The story of Mongol Empire starts from the story of a single warrior in Mongolia, known as Temujin. Born around 1162 AD in a tribal family, in a land known for tribal warriors, Temujin would slowly rise in ranks, and after a series of victories over his rivals would be elected as the leader of the group. As the word Khan meant “ruler” in their land, Temujin was called as Genghis Khan, and referred to as Khagan – meaning the great Khan. Genghis Khan would then lead his Mongol armies out of the Mongolian steppes to create the largest contiguous empire the world has ever seen, cementing his status as arguably the greatest warrior of all times.
Although it was actually his sons and grandsons who aided in making Mongol empire one of the greatest and impactful empires in history, it was Genghis Khan who laid the foundation. Without Genghis Khan, there would be no Mongol empire.
Genghis Khan was a charismatic military genius who gathered all the Mongol and Turkic tribes of Mongolia under his command, mostly through political alliances or conquests. He led this army to several war conquests across the entire land mass of Eurasia from the Pacific Ocean to the Black Sea. By the time of death in 1227, Mongols were already in land as far as Pacific in the East and Caspian Sea in the West, conquering more land in 25 years than what Roman Empire had achieved in 400.
Even after the death of Genghis Khan, the Mongol army through his descendants continued their march towards world dominion. Be it the brutally cold desert of Siberia, or the scorching hot desert of Arabia, Mongols were almost peerless when it came to wars and conquests. Although the empire was eventually split into four units known as the sub-khanates: the Golden Horde in present day Russia, the Chagatai Khanate in present day Central Asia, the IIkhanate in present day Iran and the Yuan in present day China, all four empires was ruled by the descendants of Genghis Khan.
The famous Kublai Khan that we met in our previous story in China, was also a grandson of Genghis Khan, who founded the Yuan (which means “origin”) Empire in China.
Despite having established the greatest contagious empire on earth, Mongols are generally stereotyped as lucky barbarians who mostly only plundered and destroyed wherever they went. While the brutality of their conquests cannot be overlooked, as the estimated casualty from the Mongols conquests is around massive 40 million, it is also reckless to downplay their astuteness in eventually establishing the greatest ever contagious empire, or overlook the overall lasting influence they have had in the world.
The Mongols were astute rulers who were often open to learning and accepting new ideas – be it technological, cultural or religious. Genghis Khan himself had started the system of meritocracy in recruitment of his army, which meant everyone had to earn for his position and only the best ones could rise to the top. He reorganized the army structure at the time by breaking down the traditional clan and blood based divisions. After every conquest, Genghis Khan would incorporate more people under his army, which not only reduced the chances of possible repercussions from the lost armies, but also diversified his own army. The only reason Mongols could adapt and eventually succeed in their conquests in vast diverse regions was their policy to recruit armies on the basis of meritocracy, their openness to recruit diverse armies from even the defeated rivals, and their ability to learn and absorb new technologies and practices.
The Mongols were also unique in their attitude towards religion. Although the Mongols themselves were animists who revered nature gods like Sky and Earth, they were tolerant of the religions of their newly conquered lands. During the period rife with religious wars in other parts of the world, the Mongols built religious tolerance that spanned across all major religions within their empire, be it Islam, Christianity, Buddhism or Confucianism. This policy of religious tolerance ensured an easier governance of conquered territories. In fact, the Mongols were even flexible enough to practice other religions depending on the region they conquered, as is evident by the practice of Buddhism in the Yuan Empire in China and Islam in the Ilkhanate Empire in Iran.
But the biggest impact the Mongols had was in the world of Money. The Yuan empire under Kublai Khan made paper money its official currency, and ensured its credibility by guaranteeing the value of paper money in precious metals, the details of which we covered in our previous article.
But as we have already discussed in our previous piece on money, money is not just a physical construct, but a concept that is built on trust. To ensure that trust ensues, it requires a governance strong on trust and an environment conducive for trade, and the Mongols made sure their empire had both. As the Mongols themselves were pastoral, nomadic people they had to trade for their living mostly, unlike the agriculture lifestyle adopting settlers who could rely on production. Therefore, unlike some of the rulers at the time who would treat traders with contempt and suspicion, Mongols had a very positive outlook towards trade and traders.
As the Mongols had an empire spanning from the Pacific in the East to the Caspian in the West, they could exert their control over a vast region of Europe and Asia. Having a strong unified vast empire meant stability and peace across all regions of Eurasia, which is also referred to by the term Pax Mongolica, which in Latin means Mongol Peace. Before Mongols, Eurasia was filled with several imperial systems which meant travel for merchants was both unsafe and expensive, as they would be levied tax on multiple empires in between. Due to Pax Mongolica, merchants were not only provided with a safe passage to trade, but also relieved of exorbitant tax which they would have been levied earlier in multiple passage points. That coupled with the use of paper money meant the Mongol Empire was a dream world and a safe haven for merchants from all around.
The Mongols went even a step further by offering merchants tax exemptions, and even loaning money to them at low interest rates. They also had an efficient mail system known as Yam, where a messenger would travel a day’s distance on a horse, to relay the message or mail to the next rider who would relay the message further. During that era, it was the fastest possible way of delivering important messages, and a revolutionary system in its own way. Mongols even provided Merchants with a form of passport which allowed them to travel throughout the Eurasian Mongol Empire with ease. In that sense, Mongols were able to have a sort of their own global free trade region in the world.
The Mongols, thus, revolutionized the world of trade. And in doing so, they elevated the influence of merchants in the world. For a long part of history, the kings and priests influenced the big decisions in society, and those around kings and priests were the feudal landlords, all enjoying their aristocratic status in society. The Mongols, in that sense, helped in the rise of the merchant class in societies, as merchants were not only facilitated in their empire, but also valued. And the rise of the merchants was the sign of the changes about to happen in the world. It would eventually be the merchants later, and not the kings and priests that would control and revolutionize the world.
And while the Mongol Empire didn’t survive for that long (as the sub-khanates eventually became less connected and either got dissolved into the regional segments or got defeated), the legacy and contributions of Mongols went beyond even the world of money or mercantile. The Mongols also facilitated the growth of science and engineering, as the unified Mongol empire aided in the amalgamation of ideas and innovations from different parts of the world. One simple example of such amalgamation is the invention of cannon, which resulted from the fusion of Chinese gunpowder, Islamic world’s flamethrowers, and European metalwork.
The Mongols were open to foreigners and their ideas, as is evident by their acceptance of Marco Polo as an advisor at the time of the Yuan Empire in China. During their peak, which lasted for more than 100 years, flow of not only goods and technologies, but important ideas, culture, and philosophy took place in an unprecedented manner.
Be it the flow of great inventions, ideas, or just daily lifestyle products like spices, silk and tea, Mongols turned Eurasia into one global village. And just as today’s global world first shapes us and eventually our future, the global world created by the Mongols in Eurasia has shaped the world that we live in today.
Both of Mongol’s greatest contributions – the rise of merchants and mercantile, and the intercultural fusion of ideas and innovations – was possible only because of the centuries old road the Mongols resuscitated. So, in that sense, the greatest contribution of the Mongols was the resurrection of these fabled roads connecting East to West, known as the Silk Road. It was the Silk Road that had connected East to the West for more than a millennium, that ensured the flow of ideas, philosophies and religion even before the birth of Christ. So, next up, we take our journey to the fabled Silk Road.