Weird History
116.7k readers

How The Mongol Empire Simultaneously Destroyed And Improved The Known World

Updated October 3, 2019 116.7k views12 items

The Mongols under Genghis Khan were fearsome conquerors who razed cities and took millions of lives, but the Mongol Empire also established a lasting peace that shaped history. While we often think of the Mongols as fearsome barbarians who vanquished any who opposed them, they were also surprisingly tolerant rulers. The Mongols promoted trade and diplomacy across their vast empire, leading to flourishing trade on the Silk Road. Genghis Khan himself established religious tolerance in the empire, and often placed the governance of his territories in the hands of conquered peoples. But the Mongol emphasis on travel and their expansive reach undoubtedly had negative effects; along with conquest and conflict, they may have spread diseases like the bubonic plague across Eurasia and unintentionally caused the Black Plague of 1348.

Genghis Khan single-handedly transformed the Mongols from a collection of nomadic tribes into a conquering force. Battle after battle, the Mongols demonstrated the dominance of their light cavalry, showing off their tactics and precision by luring enemies into ambushes. While the empire lasted less than two hundred years,  Mongol influence lasted for centuries after it crumbled, shaping European, Chinese, and Middle Eastern history for generations. 

  • Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Many Enemies Fell For The Mongols' Feigned Flight Tactic

    Mongol tactics completely wiped out their adversaries. They relied on their small, sturdy horses, light armor, and archery. More mobile than any other fighting force at the time, the cavalry could cover up to 100 miles in a single day. 

    During skirmishes, the Mongols tricked their enemies by using a feigned retreat tactic. A small force of riders would charge the enemy, then break and flee. As the enemy advanced, the feigned flight would lead them into an ambush. The technique helped the Mongols conquer the largest land empire the world had ever seen. 

  • Photo: Hayton of Coricos / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    They Embraced Religious Diversity Within Their Empire

    As ruler, Genghis Khan declared religious freedom in his empire. Genghis Khan ruled over a religiously diverse territory that included Buddhists, Christians, and Muslims. Suppressing these religions would have only antagonized the new Mongol subject, so Genghis Khan promoted an official policy of religious tolerance. Within the empire, religious leaders were exempt from taxation, and all subjects could practice any religion.

    In governing his massive empire, Genghis Khan relied on advisors who practiced multiple faiths. The Mongol capital city of Karakorum contained churches, mosques, lamaseries, and temples to cater to the faiths of all subjects. 

  • Photo: National Museum in Warsaw / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Before Genghis Khan, The Mongols Were Contentious Nomadic Tribes

    The stunning expansion of the Mongol Empire looked unlikely in its early years. The Central Asian steppe was divided into dozens of nomadic tribes that spent most of their time fighting each other. The steppe might have remained divided if it were not for the Great Khan.

    Instead of promoting his own relatives, Genghis Khan used a meritocratic system to organize his tribe. He struck down enemy leaders and incorporated their followers into his own clan. By 1205, Genghis Khan had united the Mongol tribes under one rule and enforced new legislation. Mongols were no longer allowed to sell or capture women, enslave each other, or take livestock. Genghis Khan imposed a writing system, invited foreign ambassadors with diplomatic immunity, and granted religious freedom in his territory of one million people. 

    It was only after he consolidated Mongol and Tartar tribes of the Asian steppe that the Great Khan turned his attention to conquering China, Russia, Persia, and Europe. 

  • Photo: Wacław Pawliszak / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Mongol Tactics Shook European Reliance On Heavy Cavalry

    When the Mongols swept across Asia, conquering territory on their lightly armored horses, European knights might have initially sneered at their rivals. Medieval European forces favored heavy cavalry, with armored knights and powerful horses that often wore armor themselves. To the Europeans, the short, stubby Mongol horses weren't very impressive. In combat, however, the European knights quickly realized the advantages of the Mongols

    Mongol recurve bows could strike cavalry at an amazing distance under rough circumstances. Mongol riders used stirrups to fire arrows in any direction, even backward. The smaller horses could run circles around an armored knight, and the Mongols prioritized taking down European horses to leave the armored fighter on foot with little mobility.