Were the Mongols merely pillagers and killers?

These days, it is hard to imagine an empire so vast and all encompassing as that of the Mongol dynasty. At its height in 1280, the empire stretched from the Yellow Sea to the Mediterranean, the likes of which have only been exceeded by the British Empire of the 19th Century. It is currently impossible to imagine this feat being repeated. This is why his name and his legacy are so revered around the world. Rarely has the world ever witnessed such a ‘whirlwind of destruction’ that was brought about by Genghis and his armies. Indeed, even after 750 years people speak of the Mongol rampages with astonishment and fear.

In Mongolian eyes, the answer to this question is a simple no. To Mongolia, Genghis Khan was their George Washington, the one who managed to unite a vast empire in an attempt to rid their land of an outside influence and internal conflict. Another argument is that Genghis and his Mongols were perhaps more tolerant of other religions than many regimes are today; amongst his army were Buddhists, Muslims and Christians. Additionally cities that offered no resistance were subject only to payment of a tribute – almost the complete opposite view many hold of the Mongols. It is also impossible to ignore the effect Mongol rule had on the infrastructure of conquered countries. The impact of Mongol rule on communication, for example, is astonishing. With no previous written language, Genghis managed to create a system of highways linking all provinces from the capital at Khanbalik, called the Yam.

Nevertheless, whilst on conquest, the Mongols killed ruthlessly, not distinguishing between opposing armies or civilians, they killed millions and put millions more into slavery. Samarkland, Bukhara, Urgench, Baghdad, Kiev and Beijing are only a few of the cities that were forced to submit to Mongol rule. At Samarkland, for example, the city’s gates were opened after only a day’s fighting. Those who chose not to surrender, approximately 1000, took refuge in the Mosque, only to have it burned by flaming arrows and vessels of oil. At Samarkland, just one example, the estimated dead total at 100,000. Indeed the extent to which Genghis’ armies roused fear among their enemies cannot be underestimated. With the arrival of siege weaponry to his armies after the invasion of Western Xia in 1205, the sight of the Mongol hoard marching on a city would have meant certain death. This is perhaps best shown by the incident of the ‘falling petals’, where approximately 60,000 women threw themselves from the walls on Yenking while it was under siege instead of seeing it fall to an invader.

Ultimately, it would be unfitting to suggest that the Mongols were merely pillagers and raiders. They created a nation from several different warring tribes and managed to create an empire with its own infrastructure the likes of which the world had never seen before. Yet it is hard to ignore the ways in which they achieved this. The countless sieges and battles in which they held next to no regard for civilians or warriors. Yet the 13th century was possibly the most war torn in history, matched only perhaps, by the 20th. Crusaders marched on the Holy Land; the Chinese constantly fought amongst one another, Central Asia had been scourge by wars before Genghis arrived. Is it not possible, therefore, that Genghis was merely a man of his time, the Mongols merely people of their time, only more so?

Contributed by Tim Edgar

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