The Pax Mongolica

by Prof. Daniel C. Waugh, University of Washington, Seattle


There used to be the city of Riazan in the land of Riazan, but its wealth disappeared and its glory ceased,
and there is nothing to be seen in the city excepting smoke, ashes, and barren earth....
And instead of joy, there are only uninterrupted lamentations.
--Tale of the Destruction of Riazan

The city of al-Sara [Sarai] is one of the finest of cities, of boundless size...
choked with the throng of its inhabitants, and possessing good bazaars and broad streets. --Ibn Battuta



The Kalian minaret (12th century) and Miri Arab Medrese (1530s), Bukhara

Few subjects provoke more heated debate than the impact of the Mongols. Were they primarily a destructive force, leaving a swath of ashes and barren earth, or did they create conditions for the flourishing of cities, trade and cultural exchange across Eurasia? Evil or good? The answer, in fact, is not quite so simple, since it very much depends on when and where we look. Riazan's tragedy at the hands of the Mongols in 1237 is no more "typical" than is prosperity of Sarai, the capital of the Golden Horde, at the time of Ibn Battuta's visit nearly a century later. Yet both are real, and their descriptions not mere propaganda on the part of the Christian monk who wrote the "Tale" or the pious Moroccan Muslim.

We might begin with some comments on the bias of our sources. Most narratives about the Mongol invasion and rule were written by sedentary peoples whom the nomadic Mongols had conquered. The traumas of war and the burdens of occupation by a culturally alien people naturally loom large in such accounts. Even those who arguably benefitted by working for the Mongols were unable to overcome their dislike for their masters, a dislike often rooted in cultural prejudice. A good example is 'Ata-Malik Juvaini, who wrote an important chronicle of Mongol history in the 1250s. A native of Khorasan--an area of northeastern Iran that, in his words, was "the rising-place of felicities and charities, the location of desirable things and good works, the fount of learned men"--Juvaini could not let his readers forget that "today...the earth hath been divested of the adornment of the presence of those clad in the gown of science and those decked in the jewels of learning and letters." Yet even Juvaini's picture is far from one-sided or consistent. By the time he wrote, Bukhara, "the cupola of Islam," had recovered from its conquest, "and today no town in the countries of Islam will bear comparison with Bukhara in the thronging of its creatures, the multitude of movable and immovable wealth, the concourse of savants, the flourishing of science...." In other words, the Mongols' cruelty and lack of culture did not necessarily mean the end of civilization as Juvaini knew it.



"The Apotheosis of War," by V. Vereshchagin, 1871-1872.

Our perceptions of the Mongol impact may reflect as much modern concerns as they do any realities faced by the contemporaries of Chingis Khan's successors. A case in point is Russian attitudes, shaped indeed by invasion and alien rule, but inflamed by the intellectual concerns of modern times. Those who lament Russia's authoritarian political system or economic "backwardness" in modern times continue to blame the Mongols half a millenium after their empire had disintegrated. The emblematic painting, "The Apotheosis of War," by the late nineteenth-century pacifist Vereshchagin, nicely sums up for Russians the Mongol contribution to civilization. And who can forget Prokofiev's ominous music accompanying the opening frames of Sergei Eisenstein's famous propaganda film, "Alexander Nevsky"? Pages of burning manuscripts crackle, and winds scatter the ashes across a barren landscape. The heroic prince breathes defiance in the face of a menacing and cruel Mongol official--all this mere prelude to Nevsky's defeat of German knights, the other foreigners who always had it in for the Russians. [Eisenstein's message in the late 1930s was clearly, "Let the Germans beware!"] This affirmation of Russian national character conveniently forgets the reality that in the thirteenth century Nevsky undoubtedly was a faithful servant of the Khans in suppressing rebellion amongst his fellow Christians. In short, Mongol rule has been employed in curious ways in the service of nationalist myths.

Can we actually measure the negative effects of the Mongol invasions? We tend to fall back on narratives of destruction, in part because there are no reliable series of data. That the destruction was real certainly is confirmed by archaeological sources. Yet the pattern of devastation is uneven, and there is little evidence to suggest that the Mongols destroyed just for the fun of it. Those who resisted indeed were slaughtered and their cities often razed. Yet, as we shall see, the Mongols do seem early on to have appreciated the importance of sedentary centers and trade; it simply would not have been in their interest to leave behind only a wasteland. To cite the apparent sharp decline in population in China during the Mongol period as proof of the Mongols' destructive impact is a huge oversimplification. While it is tempting to blame the Mongols for the conditions which fostered the spread of the Black Death, which devastated cities as thoroughly as anything the Mongols did directly, that is a hard case to prove. And it is worth remembering that Europe was most severely hit by the dread epidemic more than a century after Chingis Khan and in a period when the Empire of his successors had already disintegrated.

One interesting attempt to measure the economic impact of the Mongols is a study by David Miller regarding the building of masonry churches in Russia. He argues that such construction may be an indicator of economic prosperity. His graphs show rather dramatically that the Mongol invasion brought such construction to a halt in the 1230s, but by the end of the thirteenth century there is a revival, and in the fourteenth century a building boom, even though at the time the Russian princes were still subject to the Mongols of the Golden Horde. To a considerable degree, Miller's statistics are skewed by the city of Novgorod, which in fact had not shared the fate of Riazan at the time of the invasion. Yet it was not just Novgorod that seems to have prospered. The fourteenth century saw the emergence of Moscow--previously a town of no consequence--as a significant political and cultural center, in the first instance precisely because of its princes' close relationship with their overlords, the Mongol khans.

The pattern that seems to emerge here is one in which areas beyond any real focus of Mongol concerns might in fact be left alone. Areas central to the Mongols (the capital of the Golden Horde, Sarai, would be a good example), might be built up by them. Regions that had been devastated might recover rapidly, if the khans so chose, but other such regions might remain wasteland. One example of the latter, emphasized by David Morgan in his largely negative assessment of the Mongol impact, was some regions in Iran which had depended on the sophisticated underground network of irrigation channels that the Mongols destroyed. We know, however, that most nomads relied on a symbiotic relationship with sedentary peoples; such dependence then required that agriculture and towns continue to flourish, at least in the regions that would directly interact with the Mongols.

This is not to say that regularized Mongol exactions were easily borne by the populations which were counted in censuses and taxed. In many cases, it seems clear that such taxes or the tribute payments required of local rulers were indeed very heavy. However, there is simply no way to know whether such impositions "set back" economic development "for centuries," or were substantially worse than what another conqueror at another time might have imposed. In the case of Russia, for example, the tendency has been to exaggerate the level of tribute payments. Arguably the Russian princes, once free of any Mongol control, greatly exceeded their former masters in rapaciousness, aided to be sure by what they had learned from the Mongols about tax collection.

Any discussion of the economic impact of the Mongols must include trade and the production of commercial goods. Juvaini makes very clear that Chingis Khan's invasion of Central Asia in 1219 was connected with trade disputes. In fact Juvaini has the Khan boast of the fact that his treasury was full of rich products of international trade; the Mongols were no rubes when it came to dealings with deceitful Muslim merchants. Archaeology confirms that even before the rise of Chingis, towns in Mongolia were actively involved in trade, in which the patterns of relations with China can be traced back to the beginnings of the "Silk Road."



The stone tortoise that was at one gate to Karakorum; Erdeni Tzu, Mongolia.

The development of the Silk Road commerce under the Mongols was a result both of its direct promotion and the creation of an infrastructure which ensured safe conditions for travel. The direct policies obviously could cut two ways. There is ample evidence that craftsmen were re-settled individually and en masse at the whim of the khans. The Franciscan monk, William of Rubruck, traveled to the Mongol capital Karakorum in 1253-55. Among those he met there was a Parisian goldsmith, Guillaume Bouchier, who had been captured at Belgrad on the Danube. Bouchier's French wife had also been carried off during the Mongol invasion of Hungary. Thomas Allsen has carefully documented how the Mongol taste for luxury Middle Eastern textiles led to the transplantation of whole colonies of weavers from the Middle East to Mongolia and north China. Marco Polo describes such settlements in the time of Qubilai Khan. Of course, what was positive for the heartland of the Empire likely had a negative impact on the areas from which the craftsmen were conscripted.

The fragmentation of the Empire, a process which began even before the last conquests had been completed, was a result both of political competition and competition for control of trade routes. An illustration of this can be seen in relations between the Golden Horde (which encompassed the northwest quadrant of the Empire), on the one hand, and the Ilkhanids (who ruled in the Middle East) and their successors the Timurids, on the other. Included in the territories of the Golden Horde were the Crimea, with its trading connections to Constantinople and further West, and the lower Don and Volga Rivers, which funneled trade from the north and controlled the routes into Central Asia. It is significant that within a generation of the conquest of this region, the khans signed a treaty giving the Genose exclusive privileges in the Black Sea ports; coins were issued with the inscription of the khan on one side and the seal of the Bank of St. George of Genoa on the other. Ibn Battuta reported that Kaffa, the major Genose port in the Crimea, was "one of the world's celebrated ports," and he found Sarai to be a truly international city, inhabited by Christians from Byzantium and Russia and by Muslims from all over the Middle East.


The routes of the silk road leading west from Central Asia (detail of map at Tashkent University).

Obviously one reason that the Golden Horde cultivated the alliance with Genoa was to ensure communication via Byzantium with the Mongols' allies, the Mamluks in Egypt. This was a typical example of a basic principle of international relations--to forge an alliance with a state on the other side of your closest enemy, the enemy in this case being the Mongol rulers of Iran and Iraq, the Ilkhanids. Surely part of the hostility revolved around the issue of whether the trade routes coming out of Central Asia would proceed north of the Caspian Sea to Sarai or instead go south through Ilkhanid territory. Ultimately such considerations were to contribute to the downfall of the Golden Horde later in the fourteenth century, when its ruler picked a fight with his former patron, the Amir Timur (Tamerlane), and the result was the devastation of the cities of the Golden Horde. For Tamerlane and the Timurids, the routes from Samarkand through northern Iran were the ones to maintain.

Competition and conflict could indeed interrupt traditional trade routes, but even in the period when the Mongol Empire was falling apart, we can document the relative safety and speed of travel all the way across Eurasia. To a considerable degree, the explanation lies in the Mongol rulers' development of the postal relay system (yam), which so favorably impressed contemporaries. In the first instance, of course, the system (rather like the pony express in the American West) was designed to speed official communication. Those on the business of the khan could show their badge of authority (paidze) and expect to receive fresh mounts at the regularly placed relay stations. Clearly the invocation of the ruler's authority could provide favored travelers with some degree of security. We cannot but be impressed by the ability of defenseless Franciscans to travel across most of Eurasia in the middle of the thirteenth century. Marco Polo was one of many Europeans who made it all the way to China on diplomatic, religious or commercial missions. In his commercial handbook compiled around 1340, the Florentine merchant Pegolotti summed up very well what to expect:

The road you travel from Tana [Azov] to Cathay is perfectly safe, whether by day or by night, according to what the merchants say who have used it. Only if the merchant...should die upon the road, everything belonging to him will become the perquisite of the lord of the country in which he dies...And there is another danger: this is when the lord of the country dies, and before the new lord who is to have the lordship is proclaimed; during such intervals there have sometimes been irregularities practised on the Franks and other foreigners...

This then was the Pax Mongolica (Mongol Peace), a situation created by the Mongols which at least for a time facilitated commerce and communication.



The Old Beijing Observatory (Gu Guanxiangtai) built under Qubilai Khan.

Not the least of the explanations was the relative openness of the Mongols to individuals of different religions. Marco Polo, for one, emphasized the apparent willingness of Qubilai Khan to entertain all the "religions of the book" at the same time that he practised the rituals of traditional Mongolian religion. Among Qubilai's astrologers/astronomers in the observatory he built were Muslims from the Middle East. Mongol rule witnessed a revival in Nestorian Christianity throughout Eurasia, the spread of Tibetan Buddhism through China to Mongolia, and the expansion of Islam in areas of Eastern Europe. Ibn Battuta could converse in Arabic with Muslims almost anywhere he traveled in the Mongol world. Yet, as the example of the Golden Horde shows, even when the khans converted firmly to a religion such as Islam they seem to have avoided a fanaticism that would have imposed conversion on their subjects. They certainly did nothing to cut their Russian subjects off from the West, a misconception that has been fostered by Russians to explain why Russia never experienced the Renaissance and all the benefits that flowed from it in the emergence of modern European culture. The cultural traditions of Russian Orthodoxy [the real barrier between Russia and the West] were left alone to flourish, just as traditional culture in China exhibited great vitality under the rule of the Mongol YŁan dynasty.

Mongol rule did bring with it initial destruction, the imposition of heavy financial burdens, and the loss of political independence, at the same time that it seeded political renewal in some areas and contributed selectively to economic expansion. In short, Riazan and Sarai can coexist on the same historical canvas.

Recommended Reading.

I. Primary Sources. (Note: There are various editions of many of these works.)

II. Secondary Sources.

© 2000 Daniel C. Waugh


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