he Mongols reached Europe in 1221, on a reconnaisance of the western extent of the Eurasian steppe, the land on which Mongol armies could most easily support themselves "wherever a horse is able to tread." Their force was a detachment of the great army Chinggis Qan (Genghis Khan) was leading through Central Asia, eastern Iran, Afghanistan, and into India. The detachment crossed northern Iran, wintering in Azerbaijan (1220-21), passed the Caucasus mountains, spent the next winter in the Crimea, explored the Volga region, and returned to Mongolia; it fought winning battles all along the way, including one against an alliance of Turkic Cuman nomads and Russians. The incursion came to the notice of Europe, but since such nomad disturbances in that region were a common occurrence, and because the new intruders had withdrawn, apparently for good, it made little impression.
In 1236-42 the Mongols returned, acting on the knowledge gained on their previous expedition: that the steppe extended into the North Pontic region (Ukraine and Crimea), that their armies could therefore sustain themselves all the way-the horses eating grass and the soldiers eating horses-and that the local inhabitants were incapable of serious resistance. This time the Mongols came in great force, with at least twelve tümens (divisions of, nominally, 10,000 men), judging by the number of commanders, mostly princes, mentioned. They overwhelmed the Cumans, Russians and Hungarians, and defeated a large army of Germans and Poles. And although the Mongols shortly abandoned Hungary (probably indefensible by a nomad-based garrison), they based a large army in Ukraine and on the Volga, conscripting many of the Cumans and monitoring their Russian vassals, and conjoined to it further forces in North Central Asia (approximately Kazakhstan), creating the sub-realm of the empire that came to be known in the West as the Golden Horde. This threatening new power caught the attention of Europe: the Mongol empire now had a presence and a frontier in Eastern Europe. In the Middle East, Mongol task forces, beginning in 1229, established bases in Azerbaijan, and from them intimidated or forced into vassal status the Trebizondian Byzantines, Anatolian Seljuks and Cilician Armenians, among all of whom Westerners, mostly Italians, had an important commercial presence. The European Crusaders on the Levant coast too now had a new, Mongol near-neighbor in Iran and Anatolia. In 1256, these Mongols were heavily reinforced by contingents sent to exterminate the (original) Assassins, subjugate or destroy the Caliphate in Iraq, and extend the empire to the southwest. Although Syria and Egypt were successfully defended by the Mamluks, the Assassins were wiped out, as was the Caliph. Baghdad was wrecked, and much commerce that had been focussed on it now shifted north to Tabriz and Trebizond.
There were many other Mongol armies: nomad forces, Mongols and especially Turks, (which included soldiers, their families, and the domestic animals needed for their support) all across Inner Asia, in North China, and in Mongolia proper; and troops drawn from conquered or vassal settled peoples: Chinese, Iranian, Russian and many others, usually based on farmlands in their home countries, although some were sent abroad on expeditions. For instance, Chinese artillerists or garrison troops to Iran, or Russians to China. Through the reign of Möngke Qan, (1251-59), all of these forces, from the Ukraine to Manchuria, were controlled from the Qan's camp, usually somewhere in Mongolia, via the yam service, the Mongol pony-express, which connected all of them, and passed, in part, along the Silk Road. In most local matters, however, these armies constituted components of the regional establishments set up by Chinggis in favor of his dynastic family. The establishments now, by the mid-thirteenth century, impinging on Europe from the Western steppe and the Middle East were governed, respectively, by Batu and Hülegüboth grandsons of Chinggis. Each commanded a regular army of fifteen tümens: for instance, Hülegü's order of battle at the siege of Baghdad included fifteen commanders. Since these commanders led tümens, each composed of ten regiments (hazara), the military component of each establishment included 150 high officers and their (often multiple) wives. To these were added many administrative officials and their wives. And finally, there were the leader's guards, at least a tümen of them (Qubilai, according to Marco Polo, had 12,000 guardsmen, rotating on duty in units of 3000).
"This is the order of the everlasting God. 'In Heaven there is only one eternal God; on earth there is only one lord, Chinggis Qan. This is the word of the son of God [Chinggis]...which is addressed to you. Whosoever we are, whether Mongol or Naiman or Merkit or Muslim, and wherever ear is capable of hearing, and wherever a horse is able to tread, [italics added] there make it heard and understood.'" (Letter of Möngke Qan to King ["Saint"] Louis IX of France, in Rubruck, 202)
Chinggis issued his invitation in ca. 1203, when he was winning the struggle for rule over all of (Outer) Mongolia. He knew the military resources of Mongolia, knew that the only comparable forces, the largely nomad cavalries of China's northern frontier (in today's Manchuria and Inner Mongolia) were divided between the Hsi-hsia and Kin, and within Kin between Jurchen and Kitan, so that the Mongols could attack them severally with great superiority. Success in this undertaking would give Chinggis all the (surviving) cavalry of eastern Inner Asia, and the largest such force anywhere. World conquest, which had been talked about by Huns and Turks in times gone by, did not seem like empty boasting now.
"[Chinggis Qan] made many laws and statutes... [one] is that [the Mongols] are to bring the whole world into subjection to them, nor are they to make peace with any nation unless they first submit..." (John of Plano Carpini, 25)
By the mid-thirteenth century, this project was well under way, with giant armies on the march to the Middle East (as mentioned above), into southern (Sung) China, and against Korea; large raiding parties also intruded repeatedly into northwestern India. These expansive efforts continued until, roughly, the turn of the century: South China was conquered, Japan, Burma, Vietnam and Java were attacked, and the Middle Eastern Mongols kept trying to seize Syria. Besides these substantial campaigns, the raids on India continued, as did incursions into Eastern Europe.
This project gave the Mongol leadership a lively interest in the countries as yet beyond their reach. To obtain such information, the Mongols used exploratory expeditions, often over great distances, as with the foray (mentioned above) through northern Iran, the Caucasus, southern Russia, the Crimea and Central Inner Asia. They also interrogated prisoners, and questioned travellers like Rubruck and merchants like Marco Polo.
"[Möngke Qan's officials] began to ask us numerous questions about the kingdom of France: whether it contained many sheep, cattle and horses-as if they were due to move in and take it all over forthwith." (William of Rubruck, 155-6)
"When Messer Niccolo [Polo] and Messer Maffeo [Polo] arrived at the court of [Qubilai Qan] he received them honorably and welcomed them with lavish hospitality and was altogether delighted that they had come. He asked them many questions: first about the Emperors, the government of their dominions, and the maintenance of justice; then about kings, princes, and other nobles. Next, he asked about the Lord Pope, and all the practices of the Roman Church and the customs of the Latins. And Messer Niccolo and Messer Maffeo told him all the truth about each matter..." (Marco Polo, 36)
As for the personal interests of the Mongol elite, these varied, of course, from person to person, but most wanted to enjoy the fruits of their extraordinary conquests. They had previously led a simple existence in the fastnesses of Outer Mongolia; Chinggis and his small following, early in his career, successfully pillaged a Tatar community, and came to be"considered grand and gained renown" because the loot included a silver cradle and a gold-brocaded quilt, and"at that time such luxury items were rare among the Mongols." (Rashid I, 164) During Chinggis' campaigns of expansion into China, and especially with the taking of the Kin dynasty's northern capital (approx. modern Beijing) in 1215, the Mongols gained an appreciation of the wealth, especially in foodstuffs and textiles, now available to them through plunder and extortion, taxation and exchange. The government established a program intended to provide for the general population of Outer Mongolia very substantial supplies of food and drink (more, in fact, than could be supplied). More successfully, the Mongol dynastic and military elite provided themselves with the best of everything. They consumed large volumes of alcoholic beverages such as fermented honey (bal) and millet (buza), rice mead, and wines, exotic to the Mongols, and, in the case of wine, pleasingly powerful by comparison with their domestic tipple, fermented mare's milk (qumis), which they also continued to consume in quantities. Foodstuffs were likewise lavishly provided, especially horsemeat, the favorite, and mutton, the most widely available in the pastoral economy. For a quantifiable example, William of Rubruck (202) reported the following provisions for a banquet hosted by Möngke Qan:"a hundred and five carts laden with mare's milk, and ninety horses to be eaten." Ninety Mongolian ponies would have yielded about 20,000 lbs of meat, three lbs of meat for each guest at a party for 7,000 (consisting largely of the Qan's off-duty guards, most likely); assuming 1000-lb loads on the drink-carts, each of the 7,000 would also have been served about two gallons of qumis (qumis is a "lite" drink, hence the large volume, the approximate equivalent of 19 shots of 90-proof whiskey).
The Mongol elite enjoyed many such parties-and they dressed up for them. Qubilai entertained at festivals for the New Year and for each of the thirteen lunar months, on assorted "festive occasions," and on birthdays. Birthday parties would have been frequent: Qubilai had four wives and 22 sons by them; daughters not specified, plus a number of concubines and 25 more sons (daughters again not counted); and the birthdays of his other relatives, his great commanders, their wives and children, were doubtless celebrated as well."All the [Mongols]celebrate their birthdays as festivals," says Marco Polo. (137f) The guests probably included all those eligible to have parties in their honor, and, for the lunar month festivities, the 9,000 off-duty guards, and most likely their wives, were also invited. Guest lists of 40,000, as reported by Marco Polo (137f), seem quite plausible. At these many parties the top Mongols wore very fancy dress, in many cases, robes of cloth-of-gold (nasij). Those of high rank had nine different banquetoutfits for winter wear, and fourteen for summer, including one of nasij for each season. Since there were more than 20,000 top-level bureaucrats to provide for in the Mongols' East Asian (Yuan) realm alone, around 50,000 robes would have been needed. The guards, all 10,000-12,000 of them, were issued banquet robes as well, a different one to wear at each of the thirteen monthly celebrations.
The Mongol grandees not only wanted to enjoy silks, but to profit from them as well. Silk had since time immemorial been a kind of currency in China, a tool of its diplomacy, and the basis of its international trade over the aptly named Silk Road. Owing to the international popularity among the wealthy of silk, its production had spread across Inner Asia to the Middle East, where the Mongols found and took over its silk factories as they had in China. Furthermore, they established new silk factories, in Inner Mongolia, the Tarim Basin, and two in China proper, to increase the volume of silk production, and to develop new silk products. Chinese weavers were sent to Samarkand to collaborate with the local Muslim weavers, and Muslim weavers who were specialists in cloth-of-goldwere brought to China. Wealthy Mongols invested in these enterprises, and in the vending of their products, forming commercial associations (ortaqs) with merchants experienced in transporting over the Silk Road, for instance, but also by sea and exchanging these goods abroad. Such Mongols could also arrange for their merchant partners to use the facilities of the yam to obtain provisions, fresh animals and secure lodgings for their caravans. In the century, approximately, of Mongol rule in Eurasia, the Silk Road fl ourished as never before. Disputes between the Mongol realms sometimes delayed or diverted commercial traffic, as happened to Marco and the other Polos, who had to resort to a slow and difficult route between Iran and Eastern Turkestan on their way to China to avoid rumored strife in Transoxiana. But the Mongol regional governments usually, and the Mongols generally, remained eager to promote and engage in commerce, even, sometimes, at risk to their own interests. Mongols in Afghanistan, for instance, allowed regular passage of large numbers of horses being exported by the Golden Horde (the Mongol realm in modern Ukraine, Russia and Kazakhstan) to India, for use by the sultans of Delhi against Mongols invading from Afghanistan.
Under the Mongols, furthermore, the Silk Road had more routes than in earlier times. Before the Mongols unified Inner Asia, its nomads were divided among a plethora of independent, rivalrous tribes and great power client-tribes set against the independents. In this geo-political setting, trade was often-and often rightly-viewed as trading with the enemy and discouraged by prohibitions and despoliations. Such dangers minimized commercial transit over the steppe route through the "nomad zone," despite its considerable logistical advantages: grasslands and water-sources stretching between Hungary and Manchuria supporting myriad potential transport and food animals. Instead, much if not most of the time, merchants preferred to risk desert travel, whose predictable hazards made commercial transit difficult, but also precluded nomad inhabitation and interference. Now, under the Mongols, commercial and other travelers could use both the steppe and the desert branches of the Silk Road. Plano Carpini and Rubruck, respectively spy and missionary, were taken by Mongol escorts over steppe routes, at paces that they found impressive and uncomfortable. They reported long days in the saddle, lots of trotting, and long daily distances covered, although the overall distances divided by the days of journeying mostly indicate an average pace of about 20 miles per day, which conforms to the distance between stages of the yam; on Rubruck's return trip, however, the daily average was 36 miles per day. The yam supported not only the pony express of the Mongol command and control system, but the merchant caravans that brought the qan and his court, and the establishments of the dynastic and military elite, the spoils of empire, and distributed the surplus luxury goods from the factories that catered to these Mongol grandees.
During the fifteenth century, European geographical speculation about ways to the Far East that would avoid hostile Muslims and unreliable nomads, was stimulated by the rediscovery and widespread publication of the second century Alexandrian geographer Ptolemy's Geographical Survey, which encouragingly, but incorrectly, asserted that the Ocean extended, uninterrupted, from the western shores of Europe to the coasts of East Asia, and helpfully, if mistakenly, calculated that the Oceanic share of the world's circumference (the world was, and long had been, generally known to be round) was about 180"-about 30%less than the actual distance. Even this reduced breadth of the ocean, however, was too much for any European ship to cover without reprovisioning. Christopher Columbus overcame this problem. Columbus had read, and become enthralled by, Marco Polo's stories, to the point of determining that, by whatever means necessary, he would plan a feasable voyage to East Asia and carry it out. His means involved selective adoption of miscalculations by various geographers that minimized the distance still more: a French astrologer gave the Ocean 135"; an Arab astronomer posited a shorter degree; and Columbus trimmed the Arab's figure by expressing it not in nautical miles, but in Roman, 20%shorter. This brought East Asia within range: about 2, 700 miles (the actual distance is around 13,000 miles.) Columbus was a lucky man. Following a tireless effort to find financing for his project, he succeeded in obtaining, over the objections of a scholarly advisory committee, funds for his intercontinental expedition from the Spanish royals. And fortunately for him, there was in fact another continent within range.
Thus the Mongols, and their best salesman, Marco Polo, turned out to be responsible, not only for revealing a Far Eastern world new to Europe, but for instigating the discovery-by mistake!-of another New World.
The following works are used as references.
Welcome to the First Issue! | Sheba@Saba-Trading.com: A Yemeni Trading Link Three Thousand Years Old | The Origin of Chess and the Silk Road | The Mongols and the Silk Road | Age of Mongolian Empire: A Bibliographical Essay | Lecture Summary:"Genesis of the Indo-Iranians: Archaeological and Linguistic Aspects" | Letters