The Mongol Empire
& the Modern Age
Fast forward a few generations after Genghis's death and his sons and grandsons have picked up where the big Khan had left off. The Mongol Horde had pushed into Russia and Egypt in the west; finally making it to the city of Vienna in Austria where, finding not much of value to loot, turned around and went home. They even conquered the Song Dynasty of China, which not even Genghis had been able to achieve. But anyone can build an empire; it’s totally another thing to keep it going.
The Mongols were like anyone else: they liked their bling. The Silk Road was the lifeline of the empire. Spices, pearls, cotton, and lapis lazuli (a blue gem), came from India and Central Asia. Europe supplied salt, furs and iron. China supplied the silks and fancy pottery. But the old Silk Road could be a dangerous place for caravans loaded with priceless goods. If the weather didn’t kill you then the bandits probably would.
The Mongols solved such problems by creating services stations, called yams, every twenty miles to protect travelers and provide a place to get a hot meal and place to lay your head. The yams were part motel, part post office, and part military barracks. They made traveling the Silk Road safe and efficient which is always good for business. It is said that in the time of the Mongol Empire a caravan loaded with gold could travel from one end of the Silk Road to the other without needing a bodyguard. And that is exactly how the Mongols wanted it. The Mongols also created the world’s first passport that travelers hung around their necks. Each passport was made of a different material engraved with a symbol that told how important the traveler was.
The Silk Road: Information Superhighway
To the Persians, Europeans, and Chinese the Mongols were nothing more than barbarians. But these barbarians didn’t go around burning libraries and using scholars for target practice. No, they were a new breed of enlightened barbarians. Instead of simply trashing the places they conquered, the Mongols embraced new ideas and technologies. Whenever they conquered a city, they divided the people into groups based on their skills. Doctors, teachers, engineers, and scientists were sent back to Mongol Headquarters to put their knowledge to good use. The same thing happened to those who were good with their hands. The Mongols always had a use for blacksmiths, furniture makers, jewelers, and scribes. Even if you didn’t have a skill, no worries, the Mongols always found a place for you. You could either join the Mongol army or if you were unfit for even that type of work the Mongols would drive you in front of their armies so that your body could fill the moat, making it easier to attack the walls. It’s nice to be needed.
As we said, the Mongols were unlike many of their historical barbarian brothers in that they embraced education as way of moving their empire forward. Genghis Khan never went to school a day in his life, and neither did any Mongol for that matter. But that didn’t stop him realizing the value of writing. The Mongol script was adopted from the Muslim Uyghur people of western China, using Arabic as its alphabet. On the steppes the Mongols could pass down their laws through campfire stories but an empire is too big for that. Using scribes (abducted from some unlucky city they had conquered no doubt), the Mongols had books from all over the empire translated into Mongol. The Mongols brought Chinese doctors to the Middle East and Islamic scholars went the other way. Ideas like acupuncture and the use of Chinese herbs were taught to Arab doctors. Indian, Arab, and Greek surgical knowledge helped to improve Chinese medical practices.
The Mongols carried new inventions back and forth across Eurasia. The Middle invention of the triangular plow helped to revolutionize agriculture in China while the Chinese blast furnace made European metal working easier and stronger. Astronomy, mathematics, engineering, banking, there was no field of knowledge that the Mongols didn’t get involved in: except perhaps AP Calculus, curiosity has its limits after all.
All of this knowledge was recorded on another Chinese invention; paper. Paper was lightweight and unlike the animal skins (parchment) being used at the time, were cheap and easy to make. Paper mills spread along the Silk Road and revolutionized the way information was transmitted. Think of it as the internet revolution of the 13th century. The invention of paper also came with another handy Chinese idea: the printing press. The Chinese invented the idea of a movable type printing press around 1041. This handy invention made writing books by hand obsolete. The Europeans wouldn’t discover this technology until 1451 when a German inventor named Johannes Gutenberg created a movable type printing press that catapulted Europe onto the world stage. Whether or not Gutenberg knew of the Chinese discovering is still being debated but it is likely that through the Mongols the Chinese press had reached Europe long before Gutenberg.
Samarkand paper mill
The Chinese kept the knowledge of paper making a closely guarded secret. Until the Mongols spread it to Central Asia, the Middle East and eventually Europe.
Gunpowder Comes Out with a Bang
All along the Mongol controlled Silk Road new ideas flowed freely between east and west; and the world would never be the same. From China, Europe and the Middle East were introduced to the magnetic compass, paper, the printing press (Gutenberg would later reintroduce it), and porcelain. The award for “biggest historical game changer" though goes to gunpowder.
The Chinese had begun experimenting with saltpeter (the main ingredient in gunpowder) around the 10th century. When lit, saltpeter gives off a purple flame and makes a lot of noise, which Taoist priests used to scare away evil spirits. It didn’t take long before Fireworks became an instant hit at parties and summer barbeques.
The Chinese were also the first to use gunpowder as a weapon. The process really isn't all that difficult. Simply fill a bamboo tube, place in a silk wick, and voila— you have the world’s first rocket! By the time the Mongols arrived on the world scene, advances in gunpowder had come a long way. Someone had thought to pack an iron tube with gunpowder and the first handgun was born: although it looked more like a flamethrower. Using Chinese engineers, the Mongols made a giant version packed full of rocks and the world was introduced to the cannon. The Islamic world turned the Chinese invention into a hand grenade, which the Chinese then re-borrowed and converted into the first landmine. When an unsuspecting target stepped on the device a fuse was lit and exploded the gunpowder... well you know what happened then. The Mongols were all too eager to borrow this novel idea and use it against the Song by creating naval mines— which were nothing more than landmines packed into an animal skins fitted with a long burning fuse.
The Sack of Baghdad
It was in the year 1257 when a small group of Mongol horseman made its way to the city of Baghdad with a message from the Great Khan himself. Mongke Khan sent his brother Hugalu with a message for the Caliph of Baghdad; submit to Mongol authority or die. The Mongols saw the Islamic empire as a threat to their own which stretched from China to Russia. Unwisely, the Caliph chose to listen to his trusted Vizier and rejected the Great Khan’s demand. Instead he sent tribute but he refused to swear his loyalty. The beginning of the end of the Islamic Golden Age had begun. The Caliph replied that no army had ever been able to get past the cities towering walls. Plus, all of the Islamic world would surely rise up to defend the very heart of the empire.
But the Caliph was arrogant and unwise. He ignored the fact that the great center of the Islamic world had been in decay for centuries. The bustling markets that once awed visitors had become deserted as merchants made their way to other cities. The walls had been neglected and fallen into disrepair. Even the army which once had over a hundred thousand troops now only had dropped to 60,000.
But most damaging of all was that the Caliph didn’t realize that his trusted vizier had other plans. (if only he had watched the Disney version of Aladdin he would have known how untrustworthy Viziers can be) Secretly he schemed with the Mongols to take the Caliphate for himself. The armies of Egypt and Syria did not come. They were too busy fighting the Crusaders who had invaded the Holy Land.
Who You Calling A Mongke?
When Mongke Khan heard this he ordered Hugalu to level the city to the ground. The Mongol conscripted one out of every ten men to serve in the Mongol attack on Baghdad. The 150,000 man army was the largest ever assembled by any Mongol ruler. The Mongols set up a siege around the city and set up trebuchets to hurl stones from demolished houses in the suburbs. He then ordered the on the Tigris River be demolished unleashing a torrent of water on the defenders camp. The Caliph sent out 20,000 cavalry to break the siege but they were driven back, most of them drowned in the Tigris River trying to escape.
The Mongols, having broken through the walls, went through the city on an orgy of violence. Palaces were looted and the grand House of Wisdom was burned to the ground. Its tens of thousands of books were dumped into the Tigris to make a bridge for the Mongol army. No is sure how many people died in those weeks following the Mongol sack of Baghdad, some say 100,000 some say the number is closer to a million. What is certain is that the Mongols brought to an end the reign of the Abbasids and an era known as the Golden Age of Islam. The Mongols didn’t stay long. A few decades later a new Islamic empire–The Ottomans– would begin its rise to the north in Turkey. As for the Vizier, he never did get his Caliphate.
Hello Black Plague, Goodbye Mongols
The Mongols left a huge footprint on the world map, but their empire lasted not more than a century. The Mongol Empire was brought down by the very thing that made it so powerful: trade. In one of the biggest ironies of history, the Silk Road made international trade boom in the 13th century. Goods and ideas flowed and transformed the civilizations from Europe to China. But hidden in the cargo of the cloth and straw was a tiny parasite that was about to wreak havoc on a scale never seen before. The bacterium: Yersinia Pestis (aka the Black Death) lived in the saliva of a certain flea which found a comfy home in the fur of black rats. The Plague was nothing new. It had come and gone, killing thousands of people and then disappearing at numerous times in history. This particular bout of plague would be especially nasty.
Beginning in southern China in the early 1300s, the Black Death killed millions there before making its way along the Silk Road. It was estimated that China had 125 million people in 1300 but by the time the plague had made its way through the country the population had dropped to 60 million. From to city to city along the Silk Road the Black Plague would wipe out between 50-90% of the population. In the days before the microscope or the knowledge of bacterium people were left to their own imaginations to explain what was causing these horrific deaths. People who were healthy a day before now fell sick with blood blistering under their skin and nails, lumps formed under their armpits and groin, and sickening blisters began to ooze before bursting and spreading the infection further. The plague spread as fast as people could carry it. By the time it arrived at the port city of Kaffa 300 million people had died.
The Genoese merchants at Kaffa were fighting a war with the Mongols and according to one story, the Mongols hurled the bodies of plague victims over the walls. The panicked residents tried to dump the bodies into the Black Sea but it was already too late. No one knows if the story is true but one thing is for sure. When the Genoese brought a load of cargo into Egypt and Sicily, they unknowingly brought the plague with them into Europe. The Black Death would kill one-third of Europe’s population and then, just as suddenly as it had come, the plague burned itself out. Not until the AIDS epidemic of modern times would anyone see a disease so horrific. But the Black Death claimed one last victim: the Mongol Empire. During the twenty that plague ravaged the Silk Road, trade came to a standstill. Without trade to connect their empire, the various Khans were isolated. Some adopted Islam and the Mongol culture faded away. The Yuan Dynasty of China became oppressive ad cruel before it was overthrown by the Ming Dynasty in 1368, that is the official year historians give for the death of the empire that Genghis Khan built.