What maketh a durable empire, and why did that of the Mongols disintegrate so completely?


            The Mongol Empire initiated by Genghis Khan was the largest ever (in land area) in recorded history.  Beginning in the Mongol heartland north of China, it grew to encompass that ancient Middle Kingdom, along with Russia, parts of modern-day eastern Europe, Persia, Iraq, northern India, and Central Asia (what now constitute the Turkish republics of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and other states in the region).  The Mongols seemed at times to be a virtually invincible force, and the human typhoon unleashed by Genghis would radically and permanently alter the civilizations of Eurasia, destroying a Chinese dynasty, the Abbasid Caliphate in Baghdad, the Kievan Rus civilization of Russia, and many other societies that had persisted for centuries before.  Yet after about a century or so, the great Mongol expanse had nearly crumbled, both as a unified political entity and even as a cultural sphere of influence.  Today, the Mongol political entity—as well as its language and culture—is limited, practically, to the original Gobi Desert expanse from which Genghis emerged in the first place.  What happened?  Some empires left significant and longstanding cultural, administrative, religious, and linguistic realms in the wake of their military conquests.  Most did not, including that of the mighty nomadic warriors of the 13th and 14th centuries.  Why was the Mongol collapse so complete, and why do so few empires actually leave a cultural imprint in their wake?  As will be discussed here, a successful empire requires not only sustained military strength but a reliable and trusted administrative presence in the conquered territories, an economy that thrives enough to enable the conquered peoples to share in it, and—perhaps most crucially—a vigorous cultural presence that fires the minds and imaginations of the people within the empire’s geographic expanse. 

            The three most influential imperial realms in history—the Roman, Chinese, and medieval Arab empires—combined all these factors to exert a powerful long-term impact, but most crucially they were triumphant in the realm of ideas.  The Romans boasted not only tough legionnaires on the battlefield and masterful engineers of roads, aqueducts, and bridges; they also offered compelling philosophies, the poetry of Virgil, Ovid, and Horace, and eventually—and most importantly—the religious magnet of Christianity.  The Arabs of the 7th century markedly resembled the Mongols of the 13th and 14th centuries in their unanticipated and dramatic military prowess, a group of nomads seemingly springing out of nowhere to conquer much of the ancient Byzantine and Persian civilizations.  Unlike the Mongols, however, the Arabs carried with them the cultural standard of the Islamic faith.  Without that, the Arabs would probably have become like the Mongols and Vikings, gradually absorbed into the cultures of the areas which they raided and conquered; instead, they became the vectors of a powerful cultural force that today boasts over a billion adherents, with most in South and East Asia, far away from the creed’s homeland.  As for the Chinese, their battlefield accomplishments over centuries of dynasties were no mean feats, but far more important was their remarkably solid yet adaptable bureaucratic state, and the Taoist/Confucianist cultural colossus that would powerfully imbue much of East Asia.  It is a testament to the fortitude and resilience of that culture that the Mongols and another nomadic tribe—the Manchus—conquered the Chinese state military, only to find themselves conquered by its culture in turn.  Economically China has dominated the world for many centuries and did so well into the 19th; it may well do again quite soon in our own.  This article examines these issues in depth, commencing with the reasons for the Mongol collapse after a period of such power and dominance.


(1) Military defeats and the Mamluks


            One reason for the Mongol failure, which must be acknowledged, was the old-fashioned battlefield setback—and the Mongols suffered some severe ones after their 4-decade long heyday in the mid-13th century.  The context here is crucial.  Genghis’s forces endured defeat at the hands of the Khwarizm Empire in East Central Asia, a setback that ultimately proved to be temporary.  (Jalal al-Din, the Khwarizm prince who cleverly vanquished the Mongol Khan’s armies, was reportedly so respected by Genghis that the Khan strictly prohibited his archers from killing al-Din while the latter was fleeing a Mongol sortie.)  Genghis’s son Ogotai (or Ogedei) sent his brilliant general, Sabotai, to conquer Russia and to threaten the frontiers of Europe itself, crushing resistance in Hungary and Poland while suffering only minor defeats at the hands of mercenary forces in the region.  The European invasion was halted only by the death of Ogotai, who was said to be a bit too fond of the bottle and perished in a drunken stupor.  Leadership then devolved to Mongke, a grandson of Genghis, who dispatched his brothers Kublai and Hulegu on eastward and westward invasions, respectively, to face the Mongols’ toughest opponents; another sibling, Berke Khan, took control of the “Golden Horde” subdivision in Russia.  Berke converted to Islam—a development that would have fateful consequences for the Mongol Empire as a whole.  In any case, Hulegu and his general Kit-Boqa pushed furiously westward, destroying the Assassin civilization of Persia and then terminating the Abbasid Caliphate with the brutal sack and pillage of Baghdad in 1258, killing the Muslim caliph and ruining the city’s libraries and its ancient irrigation structures.  The city’s inhabitants were put to the sword en masse before an additional victory to the west at Damascus, destroying the Ayyubid Caliphate. The Mongols appeared to be unstoppable, never having failed in a major confrontation.  Then something bizarre transpired in 1260—the Mongols lost.

            The only land army capable of challenging the Mongols was the Mamluk state of Egypt.  The Mamluks (or Mamelukes) were Turkish boys abducted into servitude, then raised to be professional soldiers.  The corrupt Ayyubids in Egypt got a bit more than they bargained for in their professional bodyguard; the Mamluks became so powerful that they overthrew their overlords and ruled in their own right.  As seemingly invincible as the Mongols often appeared, the Mamluks were human buzzsaws, peers of the Mongols in archery, cavalry attacks, and intelligence-gathering, and even superior to the nomadic invaders in communications tactics and grand strategy.  The Mamluks’ clever tactics were oddly reminiscent of those boasted by Genghis’s forces themselves, yet the Egyptian warrior dynasty demonstrated a level of ingenuity that not even the constantly inventive Mongol hordes could match.  They also caught a massive break.  Mongke had joined in combat with Kublai in the East, but the Chinese Song Dynasty forces retaliated against the Mongol siege with a surprise maneuver that cut off Mongke and his battalions from their supply lines; the Great Khan died of dysentery in 1260.  There was now a succession struggle, and the Muslim khan Berke—furious at Hulegu for his plundering of Baghdad—opposed both Hulegu and Kublai.  He menaced Hulegu’s troops with his own Golden Horde forces, obliging Hulegu to divert a portion of his force northward temporarily.  While they did not clash with each other, the Mamluks—always crafty about exploiting opportunities—gathered intelligence and designed a chain of signal fires to prepare for an offensive against the Mongols, who were then in Syria.  At the optimal moment, the Mamluks—led by masterful generals, Qutuz and Baibars—surprised and assaulted the Mongol flank.  The Mamluks protected their horses with shoes to shield against the harsh desert surface (a failure on the Mongols’ part), and they used one of the Mongols’ own time-honored tactics—the feigned retreat—against them.  At the Battle of Ayn-Jalut, the Mamluks ultimately routed the Mongols, and in succeeding encounters they crushed and expelled the Mongols from Syria altogether.  This defeat was crucial, since it deprived Hulegu of a geographical power base in the Mediterranean that would have enabled an invasion of Constantinople and Europe and, furthermore, maintained the political strength of the Islamic state, which would translate into the assimilative cultural influence that would be the undoing of the Mongols in the Il-Khanate—the state founded by Hulegu. 

            While Ayn Jalut was the most severe defeat endured by the Mongols, it was not the only one.  After Kublai Khan’s conquest of China, he discovered that the Mongols, no matter what their mastery of the open plains, were confounded when the terrain did not favor horses roaming on a wide range.  Kublai’s forces were crushed in invasions of Japan, Vietnam, and Java, owing in large part to their inability to master naval warfare and the jungle terrain of southeast Asia and the islands.  These reversals further attenuated their military predominance, paving the way for their eventual overthrow in China and elsewhere.


(2) Lack of cultural cohesiveness


Successful and durable empires like those of the Romans, Macedonians, Chinese, Persians, and Muslim Arabs fused military vigor with a cultural dynamism, a collection of ideas—religious, philosophical, or otherwise—that took hold and gradually assimilated the conquered peoples.  Instead, the Mongols—like the Germanic conquerors of the Western Roman Empire in the fifth century A.D., or the Vikings from the 8th to the 11th centuries—were absorbed and assimilated into the great cultures which they conquered.  The Mongol cultural identity depended on its adherence to the traditional nomadic lifestyle and shamanism of the East Asian and Central Asian steppes; this identity was diluted and ultimately broken by the cultural centripetal force of the ancient, settled societies of which the Mongols assumed control.  As noted above, one of the reasons for Hulegu’s eventual failure at Ayn Jalut was his brother’s conversion to Islam, which sapped the empire’s unity and ultimately engendered its fragmentation.  The leaders of the Il-Khanate, founded by Hulegu, began to feud with Berke’s Golden Horde, until even the Il-Khans became Muslims themselves.  A similar pattern was observed for the Chagatai Khanate in Central Asia.  Ultimately, all three of those Khanates were rendered prostrate by—ironically—yet another Turko-Mongol leader claiming descent from Genghis Khan, Timur (or Tamerlane, in Europe).   Kublai’s Mongol cohorts became enthralled by the ancient and extraordinary civilization of the Chinese, until the peasantry were ultimately able to overthrow their nomadic masters in the 1300s, with the founding of the Ming Dynasty. 


(3) Failures of political organization


As depicted above, the Mongols very nearly nipped Europe’s fledgling Renaissance civilization in the bud, with Sabotai’s soldiers knocking on the door of Europe’s cities.  Undoubtedly, the novel terrain of the European lands (and the relative scarcity of pasture lands for the Mongol ponies) presented a tactical challenge to further westward advance, but the Mongol armies had demonstrated their nimble military agility in many cases before.  On the brink of at a significant push into Europe, and perhaps a Charlemagne-like conquest of the Continent’s central plains and riverbanks, the Mongols simply withdrew upon the death of Ogotai.  Their political organization required their military leaders to withdraw to Karakoram, the Mongol capital, upon the death of a Great Khan, even if they were on the brink of a major victory—their system omitted mechanisms to smoothly transfer power while maintaining operations in the field.  Hulegu’s armies suffered a similar fate upon Mongke’s demise in 1260.  As with many empires, the various Khanates soon began to succumb to internecine warfare, as succession disputes imperiled the fragile unity of the political organisms stretching across the vast realms once under the control of the Mongol hordes.  The Roman, Chinese, Persian, and Arab empires—in addition to cultural ascendancy—also possessed a solid political and administrative core even during periods of persistent division, and were thus able to succeed in the difficult transition from military conquest to cohesive political unit.  The founder of the Roman Empire, Augustus Caesar, and his Chinese counterpart—Qin Shi Huangdi—were vigorous administrators in addition to military expansionists (the Qin Dynasty in China had unified the country in the first place), and this kinetic administrative vigor infused their societies with a durability lacking in the Mongol realms.


(4) Turkish, Chinese, and Russian resurgence


The Mongol assaults decimated the civilizations of the Turks, Chinese, and Russians, but their eventual recovery in the next century would be the nail in the coffin of the Mongol Empire.  The Turks were displaced throughout Central Asia by the Mongol drive—analogous to the migrations of the Ostrogoths and Visigoths in the face of Attila’s Huns in the 5th century.  As centralized Mongol power began to diminish, and effective power over subject peoples dwindled, the Turks began to organize into powerful societies themselves.  Eventually, with the foundation of the Ottoman Turkish Empire by Osman, the power of the Il-Khanate and Chagatai Khanate were challenged and, ultimately, overcome.  The Chinese would do the most direct damage to the Mongol Empires.  Upon the overthrow of Kublai’s Yuan Dynasty and the restoration of a native Chinese government (the Mings), the Chinese turned the tables on their tormentors and invaded Karakoram, the Mongol capital, brutally sacking the city and thoroughly dismantling the Mongol political structure there.  The Ming invaders also introduced a pacifistic form of Buddhism into the Mongolian heartland, curtailing any future Genghis Khans from uniting the nomadic clans into an invasion force.  The Golden Horde in Russia would hold out the longest of any of the Khanates, into the 15th century, owing in large part to its members’ capacity to maintain their nomadic existence on the Central Asian steppes.  Eventually, however, the Russians would strike back against their perceived oppressors.  Mikhail Donskoy won an early battle against the Mongols in the 13th century, inspiring the Russians with a successful demonstration of force against the Khans.  Later, enfeebled by the bloody attacks of Timur, the Golden Horde managed to reconstitute itself but with a less centralized power structure in the Russian steppe plains during the 14th century.  Finally, in the 1400s, the Horde was challenged by Ivan IV, a Grand Duke of Moscow who refused to render tribute.  The Mongols responded angrily to Ivan’s defiance but were unable to defeat the Duke’s forces.  Finally, Tsar Ivan V—the Terrible—swept into the Golden Horde’s territory, smashing them on their own lands and annexing them.  Attenuated by internal divisions and reeling from Ivan’s inexorable push, the Golden Horde crumbled.


Some perspective should be maintained here, of course—the Mongols conquered such an enormous span of territory by the latter portion of Mongke’s reign, that it’s doubtful anybody could have held it as an integrated political unit.  And, of course, the Mongol rule was seminal and important in the way that it opened trade routes between Europe and Asia and facilitated the transmission of ideas and goods from the East.  Travelers in Mongol lands could traverse large expanses with little fear of highwaymen or bandits, and well-constructed Mongol roads facilitated the rise of an itinerant merchant class.  The Mongols invented an early form of the Pony Express to transmit messages rapidly on horseback, and Kublai, despite the brutality of his conquest of Song China, proved to be a benevolent ruler once he took the reins.  He helped to centralize and redistribute the food supply, as well as to promote road and canal construction so as to promote China’s urbanization, while opening the Chinese civilization up to the cosmopolitan influences of the Mongols’ vast realms.  It could be fairly argued, ironically, that China emerged quite strengthened and modernized following the period of Mongol Yuan Dynasty rule; the Chinese state in its wake was both unified and vigorous, promoting maritime exploration and increased trade.  The Mongol movements would also be fundamental in the chain of events that would engender the Mughal Empire in India (“Mughal” or “Mogul” derives from “Mongol”), the Ottoman Turkish state in the Middle East and Europe, even the Russian tsarist government, which rooted itself both in the Roman/Byzantine imperial system and the Mongol Khanates.  Nevertheless, the rapid collapse of the Mongol imperium ensued only about a century after its hordes swept across the grasslands of Eurasia.  While military failures figured into this, the lack of an effective cultural, political, and administrative structure was most responsible for the tenuous nature of the Khans’ extraordinary conquests.  It shows, if anything, that conquest may be the easy part; consolidation is the true challenge.


n      Wes Ulm


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