Catalyst, Conquest, Cruelty — Why History’s Greatest Empire Was Forgotten

The Mongol Empire’s invention of the modern world.

Pavel Ryzhenko, 2003
“I am the flail of god. Had you not created great sins, God would not have sent a punishment like me upon you.”

Several hundred men crested a hill of sand. Their leading horseman stopped and raised his left hand above his shoulder.

They stood at the edge of the Kyzyl Kum, fabled in historical texts as the impregnable Red Desert. A few miles south lay Bukhara, a city of remarkable religious piety to the devoted Muslim and of unrivaled lucrativeness to the region’s many traders.

Upon sighting Bukhara’s border cities, the group relaxed their march to an almost leisurely pace. They had journeyed two thousand miles of mountains, desert, and steppe, covering a distance greater than that of any other army on record. Their travels had been uneventful, for the people of Bukhara had never considered the possibility of an army approaching from the desert.

Bukhara had well over twenty thousand soldiers defending its gates and formidable walls. Each soldier was armored and equipped with a standard set of weaponry. The city housed large reserves of military resources and had well-established supply lines carrying goods of every variety and quantity.

The group resting on the edge of the desert was in stark contrast, not only to the city of Bukhara but to almost any major army of the period. They had traveled lightly, without a supply train. They lacked proper armory and did not carry with them typical tools of siege, such as cannons or catapults. And most conspicuously, they were far outnumbered. Yet, this small army would conquer Bukhara with crushing force and establish their absolute dominance over the city and its people.

Several of the neighboring cities were first captured. Generous terms of surrender were proposed while defiance was met with incredible cruelty. As the neighboring cities fell, Bukhara was flooded with frightened refugees, instigating an agonizing balance between public terror and urgency of which was carefully manipulated by their invaders. By striking deep behind enemy lines, panic and havoc immediately reached every corner of the kingdom.

Soldiers abandoned their fortress and stations. Fleeing soldiers spread thinly into the desert, typically under the guise of night, where their stationed invaders easily cut them down. After a few days, only five hundred Turkic soldiers remained within the city. Out of fear, they barricaded themselves behind the citadel of Bukhara.

The civilian population surrendered quickly and opened their gate to the invaders. The warriors strode through the gates with confidence, completely unopposed. Once the large mosque in the city’s center was reached, their leader began his systemic plundering of the city, assigning each of the 280 wealthiest citizens to a warrior of his own to collect the treasure from the citizen’s residence. Their leader turned his attention to attacking the Turkic soldiers still defiantly sealed in the citadel.

“The strength of walls depend on the courage of those who guard them.”

Though not familiar with the invaders in particular the Turkic soldiers were aware of their tribal origin. Prior tribal armies, regardless of their bravery or sophistication, could simply not pose a threat to a heavily industrialized and urban army as their own.

This tribal army was far from their native land. Their leader was born as Temüjin, a product of a prominent chief subservient to the powerful Tayichiud clan and his wife, whom he had kidnapped as an addition to an existing concubine. Temüjin’s ability to radically reform and unify the nomadic tribes of the Mongolian Plateau can be attributed to the sheer brutality and cruelty that he had absorbed early in his youth.

Temüjin’s upbringing consisted of activities reserved for the lowest level of steppe life. His family lived much like any other animal where procuring small fruits, roots, and rats constituted most of their existence. He was enslaved by a rival clan in adolescence and spent as much as ten years living in cruel conditions respective to a slave’s societal stature. In his servitude, Temüjin acquired a keen understanding of human nature and its most vulnerable areas of exploitation.

Upon escape, through remarkably intelligent manipulation, Temüjin rose rapidly through the Keraites clan to a position of leadership. An inevitable revolt was staged, Temüjin gaining the upper hand and in one sweeping war, conquered every clan that resided on the Mongolian Plateau. Here, the story becomes rather familiar. Temüjin titled himself Genghis Khan, the unrivaled ruler of what he named the Great Mongol Nation. Up until his death in 1227, he orchestrated the Mongol World War, ending with an empire twice as large as the Roman Empire or Islamic Caliphate, second only to the British. He is ranked by some historians to be the wealthiest man in history.

Even at the age of 60, his vigor and militaristic genius had not left him. In addition to his soldiers, he had brought along a team of highly adept engineers. The battle of Bukhara was late in the Mongolian conquest of Eurasia; Genghis’s engineers had already accumulated an extensive aggregate of technological knowledge from conquered civilizations. Within minutes, enormous and prolific instruments of siege were constructed employing materials found in the city. Loaded with an early version of mortar shells, its ammunition shattered the structure of the citadel on contact. The engineers built mobile platforms that raised Mongol archers to eye level with the citadel. The sky went dark as a myriad of flamed iron-tipped arrows inundated the Turkic soldiers. Ladders were quickly strung up against the remaining citadel walls. In seconds, the interior was engulfed by Mongol warriors. Turkic soldiers were either slaughtered in the citadel or slaughtered when attempting to flee.

“There is no good in anything until it is finished.”

In the wake of Genghis's conquest, the initial devastation and chaos was short-lived. As a whole, economic development and cultural interaction flourished in the Mongol Empire and continued long after its split into four ruling kingdoms. Genghis understood the correlation between trade and economic prosperity. Prior to the Mongols, the great trade routes of the Post-Classical world had fallen to disuse, attributed predominantly to more numerous and strictly enforced borders in hand with rising crime. Genghis ordered for the repair of deteriorating routes and the construction of new ones. Crimes committed on trade routes were enforced by incredibly harsh consequences.

The Mongols introduced many progressive policies. They ruled with religious tolerance and reasonable taxation. Genghis and his supervisors were not greedy and funneled most of the collected taxes back into the empire. Genghis was also a staunch opponent to slavery.

An efficient postal system was implemented. For every 20 to 30 miles of road, Genghis ordered the construction of postal stations comprised of a large central station, corrals, and outbuildings. Messages traveled quickly across the vast acreage of the empire. Abuse of the system was strictly prohibited.

Protective associations were formed for merchants called Ortogh. Traders were given tax exemption rather than extortionist tax rates. The Mongols offered a passport to merchants that allowed them to safely travel along the Silk Road. Specific passports were issued to diplomats that ensured safety and served as proof of status for diplomatic exchanges. The Mongols even loaned money at low interest to merchants. If paper was used as currency, it was backed by a standard amount of silk and precious metals.

The last traces of the Mongol Empire dissipated around the fruition of the Second World War. Mongolia fell under the control of the Soviet Union, governed as a satellite and yet considered formally by most foreign nations to be a mere province of China. The Mongolian people provided economic support in regards to labor and manufacturing to the Soviets and Germans for the duration of the war. Soviets eradicated considerable amounts of Mongolian history and heritage in an attempt to instill Soviet nationalism as a replacement. Genghis’s homeland and place of burial were sealed off as a militarized zone and remained untouched until 1989 when Mongolia and the Soviet Union finalized plans for withdrawal.

At the present, the International Monetary Fund ranks Mongolia’s gross domestic product per capita 125th out of 182 countries. The United Nations Development Programme ranks the country 115th out of 182 in human development and the World Economic Forum ranks it 117th out of 133 in global competitiveness.

For most, history has painted a poor image of the Mongols. Genghis Khan and his empire, along with subsequent leaders and states, are spoken of in a negative connotation. The description of barbaric tribes trampling civilized and advanced societies holds a firm grip in the perspective of many. Indeed, the country’s current state is reinforcement to this belief. It is only recently that historical and anthropological studies have resumed in Mongolia. The difficulty in researching Mongolian history is due to a lack of physical remains and writing from the periods of interest. The works of anthropologist Jack Weatherford and historian John Man, among others, in recent years have aided in introducing Mongol history to mainstream interest and consumption.

The history of a country invariably correlates to the fundamentals of its society, in regards to culture, custom, diplomatic relations, and patriotism. The development and fall of the Mongolian state in the last millennium is a testament to the described notion. Its success was relative to its period. As with most empires, the Mongol empire began its decline immediately following a sudden vacuum in centralized power left by Genghis’s death. As innovation continued in various parts of the world, the Mongol people fell further behind, particularly in that they failed to master the use of gunpowder at the speed or proficiency of the Europeans which rendered their bows and arrows, however sophisticated, inconsequential.

The emergence of Soviet rule over the fractured Mongol tribes proved to be the final blow. The Soviets understood the necessary elements of a revolt. Their attempts to erase artifacts and records of Mongol history served to extinguish the possibility of a resurgence in national pride, while attempts to dictate economic development guaranteed a limit to the wealth a Mongolian individual could accumulate.

Human civilization from the 14th century onward owes an immeasurable debt to the Mongols. The revitalization of Greek and Roman texts following exchanges with Islamic states along with the sweeping influence of printing, gunpowder, and the spread of maritime technologies enabled Europe to experience a Renaissance. Europeans developed an insatiable taste for Asian goods through heavy usage of the Silk Road, propelling Western European traders to sail West and stumble upon the American continents.

The systems and practices established by the Mongols were a precursor to globalization. Many of their values and policies have weaved into the axioms of modern civilization. The contributions of the Mongols to the progression of our species is so often undermined, yet few empires and even fewer individuals have left a mark as enduring and remarkable as Genghis Khan and the tribes of the Mongolian Plateau.

“I shall rule them by fixed laws so that rest and happiness shall prevail in the world.”
All quotations used are believed to be from Genghis Khan.