Warfare and A Thriving Empire: Achievements of the Mongols


Statue of Genghis Khan on horseback main

Genghis Khan began an empire that spread from Central Europe to China. The Mongol Empire (1206-1368) was a sign of organizational genius. A brutal military machine based on merit conquered everything in its wake. The true wonder was the Mongol Peace. They supported religious freedom, promoted free trade and cultural exchange, and had an excellent bureaucracy. Marco Polo visited and spread the wonders of the East back home, foreshadowing the Age of Exploration. Unfortunately, the bubonic plague came as well. 

Mongolia  

Mongolia, a grassland (steppe) region between Russia and China, was divided among various tribes in the mid-12th Century. They believed spirits inhabited the land. 

Geography was central to Mongol culture’s development, including a simple nomadic lifestyle and a drive to raid surrounding areas to obtain goods they could not produce.  

Mongols are often labeled “barbarians.” People cite their cruel military tactics. Nonetheless, a fair accounting would recognize a diversity of achievements.   

Military Tactics 

Mongols were excellent with horses. They were helpful as the Mongols built an empire (1206-1368) from Central Europe to China. It was the largest contiguous land empire in world history. The empire-building effort of Genghis Khan and his family was remarkable. 

The Mongols used some brutal tactics to empire build. Nonetheless, they used carrots and sticks. They provided enemies a chance to surrender first. If they did, they could do so peacefully. Mongols appealed to the masses, including having a policy of killing all the leaders and aristocrats. They spared people with special skills. 

Their organizational genius was essential. Military leadership depended on ability, not family connection. Their military campaigns had the flavor of the German blitzkrieg (“lightning war’)  during World War II. Mongol “hordes” were a relentless fighting force. 

They adopted military tactics and technology from the people conquered. The cannon, for instance, was a combination of Chinese gunpowder, Muslim flamethrowers, and European bell-casting techniques. Mongols were a model for modern militaries. 

Civilian Government 

An empire requires good organization. Genghis Khan used an election council to guarantee leadership had widespread support. A single “Great Law” was a uniting common law for the empire. Mongols welcomed all faiths and nationalities into the government.

A significant achievement was the ability to conquer and unite China. The Mongols united multiple warring states into one (Yuan Dynasty). A centralized bureaucracy based on merit ruled the country. A single official language (Phags-pa script) eased recordkeeping.

Kublai Khan became a Chinese emperor. He learned the ways of Confucius and Buddha. He surrounded himself with a diverse group of advisors. Other regional leaders also respected local cultures while governing. The leaders of Iran, for instance, promoted traditional culture. 

Religious Freedom 

The Muslim Empire spread in significant part because of their religious freedom. 

The Mongol Empire also had a policy of religious freedom. The traditional faith of the Mongols was a form of animism. They did not require everyone else to follow this faith. 

The result was a broad religious freedom. Buddhists, Christians, Muslims, and Taoists practiced their faith. Religious knowledge spread throughout the empire. 

Free Trade 

The high point of the Roman Empire had a period of peace and prosperity known as Pax Romana (Roman Peace). The Mongol Empire had its own Pax Mongola. 

The ancient Silk Road was a trade route that connected China and Europe. The Mongols provided the soldiers to safeguard the route. They established a postal service throughout the empire. Paper money provided an easy means of exchange. Engineers built roads and canals.

China traditionally treated merchants poorly. The Chinese thought merchants were worthless since they did not create anything. The Mongols supported artisans and merchants. 

One unfortunate result of this free trade was the spread of disease. The Silk Road did not only ease the transportation of trade. Trade helped the spread of the bubonic plague (Black Death).

The richness of the East encouraged the Age of Exploration. Europe wanted to find a cheaper means to reach Asia. The Mongol Empire eventually fell. Who would fill in the vacuum left?

Cultural Exchange 

The spread of goods and ideas between Europe, the Middle East, and China under Mongol rule was an early form of globalization

Islamic medical and scientific knowledge spread. Mongol leaders funded education, research, and scholarship. They encouraged the travel of experts and scholars throughout the empire. Persian doctors established an Office of Muslim Medicine in China. 

Marco Polo came to China while a Mongol emperor was there. Europe learned about Chinese culture and technology, including paper and gunpowder. Chinese noodles led to Italian pasta. 

The Mongols opened China and the rest of their empire to artists, merchants, and governmental envoys. A diverse range of artists and literature flourished. 

Final Thoughts 

The Mongols built an empire based on the skills of Genghis Khan, organizational genius, regional divisions that helped a “divide and conquer” approach, and an openness to brutal tactics. 

The Mongols provided the organizational skills and spirit of openness that promoted cultural exchange, which was the most significant achievement of the Mongol Empire.

Empire building provides the invaders with a reputation as cruel invaders. Medieval warfare was generally cruel. We should also remember the Mongol Peace, which provided many achievements, including incentives for exploration that resulted in the European discovery of America.

QUESTIONS

1. How does the Mongol Empire’s approach to religious freedom compare to that of the Muslim Empire? What were the potential benefits of such a policy?

2. Examine how the Mongols’ support for free trade contributed to the spread of the bubonic plague. What does this suggest about the complexities of globalization?

3. How did Mongolia’s geographical location and features influence the cultural and military development of the Mongol Empire?

4. Discuss the impact of the Mongol military strategy, particularly their use of “carrots and sticks”. How did this approach affect the areas they conquered?

5. Evaluate the role of the Mongol Empire in fostering cultural exchange between Europe, the Middle East, and China. What long-term effects did this have on these regions?

6. How did Genghis Khan’s leadership style and the political structure he implemented contribute to the success and expansion of the Mongol Empire?

7. How did the military and administrative innovations of the Mongol Empire influence later empires and modern military strategies?

8. Why might the Mongols be labeled as “barbarians” despite their significant achievements in governance and cultural promotion? How does this label reflect the perspectives of those who used it?

Teach and Thrive

A Bronx, NY veteran high school social studies teacher who has learned most of what she has learned through trial and error and error and error.... and wants to save others that pain.

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