If I had to condense 4,000 years of early human history into a sentence – Bronze Age to Middle Ages, Caves to Castles, that sort of era– I would say that it was a struggle between nomads and settlers. The ones who hunted, gathered, moved constantly and lived healthily and those who stayed put, lived in close proximity with each other, became more susceptible to disease and social dysfunction and – wait, how come us settlers won again? Oh, right, we invented beer. Anyway, in terms of the great Nomads of Settlers debate the Mongols look like a bit of an afterthought – l’esprit d’escalier, that great point you only come up with once the argument’s long gone. In this case, one last proving of nomadic power in the middle of what we settlers were calling the Middle Ages. But saying that isn’t Holistic History. Saying that is ignoring the massive effect the Mongols have had on the world, on purpose and by accident. Saying that is ignoring the largest land empire the world has ever seen, carved from some of the world’s most powerful countries and within the lifetime of one man. Saying that is ignoring the fact that, when you look at it, the Nomads never really lost at all. This is a story of wrath, rape, religion and riding. This is the story of an empire simultaneously brutal and benevolent, one that created lasting peace in a continent that really wasn’t built for it and one that will never, ever be forgotten. This is the story of the Mongols. The story of the Mongols starts with Genghis Khan in about 1200AD because the Mongols themselves start with Genghis Khan in about 1200AD. I mean that literally: before then, they didn’t exist. Not in a “summoned out of thin air” kind of way (although it must have felt like it for some of the civilisations they conquered), rather that the idea of a single, Mongol identity was created then from previously competing tribes that formed a kind of Mongol federation. Genghis Khan – or Temujin Borjigin Khan, because Genghis Khan just means “Fair King” or “Strong King” – was the one who created this federation, and so was the first one to really prove what a unified Mongol tribe could do. Here’s a spoiler: They could do a freaking lot.
Need some perspective? As per usual, you’ll need to look at a map. When the federation was formed (1206) they owned…well, Mongolia, as you could probably have guessed. By Genghis’ death (1227), it would stretch from the Caspian Sea to Korea. And at the height of his grandson’s reign (1279), it would have stretched to encompass China, Iran, the ‘Stans, the Kievan Rus and even parts of the Himalayas. They had gone from the infertile grassland of Northern Asia to the ridiculously varied Most of Asia, and all in three lifetimes. Since that tends to look good on a civilisation’s CV – I mean, it gets you 7 Units in Risk, for god’s sake – it’s definitely worth me talking about how they did it. See, the Mongols weren’t like any other tribe before them. For a start, they allocated positions – band leader, local chief, all that sort of thing – based on your skill, not your ancestry. For the first time in the steppes, tribes weren’t unhappy to be absorbed, because they kept their old leaders and fought for a much more powerful version of themselves. That lack of antagonism? Pretty damn useful .They were also absolutely brutal – Genghis’ men were legendary in their brutality and, to be honest, if you’re not converted by Mongol culture you will be by the threat of having your head top one of their trademark skull pyramids. Finally, the Mongols were surprising in that they were tolerant. Their religion – Tengriism – says that there is no one true path to God and that all religions are tolerable, so when they conquered, say, the largest Islamic Empire at the time, or the seat of the Christian Orthodox Church, they weren’t too hurried to convert. This made them, if not popular, acceptable, and allowed them to build an empire across a population that was as huge as it was diverse. The Mongols were top dog in a continent that seemed to be built for them. That, in a weird way, is why they fell apart.
See, the Mongol Empire had two threats, each inspired by how powerful the bloody thing was. There was a weird alliance of Crusaders and Mujahedeen (that’s Christians and Muslims working together, IN THE 13TH CENTURY) who were scared of being having their power taken away, and there was a clash of successor Khans who were scared of not inheriting their power in the first place. In the end, the constant conflict brought about by the Holy and Civil War waging split the empire into four parts: The Golden Horde in Russia (remember them?), the Chagatai Horde in Central Asia, the Ilkhanate in Iran (who later got invaded by Timur the Lame in a sizzling piece of Mongol-on-Mongol action and became the Timurids) and the Yuan Dynasty in China. Each really deserves a Holistic History to themselves, so for now I’ll just say they all followed a similar pattern of decline – adopt local religion and stay powerful for a little while, piss off every non-Mongol in the vicinity, get invaded like there’s no tomorrow and up a long chapter in a local history book. It’s sad if you think the Mongols were romantic empire-builders, but because they didn’t have good PR guys like the Brits, people generally don’t.
What’s important about the Mongols is how different world history would be without them. Because they razed cities like Baghdad and Kiev and Kabul, they shifted power away from those areas and caused a lasting poverty that can still be seen today. Because they brought better Asian trade and, with it, the Black Death, they inadvertently destroyed the feudal system in Europe – higher prices for peasant labour because…well, fewer peasants resulted in a lot of countries developing proto-capitalist systems. But then the disease also killed 30% of people in Europe, so it’s not exactly win-win. Because they left their subjects alone, even encouraged their religions and culture, they ensured the survival of civilisations that would otherwise have been swept away by a more evangelical invader. That confusing mix of good and bad, of tolerant and bloodthirsty, is what makes the Mongols so interesting – no, what makes history so interesting as a whole. There are no black and white morals, but a hell of a lot of shades of grey. That’s something we’d do well not to forget.