By Catriona Macpherson


The Mongol Empire was the largest continental empire of medieval and modern times. Their conquests have to be most singular in the history of conquests, not just from a military aspect, which was formidable indeed, but from an administrative viewpoint. To build an empire this size was one thing, but to govern it was quite another.

By hard work and tenacious effort, Jenghiz Khan had built up his empire which he thought of as the heritage of the imperial house. Before his death, Jenghiz Khan divided this empire among his sons and immediate family, but as custom dictated, it remained the joint property of the whole imperial family, who along with the Mongol aristocracy made up the ruling class. The revenues from this immense territory did not go to the appanaged princes who camped in their individual lands, but went to the Khan to be shared among the members of the dynasty. The princes were not allowed to interfere in the internal affairs of their territories, which were governed by lieutenants, darugachi, who were directly responsible to the Khan, a good example of the Conqueror's administrative ability, allowing him to control the empire. The fragmentation of these large Mongol holdings into smaller khanates, and eventually prince fighting prince, set the stage for the build-up of the Ottoman Empire which dominated and suffocated Asia and Eastern Europe for over four centuries.

The feudal princes who ruled the Mongols until the early twentieth century were for the most part descendants of Jenghiz Khan. Many elements of the constitution of the Mongol Empire can be found in the states that developed out of its disintegration, some being in evidence to this day. This can be attributed to the organizing power of Jenghiz Khan.

The Kuriltai, or great assembly, was an outstanding example of collective rule. Military, as well as civil matters, of the empire were debated by the khan, his family and the rest of the aristocracy. Even though there was open discussion in the kuriltai, the voice of the Khan usually prevailed, unless one or several of the stronger princes could pursuade him to alter his view on a matter before the kuriltai. As one can imagine, this did not happen often with Jenghiz Khan.

To maintain communication between the individual khanates in the empire, and between these khanates and the khan, and throughout the empire, a rapid and effective post system, yam, was organized. A continuous change of mounts, made possible by the enormous numbers of horses available to them, allowed some of the riders to travel over two hundred miles in one day. There were three main classes in the postal system: `second class', carried by foot- runners; `first class', carried on horseback; and `His Majesty's Service', carried by non-stop riders who changed horses but not riders. This yam lasted long after the empire had ceased to exist.

The Yassa, or legal code, that Jenghiz Khan compiled and imposed on the Mongols, had immediate and far-reaching effects. It brought all the different tribes, with their different laws, under one legal system; eliminating friction and internecine wars; and enabled Jenghiz Khan to unify the tribes and so build up his enormous empire. Thanks to the Yassa, among the Mongols, theft was virtually stamped out, as well as murder, adultery, sodomy, fornication, usury, intentional lying and sorcery.

An interesting provision of the Yassa was the stiff penalty, death, for the same person going bankrupt three times. First and second bankruptcies carried lesser penalties. The Yassa provided for the proper way to kill an animal, if it were to be eaten; conduct in battle, whether attacking or retreating; what to do with a runaway slave; and prohibited giving food or clothing to a prisoner without permission from his captor. Death was the penalty for disobeying any of the above. The Code set forth an orderly and systematic way of levying taxes. The Yassa was effective in the early days of the empire, but after the administration of the empire was turned over to foreigners, as was nearly always the case, it was unable to prevent corruption and disregard for the law which characterized the Mongol government. The Yassa continued for some generations after the time of Jenghiz Khan, and by some Mongol tribes after the empire ceased to be.

Under Jenghiz Khan a most complete religious tolerance was established across the length and breadth of Asia. Churches weren't harmed and priests of all faiths were permitted freedom to practice their beliefs. The strength and distribution of the principal religions of the world were permanently changed by Mongol conquests.

Representatives of every nation appeared at the court at Karakorum: envoys of the pope, Buddhist priests from India, Byzantine and Armenian merchants, Italian, French and Chinese artisans and craftsmen rubbed shoulders with Arab officials, Indian and Persian mathematicians and astronomers.

Too much has been written about the Mongol campaigns and atrocities, not enough about their insatiable curiosity and penchant for knowledge. They were not particularly original, but their effect in broadening and spreading knowledge and skills equaled, or perhaps surpassed, the spread of Hellenic civilization, which has been attributed to the conqueror, Alexander. Extended post roads spanned the entire empire, and both valuable merchandise and messages were carried to all parts of the empire. Legend has it that an unprotected young female could take a sack of gold safely from the Don River to Khanbaligh, the city of the Khans.

The Mongols reopened four major trade routes that had been closed, or disrupted by wars and bandits, for centuries:

Merchants dispatched their caravans over these roads carrying new and useful things to Europe. This relinking of Europe and the Orient resulted in an increased cultural exchange, and a greater knowledge of world geography.

Skilled artists and craftsmen, as well as scientists, physicians and astronomers, from captured countries, were moved freely around the vast Mongol empire. Of particular importance were the exchanges between China and Iran: Bolad Chengziang, a Mongol ambassador to Iran and the Persian historian, Rashid al-Din, worked together to have Chinese books on medicine, agronomy, and government translated into Persian. They also had an agricultural experiment station set up in Tabriz to test new seed strains from China and India. Chinese physicians and astronomers were brought to Iran and the Ilkhans sent Muslim astronomers and physicians to China. Food recipes were shared, including the preparation of sherbet.

A lasting memorial to Bolad and Rashid as-Din was the latter's history, "The Collection of Chronicles", commissioned by the Ilkhan, Ghazan. It is a history of the Islamic dynasties, India, China, the Jews, the Franks, and the Mongol and Turkish tribes. Bolad was able to supply information on the early stages of the empire, from Mongol chronicles, that subsequently were lost. Mongol rule in Asia opened that continent to European missionaries and traders, of whom the best known were the Polos. Their visits during the reign of Qublai, sparked Europe's interest in a water route to China for access to the enormous trade possibilities, and in an alternate route to replace the difficult and dangerous overland route. The search for a water route to China set off a wave of exploration, leading to a sea route to India around the Cape of Good Hope, and the accidental discovery of the New World.

In their westward sweep the Mongols destroyed many cities and towns, and wiped out whole populations in some cases. Even though they rebuilt a number of towns and restored some of the ravaged farm lands, a good many towns and cultivated areas simply returned to barren desert. It proved impossible to rebuild some of the towns and cities after their populations had been annihilated. Much of the Mongol destruction and massacre arose from ignorance and by the time they learned the value of cities, towns and civilized people, it was too late for too many of them. Recent research and reappraisal of contemporary literature on the Mongol conquests have led to downplaying the terrible destruction, and stressing the more positive and constructive achievements of the last great nomad empire.

Worthy of attention in the field of art were their carvings from horn, bone, and hard wood. From these materials they made numerous articles: plates, cups and bowls; bracelets, brooches and plaques. Their geometrical and animal forms showed skill and accuracy in their lively depictions of horses, deer, tigers, and birds of prey. By conquest their art-forms spread over a large part of the Old World, from China to Britain.

Mongol horsemen played polo, most certainly one of the minor legacies left to the world, by their conquests.

Through Mongol conquests, the widespread dispersal of the Turkish race over Western Asia had far-reaching ramifications. By the time Mongke was elected Khan, virtually all of the Turkish people of Asia were incorporated in the Mongol Empire. They formed not only a large part of the army but also most of the empire's administrators, teachers and clerks were Turkish. As stated earlier, the Turkish language eventually replaced the Mongol language, which for a long time had been spoken by a minority. In many ways, the countless numbers of Turks employed by the Mongols, over the decades, altered Mongol society. As they spread westward, they took with them their language, customs and religion.

They left no lasting monuments to a brief but glorious civilization, for one should call the Mongol nation civilized. Their roots can be traced back to a nomad/barbarian culture, but from the time of unification under Jenghiz Khan, when for the first time they called themselves Mongols, they must be considered a civilized nation. They had no poets to chronicle their heroic deeds and astounding military prowess, and the Mongol language had been replaced by Turkish throughout most of the Empire, resulting in the breakdown of the linguistic and political unity of the Empire. Eventually the Mongols took on the ideas and culture of the people they defeated, and for a time ruled. Ironically the Secret History of the Mongols, dating from the 13th century, was collected and written by some of their former enemies. The 8th century Orkon inscriptions, written in archaic Turkish, by the ancestors of the Mongols, is the only other surviving historical record.

In western Asia, where the Mongol empire survived for the longest period of time, the Christians lost their crusader foothold along the eastern Mediterranean Coast. The Catholic kings could not ally themselves with the Mongols, whom they considered savage barbarians, and beneath them. This was unfortunate because it left them to the mercies of the Mamluks, with whom no agreement was possible. Christianity may have done better with a Mongol alliance because the Mongols were after temporal power and had always espoused religious tolerance. Unlike the Muslims, they had no religious quarrel with the Christians and even were somewhat sympathetic to their faith. They might even have converted to Christianity, but as a nation of warriors, they could not respect a group of people who would let religious disputes among themselves stand in the way of political unity and military victory. In time they embraced the strong, united religion of Islam.

The turmoil created by the Mongols in Central Asia resulted in an unheaval of peoples, their cultures and their religions. The rise and fall of their empire produced more enduring effects in Europe than in Asia. Much of the culture east of the Euphrates River was stifled under early Mongol dominance, giving rise to a westward flow of culture rooted in the ancient classical world.

For the first fifty years of the fifteenth century, learned refugees brought books, works of art, artifacts, ideas and inventions to the West; all of which launched Europe into the greatest cultural regeneration ever experienced by man, the Rennaisance.

After the retreat from Russia, of the Mongol hordes, something rather unexpected took place. From the chaos of the warring Russian princedoms, nationalism arose making possible the creation of the empire of Ivan the Great, the first of a series of oppressive Russian dynasties, and a tradition of despotism, which by one name or another is still with them.

The Mongol gift to China was unity also, a unity which survived for seven hundred years. The centuries old Chinese culture was too deeply entrenched and the Mongols, who had united China for first time, succumbed to their culture.

Jenghiz Khan and his successors should be remembered, not for blood baths, pillage and burning, actions not so unusual in their time, but for breaking down the barriers set up in the Dark Ages, and putting the East in touch with the West, to the benefit of mankind in general. This should be their memorial.


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