The Decline of the Mongol Empire

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The Decline of the Mongol Empire
Even good empires collapse. Some would say no empire has ever been “good” since empires arise through the expansionist policies of conquerors, but nearly all empires have brought some good. A few have brought great good. Even the bloody and brutal expansion of the Mongol Empire led ultimately to peace and trade over the largest contiguous land mass ever controlled by one people and to what one historian has called, “the making of the modern world.” The vision of Genghis Khan, however, was not to last. His desire to create a universal culture of pure Mongol living dissipated during the reign of his immediate successor, Ogedei. The Mongol Empire, like all empires, collapsed through overexpansion and the tragic flaws of its original culture. The question is still debated whether or not the Mongols were merely a scourge to which civilized people said, “Good riddance,” or key global visionaries without whom our modern world would be impossible.

Ogedei sought to create a lasting symbol of the Mongol Empire’s wealth and power so he ordered Chinese builders to create the largest structure in Mongolia, the “Palace of Ten-Thousandfold Peace.” The palace sat atop an earthen mound measuring 180 by 148 feet and had a tiled roof and floors as well as statues and frescoes on the walls. A hint at one Mongol tragic flaw, however, is evident in the description of a curious fountain in the midst of the palace:

At its roots are four lions of silver, each with a conduit through it, and all belching

forth white milk of mares. And four conduits are led inside the tree to its tops,

which are bent downward, and on each of these is also a gilded serpent, whose

tail twines round the tree. And from one of these pipes flows wine, from another

cara cosmos, or clarified mare’s milk, from another bal, a drink made with honey,

and from another rice mead, which is called terracina; and for each liquor there

is a special silver bowl at the foot of the tree to receive it.
Mongols, in other words, drank themselves to death individually and as an empire. There is some comfort in the fact that a people used to slaughtering hundreds of thousands of innocents could not do it and stay sober. Few Mongol rulers lived beyond the age of 50, a fact that created instability in succession.

Success also brought a troubling cultural dilemma. Mongol rulers lived in great opulence amidst great treasures in heated palaces while most Mongols could not get used to living within walls. Ordinary Mongol families set up their yurts and lived outside capital cities in the many divided Khanates with their horses, cattle, and sheep. Most Mongol citizens of the empire refused to become farmers, and the conquered people refused to take up Mongol ways. Stagnation set in as Mongols lost the lust for military conquest. As in Rome, the Mongol armies were increasingly made up of mercenaries and soldiers drafted from conquered peoples. These events led to what seemed impossible, the first defeat of a Mongol army in 1260. Ironically, an army of Egyptians from the culture that created the world’s first empire ended the expansion of the world’s largest contiguous empire. Without continued aggressive military expansion the Mongol Empire began to lose its cohesiveness and thereafter declined swiftly.

Religious factors hastened the collapse. The pure Mongol culture was eroded by the conversion of the Mongols in the Middle East to Islam and of those in China to Buddhism. The religious toleration advocated by Genghis Khan was undone. These religious commitments led the Mongols to subjugation of especially the Chinese who clung to Confucian ideals. In the Middle East, Buddhism and the traditional Mongol shamanism were both purged along with Christianity in favor of Islam. So, Muslim Mongols purged Buddhists and others while Buddhist Mongols persecuted Confucians—confusing? Everyone thought so then, too.

The Mongol dynasty of China, the Yuan, had been established by Genghis Khan’s grandson, Kublai Khan in 1279. In just a few decades the new dynasty was in trouble in regard to the Mandate of Heaven. Apart from the conscription of Chinese workers, heavy taxation, and the removal of weapons and even iron tools, knives, and horses from Chinese farmers, earthquakes and floods caused discontent. Seizure of land for pasturing Mongol animals touched off widespread famine. As this discontent grew, more and more of the Mongols had abandoned the life of warriors and taken up farming with slaves. This alien lifestyle left the army weak and many Mongol plantation owners destitute because of their ignorance of how to work the land.

Then something even worse happened. When we think of the Black Death we commonly associate the plague’s furor with its impact in Europe and forget that it originated in Asia, in the south of China. The curious story of how the Mongols spread the plague is another seeming punishment on them for the abandonment of the culture thought best by Genghis Khan. While nomadic, Mongols were impervious to the plague. The fleas that carry the plaque bacterium liked neither the taste of human blood nor the smell of horses so Mongols on the move did not contract the horrible disease. Rats don’t live in yurts. When Mongols settled down in cities, however, and opened up trade routes across Asia, the Black Death saw its chance (if diseases were sentient beings, that is). The fleas stowed away on rats in food shipments, inhabited marmot colonies in the Gobi Desert, and then made it to urban areas in China by 1331, killing 90% of the people in Hopei Province. By 1345 it reached the capital of the Golden Horde and broke out in the Mongol army laying siege to the Crimean port city of Kaffa. The Mongol ruler called off the siege and retreated, but not before the disease took hold in the city (some reports say by Mongol plague victims’ bodies being catapulted over the city walls). From there, rats boarded ships bound for Italy and—you know the rest of that story. Estimates are that 37 million of the 75 million people killed by the plaque by the year 1400 were Asians.

The Chinese blamed the Yuan dynasty for this nightmare. The Mongols in China and Mongolia were cut off from their brothers in Persia and Russia as trade collapsed. Every Mongol principality was left to deal with its own disgruntled underlings alone. Military superiority and commercial wealth, the two great powers of the Mongols, were destroyed by invisible enemies that rode rats to war instead of horses. The unrest of China manifested itself in peasant uprisings. In the most successful of these uprisings, the peasant-leader Chu Yuan-chang marched an army in 1368 toward Bejing, the Yuan capital. The last Yuan (Mongol) Emperor simply fled with 60,000 of his people to Karakorum, Ogedei’s capital city back in Mongolia. He left 400,000 Mongols to the mercy of the rebels. Chu Yuan-chang declared the founding of the Ming, or “brilliant” Dynasty. Twenty years later a Ming army marched north and completely erased Karakorum from the face of the Earth. The Mongols living there fled back north to the steppe.

Mongols rulers began to disappear across the Empire. One of the last Mongol rulers of Persia, Ghazan, had instituted sharia law and imposed Islam making enemies of Buddhists as well as Jews and Christians. Ghazan even banned Genghis Khan’s Great Yasa, the traditional law code of the Mongols. The last Mongol ruler of Persia died without an heir in 1335. Korea broke free and returned its peninsula into the hands of its own native dynasty as had the Chinese who were so glad to be rid of the Mongols that they had abolished paper money, burned all their ocean-going vessels and built new walls to close off China from the world.

The last gasp of the Mongol Empire might be said to exist in the dubious claim of Timur the Lame that he was a descendant of Genghis Khan. Timur was a Turkish-speaking Mongol who had grown wealthy from banditry and set out to model himself after his supposed ancestor. He sought to conquer the Golden Horde but only managed to attack his Mongol brothers from the east while the Russians began attacking them from the west. All this war accomplished was to destroy the old Mongol capital on the Volga River and allow the Russian princes to free themselves form Mongol rule completely (one of the good things Ivan the Terrible did).

Timur the Lame set out to ensure that his lineage would contain the blood of Genghis Khan by having his family intermarry with some of Genghis Khan’s true descendants. He did not follow Genghis Khan’s ways, however. Timur slaughtered people without reason and found perverse pleasure in torturing and humiliating his prisoners. When he conquered Turkey and seized the Seljuk sultan, he forced the sultan’s wives and daughters to serve him dinner naked while the defeated ruler watched. He also forced the sultan to watch his sexual assaults on these women and to pull Timur’s royal chariot harnessed like a draft animal. Timur displayed the sultan in a cage. On an expedition in 1405 to conquer China, however, Timur died and his “empire” quickly disintegrated. The Mongol Empire had vanished.

Descendants of Timur, and thus of Genghis Khan, did become another group in a long line of outside invaders that took over India. These Turkish-Mongol conquerors established what was known as the Mogul Dynasty of India in 1519. The height of this Empire came under Akbar, the grandson of its founder and 15 generations removed from Genghis Khan. At last the genius of the founder of the Mongol Dynasty reappeared in this descendant who ruled until 1607 (the year Jamestown, Virginia was founded). Akbar had Genghis Khan’s gift for administration and he favored trade and tolerance. He abolished a tax on non-Muslims and instituted a civil service based on merit. Just as Mongols in their prime had made China a manufacturing and trade capital, Akbar’s India was the world’s greatest manufacturing and trading nation. He even raised the status of women. While he wanted to establish one religion under one god and one emperor, he never quite solved the Muslim/Hindu division that had become India’s own tragic flaw. Even the British who conquered the Moguls in India had no solution for this rift.

Speaking of Islam, while it converted many Mongols it was altered dramatically and fundamentally. Having survived the threat of Christian Crusaders and Mongols uniting against its forces in Palestine, its adherents were emboldened. The Christians and Mongols never united, which proved the undoing of the Crusader impulse. Turkish peoples of central Asia had migrated west under Mongol rule and conquered large areas of the Middle East, Asia Minor, and southeastern Europe thus founding the Ottoman Empire. With this power base, Islam was positioned to inspire one of the great civilizations of the world. Mongols, however, conquered several Persian cities and what is today the Iraqi city of Baghdad. This defeat ended the philosophical achievements of Islam in these urban centers, slowing advances in science, mathematics, and astronomy. An ideology thus under assault went on the defensive, and Islam became stricter, permitting no dissent and expelling foreign beliefs altogether.

In China, the Ming used the unification and administration accomplished by the Yuan to launch the modern nation of China as you will see. As you have seen in Russia, the Czars emulated the absolutism of their Mongol oppressors to establish total control of the state. Echoes of Genghis Khan’s vision thus could be heard in Russia at least through the totalitarianism of the Soviet Union, perhaps beyond. The Soviets, though, disallowed any attempt to idealize Genghis Khan. The Communist Party forbade Russians in 1964, “to place the bloodthirsty barbarian Genghis Khan on a pedestal as a historically progressive personage.” Chinese communists countered this Soviet propaganda by saying Russians should revere Genghis Khan because he gave them their first opportunity “to get acquainted with a higher culture.” These comments reflect the immensely comforting realization that Richard Nixon was the first American president to see, that Soviet and Chinese communists did not get along, much to our relief.

As to Mongolia itself, Genghis Khan’s homeland still contains many people who live as nomadic herdsman even though the country itself was divided between the Soviets and the Chinese. There has been some industrialization in the last century there, but much of the area is forbidden to outsiders, especially along the Onon River, Genghis Khan’s ancient homeland. A traveler in 1930 reported that:
To this day the Mongols preserve and reverence the White Banner of the Sulde,

which is the same, they believe, that led the armies of Chingis-Khan from victory

to victory. They believe the soul of the great Emperor has itself entered the sulde

banner, and that he has himself become the guardian-genius of his glorious clan,

which to this day governs the Mongols.
For all the romance of that notion, the echoes of millions of dead voices would declare Genghis Khan a beast. Communist authorities confiscated the white banner, and by the 1960s it disappeared. Many assume that they destroyed the sulde in a spiteful act of vengeance on the memory or the soul of Genghis Khan, but some still hope that it will one day be brought out to lead the Mongols to victory again. Is it possible that Mr. Senter agrees with communists that the world is better off without that relic? Tell no one, if so.

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