The Mongols: A prototypical case of historical misrepresentation, and why it matters today

‘Militarily dominant, politically astute and theologically tolerant, the Mongols’ template for success was far removed from our common perceptions of them.’ Peter Frankopan, ‘The Silk Roads: A New History of the World’

In popular imagination, the Mongols, a nomadic people from Central and eastern Asia, are seen as the prototypical barbaric destroyers. And the founder of the Mongol Empire, Genghis Khan, as the prototypical blood-thirsty annihilator.

After reading Peter Frankopan’s account of the Mongols in his amazing book The Silk Roads: A New History of the World, I’m convinced that the Mongols are rather a prototypical case of historical misrepresentation. And, a powerful cautionary tale against anything that we readily accept as ‘common knowledge’.

The Mongols’ strategy

On the Mongols’ road to one of the largest empires in history, lasting from the start of the 13th century to the end of the 14th, ‘tolerance and careful administration had to follow up on military might’. ‘Blanket images of the Mongols as barbaric destroyers are wide off the mark, and represent the misleading legacies of the histories written later which emphasised ruin and devastation above all else’, Frankopan says.

The first ingredient of the Mongols’ strategy was the building of a centralized meritocracy, ‘where ability and loyalty were more important than tribal background or shared kinship with the leader’. When incorporating new peoples in the empire, ‘tribes were deliberately broken down’:

‘Distinguishing tribal features, such as how people wore their hair, were stamped out, with standardised fashions enforced instead. As a matter of course, those who submitted or were conquered were dispersed across Mongol-controlled territory to weaken bonds of language, kinship and identity and to aid the assimilation process.’

However, Mongol rulers did not avoid compromise and co-operation. Their religious tolerance is characteristic of that attitude. ‘Ever since the time of Genghis Khan, the leader’s retinue had been allowed to practise whatever beliefs they wanted’, Frankopan says. ‘Some of this religious tolerance was clever politicking’, he continues. In fact,

‘[t]here were many instances of high-ranking figures in the Mongol world becoming Christian and then converting to Islam or vice versa, switching their religion as convenient.’

In their economic policy, the Mongols revealed a long-term strategy. They were keeping taxes low and they ‘invested lavishly in the infrastructure of some of the cities they captured … championing the arts, crafts and production’, Frankopan tells us.

On top of their active strategy the Mongols took advantage of the opportunities in their environment. Characteristically, Frankopan tells us that ‘[c]ontrol of the Silk Roads gave [the Mongols] access to information and ideas that could be replicated and deployed thousands of miles away’. They also benefited from ‘the consolidation of Central Asia’, and the ‘monetised and increasingly stratified’ societies in the Middle East and Europe, which were able to pay tribute in cash. Frankopan concludes:

‘Across the continents of Asia and Europe, Genghis Khan and his successors were not just stumbling into a world that offered rich pickings; they found themselves stepping into a golden age.’

The Mongols’ legacy

Having a Euro-centric view of the Middle Ages, we are largely ignorant of the legacy of the Mongol Empire to the modern world. To start with, the new capital that the Mongols founded in the late 13th century, after completely conquering medieval China, is modern China’s capital, Beijing (which even had a Christian archbishop by the early 14th century).

As Frankopan tells us, words on trade and communication in modern Russia are ‘drawn directly from the vocabulary relating to the Mongol administration’. The network of relay stations of the modern Russian postal system was also established by the Mongols.

Finally, Frankopan highlights the importance of the stability provided by the Mongol Empire to the subsequent European expansion towards the East:

Fundamental to European expansion was the stability that the Mongols provided across the whole of Asia. Despite the rivalries between the different branches of the tribal leadership, the rule of law was fiercely protected when it came to commercial matters. The road system in China, for example, was the envy of visitors who marveled at the administrative measures in place to provide security for travelling merchants. … [T]his was partly the result of traditional nomad beliefs about the hospitality that should be shown to strangers, but it was also a function of a wider view that commerce should be encouraged.

Why the Mongols’ story matters today

The reason that the historical misrepresentation of the Mongols is important is that, frequently, naive and simplistic historical arguments are used to shape opinions about contemporary matters. For example, a naive observer might invoke the Mongols as an example of the effectiveness of brute force, completely missing complex tribal politics, religious tolerance, commercial ethos, and the power of information as major factors in the Mongols’ success.

Importantly, in order to forge a ‘national identity’ in newer states (and sometimes in older states that go through earth-shattering changes) politicians and associated ideologues construct idealized pedigrees of ‘the nation’. In these pedigrees, entire centuries can be dismissed as irrelevant occupation during which some purported ‘true spirit’ of the nation managed to survive, ignoring the inevitable influences that the occupier had on the people of that geographic area. In fact, occupiers are not called so if they are part of the idealized pedigree — they are called ‘ancestors’.

In modern Greece, for example, many people think that they are descendants (sic) of a combination of Pericles’ Athenians (and, perhaps, Spartans, but only in terms of military prowess), Alexander’s Macedonians and Constantine’s (Christian) Byzantines (not pagan Romans, God forbid!), disregarding (at least) about 400 years under the Ottoman Empire, and 800 years (say between Pericles and Constantine) of polytheism (as if polytheism disappeared with an imperial edict) as some kind of historical parentheses.

Such thinking can (and frequently does) lead to intolerance and policies that disregard the real, more complex, origins of people and nations. In such cases, it is useful to bring the story of the Mongols in mind — a rare case of a winner who did not write history. And if the history of the Mongols — the history of a big winner by any standard — came down to us in such a distorted and unfavorable way, imagine what can happen with the history of a small minority.


Peter Frankopan, 2015, The Silk Roads: A New History of the World.

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