The Khan and You

I really don’t need much encouragement to rant and rave and gush about Mongolian history. Of course, everyone’s favorite period is The Conquest, the many decades that dominate the popular world imagination. People write historical quasi-fantasies about them, reenact them, and compose disco anthems to them.


The funny thing: If you’re not talking payback (damn Tatars!), or Persia or China–the big piggy banks of the 13th and 14th century world–the Mongols were rather uninterested in ruling most places. Give them money, and they’d pretty much go away. They might appoint an overseer of sorts, a somewhat thankless position that often ended in murder when the armies retreated. The Mongols like to strike swiftly, besiege, force able-bodied men to fight for them or die, and cart off craftspeople, then move on. If you read the history from the official Mongol point of view (The Secret History, so called because only Chinggis’s descendents could read it, preserved thanks to Ming Dynasty scholars; the best translation is here), conquest reads like a boring bus trip: Yeah, we hit that place they call the lands of the Ruthenians, and some other place–what was that, Armenia? Georgia? whatever–and those annoyingly not-rich people to the West, and then we turned around. Yeah, but more about Ogedei and his habits! Oh Tenger help us…

They more or less invaded Europe by default, because, hey, why stop when you’re ahead? In more or less untouched and unedited chronicles of this era (for example, in Novgorod), you see entries to that effect, too: In summer, some people called Mongols or something came out of nowhere. They went away. There was a solar eclipse that autumn, and the harvests were good.

The Mongols weren’t particularly itching to rule Europe. Who needs Vladimir or Paris, when you’ve got your heart set on Baghdad?!

Later chroniclers liked to inflate and distort the damage–and thus their valor at throwing off the yoke–though the bloodshed and demands were commiserate to what other armies inflicted at the time. One example: the Orthodox Church in Russia rewrote the chronicles under Ivan the Terrible, to include great lamentations and gnashing of teeth, yet the church owed its ascendency and great wealth to the Mongols’ lenient tax practices. (Pray for the khaan, and religious organizations and communities got total tax and duty exemption, no matter what their faith, something everyone seems to forget.)

So Europe was a side trip for the Mongols. Europeans, in fact, sought the Mongols out (and not just merchants like Marco Polo), and not just to tell them to go away. We owe these missions to a fantastic legend, Prester John, the mysterious, reputedly Christian ruler who dwelt far to the East and would lend aid to Crusaders.

These envoys to the Mongol khans left behind some fascinating accounts, translated into English, of what life was like among the Mongols. One of the most gripping, detailed accounts is that of William of Rubruck, who was sent to minister to the Christians among the Mongols and see if this whole Prester John aid program might finally come to fruition. Alas, no, but Rubruck discovered a whole Christian community: Many of the Mongol noblemen’s Mongol and other steppe nomad wives were Syriac Christian.

This is one of those fascinating instances, when history was not written by the victors (or perhaps when it was rewritten by the more recent victors). Though the Turkic tribes who had similar conquests centuries before left their linguistic traces across Eurasia, there are very few speakers of Mongol-related languages today. Histories written by Mongols almost disappeared; they were, after all, state secrets. Mongols did not want to share their culture with non-Mongols, beyond a few rituals they insisted people follow before approaching a ruler (walking between two fires). They adopted and adapted the cultures of those they ruled, leading to cultural exchange and interaction around the empire. They eventually converted to their subjects’ religions (Buddhism, Islam being the big two, though many Mongols as I mentioned were Christians). The largest, most mysterious record has been left in our DNA: Temujin (aka Chinggis Khaan) and his children spread their heritage around the world.

This is great, in many ways, for the Mongol mystique, not particularly good for our understanding of that era.

DMcK & LAH: This one’s for you.

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