Wednesday University Lecture 3
© 2002 Daniel C. Waugh

[Note: The slides used in the lecture have not been reproduced here but their locations indicated by (*). Many of them may be found in the "Traditional Culture" pages on the Silk Road Seattle website.]

The Mongols and the Silk Road, I

(*) A medieval Russian chronicler wrote:

And all this happened because of our sins. There used to be the city of Riazan in the land of Riazan, but its wealth disappeared and its glory ceased, and there is nothing to be seen in the city excepting smoke, ashes, and barren earth. All churches and the cathedral were burned. And not only this city, but many others were conquered. There is neither the ringing of the church bells nor church services. And instead of joy, there are only uninterrupted lamentations. [Zenkovsky trans.]
The destruction of Riazan in 1237, the bones of Kiev left by the Mongols in 1240, a nineteenth-century image of piles of skulls near one of the formerly flourishing oasis cities of the Silk Road, and the mournful music of Prokofiev as the camera in Eisenstein's film "Alexander Nevsky" pans a landscape littered with bodies and burning pages of precious books--of such impressions derives the most common image of the Mongols.

"The city of al-Sara," wrote the fourteenth century Moroccan traveler Ibn Battuta of the capital of the Mongol Golden Horde (*),

is one of the finest of cities, of boundless size, situated in a plain, choked with the throng of its inhabitants, and possessing good bazaars and broad streets. We rode out one day with one of its principal men, intending to make a circuit of the city and find out its extent. Our lodging place was at one end of it and we set out from it in the early morning, and it was after midday when we reached the other end...[There is] a continuous line of houses, among which there were no ruins and no gardens. The city has thirteen mosques for the holding of Friday prayers...; as for the other mosques, they are exceedingly numerous. There are various groups of people among its inhabitants...the Mongols..., the Rus and the Rum (Byzantines)...Each group lives in a separate quarter with its own bazaars. Merchants and strangers from the two Iraqs, Egypt, Syria and elsewhere, live in a quarter which is surrounded by a wall for the protection of the properties of the merchants...[Gibb transl.]

Ibn Battuta's contemporary, the Florentine merchant Pegolotti, noted:

The road you travel from Tana [that is, near the Black Sea] to Cathay is perfectly safe, whether by day or by night, according to what the merchants say who have used it. [Yule trans.]

Such, then, is another view of the Mongol Empire, at its peak by far the most extensive of any Eurasian state in history. One of our main goals in our next two lectures will be to attempt to reconcile these seemingly contradictory pictures.

You will recall that in our first lecture we explored the relationship between the nomadic Xiongnu and Han China--the context in which we can document the beginnings of the Silk Road. Last time we followed in the footsteps of Xuanzang, the famous Buddhist pilgrim (*), who passed through the flourishing oases of Central Asia and the lands of the Western Turks (another nomadic empire) on his way to India. We ended our account with his arrival back in Dunhuang, that great repository of Buddhist art, precisely at the time when it was flourishing thanks in part to the T'ang Dynasty's reconquest of the Western Lands. Today I wish to begin by sketching some important aspects of what happens between China and its neighbors to the north and west as the T'ang Dynasty declines and after it is gone. This will set the stage for the main focus of our attention tonight and next time, the Mongol Empire. We will need to question some of the standard perceptions about the Mongols as largely a destructive force, for it seems that, at least for a time, the overland trade routes enjoyed under them a security that they had never previously known. As we learn about the culture of the Mongols as nomads, we will also discover that they had a strong interest in protecting trade and provided an environment in which at least some cities might flourish. It is no accident that under them, for the first time, we meet Europeans who traveled all the way across Asia and lived to tell about it. While up to this point our vantage point on the Silk Road has been largely through Chinese eyes, we will now turn to Western sources--not just the familiar Marco Polo, but some who are not household names: the Franciscan monks John of Plano Carpini and William of Rubruck, the Moroccan traveler Ibn Battuta, and the Florentine merchant Pegolotti.

We might begin by stressing some important points about the relationship between China and her northern and western neighbors, starting with the question of who rules China. At many points in Chinese history, we speak of "northern dynasties" and the fact that there is a distinct division politically and perhaps even culturally and economically between north and south. Many of those who ruled China were not ethnic Chinese but had ancestors who lived "beyond the Great Wall" to the north. The typical pattern was that such groups would gradually abandon their nomadic traditions, settle in the cities they conquered, and become sinicized. The symbiotic relationship between the Chinese and those beyond the Wall, about which I spoke in the first lecture, explains in many cases how such foreign rulers might be drawn in by the attractions of Chinese culture. Where they could not keep the nomads out, the Chinese developed strategies of trying to settle the nomads, and in some instances one or another faction contending for political control sought their assistance. The foreign dynasties often presided over the creation of some of the most remarkable products of what we today see as part of Chinese culture. An example would be the Northern and Western Wei, originally from southern Manchuria, who ruled northern China in the fifth and early sixth centuries. They were the patrons of many important Buddhist cave complexes. Among them was Yungang (*), with its series of dynastic shrines, which include richly carved pagoda-shaped pillars and large statues of the Buddha and bodhisattvas. Many of the striking early caves carved at Dunhuang were created under the Wei (*). Many of the culturally most interesting urban Silk Road sites in parts of Inner Asia at one or another time were under Chinese control but even more often in fact were controlled by groups other than the Chinese. Even where relations between the Inner Asian states and China were strained, trade and cultural interaction continued. Often the rulers of these states turned out to be important patrons of religions and the arts. Several portraits on the walls of the caves at Dunhuang provide an entry point into this Inner Asian world beginning in the time when the T'ang lost control over the Western Lands and began as well to falter in central China.

Patrons of the Dunhuang caves among the local elite were very conscious of the need to honor those to whom they owed political allegiance. From 781 to 848 the town was under the control of Tibet, which managed for a time to dominate all the major Inner Asian routes of the Silk Road. Since the Tibetans were Buddhists, this period was one where the monasteries of Dunhuang could flourish even if the local population chafed under some of the fiscal exactions and requirements concerning matters such as wearing Tibetan dress. This period saw the carving of some of the most striking of the Dunhuang caves--for example, cave 158 with its magnificent statue of the Buddha in Parinirvana and dramatic depictions of mourners (*). In this cave and others, we find images of the King of Tibet (*), the example here being in an illustration of the Vimalakirti sutra. Tibetan esoteric Buddhism would continue to be important later under the Western Xia and under the Mongols. For Buddhist culture at Dunhuang, it was probably fortunate that Tibetan control extended as long as it did, for in the early 840s central China was experiencing a period of severe persecution of religions perceived as "foreign"; Buddhism was one of them.

That persecution was directed, among others, against the Uighurs and their religion, Manichaeism. A faith which combined elements of Semitic and Iranian beliefs as well as aspects of Buddhism, Manichaeism emphasized the cosmic duality of forces of good and evil and the role of an elect priesthood. Manichaeism spread eastwards thanks in part to its adherents among the Soghdian merchants of Central Asia who were so important on the Silk Road all the way into China. Given their importance in the economic life of the empire, their religion was at least tolerated at the T'ang capital, which was briefly occupied by the Uighurs in the middle of the eighth century.

(*) The Uighurs had come from their home in the steppes north of China not as conquerors but as saviors for the Tang dynasty, which had been threatened by a major rebellion. Even though they returned home, the Uighurs continued to exercise considerable influence in China. They forced the T'ang to pay them lavish subsidies--according to an Arab account written in 821, as much as 500,000 pieces of silk annually. This same Arab traveler, Tamim ibn Bahr, reported that the Uighur capital, Karabalghasun, was a "great town, rich in agriculture...The town has twelve iron gates of huge size...[and] is populous and thickly crowded and has markets with various trades" [Gibb trans.]. We should note here that Karabalghasun was located on the Orhon River in Mongolia. The Orhon was later to be the home territory of none other than Chingis Khan. Ibn Bahr also records that the official religion of the Uighurs was Manichaeism, to which the ruler had converted apparently under the influence of the Soghdians he had met while in China.

Here then is an example of a Turkic steppe kingdom awash in Chinese silk, whose main advisers were the chief international merchant group on the Silk Road, and whose religion was one that had originated in the Middle East. Their fate was to be that of so many of the states which emerged in Mongolia, for their power lasted less than a century and they were driven west by the next nomadic federation to emerge. One can imagine how the T'ang were more than pleased to seize the moment of their dissolution in the early 840s to attack their Soghdian Manichaean allies, who had helped the Uighurs put the squeeze on the T'ang treasury.

Before returning to the areas north of China, it is of some interest for us to follow the Uighurs to the West, where one group of them settled in the Turfan basin and established the kingdom of Qocho (Khocho). You will recall from last time Xuanzang's descriptions of this region when he passed through a century earlier: he went on at some length about its prosperity and large Buddhist monastic communities. Even in ruins (*), the main towns of the Uighurs offer a sense of how important the place must have been, with its Buddhist stupas and monastic complexes, the painting fragments from the remains of its Nestorian church (*), and, not surprisingly, some stunning fragments of Manichaean manuscripts (*). The material from the Uighur sites also includes commemorative "portraits" of their princes and princesses (*). This material was taken to Berlin by the German archaeological expeditions of the early twentieth century; some of it will be included in our virtual Silk Road art exhibit this spring.

Controlling as they did the northern branch of the Silk Road, the Uighurs were cultivated by the local authorities in Dunhuang. So it is no surprise to find Uighur manuscripts in the "hidden library" of the Mogao caves (*) and, among the donor images on the walls, evidence of marriage alliances with the Uighurs. Those marriage alliances were indeed complex, as we can see in the lavish caves sponsored by the Cao family, several generations of which were commanders of the local garrison. Here are two examples: (*) Cave 98, built by Cao Yijin in 920-921, has his portrait in the entrance corridor and facing it, around the corner the King of Khotan, who was married to Cao Yijin's daughter. She is right behind her husband. On the other side of the entrance (*), the first of the women commemorated is the wife of the Uighur ruler. Note, incidentally (*), the exquisite silk embroidery of the garments worn by other of the women donors in this cave. Cao Yijin was himself married to a Uighur princess, shown here at the head of the procession of donors in Cave 61 (*), built by his son. Third in line, wearing the elaborate headdress is the donor's sister, who was married to the King of Khotan. Thus, even in the absence of a powerful central government, many areas of Inner Asia were bound together by a network of family alliances and profitable trading relations. Cultural values were shared and imitated; in fact there is much in the hair fashions and clothes of these Dunhuang donor ladies which, we are told, comes from the fashions of the Uighur court.

We have been talking here about what we might term the early history of the Uighurs from their emergence as the saviors of the T'ang to the period when their western center, Qocho, was flourishing in the tenth century. However, looking ahead, we might keep in mind that by cooperating they survived the initial Mongol expansion under Chingis Khan and continued to flourish down to nearly the end of the thirteenth century. Some of their neighbors--the ones who resisted the Mongols--were less fortunate.

(*) Between the early tenth and beginning of the thirteenth centuries, following the fall of the T'ang, southern China consolidated and flourished under the Song Dynasty. However, the north was less stable. For convenience we might divide the north in half: The area to the east (stretching from Manchuria through much of Inner Mongolia) was controlled successively by the Qidan (who ruled Northern China as the Liao Dynasty) and then the Jurchen (who ruled as the Jin Dynasty from 1125 until their conquest by the Mongols in 1215). Both of them managed to extend their control into areas inhabited principally by Chinese, including the region around Beijing. The area to the West came under a Tibetan dynasty we know as the Western Xia or Xi Xia, who managed to control the Hexi corridor (the road to the Inner Asia) and important centers such as Dunhuang and extended their power up into the western part of Mongolia. This overhead gives you a timeline for the relationships among these groups:






Western Xia


Mongols, (1209)1227-

Liao (Qidan) 907-1124




Jin (Jurchen) 1115-1234


Mongols, 1215-


Northern Song, 960-1127



Southern Song, 1127-1279



Mongols (Yüan), 1270s-

(*) Dunhuang Cave 409 contains a striking image of the Xia ruler, dressed in a robe that originally was decorated with gold dragons. Like the Jin, the Xia would eventually make the mistake of trying to resist Chingis Khan.

It should not surprise us that the cultures of these three northern groups--that is, the Qidan or Liao, the Jurchen or Jin, and the Xia--were heavily influenced by China. Some of you may remember the exhibit in Victoria in 1995 entitled Empires Beyond the Great Wall: The Heritage of Chingis Khan, whose objects (*) painted a vivid picture of those cultural interactions across the very permeable boundary of the Wall. This is the cover photo of the exhibit catalogue, a stunning funeral mask from the Liao dynasty. My illustrations here come in part from that exhibit, and many will be in our on-line exhibit this spring which is being hosted by the Seattle Art Museum. As we have seen in the example of the Uighurs, substantial cities were built even far north in the steppe. Some 200 Liao cities have been excavated in Inner Mongolia alone. The northern dynasties became ostentatiously wealthy--granted, often thanks to methods we might charitably label extortion. At the beginning of the eleventh century, for example, the Liao forced the Northern Song to agree to an annual tribute of some 8,400 pounds of silver and 200,000 bolts of silk. A generation later, the silver tribute was doubled and the silk tribute upped to 300,000 bolts. The lavish courts of these northern rulers were supplied with fine porcelain (*), some of it produced in workshops located on the territories they controlled. We know that all of these northern states emulated aspects of Chinese administration. They owed their writing systems to the Chinese, even though they kept their own languages, and flaunted imperial titles that deliberately usurped the Chinese pretensions to universal sovereignty.

Perhaps the most striking illustration of a flourishing center in the northern reaches of the Silk Road is Khara-Khoto, an important town of the Western Xia (*) now deserted in a desolate area of the Gobi. Marco Polo knew of the town, but by his time (some half a century after its destruction by Chingis Khan), its people, in his words, lived "off the land," not by trade. Then Khara-Khoto disappeared from the records, re-emerging, somewhat sensationally, when discovered on an expedition in 1908 led by Russian Captain Pyotr Kozlov (*)--the one in the center, not on the left in this photo. The main area of the town was a fortified rectangle, 385 by 325 meters. Outside the walls are the remains of a building that has been identified as a mosque (*). A large Buddhist stupa still stands at one corner of the walls (*). There is ample evidence about Khara Khoto's importance as a cosmopolitan trading center. The most important of Kozlov's discoveries was in a stupa (*) which his team completely excavated, where they turned up a trove equivalent in interest to the collection of the famous library cave at Mogao. There were books (*) written in the Xia language--one of the rulers had in fact commissioned a monumental edition of the Buddhist scriptures. Among the Buddhist statues (*) was this unusual double-headed Buddha. And there were exquisite paintings (*) on silk and other fabrics, most of them tangkas in the Tibetan style. Much of this material is in the collection of the Hermitage Museum, which has displayed some of the objects on its web site.

While towns such as Khara Khoto which resisted the Mongols did not survive their onslaught, the cultures of these various northern states did have an impact on the conquerors. The Mongols emerged not from some isolated and uncivilized world. Rather, their culture was that of the Inner Asian nomads who, for millennia, had adapted perfectly to their often difficult natural surroundings and had interacted fruitfully with sedentary civilizations in an exchange that more often than not was mutually beneficial for both parties. To see further the evidence for such an assertion, let us turn now to an examination of the early history and culture of the Mongols.

In the time of the founder of their empire, Temüjin--better known to us by the imperial title he was awarded, Chingis Khan--the Mongol tribes nomadized in eastern areas of what is now the Republic of Mongolia. The landscape in Mongolia ranges from hilly forests and grasslands in the north (*), to broad expanses of steppe and desert (*) in the south. While Temüjin was born near the Onon river, the capital of the empire later came to be located to the west in the region of the Orhon (*), which you see here, surrounded by lush pastureland. As you will recall, the capital of the Uighurs had also been located on the Orhon. If you would wish to learn about the young Temüjin, perhaps I should warn you not to pay attention to his portrayal by none other than the young John Wayne in one of the worst movies ever made in Hollywood. That is an unintended comedy if there ever was one, featuring lines such as this one, when Temüjin meets his one true love: "Ugh! Me man, you woman!" The historian must turn to the so-called "Secret History of the Mongols," which records the Mongols' oral traditions. We learn from the Secret History a great deal about tribal customs and the rivalries amongst various kin groups. Temüjin's story is largely that of an ambitious, clever and charismatic individual overcoming huge odds to unite the Mongol tribes, so that in a meeting of them in 1206, he was proclaimed "Oceanic Emperor," that is, Chingis Khan (*), depicted here in a later Chinese painting. Until that point, the Mongol tribes had at least loosely been under the suzerainty of the Jin, the rulers of North China, who, as we have seen, very much enjoyed the fruits of Chinese culture.

The pastoral nomadic culture of the Mongols can be documented from a substantial amount of written material. The Secret History provides a view "from within," although, typical of such a source, it cannot be expected to elaborate on the culture of daily life in the way that an outside observer, for whom that culture might be new and thus worthy of description, would do. For such outsiders' descriptions, I turn to accounts written by two Franciscan monks, who went on missions to the Mongols in the 1240s and 1250s. Even though they brought to their task a particular Christian bias, the Franciscans were trained to be careful observers, and one must at least be impressed by the seriousness of their effort to understand what they saw. To a surprising degree, what we can photograph today amongst the Mongols and other pastoral nomads in Central Asia (much of my material comes from the Kyrgyz) correlates with the written descriptions of the situation in the thirteenth century.

Friar John of Plano Carpini, writing in the 1240s, describes the typical nomadic dwelling (*)--what we call a yurt, the Mongols a ger:

Their dwelling-places are round like tents and are made of twigs and slender sticks. At the top in the middle there is a round opening which lets in the light, and is also to enable the smoke to escape, for they always make their fire in the middle. Both the sides and the roof are covered with felt, and the doors also are made of felt. [Dawson ed.]

The construction of yurts today is largely the same. Here (*) are some yurt tops or tündüks at a village in Western Xinjiang (note as well the drying animal dung, used for fuel in the absence of abundant firewood). This (*) old National Geographic photo shows the uncovered frame of a fairly small yurt. Generally it would be wrapped within (*) by woven strips of cloth with symbolic bird or animal designs. Even today they are woven on this kind of very simple, transportable loom (*). The reed mats (*) one sees lining the inside of many yurts also were produced by a very simple process we can document (*) in modern times. The covering of the yurt today may be animal skins (*) or felt but in many areas is canvas (*), such as we see here in the Gobi desert of Mongolia. Of course today we are struck by the intersection between the modern and the traditional--the same yurt which has horses tethered out back may have a motorcycle in the front yard. Building a fire on the ground in the yurt may give way to use of a heavy cast iron stove (*), and in some cases (*) (the example here is the same family in Kyrgyzstan), an electric generator in the back pasture provides enough juice to run a small light bulb and a radio.

Carpini, our thirteenth-century observer, reminds us of an important feature of the yurt:

Some of these dwellings...can be speedily taken down and put up again and are carried on baggage animals (*)...Wherever they go, be it to war or anywhere else, they always take their dwellings with them.
Mobility, then, was one of the essential aspects of nomadic existence.

In the first instance, of course, the reason was that the nomads' survival depended on their flocks (*). Carpini notes:

They are extremely rich in animals, camels, oxen, sheep, goats; they have such a number of horses and mares that I do not believe there are so many in all the rest of the world; they do not have pigs or other farm animals.
Keeping such large flocks requires continuous access to good pasture land and water; hence the patterns of regular nomadic movement between summer and winter encampments, movement which generally repeats the same routes for generations and even centuries unless somehow disrupted by outside forces or drastic climate change. The horse culture of the Mongols is still alive in the pasturelands around the Orhon (*)--here we can see horses being captured using a traditional lasso on the end of a long pole.

Most of the basics of daily life came from the animals--wool for making felt and weaving, skins for covering housing or making boots, milk products and meat as the basic foodstuffs. William of Rubruck, our other Franciscan observer who made it all the way to Mongolia in the 1250s, provides considerable detail about the Mongols' food and its preparation. He starts with one of the staples, a drink which was also critically important for ritual purposes and hospitality:

Comos [kumyss], that is, mare's milk, is made in this way: they stretch along the ground a long rope attached to two stakes stuck into the earth, and at about nine o'clock they tie to this rope the foals of the mares they want to milk. (*) Then the mothers stand near their foals and let themselves be peacefully milked; if any one of them is too restless, then a man takes the foal and, placing it under her, lets it suck a little, and he takes it away again and the milker takes its place. [Dawson ed.]
In fact, as we might well expect (after all, there are probably only a few ways to go about milking a mare), this is precisely the procedure followed today.

Rubruck continues:

And so, when they have collected a great quantity of milk, which is as sweet as cow's milk when it is fresh, they pour it into a large skin or bag and they begin churning it...and when they beat it quickly it begins to bubble like new wine and to turn sour and ferment...when it is fairly pungent they drink it. As long as one is drinking, it bites the tongue like vinegar; when one stops, it leaves on the tongue the taste of milk of almonds and greatly delights the inner man; it even intoxicates those who have not a very good head. It also greatly provokes urine.
Unfortunately, this propensity of some to indulge in a bit too much fermented kumyss cost us one of our great opportunities for having an accurate record of a unique historical encounter. During Rubruck's reception by the Mongol Khan, his interpreter, alas, was quite drunk.

Regarding the other milk products, Rubruck continues:

From cow's milk they first extract the butter and this they boil until it is completely boiled down; then they store it in sheeps' paunches which they keep for this purpose; they do not put salt into the butter; however it does not go bad owing to the long boiling. They keep it against the winter.
Here (*) you can see a sheep's stomach, cleaned and dried, another one (*) inflated, waiting to be filled, and finally one filled with butter (*).

Rubruck then tells us about the making of qurut, dried milk curds, and how they are used:

The rest of the milk which is left after the butter has been extracted they allow to turn until it is as sour as it can be, and they boil it, and in boiling, it curdles; they dry the curd in the sun and it becomes as hard as iron slag, and this they keep in bags against the winter. During the winter months when there is a scarcity of milk, they put this sour curd, which they call grut, into a skin and pour hot water on top of it and beat it vigorously until it melts in the water, which, as a result, becomes completely sour, and this water they drink instead of milk.
Today, the Kyrgyz use a hand-cranked cream separator (*). In one example here, the young husband was miffed that his wife, who, as you note, is doing all the work, was getting all the attention; so he had to show off what was important to him, his boom box. The skimmed milk then is boiled in a large wok (*), the boiled down mass placed in bags (*) to drain, and then the qurut formed into lumps and placed in the sun to dry (*). It makes great, nutritious snack food, if one has to throw something into a saddle bag for a quick trip or, perhaps, a longer military campaign.

In fact, just about every aspect of the traditional nomads' lives might prepare them for assembling an extremely effective cavalry army. They had the animals, the skill at good organization and rapid movement, the skill at hunting with powerful bows. The royal hunt, it seems, was a highly organized activity which served as well as a kind of training exercise in military tactics. So it is no surprise then that in the open field the Mongols could ride circles around their opponents, easily lure them into traps with feigned retreats, and instill terror by their military prowess.

As you would expect from material we have previously presented, there was more to the Mongols' lives and economy than traditional subsistence off their flocks. Grain products also seem to have become an important part of their diet, in part thanks to the fact that in certain areas grain might be grown during the summer at the comparatively warm locations of the winter encampments, and in part thanks to regular interactions with merchants from sedentary centers. While conditions today are, granted, not identical, (*) the traditional hospitality consists of being offered yogurt and bread, and, not uncommonly, the fermented mare's milk. Note the young lady here is the same one, shown a year later, on your left. The flour for the bread is brought in sacks from town to the summer homes (*), where the rolled dough is attached to the inside of a wok leaned up against the fire or buried in hot coals. Here (*) you can see both kinds of bread. Apart from grain, in earlier times the nomads might rely on trade with towns for a variety of practical necessities--for example, objects made of metal--and, of course, luxury items. Both the Secret History and sources such as Carpini remind us that "The Emperor [that is, the khan], the nobles and other important men own large quantities of gold and silver, silk, precious stones and jewels."

The objects from the "Beyond the Great Wall" exhibit capture a sense of that wealth among at least the Mongol elite. Whereas a typical Central Asian saddle as one might see it today would be constructed of wood and leather (*), such as the one we see here from Kyrgyzstan, in a ancient burial such as one for a young Mongol noble woman, a saddle (*) might be ornamented with beaten gold. The image is a reclining deer against a background of entwined peonies, the latter, one would think, hardly a traditional nomadic motif. Here (*) are a gold cup with a design of honeysuckle and peonies and (*) a gold stemcup with a similar floral design. A tomb of the thirteenth to fourteenth century contained (*) a striking lined silk robe, with a pattern of repeated rhomboids with pai of Persia and had been known across the Silk Road into China in earlier centuries.

It seems clear that some of Chingis Khan's conquests (*) were the result of conflicts over trade, where in fact he was provoked into attacking those with whom he might otherwise have been happy to have coexisted peacefully. One of our most important sources about Mongol expansion in the thirteenth century is hardly a sympathetic account, written by a cultivated Persian, Ata-malik Juvaini, who like so many other educated products of the flourishing cities of the Silk Road was forced to work for the Mongols. Juvaini describes how it was Chingis Khan came to attack the Muslim ruler of Khwarezm (a region encompassing much of today's Uzbekistan) in 1219. Be aware that in Juvaini's eyes, the Mongols were little more than barbarians; so they could not have been engaged in meaningful trade earlier. Juvaini writes initially here of the ruler of Khwarezm:

In the latter part of his reign he had brought about complete peace and quiet...the roads were that wherever profit or gain was displayed, in the uttermost West or the farthermost East, thither merchants would bend their steps. And since the Mongols were not settled in any town and there was no concourse of merchants and travelers to them, articles of dress were a great rarity amongst them and the advantages of trading with them well known. [Boyle trans.]

So, three merchants, one from Khojend (in the Ferghana valley) and one from Balkh, an important town in northern Afghanistan, set out with

an immeasurable quantity of merchandise--gold-embroidered fabrics, cottons, zandanichi [an embroidered silk produced near Bukhara], and whatever else they thought suitable...Chingis Khan...[had] issued a decree that whatever merchants arrived in his territory should be granted safe conduct, while whatever merchandise was worthy of the Khan's acceptance should be sent to him together with the owner.

Thus the merchants from Central Asia were brought to him, but when one demanded to be paid for the goods what Chingis considered to be exorbitant:

Chingis Khan was enraged...and exclaimed: "Does this fellow think that fabrics have never been brought to us before?' And he gave orders that [the merchant from Balkh] should be shown the fabrics from the stores of former khans that were deposited in his treasury; and that his wares should be listed and then distributed as plunder.
His companions learned it was better to flatter the Khan; so they managed to sell their goods for a fully satisfactory price.

Juvaini continues:

...In those days the Mongols regarded the Moslems with the eye of respect, and for their dignity and comfort would erect them clean tents of white felt...At the time of the merchants' return Chingis-Khan ordered his sons, notables and commanders to equip, each of them, two or three persons from their dependents and give them capital of a balish of gold or silver, so that they might proceed with this party to the [Khwarezm] Sultan's territory, engage in commerce there and so acquire strange and precious wares. So a group of some 450 Muslims were assembled and sent off to Central Asia, bearing a message from Chingis expressing his desire "that henceforth the abscess of evil thoughts may be lanced by the improvement of relations and agreement between us." That, however, was not to be, as a local commander of the Sultan's was persuaded to kill most of the Mongols' merchant emissaries and seize their goods.

Juvaini makes no bones about this having brought down on Central Asia the wrath of Chingis and the destruction of the Mongol invasion:

[In] executing his command [the local official] deprived these men of their lives and possessions, nay rather he desolated and laid waste a whole world and rendered a whole creation without home, property or leaders. For every drop of their blood there flowed a whole Oxus; in retribution for every hair on their heads it seemed that a hundred thousand heads rolled in the dust at every crossroad; in exchange for every dinar a thousand qintars were exacted.

Hence the piles of skulls we saw at the beginning and the legacy in some areas of the destruction of the irrigation systems which were essential to sustain life and which never would be re-built. Yet the pattern of Mongol devastation was uneven. As Juvaini makes clear, for example, Bukhara (*) would recover and flourish, and one can still see there the Kalyan minaret, built before the Mongol invasion. Other cities, such as Samarkand (*), the remains of whose pre-Chingis walls are the mound on the right, would take longer to recover, but would again (*) become important centers on the Silk Road.

We might well ask whether there is any way to quantify the impact of the Mongols on the territories they invaded and then settled down to rule. My distinguished colleague in Chinese history, Patricia Ebrey, who specializes on the Song period, reminds my classes that the extensive Chinese census evidence points to a precipitous decline in population between the flourishing era of the Song and the later period of Mongol (i.e., Yüan) rule in China. I would have to wonder whether we can be sure that Mongol rule itself was responsible though, since this was the era when the Black Death devastated much of Eurasia. Some, of course, would blame the Mongols for spreading (perhaps unwittingly) the Black Death.

(*) A Russian historian, David Miller, has devised a rather interesting index for the impact of the Mongol conquest of Russia. Since we have no census data or series of economic statistics, he uses as his measure of prosperity the building of stone churches, in a country where most architecture was of wood. Here is his chart, which shows unequivocably a low point precisely in the 1230s, when the Mongols swept through much of European Russia and destroyed towns such as Riazan. The other thing we might point out here though is what follows the invasion. By most accounts, Mongol rule of Russia lasted at least until nearly the end of the fourteenth century. As Miller's graph shows, a dramatic increase in church construction was already underway by the beginning of the fourteenth century, suggesting an economic recovery. It would seem, therefore, that the prosperity of Sarai, the capital of the Golden Horde, which Ibn Battuta described was shared by the conquered Russian principalities; indeed, he noted Russians among the inhabitants of that flourishing fourteenth-century town.

Our Franciscan observer, William of Rubruck, offers a unique snapshot of an important Mongol town nearly a century earlier, within a generation of Chingis Khan's death. (*) Chingis died in 1227; his successors ruled from Karakorum, on the Orhon River way out in Mongolia, until Qubilai Khan, Chingis's grandson, conquered China and moved the capital to Beijing in the 1260s. Here is what we learn about Karakorum from Rubruck (*):

I can tell you that, not counting the Khan's palace, it is not as large as the village of Saint Denis,and the monastery of Saint Denis is worth ten times more than that palace. There are two districts there: the Saracens' quarter where the markets are, and many merchants flock thither on account of the court which is always near it and on account of the number of envoys. The other district is that of the Cathayans who are all craftsmen. Apart from these districts there are the large palaces of the court scribes. There are twelve pagan temples belonging to the different nations, two mosques in which the law of Mahomet is proclaimed, and one church for the Christians at the far end of the town. The town is surrounded by a mud wall and has four gates. At the east gate are sold millet and other grain, which is however seldom brought there; at the west sheep and goats are sold; at the south oxen and carts; at the north horses.
The drawing from a later Chinese manuscript gives us a sense of the place: a fortified camp in the midst of a sea of nomadic yurts. Little of it remains in the plain (*) next to the walls of a much later Buddhist monastery. There is a large stone turtle (*), which probably had stood next to one of the gates and carried on its back a stele with a multilingual inscription. The small stones on it, incidentally, indicate it is an object of veneration by the local people. All and all, Karakorum was no bigger than a French monastic town, not an impressive place in Rubruck's eyes.

Yet what I think should impress us is how cosmopolitan it all was, which is not to say that all the different nationalities represented there were present of their own free will. Apart from the extensive Muslim and Chinese communities, Rubruck met a captive woman from Metz in Lorraine, whose husband was a Russian craftsman. There was a Parisian goldsmith named Guillaume Bouchier married to a woman from Hungary whose family had also come from Lorraine. Bouchier's noteworthy achievement was to have made for the courtyard of the khan's palace a

large silver tree, at the foot of which are four silver lions each having a pipe and all belching forth white mare's milk. Inside the trunk four pipes lead up to the top of the tree and the ends of the pipes are bent downwards and over each of them is a gilded serpent, the tail of which twines round the trunk of the tree.
Each of the pipes dispensed a different kind of drink.
At the very top [of the tree] he fashioned an angel holding a trumpet; underneath the tree he made a crypt in which a man can be secreted, and a pipe goes up to the angel through the middle of the heart of the tree. At first he had made bellows but they did not give enough wind. Outside the palace there is a chamber in which the drinks are stored, and servants stand there ready to pour them out when they hear the angel sounding the trumpet...

No trace of this remarkable construction remains (*), and in fact little is left of the palace but for the bases of some columns and some roofing tiles--enough to suggest that it was probably of Chinese design. The khan in fact seems not to have lived in it, preferring his yurt on a mound in the yard; the palace was only for ceremonial occasions. We know that most of the later Mongol rulers still preferred their nomadic ways as, at least in the matter of housing, do inhabitants of the Mongol capital Ulaan Baatar (*) whose yurts make up the suburbs of the ostensibly modern city.

Another of those whom the Mongols had captured when they overran Hungary was the son of an Englishman. A Christian monk from Cyprus had purchased musical instruments in the Armenian territories of northern Persia and brought them to Karakorum. Among the many Nestorian Christian clerics Rubruck encountered on his trip were Armenians, at least one of which had come from Jerusalem. The Nestorians were busily trying to convert one of the Khan's wives. When they celebrated Easter mass, Rubruck had a crisis of conscience, not knowing whether he should receive communion from those he considered to be heretics. But he noted the presence of Christians who were Hungarians, Alans, Ruthenians (probably Russians or Ukrainians), Georgians, and Armenians. Buddhists (called idolators by Rubruck) were numerous in Karakorum. Our sources in fact keep reminding us of how the Mongols, whose traditional religion was a form of shamanism, were tolerant of most faiths and seemed to have been willing to accept their efficacy for anything from divination to healing.

Finally, Rubruck noted foreign envoys--from the caliph in Baghdad, from the Sultan of India (whose gifts included eight leopards and ten greyhounds trained to sit on the back of a horse), and from the Seljuk Sultan of Turkey. Rubruck himself had undertaken in effect a personal mission, following up on previous attempts by King Louis IX of France, one of the most famous of European monarchs in the age of the Crusades, who had hoped, unrealistically, to enlist the Mongols in the effort to drive the Muslims out of the Holy Land.

Rubruck's visit to the Mongols in 1253-1255 in fact concluded only three years before a Mongol army would sack Baghdad (*) and bring down the Abbasid Caliphate. However, the Mongols were stopped in Syria by the Mamluks, who thus retained control of the Holy Land. This was then the period when Mongol expansion to the West reached a peak. The success of the Mongols of the Golden Horde (who ruled Russia and part of Central Asia) and the Mongol Ilkhanids (who ruled the Middle East) would soon bring those two states into conflict, even as back in the Far East Qubilai Khan was finishing his conquest of China. In the first instance that emerging conflict was over control of international trade (*)--would the routes from Central Asia go north or south of the Caspian?--and is connected with the rivalry of the Genoese and Venetians in the Mediterranean. It is no accident that the Genoese had concluded a trade agreement with the Golden Horde in the 1260s and the ports of the Crimea were in effect Genoese cities. Here (*) is a gilded silver plate from Italy, which has been excavated in one of the towns of the Golden Horde. A currency was issued with the Khan's inscription on one side and the seal of the Bank of St. George of Genoa on the other. It suited the purpose of the Khans of the Golden Horde, who would soon convert to Islam, to combine forces with the Roman Catholic Genoese and help the Eastern Orthodox Byzantine Greeks drive the Catholic Venetians and their crusading allies out of Constantinople (*) in 1261. In short, during the late middle ages (do we not know this as an "age of faith"?), allegiances often were dictated not by religious fervor but by commercial concerns and geopolitical expediency. This is precisely why the multicultural Silk Road could flourish.

Rubruck reported from Karakorum. When we next find a European describing the Mongol capital--of course I have in mind the Venetian Marco Polo--the account is datelined Beijing (*). We have his account, it seems, thanks only to the fact that on his way back to Venice he was captured and thrown into a Genoese jail. Next time we will see what we can learn about the Mongol Empire in the time of Qubilai and Marco, and what the impact of the latter's account was on European perceptions of the world.

Sources and recommended readings:

I. Primary sources:

  • The Secret History of the Mongols. For the First Time done into English out of the Original Tongue and Provided with an Exegetical Commentary by Francis Woodman Cleaves (Harvard UP, 1982). As the extended title hints, done into a kind of quaint Victorian prose, but by a great expert.
  • Christopher Dawson, ed., Mission to Asia (Toronto UP, 1980). The most convenient ed. of Carpini and Rubruck, plus a few other missionary accounts. Formerly published under the title The Mongol Mission.
  • Ata-Malik Juvaini, Genghis Khan: The History of the World-Conqueror, tr. J. A. Boyle, repr. ed. (Univ. of Washington Pr., 1997). Although the florid style of a text written originally in Persian and larded with Quranic and other poetic quotations may take some getting used to, this is an extremely interesting and important source for learning a lot about the early history of the Mongols.
  • Henry Yule and Henri Cordier, eds., Cathay and the Way Thither: Being a collection of Medieval Notices of China, new ed., Vol. III (Hakluyt Soc., 1916). A condensed version of Pegolotti's merchant handbook is on pp. 137-173; selections are available on-line under "Texts" on the Silk Road Seattle website.
  • H.A.R. Gibb, tr., The Travels of Ibn Battuta A. D. 1325-1354. Vols. II-III (The Hakluyt Society, 1958- ). These volumes contain the material on the Golden Horde and Central Asia.
  • The "Tale of the Destruction of Riazan" is in Serge A. Zenkovsky, tr. and ed., Medieval Russia's Epics, Chronicles, and Tales, rev. ed. (Dutton, 1974): 198-207.
  • II. Secondary sources (print):

  • Thomas Barfield, The Perilous Frontier: Nomadic Empires and China, 221 BC to AD 1757 (Blackwell 1989; PB ed., 1992). Chs. 4-6 cover the material from the Uighurs through the Mongols. An important book for its interpretation of the symbiotic nature of nomadic relations with China.
  • The Cambridge History of Early Inner Asia, Denis Sinor ed. (Cambridge UP, 1990). Chs. 12 14, and 15 cover, respectively, the Uighurs, Tibetans and the Kitans and Jurchens. The Uighur chapter is especially good; other material not so readable.
  • Christopher I. Beckwith, The Tibetan Empire in Central Asia (Princeton UP, 1987; PB ed. 1993). While much of this important book will not appeal to the general reader, the essay appended as an epilogue the paperback edition makes a strong and very readable case for the importance of the Tibetan empire in world history.
  • Adam T. Kessler et al., Empires Beyond the Great Wall: The Heritage of Chingis Khan (Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, 1994). Exquisite and informative exhibit catalogue for the artifacts attesting to nomad relations with the Chinese in Inner Mongolia prior to the rise of the Mongol Empire.
  • Mikhail Piotrovsky, ed., Lost Empire of the Silk Road: Buddhist Art from Khara Khoto (X-XIIIth century) (Electa, 1993). Exquisite and informative exhibit catalogue on the Western Xia (Tangut) materials found at Khara Khoto.
  • David Morgan, The Mongols (Blackwell, 1986). Best short survey, by a Persian specialist who, understandably, is not overly kind when discussing Mongol impact.
  • E. D. Phillips, The Mongols (Thames and Hudson, 1969). Useful introduction, especially for discussion of archeological evidence. (
  • Thomas Barfield, The Nomadic Alternative (Prentice Hall, 1993), esp. Ch. 5 on the horse nomads. Good for an anthropologist's perspective.
  • I. de Rachewiltz, Papal Envoys to the Great Khans (Stanford UP, 1971). Good overview of the monk/ambassadors to the Mongols.
  • David B. Miller, "Monumental Building as an Indicator of Economic Trends in Northern Rus' in the Late Kievan and Mongol Periods, 1138-1462," American Historical Review, 94/2 (1989): 360-390 (available on-line via the JSTOR database, for those whose libraries subscribe). An interesting effort to quantify the economic changes in the period of Mongol rule in Russia.
  • III. Internet resources:

  • Materials on "Traditional Cultures" of the Inner Asian nomads, written by Elmira Köchümkulkïzï and Daniel Waugh for the Silk Road Seattle website. So far, pages on dwellings (a lot on yurts), food, and religion, including many of the illustrations used in this lecture.
  • The website of the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, including illustrations of a number of the objects from Khara Khoto.
  • Daniel Waugh, "The Pax Mongolica," an overview of this controversial topic, on the Silkroad Foundation website, where one can also find other pages on the Mongols, the Franciscan travelers, and much more..
  • In response to the question about traditional Chinese religions, I can recommend Stephen F. Teiser, "The Spirits of Chinese Religion," in Donald S. Lopez, tr., Religions of China in Practice (Princeton UP, 1996), on the web here.
  • The Wednesday University is jointly sponsored by the Walter Chapin Simpson Center for the Humanities at the University of Washington and Seattle Arts and Lectures and hosted by the Henry Art Gallery at the University of Washington.