What was the Mongol legacy?
Modern scholarship has revised the older view that in all places barbarism, cruelty, and the fundamentally parasitical nature of Mongol warrior culture worsened local despotic traditions and held back ideas and social forces which might have advanced civilization and hastened modernity. This more extreme view was succinctly put by the Russian poet Alexandr Pushkin, who contrasted medieval Muscovy’s misfortune under the Mongols with the more fruitful encounter between Islam and Western Europe. The Mongols, he said, were ‘‘Arabs without Aristotle or algebra.’’ In Iraq, this older view of devastation and decline of classical Islam under the Mongols holds true. Elsewhere, while Mongol warfare was terrifying and destructive, their regimes did not significantly alter classical Islamic or Chinese civilization. There were even some positive results from the Mongol conquest, albeit effects not intended by the Great Khans. For instance, Iran enjoyed relative peace and stability after it was overrun, though a cultural renaissance only occurred in the post-Mongol era (13th–14th centuries). The Mongols actually restored long-term order in several lands previously disrupted and opened to repeated invasion by local tribal feuds and endemic nomad and clan warfare. Finally, the unity of the Mongol empire facilitated a revived trade along the old Silk Road and led to diffusion of civilian culture and military technology alike from Asia to the Middle East and Europe, and thence back to Asia. This had far-reaching effects on those parts of the Islamic world the Mongols occupied. And it afforded Christians in Europe more contact with Asia by eliminating Muslim middleman regimes that had previously blocked direct travel overland to China.
Mongol Expansion and Empire
For centuries the tribes of Mongolia were disunited and involved in petty civil wars. They only realized their latent military power when united in 1206 by Temüjin (1162–1227), better known by his warlord title of Chinggis (or Ghengis) Khan, which meant ‘‘Mighty Ruler.’’ By 1218, Chinggis subdued all Mongol rivals and some Turkic and Siberian nomads. One of his generals overran Kara-Khitay that same year. The next spring Chinggis led an army across the Jaxartes, invading Muslim lands for the first time. In 1220 he split his force into four armies. He circled around Bukhara with 40,000 horsemen, then took it by surprise from the west. He had the population butchered as an example to all who would resist him, then razed the city before returning to his tents. This was normal practice: the Mongols often sacked and plundered cities, but they had no taste for them otherwise and no intention to reside in them. Meanwhile, lieutenants took Samarkand and other great Muslim centers of learning and civilization, and more slaughter followed. The Mongol invasion thus permanently depopulated much of Central Asia by murder and pillage, two trademarks of Mongol warfare against settled civilizations. The next year commenced the Mongol conquest of eastern Iran.
Chinggis overran most of northern China 1217–1223; successors completed the Mongol conquest of the Jin Empire in 1234. The election of Kublai Khan (1214–1294) was contested, a fact that pulled many hordes back into Mongolia to fight out a succession war. This may well have saved Muscovy and even Central and Western Europe from invasion, defeat, and occupation. After Kublai Khan was secure in power he completed the conquest of China. The Southern Song held out for five years during the siege of their fortress city, Hsiang-Yang (1268–1273). The end of the Song dynasty came swiftly, however, after a final naval battle off Guangzhou (Canton) in April 1279, during which the last Southern Song child-emperor drowned. Thereafter, the Mongols ruled all China from Beijing as the Yuan dynasty, until they were ousted by Hongwu and the Ming in 1368. In the span of three generations after Chinggis the Mongols had conquered much of Eurasia, overrunning most of Russia, Central Asia, and large parts of the Middle East. They deeply frightened Western Europe and interrupted the long wars between Muslims and the Crusader kingdoms.
In 1234 the Mongols did what no sultan had been able to: they drove the Assassins from their mountain fastness at Alamut. In 1240, Mongol armies defeated the Iranians at Jand and added western Iran to the empire of the Great Khans. In April 1241, a Mongol army defeated the Poles at Cracow, then the Teutonic Knights at Liegnitz. A year later a horde wiped out the Hungarians at Mohi. In 1243 the Mongols crushed the Seljuk Turks in Anatolia. At mid-century they attacked into Georgia and Armenia and scouted northern Iraq. Now began a concerted effort to conquer all the Islamic lands of the Middle East. In 1258 an Asian horde reinforced by the Golden Horde of Russia and led by Hulagu, a Buddhist convert married to a Christian, moved against the Abbasid caliphs in Baghdad. In the greatest humiliation suffered by Islam they breached Baghdad’s walls and sacked the city for a week, putting most of the population to the sword. They captured caliph al-Musta’s²im and his family and entourage, and put them all to death. That closed the classical age of Islam and ended the preeminence of Baghdad and Iraq in the Muslim world as the remnants of the Abbasids fled to Egypt.
Even so, the destructive impact of the Mongols on Islam can be exaggerated. Recent scholarship suggests that while occupied Muslim lands suffered greatly, in Syria, Egypt, and North Africa Islamic regimes and societies held their own. Indeed, at Ayn Ja-lut (‘‘The Spring of Goliath’’) in Galilee a mamluk army out of Egypt defeated the Mongols in 1260, forestalling a planned invasion of Egypt and North Africa. The mamluks subsequently blocked multiple Mongol attempts to invade Syria, annexing it themselves as a protected province of their slave soldier empire. Also, the Golden Horde Mongols eventually converted to sunni Islam. That divided them from other hordes and encouraged a semi-alliance with the Mamluk overlords of Syria and Egypt. The Golden Horde then clashed with an Asian horde at the Terek River in 1262. This horde suffered a second defeat in Syria at mamluk hands at Homs (1281). Meanwhile, the governing Mongols (Il-Khans) in Iran converted to shi’ia Islam in 1295 and governed fairly well thereafter through the literate Iranian elite.
Although the Mongols were the dominant land power of the 12th–14th centuries, they were not so adept at sea. Kublai Khan sent vast armies to invade Japan, carted there by Chinese and Korean junks and pilots. These attempts were repulsed at Hakata Bay in 1274 and again in 1281 by a combination of bad weather and determined defenders. The Mongols also tried amphibious invasions of Burma, Java, Siam, and Vietnam during the 13th century, and failed in every case.
A wave of Turkic invaders conquered north India ahead of the Mongols: the Khaljis took control of Delhi in 1290. The Muslim state they established there beat back a Mongol invasion out of Afghanistan during the first decade of the 14th century, though not without seeing Delhi partially sacked and plundered. These Turkic invaders may thus have preserved India from worse depredations by the Mongols, deflecting the hordes instead into Ukraine and southern Muscovy. Various Mongol regimes ruled parts of Central Asia until defeated by Timur. The Mongol ‘‘Khanate of the Golden Horde,’’ a sunni Muslim and largely Kipchack state, ruled the Caucasus, Ukraine, and south-western Russia from the 13th to 15th centuries. It was pushed onto the defensive after a defeat by Muscovy in 1380. In the mid-15th century Mongolia revived after a century of depression of its population due to the Black Death. Extensive raiding of Ming China followed and provoked a Ming invasion of Mongolia itself. That led an entire Ming army to be outmaneuvered and wiped out at Tumu in 1449. After 1474 the Ming concentrated on adding hundreds of miles of Great Wall, behind which they huddled in fear of the Mongols (and Manchus). A Ming army sallied against the Mongols and won in 1517 and in 1522 Mongol trade privileges were revoked, but that only led to annual border warfare through the 1540s as Mongol warlords tried to force a restoration of trade. In 1550, Altan Khan skirted the Great Wall to the north then raced south to savage the suburbs of Beijing for three days, unchallenged by the city’s frightened garrison.
Suggested Reading: S. Adshead, Central Asia in World History (1994); R. Amitai- Preiss and David Morgan, eds., The Mongol Empire and its Legacy (1999); Nicola Cosomo, Warfare in Inner Asian History, 500–1800 (2002); Leo de Hartog, Ghengis Khan, Conqueror of the World (1989); Luc Kwanten, Imperial Nomads (1979); J. Langlois, ed., China Under Mongol Rule (1981); David Morgan, The Mongols (1986); Paul Ratchnevsky, Ghengis Khan (1992); Morris Rossabi, Khubilai Khan (1988).