The Mongols have a storied reputation, arguably the greatest archers of the medieval, the greatest horse back archers, the greatest riders, masters of trade. Impressive as these are they were also given a reputation for being savage barbarians, not so smart and enjoyed much of their victories by overwhelming their enemies in sheer numbers. The Mongols is an interesting subject with a lot more depth than they are usually given credit.
Before one can speak of the Mongols we must speak about Genghis Khan. Genghis Khan was the one responsible for uniting all of the nomadic tribes in North East Asia which was a grand task in itself as Genghis had to prove himself not only against opposing tribes but conflicts within his own tribe. This task took most of Genghis’ life as he had started when he was a 25 year old with no real claims to the age of 40, this type of hardship was not unfamiliar to Genghis but it still took a while for him to achieve this, upon the completion of this task he had created the Great Khan Empire. Genghis Khan, after uniting the North Eastern tribes and founding the Empire he was quick to start invading many other areas and soon it became one of the largest kingdoms in the known world. The Mongol invasions happened so fast and precisely that before the end of Genghis’ life he had conquered much of Eurasia and the Balkans.
Genghis Khan’s Empire had spread immensely, this presented it many challenges, with division within the Empire based on tribes, position (social status) etc. but much like the Qin Dynasty of China it was a very meritocratic Empire, those who were loyal to Genghis and proved their worth were given high positions and placed at the head of armies. This meant that a lot of his higher positioned men were low-clan peoples. Genghis had implemented laws and restrictions in a way to keep his empire unified, Genghis had made it illegal to sell women and to steal from other Mongolian civilians and appointed his adopted brother head of law. These were just one way in which Genghis had solidified the unity of his empire, Genghis also allowed free worship among his people and did not tax the poor or clergy. Though free worship was applied to his empire Genghis Khan forbade certain religious practices, such as kosher eating, halal slaughter and circumcision, Genghis also treated Jews and Muslim peoples as slaves. The promotion of literacy under the Uyghur script created the mix of Mongolian and Uyghur script (Uyghur-Mongol script) meant that many were educated in a single script allowing for social unity, the promotion of literacy also created a more educated base population.
By 1240 A.D. Genghis Khan’s empire spread from the Caspian Sea to the Pacific under his 3rd son’s guidance, this made it the largest empire, near double the size of the Roman Empire, these victories were in the most part due to the skill of the cavalry and horse back archery of the Mongols. Though the major fighting force of the Mongol armies were their cavalry, the sheer discipline of the mongol troops was immense and the tactics employed by the armies was what made these troops so very effective. In many of the battles the Mongols were largely outnumbered and had to rely on tactics and strategy, many of which relied heavily on separating the army into even smaller numbers and flanking or surrounding the enemy. This was only as effective as it was due to the speed and mobility of the cavalry units. The mongol warriors had a variety of weapons including two of their famous mongol re-curve bows, one was used for horse back archery and was light in weight with the capacity to fire more rapidly than the second bow. The second bow was larger and heavier, the design of this bow was specifically for long range and lower, more accurate rate of fire, this bow was used on the ground, due to its weight and size. The close range weapons were the curved blade known as the Shamshir a blade designed to cut and bleed out the enemy, a battle axe, a lance which was used on horseback, this increased the penetration of the lance due to the velocity and speed of a horse’s charge.
The armour worn by the mongol warriors was a light leather which allowed swift movement and greater mobility, the armour was reinforced with a lacquer-like substance that made it extremely tough to penetrate. The leg guards were of iron plates that overlapped to create a scale like armour which was sewn into the boots. The mongol horses also had this leather armour as it protected the mongols main asset in their attacking, but did not compromise the speed and manoeuvrability.
The death of Genghis in 1227 A.D. had little effect on the running of his empire, under the regency of Ogedei’s younger brother it was well maintained until the formal election of Ogedei as the ‘Great Khan’. Ogedei’s first actions were to subjugate the tribes in the Kipchak-controlled steppes. When the steppes came under mongol control, Ogedei focused on the Jin Dynasty of China and by 1234 A.D. the Mongol army took Caizhou which in turn ended the Jin Dynasty. Upon their victory over the Jin Ogedei went to war with the Song Dynasty and Russia. The swiftness of the Mongols secured Sichuan and Yangtze but never gained complete control and the conquest was stopped due to the sudden death of Ogedei’s son, after which the Song pressed back and recaptured Siyang-Yang. Though the war with the Song Dynasty was cut short, Straight after Prince Koten took Tibet. Despite success in campaigning there was a tense relationships between Ogedei’s son Guyuk, Buru, Chagatai Khan’s grandson and Genghis Khans grandson Batu (Khan of the golden horde), as success grew for Batu the direct heirs to Ogedei could not do anything so long as Ogedei lived. This later led to a divided empire. The return to advantageous positions after the success of the Tibetan Conquest Ogedei focused his attempts on India whilst Batu and the others were to continue to take the Russians, this particular war is arguably a large reason why the mongols are thought of Barbaric.
In 1238 A.D. the mongols encroached upon Alania in which they proceeded to besiege the town, after three days the Mongols had taken the town and massacred its inhabitants before destroying the army of the Grand principality of Vladimir at the battle of the sit river. This defeat had the Armenian and Georgian nobles surrender, soon after the Russian steppes belonged to the Mongols with the fall of Kiev. The unprecedented success of Batu and company had the Mongols next target set on Europe. The European conquest started off well, with the defeat of the coalition of the Christian orders Hospitallers, Teutonic Knights and, the Templars but before Batu could carry the momentum news of Ogedei’s death in 1241 A.D. halted the conquest.
With Ogedei’s death the tension within the Mongol Empire came to boiling point and dis-unity and civil war spread through the Empire which led to the slow separation of the Empire into States, with Khans for each. Though they were separated the had mutual agreements and maintained a relative peace, but due to this each Khan lost touch with it’s allies and was easily dismantled by the powerful Ming Dynasty.
Though there were large acts of barbarism within the Mongol Empire it can be argued that it was not to much more in comparison to other large empires, the killing of horses for food and sustenance if need be on the other hand (Including slicing the jugular and drinking of the horses blood) was a necessity for survival as the soldiers acted independently of supply lines. In general the composition and control of the Mongol Empire was a complex and effective way of growing a stable empire. To claim they were barbaric and numerous is to be unfairly labelled as they worked with strategy and efficiency. Though the skill of the Mongols is respected, the intelligence and tolerance of the Mongols is highly undermined.