All too often, history is the story of technologically superior peoples overrunning societies that haven’t discovered the maxim gun yet. Occasionally though, a culture rises up to prove that sometimes the recipe for becoming the most powerful fighting force in the world can consist of nothing more than hanging out on the steppe getting more hardcore than everyone else.
Today, Mongolia is a modestly sized country that enjoys its independence thanks to a peaceful democratic revolution and spends less than 2% of its GDP funding its military. (For comparison, the U.S. spent 4.35% in 2009.) But, back in the day, the Mongols conquered 22% of the earth’s surface, most of what was then essentially The Known World. They smashed Islamic Kingdoms in the Middle East, conquered Kievan Russia in winter and swept through eastern Europe like a natural disaster. And usually that’s all we hear about. Historians can’t seem to shut up about the cultural debts we owe to the empires of Alexander and the Romans, but a ton of things we take for granted were brought to us by good ol’ Mongol conquest.
The Post Office
The Mongol Empire had the most advanced postal system that the world had ever seen. Known as “Yam,” meaning “checkpoint,” the network was established by Ghengis Kahn and later expanded into China by his grandson Kublai. Kublai was the founder of the Yuan Dynasty and the first Mongol ruler considered to have taken an interest in politics or statecraft. Under Kublai Kahn the number of Yam postal stations in China rose to over 1400.
The existence of these postal networks is a testament to the idea that territory conquered by the Mongols actually became relatively safe and peaceful. One popular adage said that “a woman could carry a sack of gold from one end of the (Mongol) empire to the other without fear of attack.” Without that sort of stability, this sort of postal system couldn’t have existed, nor could the Mongols have benefited from the transcontinental trade that they so liberally taxed.
These postal stations were said to have as many as 50,000 horses at their disposal and staff members manning each outpost. All stations were under 40 miles apart, maintained locally and loaded up with supplies for riders. In those early days of Yam, goods and information must have seemed to travel at lightning speed. Europe’s postal networks were practically nonexistent in comparison, so the Mongol Postal Network is a more direct ancestor of the one we have today. Sort of explains their motto being “neither rain nor sleet nor a hail of arrows nor boiling oil will keep me from delivering this fucking mail because I’m a goddamn Mongol warrior” right?
Al Qaeda and ISIS
Many of us here on Gamevolution refer to the days before the iPhone 4 came out as “The Shadow Age,” so it’s easy for us to think of the time of the Mongols as far enough in the past to be irrelevant. But that’s short sighted. Al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden referenced the Mongols’ near-complete obliteration of the Islamic world as recently as the early 2000s, comparing the Gulf War to the Mongol sack of Baghdad in 1258.
The sack of Baghdad is by far the most famous instance of Islam being crushed beneath the hooves of the Mongol advance. Founded by the Abbassid caliphate in 766, Baghdad was the Center of the Universe in its day, a cultural melting pot, a fountainhead of art and poetry and an important stop for caravan traders traveling between Africa, Asia and Europe. It was also an intellectual hub, home to astronomers, mathematicians and philosophers. In Baghdad’s libraries one could find the works of Plato, Aristotle and Socrates being translated to Arabic, Persian, and Sanskrit.
Unfortunately, the Mongols were of the opinion that libraries are for nerds.
After taking the city, they dumped books in the Tigris river until it reportedly ran black with ink. They also destroyed Baghdad’s hyperadvanced (for its time) irrigation system and reduced acres of farmable land to barren waste. It’s not known exactly how many people were killed, but the low-end estimate is around 100,000. The city wouldn’t return to prominence until over half a millennium later when the oil money started rolling in.
In addition, during the Mongol siege of Nishapur (located in what is now Iran) enough people were killed for the Mongols to build pyramids of their skulls. Something like 1.6 million people were also killed by the Mongols in Herat in the year 1222.
An Islamic philosopher named Ibn Taymiyya rose to prominence during this period. Radicalized the by the degradation of his culture, he denounced all non-Salafi Muslims (meaning moderate Muslims as well as Christians and Jews) as allies of the Mongols and enemies of Islam. It’s believed that this so-called “radical Salafism,” also known as Wahhabism, the ideological foundation for Al-Qaeda and by extension ISIS, was based on writing done by Ibn Taymiyya in the wake of the sack of Baghdad and other disasters.
A Moscow Centric-Russia
Back in the 13th century, Russia as we know it did not exist. The “proto-Russia” that preceded it was known as “Kievan Rus” or “Kievan Russia”
But they had trouble right there in Kievan Rus. With a capitol T and that rhymed with G and that stood for Ghengis Khan’s grandson Batu who launched a successful invasion and took the capitol city of Kiev.
It’s worth remembering that this whole “successful invasion of Russia” thing almost never happens. The chances of successfully invading Russia are equivalent to those of a lunar eclipse happening the second you bump into your long lost twin at Costco and an ice volcano bursts from beneath your feet, swallowing you into The Land of Always Winter.
But the Kievan state was weakened by petty fighting among its constantly squabbling princes. In the end, Batu and 200,000 of his best friends had no trouble rolling into Kiev and doing what they did best.
Just about everything in Kievan Rus came to a grinding halt for a century since so many resources had to be devoted to paying tribute to the occupiers, a branch of the Mongol fighting force known as “The Khanate of the Golden Horde.” Many turned to the church for guidance and comfort in the midst of the Mongol occupation.
The Russian Orthodox Church itself meanwhile turned towards monasticism, and the void left by the evisceration of Kievan Rus’ princely political authority allowed them to claim greater autonomy, acquire lands that they would control for hundreds of years, and move the ecclesiastical center of the religion to Moscow.
Moscow by the way-which had up until now been a virtual backwater-was becoming the center of the Russian world. The armies of refugees moving north and northeast to get away from occupied Kiev inflated the city’s population, and the Mongols-who now chose a “Grand Prince” to rule as their puppet-also had a tendency to pick princes based in Moscow for the role. (One such Grand Prince was Ivan III, AKA “The Great”. More on him later.) The Mongols and Muscovite princes eventually got so buddy-buddy that the Golden Horde stopped sending their own tax collectors, opting to just let Moscow collect for them. This led to Moscow and its princes acquiring still more power and wealth because, y’know, corruption.
Once the Mongols had consolidated their control over Kievan Rus, Moscow became a very safe and convenient place to conduct trade. Before long, the city developed a postal network, conducted a census and formed a military. When Prince Dmitri Donskoi finally launched a semi-successful attack against the Mongols in the 1300s, it was launched from Moscow.
The era of Mongol rule over Kievan Rus did a lot to shape Russia’s national identity, partially by isolating Kievan Rus from the Byzantine Empire (which was sort of like the Starship to the Roman Empire’s Jefferson Airplane) and from other cultures in Europe. Fighting against the Mongols in the 15th century also gave people a sense of national pride, unifying those who identified as “Russian.” The struggle would last for a hundred years, but in 1480 Ivan III would finally declare independence, expand Moscow’s power and name himself Czar, setting the foundation for modern Russia.
Sometimes, the impact of a Mongol invasion can be seen in big, obvious ways. (Consider how they established and developed Beijing as a capitol city in China.) Other times, one has to look closer, at genes and linguistics. Ogedai Kahn, a son of Ghengis, launched six campaigns into Korea beginning in 1231. The fighting lasted for twenty-some years, after which the Mongols withdrew. They exerted influence for decades afterwards though, retaining Korea as a tributary ally of the Mongol Yuan dynasty in China.
Today, evidence of Mongol rule is everywhere in Korean life. For example, much of the Korean language is derived from that of the Mongols (and Vice Versa). It’s also said that a Korean person can learn Mongolian in the course of around two years without serious difficulty. The grammar is almost the same. (Keep in mind that these countries are separated by over a thousand miles of China.) The ethnicities of Mongolia and Korea are so closely linked today that they are described as being “like fraternal twins.” Korean models can be used in ads set to run in Mongolia since, for the most part, no one can tell the difference between the two, and Korean soap operas are and movies are a hot commodity in Mongolia. Koreans even call the wild horse herds descended from the mounts of the Mongol invaders “Mongolians.”
The World’s Population
The Mongols killed a ton of people laying the foundations for their empire. We don’t have the exact numbers, but 40 million seems to be the most common estimate. (Really makes you think about those skull-pyramids in Niashpur, huh?)
To put that body count into perspective, consider the measurable ecological repercussions… It’s estimated that campaigns led by Genghis Khan alone caused global cooling due to depopulation when swaths of previously cultivated land were reclaimed by carbon-hungry trees. All those trees absorbed about 700 million tons of carbon, about what we produce in a year using petrol. Scientists think that this might be the first and only case of man made global cooling. Other cataclysmic events like the Black Plague and the collapse of the Ming Dynasty didn’t manage to rack up high enough body counts to change the environment the way the Mongols did.
So, basically, Genghis Khan is better than Al Gore at reducing greenhouse gases. Just the facts.
But it’s worth remembering that these fellas weren’t just great at depopulating civilizations. In 2003 it was found that approximately 16 million men are Genghis Khan’s descendants. That’s around 0.5% of the male population. When thinking of the millions of people who may be descended from the Great Khan, it’s worth remembering that this is the legacy of one man. According to one geneticist, Khan is “the first documented case when human culture has caused a single genetic lineage to increase to such an enormous extent in just a few hundred years” and if you learned anything form that Korea entry, it should have been that other Mongol warriors were mingling with the locals as well. The total number of their descendants must be staggering.
Crash Course World History #20: Russia, Kievan Rus and The Mongols
So you may have noticed that I’ve been obsessed with the Mongol Empire lately. Two major factors helped to cultivate my fascination: Crashcourse and Hardcore History.
Crashcourse is John Green’s collection of Youtube videos that cover everything from literature, to history to chemistry. (Yes he’s the Fault In Our Stars guy, but don’t hold it against him.) Crashcourse dedicated a whole episode of their World History series to Mongol shenanigans (embedded above.) This is what inspired me to download my first episodes of Dan Carlin’s podcast.
From there I was hooked. There are five episodes of that series by the way, and a few more episodes of Hardcore History that you can listen to for free on Youtube.
I also watched Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure recently, but I’m not entirely sure that that movie is historically accurate. Except for the part where Joan of Arc is an aerobics instructor. That happened.