Why the Mongols?

The real question  about the Mongols is, “Why did they win, and why did they win so big?” The Mongol empire is the great singularity in human history, though I’m sure that there are others in human prehistory: how did two or three million nomads — a nation without cities or writing — manage to conquer over half of Eurasia in less than a century? Invasions and raids on wealthy states by their poorer neighbors are a historical constant, but nobody asks “Why the Petchenegs?” or “Why the Xianbei?”, or “Why the Sarmatians?”.  Genghis Khan’s Mongols were a real puzzle, like nothing that had ever been seen before.

The military advantages of nomad armies

It begins with the military advantages of the steppe. The harsh, dry climate of inner Eurasia is agriculturally much less productive than that of the sedentary world, so the vast interior spaces of the content are extremely thinly populated, and the population is small even in absolute numbers. (It has been estimated that the Chinese outnumbered the Xiongnu and their allies 30 to 1, but the Xiongnu were a thorn in China’s side for centuries). But the agricultural wealth which the nomads lacked was compensated for by huge numbers of sheep and horses, which made possible enormous cavalry armies which the sedentary world could not come close to matching. Furthermore, pastoralism is not labor-intensive, especially not in the fall when wars are usually fought, and the Mongols could mobilize 10% of their total population on an ongoing basis, and as much as 30% for a brief period.

The nomads are sometimes described as having a pastoral economy, trading livestock and animal products for grain and other supplies, but periods of peaceful, equal trade were relatively short and infrequent. Normally the nomads used their military superiority to ensure that their trade with the sedentary world was carried on under very favorable terms, as though China were the nomads’ colony. Without the military advantage, they would have been in the disadvantageous and exploited position of the the hill people in South China, trading a few specialized products for whatever they could get from the wealthy, powerful Chinese.

Mass cavalry armies appeared only toward the beginning of the first millennium B.C., probably in the area north of the Black Sea. Cavalry forces have many advantages against infantry defending fixed lines, the critical ones being being mobility and speed. Defenders must stretch their forces to defend every point on a long line, whereas cavalry can concentrate their forces at the line’s weakest point, and if they break the line anywhere they win. Once inside, the nomads are impossible for the slower forces to chase down, and their normal practice was to carry off as much plunder as they could and then return to their homeland.

Warfare was also much more costly for the sedentary world than it was for the nomads, who had no permanent infrastructure to destroy — no houses, no storehouses, no treasuries, no bridges, no mills, no workshops, no city walls, no cities, nothing. The nomad armies would disperse in retreat just as they had concentrated in attack, and pursuers could do little more than pick off a few of them here and there. Furthermore, nomads were self-sufficient on the steppe, whereas supplying the pursuing armies is both expensive and risky, since supply trains are vulnerable to attack.

In general, sedentary attempts to control the steppe were money-losers: for rulers, agricultural land is highly profitable (and indeed, the basis of government finance), whereas steppe land never produces as much tax revenue as it costs to control it. Horses can be raised on good land as well or better than they can on arid land, but stock-raising is extensive, and too much tax revenue is lost if large acreages of agricultural land are converted to grazing. Buying horses from the nomads is possible and  is routinely done, giving the peoples who neighbor the steppe a military advantage over those further away who have no access to horses, but obvious conflicts of interest prevent this from being a reliable method of  equipping cavalry to fight the nomads themselves.

“Divide and conquer” is the most effective response to the nomad threat, and many Chinese walls were built far out in nomad territory, serving to divide the nomads into friendly and unfriendly (or free and subject) groups.  However, even the friendly groups could not be trusted; any army capable of fighting the nomads on even terms is a nomad army itself, and has the same advantages against the people it defends as the hostile nomads do.

Click to enlarge.

(The Wiki map will have to do. The blue and bluish areas, including Tuva, are the Mongol homeland, divided according to tribe. The “Uyghurs” were located in Xinjiang and were only semi-independent; during Genghis Khan’s rise they were subject to the “Kara-kitai”, but they switched to the Mongols very early).

A centuries-long military learning curve

All of the nomads’ military advantages were already there as early as 700 B.C., however,  but for more than a thousand years the Cimmerians, Scythians, Sarmatians, Alans, Xiongnu, Huns, and so on limited themselves to trading, raiding, and the extortion of tribute, and with few or no exceptiona they never conquered and ruled an urbanized, literate society. Very gradually and haltingly, however, over a period of centuries, some nomad groups learned how to hold territory and rule cities. To a greater or lesser degree these new rulers sedentarized and adopted the culture of their subjects, but at the end of the learning curve dual nomadic / sedentary states were developed  whose equestrian ruling class kept to its steppe ways while becoming wealthy from taxes collected  from the agricultural subject class.

The Scythians north of the Black Sea during the classical era were the first to do this, and far from being a nation without agriculture, they were major grain exporters. During all periods, nomad peoples raised some grain. Agriculture is far from impossible on the steppe and some of the world’s best wheatland today is on former nomad territory in the Ukraine. When nomads do not grow grain, it is partly because of the difficulties involved in protecting their farmers and stores of grain from their own nomad enemies, and partly simply because comparative advantage mandates that they specialize in military affairs and buy grain with the proceeds.

Scythian society was not urban, and the first literate, urban society to be ruled by nomads was the Kushan Empire in Afghanistan and neighboring areas. At approximately the beginning of the Christian era this area, formerly Bactrian Greece, was conquered by nomads from the north –  Iranian-speaking Sakas,  Tokharians, or both. The Kushans played a key role in the early Silk Road trade and a major role in the development and propagation of Mahayana Buddhism, but they left no written records — even their dates are guesswork –  and they are the least known of  the great civilizations.

Over the centuries the Kushans were followed by7 the Hephthalites in the same area, various small states in northern China and in Xinjiang, the Toba Wei (Northern Wei) in much of northern China, the Turk empires (which briefly controlled the route from China to the Crimea), and the Bulgar and Khazar trade city-states (vestiges of the Turk empire) on the Volga and the Black Sea. Starting about 700 A.D., a number of mostly-Persian states in central Asia and the Middle East were taken over by usurping Turkish mercenaries, and the resulting states combined Persian urban life, agriculture, and political institutions with a Turkish military.

Thus, when Genghis Khan came along the Middle East thus was already partially steppified. Looking at the big overall picture, in fact, by 1200 an enormous part of Eurasia was ruled by Mongols, Turks, Arabs, Germans, Norse,  and Hungarians (or their heirs) — peoples who had been regarded as barbarians a thousand years  earlier.

The turning point

In northern and northwestern China after about 900 AD,  durable nomadic-sedentary hybrid states were formed which combined the military and other strengths of both sorts of society in a way that the earlier hybrid states hadn’t. First the Khitans, a steppe people related to the Mongols, conquered much of North China, and some of them mastered Chinese culture while others retained their steppe identity. Their state (called the Liao dynasty by the Chinese) was dual, with an version of Chinese law governing the Chinese parts of the realm and Kitan customary law governing the steppe areas. The dominant Khitans ruled from five capitals evenly spaced about their territories like an occupation army.   Their military combined the speed and mobility of nomad armies with the logistic advantages and knowledge of siege warfare of the Chinese army. (Earlier  nomads had not been able to conquer cities, partly because of their lack of siege engines and partly because they would run out of supplies before the cities surrendered).  The innovative Khitan military helped the Liao state, despite its small size, hold its own(and more) against the much larger and wealthier Song state to the south.

In 1038 the Tangut (of uncertain ethnicity, but not Chinese) established a different hybrid state (called the Xixia by the Chinese) in what is now Ningxia and Gansu in northwestern China, and in 1115 thekhitan were overthrown by the Jurchen, a mostly-agricultural Manchurian people from the far northeast of present-day China. The new Jurchen Jin dynasty adopted the hybrid institutional model established by the Khitan, taking both Chinese and Khitans into their service and expanding their empire southward at the expense of the Song Dynasty. However, some Khitans  refused to accept Jurchen rule and fled to the steppe, and in 1124, seeing that the reconquest of northern China was impossible,  established a new hybrid Karakitai state near Issyk-qul in present-day Kyrgyzstan. The Karikitai controlled the neighboring steppe peoples, and with their help they became the hegemon of fragmented Western Turkestan to their south (Uzbekistan and the other Turkish republics of Central Asia).

In western Turkestan itself the dominant power was Khwarizmian Empire, also a hybrid regime but of a different and much weaker sort. In the story of the Mongol conquests the Khwarizmian Shah appears as a pitiful, cowardly figure who lost every battle he did not run from, but before the arrival of the Mongols showed up he was the strongest power in the Middle East, absorbing Afghanistan at one point, establishing a foothold even on the Arabian peninsula (according to Bregel’s atlas), and threatening Baghdad. Probably his army was as good as any, but his state was tied together with string and wrapping paper and was continually falling apart even in peacetime. It was basically a collection of semi-autonomous walled cities bound by nothing more than promises, wishful thinking, and kinship, and when you find out that one Khwarizmian Shah had to fight and defeat his own mother’s army, driving her into miserable exile and death, you realize how weak those bonds were.

By 1124, in any case, China north of the Huai River and China’s Silk Road link to places further west were controlled by three different Sino-nomadic regimes, with the steppes to the north dominated by the Mongols (who were not yet a threat because of their disunity). The Central Asian hub from which trade routes led to India, the Middle East, and Europe was controlled initially by the Sino-nomadic Qaraqitai, though as time went on the Turko-Persian Khwarizmians became dominant.  Song China and Baghdad were the two wealthiest nations in the world at that time, and the Silk Road route between them was an extraordinarily valuable piece of real estate.

* One part of the hybridization theory is speculative. One Mongol told a Song ambassador that during his youth Genghis Khan had been captured by the Jin and had spent time in the service of the Jin. Ratchnevsky thinks that this period was suppressed by the Mongol sources, and that this gap accounts for some of the chronological difficulties faced by those who try to reconstruct Genghis Khan’s early career. If the future khan had spent time with the Jin, this would have given him knowledge of Jin weaponry, tactics, and military organization, and he might also have become aware of higher level strategic and organizational principles. But this hypothesis is not necessary; during every era, captives, renegades and deserters from each side of the line were serving in the forces of the other side.

The pressure cooker

My hypothesis is that during the last several decades of the twelfth century, northern China, the Silk Road, and the Mongolian and Manchurian hinterlands served as a pressure cooker or laboratory where strategy, tactics, and military organization were perfected during a period of constant warfare. The Jin Chinese fought against the Song Chinese and sometimes against the Xixia or the Mongols, the Xixia fought against the Jin and the Mongols, the Mongols fought against the other two and with each other, and because these eastern peoples were busy with one another they put little pressure on the Karakitai farther west, who were able to concentrate on maintaining their hegemony in Western Turkestan.

During these decades of practice wars the states in this zone (and the non-state Mongols) hardened up and improved their discipline, organization and skills , so that when Genghis Khan finally united the steppe, subjugated the Xixia, neutralized the Jin,  and absorbed a substantial part of the Jin armies into his own, he had essentially won the military championship of the toughest league in the world. When Genghis Khan gained control of this military high pressure zone, there was no one who could stop him, and every army he met from then until he fought the Mamluks in Egypt would be far inferior to his.   Furthermore, once Genghis Khan controlled a plurality of the steppe, there was a snowball effect when most of the remaining steppe peoples semi-voluntarily joined him (the alternative being destruction).

Events support this conclusion: armies fleeing this zone in defeat were formidable when they reached the west.  The founders of the Karakitai state, a defeated remnant of the Qitan  forces, were able to establish themselves in Kyrgyzstan and became the dominant power in Central Asia. Later the Naiman  Genghis Khan had defeated fled to the Karakitai, and while they did not conquer that state immediately, they became major players in the area and contributed significantly to the ultimate Karakitai downfall. Finally, after the Mongols destroyed the Khwarizmian army in Uzbekistan in 1220, the survivors fled to the Middle East, where they established a reputation for ferocity and in 1244 conquered Jerusalem for Islam.

A contemporary version of this hypothesis is reported by the Persian historian Juvaini. When the Naiman and the Khwarizmians together finally destroyed the Karakitai, most Khwarizmians rejoiced, but Juvaini reports (p. 347) that one wise man did not rejoice, because he realized that the Karakitai were a buffer protecting them from the Mongols. The wise man said, “Beyond these Turks are a people stubborn in their vengeance and fury and exceeding Gog and Magog in the multitude of their numbers. And the people of Khitai were in truth the wall of Zul-Qarnain [Alexander the Great] between us and them. And it is unlikely, when that wall is gone, that there will be any peace within this realm or that any man will recline in comfort and enjoyment. Today I am mourning for Islam.

In Juvaini’s and Rashid-ad-din’s accounts it is reported that the Khwarizmian Shah all but surrendered before the war against the Mongols began, and this may be partly because of this prophecy, though it is also reported that somewhat before the Mongols attacked him he had unexpectedly seen a Mongol Army in action and had been thoroughly  intimidated by something he saw. (It might equally well be a historian’s misrepresentation, of course, in the time-honored tradition requires that the defeated be described as decadent and cowardly.)

Jurchen overconfidence

Overconfidence on the part of the Jurchen Jin probably also contributed to the Mongol triumph. Like the Khwarizmians, the Jin Chinese are portrayed in history history as pathetic losers, but they were fearsome soldiers and their overconfidence came from this. Their first mistake was to underestimate the Mongol threat and continue their invasions of Song territory even when they were under Mongol attack in the North. (The Song later made the same mistake when they allied themselves with the Mongols in order to weaken the Jin. Against these states and the Xixia the Mongols  played the same “divide and conquer” game that the Chinese had so often played so against the various steppe peoples, subduing first the Xixia, next the Jin, and finally the Song.)

The second  Jin mistake was to alienate the allied peoples buffering them from the Mongols and their own non-Jurchen troops. During every era the Chinese have used treaties, diplomacy, and tribute to gain the support of a few steppe and border peoples to use against the rest, but toward the end of the twelfth century the Jin adopted an unnecessarily harsh policy against their steppe allies. In 1196, because of a dispute over plunder, the Jin came into conflict with the Tatars, hereditary enemies of Genghis Qan’s Mongols who had defended the Jin for decades. (Ironically enough, Genghis Khan and his then-overlord Ong Qan aided the Jin in this fight and were awarded Chinese titles for this.). Jin harshness toward its allies continued, and when Genghis Khan united the nomads and attacked the Jin themselves about fifteen years later, many of the Jin’s allies and many non-Jurchen contingents in the Jin army  switched to the Mongols.

The founding of the horde

Genghis Khan himself has to be one of the reasons for the Mongol success. When he unified the steppe by recruiting supporters and annihilating rivals, he was not gaining control of an existing political organization, but bringing a new one into being. (In this he resembles some of the classical founders described by Plutarch).  Steppe societies alternated between periods of unity and periods of fragmentation and constant feuding. Unity was normally achieved in response to a military threat or a military opportunity, and it required submission to a “Great Khan”. Each Great Khan give his own stamp to the  horde he created, and in the case of Genghis Khan the process of creation has been documented in considerable detail.

Eight books in Persian, Chinese, and Mongol give us significant information about Genghis Khan’ career, and we actually know much more about him than we do about Alexander or  Charlemagne. These sources are very good, and require only the same kinds of correction and and analysis that any primary source requires. The Secret History of the Mongols (the main source on the life of Genghis Khan, written in Mongol) is sometimes thought of as legendary. mythical, or poetic, but this is true only of about ten (or at most twenty) percent of the book. In these sources Genghis Khan is very seldom portrayed as a hero or as a bold warrior, but mostly as a charismatic leader of men, a great organizer, and a clever strategist. This book describes Genghis Khan’s political / military career and includes what amounts to an institutional history of Genghis Khan’s three-step organization of the Mongol army / state.

The Mongol horde was a centralized, rationalized, military-political organization obedient to Genghis Khan’s command. (Civilian Mongols were, in effect, an ancillary support group for the army). As he consolidated his power, he destroyed hostile tribal groups by killing their leadership and dispersing their  common soldiers into military groups which were organized as a chain of command and ultimately obedient to him. Loyal tribal groups and their leaders were not harmed, but steps were taken to keep these tribes from becoming power centers which might become oppositional; Genghis Khan detribalized the Mongols and crippled or dispersed their clans. As such  founders do everywhere, he also established an elite corps loyal only to him. This guard corps was drawn from every part of the army and from various different tribes, and each member in it had precedence over any other member of the army, regardless of rank.

Throughout the army he promoted and demoted soldiers according to their abilities, without regard for birth or clan affiliation. He centralized the treasury by forbidding the private appropriation of plunder after battles:  all plunder was to be delivered to him for distribution. This had the double effect of preventing soldiers from leaving the battlefield in order to loot, and preventing anyone but the khan from accumulating sufficient treasure to build a following. (Even as late as Karl XII of Sweden in the early 18th century armies financed themselves on plundered gold and silver.)

Genghis Khan was also a tactical and strategic genius, but I’m running out of time.  Suffice it to say that the popular image of the Mongol hordes as a swarm of raging savages is diametrically opposed to the reality — the Mongol Army was perhaps more disciplined and efficient than any other army before or since, and its organization of  the various specialized functions of warfare and  diplomacy was  methodical and perfectionist.


To sum up: the Mongols started out with the same advantages that nomad cavalry armies had always had over sedentary armies defending fixed lines and vulnerable real property. Over the course of centuries hybrid nomad-sedentary states developed whose armies combined the strengths of sedentary and nomad armies. This process culminated during the period 900-1200 AD in the north and northwest of China, where for a century or more armies of this type contended with one another and with the still-nomadic Mongols. At the beginning of the thirteenth century Genghis Khan unified the Mongols and formed them into a disciplined military-politico unit. Gradually this unified nomad force gained dominance over the hybrid states confronting it, and upon doing so absorbed many of their military specialists and other  military units. The century of warfare had served as a military training-ground, and when the resulting force finally broke out of the intercivilizational area where it had been formed, it was unstoppable and swept everything before it.


Appendix One: The “Causes” of the Mongol Invasions

The question “Why the Mongol invasions?”, like all such questions about human acts, can be reduced to the questions “Why did they want to do it?”, “Why did they decide to do it?” and “Why they were able to do it? Attempts to replace these questions with seemingly more scientific questions of the type “What were the causes of this event?” are usually misleading.  There have been numerous attempts, some going back centuries, to find a single-cause explanation of the nomad invasions.    These explanations include overpopulation, increased or decreased precipitation, warmer or colder weather, and interruptions of transcontinental trade.  The climatic changes have been credited to sunspots and to volcanism, and there also have been attempts to find a cyclic pattern in the outbreaks. (Arnold Toynbee is the most influential and most excessive of these theorizers; he relied on Ellsworth Huntington and Owen Lattimore.)

The attempt to find a single cause (much less a pattern)  this way is really implausible, since the circumstance of these invasions were many and various and since the invasions themselves varied greatly from one to the next. A common but quite erroneous underlying assumption is that these invasions were unusual and need explanation, and that without some cause, the nomads would have stayed quietly and peacefully in their homeland forever.  But this is not true; the steppe-sedentary divide has been an area of constant conflict at least since the first nomad army was formed toward the beginning of the first millennium B.C., and for the steppe peoples, predatory warfare was legitimate and normal,  and war was the most honorable of all human activities – as it was for many other peoples before and since, notably the medieval European nobility.

The climatic theory of the steppe invasions is still seriously proposed by specialists from time to time, and it floats around as a sort of nimbus in the thinking of many non-specialists. My belief is that it should be retired until someone succeeds in presenting it much better than it has been so far. To my knowledge, none of the climatic theories combines a chronology of the steppe climate,  a chronology of steppe military activity, the demonstration of an actual coordination between the two series, and an intelligible explanation of why changes in climate should cause invasion.  It is not always even made clear whether nomads invade because the climate changes make them rich and powerful or because the climate changes make them poor and hungry. Likewise, when cyclic theories of any type are proposed, there is never enough data presented to show that a cycle is even there at all.

Two climatic explanations I have seen might make sense. One is a two-step process, whereby a period of good weather and relatively heavy rainfall allows the flocks and herds to build up, and then a subsequent drought requires the nomads to move in order to find grass and water, thereby putting them in conflict with the sedentary world. However, I have never seen an attempt to explain any actual historical invasion by hunger; usually nomads invade when they are strong and their herds are fat, though sometimes they invade because their enemies have driven them out of their original homeland so they need to find a new one. The Qaraqitai and Mughal states were founded by defeated armies.

The other explanation is Lattimore’s: changes in rainfall will turn pasture land into farm land (or vice versa), and this might either change the relative proportions of the two, or else bring the nomads geographically closer to the agricultural world or move them farther away. Buell has argued that this sort of change led to conflict around 1200 AD, as herdsmen and farmers competed for the same land. Both of these theories should be followed up, but they will seem to be only relevant to particular cases, and not usable to build a general theory of steppe invasions.

The other common reductive explanation is “overpopulation”. However, barbarian invaders usually come from thinly populated areas; it’s because their homelands are thinly populated and poor that they look for other peoples to exploit.   Genuinely overpopulated areas like Bangla Desh, Java, or Egypt tend to be regional powers, but not expansionist, and they often are the targets of the invaders. (In fact Egypt, during the Mamluk period at least, was ruled by a mercenary barbarian army imported from the steppe, rather than by anyone from its undernourished indigenous population.) Second, the way this idea is usually stated a large population, which is a resource, is treated as a problem or a deficiency. While in certain conditions excess population can be a burden, with “overpopulation” armies will be larger and more powerful. And here again the erroneous assumption is being made that for the steppe peoples war was an extraordinary state which needs to be explained, rather than a regular, expected, and normal occurrence.

One common dynamic for invasions, however, can be related to population growth: some societies raise more strong, aggressive young men than they have resources and statuses for, and rather than letting them hang around causing trouble, the extra men are sent off into a kind of exile, during which they raid and invade their neighbors (or more distant peoples) and, if possible, occupy new territory.  (This dynamic can probably be seen in every expansionist society — Hellenes, Vikings, Turks, Cossacks.  In “Youth in aristocratic society” Duby describes such a case in Europe at the time of the Crusades.)

There are two main reasons for the popularity of these weakly-materialist “cause” explanations (as opposed to voluntary “motive” explanations). First, many historians want to be scientists, or at least did so in the past, and according to pop philosophy of science, materialist reduction and the discovery of cycles are what scientists do. And second, the strangeness of the nomads and their sudden brutal impact on the societies they attacked has made it temptingto dehumanize them and treat their invasions as blind destructive forces like hurricanes, earthquakes or volcanic eruptions.

Climate Bibliography:

Atwell, William, “Volcanism and Short-term Climate Change in East Asian and World History”, Journal of World History,  Vol.12, #1, Spring, 2001, pp. 29-98.

Buell, Paul D., “The Role of the Sino-Mongolian Frontier Zone in the Rise of Chinggis-Qan”, pp. 63-76, Studies on Mongolia, ed. Schwarz, Bellingham, 1979.

Frank, Andre Gunder, The World System, Routledge, 1993.

Lamb, H.H., Climate, History, and the Modern World, Routledge, 1995.

Lattimore, Owen, Studies in Frontier History, Oxford, 1962 (especially “The Geographical Factor in Mongol History”), pp. 241-258.

Meyer, William B., “Climate and Migration“, in Bell-Fialkoff, Andrew, The Role of Migration in the History of the Eurasian Steppe, St. Martin’s, 2000, pp 287-294.

Huntington, Ellsworth, The Pulse of Asia

Toynbee, Arnold, A Study of History, vol. 3, Oxford, 1934.

Appendix Two: East-West

Besides the learning curve by which the nomads learned to conquer and rule sedentary peoples, there was another: learning to think of the whole of Eurasia as a single unit. In the earliest period (before about 200 BC) China was isolated from the rest of  urbanized Eurasia (with small amounts of trade being carried on by anonymous, low status intermediaries), and to a lesser degree Europe, the Middle East, and India were also strange to one another. After 200 BC China was directly connected to western Turkestan, and through them indirectly to Persia, India, Rome, and the Black Sea.* But while there was a considerable volume of transcontinental trade on the Silk Roads and via the Indian Ocean, it was always through one or several intermediaries, and while travel from China to Central Asia was fairly common, there are only a few doubtful rumors of any individual traveling from China to Greece, Rome, or the Middle East, or of Greeks, or Romans traveling to Central Asia  China. As a result, the various civilizations of Eurasia were mysteries to one another (“Here be monsters“) and the civilized picture of the Eurasian continent was patchy and discontinuous.

This only started to change when, a little before 600 AD, the Turks founded an empire uniting Inner Eurasia from the borders of China almost to the Black Sea. This empire was fragile and divided and was never securely held, but when a Turkish embassy reached Constantinople at that time it was the first time that anyone one who had seen China ever saw Greece, and the one who did it was a Turkish nomad. (Coedes has gathered all classical Greek and Latin references to China before Marco Polo, and before the very brief report received from this Turkish embassy, none of them were more than rumors and cliches, mostly about silk, and a fair proportion of them were flatly wrong).

So perhaps it is permissible to say that the concept of Eurasia, and the idea of a direct route from China or Central Asia to the Mediterranean, and even the idea of one state ruling the whole continent (or at least the Silk Road interior of the continent) and bringing it to order, were effectively born at this time, to be kept alive in legend and imaginary projection for centuries. The disintegrating Turk Empire left two trade cities behind on the Volga: Atil (Khazaria) and Bulgar, and these served as a reminder of what might be possible. Not too long after this the Varangians or Rus established a trade network which ultimately spread from Scandinavia to the Caspian Sea and to Greenland, and for more and more people (even in the sedentary world) Inner Asia came to be an intelligible, imaginable actuality rather than the place of monsters. But after the collapse of the Turk empires the steppe again became fragmented and unstable, and it would be almost 700 years before the Mongol Empire would become possible to travel routinely from Constantinople to China. And as we know, the European vision of a knowable and explorable world came Marco Polo’s reports on that.

*There was also a Southern sea route, which I’m leaving out for reasons of space. During some periods the European West thought of China and Cathay (from “Khitai”)  as two different nations and were not aware either that they were adjacent or that they were culturally very similar. During the Song dynasty the two were in fact divided (Khitai v. Song), but even during the Tang, when they weren’t, the Cathay / China distinction was made, one of them being land-route China and the other being sea-route China. (The Russian and Persian words for “China” are still versions of “Cathay”.)

Appendix Three: Why Not The Mongols?

The end of the Mongol expansion and the division and fall of the Mongol Empire have drawn the same kinds of speculation as its rise. It is alleged that the empire fell apart and didn’t last long because of the Mongols were nomads not capable of governing, but this is not true. The united empire founded by Genghis Khan may not even have lasted until his death in 1228, and after a period of doubtful unity the empire was definitively divided  in 1262 when the Golden Horde in Russia went to war with the Ilkhans in the Middle East. However, this kind of things is normal for conquest empires, and much the same happened with Charlemagne’s and Alexander’s empires.

Of the three large Mongol empires coming out of this breakup*,  the Ilkhanid empire in the Middle East matched up pretty well with the earlier empires in that area, whereas those in China and Russia each united a territory larger than that of any predecessor. These three empires lasted respectively 97, 79, and 279 years, and while the first two were relatively short-lived, they both  cover several generations and are nothing like the fly-by-night kingdoms founded, for example,  during Chinese periods of disunity. Far from being incapable of governing, the Mongols were political specialists, and many of their institutions were continued by their successors.

The limits of Mongol progress have also drawn speculation. The Mongols’ farthest attempts were  at Leignitz / Legnica (Poland) and Budapest in 1241;  Ayn Jalut in southern Palestine in 1260;  Japan in 1274 and 1281; Burma in 1277-1283; Vietnam 1257-1288; Java in 1293; and India at various times.  None of these nations was ever incorporated into the Mongol Empire, though Hungary was devastated and tribute relations were established in several cases.

In the cases of Java, Vietnam, Burma, and India, the Mongols’ (and their horses’) distaste for hot weather and fear of malaria were probably a factor, and in the case of Java and also Japan, the difficulties and expense of conquest by sea probably discouraged further attempts. (China had never attacked Japan or Java before and never would attack them again, though during the Ming dynasty Java was made a nominal Chinese subject.)

The western halting points have received more attention. It is sometimes said that the Mongols failed to conquer Europe and Egypt because of a lack of pastureland, but the Mongols were  adaptable and conquered Song China using methods completely different than their traditional cavalry warfare.  It is sometimes claimed that the Mongols were defeated at Leignitz, but that particular Mongol force was a diversionary force which, when its job was done, withdrew to join the main force near Budapest, which crushed the Hungarians at Mohi.  The Mongol army defeated at Ajn Jalut was likewise not a serious expeditionary force. In both cases the Mongols ceased offensive operations in order to return to Mongolia to elect a new khan,  Guyuk in 1241 and  Kubilai in 1260.

In view of the Mongols’ defeat of the Hungarians and their allies, it seems that they could have continued into western Europe when they returned to battle after the enthronement of Guyuk, but they chose to fight the Russians instead. The Persian Mongols continued to fight the Mamluks (themselves Turks, in manye cases refugees from Mongol attacks), who are usually regarded as the toughest fighters the Mongols ever encountered (with the possible exception of the Japanese), and who battled the Mongols to a standoff. Then when Berke of the Golden Horde in Russia (the one who would have invaded Europe) came back in 1262 from Kublai Khan’s installment as Great Khan he went to war with the Persian Ilkhan Mongols (the ones who would have invaded Egypt), and from that point there would be no more Mongol invasions in in the West.

The short answer seems to be that the Mongols were defeated by the tropics and the sea in the east, and by their own disunity in the west.


A longer bibliography on this and related topics

Abu-Ligoud, Janet, Before European Hegemony, Oxford, 1991.

Barfield, Thomas, The Perilous Frontier, Wiley-Blackwell, 1992.

Black-Michaud, Jacob, Cohesive Force, Blackwell, 1975.

Bregel, Yuri, An Historical Atlas of Central Asia, 2003, Brill.

Buell, Paul D, “The Role of the Sino-Mongolian Frontier Zone in the Rise of Chinggis-Qan”, pp. 63-76, Studies on Mongolia, ed. Schwarz, Bellingham, 1979.

Coedes, Georges, Testimonia of Greek and Latin Writers on the Lands and Peoples of the Far East, Ares, 1979.

de Rachewiltz, Igor, The Secret History of the Mongols,  Brill, 2006.

di Cosmo, Nicola, Ancient China and its Enemies, Cambridge, 2004.

Duby, Georges, “Youth in Aristocratic Society’, in The Chivalrous Society, California, 1977, pp. 112-122.

Fletcher, Joseph F., Studies in Chinese and Islamic Inner Asia, Variorum, 1995.

France, John, Western Warfare in the Age of the Crusades, Cornell, 1999.

Fried, Morton, The Evolution of Political Society,  McGraw-Hill, 1967.

Gellner, Ernest, Anthropology and Politics, Blackwell, 1995.

Hambis, L., Gengis-khan, Paris, 1973.

Ibn Khaldun, tr. Rosenthal, The Muqaddimah, Bollingen / Princeton, 1967.

Juvaini, Ata-malik (tr. Boyle), Genghis Khan,  U. of Washington, 1997.

Khazanov, A. P., Nomads and the Outside World, Wisconsin, 1994.

Lane, Frederick, Venice and History, Johns Hopkins, 1966.

Lattimore, Owen, Studies in Frontier History, Oxford, 1962 (especially “The Geographical Factor in Mongol History”), pp. 241-258.

Lattimore, Owen, Inner Asian Frontiers of China, 1962, Beacon: pp, 238-251, “The ‘Reservoir’ and the Marginal Zone”.

Leach, Edmund, Political Systems of Highland Burma, Beacon, 1954.

Lewis,  Mark Edward, Sanctioned Violence in Early China, SUNY, 2007.

Lindner, Rudi Paul, “What was a Nomadic Tribe?”,  Comparative Studies in Society and History, 1982.

Martin, Henry Desmond, The Rise of Chingis Khan His Conquest of North China, Octagon, 1971.

May, Timothy, The Mongol Art of War, Westholme, 2007.

Olbrecht, P. and Pinks, E., trs. , Meng-Ta Pei-lu Und Hei-ta Shih-lueh, Wiesbaden, 1980.

Pelliot, Paul, and Hambis, L., Histoire des Campagnes de Gengis Khan, Leiden, 1951.

Rashid ad-din, Shi Ji, tr. Xu Da-jun and Zhou Jien-qi, Beijing, 1983. (Translated from the Russian.)

Rashid ad-din, tr. Thackston, Wheeler, A Compendium of Chronicles, Harvard, 1998-1999.

Ratchnevsky, Paul, Genghis Khan, Blackwell, 1991.

Reid, Robert R., A Brief Political and Military Chronology of the Mediaeval Mongols, Mongolia Society, 2002.

Saunders, J.J., History of the Mongol Conquests, Pennsylvania, 2001

Sinor, Denis, Inner Asia and its Contacts with Medieval Europe, Ashgate/ Variorum, 1977,  I: “Central Eurasia”.

Steensgaard,  Niels, “Violence and the Rise of Capitalism”, Review of the Braudel Center, V:2, Fall 1981, pp. 247-73.

Teggart, F.A., Rome and China, Greenwood, 1983.

Togan, Isenbike, Flexibility and Limitation in Steppe Formations, Brill, 1998.

Waldron, Arthur, The Great Wall of China, Cambridge, 1990.

Wang Kuo-wei, Meng-ku Shih-liao Ssu-chung, Peking, 1934.

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