How did a scatteredcollection of goat herders, led by the fatherless child of a minor chieftain, build the largestempire in history? How were they able to build an empire that would eventually stretch acrossAsia, India, the Mid-East and Eastern Europe? The Mongols were able to rise to power becausethey were a highly advanced culture as seen through their military technology, their trade andpreservation of elaborate art work, and their fair administrative policy. One of the greatest factors in the Mongol’s favor was their highly advanced militarytechnology. Mongols were so skilled at siege-craft that they rarely lost when besieging a castle. In order to use the latest in military siege craft, the Mongols contracted Chinese and MiddleEastern engineers who could design, build and use siege devices like catapults (Lemonick, 67). On one occasion the Mongols built their own wall outside the city’s own walls so they couldshoot missiles from relative safety.
When the Mongols besieged a city, they also used manyingenious strategies. One of the most commonly used Mongol tactic was to besiege the city for awhile, then fall back. The army inside the city walls, thinking the Mongols were retreating,would open the gates and come out in pursuit. From there the powerful Mongols would destroythe tired army, which was probably suffering water and food shortages inside the sealed-offwalls.
One very clever tactic used by the Mongols was the use of water. “On one occasion that the caliph’s troops ventured forth, the Mongols broke a dikebehind them, trapping them with flood waters. ” (Edwards, The Great Khans, 25)This quote refers to an incident when the city of Nishapur, capital of Shah Mohammed. TheMongols used almost the same strategy when attacking Xi Xia. The Mongols, unable to take thecity by conventional means, looked to a nearby river and broke its levy. This flood eitherthreatened to or did destroy the city’s wall, and forced the city to surrender (Edwards, Lord of theMongols, 37).
The Mongols also had good weapons for non-siege warfare. Their greatestbattlefield asset was their horse. The hardy Mongols ponies were treated with such care thatmany people today may think of it as pampering. Because of these ponies, the Mongol cavalryhad the ability to advance on its enemy at astonishing speed. Mongols also made use of stirrups,which allowed them to ride standing up and to shoot arrows in any direction.
The Mongols alsohad a well-developed communication system, called “orto” that involved riders carryingmessages on horseback, similar to the pony express. This system was highly important inlearning about and deterring any potential enemies (Kessier, 52). The Mongols also made a lasting contribution through their preservation and creation ofsuperb art work. A great gift of the Mongols was their preservation of Chinese, Indian, and Mid-Eastern art styles.
During the reign of Kublai Khan many Chinese works including porcelain andsilk clothing were brought to his court. “Bejeweled and robed in silk, he Kublai Khan ruled from a palace whose wallswere plated with gold and silver and decorated with the figures of dragons, beastsand birds” (Time, 26)Kublai obviously had a taste for Chinese luxuries. By bringing artworks to his court, he was ableto preserve them. The Mongols also influenced the works of other countries, as seen here:”The discovery of Chinese and Indian inspired imagery on porcelain and sculptureconfirm Mongolia’s role in the cultural exchange between China and Eurasia. “(Lemonick, 66)Much artwork that is today considered to be ancient Chinese was influenced or actually madeby the Mongols. They were able to make such influences due to their control of the “silk road,”the thousand mile long trade network linking Russia, Mongolia, China and India.
On this traderoute the Mongols also traded their own work. Their art, however, was much more practical. Asopposed to making vases and paintings, the Mongols carved elaborate designs on their saddlesand weapons like their bows and arrows. Although the Mongols are often portrayed as ruthless cannibals, their treatment of theirvassals was fair and just. The Mongols did not randomly attack and pillage their subject. It wasonly when the vassals rebelled that the Mongols attacked.
One Mongol technique was that theyleft Mongol representatives to make sure the city would not rebel. When the city paid its tribute,they were treated well by the Mongols. It was only when they defied the Mongols that they werepunished. A technique the Mongols used to determine if a country was going to remain loyalwas by leaving diplomats. If they were killed after the Mongols left, the Mongol army wouldreturn to destroy the disloyal city. On one occasion the Xi Xia empire refused to provide theMongols with troops in a time of need.
Several years later, the Mongols returned to Xi Xia andre-invaded the city, destroying the entire Xi Xia kingdom. On another occasion, a caravan underMongol protection was traveling through Utar. Believing the caravan was a cover for spies, thegovernor killed all the people in it. Genghis sent an ambassador to the governor’s ruler, ShahMohammed, demanding the governor be handed over for punishment.
The Shah broughtdisaster upon himself by decapitating the ambassador and sending his head back to Genghis. The Mongols attacked the Shah’s empire and completely destroyed it. The governor who killedthe caravan, Inalchug, was killed by having molten metal poured down his throat. Mohammedwas also executed. One of the Mongol’s greatest qualities was their tolerance of all religions.
Once a state was conquered its religion was allowed to remain in tact. When the Mongolsinvaded the kingdom of Kara-Khitai, they were welcomed by the Muslim population, who werenot allowed to worship under the leader Kuchlug. Kuchlug had even executed a Muslimreligious leader. When Genghis and his army took the kingdom, he took the Muslims under hiswing and killed Kuchlug (Edwards, 29). He also allowed the kingdom’s government to remain.
The Mongols can be viewed as a very cultural and advanced civilization through theirmilitary innovations, their contribution to the art world and their fair treatment of their loyalsubjects. The Mongols are often shown in European artwork as eating human flesh; or not beinghuman, but monsters with no heads. As you can see the Mongols were not any of these things. Although they were ambitious conquerors, one must remember that they were more tolerant ofdifferent races and religions than many nations can say they are today.