Friday, February 1, 2008

The History of the Mongol Conquests: A Review

JJ Saunders, in his book, “The History of the Mongol Conquests”, attempts to make available to the public a body of research on the Mongol conquests that has until recently only been accessible to specialists in the area. A considerable amount of work in the subject has recently been accumulated in the more accessible English language, bringing with it a re-evaluation of the Mongol conquests. Saunders, in agreement with the conclusions of this re-evaluation, presents it in his book. Dismissing the viewpoint that the Mongol invasions were limited to wholesale destruction, he sheds light on their positive achievements.

Among the first pages of the book, genealogical tables of the Mongol ruling family are presented. The usefulness of these tables is fully appreciated once one has gone beyond the first two chapters of the book. Without the trees, it is near impossible to keep the different branches of the family straight. Thus, they are effective in making sense of the different rivalries and alliances formed between the individuals.

The book is divided into ten chapters and two appendices. Its first chapter is an introduction to the world of the Eurasian nomads. Set in the Eurasian steppes, the chapter describes the physical geography of the region and focuses on the people who have adapted their lifestyles to its harsh environmental conditions. Among these nomadic peoples are the Mongols. The map provided at the beginning of the chapter is a useful tool, showing the physical geography described in the chapter, and pinpointing the approximate locations of each of the communities discussed.

The second chapter delves into a description of the Turkish Empire in Asia as setting the stage for the rise of the Mongols. Saunders compares the two nomadic groups, highlighting the similarities that led to their rise, and contrasting their achievements. A convenient map of the Turkish Empire complements the chapter.

The next chapter opens with a map of Central Asia, showing the locations of the Mongols and their neighbors. This provides a hint of the contents of the chapter: The breakup of the Turkish Empire and the resulting rise of the Uighurs, Tanguts, Ch’I-tan, Chin and Sung. It is noteworthy that no single major centralized state is established.

Saunders’ fourth chapter is a charming mix of fact and legend. It takes us into the life of Chingis Khan and details the rise of the Mongol leader to military celebrity and administrative genius. Under him, an empire is born: the Merit, Naiman, Kara-Khitay, Chin and Khwarizmian territories fall under his control. Any resistance to the Mongol expansion is rewarded with large-scale slaughter. Unprecedented mingling of cultures in Asia is a feature of the era. A hint of the diversity expressed in the regions under Mongol control is illustrated in a map showing the religious distribution of the area.

Chingis’ death in the fifth chapter is a significant event. He is replaced after a while by his son Ögedei, whose reign pushes the empire into Chin territory, the remnants of Khwarizm and through Poland into Hungary. A traumatized Europe is relieved when a raid is stopped short by Ögedei’s death. A particularly useful map shows the routes used by the different hordes of Mongols in their invasions.

Chapter six describes the alarm among Christian authorities resulting from this invasion of Europe. Christian diplomatic missions sent to the Mongol Khan are rebuffed, but the diplomats come away with a better idea of Mongol strength and methods. Further raids of Muslim Asia are stopped by the death of the Khan Möngke. The Battle of Ayn Jalut is fought and lost by the Mongols. This marks the end of their expansion and the beginning of division of the empire as highlighted in the accompanying map.

One of the major problems faced by the Mongol rulers, that of no prior experience ruling over sedentary societies, is highlighted in the seventh chapter. The differences in religion between the rulers and the ruled further compound this situation. Kubilai Khan manages to conquer entire Chinese realm and to invade much of South Eastern Asia. The monarchy of Il-Khans in Persia is strengthened as the number of Mongol converts to Islam increases. After Kubilai’s death, its break in links with the Mongol base in China and establishment as an independent entity is only natural.

Chapter eight characterizes unrest among Chinese and Persian masses as leading to the fall of the already shaky Mongol Empire. Saunders takes time to reflect on China’s achievements under the Mongols: her people took to the sea, had interactions with Islam and Christianity and established trade links with Persia. This is only part of the story, though. As shown in the next chapter the Khanate of the Golden Horde of Mongols takes shape in Russia. The Khan, Timur, inflicts irreparable damage on Kipchak, and the khanate fragments. Another Timur rises in Chagatai, accumulating power through genocidal campaigns.

The tenth chapter closes this venture into Eurasian history with an assessment of the results of Mongol rule. For one, the strength and distribution of the major religions is changed. A second feature is the transformation in the ethnic character of the different regions. Thirdly, Asia is opened up to European penetration by land and sea.

Following this chapter are two appendices, the first of which discusses the “Secret History of the Mongols”, the primary source for Saunders’ book, whose author is to-date unknown. Appendix two examines the possibility that the Mongols may have been responsible for introducing gunpowder and firearms from China into Europe.

Saunders writes well, combining information from different sources smoothly. However, the large number of details can be confusing, especially when a single event is told from several different perspectives.

Using his primary source to provide the official history, Saunders supplements his work with chronicles and histories recorded in different segments of the empire. These describe the invasions and their immediate results. Additionally, modern day historical analyses are used. These detail the economic and political developments derived from the Mongol Empire.

His documentation is detailed, including endnotes, and a bibliography for each chapter. By highlighting the positive developments arising from the Mongol invasions, achieves his thesis. His method is sufficiently persuasive. Ironically, despite all the evidence he gives to the contrary, Saunders describes the Mongols as a barbaric and cultureless people several times.

Not only would the book serve as an ideal introduction to the subject area, but its excellent documentation would also be helpful in sourcing material for further research in the area. Saunders’ politically statements do not detract significantly from the balanced image of the Mongols that he strives to depict.

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This essay is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License. Please feel free to use my writing for non-commercial purposes and do credit my name Rose Kahendi as the writer.

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