I’ve just put a piece about the Mongol empire up on our Timemap of World History.
At the moment the article covers the history of the rise and fall of the Mongol empire. In due course I will add other elements: government, warfare, economy and so on. Even in this early stage the article plugs a gap in our coverage, as our sequence of world, regional and national maps has a snapshot of the world in 1215, in the early stages of this dramatic epsiode in world history, and then not until 1453, where the Mongol empire really only survives as the Golden Horde, in Russia. In between these two maps the empire has risen to cover all of central Asia, all of China, and much of the Middle East, and then declined again.
Until now the Mongols have not held a great attraction for me as a topic for study. They have always struck me as a negative force in world history, bringing about violence on a massive scale and the brutalisation of hitherto refined civilizations. They seemed to me to have very few redeeming features: the nurturing of the Silk Road (and the exchange of technologies between east and west which resulted) being about the only one (albeit an important one) I could have thought of off hand.
Preparing this article, however, has emphasised for me that, in fact, the Mongol episode is full of fascination. After all, how could the rise and fall of the largest land empire in world history be otherwise!
I had always thought, for example, that the Mongols swept out of their steppe homelands and blew away the opposing armies in lightening campaigns, all under the dynamic leadership of a vigorous young commander, Genghis Khan. This is more or less the impression one gets of them when studying the histories of China, Russia or the Middle East. If you focus on the Mongols themselves, however, you gain a rather different perspective. Genghis himself was middle aged by the time the Mongols started “sweeping” out of central Asia. By his death, the Mongol empire was nowhere near as large as it would become – most of the major conquests took place under his sons and grandsons. As for “sweeping out of central Asia”, the wars of conquest were by no means the speedy affairs they are often painted as. Their conquest of northern China took 10 years, and this was not untypical.
This implies that the people of the great civilizations whom the Mongols conquered put up a much more effective resistance than I had supposed. And this in turn suggests that the Mongols did not have a magic bullet which mowed their enemies down before them in swathes. This, for me, makes their sustained but hard-won military success much more interesting, and indeed, much more to be admired.
At the end of the day, though, I’m glad I wasn’t around when the Mongol bandwagon got going!
By Peter Britton