I wrote yesterday about the importance of horses to the development of the Mongolian empire.
But it wasn’t just the horses that allowed the Mongolians to conquer most of the world. It was also their advanced military tactics.
Genghis Khan (1162 – 1227) was one of the greatest military tacticians in world history. He created Mongolia out of a smattering of warring tribes. But how did he do it? He was quite poor. He had no teachers. His father died (likely poisoned) early in his life. His wife was kidnapped shortly after they’d married. In short, he led a very, very difficult life in a remote part of Mongolia (near the location of the camp where I stayed).
And yet he created a massive Empire.
He was, in every sense of the term, a “self-made man.”
Rather than rely on traditional teachers, he turned to the wildlife around him. He learned how to battle by watching wolves track prey. He took their tactics and applied them to his well-organized army.
With that baseline, he also developed new tactics as he moved along. When he conquered a new land, he would take the strategies and tools of his new subjects and improve upon them for his next battle.
Perhaps most interestingly, once he conquered a new land, he didn’t change much. He allowed people to continue living much as they had in the past. For the most part, his was not an “occupying force.”
In fact, The Great Mongolian Empire was probably the earliest example of true religious freedom. Buddhists, Muslims, Christians, and Shamanists all worshipped side-by-side in Mongolian cities.
The empire continued to expand even after Genghis Khan died in 1227. At its height, it stretched from the Pacific Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea. Can you believe that!! That makes it the second largest empire in the history of our planet. Britain retains the number one slot.
In order to continue its growth, Genghis Khan’s grandson Kublai Khan (1215 – 1294) moved the capital to Daidu, which you know today as Beijing. He recognized that the resources to the south in China were vastly greater than those in his fatherland. Much to the chagrin of his countrymen, he and his family began “acting” more Chinese in order to ingratiate themselves to these new subjects.
And that marked the beginning of the end of the empire. Another factor – the Bubonic Plague – would also come into play and has important implications for how we in the West view the Mongolian Empire today.
The Black Death, which probably began in southern China, was easily transferred westward toward Europe along the newly fortified Silk Road (fortified, of course, thanks to the Khans). It would devastate virtually everyone in its path.
Once Europe recovered from the Plague and climbed out of the Dark Ages, it became the dominant player on the world’s stage. During this Renaissance, Europeans retold the history of the Mongol Empire from a position of strength.
The winners always get to write history.
During the Renaissance, people were taught that the Mongolian Empire was filled with a bunch of backward barbarians. They were told Genghis Khan and his heirs were evil and brutal killers (don’t get me wrong, he embraced some pretty awful tactics, but so did many military greats). Even today, the term “Mongol” carries negative connotations.
The void left by the fall of the Mongolian Empire would be covered largely by China.
I learned on my last night that modern Mongolians have not lost the fighting spirit of their ancestors.
And it nearly cost me my teeth…
Stay tuned for more!