Think of the Mongols and you’ll probably picture hordes of wild warriors on horseback charging across endless landscapes as they brutally conquer all before them. That stereotype is not completely off the mark, but actually there was much more to Genghis Khan’s rule than just pillage and slaughter. Europe can thank these particular invaders for introducing everything from spectacles and mail services to paper money and iron stirrups. Read on to learn more about these intriguing people…
20. Free trade under Mongol rule
Before Genghis Khan and his hordes gobbled up territory extending from Eastern Europe to China in the 12th century, travel across this vast landscape had been fraught with danger. Frequent conflict between mutually hostile kingdoms along the route made it highly risky for travelers, including traders. This meant commerce, as well as the spread of innovative ideas, was severely hampered.
The Mongols recognized the advantages of free trade and so used their imperial authority to make the Silk Road a safe passage. Goods, including everything from pepper to horses, plus of course silk, could now be relatively easily transported between Asia and Europe under the iron fist of Mongol rule. And it wasn’t just about consumer goods. Crucially, a secure Silk Road also allowed the free exchange of ideas and innovations over huge distances.
19. Who’s the daddy? Probably Genghis Khan!
Perhaps one of the most unexpected legacies of imperial Mongol control comes in the field of genetics. According to a 2015 article in the journal Nature, “Millions of men bear the genetic legacy of Genghis Khan, the famously fertile Mongolian ruler who died in 1227.” That’s the result of Mongol supremo’s reputed fertility. He’s said to have fathered hundreds of children.
A study in 2003 of 16 modern populations across the Asian continent discovered that 8 percent of men there had almost identical Y chromosomes. Their genetic material pointed to a Mongolian origin of some 1,000 years ago, roughly when Genghis Khan was in his fecund prime. The same study found that a staggering one in 200 men throughout the world displayed the same chromosomal evidence of Mongol heritage.
18. Deadly pandemic
The Silk Road brought many benefits, but bubonic plague, also known as The Black Death, can hardly be counted as one of them. It’s believed that the disease, transmitted by fleas that infest black rats, Rattus rattus, traveled along the Silk Road from the steppes of Asia into the Middle East and Europe with traders.
The disease reached Sicily by sea from Constantinople, modern-day Istanbul, in 1347 and soon spread around the Mediterranean and through Western Europe. The Black Death is said to have killed as much as two-thirds of the European population in the 14th century. The pandemic also ravaged the peoples of China, Egypt and India.
17. A rare religious tolerance
The Mongols had zero tolerance for dissent, punishing it with ruthless massacres and destructions of whole communities. By one estimate, during their campaigns of conquest the fearsome warriors killed as many as 37.5 million people. So it seems all the more surprising that when it came to religion, they were extravagantly tolerant.
Wisely, it seems that they took the view that suppressing people’s beliefs would be much more trouble than it was worth. During Genghis Khan’s rule, the Mongols managed life without priests or a sacred text, practicing shamanism and veneration of ancestors. Later some became Buddhists while others took the Muslim faith. But when it came to other religions such as Christianity, Mongols were content to let others follow their faith.
16. The Mongol Peace
Stereotypically, Mongols are hardly seen as peacemakers. While it’s undoubtedly true that brutality was the order of the day when they encountered opposition, once a conquest was complete, peace prevailed. Actually, people were offered a choice: surrender voluntarily or experience the full wrath of the Mongol fighters. As long as they fell in with their new rulers, people were allowed to live in peace and security.
In fact, the period of around a century when the Mongol empire was at its height has been dubbed the era of Pax Mongolica. This term echoes Pax Romana, the Roman Peace, some 1,000 years earlier. This time of settled politics and minimal in-fighting allowed trading along the length of the Silk Road between Europe and China, favoring the free exchange of ideas as well as lucrative commerce.
15. The Mongol war machine
On the face of it, the lightly armed Mongol forces on their small ponies perhaps looked rather unthreatening. But the truth was that their battle tactics, combined with judicious use of the best technologies of the day, gave them an edge over a huge variety of opponents. For example, their diminutive but highly mobile steeds gave them a massive advantage over the cumbersomely armored knights they encountered as they swept across Eastern Europe. They could literally run circles around them.
When it came to battlefield weaponry, the Mongols had a keen eye for the innovative. Rather than being hewn from a single piece of wood, their composite bows also utilized different materials including animal horn and sinews. By contrast, the single-substance weapons of their enemies had a shorter range and less accuracy. Iron stirrups were another invention that gave the Mongols superiority on the battlefield. And they also came up with a lethal piece of ordnance: the hand grenade.
14. Paper money
Genghis Khan had died in 1227 and his grandson, Kublai Khan, took over the leadership of the Mongols in 1260. He promoted a radical new idea: paper money. We might take this for granted today, but back then this was a groundbreaking concept. There had been earlier paper notes in China, but it was during Kublai Khan’s reign that they became a widely circulating currency within the country.
Europe was behind the curve when it came to paper money – it would be the 17th century before the Swedes introduced banknotes. In China, the currency was printed with carved wooden blocks at the Imperial Mint, perhaps located in the capital city we now know as Beijing. The 13th-century Italian explorer of China, Marco Polo, included an intriguing chapter in his The Book of the Marvels of the World. It was titled, “How the great Khan Causes the Bark of Trees, Made into Something Like Paper, to Pass for Money All over His Country.”
13. World history, as told by the Mongols
It’s believed that the first genuine attempt to write a history of the world came in the 14th century. The scholar who worked on it was Rashid-al-Din Hamadani who lived from 1247 until 1318. The work was lavishly illustrated and covered the histories of China, India and Europe. The people of Europe were known to the Mongols as “Franks.”
Rashid-al-Din was a senior Persian politician as well as a scholar at a time when the country, which we now know as Iran, was under the rule of the Mongol Empire. His book was titled Jāmiʿ al-tawārīkh which translates as The Compendium of Chronicles. Sadly, the author of this distinguished work came to a sticky end in 1312. Accused of poisoning the Mongol ruler of Persia, Öljeitü, he was executed by the dead sovereign’s son, Abū Saʿīd.
12. Patrons of the arts
In another departure from the commonly held belief about the barbarity of the Mongols, it turns out that they were rather keen on the fine arts. They also had a taste for beautifully illustrated books and for sumptuously staged dramas. The Mongolian people themselves had no great artistic tradition, but they eagerly adopted and supported the cultures of the peoples they conquered.
Particularly in China, the Mongols relished intricate azure ceramics, as well as elaborate textiles sewn through with golden thread and jewelry. They were also keen builders, with Genghis Khan’s son Ogedei, overseeing the construction of a magnificent palace in the principal city of Karakorum in Mongolia. It’s said that Mongolian women had an especially keen eye for visual and decorative arts.
11. Medical pioneers
The Mongols had a powerful motive to improve healthcare. After all, if your sprawling empire depends on military might, you need to make sure your soldiers are fighting fit. With this in mind, the Mongols built hospitals and paid close attention to the training of medics. And when it came to approaches to medicine, they were open to influences from across their empire.
Kublai Khan, for example, created an institution dedicated to the study of Western medicine. This complemented the knowledge that already existed in China at the time about diseases and anatomy. The Persian scholar Rashid al-Din published a work on Chinese medicine in 1313. That was the first time that this knowhow had been made available outside China.
10. Promoting the printing press
Ask the average Westerner, “Who invented the printing press?”It’s likely they’ll identify Johannes Gutenberg, the German who printed Bibles in the 15th century. Or maybe English merchant William Caxton from roughly the same era. But it turns out that there’s an alternative narrative as to when and where a rudimentary printing press was first used. And, yes, it was the Mongols who are behind this other story – and they may have played their part long before Gutenberg et al came along.
It seems that Kublai Khan, Genghis’ grandson, may have had knowledge of printing that came from China and Korea. As David Robinson, an Asian history professor, explained to the Literary Hub website in 2019, “Mongols just tended to take their technologies everywhere they went, and they become a part of local culture, sometimes acknowledged, sometimes not.” So it’s quite possible that Gutenberg got his ideas about printing from the Orient.
9. Emancipated women
When we think about the freedom that women have won in today’s Western societies, we generally look back not much further than the early 20th century. But it seems that the Mongols were trailblazers almost 1,000 years ago. Back then, women had considerably more legal rights than their counterparts in Europe. They also had an active part to play in tribal society.
Mongol women could participate in religious rituals and could actually become shamans, the closest thing the Mongols had to a clergy. Women could own real estate and such possessions would also pass to them when a family member died. And some women reached the heights of Mongol politics. On occasion a woman filled the position of authority until an infant male inheritor came of age to take on an imperial leadership role.
8. Looking to the skies
The Mongols were more than happy to encourage scholarship and one branch of the sciences that seems to have especially captured their imaginations was astronomy. Researchers in both Persia and China were encouraged to pursue knowledge of the stars and planets under Mongol imperial rule. In part, that enthusiasm may have been driven by a belief that reading the stars could help to predict the future.
Indeed, the wide sweep of the Mongol imperial territories allowed Persian and Chinese experts to pool their knowledge about the stars. At one time, there may have been as many as ten Persian astronomers based in Beijing. The Mongol emperor Kublai Khan had founded the Islamic Astronomical Bureau in the city in 1271. This sharing of knowledge across cultures is taken for granted in our world, but it was a radical innovation 1,000 years ago.
7. Birth of the Russian nation
Up until the 13th century the story of Russia had largely been one of brutal internecine warfare between rival kingdoms that had carved up the nation. Powerful 10th- and 11th-century rulers such as St. Vladimir and Yaroslav the Wise had brought periods of relative tranquility. But once those strong men died, anarchy ensued. Then the Mongols arrived early in the 13th century.
At first, the newcomers offered alliances and peace. When this was refused, an army of 200,000 under Batu Khan marched from Mongolia and ruthlessly crushed Russian opposition. Many locals were killed, while others were seized and enslaved. And yet this subjugation of the Russian people ultimately had a positive outcome. For it was the actions of the Mongols that created a unified Russian state, one that came together and expelled the invaders in 1480.
6. Explorers from Europe
The peace that the Mongols imposed on their empire, and in particular the opening of the Silk Road, allowed free rein to curious European explorers. There were many of them but the best-known of those is undoubtedly Marco Polo, born in 1254. He traveled to China via the Silk Road when he was just 17, accompanied by his father and an uncle. It would be 24 years before he returned to his native Venice.
During his time in China, Marco Polo actually worked for Kublai Khan, traveling around the country and possibly acting as a revenue collector for the emperor. Marco Polo is so well remembered because of some time he spent in Genoa as a prisoner of war. It’s not the imprisonment that’s important; it’s the fact that he spent his incarceration writing a detailed account of his travels. In his highly popular book, he described all sorts of wonders unknown to Europeans such as spectacles, paper money and a mail service.
5. Global cooling
Many regard modern human-caused global warming with high anxiety. But one extraordinary outcome of Genghis Khan’s ruthless military campaigns of conquest early in the 13th century was a measurable drop in world temperatures. For this information, we can thank the Carnegie Institution’s Julia Pongratz, who works in the Department of Global Ecology.
Pongratz explained in a 2011 Carnegie Institution press release that Genghis Khan’s invasions across Asia and Europe left so much devastation that formerly cultivated land reverted to forest cover. The trees reduced the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, resulting in a temperature drop. Perhaps Greta Thunberg should lead a marauding army of ruthless eco-warriors across Europe and into Asia.
4. Mongol mailmen
The unaccustomed security that the Mongols brought to land routes such as the Silk Road had one rather unexpected spin-off. When the emperor Genghis Khan had a few spare moments in his busy schedule of burning, ransacking and pillaging, he founded a far-flung mail delivery system. The empire-wide organization, called the Ortoo, depended on a network of mail stations.
In fact, these postal stations played other roles too. They acted as accommodation stop-offs for dignitaries, military men and officials as they traveled the length and breadth of the Mongol territories on imperial business. Genghis’s grandson Kublai Khan introduced the postal system to China. In that land alone, there were more than 1,400 such facilities serviced by some 50,000 horses and nearly 7,000 mules.
3. Mongol population control
There are those who believe that today’s world is perilously overpopulated. They should certainly doff their caps to the Mongol hordes. It’s believed that their merciless military invasions may have succeeded in reducing the world population by a staggering 11 percent. In other words Genghis Khan’s savage campaigns killed more than one in ten humans alive back then, perhaps as many as 40 million souls.
China alone is estimated to have lost tens of millions of its people during the Mongol invasions and wars. The Khwarezmid Empire, in modern-day Iran, might have lost as much as three-quarters of its population at the hands of Mongol invaders. Truth be told, we’ll never know the actual number of casualties resulting from Mongol aggression. The gruesome fact is that nobody took the time to count the dead.
2. China in isolation
It was the Mongol leader Kublai Khan that finally conquered China, a feat that even his fearsome grandfather, Genghis Khan, had been unable to achieve. After a long and bloody campaign, Kublai Khan finally subdued the last hold-outs, the Song of southern China, and the country was his. Eventually the Chinese Yuan dynasty succeeded from the Mongol rulers. But the experience of Mongol rule was far from forgotten.
By the 15th century, China had started a policy of cutting itself off from the rest of the world. Remember, during the Mongol time and the trading route of the Silk Road, contact between China, the Middle East and Europe had flourished. But, apparently deeply scarred by the experience of Mongol subjugation, it seems that the Chinese now wanted little or nothing to do with outsiders. This was an outlook that was to persist right up until the early part of the 20th century.
The Mongols did not invent gunpowder, that explosive mix of charcoal, sulfur and saltpeter. Some Chinese monks who lived over 1,000 years ago can take the credit for that. Apparently, and you may think ironically, they were actually searching for a formula that would prolong life. But it was the Mongols who introduced the deadly substance to the wider world.
The Mongols first came across gunpowder when the Chinese with whom they were battling in the 13th century used it against them. Soon enough, the Mongols had spread the use of gunpowder to the Middle East. And it’s believed that Europeans would have come across it there during their Crusades to the Holy Lands. It also likely traveled west along the Silk Road. Like the Chinese and the Mongols before them, the Europeans enthusiastically adopted this new weapon of destruction. Historically, the results have not been pretty.