NCERT Textbook - Nomadic Empires Humanities/Arts Notes | EduRev

History Class 11

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Humanities/Arts : NCERT Textbook - Nomadic Empires Humanities/Arts Notes | EduRev

 Page 1


104 THEMES IN WORLD HISTORY
NOMADIC EMPIRES
THE term ‘nomadic empires’ can appear contradictory:
nomads are arguably quintessential wanderers, organised
in family assemblies with a relatively undifferentiated
economic life and rudimentary systems of political
organisation. The term ‘empire’, on the other hand, carries
with it the sense of a material location, a stability derived
from complex social and economic structures and the
governance of an extensive territorial dominion through an
elaborate administrative system. But the juxtapositions on
which these definitions are framed may be too narrowly and
ahistorically conceived. They certainly collapse when we
study some imperial formations constructed by nomadic
groups.
In Theme 4 we studied state formations in the central
Islamic lands whose origins lay in the Bedouin nomadic
traditions of the Arabian peninsula. This chapter studies a
different group of nomads: the Mongols of Central Asia who
established a transcontinental empire under the leadership
of Genghis Khan, straddling Europe and Asia during the
thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Relative to the agrarian-
based imperial formations in China, the neighbouring nomads
of Mongolia may have inhabited a humbler, less complex,
social and economic world. But the Central Asian nomadic
societies were not insulated ‘islands’ that were impervious
to historical change. These societies interacted, had an impact
on and learnt from the larger world of which they were very
much a part.
This chapter studies the manner in which the Mongols
under Genghis Khan adapted their traditional social and
political customs to create a fearsome military machine and
a sophisticated method of governance. The challenge of ruling
a dominion spanning a melange of people, economies, and
confessional systems meant that the Mongols could not simply
impose their steppe traditions over their recently annexed
territories. They innovated and compromised, creating a
nomadic empire that had a huge impact on the history of
Eurasia even as it changed the character and composition of
their own society forever.
The steppe dwellers themselves usually produced no
literature, so our knowledge of nomadic societies comes
5
THEME
© NCERT
not to be republished
Page 2


104 THEMES IN WORLD HISTORY
NOMADIC EMPIRES
THE term ‘nomadic empires’ can appear contradictory:
nomads are arguably quintessential wanderers, organised
in family assemblies with a relatively undifferentiated
economic life and rudimentary systems of political
organisation. The term ‘empire’, on the other hand, carries
with it the sense of a material location, a stability derived
from complex social and economic structures and the
governance of an extensive territorial dominion through an
elaborate administrative system. But the juxtapositions on
which these definitions are framed may be too narrowly and
ahistorically conceived. They certainly collapse when we
study some imperial formations constructed by nomadic
groups.
In Theme 4 we studied state formations in the central
Islamic lands whose origins lay in the Bedouin nomadic
traditions of the Arabian peninsula. This chapter studies a
different group of nomads: the Mongols of Central Asia who
established a transcontinental empire under the leadership
of Genghis Khan, straddling Europe and Asia during the
thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Relative to the agrarian-
based imperial formations in China, the neighbouring nomads
of Mongolia may have inhabited a humbler, less complex,
social and economic world. But the Central Asian nomadic
societies were not insulated ‘islands’ that were impervious
to historical change. These societies interacted, had an impact
on and learnt from the larger world of which they were very
much a part.
This chapter studies the manner in which the Mongols
under Genghis Khan adapted their traditional social and
political customs to create a fearsome military machine and
a sophisticated method of governance. The challenge of ruling
a dominion spanning a melange of people, economies, and
confessional systems meant that the Mongols could not simply
impose their steppe traditions over their recently annexed
territories. They innovated and compromised, creating a
nomadic empire that had a huge impact on the history of
Eurasia even as it changed the character and composition of
their own society forever.
The steppe dwellers themselves usually produced no
literature, so our knowledge of nomadic societies comes
5
THEME
© NCERT
not to be republished
105
mainly from chronicles, travelogues and documents produced
by city-based litterateurs. These authors often produced
extremely ignorant and biased reports of nomadic life. The
imperial success of the Mongols, however, attracted many
literati. Some of them produced travelogues of their
experiences; others stayed to serve Mongol masters. These
individuals came from a variety of backgrounds – Buddhist,
Confucian, Christian, Turkish and Muslim. Although not
always familiar with Mongol customs, many of them produced
sympathetic accounts – even eulogies – that challenged and
complicated the otherwise hostile, city-based tirade against
the steppe marauders. The history of the Mongols, therefore,
provides interesting details to question the manner in which
sedentary societies usually characterised nomads as
primitive barbarians*.
Perhaps the most valuable research on the Mongols was
done by Russian scholars starting in the eighteenth and
nineteenth centuries as the Tsarist regime consolidated its
control over Central Asia. This work was produced within a
colonial milieu and was largely survey notes produced by
travellers, soldiers, merchants and antiquarian scholars. In
the early twentieth century, after the extension of the soviet
republics in the region, a new Marxist historiography argued
that the prevalent mode of production determined the nature
of social relations. It placed Genghis Khan and the emerging
Mongol empire within a scale of human evolution that was
witnessing a transition from a tribal to a feudal mode of
production: from a relatively classless society to one where
there were wide differences between the lord, the owners of
land and the peasant. Despite following such a deterministic
interpretation of history, excellent research on Mongol
languages, their society and culture was carried out by
scholars such as Boris Yakovlevich Vladimirtsov. Others such
as Vasily Vladimirovich Bartold did not quite toe the official
line. At a time when the Stalinist regime was extremely wary
of regional nationalism, Bartold’s sympathetic and positive
assessment of the career and achievements of the Mongols
under Genghis Khan and his successors got him into trouble
with the censors. It severely curtailed the circulation of the
work of the scholar and it was only in the 1960s, during and
after the more liberal Khruschev era, that his writings  were
published in nine volumes.
The transcontinental span of the Mongol empire also meant
that the sources available to scholars are written in a vast
number of languages. Perhaps the most crucial are the
sources in Chinese, Mongolian, Persian and Arabic, but vital
materials are also available in Italian, Latin, French and
Russian. Often the same text was produced in two languages
with differing contents. For example, the Mongolian and
Chinese versions of the earliest narrative on Genghis Khan,
titled Mongqol-un niuèa tobèa’an (The Secret History of the
*The term
‘barbarian’ is
derived from the
Greek barbaros
which meant a non-
Greek, someone
whose language
sounded like a
random noise: ‘bar-
bar’. In Greek texts,
barbarians were
depicted like
children, unable to
speak or reason
properly, cowardly,
effeminate,
luxurious, cruel,
slothful, greedy and
politically unable to
govern themselves.
The sterotype
passed to the
Romans who used
the term for the
Germanic tribes,
the Gauls and the
Huns. The Chinese
had different terms
for the steppe
barbarians but none
of them carried a
positive meaning.
NOMADIC EMPIRES
© NCERT
not to be republished
Page 3


104 THEMES IN WORLD HISTORY
NOMADIC EMPIRES
THE term ‘nomadic empires’ can appear contradictory:
nomads are arguably quintessential wanderers, organised
in family assemblies with a relatively undifferentiated
economic life and rudimentary systems of political
organisation. The term ‘empire’, on the other hand, carries
with it the sense of a material location, a stability derived
from complex social and economic structures and the
governance of an extensive territorial dominion through an
elaborate administrative system. But the juxtapositions on
which these definitions are framed may be too narrowly and
ahistorically conceived. They certainly collapse when we
study some imperial formations constructed by nomadic
groups.
In Theme 4 we studied state formations in the central
Islamic lands whose origins lay in the Bedouin nomadic
traditions of the Arabian peninsula. This chapter studies a
different group of nomads: the Mongols of Central Asia who
established a transcontinental empire under the leadership
of Genghis Khan, straddling Europe and Asia during the
thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Relative to the agrarian-
based imperial formations in China, the neighbouring nomads
of Mongolia may have inhabited a humbler, less complex,
social and economic world. But the Central Asian nomadic
societies were not insulated ‘islands’ that were impervious
to historical change. These societies interacted, had an impact
on and learnt from the larger world of which they were very
much a part.
This chapter studies the manner in which the Mongols
under Genghis Khan adapted their traditional social and
political customs to create a fearsome military machine and
a sophisticated method of governance. The challenge of ruling
a dominion spanning a melange of people, economies, and
confessional systems meant that the Mongols could not simply
impose their steppe traditions over their recently annexed
territories. They innovated and compromised, creating a
nomadic empire that had a huge impact on the history of
Eurasia even as it changed the character and composition of
their own society forever.
The steppe dwellers themselves usually produced no
literature, so our knowledge of nomadic societies comes
5
THEME
© NCERT
not to be republished
105
mainly from chronicles, travelogues and documents produced
by city-based litterateurs. These authors often produced
extremely ignorant and biased reports of nomadic life. The
imperial success of the Mongols, however, attracted many
literati. Some of them produced travelogues of their
experiences; others stayed to serve Mongol masters. These
individuals came from a variety of backgrounds – Buddhist,
Confucian, Christian, Turkish and Muslim. Although not
always familiar with Mongol customs, many of them produced
sympathetic accounts – even eulogies – that challenged and
complicated the otherwise hostile, city-based tirade against
the steppe marauders. The history of the Mongols, therefore,
provides interesting details to question the manner in which
sedentary societies usually characterised nomads as
primitive barbarians*.
Perhaps the most valuable research on the Mongols was
done by Russian scholars starting in the eighteenth and
nineteenth centuries as the Tsarist regime consolidated its
control over Central Asia. This work was produced within a
colonial milieu and was largely survey notes produced by
travellers, soldiers, merchants and antiquarian scholars. In
the early twentieth century, after the extension of the soviet
republics in the region, a new Marxist historiography argued
that the prevalent mode of production determined the nature
of social relations. It placed Genghis Khan and the emerging
Mongol empire within a scale of human evolution that was
witnessing a transition from a tribal to a feudal mode of
production: from a relatively classless society to one where
there were wide differences between the lord, the owners of
land and the peasant. Despite following such a deterministic
interpretation of history, excellent research on Mongol
languages, their society and culture was carried out by
scholars such as Boris Yakovlevich Vladimirtsov. Others such
as Vasily Vladimirovich Bartold did not quite toe the official
line. At a time when the Stalinist regime was extremely wary
of regional nationalism, Bartold’s sympathetic and positive
assessment of the career and achievements of the Mongols
under Genghis Khan and his successors got him into trouble
with the censors. It severely curtailed the circulation of the
work of the scholar and it was only in the 1960s, during and
after the more liberal Khruschev era, that his writings  were
published in nine volumes.
The transcontinental span of the Mongol empire also meant
that the sources available to scholars are written in a vast
number of languages. Perhaps the most crucial are the
sources in Chinese, Mongolian, Persian and Arabic, but vital
materials are also available in Italian, Latin, French and
Russian. Often the same text was produced in two languages
with differing contents. For example, the Mongolian and
Chinese versions of the earliest narrative on Genghis Khan,
titled Mongqol-un niuèa tobèa’an (The Secret History of the
*The term
‘barbarian’ is
derived from the
Greek barbaros
which meant a non-
Greek, someone
whose language
sounded like a
random noise: ‘bar-
bar’. In Greek texts,
barbarians were
depicted like
children, unable to
speak or reason
properly, cowardly,
effeminate,
luxurious, cruel,
slothful, greedy and
politically unable to
govern themselves.
The sterotype
passed to the
Romans who used
the term for the
Germanic tribes,
the Gauls and the
Huns. The Chinese
had different terms
for the steppe
barbarians but none
of them carried a
positive meaning.
NOMADIC EMPIRES
© NCERT
not to be republished
106 THEMES IN WORLD HISTORY
Mongols) are quite different and the Italian and Latin versions
of Marco Polo’s travels to the Mongol court do not match.
Since the Mongols produced little literature on their own and
were instead ‘written about’ by literati from foreign cultural
milieus, historians have to often double as philologists to
pick out the meanings of phrases for their closest
approximation to Mongol usage. The work of scholars like
Igor de Rachewiltz on The Secret History of the Mongols and
Gerhard Doerfer on Mongol and Turkic terminologies that
infiltrated into the Persian language brings out the difficulties
involved in studying the history of the Central Asian nomads.
As we will notice through the remainder of this chapter,
despite their incredible achievements there is much about
Genghis Khan and the Mongol world empire still awaiting
the diligent scholar’s scrutiny.
Introduction
In the early decades of the thirteenth century the great empires of the
Euro-Asian continent realised the dangers posed to them by the arrival
of a new political power in the steppes of Central Asia: Genghis Khan
(d. 1227) had united the Mongol people. Genghis Khan’s political vision,
however, went far beyond the creation of a confederacy of Mongol
MAP 1: The Mongol
Empire
© NCERT
not to be republished
Page 4


104 THEMES IN WORLD HISTORY
NOMADIC EMPIRES
THE term ‘nomadic empires’ can appear contradictory:
nomads are arguably quintessential wanderers, organised
in family assemblies with a relatively undifferentiated
economic life and rudimentary systems of political
organisation. The term ‘empire’, on the other hand, carries
with it the sense of a material location, a stability derived
from complex social and economic structures and the
governance of an extensive territorial dominion through an
elaborate administrative system. But the juxtapositions on
which these definitions are framed may be too narrowly and
ahistorically conceived. They certainly collapse when we
study some imperial formations constructed by nomadic
groups.
In Theme 4 we studied state formations in the central
Islamic lands whose origins lay in the Bedouin nomadic
traditions of the Arabian peninsula. This chapter studies a
different group of nomads: the Mongols of Central Asia who
established a transcontinental empire under the leadership
of Genghis Khan, straddling Europe and Asia during the
thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Relative to the agrarian-
based imperial formations in China, the neighbouring nomads
of Mongolia may have inhabited a humbler, less complex,
social and economic world. But the Central Asian nomadic
societies were not insulated ‘islands’ that were impervious
to historical change. These societies interacted, had an impact
on and learnt from the larger world of which they were very
much a part.
This chapter studies the manner in which the Mongols
under Genghis Khan adapted their traditional social and
political customs to create a fearsome military machine and
a sophisticated method of governance. The challenge of ruling
a dominion spanning a melange of people, economies, and
confessional systems meant that the Mongols could not simply
impose their steppe traditions over their recently annexed
territories. They innovated and compromised, creating a
nomadic empire that had a huge impact on the history of
Eurasia even as it changed the character and composition of
their own society forever.
The steppe dwellers themselves usually produced no
literature, so our knowledge of nomadic societies comes
5
THEME
© NCERT
not to be republished
105
mainly from chronicles, travelogues and documents produced
by city-based litterateurs. These authors often produced
extremely ignorant and biased reports of nomadic life. The
imperial success of the Mongols, however, attracted many
literati. Some of them produced travelogues of their
experiences; others stayed to serve Mongol masters. These
individuals came from a variety of backgrounds – Buddhist,
Confucian, Christian, Turkish and Muslim. Although not
always familiar with Mongol customs, many of them produced
sympathetic accounts – even eulogies – that challenged and
complicated the otherwise hostile, city-based tirade against
the steppe marauders. The history of the Mongols, therefore,
provides interesting details to question the manner in which
sedentary societies usually characterised nomads as
primitive barbarians*.
Perhaps the most valuable research on the Mongols was
done by Russian scholars starting in the eighteenth and
nineteenth centuries as the Tsarist regime consolidated its
control over Central Asia. This work was produced within a
colonial milieu and was largely survey notes produced by
travellers, soldiers, merchants and antiquarian scholars. In
the early twentieth century, after the extension of the soviet
republics in the region, a new Marxist historiography argued
that the prevalent mode of production determined the nature
of social relations. It placed Genghis Khan and the emerging
Mongol empire within a scale of human evolution that was
witnessing a transition from a tribal to a feudal mode of
production: from a relatively classless society to one where
there were wide differences between the lord, the owners of
land and the peasant. Despite following such a deterministic
interpretation of history, excellent research on Mongol
languages, their society and culture was carried out by
scholars such as Boris Yakovlevich Vladimirtsov. Others such
as Vasily Vladimirovich Bartold did not quite toe the official
line. At a time when the Stalinist regime was extremely wary
of regional nationalism, Bartold’s sympathetic and positive
assessment of the career and achievements of the Mongols
under Genghis Khan and his successors got him into trouble
with the censors. It severely curtailed the circulation of the
work of the scholar and it was only in the 1960s, during and
after the more liberal Khruschev era, that his writings  were
published in nine volumes.
The transcontinental span of the Mongol empire also meant
that the sources available to scholars are written in a vast
number of languages. Perhaps the most crucial are the
sources in Chinese, Mongolian, Persian and Arabic, but vital
materials are also available in Italian, Latin, French and
Russian. Often the same text was produced in two languages
with differing contents. For example, the Mongolian and
Chinese versions of the earliest narrative on Genghis Khan,
titled Mongqol-un niuèa tobèa’an (The Secret History of the
*The term
‘barbarian’ is
derived from the
Greek barbaros
which meant a non-
Greek, someone
whose language
sounded like a
random noise: ‘bar-
bar’. In Greek texts,
barbarians were
depicted like
children, unable to
speak or reason
properly, cowardly,
effeminate,
luxurious, cruel,
slothful, greedy and
politically unable to
govern themselves.
The sterotype
passed to the
Romans who used
the term for the
Germanic tribes,
the Gauls and the
Huns. The Chinese
had different terms
for the steppe
barbarians but none
of them carried a
positive meaning.
NOMADIC EMPIRES
© NCERT
not to be republished
106 THEMES IN WORLD HISTORY
Mongols) are quite different and the Italian and Latin versions
of Marco Polo’s travels to the Mongol court do not match.
Since the Mongols produced little literature on their own and
were instead ‘written about’ by literati from foreign cultural
milieus, historians have to often double as philologists to
pick out the meanings of phrases for their closest
approximation to Mongol usage. The work of scholars like
Igor de Rachewiltz on The Secret History of the Mongols and
Gerhard Doerfer on Mongol and Turkic terminologies that
infiltrated into the Persian language brings out the difficulties
involved in studying the history of the Central Asian nomads.
As we will notice through the remainder of this chapter,
despite their incredible achievements there is much about
Genghis Khan and the Mongol world empire still awaiting
the diligent scholar’s scrutiny.
Introduction
In the early decades of the thirteenth century the great empires of the
Euro-Asian continent realised the dangers posed to them by the arrival
of a new political power in the steppes of Central Asia: Genghis Khan
(d. 1227) had united the Mongol people. Genghis Khan’s political vision,
however, went far beyond the creation of a confederacy of Mongol
MAP 1: The Mongol
Empire
© NCERT
not to be republished
107
tribes in the steppes of Central Asia: he had a mandate from God to
rule the world. Even though his own lifetime was spent consolidating
his hold over the Mongol tribes, leading and directing campaigns into
adjoining areas in north China, Transoxiana, Afghanistan, eastern
Iran and the Russian steppes, his descendants travelled further afield
to fulfil Genghis Khan’s vision and create the largest empire the world
had ever seen.
It was in the spirit of Genghis Khan’s ideals that his grandson Mongke
(1251-60) warned the French ruler, Louis IX (1226-70): ‘In Heaven
there is only one Eternal Sky, on Earth there is only one Lord, Genghis
Khan, the Son of Heaven…  When by the power of the Eternal Heaven
the whole world from the rising of the sun to its setting shall be at one
in joy and peace, then it will be made clear what we are going to do: if
when you have understood the decree of the Eternal Heaven, you are
unwilling to pay attention and believe it, saying, “Our country is far
away, our mountains are mighty, our sea is vast”, and in this confidence
you bring an army against us, we know what we can do. He who made
easy what was difficult and near what was far off, the Eternal Heaven
knows.’
These were not empty threats and the 1236-41 campaigns of Batu,
another grandson of Genghis Khan, devastated Russian lands up to
Moscow, seized Poland and Hungary and camped outside Vienna. In
the thirteenth century it did seem that the Eternal Sky was on the side
of the Mongols and many parts of China, the Middle East and Europe
saw in Genghis Khan’s conquests of the inhabited world the ‘wrath of
God’, the beginning of the Day of Judgement.
The Capture of Bukhara
Juwaini, a late-thirteenth-century Persian chronicler of the Mongol
rulers of Iran, carried an account of the capture of Bukhara in 1220.
After the conquest of the city, Juwaini reported, Genghis Khan went
to the festival ground where the rich residents of the city were and
addressed them: ‘O’ people know that you have committed great
sins, and that the great ones among you have committed these sins.
If you ask me what proof I have for these words, I say it is because I
am the punishment of God. If you had not committed great sins,
God would not have sent a punishment like me upon you’… Now
one man had escaped from Bukhara after its capture and had come
to Khurasan. He was questioned about the fate of the city and
replied: ‘They came, they [mined the walls], they burnt, they slew,
they plundered and they departed.’
How did the Mongols create an empire that dwarfed the achievements
of the other ‘World Conqueror’, Alexander? In a pre-industrial age of
ACTIVITY 1
Assume that
Juwaini’s
account of the
capture of
Bukhara is
accurate.
Imagine yourself
as a resident of
Bukhara and
Khurasan who
heard the
speeches. What
impact would
they have had
on you?
NOMADIC EMPIRES
© NCERT
not to be republished
Page 5


104 THEMES IN WORLD HISTORY
NOMADIC EMPIRES
THE term ‘nomadic empires’ can appear contradictory:
nomads are arguably quintessential wanderers, organised
in family assemblies with a relatively undifferentiated
economic life and rudimentary systems of political
organisation. The term ‘empire’, on the other hand, carries
with it the sense of a material location, a stability derived
from complex social and economic structures and the
governance of an extensive territorial dominion through an
elaborate administrative system. But the juxtapositions on
which these definitions are framed may be too narrowly and
ahistorically conceived. They certainly collapse when we
study some imperial formations constructed by nomadic
groups.
In Theme 4 we studied state formations in the central
Islamic lands whose origins lay in the Bedouin nomadic
traditions of the Arabian peninsula. This chapter studies a
different group of nomads: the Mongols of Central Asia who
established a transcontinental empire under the leadership
of Genghis Khan, straddling Europe and Asia during the
thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Relative to the agrarian-
based imperial formations in China, the neighbouring nomads
of Mongolia may have inhabited a humbler, less complex,
social and economic world. But the Central Asian nomadic
societies were not insulated ‘islands’ that were impervious
to historical change. These societies interacted, had an impact
on and learnt from the larger world of which they were very
much a part.
This chapter studies the manner in which the Mongols
under Genghis Khan adapted their traditional social and
political customs to create a fearsome military machine and
a sophisticated method of governance. The challenge of ruling
a dominion spanning a melange of people, economies, and
confessional systems meant that the Mongols could not simply
impose their steppe traditions over their recently annexed
territories. They innovated and compromised, creating a
nomadic empire that had a huge impact on the history of
Eurasia even as it changed the character and composition of
their own society forever.
The steppe dwellers themselves usually produced no
literature, so our knowledge of nomadic societies comes
5
THEME
© NCERT
not to be republished
105
mainly from chronicles, travelogues and documents produced
by city-based litterateurs. These authors often produced
extremely ignorant and biased reports of nomadic life. The
imperial success of the Mongols, however, attracted many
literati. Some of them produced travelogues of their
experiences; others stayed to serve Mongol masters. These
individuals came from a variety of backgrounds – Buddhist,
Confucian, Christian, Turkish and Muslim. Although not
always familiar with Mongol customs, many of them produced
sympathetic accounts – even eulogies – that challenged and
complicated the otherwise hostile, city-based tirade against
the steppe marauders. The history of the Mongols, therefore,
provides interesting details to question the manner in which
sedentary societies usually characterised nomads as
primitive barbarians*.
Perhaps the most valuable research on the Mongols was
done by Russian scholars starting in the eighteenth and
nineteenth centuries as the Tsarist regime consolidated its
control over Central Asia. This work was produced within a
colonial milieu and was largely survey notes produced by
travellers, soldiers, merchants and antiquarian scholars. In
the early twentieth century, after the extension of the soviet
republics in the region, a new Marxist historiography argued
that the prevalent mode of production determined the nature
of social relations. It placed Genghis Khan and the emerging
Mongol empire within a scale of human evolution that was
witnessing a transition from a tribal to a feudal mode of
production: from a relatively classless society to one where
there were wide differences between the lord, the owners of
land and the peasant. Despite following such a deterministic
interpretation of history, excellent research on Mongol
languages, their society and culture was carried out by
scholars such as Boris Yakovlevich Vladimirtsov. Others such
as Vasily Vladimirovich Bartold did not quite toe the official
line. At a time when the Stalinist regime was extremely wary
of regional nationalism, Bartold’s sympathetic and positive
assessment of the career and achievements of the Mongols
under Genghis Khan and his successors got him into trouble
with the censors. It severely curtailed the circulation of the
work of the scholar and it was only in the 1960s, during and
after the more liberal Khruschev era, that his writings  were
published in nine volumes.
The transcontinental span of the Mongol empire also meant
that the sources available to scholars are written in a vast
number of languages. Perhaps the most crucial are the
sources in Chinese, Mongolian, Persian and Arabic, but vital
materials are also available in Italian, Latin, French and
Russian. Often the same text was produced in two languages
with differing contents. For example, the Mongolian and
Chinese versions of the earliest narrative on Genghis Khan,
titled Mongqol-un niuèa tobèa’an (The Secret History of the
*The term
‘barbarian’ is
derived from the
Greek barbaros
which meant a non-
Greek, someone
whose language
sounded like a
random noise: ‘bar-
bar’. In Greek texts,
barbarians were
depicted like
children, unable to
speak or reason
properly, cowardly,
effeminate,
luxurious, cruel,
slothful, greedy and
politically unable to
govern themselves.
The sterotype
passed to the
Romans who used
the term for the
Germanic tribes,
the Gauls and the
Huns. The Chinese
had different terms
for the steppe
barbarians but none
of them carried a
positive meaning.
NOMADIC EMPIRES
© NCERT
not to be republished
106 THEMES IN WORLD HISTORY
Mongols) are quite different and the Italian and Latin versions
of Marco Polo’s travels to the Mongol court do not match.
Since the Mongols produced little literature on their own and
were instead ‘written about’ by literati from foreign cultural
milieus, historians have to often double as philologists to
pick out the meanings of phrases for their closest
approximation to Mongol usage. The work of scholars like
Igor de Rachewiltz on The Secret History of the Mongols and
Gerhard Doerfer on Mongol and Turkic terminologies that
infiltrated into the Persian language brings out the difficulties
involved in studying the history of the Central Asian nomads.
As we will notice through the remainder of this chapter,
despite their incredible achievements there is much about
Genghis Khan and the Mongol world empire still awaiting
the diligent scholar’s scrutiny.
Introduction
In the early decades of the thirteenth century the great empires of the
Euro-Asian continent realised the dangers posed to them by the arrival
of a new political power in the steppes of Central Asia: Genghis Khan
(d. 1227) had united the Mongol people. Genghis Khan’s political vision,
however, went far beyond the creation of a confederacy of Mongol
MAP 1: The Mongol
Empire
© NCERT
not to be republished
107
tribes in the steppes of Central Asia: he had a mandate from God to
rule the world. Even though his own lifetime was spent consolidating
his hold over the Mongol tribes, leading and directing campaigns into
adjoining areas in north China, Transoxiana, Afghanistan, eastern
Iran and the Russian steppes, his descendants travelled further afield
to fulfil Genghis Khan’s vision and create the largest empire the world
had ever seen.
It was in the spirit of Genghis Khan’s ideals that his grandson Mongke
(1251-60) warned the French ruler, Louis IX (1226-70): ‘In Heaven
there is only one Eternal Sky, on Earth there is only one Lord, Genghis
Khan, the Son of Heaven…  When by the power of the Eternal Heaven
the whole world from the rising of the sun to its setting shall be at one
in joy and peace, then it will be made clear what we are going to do: if
when you have understood the decree of the Eternal Heaven, you are
unwilling to pay attention and believe it, saying, “Our country is far
away, our mountains are mighty, our sea is vast”, and in this confidence
you bring an army against us, we know what we can do. He who made
easy what was difficult and near what was far off, the Eternal Heaven
knows.’
These were not empty threats and the 1236-41 campaigns of Batu,
another grandson of Genghis Khan, devastated Russian lands up to
Moscow, seized Poland and Hungary and camped outside Vienna. In
the thirteenth century it did seem that the Eternal Sky was on the side
of the Mongols and many parts of China, the Middle East and Europe
saw in Genghis Khan’s conquests of the inhabited world the ‘wrath of
God’, the beginning of the Day of Judgement.
The Capture of Bukhara
Juwaini, a late-thirteenth-century Persian chronicler of the Mongol
rulers of Iran, carried an account of the capture of Bukhara in 1220.
After the conquest of the city, Juwaini reported, Genghis Khan went
to the festival ground where the rich residents of the city were and
addressed them: ‘O’ people know that you have committed great
sins, and that the great ones among you have committed these sins.
If you ask me what proof I have for these words, I say it is because I
am the punishment of God. If you had not committed great sins,
God would not have sent a punishment like me upon you’… Now
one man had escaped from Bukhara after its capture and had come
to Khurasan. He was questioned about the fate of the city and
replied: ‘They came, they [mined the walls], they burnt, they slew,
they plundered and they departed.’
How did the Mongols create an empire that dwarfed the achievements
of the other ‘World Conqueror’, Alexander? In a pre-industrial age of
ACTIVITY 1
Assume that
Juwaini’s
account of the
capture of
Bukhara is
accurate.
Imagine yourself
as a resident of
Bukhara and
Khurasan who
heard the
speeches. What
impact would
they have had
on you?
NOMADIC EMPIRES
© NCERT
not to be republished
108 THEMES IN WORLD HISTORY
poor technological communications, what skills were deployed by the
Mongols to administer and control such a vast dominion? For someone
so self-confidently aware of his moral, divinely-dispensed right to rule,
how did Genghis Khan relate to the diverse social and religious groups
that comprised his dominion? In the making of his imperium what
happened to this plurality? We need to start our discussion, however,
with a humbler set of questions to better comprehend the social and
political background of the Mongols and Genghis Khan: who were the
Mongols? Where did they live? Who did they interact with and how do
we know about their society and politics?
Social and Political Background
The Mongols were a diverse body of people, linked by similarities of language
to the Tatars, Khitan and Manchus to the east, and the Turkic tribes to
the west. Some of the Mongols were pastoralists while others were hunter-
gatherers. The pastoralists tended horses, sheep and, to a lesser extent,
cattle, goats and camels. They nomadised in the steppes of Central Asia
in a tract of land in the area of the modern state of Mongolia. This was
(and still is) a majestic landscape with wide horizons, rolling plains, ringed
by the snow-capped Altai mountains to the west, the arid Gobi desert in
the south and drained by the Onon and Selenga rivers and myriad springs
from the melting snows of the hills in the north and the west. Lush,
luxuriant grasses for pasture and considerable small game were available
in a good season. The hunter-gatherers resided to the north of the
Onon river plain in
flood.
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