What Was Hygiene Like In The Mongol Horde?

The Mongols created the largest contiguous land empire to have ever existed. Founded by Genghis Khan in 1206, the Mongol Empire spanned across Asia, extended into Eastern Europe, and reached into the Middle East. As warriors and rulers, the Mongols facilitated the integration of language, populations, and belief systems and, while their accomplishments have long been acknowledged, so, too, have their unique hygienic practices.

From the perspective of many of their contemporaries, to say nothing of modern observers, Mongol hygiene seems rudimentary, at best. The Mongols revered water to such an extent that it prevented them from disrupting or polluting it. As a result, they spent most, if not all, of their lives unkempt and unwashed. Compounded by beliefs about the healing properties of animals, their dietary habits, and a decidedly non-Western approach to personal and public hygiene, the Mongols practiced unique methods of cleanliness, which appeared gross to many outsiders.

  • As A Common Infliction Among The Mongols, Gout Was Treated By Sticking The Affected Body Part In A Deceased Animal Or Person
    Photo: Araniko / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    As A Common Infliction Among The Mongols, Gout Was Treated By Sticking The Affected Body Part In A Deceased Animal Or Person

    Gout, caused by excessive eating and drinking, was prevalent among Mongols. While in the Golden Horde, 14th-century traveler Ibn Battuta visited the home of a sultan's daughter whose husband "was suffering from gout, and was unable for this reason to go about on his feet or to ride a horse, and so used to ride only in a wagon... this disease is widespread among the [Mongol]."

    Kublai Khan, Genghis Khan's grandson and the ruler of China for much of the 13th century, suffered from such severe gout that it limited his movement a as warrior and leader alike. To treat gout, Mongols were advised to stick their feet in the chest of a dead horse.

    Horses weren't the only option, however. In lieu of a horse, one medicine man in the Caucasus told Xul, a Mongolian general, to find a red-haired child and stick his foot into his or her abdomen. Xul tried this technique on 30 children. In the end, his pain didn't subside and he ended the doctor and fed his entrails to dogs.

  • The Mongols Put Water In Their Mouths Before Using It To Wash Their Hair
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The Mongols Put Water In Their Mouths Before Using It To Wash Their Hair

    Franciscan missionary William of Rubruck journeyed throughout the Mongol Empire during the 1250s, recording his travels. Rubruck described Mongol hairstyles, noting that men shaved sections atop their heads, along their temples and necks, and across "the forehead as far as the crown of the head." The long hair on the sides of their head was then fashioned into braids. Similarly, women  shaved the fronts of their heads upon marrying and grew the rest of their hair long. 

    Rubruck continued, "When they want to wash their hands or head, they fill their mouths with water, which they let trickle on to their hands, and in this way they also wet their hair and wash their heads."

    Mongols venerated waternever wanting to offend it, which dictated how they washed their hair. According to sources contemporary to the Mongols, Genghis Khan dictated that if any water touched a person's face and then went back into the water source, they were to be be executed. So it may be fair to presume that the process was designed to prevent the Mongols from spilling water back into the source.

  •  Mongols Had A Retainer Or Servant To Suck Out Blood From Arrow Wounds
    Photo: KoizumiBS / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

     Mongols Had A Retainer Or Servant To Suck Out Blood From Arrow Wounds

    As avid archers, the Mongols were prone to arrow wounds. Genghis Khan was hurt on several occasions, saved by the efforts of the dedicated men who sucked blood from his wounds.

    According to the 13th century workThe Secret History of the Mongols, when Genghis Khan suffered a neck laceration that bled uncontrollably, his retainer Jelme sucked out blood, "which he swallowed or spat out." When the Khan asked for something to drink, Jelme went to find kumis (fermented milk) and water, which he gave to Genghis Khan, presumably preventing dehydration after having spent his night deterring dangerous blood clots.

    Persian physician and historian Rashid al-Din (d. 1318) recorded a statement he attributed to the Khan. Genghis Khan was supposed to have said the blood-sucking exercise brought back "the spark of life which had departed... and [he] could move again."

  • Under No Circumstances Could A Mongol Urinate In A Body Of Water

    Water was sacred to the Mongols and disrupting or polluting it was a punishable offense. Washing clothes was prohibited, and washing one's body or hands during the spring or summer was also prohibited out of fear of thunderstorms. However, one of the worst offenses was if a person released their bodily fluids into a stream, river, or comparable body of water.

    Genghis Khan gave legal status to many previously religious taboos, and the Mongols strictly forbid urination in flowing water or in a dwelling, fearful of offending spirits. If a person intentionally urinated in either, they received capital punishment. In the event of an accidental urination, Mongols were heavily fined and the payment was given to cleanse the offended party's home and possessions. But until that cleansing took place, "no one dare enter the dwelling or take anything from it." 

  • Mongols Punished Anyone Who Washed Their Clothes
    Photo: Liu Guandao / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Mongols Punished Anyone Who Washed Their Clothes

    According to the Yassa, a collection of rules articulated by Genghis Khan, Mongols were forbidden from washing clothes in running water. Some scholars interpret the mandate to only apply during thunderstorms, but William of Rubruck thought it was out of fear that washing their clothes caused thunderstorms. "They never wash clothes," Rubruck wrote, "for they say that God would be angered thereat, and that it would thunder if they hung them up to dry... Thunder they fear extraordinarily; and when it thunders they will turn out of their dwellings all strangers, wrap themselves in black felt, and thus hide themselves till it has passed away."

    Their aversion to washing clothes was taken seriously, and those who were caught were beaten. Rather than washing, the Khan expected his fellow Mongols to wear the same piece of clothing until it wore out.

  • If A High-Ranking Official Was Hurt, They Were Placed In The Open Cavity Of An Ox
    Photo: Robert Armitage Sterndale / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    If A High-Ranking Official Was Hurt, They Were Placed In The Open Cavity Of An Ox

    When Mongols attacked Shayang in 1274 in their efforts against the Song dynasty, one of the warriors was struck by a projectile, hurting his shoulder. After he was again hit with an arrow, Bayan, one of Kublai Khan's most trusted commanders, ordered "that one cut open the belly of a water-buffalo and put [him] in the inside of it. [After] a good while, then, he revived." 

    Water buffalo and oxen alike were used because the bodies provided life-saving warmth. The importance of herding animals to Mongols also indicates that the practice was most likely reserved for men of elite status.