NCERT Textbook - Nomadic Empires Humanities/Arts Notes | EduRev

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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 ‘noma1dic 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
2020-21
Page 2


104 THEMES IN WORLD HISTORY
NOMADIC EMPIRES
THE term ‘noma1dic 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
2020-21
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
2020-21
Page 3


104 THEMES IN WORLD HISTORY
NOMADIC EMPIRES
THE term ‘noma1dic 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
2020-21
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
2020-21
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
2020-21
Page 4


104 THEMES IN WORLD HISTORY
NOMADIC EMPIRES
THE term ‘noma1dic 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
2020-21
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
2020-21
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
2020-21
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
2020-21
Page 5


104 THEMES IN WORLD HISTORY
NOMADIC EMPIRES
THE term ‘noma1dic 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
2020-21
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
2020-21
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
2020-21
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
2020-21
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.
2020-21
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