How Did the Mongol Invasions Affect Global History?

Taizu aka Genghis Khan

The Mongol invasions of the 13th century affected much of Eurasia, where at one point, the Mongols had conquered lands stretching from China to Eastern Europe. While these invasions have been depicted as very destructive and disruptive to trade and urban life in many regions, several new developments fundamentally changed the course of history for Europe and Asia. Many of these impacts are not obvious, but the Mongols' influences, in effect, can still be felt today.

Who did the Mongols Conquer?

The Mongol conquests initiated by Genghis Khan, who united the often warring Mongol and Turkic tribes, in 1206 and continuing through his successors until the end of the 13th century launched a period of unprecedented destruction and transformation Eurasia. At surface value, the destruction during the 13th century when these conquests took place was immense. Some have estimated that the Mongol invasions killed more people than any other war if one adjusted for global population levels. Up to 5% of the planet may have been killed during the invasions. Additionally, the invasions have been suggested to begin the spread of the Black Death plague, as population tactics and movements may have helped the bacteria spread more easily.

Many of the great cities in East Asia, Central Asia, and West Asia were either destroyed or lost much of their cultural property. Cities were as diverse as Kyiv, Nishapur, Samarkand, and Baghdad were heavily damaged or destroyed. It is estimated that nearly half or more of the population died in the invasions and aftermath in some countries. In some regions, the populations did not fully recover until the 20th century.[1]

Why were the Mongols able to defeat stronger enemies?

Figure 1. Areas conquered and incorporated by the Mongols.

While the Mongol strategy appeared cruel, it was also intended to avoid major setbacks due to their relatively small numbers. Mongols' major advantage was their rapidly deploying and attacking before their enemies had time to organize. The Mongols were often greatly outnumbered, but through divide and conquer tactics, deception, and superior tactical management, they overcame enemies that looked far stronger on paper. Additionally, to avoid revolts and other problems in areas they had already conquered, the Mongol strategy also included reducing these areas to the point where they could not be a threat again. This was not a universal policy, as Mongols did offer cities a chance to surrender. If they refused, then their penalty was often harsh in the near destruction of the population. [2]

While the Mongols' conquest peaked in the 13th century, they did continue to invade and attack various regions long after this time. In the 14th-15th centuries, China and Iran continued to be under Mongol control, while the Mughal state in India lasted into the 19th century and was influenced by the earlier Mongol invasions. Many of the key trade cities along the Silk Road and regions in China initially declined due to the invasions. Still, the situation soon changed as much of Eurasia remained pacified for much of the 13th-14th centuries, leading to regained prosperity along with parts of the Silk Road.[3]

What was the Impact of the Mongol Invasions?

Figure 2. Marco Polo dressed in Tatar clothing, often used by Mongols.

The Mongol invasions did cause a prolonged peaceful period called the Pax Mongolica. While many of the great states contended with rivalries and their own regional conquests before the Mongols, this also limited some contacts between them. The Mongol dominion now opened up new connections that were easier to traverse as regions between Eastern Europe to China were largely pacified. The Mongols also acquired new technical knowledge, such as Chinese engineers and taxes, to expand their empire. This enabled them to create a more stable empire that then began to govern and see the benefit of developing cities for the Mongol rulers' benefit through increased revenue. Ultimately, the conquests led to a relative political calm in much of Eurasia that came after the initial conquests.[4]

In Europe, and preceding the Age of Discovery that led to the founding of the New World, explorers such as Marco Polo could more easily go on the Silk Road and travel across Eurasia with minimal hindrance and banditry (Figure 2). Knowledge now also began to move across China more freely and Europe, leading to mathematics, medicine, printing, and astronomy to be brought to Europe. New forms of banking and insurance practices, first done in Eurasia, now also spread to Europe and helped lead to important banking and insurance families in Italy and beyond.

In effect, the knowledge and information transfer that became easier did help lead to what would become the Renaissance in Europe, where it was first started by Italians who were most closely associated with trade activities in the Silk Road and contacts with Eurasia.[5]

Products such as pepper, ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg, and other spices were now introduced to Europe at much greater rates. Prices for products dropped as fewer authorities competed for taxes collected along the Silk Road. Additionally, with increased trade activity once again becoming common, and new knowledge spread to Europe. It developed within. There was a greater impetus to now circumvent the revitalized Silk Road in the 15th century. Traders saw the potential to benefit more if parts of the trade network were avoided, and if distance and travel time could be cut to the major producing regions of India and China could be reached.

Improved navigation and shipbuilding now meant ships could traverse more distance and along open oceans. In effect, the motive for later sea explorers, including Christopher Columbus, was to reach the east's riches, including India, as diminished prices and potential profits along Silk Road destinations proved to be very tempting. The discovery of the New World was, in some ways, then influenced by the Mongol conquests since it reengaged Europe in trade with the East and led to explorers wanting to find new routes to circumvent intermediaries along the way to the major destinations and eventual markets.[6]

How did Invasions Affect the Long-Term Demographics and Global Power?

Over time, much of the Mongols' influence has become more of a background to other historical developments. Important trades shifted away from the Silk Road, and the New World gained a greater significance in the global economy. However, one area that the Mongol invasions have continued to affect is demographics. Central Asia has experienced some of the greatest changes, where the decline of Indo-Aryan or Indo-European languages, such as those based on Persian, reflect a shift more to Turkic type languages.

This also likely reflects a greater presence of Turkic populations as they increasingly moved across Central Asia during conquests that saw major cities and populations removed. Such migrations had begun in the 11th century but increased further. Many regions remained relatively depopulated for centuries, such as Iran and Iraq, where those regions had once supported far larger populations, and those levels of populations did not fully recover until perhaps the 20th century. This also meant these regions became less significant in global affairs, as new powers arose to replace them in the Near East and surrounding regions.

How did the Mongols Change China?

In general, Central Asia and the Middle East became more depopulated. As they also lost their ability to control trade routes after navigation improved to circumvent the Silk Road routes, this created new opportunities for populations from the eastern parts of Central Asia to increasingly move into other regions of Central Asia and the Middle East. Eventually, this led to more influence and the rise of Turkic based dynasties, which had begun already before the Mongols, and the Ottoman Empire in Turkey. [7]

In China, the impacts did also lead to new political developments. The Yuan dynasty became a successor Chinese state from a Mongol khanate. However, in China, the invasion may not have been as destructive to the population, as they seemed to recover by the 14th and 15th centuries. Nevertheless, China's experience with the Mongol invasions may have contributed to its isolationist policies that started in the late 15th century.

The outside began to look like an uncivilized place, where the Mongol destruction was still relatively fresh on the mind of Chinese rulers, leading to a greater focus away from the rest of the world. This had long-term consequences for China. It led to its economic and eventually political decline in the latter half of the 2nd millennium and leading up to the early 20th century. In effect, one of the great global powers began to become insular.[8]

Conclusion

The Mongol invasions were among the most devastating invasions in global history. Few recorded events in history caused by human actions have been as destructive, and wars may not have reached a comparable scale until the 19th and 20th centuries. However, there were greater impacts based on invasions. Mainly it also created opportunities for some regions while others saw their fortunes fall. Perhaps Europe benefited from the invasions as it helped lower prices in trade goods that now began to flow more greatly. The new knowledge also flowed to Europe that helped to combine with shifting attitudes, which eventually launched the Renaissance.

Other regions, particularly in the Middle East, declined in political and economic power, as depopulation had major consequences. In part, China's policies also adjusted based on experiences with the Mongols, which then led to new rulers in China becoming more isolationist over time. Demographic changes occurred as new migrations became possible that have now subsequently affected today's populations in the Middle East and Central Asia in particular. More Turkish based influences have subsequently replaced many Indo-Arayan languages across Central Asia.

References

  1. For more on the conquests by the Mongols, see: Saunders, J. J. (2001). The History of the Mongol Conquests. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
  2. For more on Mongol war tactics, see: May, T. M. (2007). The Mongol Art of War: Chinggis Khan and the Mongol Military System. Yardley, Penn: Westholme.
  3. For more on the political effects of the Mongols, see: Reid, S. (1994). Cultures and Civilizations: The Silk and Spice Routes. London: Belitha Press : UNESCO Pub.
  4. For more on the "Pax Mongolica," see: Parker, C. H., & Bentley, J. H. (Eds.). (, 2007). Between the Middle Ages and Modernity: Individual and Community in the Early Modern World. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, pg. 94.
  5. For more on the role of trade and contacts between Europe, the Middle East, China, and India during the late Medieval period, see: Hebron, L., & Stack, J. F. (2008). Globalization: Debunking the Myths. Upper Saddle River, N.J: Pearson Prentice Hall, pg. 2.
  6. For more on the products and long-term impact on Europe based on increased interactions with the Silk Road, see: Arnold, D. (2002). The Age of Discovery, 1400-1600 (2nd ed). London ; New York: Routledge, pg. 6.
  7. For more on demographic and political changes due to the Mongols, see: Harris, P. M. G. (2001). The History of Human Populations. Westport, Conn: Praeger.
  8. For more on the impact of the Mongols on China, see: Langlois, J. D. (Ed.). (, 1981). China Under Mongol Rule. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press.

Updated December 7, 2020