Essay Mongol Empire

During the thirteenth century the Mongols created the greatest of all the Eurasian empires, which at its peak extended from the borders of Poland to the East Sea/Sea of Japan and from the Siberian forests to the Persian Gulf. Like so many of the other steppe empires, it originated in the grasslands and mountain pastures of Mongolia or Western Manchuria. The Mongols initially followed the pattern of earlier nomadic confederations such as the Xiongnu, who had engaged in mutually beneficial exchange with their sedentary neighbors, the Han, and controlled the trade of the silk routes. Unlike the Xiongnu, however, the Mongols would conquer most of the major sedentary centers producing the goods traded across Eurasia. The result was a mixed blessing. Some areas never recovered from the shock of invasion, while others flourished. Craftsmen were conscripted en masse, leading to economic decline in their former homes but development where they were forced to resettle. As travel by Europeans such as Marco Polo all the way across Asia attests, for a time one can speak of a Pax Mongolica (Mongol Peace) on the trade routes, even if its benefits were far from uniform.

The Mongol Empire was created by Chingis Khan (d. 1227), who was given the title of "Universal Emperor" when he unified the Mongol tribes in 1206. He spent the next years campaigning against the Qin (Jurchen) rulers of north China (Beijing fell in 1215). In 1219-1220 he marched west, destroying the kingdom of Khwarezm (south of the Aral Sea), in response to the murder of a trade mission he had sent. As in other examples, here we can see the importance of trade to the Mongols. Their burials in the thirteenth and fourteenth century attest to the taste they had acquired for the luxury items of urban centers and the cultural fusion that was the long-term legacy of the historic nomadic-sedentary interaction.

Following Chingis' death, the Mongol capital was located at Karakorum on the Orhon River in Mongolia, not far from where the nomadic Uighurs' ninth century capital. A fascinating description of Mongol life and that modest but cosmopolitan town can be found in a contemporary account from the 1350s by the Franciscan monk William of Rubruck. Of particular interest is his evidence concerning the openness of the Mongols to various faiths, including Nestorian Christianity.

By 1260 when Chingis' grandson Qubilai (Khubilai) became khan, the empire had expanded to encompass much of Eastern Europe (the region known as the "Golden Horde") and much of the Middle East (the Ilkhanid state). The central area of the empire was ruled by the descendants of Chingis' son, Chagatai. Qubilai would spend nearly the first two decades of his reign subduing China, which he finally accomplished in 1271; the period of Mongol rule is known by the dynasty name Yuan. He would also try unsuccessfully to conquer Japan and all of Southeast Asia. This eastern focus for his efforts, symbolized by his moving the capital to Beijing in the 1260s, coincides with the loosening of the ties holding the empire together. By the end of the 13th century, its several parts were independent of each other, and were even beginning to compete for control of the trade routes.

Marco Polo, who has a distinctly pro-Mongol bias, provides a vivid description of prosperity in Qubilai's realm in the 1270s and 1280s. A similar picture is described for other parts of the empire at least into the 1330s by another famous traveler, the Moroccan Ibn Battuta. He described the flourishing cities of the Golden Horde, whose trade through the Black Sea was controlled by the Genoese. In the same period, a Florentine commercial agent Pegolotti provides a detailed description of the markets in Constantinople, which even in its decline boasted the wares of all of Asia. Pegolotti reported "The road you travel from Tana [on the Azov Sea at the mouth of the Don River] to Cathay is perfectly safe, whether by day or by night, according to what the merchants say who have used it." The presence in China of Italians, both merchants and missionaries, in this period is well documented.

By the 1330s, the Ilkhanid state disintegrated and the Chagatayids were in disarray. The Yuan dynasty in China collapsed in 1368, and the last of the Mongol states, the Golden Horde, would largely be destroyed by the next creator of a great inner Asian empire, Tamerlane. Yet for somewhat more than a century, the Mongols had presided over what was arguably the peak period of the overland Silk Road trade.

--Daniel C. Waugh


David Morgan, The Mongols (Oxford and Cambridge, Ma.: Blackwell, 1986).

Morris Rossabi, Khubilai Khan: His Life and Times (Berkeley, etc.: Univ. of California Pr., 1988).

Daniel C. Waugh, The Pax Mongolica.

Christopher Dawson, Mission to Asia (Toronto, etc.: Univ. of Toronto Pr., 1980).

Marco Polo, The Travels, tr. Ronald Latham (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1958).

The Travels of Ibn Battuta, A.D. 1325-1354, tr. H.A.R. Gibb, 5 vols. (London: Hakluyt Society, 1957-).

Francis Balducci Pegolotti, "Notices of the Land Route to Cathay," in Henry Yule and Henri Cordier, tr., Cathay and the Way Thither, being a Collection of Medieval Notices of China, Vol. 3 (London: Halkluyt Society, 1916), pp. 137-173; also, excerpts on-line.

Genghis Khan (ca. 1162–1227) and the Mongols are invariably associated with terrible tales of conquest, destruction, and bloodshed. This famed clan leader and his immediate successors created the largest empire ever to exist, spanning the entire Asian continent from the Pacific Ocean to modern-day Hungary in Europe. Such an empire could not have been shaped without visionary leadership, superior organizational skills, the swiftest and most resilient cavalry ever known, an army of superb archers (the “devil’s horsemen” in Western sources), the existence of politically weakened states across Asia, and, of course, havoc and devastation.

Yet, the legacy of Genghis Khan, his sons, and grandsons is also one of cultural development, artistic achievement, a courtly way of life, and an entire continent united under the so-called Pax Mongolica (“Mongolian Peace”). Few people realize that the Yuan dynasty in China (1279–1368) is part of Genghis Khan’s legacy through its founder, his grandson Kublai Khan (r. 1260–95). The Mongol empire was at its largest two generations after Genghis Khan and was divided into four main branches, the Yuan (empire of the Great Khan) being the central and most important. The other Mongol states were the Chaghatay khanate in Central Asia (ca. 1227–1363), the Golden Horde in southern Russia extending into Europe (ca. 1227–1502), and the Ilkhanid dynasty in Greater Iran (1256–1353).

The Mongols were remarkably quick in transforming themselves from a purely nomadic tribal people into rulers of cities and states and in learning how to administer their vast empire. They readily adopted the system of administration of the conquered states, placing a handful of Mongols in the top positions but allowing former local officials to run everyday affairs. This clever system allowed them to control each city and province but also to be in touch with the population through their administrators. The seat of the Great Khanate in Dadu (Beijing) was the center of the empire, with all its pomp and ceremony, whereas the three semi-independent Central and western Asian domains of the Chaghatay, the Golden Horde, and the Ilkhanids were connected through an intricate network that crisscrossed the continent. Horses, once a reliable instrument of war and conquest, now made swift communication possible, carrying written messages through a relay system of stations. A letter sent by the emperor in Beijing and carried by an envoy wearing his paiza, or passport, could reach the Ilkhanid capital Tabriz, some 5,000 miles away, in about a month.

The political unification of Asia under the Mongols resulted in active trade and the transfer and resettlement of artists and craftsmen along the main routes. New influences were thus integrated with established local artistic traditions. By the middle of the thirteenth century, the Mongols had formed the largest contiguous empire in the world, uniting Chinese, Islamic, Iranian, Central Asian, and nomadic cultures within an overarching Mongol sensibility.

Genghis Khan’s grandson Hülegü (died 1265) subdued Iran in 1256 and conquered Baghdad, the capital of the ‘Abbasid caliphate, in 1258. Hülegü’s dynasty—the Ilkhanids, or Lesser Khans—ruled this area, called Greater Iran, until about 1353. After their rapid gain of power in the Muslim world, the Mongol Ilkhanids nominally reported to the Great Khan of the Yuan dynasty in China, and in the process imported Chinese models to better define their tastes. However, the new rulers were greatly impressed by the long-established traditions of Iran, with its prosperous urban centers and thriving economy, and they quickly assimilated the local culture. The Mongol influence on Iranian and Islamic culture gave birth to an extraordinary period in Islamic art that combined well-established traditions with the new visual language transmitted from eastern Asia.

Stefano Carboni
Department of Islamic Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Qamar Adamjee
Department of Islamic Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

October 2003

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