12 Surprising Things You Should Know About the Fierce Mongols and their Unforgiving Conquests

12 Surprising Things You Should Know About the Fierce Mongols and their Unforgiving Conquests

Khalid Elhassan - December 12, 2017

Until the late 1100s, the Mongols were an obscure nomadic tribe. Roaming the Eurasian Steppe north of China, various Mongol factions fought each other and neighboring tribes, as they had done for centuries. By the early 1200s, the Mongols had been united under the leadership of a charismatic and capable leader named Temujin. After conquering and absorbing neighboring tribes, and forming them into a Mongol nation, Temujin adopted the title Genghis Khan, or Universal Ruler, and set out to conquer the world.

By the time they ran out of steam, the Mongols had conquered history’s biggest contiguous land empire. It stretched from Korea and the Sea of Japan to the east, all the way to Hungary and the borders of Germany in the west, and from the frozen wastes of the Siberian tundra in the north, to the steaming jungles of Indochina in the south. During their conquests, the Mongols terrorized Eurasia and the known world to an unprecedented extent – unmatched before or since, and killed an estimated 40 million people. That 40 million figure was from a global population much smaller than today’s. If extrapolated to modern population, it would be the equivalent of over 300 million people – or more than four times the deaths of World War I and World War II, combined.

12 Surprising Things You Should Know About the Fierce Mongols and their Unforgiving Conquests
The Mongol Empire at its greatest extent. Keyword Suggest

Following are twelve of the most fascinating things about the Mongols and their terrifying conquests.

12 Surprising Things You Should Know About the Fierce Mongols and their Unforgiving Conquests
Mongol Archer. Imgur

The Mongols Had Immense Military Potential, and Only Needed the Right Leader

For thousands of years, Eurasian Steppe nomads preyed opportunistically on their settled neighbors. Nomadic war bands often raided to seize booty, but when nomadic tribes were united under strong leadership, those raids could grow into devastating attacks that destroyed empires. Growing up and almost living on horseback, the nomads had a strategic mobility that allowed them to raid settled lands, loot, and leave before the locals could mobilize a response. That mobility also allowed the nomads to choose when, where, and whether to fight the forces sent to chastise them.

Strategic mobility was supplemented by tactical advantages. First, their horses gave them battlefield mobility. If their civilized opponents managed to bring them to battle, it was still difficult to make it a decisive battle. Unlike armies comprised in the main of infantry, if things went wrong for nomadic mounted armies, they were seldom forced to surrender or fight to the death. Unless constricted by some natural obstacle or other rare situation, the nomads usually had a third option: ride off the battlefield, and live to fight another day.

Another advantage was that the Steppe nomads’ preferred weapon, the recurved bow, often had a greater killing range than the weapons wielded by their opponents of the settled lands. That created tactical mismatches, giving nomadic warriors a safe standoff from which to kill with relative impunity. They could thus subject less mobile enemies to a rain of arrows, winnow their ranks until they grew disordered and demoralized, then charge in to break them. A prime example is the 53 BC Battle of Carrhae. There, a 50,000 strong Roman army, comprised in the main of infantry, was annihilated by a 10,000 strong Parthian cavalry force comprised in the main of mounted archers armed with recurved bows.

Another advantage was the nomads themselves. Life on the harsh Steppe, much of it spent on horseback, created a deep pool of tough natural cavalry. Although the population of the civilized lands neighboring the Steppe vastly outnumbered that of the nomads, only a minority of the civilized lands’ population could be mobilized as warriors. That is because civilization rests upon a majority of civilians pursuing civil pursuits, such as working in the fields and workshops. Steppe nomads had few fields and less manufacture, and their food source, their grazing animals, could be tended to by children and women. Thus, almost the entire adult male population of fighting age were available as warriors.

Civilization only survived because, luckily, it was often difficult to unite the feuding and fractious nomads in large enough numbers to overwhelm their settled neighbors. Small scale nomadic raids on the borders of civilized lands were quite frequent, but leaders who could unite the nomads, and thus realize the Steppe’s terrifying potential, were rare. Nonetheless, such leaders did emerge from time to time, and when they did, the world trembled.

12 Surprising Things You Should Know About the Fierce Mongols and their Unforgiving Conquests
Genghis Khan monumental statue. Wikimedia

The Mongol Empire Was Founded by a Charismatic Monster

My greatest joy is to defeat my enemies and drive them before me. To see their cities reduced to ashes. To see their loved ones shrouded and in tears, and to embrace their wives and daughters” – Genghis Khan.

Genghis Khan, born Temujin (1162 – 1227), must have embraced many an enemy’s wives and daughters: a 2003 DNA study showed that nearly 40 million people were his descendants. This staggering statistic means about 1 in 200 of the world’s population. He founded history’s largest contiguous empire, and was one of history’s most terrifying figures. Widespread massacres, even genocides, often accompanied his conquests. About 40 million people were killed during the Mongol conquests he started. If that number was extrapolated to modern global population, it would be equivalent to 280 million deaths in the 20th century – around four times the casualties of WWI and WWII, combined.

Temujin’s father, the chief of a small Mongol tribe, was assassinated when Temujin was a child. Tribal rivals then expelled the widow and her children to fend for themselves on the harsh Mongol Steppe. As a result, Temujin grew up in extreme poverty and want. During that difficult childhood, he killed one of his brothers for refusing to share a rodent.

He grew up a hard man, but also a charismatic one. By the time he was a young man, Temujin had a small and devoted following. With diplomatic maneuvering, backed by force when warranted, he took over the Mongol clans, one at a time. He ruthlessly eradicated tribal distinctions by exterminating the nobility, and combining the commoners into a single Mongol tribe, united by their personal loyalty to Temujin.

After uniting the Mongols, he took on the rival Tatar tribe, defeated them, and executed all males taller than a wagon’s axle. By 1206, Temujin had destroyed all Steppe rivals, and united its feuding tribes into a Mongol nation. That year, he called for a grand assembly, and revealed his vision, endorsed by shamans, that the heavens had ordained that he rule all under the sky. The Mongols proclaimed him “Genghis Khan”, meaning Universal Ruler.

12 Surprising Things You Should Know About the Fierce Mongols and their Unforgiving Conquests
A Mongol army on the march. Pintrest

The Mongols Had a Well Organized Military Structure

Genghis Khan organized the Mongols for war. He was a good judge of men, a great talent spotter, and his system was a meritocracy where the capable could rise, regardless of origins. He subjected the formerly fractious and feuding nomadic warriors to strict military discipline that was hard, but not overly harsh or unreasonable. And he drilled and trained them constantly.

He then placed them in a well organized hierarchical organization, with a clear cut and effective chain of command. He created a military organization based on decimals, with a hierarchy of ranks. At the base were squads of 10 men, known as an Arbans. 10 Arbans formed a company of 100, known as a Zuun. 10 Zuuns were combined into a regiment of 1000, known as a Minghan. 10 Minghans were formed into a division of 10,000, known as a Tuman. A separate imperial guard of 10,000 men protected the Khan and leading Mongol figures.

All Mongols had been riding horses since they were toddlers, and were taught archery since early childhood. As a result, they were prime cavalry material by the time they joined the Mongol army as young men. In the army, they underwent extensive and continuous training that transformed them into a mounted elite. They practiced the individual skills of archery and horsemanship almost daily. They also trained constantly to master unit tactics. They drilled in maneuvers, formation changes, rotations, advances, retreats, and massed archery, until they became second nature.

Six out of every ten Mongols were light cavalry horse archers, while the remaining four were heavy cavalry, typically armored and armed with lances. A favorite battlefield tactic, for which they incessantly trained, was to attrit their opponents from a distance with arrows. Once the Mongol commander judged the enemy sufficiently weakened, a signal would be given for a charge, spearheaded by the heavy cavalry, in which Mongol horsemen slashed the survivors with sabers, or skewered them with lances. Another tactic they practiced constantly was a feigned retreat to lure the enemy into pursuing them. Then, once brought to favorable ground, the Mongols would turn at a signal, and surround or counterchange their pursuers.

In short, Genghis Khan transformed the Steppe nomads from warrior bands into a disciplined professional army, with an established structure and hierarchical chain of command. He built on the inherent strengths of the nomads – hardihood, excellent horsemanship, and martial skills such as archery. When those strengths were coupled with discipline and professionalism, the result was a formidable fighting machine.

12 Surprising Things You Should Know About the Fierce Mongols and their Unforgiving Conquests
Mongol horse archers. Volcano Ridge Mounted Archers

The Mongol Army Was Surprisingly Modern

A Mongol military trait that seems remarkably modern was the wide flexibility and leeway afforded soldiers and officers in carrying out their orders. The Mongol chain of command effectively communicated the overall objectives and the commander’s vision and aim. Subordinates were not micromanaged, and initiative was encouraged, so long as they carried out orders promptly and effectively served the overall plan.

Another modern trait was strategic flexibility. The Tumans of 10,000 Mongols usually operated independently, marching separately to sweep across and devastate wide swathes of enemy territory. They were kept in contact with each other and with corps or army commanders in charge of two or more Tumans by a steady stream of message bearing couriers. If a Tuman made contact with an enemy force too big to handle, the other Tumans could quickly be called in and concentrated into an army.

Centuries later, Napoleon would use a similar methodology of advancing on a broad front, with separate army corps making their own way, marching like the outstretched fingers of a hand. If and when a corps made contact with the main enemy force, it would engage to fix it in place, or otherwise operate in a manner that maintained contact. In the meanwhile, the remaining corps would rush in and concentrate upon the corps in contact with the enemy, transforming from a widespread advance like outstretched fingers, and into a solid fist.

Additionally, the Mongols were anything but conservative when it came to war. Far from being wed to the traditional Steppe way of fighting, the Mongols were open minded and receptive to adopting the military techniques of others, so long as they were effective. For example, there was no tradition of siege of warfare in the Steppe. Yet the Mongols successfully besieged numerous cities by employing Chinese, Persian, Arab, and European specialists. They learnt how, and incorporated engineering into their military establishment.

12 Surprising Things You Should Know About the Fierce Mongols and their Unforgiving Conquests
Mongols in battle. Pintrest

Mongol “Hordes” Were Often Greatly Outnumbered

The word “horde” often conjures up a misleading image when applied to the Mongols. It brings to mind mindless swarms of disorganized barbarians, attacking their enemies in a wild hell-for-leather charge, and overwhelming their foes with numbers and reckless savagery, heedless of cost. The Mongols certainly were savage in their conduct of war. And considering their barbaric treatment of others, it is difficult to contest that they were barbarians, in all meanings of the word.

However, the Mongols were also the most strictly disciplined, organized, and hierarchical military machine the world had seen until then. Their discipline and professionalism rivaled even that of the Roman legions, and would not be matched or exceeded until the rise of professional armies in our modern era. It was that strict discipline and professionalism, more than anything else, that won the Mongols their victories.

The Mongols seldom had numerical superiority over their enemies. Indeed, they swept across Eurasia and conquered history’s largest contiguous empire despite being severely outnumbered by their foes. In their rise to empire, the Mongols routinely annihilated opposing armies that outnumbered them by two to one, three to one, and four to one or more.

Relying on superior strategy, tactics, training, discipline, and speed, the Mongols won despite being numerical underdogs because they were professionals, and extremely good at the business of war. They consistently beat bigger opponents by leveraging their own strengths, while ruthlessly exploiting the weaknesses of their enemies. Adding up all the preceding, the result was the most effective, efficient, and terrifying military machine that the world had ever known.

12 Surprising Things You Should Know About the Fierce Mongols and their Unforgiving Conquests
Mongol pyramid of severed heads. Da Ragin Cajun

The Mongols Used Mass Terror as an Effective Strategy

When Gehghis Khan set out to conquer world, he started with China, which was fragmented at the time into various dynasties. First was the Western Xia Dynasty, which he defeated and turned into vassals. Next, he attacked the more powerful Jin Dynasty in 1211. After a decisive Mongol victory in which hundreds of thousands of enemy troops were massacred, Genghis captured and sacked the Jin capital in 1215.

The Jin emperor fled, and abandoned the northern half of his empire. Genghis then found himself ruling a domain that included tens of millions of Chinese peasants. The concept of civilized government was alien to him, so he planned to simply kill them all and transform the land into pasturage suitable for Mongol herds. The Chinese were spared that genocide only after the concept of taxation was explained to Genghis, and he understood that many live peasants working the fields and paying taxes meant great wealth.

Campaigning in China was interrupted when a governor in the powerful Khwarezmian Empire to the west executed Mongol envoys sent by Genghis to its emir. One of history’s greatest mistakes occurred when the emir scornfully refused to hand over the offending governor. Genghis launched an invasion of Khwarezim in 1218 that overwhelmed the empire and extinguished it by 1221. Its fleeing emir was relentlessly chased across his domain until he died, abandoned and exhausted, on a small Caspian island as his pursuers closed in.

It was during this war that the Mongols won their reputation for savagery. Millions of Khwarzmians died, as Genghis ordered the massacre of entire cities that offered the least resistance. Thousands of captives were forced ahead of Mongol armies as human shields, and those were often the lucky ones, because the Mongols took relatively few prisoners during the advance.

Following a victory or capture of an enemy city, the Mongol cry “feed the horses!” was a dreaded signal to fall upon and rape, murder, and plunder, defenseless populations. Especially when operating deep in enemy territory, the Mongols preferred to leave no opponents or potential opponents behind. They made few distinctions between combatants and noncombatants, and frequently killed all whom them encountered.

When not done in the heat of battle or its immediate aftermath – and when their bloodlust was up and passions were high – Mongols were chillingly methodical in their massacres and genocides. They did not torture or unnecessarily abuse their victims, but killed them swiftly. Specific units were given the task of butchery, soldiers were assigned quotas of victims to kill, and the massacre was carried out relatively quickly.

By the time Genghis was done, Khwarezm had been reduced from a thriving and wealthy empire to an impoverished and depopulated wasteland. At the central mosque in the once thriving but now smoldering city of Bukhara, Genghis told the survivors that he was the Flail of God, and that: “If you had not committed great sins, God would not have inflicted a punishment like me upon you“.

12 Surprising Things You Should Know About the Fierce Mongols and their Unforgiving Conquests
Captured Rus commander Mstislav III brought before Subutai after Battle of Kalka River. Perikles Deligiannis

The Mongols Might Have Had the Greatest – and Most Overlooked – General of All Time

Subutai (1175 – 1248) was the Mongols’ most brilliant and successful general. He was the main military strategist of both Genghis Khan and his successor, Ogedei. Hailing from a humble background, Subutai rose through the ranks, and eventually directed over 20 campaigns, conquered or overran 32 nations, and won 65 battles. He conquered more territory than any other commander in history.

Subutai joined the Mongol army at age 14. Genghis made him his door attendant, and from that close proximity, Subutai learned strategy and the Mongol art of war. When Genghis gave him his first opportunity to demonstrate his ability, Subutai rose to the occasion. He convinced an enemy garrison that he was a Mongol deserter, won their confidence, lulled them into letting down their guard, then signaled his comrades to attack. Deception would be Subutai’s trademark, and a great factor in his success. In 1211, he secured a great victory over the Jin by convincing them that he was hundreds of miles away, only to appear out of the blue and rout them with a flank attack.

Subutai was in charge of the Mongol advance during the conquest of Khwarezm, and chased its defeated ruler to his death. After that campaign, he and another brilliant Mongol commander, Jebe, led a reconnaissance in force on a circular passage around the Caspian Sea to the north, en route back to Mongolia. In the meantime, Genghis returned home with the main Mongol army via a circular southern route that would brush against India.

Subutai’s route led through the Caucasus, where he defeated the Georgians, then subjugated the Cuman tribe. That brought him into conflict with the Cumans’ Rus allies. So he and Jebe lured them with a fake retreat into chasing him for days, before crushing them at the Battle of Kalka River. They then returned to the east, where Subutai conducted successful campaigns against the Chinese for the next decade, before returning to the west and subjugating the Rus in the late 1230s.

After reducing the Rus to vassalage, Subutai invaded Eastern Europe in 1241. In that campaign, he oversaw history’s biggest strategic offensive to date, planning and coordinating the operations of Mongol armies separated by hundreds of miles. Despite the distance between his forces, Subutai brought his armies to crushing victories over their respective opponents, in Poland and Hungary, within one day of each other.

Subutai was in personal command of the Mongol army at the second of those victories, at the Battle of Mohi, which destroyed the Hungarian army. In the aftermath, Central Europe was left open to further Mongol conquests. Subutai was drawing plans to advance along the Danube to Vienna, then conquer the Holy Roman Empire, when news arrived of Khan Ogedei’s death.

Although he wanted to press on into Europe, Mongol politics necessitated the return of Subutai and his forces to Mongolia to participate in the selection of a new Khan. Subutai never returned, and spent his final years campaigning against the Song Dynasty in southern China. Thus, Central and Western Europe were miraculously spared the Mongol yoke that Russia would endure for centuries.

12 Surprising Things You Should Know About the Fierce Mongols and their Unforgiving Conquests
Mongol archer and dead Rus warrior. Pintrest

The Mongols Were Masters of Fake Flight and Large Scale Ambushes

The Battle of Kalka River, May 31st, 1223, was a masterpiece large scale ambush, and occurred after one of history’s longest feigned retreats. It came about when a Mongol army, led by Subutai and Jebe, lured a much larger force of Russians and Cumans into chasing them across the Steppe for hundreds of miles. Then, after nine days of “fleeing”, the Mongols turned around and annihilated their pursuers.

After the conquest of the Khwarezmian Empire, Mongol generals Subutai and Jebe chased the defeated ruler to his death in an island on the Caspian Sea. They then got Genghis Khan’s permission to conduct a reconnaissance in force westwards. With 20,000 Mongols, they would raid deep into Persia, then turn northwards into the Caucasus, before returning to Mongolia via the Steppe north of the Caspian Sea.

Along the way, the pair defeated the nomadic Cuman tribe, whose khan fled to the Kievan Rus and convinced them to help fight the Mongols. The surviving Cumans joined the Rus to form a large army of 80,000 men, under the joint command of Mstislav the Bold of Galich, and Mstislav III of Kiev. They then marched after the Mongols, and caught up with and defeated their rearguard. Subutai and Jebe were surprised, but quickly rallied and devised a plan to lure their pursuers to their destruction.

Feigning panic after their rearguard’s defeat, the Mongols pretended to flee. Conducting a fake retreat, the Mongols led their pursuers on a merry chase which lasted for nine days. During the pursuit, the pursuers lost their cohesion and became strung out in a long column. On the ninth day, the Mongols set up an ambush, crossing the Kalka River and concealing their forces near the opposite bank.

When the pursuing Rus and Cumans began crossing the river, the Mongols patiently allowed most to reach their side, before springing their ambush. At a signal, they suddenly charged out of their concealed positions, showered the foe with a deadly rain of arrows, and closed in. The ferocious attack from an enemy whom they had thought was in panicked flight shocked the Russians and Cumans. They were thrown into confusion, which quickly turned into a rout.

The Mongols surrounded their panicked enemies and slaughtered them, killing around 75,000 out of the 80,000 who had chased them across the Steppe. Mstislav the Bold escaped, while Mstislav of Kiev managed to reach a fortified camp on the Dnieper, where the Mongols surrounded him. He eventually surrendered in exchange for a promise of safe conduct back to his territory, but the Mongols reneged, massacred his men, and killed him.

12 Surprising Things You Should Know About the Fierce Mongols and their Unforgiving Conquests
Mongol archers. Archery Topic

The Mongol Military Was a Meritocracy

They are the Four Dogs of Temujin. They have foreheads of brass, their jaws are like scissors, their tongues like piercing awls, their heads are iron, their whipping tails swords . . . In the day of battle, they devour enemy flesh. Behold, they are now unleashed, and they slobber at the mouth with glee. These four dogs are Jebe, and Kublai, Jelme, and Subotai.” — The Secret History of the Mongols

The first of Temujin’s “Four Dogs”, Jebe, born Zurgudai (d. 1225), began his military career in the ranks of Genghis Khan’s enemies. During a battle in 1201, Zurgudai shot Genghis in the neck with an arrow. After winning the battle, the wounded Genghis asked the prisoners who had had shot him. Zurgudai confessed, and Genghis was impressed by his honesty and courage. He took him in his service, and nicknamed him “Jebe”, meaning arrow – the name by which he is known to history.

Jebe rose through the ranks, and within a few years had become one of Genghis’ favorite generals. He was entrusted with independent commands, such as the assignment to defeat Kuchlug, one of Genghis’ last remaining Steppe enemies, and the subjugation of his Kara Khitai state. Jebe accomplished the mission in quick order, capping off the conquest by beheading Kuchlug. He then rejoined Genghis, and participated in conquering the Khwarezmian Empire.

Genghis then gave Jebe and Subutai permission to lead a great cavalry raid. The duo rode westward through northern Persia, up through the Caucasus, around the Caspian Sea, before turning east to return to Mongolia. They capped it off with a brilliant and crushing victory over a vastly superior army of Kievan Rus at the Battle of Kalka River in 1222. That raid set the stage for a Mongol return fifteen years later, this time in a full force invasion that conquered Kievan Rus and overran Eastern Europe. Jebe, however, died in 1225, soon after his return from that raid, and did not live to harvest what he had planted or see the fruits of his work.

12 Surprising Things You Should Know About the Fierce Mongols and their Unforgiving Conquests
Medieval depiction of Hulagu’s Siege of Baghdad. Wikimedia

The Mongols Destroyed Islam’s Last Caliphate

Hulagu (1217 – 1265), grandson of Genghis Khan and younger brother of the Grand Khans Mongke and Kublai, expanded the Mongol domain into Western Asia with a savagery that remains in the region’s memory to this day. He destroyed Baghdad and the Abbasid Caliphate, conquered Syria, and threatened Egypt and the surviving Crusader states. He also demolished medieval Persian culture, while establishing the Ilkhanate in Persia, a fore runner of modern Iran.

In 1251, Hulagu was ordered by Khan Mongke to extend Mongol power into the Islamic world. As a preliminary, Hulagu attacked and seized the mountain fortresses of the Assassins cult, a militant Islamic sect led by a mystic known as the “Old Man of the Mountain”. The Assassins were the Al Qaeda of their day, who terrorized the Middle East for generations with suicidal killers, until Hulagu wiped them out.

Hulagu then turned his attention to the Abbasid Caliphate, and demanded its submission. When the Caliph refused, Hulagu besieged him in Baghdad, and captured the city in 1258. The Mongols then destroyed the city, along with all its treasures, such as the Grand Library, and massacred between 200,000 to a million inhabitants. Because of a Mongol taboo against shedding royal blood, the captured Caliph was executed by being rolled in a rug, which was then trampled by Mongol horses. That ended the Abbasids, and the Islamic institution of the Caliphate.

Hulagu then conquered Syria, bringing to an end the Ayubbid dynasty founded by Saladin. He planned to conquer Egypt, but got word that his brother Mongke had died, and as a potential successor, Hulagu returned to Mongolia. In his absence, the Mongols he left behind under a trusted subordinate were wiped out by the Egyptian Mamelukes at the Battle of Ain Jalut in 1260. It was the first major defeat of a Mongol army, and it broke the spell of Mongol invincibility.

Hulagu was not selected to succeed his brother as Great Khan, so he returned west to avenge the defeat at Ain Jalut. However, he ended up warring with a cousin, Berke, who had succeeded to leadership of the Golden Horde which ruled Russia and Eastern Europe. Berke had converted to Islam, and was enraged by Hulagu’s rampage in the Muslim world. Hulagu was kept busy fighting his cousin for the remainder of his life.

12 Surprising Things You Should Know About the Fierce Mongols and their Unforgiving Conquests
Kublai Khan statue. PSJ Factoids

The Mongols’ China Branch Became a Chinese Dynasty

Kublai Khan (1215 – 1294) was a grandson of Genghis Khan, and the brother of Hulagu and of the Great Khan, Mongke, whom he succeeded in 1260. He conquered the Song Dynasty of southern China and founded the Yuan Dynasty, thus reuniting China for the first time in centuries. He was the nominal overlord of all Mongol domains, from the Pacific to the Carpathians. However, his actual authority and attention were focused on China and its periphery, which was wealthier and more populous than all the remaining Mongol domains put together.

Kublai heeded the advice that “one can conquer an empire on horseback, but cannot rule it from horseback“. After conquering the Song in a campaign that he largely led in person, Kublai spent his remaining years in the civilian tasks of governance, rather than military affairs. He ordered some campaigns along the periphery of his domain, which met with mixed success, or ended in disaster such as two failed invasions of Japan that were wrecked by typhoons. However, domestic politics and governance interested him more than war.

Kublai’s reign and founding of the Yuan Dynasty highlighted the transition that successful nomadic conquerors eventually undergo. Once they come to appreciate the benefits and pleasures of settled life, the nomads start abandoning the roughneck ways of the Steppe. Gradually, they join the civilization which they had conquered, and eventually get absorbed into it.

Kublai had to overcome fierce resistance from Mongol traditionalists, who preferred the old ways and their felt tents to the courtly life in Chinese palaces, but he prevailed. His conquest of the Song Dynasty reunified China after centuries of fragmentation, and the borders of the Yuan Dynasty, encompassing Manchuria, Tibet, and Mongolia, established the broad outline of Chinese territory that survives to this day.

12 Surprising Things You Should Know About the Fierce Mongols and their Unforgiving Conquests
Mongol conquest of Nishapur, Persia. How Stuff Works

The Mongols Helped Shift the Global Center of Power From the Middle East to Europe

Perhaps the Mongols’ greatest and longest lasting impact was their role in shifting the global balance of power from the Islamic world to the West. The 1200s started well for the Islamic world. The Crusaders had been defeated and Jerusalem recently recovered, much of the Arab Middle East was unified in the Ayubbid Dynasty, and a powerful Khwarezmian Empire had emerged in Persia and Central Asia.

The latter region was the Islamic world’s center of gravity at the time, and it was flourishing culturally and economically. Difficult to imagine, looking at today’s bleak and backwards Stans, stretching from the former Soviet Islamic republics to the Indian Ocean. However, that region was once the world’s most prosperous, with an unrivaled economic, intellectual, and cultural scene. It was the equivalent of today’s California and New York, plus Detroit in Henry Ford’s day, all rolled into one.

The first and immediate consequence of the Mongol conquest was a population collapse in that Islamic heartland. Throughout much of the region, the Mongols engaged in wanton massacres, even genocide. Many of those not killed outright starved to death in the howling wastelands left in the conquerors’ wake. Many more, weakened by hunger, fell prey to the waves of epidemic diseases the swept the Medieval world after the Mongols brought the far flung parts of Eurasia into regular contact for the first time. The Black Death did only strike Europe: it began in China, and swept through the Islamic world. There, it encountered a population eking a living in a devastated landscape, surrounded by destroyed infrastructure.

Another impact was economic. The Islamic lands conquered by the Mongols had been economically vibrant, but that vibrancy depended upon a sophisticated infrastructure which the Mongols destroyed. The economic foundation, both agricultural and urban, depended upon a network of underground aqueducts known as qanats. That network transported water over long distances for use in agriculture and to satisfy the needs of the region’s teeming cities. The network required regular maintenance and upkeep by skilled workers and engineers, paid for and supervised by a governmental bureaucracy that understood the work’s importance.

During the Mongol invasions, many of the qanats were deliberately destroyed, and many of the skilled workers who maintained the water network were either killed, enslaved and taken prisoner, or fled. The Mongol conquerors had little understanding of or interest in infrastructure projects such as the qanat network. So the new rulers invested little time, effort, and resources, into restoring the underground water system. By the time Mongol rule came to an end centuries later, most of the qanats had been ruined, the engineering and artisan skill sets to restore them to their heyday had been forgotten, and new economic patterns had been established.

Another impact was cultural. The new Mongol rulers differed greatly from their predecessors. They spoke a different language, hailed from a very different culture, and possessed a world view alien to their subjects. In the centuries preceding the Mongol conquest, the Persian parts of the Islamic world had experienced a great cultural flowering. With the patronage of discerning Persian speaking rulers, literature and poetry reached a peak with figures such as Ferdowsi, who composed Persia’s national epic, the Shah Namah.

Mongol rulers, who spoke no Persian, or learned it only haltingly, had little interest in patronizing Persian poets and men of letters. And when they did, they seldom knew enough of the language’s nuance and linguistic intricacy to discern excellence from schlock. As a result, Persian culture went into a centuries long decline. It was an experience similar to that of the Arabs, who flourished for centuries, only to go into a cultural decline after they came to be dominated by Turks who neither understood nor cared much for their arts and literature.

The region never recovered from the adverse impacts of the Mongol invasion. By the time the locals shook off the Mongol yoke, or absorbed and assimilated their conquerors, centuries had passed. During that time, Western Europe had experienced the Renaissance, was beginning the Age of Discovery and Exploration – and taking the first steps towards eventual global hegemony. The Islamic world never caught up.