By Catriona Macpherson


The steppe region, situated north of the Gobi Desert, toward the Altai, Kentei and the Khangai Mountains, lay north of China and Eastern Turkestan. Today it takes in the area of Mongolia and southern Siberia. It was the traditional home-land of numerous nomadic tribes which belonged to the three branches of the Altaic race: the Turkic, the Mongol, and the Tungusic. Most of the nomads in this area were Mongols, however, it was only later that they actually called themselves Mongols. They shared with the Turks and the Tunguz a number of ethnological traits, particularly the language.

In the twelfth century the ancestors of the Mongols were divided into clans, omuk, which were divided into sub-clans, yasun. At times several clans would merge into a tribe or small nation, ulus. These coalitions were brought about by a variety of causes. Sometimes a war-lord would be instrumental in gathering together a number of clans. Sometimes one strong clan would absorb several other clans thereby making itself much stronger. Sometimes weaker clans would freely join with other clans for protection. Whatever the reason for these merges, they formed and reformed over the years.

Because of the traditional wanderings of these peoples, the exact location of the various tribes can only be guessed at. They ranged from the mountains in the north to the edge of the Gobi in the south, always seeking fresh grazing lands. In winter they migrated southward, with their flocks, families, tents and all their possessions, to escape the bitter cold. New grazing lands could be found to the south. As the snows melted, they moved back north again seeking not only pasture but escape from the heat of the southlands.

The Mongols fell into one of two groups according to their way of life: the pastoral tribes of the steppe and the hunting and fishing tribes of the forest to the north. In some respects the herdsmen and the forest people were not so different. They both hunted, although the herdsmen hunted mainly for food while the forest people not only hunted for food, but also traded the animal skins for other goods. From the time of the Jenghizkhanids, the hunt was also used as training for war and to keep the large standing armies under control. An idle army often meant trouble. The possibility of further conquest and more booty kept the warriors loyal to their leader. Jenghiz Khan exploited this principle of loyalty for without the absolute loyalty of his followers, he could not have conquered so much of the world nor could he have ruled this huge empire. Since the hunt was conducted like a military campaign, the men were kept in fighting trim. In winter the woodsmen strapped wooden or bone runners to their feet and glided over the frozen snow and ice in pursuit of game. They were so fast they could outrun the animals and shoot them at close range. The steppe aristocracy hunted with falcons. The pastoral people, mounted on their sturdy, speedy, steppe ponies; chased the antelope and deer, using lassoes and bows to bring the game down.

The forest tribes had little contact with the more civilized pastoral tribes and thereby seemed more savage than the pastoral tribes to the south. The aristocracy of the pastoral people wielded more influence over their clans than did the forest hunters, hoyin-irgen. The pastoral leaders affected titles such as baghatur (valiant), noyan (chief), and sechen (wise). The chief occupation of the aristocracy was finding grazing lands, nutuq, and getting a sufficient number of slaves, boghul, to take care of the herds. They also exercised authority over the other social classes: the freemen or warriors, nokud, common people, qaracha arad, and the boghul. The slaves consisted of conquered tribes who had become vassals of victorious tribes and who looked after their herds and often were pressed into service as auxiliaries in a Mongol wartime army.

The pastoral tribes were richer than the forest tribes; their herds and flocks being their wealth. From the animals they obtained food, shelter, clothing and weapons. The forest people were dependent upon the fish and animals they could find and this varied from season to season and year to year. In lean times they were reduced to digging roots from the ground and snaring rats and other rodents for meat.

The Mongols had two basic types of dwelling. The ger, a round felt tent that needed many wooden poles and laths for support, was adopted by the people living near the forests where there was a ready supply of wood. The maikhan was a low, wide, woolen tent; using less wood in its construction which made it more suitable for nomads living in the nearly treeless steppe. Eventually even the forest Mongol replaced his bark hut with the ger.

The ger was set up on a circular frame of interlaced sticks with an opening at the top where the smoke from the fire that was built in the center of the tent could escape. The framework was covered with felt which was coated with chalk, or powdered bone to whiten it. In front of the doorway, which always faced south, hung felt embroidered with animals, birds, trees, and vines. Tents, which were thirty feet wide, were mounted on wagons, qara' utai tergen or qasaq-tergen. As many as twenty oxen would be used to pull a cart with a large tent on it, and one man would stand in the doorway of the house on the cart and drive the oxen from there. The forest Mongols had no cities but groups of camps, ayil, arose along the paths of their migrations. Felt tents mounted on wagons were drawn up in circles, kuriyen, or temporary groups which were forerunners of future towns.

By the late thirteenth century, the tents of the Jenghiz- Khanate grand khans were more ornate, containing piles of furs and carpets, silk and brocade linings, gold and silver objects, and other fine furnishings obtained by raiding and trading. They were so spacious and comfortable they were actually traveling palaces.

The Mongols were short with heavy, stocky bodies held up by bowlegs, a result of practically living in the saddle. They had very large round heads; broad faces; wide, flat noses; almond- shaped eyes; thick lips; and prominent cheekbones. Their swarthy skins had been tanned by the sun, wind and frost, even though they smeared their faces with a protective coating of grease. They had sparse beards, fairly bushy mustaches and straight black hair. Often their long ears were pierced and decorated with a ring. Their heads were usually shaved, except for hair left on the sides of the head which they braided and looped up behind the ears. The clothing of the men, unmarried women, and young girls was the same. They wore tunics which were open from top to bottom, folded over the breast, and fastened on the right side. Some tunics were made from buckram and if one were wealthy he might have had a tunic of brocade or velvet.

Outer fur garments were the same style with the hairy side out; under tunics had the hair on the inside. The outer tunic was slit in the back and had a tail which reached to the knees. The warriors wore trousers tucked into stubby felt or leather boots. Over the trousers they wore surcoats or long robes which reached the calf. They were split at the sides and gathered in at the waist by a girdle; the loose ends hanging down in front. Because of the cold their sleeves were gathered in tightly at the wrist. They wore a short fur cape over their shoulders and fur caps protected their heads. Some warriors strapped their trousers at the ankles instead of tucking them into their boots. The sheath for the bow hung from the belt in front of the left thigh. The quiver, suspended from the belt, hung across the small of the back, with the barbs of the arrows pointing toward the right.

Married women wore a full, ground-length tunic which was open from top to bottom in the front. On their heads they wore a boghtaq, a headdress, the framework of which often was made of twigs or bark, covered with brocade, velvet or buckram and ornamented with jewels or feathers. The boghtaq distinguished a married woman from an unmarried one, and she never appeared in front of men without this headdress.

Mongol women rode their horses astride like the men. Some carried bows and arrows and were known to fight beside the men. Around their waists they would tie their cloaks with a piece of sky-blue silk, and with another piece of material they would bind their breasts. A piece of white material was stretched beneath their eyes and it hung down to their breasts. The most desireable Mongol women were plump with small noses. Many women cut off all or part of their noses in an attempt to appear more beautiful. They painted their faces with gaudy colors and sometimes used black paint on their faces. Mongol women did not lie on a bed to give birth to their children, preferring to stand or crouch during the birth process.

The most valued possessions of the Mongols were their flocks and herds, without which they could not have survived.

The flesh and milk were their chief foods. The hides were used for clothing, quivers for their arrows, tallow for water-proofing leather and felt, and for armor. Wool from the sheep and goats was used in clothing and to make felt. Horns and bones were used to make tools and weapons. Without his horse and weapons a Mongol could not survive. The steppe pony was just as strong and tough as its owner. It was short and stocky, about thirteen to fourteen hands high, with a dense coat which kept it warm in the winter. They were capable of traveling great distances without tiring. A Mongol on a single pony had been known to travel six hundred miles in no more than nine days. Using a remount system, Jenghiz Khan's army travelled one hundred and thirty miles in just two days with no breaks for food. His great general, Subodai, and his army covered one hundred and eight miles in three days through deep snow.

Mongol horses grazed as they traveled, rooting beneath the snow for mosses, lichens and dried grass; even eating leaves from trees. Their obedience to their riders' commands was instantaneous. They had been trained to give the rider a steady platform from which he could shoot his arrows. As his horse raced away, a Mongol warrior could turn in his saddle and accurately shoot an arrow at his pursuer.

In addition to the four wheeled carts upon which the Mongols carried their tents, they had two wheeled carts which were covered with black felt, that had been treated with tallow to waterproof it. These carts were drawn by horses, oxen and camels, and carried their families, possessions and food, making the Mongols very mobile indeed.

The men made their bows and arrows, saddles, bits and stirrups. They built the houses and the carts, looked after the camels and horses, milked the mares, and made the skins in which the qumiz was stored. Along with the women they loaded the camels. Both men and women looked after the goats and sheep and took turns milking them. The men and women dressed the skins with sour ewe's milk which had been thickened and salted. To wash their hands or head, they filled their mouth with water, spat small amounts of water from the mouth into the hands, wet their hair and washed their head.

The men at all times were ready for war. Each warrior made sure his weapons were repaired and ready for immediate use. His bow-strings must be taut and his quivers full of good straight arrows. The chieftains, in periods of peace, organized hunts for further training, for their men had to be prepared at all times to take their weapons and horses and ride off to the Kahn's wars.

To release the men for war, Jenghiz Khan gave women new and greater responsibility. They were now responsible for everything the family owned. In addition to this, the women had to make sure their husband's war equipment was ready. They had to see that his sheepskin cloak and his riding boots with their felt overshoes were always ready for use. The women also had to make sure the men's saddle bags were filled with dried milk curds, qumiz and millet, with which a Mongol warrior could travel for days without taking time from his military objective to seek food.

The women now drove the carts on which they had loaded the houses, and when they arrived at their destination they unloaded them. They milked the cows, made butter, and grut, boiled sour milk, which was dried and stored. When needed, hot water was poured over it and it was beaten until it dissolved in the water. In winter they drank grut when there was no fresh milk. They also used it to dress the skins from which clothing was made. The women made thread from tendons that had been split into long, thin threads and then twisted into one long thread, which was used to sew socks, shoes and other clothing. They also made the felt used to cover the houses.

The Mongols did not wash the dishes from which they ate. When they cooked meat, they washed out the serving bowl with some of the boiling broth from the cookpot. This broth was then poured back into the cookpot. They never washed their clothes because they felt it made the gods angry and they further believed that it would thunder if they hung their clothes out to dry. They even went so far as to beat people who did wash their clothes and took the clothes away from them.

A woman's social position, in general, was good compared to much of the rest of the world. She could freely dispose of her property and take charge of her own affairs. She alone had the responsibility for bringing up the children. Princesses decending from noble families enjoyed great political influence. For example, widows of two sovereigns assumed power while the throne remained empty. Toregene, widow of Ogodai, and Oghul Gaimish, widow of Guyuk, both ruled the Mongol nation as regents, until a successor could be elected. In the winter of 1237 when the Mongol Army, under the leadership of Subodai and Batu, arrived at Riazan, a female Mongol ambassador was received by the Russian princes who had gathered there.

The main diet of the Mongols was milk, meat and millet. They ate the flesh of wild animals such as fox, wolf, cony, gazelle, wild ass, mountain sheep, argali, and domestic animals such as the ox, horse, dog, sheep, goat and camel. Mongols never wasted food. If it couldn't be eaten, it was put in a square bag captargac carried by all Mongols. Later when there was time, it would be taken out and eaten, or if it were a bone, the marrow would be sucked out and the bone gnawed on and only then would it be given to a dog. Sausage was made from intestines of horses and eaten fresh. Their meat was cooked in salted water and served in this broth only; they used no sauces or gravies.

A Franciscan missionary, John of Plano Carpini, while on a mission to the Mongols (1245-47), stated that the Mongols would eat anything and if driven by necessity would eat human flesh, as he said they did while fighting the Kitayans. He also stated they ate the afterbirth when a mare foaled, and claimed he saw them eat lice.

By today's standards their table manners were crude. They used no napkins or table-cloths. Their greasy hands were wiped on their trousers, grass, or anything else that was nearby. It would be unfair to judge either their diet or their table manners by today's standards. Their prime objective was to survive any way they could. In their harsh and unfriendly land table manners were not important to them.


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