stone bowl

History 100

World History to 1500

All material appearing on this page is copyrighted by Michele Scott James, 2006.

Lecture 13

So, we’ve conquered the world, now what do you want to do?


A People and Their Environment

Modern Mongols moving to summer pasture
Modern Mongols moving to summer pasture

Well, of course everybody is a product of their environment to some extent, even us today, though we try to deny it. But it is helpful to begin to look at the Mongols by looking at their environment. They lived in a region that we generally call the steppes. Steppes just means “grasslands.” These grasslands were arid, cold, and high in elevation. The growing season there was too short for proper agriculture, even if there had been the possibility of irrigation. So, the Mongols, and all folks from this region resorted to the best lifestyle to fit the land: pastorialism.

The Mongols moved seasonally with their flocks of sheep and yaks, driving them with their ponies. They had few permanent settlements, instead preferring to use seasonal encampments. They engaged in trade with the other nomadic groups in the region, and they occasionally raided the settle peoples nearby. For the Mongols, like many nomadic horse-riding groups before them, had a trade and raid mentality. They were perfectly happy to trade when it suited them and their trading partners (usually the various settled peoples around them), and perfectly happy to raid any reluctant trading partners. They viewed the settled peoples as very wealthy, and this gave them a share the wealth attitude, and earned them a special nickname from the Chinese: barbarians.

The Mongols were organized into clans, with a clan leader or patriarch. It was a male dominated society, and men could have more than one wife, but women also enjoyed a lot of power and autonomy, for they ran the camps when the men were out trading, raiding, or warring.

Horses played an important part in Mongol society, and it was in fact said (although I personally doubt this) that Mongol children (boys and girls) learned to ride before learning to walk. Toddlers could indeed ride, and young boys of five could handle weapons. Hungarian witnesses said that Mongols could live on horse back for up to ten days, drinking blood from a small hole in the horses neck (it doesn’t hurt the horse). They were known to cover 270 miles in three days. They hunted enemies as they would game, drawing them forward into Mongol held lands with a small group and then surrounding them with a larger force and hunting them down. They were able to circle villages riding around and around, and appeared to have much larger numbers than they really did. They also often sent advance word or their arrival, which encouraged people to surrender as soon as they arrived—which they often did.

Mongols laying seige to a Persian citadel.
Mongols laying seige to a Persian citadel

One of the secrets to Mongol success was cultural borrowing. As nomads, they moved a lot and had contact with many different peoples. They often borrowed technologies and skills from those peoples. One such group was the Uighurs. The Uighurs had a written language based on Alamaic (related to Turkish and English by the way) which they helped the Mongols adapt. They also joined the Mongols and became their scribes. The Uighurs make a good demonstration of technology and skills borrowed.

Much of what we know about the Mongols come from the peoples they conquered. As you might imagine, it doesn’t paint a very flattering picture. Quite likely, it doesn’t paint an accurate one either. But we are lucky with the Mongols; they, unlike most other nomadic groups, left us with their own version of history called The Secret History of the Mongols. In it, we find their own account of their origins in this foundation myth.

Long ago, a group of proto-Mongols (the people who would become Mongols but hadn’t yet) were on the run from their traditional enemies, the Turks. When out in the wilderness, a woman, Alan-qo’a, gave birth to a child fathered by a Sunbeam. Descendents of this child would come to be called Nirun, or Children of Light. They would go on to found a great empire run by a great family of Khans (Universal Rulers).

Don’t mess with Genghis Khan

The most famous Khan of all time, was of course, Genghis Khan (1167-1227). Temujin was an eighth generation descendent of Alan-q’oa and prophesied to be the one who united all the Mongol clans. But he wasn’t always Khan, and in fact, his beginnings were pretty rocky. When he was twelve, his father, the clan patriarch, was poisoned by the Mongols’ traditional enemy, the Tatars (the Mongols had a lot of traditional enemies). Since Temujin was only twelve, he was deemed incapable of rule by his uncles, who summarily took over the clan and ostracized Temujin, his mother, and all of his brothers and sisters, condemning them to almost certain death in the wilderness without the protection of the clan. But Temujin protected his family, and they hunted, fished, and survived. Eventually Temujin would go into service to another clan leader: Wang Khan.

Genghis Khan
Genghis Khan--artist's representation. We have no actual pictures of him.

Temujin had an excellent military mind, and he was a loyal member of Wang Khan’s staff. He rose through the ranks, eventually becoming a powerful general, and Wang Khan’s right hand man. But Temujin wanted more. He wanted to be a clan leader, and so he did something that would seem completely natural for any young man hoping to move up in the world, and who enjoyed the respect of his employer: he asked for Wang Khan’s daughter’s hand in marriage. And this is Wang Khan’s first mistake: he says no.

This causes a rift between Wang and Temujin. Meanwhile, the headship of Temujin’s clan becomes available, and Wang Khan supports Temujin’s competitors, rather than Temujin. This is Wang Khan’s second mistake.

Then Wang Khan sends a message to Temujin promising reconciliation. Temujin is tipped off by local shepherds that Wang Khan is planning an ambush and so shows up with an army. The battle is indecisive, but Temujin’s chances are looking slim, but winter arrives and everyone goes home to wait for better weather.

In the Spring, Temujin sends a message to Wang Khan asking for a meeting, promising peace. Wang Khan accepts, this is his third mistake, because Temujin’s army soundly defeats him.

map of Mongol Empire
The Mongols had the largest land empire ever.

Temujin takes over Wang Khan’s clan, his own, and eventually unites all of the Mongol clans. He then begins to incorporate other nomadic groups into his confederation, eventually forging a nomadic empire. He then set his sights on the nearby settled kingdoms, starting with China. They didn’t stop until they had built the largest land empire the world had ever seen, stretching from Korea in the East to Hungary in the West. He was declared Great Khan in 1206.

The Mongols had been handed China on a silver platter. You remember when we last left China, it first lost its northern half to the Jurchen under a deal with them to eliminate the Liao in its northern territories; a deal created with the notion that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” The Jurchen were to prove that this was not true, as they stayed and occupied not only the former northern Chinese province formerly occupied by the Liao, but took over all of northern China. The last Song emperor made the same mistake, when he made a deal with the Mongols to eliminate the Jurchen, and the Mongols took over Jurchen land in northern China. The Mongols of course didn’t stop there and eventually took over all of southern China as well.

The Mongols instituted a four class system in China: the Mongols were in charge and on top, other aligned non-Mongol groups were next, including a rather famous Venetian employee of the Mongol government, Marco Polo, the northern Chinese were next, as they lost rather easily, and the southern Chinese were at the bottom, as they fought hard against Mongol domination. The Mongols tended to separate the Mongols and the Chinese with separate legal systems for each. They also patronized all religions in China, including, but not exclusively Confucianism, which angered the Chinese.

The Mongols also built their capital in Beijing, far north of the traditional capital in Chang an/Xian, and even worse, they established a summer capital at Shang-tu  (Superior Capital, known in the West as Xanadu, and made famous by Samuel Coleridge in his famous poem “The Pleasure Dome of Kubla Khan”—yes, he spelled it wrong) which was located north of the Great Wall, and therefore outside of China. In fact, the Mongols frequently went back to their homeland to reconnect with their culture. They refused to speak Chinese, give up milk and yogurt consumption, earning them another nickname: cheese eaters. The Chinese by the way, think that cheese is the most disgusting substance on earth, and they claim to be able to smell you if you eat cheese, and if you like cheese, I suggest you don’t think about how it’s made, it’s not really nice.

Life under the Mongols was very cosmopolitan. As I said, they patronized all religions (David Morgan, a Mongol specialist, calls this a “celestial hedging of the bets.”), and it was a golden age in China for Daoism, Lamaism (a form of Buddhism in Mongolia and Tibet), Islam, and even Christianity. The Catholic Church had an outpost in Beijing under the Mongols. It was also the second great age of the Silk Road, which the Mongols kept running and safe. It is during this time that the technologies of gunpowder, paper, printing, paper money, playing cards and various medicines passed from China to Muslim lands and eventually to the West. It was a time of unprecedented communication between East and West that lasted nearly one hundred years, and would be unequalled until modern times.

The Mongols were an expansionist people, they were not satisfied with China, though it would always remain the center of their empire, and the most important province within it; they began to conquer other empires, powerful ones like Persia, and not so powerful ones like Korea. In 1231 the Mongols attacked Korea and quickly took over. They were particularly abusive to the Koreans, taking the Korean court over through the system of concubinage (they married Mongol princesses to the Crown Princes, and then controlled politics through them), eventually moving the court from the capital in Korea to Beijing. They also exploited the land and the people ruthlessly in their empire building—the worst case of this was in their attempts to subdue Japan. The Koreans were forced to fund, supply, and fight alongside the Mongols in their attempts to take Japan in 1274.

Khubilai’s Weather Report

In 1266 Khubilai Khan sent an envoy to Japan, demanding immediate surrender. The terrified Japanese, always diplomatic, sent a polite refusal. In 1271 they received the news that an invasion was imminent. The Japanese began to build defensive structures along the Kyushu coast, and to move troops there. They also increased all state Shinto and Buddhist rituals for the protection of the state, and they waited.

Hakata Bay after Japan saved by the kamikaze
Hakata Bay after the Japanese were saved by the kamikaze--modern picture.

In 1274 a combined Mongol and Korea force, totally perhaps 30,000, sailed across the Tsushima Straits and landed at Hakata Bay in southern Japan. The Mongol force was greater in number and in military technology. They had brought well-equipped boats, built and crewed by the Koreans (the Mongols weren’t good on the ocean, and the Koreans were), and they fought on horseback (yes, they brought the ponies) with their superior weaponry. The Japanese, with their trained samurai fighters fought valiantly, but, before the battle was decided, the wind began to blow, and the Korean sailors recommended retreat, and insisted that the ships needed to be sailed out into the open ocean.

The Mongols didn’t get it. They refused to leave, so the Koreans got on their boats and sailed home, leaving the Mongols in a strange land, cutting off their retreat. The Japanese hunted them down and killed them.

In 1278 Khubilai Khan sent an ambassador with a new demand for surrender; the Japanese, more confident this time, and considerably less polite, executed him. They then build a wall around Hakata Bay, moved troops southward, increased rituals at Shrines and Temples and waited.

The attack came in 1281, and totaled anywhere from 100,000-140,000 combined Mongol and Chinese troops (yes, they brought the horses again).  The Japanese spirit proved so valiant that they held off the Mongols for seven weeks, but we’ll never know what would have happened, because the wind began to blow. The Chinese sailors said, “We’ve got to get the ships out of here.” But the Mongols said, “No way, we’re about to win.” The Chinese sailors did their best to get the boats out to sea, but about one third of them ended up washed up on the rocks of the Japanese coast, again cutting off Mongol retreat. The Japanese rounded them up and killed them all. The Japanese credited their salvation to the typhoons that they called the Divine Winds (kamikaze—yes it’s the same kamikaze you hear about in the Second World War) called through their prayers.

Even though the Japanese won, the battles were so costly, and the soldiers were never properly compensated, that shortly thereafter the Kamakura Shogunate fell. The Mongols never again attacked Japan, and the Japanese are the only ones to truly beat the Mongols in outright battle, though the Vietnamese kept having to be reconquered and the Indonesians also kept mostly out of Mongol control.

Why does everybody hate us?

Russia fell under Mongol domination in 1236. Combined Mongol and Turkish forces, usually called either the Golden Horde or the Tatars by the Europeans (Tartarus is the name of Classical Hell, and since the Europeans thought that the Mongols had been sent by Satan….), ruled Russia until 1476. They didn’t rule directly, but rather used local nobility to control the people and exact a heavy tribute.  During this time, the Mongols in the region adopted Islam, and so animosity between the now Orthodox Christian subjects, and their Muslim overlords increased.

Battle of Ugra Standing
Battle of Ugra Standing

After 1476, there were a number of confrontations sparked by the refusal of Grand Prince John III to pay the required tribute. In 1480, a battle took place known as The Great Standing on the Ugra River, which conclusively ended Mongol control in the area. Slave raids and battles continued until the first Tsar was enthroned in 1547, when the official history of Russia begins, and conflicts with the Tatars continued up until Catherine the Great expanded Russian territory to the Tatar held Crimea in 1783.

Scholars credit the emergence of a Russian sense of nationality with the harsh treatment the Russians received under the Mongols, and their desire to escape that treatment led to the desire for and eventual achievement of self-rule.

Europe had been under siege by the Mongols since the 1230s; indeed the Mongols were not only attacking, they were winning. They already had Russia, and were on the verge of taking all of Hungary, when one of those lucky moments of good timing occurred.

The Mongols gained a new Khan from the line of Khans, the Nirun, but due to the way the Mongol Confederacy was set up, each new Khan needed to be ratified by all of the heads of clans. So, in 1241, when Ogodei died, all of the clan leaders needed to go back to China, seat of the Great Khan, and ratify his successor. This stopped the momentum of the Mongols, and meant that they never expanded further west. In other words, Europe was saved by the bell, or the death of Ogodei.

Perhaps, unaware of their good fortune, during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the Europeans were much more worried about the Muslims than they were the Mongols, this was their first mistake. The Mongols began to make inroads into Muslim territory, and indeed were such a threat to the Muslims, that they overthrew the Abbasid Dynasty and assassinated its caliph in 1258. This suited Christian Europe just fine: the Bishop of Winchester said, “Let dog bite dog.”

In fact, the Christians decided that since they hated the Muslims, and the Mongols hated the Muslims, that the enemy of their enemy was their friend (sound familiar?) and Pope Nicholas IV wrote to the Il Khan (one of the lesser Khans) of the Levant proposing an alliance between the Crusaders and the Mongols; this was Europe’s second mistake. Lucky, for us, the Great Khan did not consider the Pope, or the people he represented, worth the bother of replying—or all of Europe might have been overrun by Mongols!