It’s one of history’s great counterfactuals. The year is 1241 and the Mongols are camped outside Vienna as part of their plan to invade Western Europe. They have twelve years to complete this mission and are already ahead of schedule.
In a mere quarter of a century the Mongol hordes subjugated more lands and people than the Romans had managed in four centuries. The majority of people alive today live reside in countries conquered by the Mongols – three billion people in 30 countries. All this was achieved with a population of one million and an army just 100,000 strong. Genghis Khan conquered more than twice as much as any other man in history. In his book Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World Jack Weatherford paints a graphic picture of the sheer size of this empire:
The hooves of the Mongol warriors’ horses splashed in the waters of every river and lake from the Pacific Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea. At its zenith, the empire covered between 11 and 12 million contiguous square miles, an area about the size of the African continent and considerably larger than North America, including the United States, Canada, Mexico, Central America, and the islands of the Caribbean combined. It stretched from the snowy tundra of Siberia to the hot plains of India, from the rice paddies of Vietnam to the wheat fields of Hungary, and from Korea to the Balkans.
So things were not looking good for Western Europe in 1241. But then Ogedei Khan, the Emperor of the Mongol Empire, and the third son of Genghis Khan, passes away, exposing the greatest flaw in the Mongol fighting machine. There had to be a meeting to choose a new leader. This took all of five years and in the meantime the Mongols European tour had to be put on hold. Not until five years had passed would Guyuk become the new Khan. After this prolonged instability, Batu Khan,a Mongol ruler and grandson of Genghis, felt he was not capable of launching an invasion and the Mongol Empire would never again so directly threaten the region that would soon come to dominate the world. History may well have turned out very differently had Ogedai not died. Can you imagine if the Americans had suspended their participation in WWII after the death of FDR?
Be that as it may, we cannot take away the enormous achievements of the Mongols. The architect was Genghis Khan. He was born Temujin, but the rest of the details about his early are somewhat sketchy. He was born somewhere in Mongolia, sometime around 1162. When Temujin was nine, a rival tribe, the Tatars, murdered his father, and he and his family became outcasts on the Mongolian steppe. Temujin had to fight for supremacy within his family; he killed his older half-brother, ostensibly for not sharing the food he had caught in a hunt. At the age of sixteen Temujin got married, but a rival tribe kidnapped his wife. Although he got her back quickly, she was pregnant, so the paternity of that son, his eldest, would always remain in doubt.
Most of Temujin’s career was not spent conquering the world, but consolidating the tribes of the Mongolian steppe into a single fighting nation. He incorporated conquered tribes into his army by scattering them across his organization. After many hard years of bloodletting the Mongol army became a fusion of diverse clans. They had finally abandoned their petty feuds and grudges ; they now owed their undivided allegiance to one leader. In 1206 a gathering of the unified tribes of Mongolia proclaimed Temujin to be Genghis Khan, ruler of the world. He would soon live up to his name.
Until I started reading about it I was not really aware of the genius of what Genghis and his successors achieved with an army that would fit into a large football stadium. What were the keys to their success? The Mongol weapons were the best in the world. The composite bow had its origins in the ancient world, but the Mongols had mastered its use, firing arrows as they rode. They were brilliant horsemen and this gave them the ability to suddenly appear in front of city walls, making Mongol armies appear much larger than they actually were. The word ordu, which originally referred to a Mongol military unit, came into English as horde. It usually has a negative connotation, implying an unruly or dangerous mob. They were also able to appropriate the best inventions from their conquests and were particularly skilful with siege engines. They were undoubtedly tough soldiers. They invaded Russia in winter, succeeding where both Napoleon and Hitler would subsequently fail. They had a unique mastery of military tactics, experts in subterfuge and psychological warfare.
One feature I love about the Mongols is their threatening letters. Nobody does intimidation quite like them. Before conquering a place, they would send a letter inviting the rulers to surrender. Indeed, I am rather surprised nobody has written a book with a title like Business Correspondence the Genghis Khan Way. Here is one sent to Qutuz the Mamluk:
“You should think of what happened to other countries and submit to us. You have heard how we have conquered a vast empire and have purified the earth of the disorders that tainted it. We have conquered vast areas, massacring all the people. You cannot escape from the terror of our armies. Where can you flee? What road will you use to escape us? Our horses are swift, our arrows sharp, our swords like thunderbolts, our hearts as hard as the mountains, our soldiers as numerous as the sand. Fortresses will not detain us, nor arms stop us. Your prayers to God will not avail against us. We are not moved by tears nor touched by lamentations. Only those who beg our protection will be safe. Hasten your reply before the fire of war is kindled. Resist and you will suffer the most terrible catastrophes. We will shatter your mosques and reveal the weakness of your God and then we will kill your children and your old men together. At present you are the only enemy against whom we have to march.”
Genghis has been a figure who has provoked very strong reactions. I grew up with the image of Genghis Khan the bloodthirsty barbarian. The tribe of Genghis Khan acquired a variety of names—Tartar, Tatar, Mughal, Moghul, and Mongol—but they all shared negative connotations. When nineteenth-century scientists of a social Darwinist bent were explaining to distraught mothers how they could give birth to a retarded child they used the term mongoloid. One of the child’s ancestors must have been raped by a Mongol warrior. These unfortunate children were not white, but members of the Mongoloid race. And those ruthless capitalists became known as moguls, the Persian name for Mongols.
What’s more the Mongols were the perfect scapegoats for other nations’ failures. Jack Weatherford puts it like this:
“When Russia could not keep up with the technology of the West or the military power of imperial Japan, it was because of the terrible Tatar Yoke put on her by Genghis Khan. When Persia fell behind its neighbours, it was because the Mongols had destroyed its irrigation system. When China lagged behind Japan and Europe, the cause was the cruel exploitation and repression by its Mongol and Manchu overlords. When India could not resist British colonization, it was because of the rapacious greed of Moghul rule. In the twentieth century, Arab politicians even assured their followers that Muslims would have invented the atomic bomb before the Americans if only the Mongols had not burned the Arabs’ magnificent libraries and levelled their cities.”
However, there is now a revisionist take on Genghis, of which Weatherford is the chief defence counsel:
The Mongols made no technological breakthroughs, founded no new religions, wrote few books or dramas, and gave the world no new crops or methods of agriculture. Their own craftsmen could not weave cloth, cast metal, make pottery, or even bake bread. They manufactured neither porcelain nor pottery, painted no pictures, and built no buildings. Yet, as their army conquered culture after culture, they collected and passed all of these skills from one civilization to the next.
Well, what did the Mongols ever do for us? Weatherford provides a list of everything we have the Mongols to thank for. In the political and legal sphere he points out how Genghis abolished the feudal system of aristocratic privilege and birth, replacing it with a new and unique system based on individual merit, loyalty, and achievement. In a world where many rulers considered themselves above the law, Genghis Khan insisted on laws holding rulers accountable. He insisted that the rule of law be maintained and he abolished torture. Religious freedom was the norm within the empire. He refused to hold hostages and was a pioneer in granting diplomatic immunity for all ambassadors and envoys, even those from enemy nations. In the economic domain he created what was history’s largest free-trade zone, lowering taxes for everyone. He introduced a regular census and created the first international postal system. He widely distributed the goods acquired in combat allowing them to make their way back into commercial circulation.
There is a cult of Genghis Khan in Mongolia and surprisingly China too is getting in on the act. In the former you can find his name adorning banknotes, stamps, vodka bottles chocolate bars, beer bottles, hotels and, much to the chagrin of a colleague of mine who thinks that they shouldn’t be named after people who lived and died before the invention of air travel, Ulaanbaatar’s international airport. In his biography of Genghis Khan, John Man describes the Mausoleum of Genghis Khan, which is in the Chinese province of Inner Mongolia:
Here, Genghis’s spirit is honoured in a combination of Buddhist and shamanistic rituals, as ancestor, dynastic founder and divinity. A 4-metre marble statue of Genghis, seated with hands on knees, is a focal point for numerous observances; worshippers burn incense-sticks and mutter prayers to ‘relics’; murals portray Genghis as the genius who built a bridge between east and west, across which flow scholars, merchants and artists, lost in wonder, love and praise.
I welcome some of this revisionism. To write them off as barbarians is wrong. He lived in brutal times. We should really avoid the idea of Mongol exceptionalism. Having said all that I don’t think we should start talking about some kind of touch-feely Genghis. What he was was ruthless and what set the Mongols apart was their effectiveness. It is true that the Mongols operated a virtual propaganda machine that consistently inflated the number of people killed in battle to intimidate future opponents, making it difficult to know about the precise numbers. Nevertheless, he was responsible for tens of millions of deaths. Yet there are attempts to whitewash all this. Some defences sound suspiciously like holocaust denial. Going back to the counterfactual I posed at the beginning, I would have to say that, although I can now appreciate the genius of Genghis Khan and the machine he created, I am probably glad that the Mongols didn’t get round to conquering Western Europe. Perhaps I would now be here with a Genghis Khan beer in my hand. Now there’s a thought.