The Great Khans and the Mongol Imperium

Story posted: Friday, 20. May 2011 by CPA Media

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The Great Khans and the Mongol Imperium




In the 13th century a new and unexpected power exploded onto the Central Asian scene, rapidly conquering the entire length of the Silk Road from Chang’an in the east to Antakya in the west under a single empire for the first time in history, and producing as a consequence the last great flourishing of Silk Road trade before the latter’s decline and gradual disappearance in the 15th and 16th centuries. The engine for this new empire was Mongol expansion, and the man who made it happen was a nomadic ruler called Temujin, who would later assume the title Chingis Khan (1206-27), the name by which he would be remembered – with a shudder by settled peoples from Chang’an to Baghdad, and with fierce pride by the nomadic Mongols.


The View from the Vatican: ‘The Mongols attacked Russia, where they made great havoc, destroying cities and fortresses and slaughtering men; and they laid siege to Kiev, the capital of Russia; after they had besieged the city for a long time, they took it and put the inhabitants to death. When we were journeying through that land we came across countless skulls and bones of dead men lying about on the ground. Kiev had been a very large and thickly populated town, but now it has been reduced almost to nothing, for there are at the present time scarce two hundred houses there and the inhabitants are kept in complete slavery’. Giovanni de Plano Carpini, Papal Envoy to the Mongols, 1246.


Temujin was born c1162 not too far from Ulaan Baaatar, the present capital of Mongolia. Despite enduring a difficult childhood and relative poverty, he showed remarkable will power and military ability, gradually increasing in power and defeating his clan enemies until, in 1206, he united the feuding Mongol tribes under his sole leadership as Great Khan. He lived for a further 21 years, during which time his armies conquered a great part of Asia including the Silk Road between China and the Caspian Sea. On his death in 1227, the Mongol Empire is estimated to have encompassed 26 million sq kilometres, an area about four times the size of the Roman or Macedonian Empires at their peak.


Pony Express: The highly efficient Mongol shuudan or postal service relied on a system of horse-relay stations similar to the late Pony Express in the United States. One difference was that, as most Mongol officers were illiterate, orders were communicated in verse to ensure that instructions were transmitted correctly and no information was lost.


Despite his ruthless efficiency as a military commander, Chingis was remarkably enlightened in matters of religion and culture, allowing his many conquered subjects considerable freedom of choice. He also set the seal on another aspect of Mongol policy – the encouragement of commercial and trade relationships between the increasingly far flung corners of their empire. This enlightened policy caused a brief but dazzling resurgence of the ancient Silk Road, as all merchants and ambassadors carrying proper documentation and authority were permitted – indeed encouraged – to travel throughout the vast Mongol realm under Imperial protection. As a consequence, overland trade between Asia and Europe greatly increased. During the 13th and early 14th century this policy encouraged hundreds, perhaps thousands of Western merchants to travel the Silk Route to China, the most celebrated of whom was Marco Polo.


Marco Polo


During the 13th and 14th centuries, Venetian merchants dominated much of the trade in rare and exotic goods trafficked between Europe and Asia by way of the Red Sea and Mediterranean Seas – a source of great wealth to the tiny but prosperous Venetian Republic. But the lure of the Silk Road still attracted the interest of ambitious Venetian merchants who sought to profit overland, as well as by maritime trade. Two such were the brothers Nicolo and Maffeo Polo, who adventurously set out to trade in the region of the Volga steppes.


Depending on one’s interpretation, their luck was either bad, or exceedingly good, as their merchant venture coincided with the wars of conquest of the expanding Mongol Empire, which prevented the brothers’ return home. Instead in 1264 they decided to accompany a tributary mission from the Volga region to Khanbaliq, the seat of Kublai Khan, near present day Beijing. They were well received and hospitably treated by the Great Khan, who enjoyed religious and philosophical debate. At the end of their visit Kublai Khan sent them back to Venice under his protection with a request that they should return to China together with ‘one hundred learned Christians’ able to debate and argue the cause of their religion at the Mongol court.


In 1271 the Polo brothers set out on their return journey to Beijing accompanied by Nicolo’s 17-year-old son, Marco, who would find especial favour with the Great Khan and spend much of the next 17 years in Mongol service. The Polo’s travelled overland, by way of Central Asia, passing through Persia and staying three years in Bukhara before crossing the Pamirs into present-day Xinjiang. Here they took the southern Silk Road via Kashgar and Khotan before passing through the much-feared ‘Desert of Lop’, which Marco describes as a howling wilderness inhabited by malevolent demons intent on luring men and beasts into the sandy wastes of the Taklamakan Desert.


Marco Polo spent 17 years in China, much of it in the service of the Great Khan, before returning to Europe, by sea, in 1291.  He reached Venice in 1295, reportedly laden with concealed rubies and other jewels, but was captured and briefly imprisoned by the Genoese in 1298, during a brief war between Venice and Genoa. While in prison, he dictated an elaborate account of his travels to a fellow prisoner, Rustichello da Pisa, which was subsequently published as Il Milione, better known in English as The Travels of Marco Polo.


The veracity of Marco Polo’s account of his travels in China and beyond has been called into account by some authorities. Why, for example, does he not mention the use of chopsticks, or the Great Wall? Yet these apparently glaring omissions fade to almost nothing when compared with the information Marco did bring back, much of it arcane and arbitrary, but also clearly verifiable today. Il Milione was an immediate success, stimulating interest in the Orient in educated circles across Europe. Christopher Columbus, who would discover the New World in his quest for a western maritime route to Asia, is known to have owned a heavily annotated copy of this seminal work.


Chingis Khan was succeeded by several wise and highly competent rulers, notably his third son Ogedei Khan (1229-41) and his grandson Kubilai Khan (1260-94). Kubilai became the first emperor of China’s Yuan Dynasty in 1271, and under his rule Mongol power and prosperity reached new heights. Yet the seeds of future imperial decline were already sown before Kubilai attained manhood. In his will, Chingis Khan had ordered the Mongol Empire divided into four separate but – notionally – allied Khanates. In fact four rival kingdoms emerged. In the east, the greatest of all was the Empire of the Great Khan, soon to become the Yuan Dynasty of China. The greater part of central Asia, including both Kashgar and Samarkand, became the Chagatai Khanate. Most of Persia and the Middle East became the Ilkhanate. Finally the vast Russian steppe stretching from the Altai Mountains to Kiev was incorporated in the fabled golden Horde.


This political division of the Mongol realms was soon to become a cultural divide as well. Quite simply, the Mongols were overwhelmingly outnumbered by the settled peoples they now ruled, and they were also deeply influenced by the more sophisticated cultures they had conquered. Thus Kubilai Khan, who founded Beijing in 1272, was an enthusiastic student of Chinese culture and rapidly became Sinicised. The rulers of the Chagatai Khanate adopted Islam and were soon absorbed into Central Asian Turkic culture. To the west, the Ilkhans similarly converted to Islam and, renouncing all loyalty to the Great Khan, became deeply influenced by Persian and Arab mores. Meanwhile to the north and west the Golden Horde fell increasingly under Tatar influence and abandoned its Mongol allegiance before being fatally weakened by the great Turkic-Mongol conqueror Tamerlane (the Amir Timur, 1336-1405). Timur’s descendants would go on to found the Mughal Dynasty in India (1526-1867), while the Golden Horde finally succumbed to Muscovite Russia in the 16th century.


Decline and Demise


The gradual disintegration of the Mongol Empire following the death of Chingis Khan also brought about the collapse of Silk Road prosperity as the political and cultural stability imposed, however briefly, by the Pax Mongolica disappeared. The eastern part of the Silk Road passed from the short-lived Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) to the sphere of the Ming Empire (1368-1644). At the same time, to the west of the Pamirs, the old Silk Road came under the control of various decentralised Turkic kingdoms including the Chagatai, Timurid and subsequently Uzbek Khanates. Further west still, in the Middle East and Anatolia, a new unifying power would arise in the shape of the Ottoman Empire (1299-1922), but the great trans-Asian highway that had for so many centuries served as a link between East and West was already fatally ruptured. Trade certainly flourished both in the east, under the Ming, and in the west, under the Ottomans – but overland trade between was never fully established, due both to Central Asian instability, and to two seminal changes that would irreversibly change the nature of commerce between Europe and China.


The first of these was Ming isolationism. Unlike its Yuan predecessor, Ming China turned its back on Central Asia and fixed the limits of its territorial ambitions within the traditional Chinese cultural sphere. The third Ming emperor, Yongle (1402-24) was an exception, and under his rule huge maritime expedistions were dispatched for the first – and only – time in pre-modern Chinese history to Southeast Asia, the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea.


Yongle and Zheng He


The third Ming Emperor Yongle (1402-1424) was unique in the annals of Imperial China in that he pursued an active maritime policy – a thing previously unheard of in this very continental, land-based empire – sending his favourite admiral, the Yunnanese Muslim eunuch Zheng He (1371-1433), to explore Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean as far as the Red Sea and the Swahili Coast. Starting in 1405, Yongle sent Zheng He on six major naval expeditions at the head of a fleet of hundreds of ‘treasure ships’. Yongle’s purpose was to extend Chinese control over Nan Yang, the ‘southern seas’, by imposing imperial control over trade and overawing the peoples of the littoral into paying tribute to the Ming throne at Beijing.


Yongle’s far-sighted policy was abandoned by his son and short-lived heir, Emperor Hongxi (1424-25), who cancelled Zheng He’s maritime expeditions to the Indian Ocean, banned the still flourishing trade of tea for horses along the trade routes of Tibet and Gansu, and even forbade the sending of missions seeking gold and pearls to nearby Yunnan and Vietnam.  Under his rule, and that of his successors, China became an inward-looking, land-based empire, the richest, most populous and – for a time – the most powerful state in the world. But a price would eventually be paid for this isolationism, as the empire lost touch with reality and failed to keep pace with the startling changes beginning to sweep the west.

Meanwhile, Europe – hungry for spices and trade with the Orient, but cut off from China by an often hostile Muslim World that treasured its trade monopoly and drove prices ever higher – began to seek new ways to the Orient. In 1492 this led to Christopher Columbus’ discovery of the New World – which he mistakenly thought was ‘The Indies’. Just six years later, in 1498, Vasco da Gama reached Cochin by sea, establishing a direct link, for the first time, between Western Europe and India. Both the Ottoman and Chinese Empires were about to be outflanked by merchant navigators from Spain and Portugal, followed in close order by Holland and England, the Scots and the Scandinavians.

In 1521 Ferdinand Magellan completed the work of Christopher Columbus when he reached the Philippines, establishing a direct link between Europe and Asia for the first time across the Pacific. Soon after making landfall in Asia, Magellan was killed by local warriors, but the few surviving members of his expedition went on to complete the first circumnavigation of the world. With two direct maritime routes established between Europe and the Far East, it was not long before Chinese waters were dominated by aggressive European sailors – while Emperor Hongxi’s decision to cancel Zheng He’s maritime expeditions and effectively cut China off from the outside world ensured that his Qing Dynasty successors (1644-1912) had no effective naval response.

The disastrous consequences of this policy were definitively underlined by the Qing Emperor Qianlong (1735-96), who refused any trade with the British, in 1793 informing the Macartney Embassy that: ‘We possess all things. I set no value on objects strange or ingenious, and have no use for your country’s manufactures’. Qianlong made it clear that he regarded the embassy as a tributary mission, and sent a message to King George III warning that British vessels putting ashore at any point other than Guangzhou would be immediately expelled.


Qianlong's Warning: ‘Do not say that you were not warned in due time! Tremblingly obey and show no negligence!’ Emperor Qianlong’s message to King George III.


Less than half a century later, in 1842, China was resoundingly defeated by Britain in the First Opium War; maritime trade in the Far East was securely in European (and American) hands, and the great, antique Silk Road, so long abandoned, was all but forgotten. Yet, unexpectedly, the same European powers that had forced open Qing China were about to start the long and fascinating process of its rediscovery – a development that continues today.




Text copyright © Andrew Forbes / CPA Media 2011.

Category:  Mongolia

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