What was life like under the Mongol empire?
They pulled off one of the most astonishing campaigns of conquest in history, forging the largest contiguous empire the world has ever seen. But how did they treat their subject populations once the dust had settled? Nicholas Morton examines what life was like under the Mongols
One curious and less well-known impact of the Mongol empire’s explosive expansion was a huge surge in the hunting of owls – almost to the edge of extinction in some regions. And it all stemmed from a striking and powerful foundational myth. According to legend, long before they embarked on their far-reaching campaigns of conquest, the Mongols lived on the far side of a mighty mountain range. It was impenetrable but for one single road running through an abandoned fortress.
That castle, though, sparked immense fear: anyone venturing too close would be assailed by terrifying noises that caused them to flee in panic. So the Mongols remained hemmed in. One day, the story goes, a rider engrossed in a hunt found himself unexpectedly at the daunting fortress, where he was filled with terror – until he spotted an owl on its gate.
Emboldened, he ventured inside and discovered that those eerie noises were merely the wind whistling among the stones. Thus the only impediment barring the Mongols from marching forth was removed. That legend was brought to the west by Dominican missionary Riccoldo of Montecroce in the early 14th century. Just how accurately his version reflects the tale told by the Mongols themselves is hard to say but it’s linked to a powerful economic truth.
In later years, the Mongols recalled the owl with reverence, as a divine messenger guiding them on their journey. For this reason, they wore owl feathers in their hats, paying a hefty price to merchants bringing them to their courts. Hunters began to kill owls in huge numbers, eager to sell feathers to the khans.
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During the 13th century, the Mongols conquered vast swathes of Eurasia, forging an empire stretching from the borders of Hungary all the way to the East China Sea. In the process, they acquired eye-watering amounts of money, largely from the many civilisations that fell to their armies. With such wealth at their disposal, their leaders could acquire anything they might wish, in any quantity. So if they wanted to buy enormous quantities of owl feathers, then Eurasia’s mercantile community would scramble to make it happen – aware of the profits that would follow.
The magnetic appeal of the Mongol court did not just attract traders from within the empire. Riccoldo tells us that hunters were culling owls even in the west, outside the empire’s borders, because demand for their feathers had driven the bird to the point of extinction elsewhere. “And thus,” Riccoldo observed (as quoted in Rita George-Tvrtkovic’s 2012 book A Christian Pilgrim in Medieval Iraq), “the Tartars [Mongols] return bad for good to their friend the owl, for while they say that they honour it, they kill it and skin it, and make for them selves crowns out of the plumage.”
Owl feathers represented just one minor commodity among many prized by the Mongols. Some merchants brought pearls to their courts from south-east Asia or the Indian Ocean. Indeed, it was their formidable wealth that drew Marco Polo’s father and uncle into the Mongols’ orbit, the two men first making contact in an effort to sell precious gems.
Realigning the continent
The Mongols’ immense buying power is just one of the myriad ways in which their lightning conquests transformed the lives of the people over whom they ruled. An entire continent now realigned itself to meet the needs of its new masters. Not only did merchants have to find new ways of doing business, but elites had to come to terms with subjugation, and entire communities were forced to adjust to the laws and governance of their new masters. For the people of Eurasia, nothing would be the same again.
By the middle of the 13th century, it must have seemed that all roads led to the Mongols’ great cities, either their capital at Qaraqorum or the huge encampments that enforced their dominion. These encampments could be vast. They comprised thousands of massive tents – many made from luxurious fabrics – and were surrounded by tens of thousands of waggons that could transport these imperial metropolises between grazing grounds.
Beyond the tents roamed herds of millions of horses, sheep, goats and other animals that represented the traditional mainstay of the Mongols’ nomadic way of life. Beyond these herds lay paths choked with emissaries, traders and religious leaders, all hurrying to Mongol courts, some seeking patrons, some seeking converts and some seeking profits.
The Mongols forged a new imperial landscape arranged to suit their global ambitions. They knew that they possessed a divine mandate to rule the entire world (granted by a spiritual force in the sky, called Tenggeri), while their armies’ remorseless successes in battle served to evidence this conviction. Viewed from their perspective, it was their rightful place to order the world as they saw fit. And this meant that it was incumbent on their new subjects to recognise this fact and submit.
Submission or destruction
Some of these subjects were treated leniently. Communities that submitted to the Mongols swiftly – especially those that surrendered before suffering military invasion – could expect preferential treatment. By contrast, those who resisted could suffer acutely. As Great Khan Güyük’s message to Pope Innocent IV (quoted in Christopher Dawson’s 1980 book Mission to Asia) reveals, defiance could not be tolerated: “Now you should say with a sincere heart: ‘I will submit and serve you’… If you ignore my command, I shall know you as my enemy.”
In the near east, the Cilician kingdom of Armenia submitted quickly in the 1240s, a prudential course of action given that the kingdom had no chance of resisting the Mongol armies. It therefore suffered no invasion, endured a relatively light tribute, and came to hold a respected place in the Mongol court. The rhythms of life for many people could continue with little interruption.
The same was not true elsewhere. When the Armenian envoy Sempad, brother of King Hetum, travelled to the Mongol court to confirm his kingdom’s submission, he described the many horrific sights he had witnessed during his journey in a letter to the king of Cyprus. He described desolate regions where travellers came across piles of bones and passed through many empty and abandoned settlements. The consequences awaiting those who resisted were plain to see.
Communities that survived the initial Mongol invasion soon found themselves incorporated into the empire’s vast networks. Like conquerors across history, the Mongols wanted taxation from their subjects and they used censuses to facilitate their fiscal policies. Tax revenue would then serve the empire’s broader ambitions, and so too would any leading artisans rounded up by the Mongols in newly conquered regions.
It was a feature of the Mongol empire that their commanders tended to spare expert workers, such as goldsmiths, weavers and miners, who might be of service. Frequently, these artisans were bluntly uprooted from their homes, transported for hundreds or even thousands of miles, and then set to work wherever the Mongols felt they could be best employed. One group of German miners was transported from Transylvania during the Mongol offensive into Hungary in 1241 and then set to work deep within the Mongol empire, mining gold and forging weapons.
The Mongols were also interested in intellectuals. When Hülegü, brother of the Great Khan Möngke, advanced into the near east in the 1250s, seeking to extend the empire’s conquests in this area, he established a research centre at a place called Maragha, assembling a group of scientists, philosophers and intellectuals from across his territories. Their job, like everyone else, was to use their collective talents to serve the needs of their Mongol masters.
Among a range of objectives, Hülegü wanted them to supply gold (via alchemy) and to predict future events (via astrology). The community at Maragha – led by the famous scholar Nasir al-Din al-Tusi, and equipped with a great library and observatory – achieved historic scientific advances in trigonometry. Nasir al-Din also created a detailed set of astronomical tables that remained in use for centuries.
Timeline: the Mongol conquest of the near east
Temüjin is born. From 1206 he is known as Chinggis (or Genghis) Khan, and goes on to found the Mongol empire.
The Mongols begin their invasions into the Khwarazmian empire of central Asia and Iran. The stage is now set for their conquests of the near east.
A Mongol force passes south of the Caspian Sea and then moves up through the Caucasus, defeating many local powers en route.
The Mongols renew their offensive into the near east under a commander named Chormaghun.
The Anatolian Seljuk sultanate falls to the Mongols. Soon after, the kingdom of Cilician Armenia submits to Mongol authority.
Hülegü (brother of the Great Khan Möngke) leads the siege and sacking of Baghdad.
Mongol armies complete the overthrow of the Ayyubid empire, which had been established by Saladin in the 1160s–80s.
Conflict breaks out within the Mongol empire between two khanates: the Ilkhanate and the Golden Horde.
The Mamluk empire (of Egypt) defeats the Mongols at the battle of Homs. This marks a major setback for the Mongols on their western frontier.
The Mongols agree to a peace agreement with the Mamluks, ending a 63-year war. Over the following decades, the Mongols are assimilated into the cultures they have conquered.
Religious leaders fell into a similar category. The Mongols permitted different religious communities across their empire to practise their own beliefs reasonably freely. In doing so, they showed more religious tolerance than many of their contemporaries, but there was also a degree of pragmatism behind this liberality. The Mongols wanted the adherents of each religion to channel their spiritual power for the advancement of the Mongol empire.
Spiritual leaders – like any other asset – were required to labour for their new rulers’ interests. Just as different faith systems had to co-exist as equals, so too did the inhabitants of the occupied territories – no matter how elite or lowly a position they had occupied before the invasion. For many people, especially those from the former ruling cadres, this upheaval upended centuries-long norms of existence. The privileges they had enjoyed before the Mongols’ arrival had been swept away.
It’s a feature of the empire’s early history, especially in the near east, that very few uprisings took place against the Mongols’ authority
And yet they didn’t rebel. In fact, it’s a feature of the empire’s early history, especially in the near east, that very few uprisings took place against the Mongols’ authority. At this time, the Mongols’ vast and growing power, often imposed with terrifying brutality, was clearly sufficient to deter would-be rebels. This sense of fear was very real and the famous intellectual Ibn al-Athir recalls its paralysing effect. He received many reports describing the sheer lack of resistance encountered by the Mongols in many villages where even a single Mongol horseman could slaughter his way – unopposed – through a population too frozen with fear either to flee or resist.
Historically, rebellions normally occur not when a conqueror’s rule is at its most oppressive, but when a conqueror’s control starts to crack. Rebels rarely win large followings if resistance is tantamount to suicide. And so, in the early years of the empire, the Mongols’ subjects deployed a different tactic: they turned on the charm.
Working seemingly on the principle that if you cannot stop a conqueror then you need to win their favour, Mongol courts began to attract emissaries, missionaries and ambassadors from across their territories. These representatives brought gifts, offered their services, and even praised their Mongol masters as a divine scourge sent to rebuke them for their sinful behaviour. Of course, the purpose of such actions was for these representatives to navigate a safe path, either for themselves or their communities, amid the upheavals of the rising Mongol empire.
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But their efforts also raised another tantalising prospect. As the 13th century advanced, religious leaders increasingly sought to persuade the Mongols to convert to their own faith. In time, Mongol courts played host to set-piece debates where advocates from across the continent sought to prove the veracity of their own beliefs against those of other religions.
This was a serious business: the conversion of a Mongol leader to a religion such as Islam, Buddhism or Christianity – or, even better, the adoption of one of these faiths as the empire’s main religion – would fundamentally alter that religion’s prospects across the entire continent. This was a contest played out at the highest level, but for many decades none of these efforts were especially successful. This was for the simple reason that the Mongols, most of whom practised shamanism, had little intention of altering their beliefs.
Over time, however, the Mongols began to adopt the cultures, customs, cuisines, religions and traditions of the regions they had come to rule. In the near east, from 1260 onwards, their empire ceased to expand, becoming embroiled in a protracted and largely unsuccessful conflict with the Mamluk empire (rulers of Egypt and Syria). The wider Mongol imperium also fell prey to infighting which, by the mid-1260s, escalated into a spate of civil wars that ultimately caused the empire to break up into quasi autonomous territories.
The near eastern portion of the empire became known as the Ilkhanate and suffered increasingly from rebellions led by disgruntled Mongol elites or disaffected local factions, while the flow of plundered wealth shrivelled to a trickle. In this environment, Mongol rulers needed local allies, local legitimacy and local approval, a very different paradigm to the era of conquest.
Then, in 1323, a peace treaty with the Mamluks forced the Mongols to abandon their ambitions of global conquest. During these years the Mongols in the near east slowly converted to Islam and the model of Mongol rule began to change, acquiring many of the norms and customs common to Muslim societies. Viewed in the long-term, the story of the Mongol conquests is a tale of conquered peoples culturally conquering their conquerors. The Mongols may have overthrown many cities and civilisations but, as time went on, their empire began to break up, its various regions slowly acculturating to the practices of the people they had come to rule.
Yet in the decades of Mongol dominance, these nomadic warriors had profoundly impacted millions of lives, whether through war, governance, trade or via the remaking and reorienting of their world. The sheer vastness of their empire led to many changes.
Technologies or ideas such as gunpowder or paper money were carried out of China and then disseminated across the continent, while emissaries travelling from the empire’s far-flung communities to the distant Mongol courts returned home bearing tidings of strange and hitherto-unknown places and peoples. The Mongols transformed the lives of many, and not merely those within their extraordinary empire.
This article was first published in the April 2023 issue of BBC History Magazine
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