Cultural Foundations of the Mongol Empire

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					                Cultural Foundations of the Mongol Empire
         Without question the story of the spread of the Mongols in the 13 th century is one
of the most terrifying yet riveting of all human history. Genghis Khan, as powerful a
ruler as has ever existed, took a loose society of nomads and set in motion the formation
of the largest empire in history. Their victims viewed Mongol armies as a destructive
force from hell, a natural disaster. Genghis Khan’s armies conquered Asia from the
Pacific Ocean to the Black Sea and never lost a battle. His successors burst into Europe
and smashed their way to Vienna. Then they enforced peace and fostered trade. They
tolerated their subjects’ diversity and are partly responsible for the making of the modern
world. A close look at the cultural foundations of the Mongol Empire reveals something
more than barbarity at work.
         The phrase genghis khan means “universal ruler.” The man who bore this title
starting in 1206 was born Temuchin, the son of a Mongol chieftain. He ruled his
expansive empire for 21 years and left his people with a law code, an unbeatable army,
and an effective administration—all built from scratch (he borrowed a writing system).
Temuchin came to believe that the Mongol way of life was the best and that everyone in
the world should adopt it. No one did. As the Mongols settled down, their ferocity did
too. The Mongol Empire lasted only around 150 years at which point the Mongols
retreated to their original homeland and into obscurity. The brevity of their supremacy
reveals just how important Temuchin, their Genghis Khan, was to their cohesiveness and
         The Mongols first lived on a steppe, an area of low hills covered in grass.
Agriculture was never successful because of a lack of rainfall, and the climate was one of
extreme heat in summer and cold in winter. The Huns, or Hsiung-Nu to the Chinese, in
their day were terrors to both Europe and China. When their confederation of clans
collapsed, their descendants filtered into forests in Siberia. As hunters they were ignored
by their neighbors, but as the descendants of the Huns moved back out onto the steppe to
become herders the Chinese called them Mengwu, or Mongols. Temuchin was born in
1167 and his life story is like that of his people. His chieftain father was poisoned by
Tatars, a rival steppe people, so at the age of nine Temuchin and his family had to flee
into the forests and live off game they could kill and plants they could forage. After
being captured once and escaping to another clan of Mongols, Temuchin grew up in the
service of that tribe’s khan. He was married and began to seek reward in battle as he
served his master as a sort of mercenary. Other warriors were somehow drawn to him,
and he trained his followers to fight as units, something new for Mongols. He
successfully tracked down and killed a Tatar army and began his first massacring of
survivors in revenge for his father’s death. He would be massacring people for nearly the
rest of his life.
         A personal description of Temuchin survives from a Persian writing in this era
and deserves quotation. The would-be warrior/chieftain was, “a man of tall stature, of
vigorous build, robust in body, the hair on his face scanty and turned white, with cat’s
eyes, possessed of dedicated energy, discernment, genius, and understanding, awe-
striking, a butcher, just, resolute, an overthrower of enemies, intrepid, sanguinary, and
cruel.” He trained his army to obey his orders without question, to outmaneuver enemy
units, to attack where least expected, to bring overwhelming force, and to leave the
enemy helpless. When his own master enlisted a young rival to take out Temuchin out of
envy, the three leaders met in battle. Temuchin’s master, Toghrul Khan, was killed.
Temuchin’s forces captured the other chieftain and executed him. At a ceremony that
followed Temuchin was elected Genghis Khan. Having suffered from the rivalry all
around him, Genghis Khan decided to act on the destiny given him by his new title and
unite all Mongols under his own rule. He promoted other chieftains into his own
administration and developed what he called the Great Yasa, a body of law, orders, and
instructions that told his governors how to govern, how crimes should be punished, and
even how good Mongol households should be run. Somewhere along the way he
announced that Tengri, the god of the sky, had made him a shaman who was supposed to
march across the world at the head of an army.
        For the next twenty years Genghis Khan fought to bring a huge empire under his
personal control. He literally did set out to conquer the whole world. Believing that
everyone in the world should aspire to be a Mongol nomad, he gained a terrible
reputation because he tolerated no resistance. His own vassals soon learned that
disobedience meant death. When enemy rulers spouted defiance, he assembled huge
armies, as many as 200,000 strong, to annihilate that ruler’s people. Because of their
fanatic obedience and trained skill in coordinating their attacks, Mongol armies could
defeat forces many times their own size. If a city resisted Genghis Khan, he moved up
siege engines and utterly destroyed it, slew all its defenders, and chased away all its few
surviving inhabitants as if the idea of a city offended him. Yet he spared as many cities
as he destroyed even though Mongols thought city dwellers to be soft, useless people.
        Genghis Khan created a disciplined cavalry culture from one previously made up
of disorganized looters. Mongol cavalrymen were divided into light and heavy troops all
wearing some degree of leather armor except on their backs (to discourage them from
retreating, a crime punishable by death). They used bows capable of firing arrows up to
300 yards and practiced with them regularly. At least one Mongol archer was so skilled
as to be able to silence a trumpeter stationed to warn his city by shooting the man through
the neck from over 200 yards away! Mongols also carried battle-axes, scimitars, lances,
and small shields. They stole or bought siege weapons, including bronze cannon and
explosive charges, from the Chinese. Genghis Khan selected the fastest, most effective,
and most maneuverable medieval warrior, the cavalry archer, and dispensed with
infantrymen. His ability to move rapidly across long distances, as much as 100 miles a
day, was due to his warriors’ ability to endure many days and nights in the saddle while
eating, sleeping, and fighting.
        All Mongol warriors were ordered to be on guard at all times and to fight to the
death for each other. Genghis Khan distributed members of a clan into different units to
avoid rivalries developing among units based on family loyalties. Mongol cavalrymen
were therefore fiercely loyal to Genghis Khan alone. He gave them confidence by
training them continually. He insured unit cohesion and victory by not allowing his
warriors to loot a conquered city until all the fighting was over. Even dead Mongol
warriors got an even share of the booty that would then be sent back to their families.
Genghis Khan also used spies, scouts, and a system of signaling with fires and flags that
allowed him to position his troops at the right places in the proper formations depending
on what type of enemy army he faced and what the enemy commanders did. He
therefore possessed the information and psychological edge of Hannibal. He often
employed the feigned retreat of the Greeks at Marathon. He could unite or divide his
forces instantly even in dim light as could Nathan Bedford Forrest. Mongols even
attacked in the dark. After breaking into a city that had defended itself, Genghis Khan
massacred the bulk of the population but allowed a few people to escape so as to spread
the news in order to secure quick surrender from neighboring cities. As a destroyer of
cities he resembles William Tecumseh Sherman, minus the massacre part. As one who
rallied men, he resembled Tecumseh. He fattened his horses on summer grasses then
attacked on into the winter when his forces required less water. In short, he combined the
consummate skills of many famous generals and created military superiority in his day
unlike any army before or since.
        Ten thousand of the best warriors in Genghis Khan’s army became his personal
bodyguard, all sworn to give their lives in his defense or at his command. Loyalty to him
was such that he could send a messenger over vast distances to order the execution of
even a general who had made a mistake, and that man would instantly submit. The Great
Wall of China was little hindrance to him. He depopulated northern China and turned its
estates into hunting and grazing grounds for his army. Millions of people were killed
during his campaigns, and millions more had all their property destroyed. There are areas
of his empire that have still never recovered from the devastation 800 years later!
        After forcing submission and tribute from conquered peoples, Genghis Khan
brought order, safety, and therefore trade. While his ideal world would be one big
grassland, he pitied city dwellers but let them live if they surrendered without a fight.
The Yasa, or law code, was written on a series of scrolls and imposed order on the entire
Mongol Empire. Genghis Khan therefore codified many Mongol taboos like those
against spilling blood indoors, or even against relieving oneself indoors or in a stream.
The death penalty was decreed for these crimes and for lying, falsely accusing another,
adultery (in one’s own tribe), and stealing. If a thief stole a horse, though, the
punishment was to return the horse along with nine others. If the horse thief didn’t have
enough horses to pay this penalty, his children were taken. If he had no children, then he
would be killed. Speaking of children, many blood feuds among the Mongol people were
settled when Genghis Khan simply decreed that all children were legitimate and entitled
to inherit property regardless of who their actual parents were. He also abolished slavery
for Mongols although the enslavement of conquered peoples was permitted. The Yasa
even established hunting seasons similar to our own to protect animals during their
birthing seasons. Some Yasa principles were merely guidelines like the one that
suggested drinking of alcohol only three times a month. In his quest to govern his
empire, Genghis Khan established rest areas for trade caravans and a system of sending
messages like that of the Pony Express in the American west minus the exchange of
messages from man to man. Mongol “postmen” simply rode their own team of horses up
to 100 miles per day.
        Mongols’ homes were circular tents made of felt pressed from wool. A yurt, as
they were called, was symbolically a sealed chamber free from the dirt and violence of
the outside world. These tents easily withstood the high winds and frigid temperatures of
Mongolia but could be easily disassembled and rapidly packed. Mongols were
polygamous, and men were allowed to marry as many women as they could support.
When a man died, his heir was expected to marry all the widows except his own
biological mother so that the clan would continue in stability. With plenty of horses and
sheep, a river nearby, and a few chests filled with utensils, idols, and weapons Mongols
were at home in their tents. Sleeping arrangements were laid out according to particular
positions in the family, and food was prepared inside at a central hearth at which the fire
was never permitted to go out. Their diet consisted almost entirely of protein either in the
form of meat or dairy products. When it was impossible to cook meat, Mongols merely
ate it raw or warmed it by holding it between their own thighs and their horse all day.
While Mongol warriors on campaign would sometimes resort to drinking their horses’
blood, only a Mongol on the brink of starvation would think of slaughtering a horse to
eat. They fermented both milk in the summer and rice, millet, and honey ( all imported
from China) in the winter to produce the alcoholic beverages that were partly the undoing
of the Mongol Empire. Of course conquered peoples yielded up wine.
         Genghis Khan did not impose the shamanistic religion of the Mongols on
conquered peoples nor adopt any religious ideas from them. Muslims, Buddhists,
Christians, and other religious peoples conquered by the Mongols preached loyalty to the
Mongol Khans as a way of preserving their own religious freedom. The Mongols
themselves were animists who believed spirits inhabited trees, prominent rocks, rivers,
fire, idols, but especially the sky. Shamans were granted immunity from taxes, military
service, or any other public service by the Yasa because they were gifted men who were
thought to be able to connect this world to the spirit world. Genghis Khan kept many
shamans as a part of his personal retinue, but in the great crises of his life he merely went
out and starved himself on some mountain until he also saw visions. He brought along
someone to record whatever he said during these trances, and then acted unerringly on
whatever was thus revealed. That system seemed to turn out well for him, no?
         This statement will sound almost trivial after all you’ve read, but death was a
common occurrence around the Mongols. Their devotion to battle caused Mongol
warriors to give their lives without a moment’s hesitation. Fatal illness and accidents
were common. A Mongol child had his forehead slashed by his father immediately upon
birth, presumably to acquaint the baby with the coming life of hardship. A form of
capital punishment was merely to break the back of the criminal and leave him to die of
thirst. These examples of violence are recounted to convey just how used Mongols were
to death—they saw it all around them; they inflicted it on all races, classes, ages, and on
both sexes. The Yasa’s proscribed method of slaughtering an animal was to cut open its
chest and squeeze its heart until it stopped beating. Their approach to death was therefore
with fatalism rather than with fear.
         Chieftains were buried with their possessions, their favorite animals, their
weapons, and sometimes with their wives and servants who would be killed at the
funeral. Among Mongols of the Golden Horde (stay tuned for who they were) a horse
was driven back and forth over the site of a tomb until it died of exhaustion. That horse’s
skin would then be pierced on the end of a long pole and left above the grave as some
type of offering or to ward off evil spirits. Curiously, most Mongol graves were not
marked for remembering the death of the deceased was considered an insult. Great pains
were taken to conceal burial sites, and sometimes even those doing the concealing were
killed to hide the secret.
         There are several theories of how Genghis Khan died on August 18, 1227 while
on campaign. He is thought to have succumbed to disease, to injuries sustained falling
from his horse, or from injuries received while raping a conquered queen. He had
conquered the largest realm of any ruler in history in less than twenty years. As his
funeral procession crossed his empire, the attendants killed all foreigners they
encountered to leave no witnesses. His followers buried his body beneath a tree on the
slopes of Burkhan Khaldun in his homeland. He had made the mountain, a prominent
scene in many of his youthful adventures, a forbidden zone and it remained off limits to
the outside world until the 20 th century. The actual site remains a great mystery to this
day. The tomb is said to be protected by both natural and supernatural guardians.
        The Mongols mourned the loss of Genghis Khan for two years and then had a
forty-day festival of hunting, feasting, and drinking. When these festivities died down,
the Mongol assembly elected Genghis Khan’s hand-picked son, Ogodei, to be the next
Khan. Genghis Khan had selected this son because of his shrewd understanding of
people and his ability to make friends easily. He thought Ogodei had the best chance of
carrying on his system. Without the strength of mind and will possessed by Genghis
Khan, however, Ogodei and other descendants of the Universal Ruler were eventually
overthrown by the civilizations they found so repugnant. The Mongols, man for man,
were the best soldiers to ever go on campaign. This skill in conquering, however, did not
equate automatically into a skill in governing. Furthermore, Ogodei soon parted with the
austerity of his father. He loved luxury whereas Genghis Khan had actually feared it. By
1230 Ogodei had done the unthinkable, he had founded Karakorum, the Mongols’ first

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