About 1162, there was born to a noble clan of the Mongols a child named Temuchin. He grew in prestige and power the way any charismatic individual did in that society, by success in raiding and clan warfare. It was common for charismatic leaders among Asiatic nomads to assemble short-lived confederations as large in area as the United States, only to have them disintegrate when the ruler died or lost his power. By 1206 Temuchin had done what no other tribal leader had ever done before: assemble all the Mongol tribes under a single ruler. At a ceremony in that year he was given the title Khan of Khans and the honorific name by which he is better known to history - Genghis Khan. What separates Genghis Khan (1162-1227) from all his predecessors is that Genghis extended his authority over a vast region and created institutions to perpetuate Mongol power.
China has historically existed in one of three patterns: a unified whole when the central government was powerful, at other times division into northern and southern kingdoms, and occasional periods of disintegration and civil war, called Warring States periods. When Genghis Khan came to power, China was divided into a northern Kin Dynasty and the southern Sung Dynasty. The Mongols invaded the Kin realm and raided it and Korea from 1211 to 1214 before the Kin surrendered and agreed to pay tribute.
In 1218, the event took place that would change Genghis' realm from just another nomadic confederation to a world empire. A caravan traveling from Mongol lands to the Persian Empire was stopped by the governor of a Persian frontier province in modern Uzbekistan. Suspecting, probably correctly, that the caravan included Mongol spies (the Mongols were voracious intelligence gatherers), he ordered the caravan massacred and its goods seized. To the Mongols, ambassadors and caravans under safe-conduct were inviolate, and this violation was unforgivable. Genghis sent ambassadors to the Shah of Persia demanding that the offending governor be turned over. To the Shah, ruler of a populous empire of a million square miles, this request seemed as preposterous as it would seem to us for the President of Haiti to demand that the President of the United States turn over the governor of Florida. The Shah humiliated the Mongol emissaries and put them to death, another unforgivable offense to the Mongols.
Genghis declared war, and although the Mongols took many rich cities with frightful bloodshed, they had barely touched the frontiers of the vast Persian Empire. However, Genghis made good use of the Mongol passion for accurate intelligence; he knew that the Shah's Empire was fragmented and filled with ethnic and religious groups who were held in check only by force. If the demand to turn over the offending governor was bold, what followed next was all but incredible: Genghis ordered two of his generals to hunt down the Shah in his own empire. To use the modern analogy above, imagine that the President of Haiti, having been refused, sends troops to fight their way across the United States to capture the President of the United States. Imagine further that they actually do it. The Mongols obliterated resistance when they encountered it but bypassed areas that offered none. The word soon got out that the Shah was the target, and that interfering with the pursuit was certain death. The Shah was soon in full flight for his life and barely made the Caspian Sea ahead of the Mongols. There, on an island, he died with only a few loyal followers, so poor they could not even afford a burial shroud. Mopping up operations continued until 1223. Intrigued by stories of the Caspian being landlocked, the Mongols sent a reconnaissance in force around the sea on a two-year journey (1222-1224). The Mongols carved a bloody track across Armenia and Georgia, and for the first time Europe learned of the Mongols.
The Mongol conquest of Persia had an interesting effect on Europe. There had long been a rumor of a great Christian King of the East, Prester John. The attack on Persia was thought to be the start of Prester John's campaign to help Europe destroy Islam. The rumors, interestingly enough, had a slender basis in fact. About 500 A.D. an aberrant Christian sect called Nestorianism was suppressed in the Byzantine Empire. (Orthodox Christianity holds that Christ was simultaneously human and divine; Nestorians believed Christ had two distinct personalities. If this seems subtle and irrelevant, welcome to the Middle Ages. It mattered to them.) Many Nestorians took refuge in Persia and from there diffused far across Asia. Many of the Mongols were technically Nestorian Christians, although their Christian beliefs were heavily mingled with other belief systems, and many Mongols saw no contradiction in being both Nestorians and adherents of other religions.
The Mongols were sometimes called the Tatars, which is actually a corruption of the Chinese term for one of the Mongol peoples. In Roman mythology, however, Tartarus was the Roman equivalent of Hell. Thus it's not surprising that Europeans equated the two and soon began calling the Mongols Tartars, the people from Tartarus. (The tartar on your teeth and the cream of tartar in your cupboard come from an Arabic word for a type of resin and have no connection, in case you were wondering.)
Mongol battle tactics were an outgrowth of their natural lifestyle. Between their nomadism and their traditional clan warfare, they received constant practice in riding and archery. Unlike the cumbersome European armies of the time, the Mongols traveled very light and demonstrated extraordinary endurance, living off the land and often spending several days at a time in the saddle.
Once they launched their conquests, they demonstrated remarkable ability to coordinate armies separated by great distances, using dispatch riders to communicate across hundreds of miles of unfamiliar terrain. Their mobility - up to 100 miles a day - was unheard of by armies of the time. The Mongol combination of mobility and communication was probably not equaled again until World War II. Time and again we read of the Mongols performing feats that would not be matched until the Twentieth Century; it's as if Erwin Rommel and George Patton fell through a crack in space-time and came out in the Thirteenth Century.
Mongol tactics were innovative. A favorite ruse was to open a hole in their lines and allow panicked enemy soldiers to flee. After wiping out the disciplined troops who remained, the Mongols hunted down the stragglers. A similar ruse was to put up a stiff fight, then retreat and lead pursuers into an ambush. The Mongols were extremely ruthless in battle but displayed extraordinary military discipline. When a Mongol general violated orders and sacked a city promised to another chief, Genghis Khan ordered him to step down and serve as a common soldier in his own army, which he did, falling soon afterward in battle. Almost alone of the world's armies of the time, the Mongols could be ordered not to pillage a city and would obey; contrast the Crusader sack of Jerusalem in 1099. Although originally nomads, the Mongols were very pragmatic about adopting useful innovations and readily assimilated advanced siege technology. And they were superb and voracious gatherers and users of military intelligence.
Mongol rule in conquered territories had two faces. Resistance and rebellion was countered by ruthless annihilation, but Mongol rule was remarkably benevolent when the populace was cooperative. Conquered areas were generally left under native governors (China was the exception; there the Mongols tended to use outsiders whenever possible). Religious tolerance was important in consolidating rule and gaining the support of minorities oppressed by Moslems. The administration was commonly more benign than pre-Mongol government. In the conquest of Persia, these strategies amounted to "Resist, and you die; cooperate, and you will be better off." This attitude wasn't entirely restricted to the Mongols; the prevailing rule of war was that a besieged city could obtain surrender terms, but if the city resisted and forced the issue to the bitter end, it would bear the consequences.
Some of the Mongol tribes were literate, so we have written collections of the history and traditions of the Mongols, as well as accounts by Persian and Chinese chroniclers. One of the most telling is Genghis Khan's purported value statement. During a respite from his campaigns, he once asked some friends what the greatest pleasure was. After they variously answered hunting, falconry, or archery, Genghis is reputed to have said:
"The greatest joy a man can know is to conquer his enemies and drive them before him. To ride their horses and take away their possessions. To see the faces of those who were dear to them bedewed with tears, and to clasp their wives and daughters in his arms"
Or to paraphrase it in the bluntest possible modern terms: "To kill people, take their property, see and enjoy the pain you have caused their families, and rape their women as a final gesture of power."
These remarks have significance far beyond Mongol history. We often suppose war or crime could be eliminated through social reform and forget (more often deny) that some people enjoy subjugating others, despite massive evidence to the contrary. Leona Helmsley, the "Queen of Mean", once fired an employee on Christmas Eve. Did she forget it was Christmas? Not likely. She enjoyed causing the man and his family extra pain by firing him on Christmas Eve. Saddam Hussein once forced an officer, under threat of death, to divorce his wife so Saddam could marry her. Did he really want the woman? Only temporarily at most - his real thrill was in humiliating the officer and his wife. The idea that people enjoy hurting others is horrifying, even more so the idea that some people freely choose it without the usual modern rationalizations of abuse or poverty.
Many people deal with these issues by simple denial, by believing that with enough equality, no violent cartoons or spanking, and perhaps a vegan diet, we can eliminate cruelty from the world. Genghis' value statement suggests, however, that there will always be those who enjoy hurting others; that we will always need police and armies. And it does no good to say that normal, healthy people don't have such values. Hitler, Stalin, and Idi Amin weren't normal or healthy; until we can guarantee that nobody has such values, we will need to protect ourselves against such people.
One of the fascinating paradoxes of the Mongols is that they combined appalling disregard for human life with steadfast adherence to noble values. Even their harshest detractors commented on their physical courage, endurance, discipline and obedience to their own laws. Women in Mongol society enjoyed a high status and rights that were rare for that time and much later.
One of the most salient characteristics of the Mongols was a strict sense of honor and loyalty, and respect for these qualities in others, even opponents. When Temuchin was still struggling for power, and at a low point in his fortunes, he was wounded in a skirmish. While riding away, he and his band were overtaken by a lone horseman, who rode up and announced that he had fired the arrow that had wounded Temuchin. Temuchin could kill him if he chose, but if not, he would become Temuchin's loyal follower. Temuchin commented on the man's courage and integrity, accepted the offer, and conferred on him the name Jebei, The Arrow. It was a good choice. Jebei became one of Genghis Khan's greatest generals, led the invasion of Persia, and led the great exploratory raid around the Caspian Sea.
In another example, Ye-Leiu Chu-Tsai was a court official in Peking and was captured when the Mongols conquered the city in 1213. His family was part of the Liao Dynasty, which had only recently been overthrown by the Kin Dynasty. Genghis Khan remarked that he should be glad the Mongols had avenged his family, to which Ye-Leiu Chu-Tsai replied that he could not rejoice in the defeat of the Emperor he had pledged to serve. Genghis Kahn, impressed by this loyalty to a defeated Emperor, made him an adviser. Ye-Leiu Chu-Tsai dissuaded Genghis Khan from invading India in 1218 (one can only imagine the carnage had the Mongols invaded India). He also dissuaded Genghis' successor Mongke from a genocidal plan to massacre much of the population of China. Author Michael Prawdin remarks "If we reckon the importance of a statesman by the number of human lives he saves from destruction, Ye-Leiu Chu-Tsai was certainly one of the greatest statesmen the world has ever known." He acquired enemies, but his association with Genghis Khan made him untouchable, even after Genghis' death. Only after Ye-Leiu Chu-Tsai died about 1240 did his enemies dare to act. He was accused of embezzlement. A search of his effects showed that in years in the center of Mongol power, with daily access to the most powerful conquerers on the planet, he had amassed no personal wealth.
Consider the moral dilemmas of a good man in the service of a brutal conqueror. Ye-Leiu Chu-Tsai must certainly have seen and heard of many things that repelled him to the core. Outright opposition would be suicide - worse yet, it would have been ineffective. On the other hand, preserving our own lives to be able to help others can very easily degenerate into a rationalization for cowardice. Navigating between the two extremes requires both physical courage to stand up in the face of overwhelming power, and moral courage to face relentlessly our own tendency to rationalize and to question our own motives constantly.
Following the conquest of Persia, Genghis turned his attention to some not-yet-conquered lands closer to home, and to the final subjugation of Kin China. When Genghis died in 1227 his son Ogadai was chosen Khan. The Mongols invaded Russia in 1236, eventually conquering all but the northern forest fringes. In the process, a tribe called the Kumans fled west into Hungary. The Hungarians allowed them to stay if they accepted baptism, a requirement the desperate Kumans willingly accepted. The Mongols considered all nomadic peoples their rightful subjects and demanded that King Bela return the Kumans to Mongol control. When he refused, the Mongols attacked in 1241.
Bela prepared as well as any European ruler could, but he was no match for the Mongols. He blocked the mountain passes in the Carpathians with his best troops and hurried back to Buda (In those days Budapest was two cities, Buda west of the Danube and Pest to the east) to convene parliament. He was hardly there when a messenger arrived with the news that the mountain passes had been overrun; three days later Mongol raiders were outside Buda, having covered 300 miles through hostile territory in three days. In a few months the Mongols had smashed all military opposition in Poland and the Balkans and were regrouping to push west. Given this pace and their performance in Persia, they could probably have overrun Europe in a year. But just as they were regrouping, a messenger came with the news of the death of the Khan. Genghis Khan had made a law, to ensure the permanence of his dynasty, that all his descendants, wherever they may be, must return to Karakoram to elect a new Khan. The Mongols broke off the invasion, never to return. This is surely one of the most important but least-known turning points in history.
In What If?, a collection of essays on alternative military history, Cecilia Holland pictures the likely result of a Mongol thrust into Western Europe. She pictures a massive raid rather than a complete occupation; nevertheless, the picture she paints is chilling. Driving across the North German plain, the same route Cold War planners pictured for a Soviet invasion, the Mongols would have made use of expert reconnaissance to target plunder and grazing land. They would have sacked Belgium and Holland, destroying the embryonic financial centers of Europe. They would have turned south into France, destroying Paris and with it the revival of ancient philosophy that it would have hosted a few decades later. Perhaps they would have crossed the Alps and ravaged Italy, destroying the other birthplaces of the Renaissance. In his foreword to the piece, editor Robert Cowley says "The Dark Ages were pure light compared to what could have happened..."
By about 1250 the Mongol empire had split into three semi-independent realms: China and Mongolia, Persia and Russia (the Khanate of the Golden Horde). Although in theory they were subject to the Khan in Mongolia, in practice they were fully independent. In 1255 the Mongol rulers of Persia went to war against the Caliph, invading Syria and Palestine. In 1258 they captured Baghdad, destroyed the city and killed the Caliph.
Iraq in 1258 was very different from present day Iraq. Its agriculture was supported by a canal network thousands of years old. Baghdad was one of the most brilliant intellectual centers in the world. The Mongol destruction of Baghdad was a psychological blow from which Islam never recovered. Already Islam was turning inward, becoming more suspicious of conflicts between faith and reason and more conservative. With the sack of Baghdad, the intellectual flowering of Islam was snuffed out. Imagining the Athens of Pericles and Aristotle obliterated by a nuclear weapon begins to suggest the enormity of the blow. The Mongols filled in the irrigation canals and left Iraq too depopulated to restore them.
The westward advance of the Mongols was halted at one of the decisive battlefields of history, Ayn Jalut, near Nazareth in Israel, in 1260. Here Turkish and Egyptian forces routed the Mongols, preventing an attack on Egypt and North Africa. Significantly, the Golden Horde Mongols of Russia, allied with the Turks, supported the Egyptians as well. For the first time since Genghis Khan, one Mongol group opposed another in war.
Between 1267 and 1279 the Mongols completed the final conquest of China. The amazing element of the conquest is that the Mongols first invaded Yunnan and Sichuan in southwestern China, outflanking China to the west. In 1279 and again in 1281 they made attempts to invade Japan. Both times they found themselves up against a foe as determined as they were. Both times the Mongols were unable to expand their beachhead and the Japanese were unable to drive them out. And both times the issue was decided when a typhoon wrecked the Mongol fleets. These miraculous events gave rise to the notion of "Kamikaze" or "divine wind", the term applied 650 years later to the suicide bombers who attempted to stem the U.S. advance across the Pacific in World War II. The Mongols made a number of forays against Southeast Asia and Indonesia, but, thwarted by unsuitable terrain, distance, and waning energy, these expeditions were unsuccessful. Many of them were punitive expeditions or intended to suppress piracy rather than serious invasion attempts.
In the aftermath of the Mongol blitzkrieg through the Balkans, the first priority of Eastern Europe was to find out who these people were, where they came from, and what they were going to do next. The Pope selected two envoys. One was John of Plano Carpini, selected because he was familiar with the trade routes to Russia. At sixty years old, fat, and in poor health, he seems an unlikely candidate for one of the most heroic diplomatic missions ever carried out. In 1245, he traveled to Kiev, thence to the Mongol camp on the Volga. Upon leaving Kiev, he wrote that he literally did not know if he was going to life or death. When the Mongols discovered he was an emissary, they dispatched him to Mongolia on a journey taking five months, often spending days at a time in the saddle. He traveled 5000 miles through territory totally unknown to Europeans. He earned the respect of the Mongols and completed his mission successfully. His report was accurate and detailed, and correctly diagnosed the Mongol military threat. After 700 years, it is still one of our most valuable historical insights into this era. One could hardly ask more of an agent.
Carpini stands in stark contrast to another papal envoy, Ezzelino, whose arrogance made his mission a complete failure. Ezzelino was dispatched to the Middle East, where it would seem the well-established trade routes would make his mission easier. But Ezzelino's plan was simply to find the first Mongol official he could, deliver a message from the Pope, and get back to Rome. When asked what tribute he was bringing, Ezzelino haughtily replied that the Pope did not give tribute, he received. This was a complete joke to the Mongols, who had superbly accurate intelligence about Europe and who knew perfectly well that the Pope's domains were insignificant compared to the vastnesses the Mongols ruled. They seriously considered killing the entire party on the grounds that they were too preposterous to be real emissaries, but finally yielded to Mongol discipline and sent them onward. So Ezzelino, to his horror, found himself being packed off to Mongolia, from whence he finally returned having impressed nobody, accomplished nothing, and learned nothing.
On the heels of these first emissaries came other missionaries like William of Rubruck (1253-55), and traders like brothers Maffeo and Niccolo Polo (1266). On their return to Venice, they invited eighteen-year old Marco to join them. Marco was bright and on the two-year journey learned the four official languages of the Mongol realm. In keeping with the Mongol tactic of using outsiders for sensitive duties in China, Marco and his father and uncle traveled all over China on missions for the Khan. In the process they acquired enemies, and, sensing that the Khan was soon to die, began looking for a means of leaving. It finally came when they were dispatched to escort a Chinese princess to marry an Indian prince. Upon arriving in India, they learned that the Khan had died.
The Polos arrived back in Venice in 1291. According to legend, they were initially denied entrance to their own home, since nobody recognized them. In an incident that, if it's not true, ought to be, the Polos were said to have celebrated their return with a gala banquet. At each course they took off progressively more costly clothes and gave them to the servants. At the final course they reappeared in the tattered rags they wore on their return to Venice, slit the linings, and a flood of gems poured out.
There matters might have ended, if Venice had not gone to war with Genoa. Marco was captured in 1298, and, while waiting to be ransomed, passed the time by telling traveler's tales to his fellow POW's. One of them, a bookseller named Rusticiano of Pisa, recognized a best-seller when he heard it and wrote the stories down, publishing them as Livre des Diversites et Marveilles du Monde (Book of Diversities and Marvels of the World). Rusticiano, of course, had to have scribes write the book by hand - this is before printing.
The book was an instant sensation, too fabulous to believe and too beguiling not to. On his deathbed in 1323, Marco was urged to recant his tales for the good of his soul and retorted that he had not told half of what he actually saw. And if he described fantastic things like the roc, that could carry off an elephant in its talons, he described many things we now know are accurate. One of the things that was widely cited as a disproof of his tales was his story of seeing the Sun on his right as he sailed from China to India, yet that's exactly what he would see in the tropics in Northern Hemisphere summer. (Marco is probably the first recorded European to cross the Equator.) He describes stones used for fuel (coal) and cloth that will not burn (asbestos). He describes tribes in the far north that see months of darkness in the winter - an accurate account of life above the Arctic Circle.
Interestingly enough, it wasn't the fables that aroused suspicions of lying, but the ordinary things. Europeans could believe in rocs and tribes of one-eyed men; they couldn't believe in the endless list of country after country, full of ordinary people, with China at the far end, bigger than Europe, with larger and cleaner cities, ships larger than anything in Europe, and money made of paper.
But the stakes were too high to ignore the possibility that Marco's tales might be true, and people went to see. The Mongol pacification and unification of a vast area had made it possible for the first time to travel safely from Europe to China. By 1340 trade between Europe and China was so continuous that Francesco Pegolotti wrote La Practica della Mercatura (The Practice of Trade), one of the first travel guidebooks. Pegolotti describes what to buy and sell on each leg of the journey, where to find guides, translators and housekeepers, and hammers away on the still-incredible fact that travelers can get a piece of paper for their goods in Persia and redeem it for something valuable in China. In the early 1300's there were two dozen recorded diplomatic missions between Europe and China in both directions, and Roman Catholic archbishops presiding over congregations on the East China Sea. Mongol ambassadors came to Rome, Paris, Barcelona, Valencia, and London.
This incredible window of trans-Eurasian contact lasted only a few decades but its impact was profound. Gunpowder, the compass, a siege machine called the trebuchet, possibly the concept of the clock escapement, and the concept of printing came to Europe. Even more important, perhaps, was the broadening of European horizons. Even the earliest visitors to Mongolia found Europeans already there, caught up and swept along in the tides of war. Nobody ever wrote their amazing stories down, but below the level of the Marco Polos were huge numbers of Europeans for whom China was no longer a myth but a place.
Kublai Khan was the last great Mongol Khan. After him came a succession of weak and increasingly assimilated rulers. Peasant revolts broke out and eventually became widespread enough to topple the government. The Mongols reverted to their traditional role on the periphery of China with one exception: now the Chinese army knew how to fight Mongol style. This time the Chinese pursued them into Mongolia and destroyed the Mongol capital at Karakoram. Also the Chinese introduced Tibetan Lamaism, with its emphasis on celibacy and pacifism, as a means of subduing the Mongols. Never again would the Mongols threaten China. The Mongol, or Yuan Dynasty was over; the Ming Dynasty had begun. The Ming Dynasty was a golden age of Chinese culture but also an isolationist period. The Chinese expelled foreigners and the land route to China closed in 1368.
Successor kingdoms of the Mongols played a role in Asian history for centuries after. If China was no longer Mongol, Central Asia, Russia and Persia still were. Timur the Lame, or Tamerlane (1336-1405) briefly created a huge Mongol empire from the Middle East to India. In 1526, the Mongol Babar founded an empire, the Mogul (Mongol) Empire, that covered much of present Afghanistan and Pakistan. His successor Akbar (ruled 1556-1605) conquered India. Mogul rule in India lasted until 1857. The term "mogul" has come to mean any extremely powerful person.
The Mongol subjugation of Russia was brutal and humiliating and contributed greatly to that sense of tragedy that so deeply imbues Russian culture and art. Finally, though, the Russian czars, by marriage and conquest, eventually assumed some of the Mongol titles. The amazingly rapid and uneventful Russian expansion to the Pacific in the 1600's may have been facilitated by the Russian czars being seen as the legitimate successors of the khans. In Mongol society, subordination to a powerful chief was not seen as subjection but as sharing in his power. The last surviving remnant of the once vast Khanate of the Golden Horde lingered in the Crimea until 1783, when it was absorbed by Russia. However, the Crimean Tartars remained a distinct ethnic group until many of them were deported to Siberia by Stalin during the 1930's and 1940's.
The original source of this quote is hard to track. Howorth (1876, p. 404) quotes it and attributes it to an early 19th century history in French by Baron d'Ohsson. The possibility it's a fabrication can't be wholly ruled out. The actions and values of Leona Helmsley, Saddam Hussein, etc., can't be dismissed quite so casually.
Created 27 August 1998, Last Update 25 September 1998
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