus

Society, were formed that were dedicated to the overthrow of the dynasty.

Their leaders' claims that they had magical powers to heal their followers and

to confound their enemies helped prompt further peasant resistance against the

Mongols. As had been the case in the past, rebel leaders quarreled and fought

with each other. For a time chaos reigned as the Yuan regime dissolved, and

those Mongols who could escape the fury ofpthe mob retreated back into central

Asia. The restoration of peace and order came from an unexpected quarter.

Rather than a regional military commander or aristocratic lord, a man from an

impoverished peasant family, Ju Yuanzhang, emerged to found the Ming dynasty

that would rule China for most of the next three centuries.


Analysis And Conclusion


Analysis: The Eclipse Of The Nomadic War Machine


     As the shock waves of the Mongol and Timurid explosions amply

demonstrated, nomadic incursions into the civilized cores have had an impact

on global history that far exceeds what one would expect, given the relatively

small numbers of nomadic peoples and the limited resources of the regions they

inhabited. From the time of the great Indo-European migrations in the

formative epoch of civilized development in the 3d and 2d millennia b.c. (see

Chapters 2, 3 and 4) through the classical and postclassical eras, nomadic

peoples periodically emerged from their steppe, prairie, and desert fringe

homelands to invade, often build empires, and settle in the sedentary zones of

Eurasia, Africa, and the Americas. Their intrusions have significantly altered

political history by destroying existing polities and even -as in the case of

Assyria and Harappa -whole civilizations. They have also generated major

population movements, sparked social upheavals, and facilitated critical

cultural and economic exchanges across civilizations. As the Mongols' stunning

successes in the 13th century illustrate, the capacity of nomadic peoples to

break through the defenses of the much more populous civilized zones and to

establish control over much richer and more sophisticated peoples arose

primarily from the advantages the nomads possessed in waging war.


     A reservoir of battle-ready warriors and mobility have from ancient times

proven the key to success for expansion-minded nomads. Harsh environments and

ongoing intertribal and interclan conflicts for survival within them produced

tough, resourceful fighters who could live off the land on the march and who

regarded combat as an integral part of their lives. The horses and camels on

which pastoral peoples in Eurasia and Sudanic Africa relied gave them a degree

of mobility that confounded the sedentary peoples who sought to ward off their

incursions. The mounted warriors of nomadic armies possessed the advantages of

speed, surprise, and superior intelligence, which was gathered by mounted

reconnaissance patrols. The most successful nomadic invaders, such as the

Mongols, also proved willing to experiment with and adapt to technological

innovations with military applications. Some of these, such as the stirrup and

various sorts of harnesses, were devised by the nomads themselves. Others,

such as gunpowder and the siege engines -both Muslim and Chinese -that the

Mongols used to smash the defenses of walled towns, were borrowed from

sedentary peoples and adapted to the nomads' fighting machines.


     Aside from the considerable military advantages that accrued from nomadic

life-styles and social organization, their successes in war owed much to the

weaknesses of their adversaries in the sedentary, civilized zones. The great

empires that provided the main defense for agricultural peoples against

nomadic incursions were even in the best circumstances diverse and

overextended polities, in which imperial control -and protection -diminished

steadily as one moved away from the capital and core provinces. Imperial

boundaries were usually fluid, and the outer provinces were consistently

vulnerable to nomadic raids, if not conquest.


     Classical and postclassical empires, such as the Egyptian and Han and the

Abbasid, Byzantine, and Song enjoyed great advantages over the nomads in terms

of the populations and resources they controlled. But their armies were,

almost without exception, too slow, too low on firepower, and too poorly

trained to resist large and well-organized forces of nomadic intruders. In

times of dynastic strength in the sedentary zones, well-defended fortress

systems and ingenious weapons -such as the cross bow, which could be fairly

easily mastered by the peasant conscripts -proved quite effective against

nomadic incursions. Nonetheless, even the strongest dynasties depended heavily

on "protection" payments to nomad leaders and the divisions among the nomadic

peoples on their borders for their security. And even the strongest sedentary

empires were periodically shaken by nomadic raids into the outer provinces.

When the empires weakened or when large numbers of nomads were united under

able leaders, such as Muhammad and his successors or Chinggis Khan, nomadic

assaults made a shambles of sedentary armies and fortifications.


     In the centuries after the Mongol and Timurid explosions, which in many

ways represented the apex of nomadic power and influence on world history,

this age-old pattern of interaction between nomads and farming town-dwelling

peoples was fundamentally transformed. This transformation resulted in the

growing ability of sedentary peoples to first resist and then dominate nomadic

peoples, and it marks a major watershed in the history of the human community.

Some of the causes of the shift were immediate and specific. The most critical

of these was the devastation wrought by the Black Death on the nomads of

Central Asia in the 14th century. Though the epidemic proved catastrophic for

large portions of the civilized zones as well, it dealt the relatively sparse

nomadic populations a blow from which they took centuries to recover. The more

rapid demographic -relating to population trends -resurgence of the sedentary

peoples greatly increased their already considerable numerical advantage over

the nomadic peoples in the following centuries. The combination of this

growing numerical advantage, which in earlier epochs the nomads had often been

able to overcome, with key political and economic shifts and technological

innovations proved critical in bringing about the decline of the nomadic war



     In the centuries after the Mongol conquests, the rulers of sedentary

states found increasingly effective ways of centralizing their political power

and mobilizing the manpower and resources of their domains for war. Some

improvements in this regard were made by the rulers of China and the empires

of the Islamic belt. But the sovereigns of the nascent states of western

Europe surpassed all other potentates in advances in these spheres. Stronger

control and better organization allowed a growing share of steadily increasing

national wealth to be channeled toward military ends. The competing rulers of

Europe also invested heavily in technological innovations with military

applications, from improved metalworking techniques to the development of ever

more potent gunpowder and firearms. From the 15th and 16th centuries, the

discipline and training of European armies also improved markedly. With pikes,

muskets, fire drill, and trained commanders, European armies were more than a

match for the massed nomad cavalry that had so long terrorized sedentary



     With the introduction early in the 17th century of light, mobile field

artillery into European armies, the nomads' retreat began. States such as

Russia, which had centralized power on the western European model, as well as

the Ottoman Empire in the eastern Mediterranean and the Qing in China, which

had shared many of the armament advances of the Europeans, moved steadily into

the steppe and desert heartlands of the horse and camel nomads. Each followed

a conscious policy of settling part of its rapidly growing peasant population

in the areas taken from the nomads. Thus, nomadic populations were not only

brought under the direct rule of sedentary empires, their pasturelands were

plowed and planted wherever the soil and water supply permitted.


     These trends suggest that the nomadic war machine had been in decline

long before the new wave of innovation that ushered in the Industrial

Revolution in the 18th century. But that process sealed its fate. Railways and

repeating rifles allowed sedentary peoples to penetrate even the most wild and

remote of the nomadic refuges and subdue even the most determined and fierce

of nomadic warriors, from the Plains Indians of North America to the bedouin

of the Sahara and Arabia. The periodic nomadic incursions into the sedentary

zones, which had reoccurred sporadically for millennia, had come to an end.


Conclusion: The Mongol Legacy and an Aftershock: The Brief Ride of Timur


[See Timur The Lame: In 1398 Timur-i Lang's central Asian armies left Delhi

completely destroyed and India politically fragmented.]


     As we have seen, the Mongol impact on the many areas where they raided

and conquered varied considerably. The sedentary peoples on the farms and in

the cities, who experienced the fury of their assaults and the burden of their

tribute exactions, understandably emphasized the destructive side of the

Mongol legacy. But the Mongol campaigns also decisively influenced the course

of human history in the ways they altered warfare and the political

repercussions they generated in invaded areas. Mongol armies, for example,

provided openings for the rise of Moscow as the central force in the creation

of a Russian state, they put an end to Abbasid and Seljuk power, and they

opened the way for the Mameluks and the Ottomans. The Mongol Empire promoted

trade and important exchanges among civilizations, though, as the spread of

the black death illustrates, the latter were not always beneficial. Mongol

rule also brought stable, at times quite effective, government and religious

toleration to peoples over much of Asia. On balance, it can be argued that the

cost of these by-products of Mongol expansion was far too high. However high

the price, there can be little doubt that the Mongol interlude changed the

course of human history in major ways. It represented the most significant

involvement of nomadic peoples in the development of civilization since the

transition to sedentary agriculture in the Neolithic epoch.


     Just as the peoples of Eurasia had begun to recover from the upheavals

caused by Mongol expansion, a second nomadic explosion from central Asia

plunged them again into fear and despair. This time the nomads in question

were Turks, not Mongols, and their leader, Timur-i Lang or Timur the Lame, was

from a noble landowning clan, not a tribal, herding background. Timur's was a

decidedly divided personality. On the one hand, he was a highly cultured

individual who delighted in the fine arts, lush gardens, and splendid

architecture, and who could spend days conversing with great scholars such as

the Muslim historian Ibn Khaldun. On the other, he was a ruthless conqueror,

apparently indifferent to human suffering and capable of commanding his troops

to commit atrocities on a scale that would not be matched in the human

experience until the 20th century. Beginning in the 1360s, his armies moved

out from his base at Samarkand to conquests in Persia, the Fertile Crescent,

India, and southern Russia.


     If his empire did not begin to compare with that of the Mongols in size,

he outdid them in the ferocity of his campaigns. In fact, Timur is remembered

for little more than truly barbaric destruction -for the pyramids of skulls he

built with the heads of the tens of thousands of people slaughtered after the

city of Aleppo in Asia Minor was taken, or the thousands of prisoners he had

massacred as a warning to the citizens of Delhi in north India not to resist

his armies. In the face of this wanton slcughter, the fact that he spared

artisans and scientists to embellish his capital city at Samarkand counts for

little. Unlike the Mongols, his rule brought neither increased trade and

significant cross-cultural exchanges nor internal peace. Mercifully, his reign

was as brief as it was violent. After his death in 1405, his empire was pulled

apart by his warring commanders and old enemies anxious for revenge. With his

passing, the last great challenge of the steppe nomads to the civilizations of

Eurasia came to an end.

World History Center