History Online - Mongols

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The Mongols

The mysterious people

Many people, historians and laymen alike, have regarded the Mongols of Chingis Khan primitive and terrible barbarians, and satisfied themselves with such a one-sided, superficial analysis. Why not instead try to ask how it is possible for humans to achieve so much? Theirs was an upward trajectory, a series of accomplishment so absolute, so unparalleled, that every historian trying to delve seriously into the matter will find himself amazed, if not awestruck. The Mongols had evidently broken out of the normal adaptive limits of humans. They had to do so, in order to accomplish what they did.

The intriguing story about the Mongolian people and their heyday during the period 1206-1260 must rank as one of the most extraordinary chapters of world history. The inhabitants of Mongolia proper, numbering in these days no more than at most one and half a million, established under their leader Temuchin, better known to posterity as Chingis Khan, and later under his descendants, an empire where the Mongolian core of Chingisids ended up ruling over approximately 100 million people. It is known that violent invasions of warlike Central Asian people were recurrent in ancient times. This is interesting, because it necessarily points to an innate inclination in the older Inner Asian culture to repeatedly and powerfully make its mark on the world.

As could be expected, attempts to explain such a pattern of repeated attacks on the neighboring civilizations have often been made by historians and political scientists alike. That pattern can be partially explained by the peculiarities of a nomad economy, which is characterized by its lack of ability to accumulate economic/material surpluses. Given this condition, periods of hardship would antecede invasions of the neighboring states in order to obtain what the nomads wanted. Hence an approach often encountered has been to ascribe the periodic incursions to factors like drought or other detrimental climatic variations affecting the pastures so vital for the economy and life of the nomad/pastoralist societies, which would then compel them to embark on invasions to obtain sufficient provisions, or alternatively the opposite speculation: That the climatic conditions in the thirteenth century were particularly favorable for the growth of steppe vegetation, and such creating opportunities for expansion. The same holds true for political explanations. Even considering fluctuations in the political and military strength in the great civilizations of China, Persia and Russia which conceivably may have favored the Mongols, one is confronted with the fact that regardless of whether we concentrate our attention on climatic or political factors to explain the inexplicable eruption of aggressive energy which enabled the Mongols of Chingis Khan to perform their great work which was unprecedented in scale, we still have to admit that comparable conditions had existed for millennia, but that it took the capabilities of Temuchin to inspire the Mongols to their extraordinary achievements. One must conclude that even though material factors do and certainly did facilitate a certain course of development, there is no ground for assuming that they were responsible for the emergence of Chingis Khan. Overconcentration upon material factors fails dismally to elucidate the reasons why the Mongols were collectively empowered with the phenomenal abilities that enabled them to play their historical role, and what forces were actually in operation. The environment in which Chingis Khan lived had existed for thousands of years, but only with him and his epoch came a unification of all Mongols and a shared sense of purpose strong enough to put an end to the unceasing rivalries and disorganizing warfare which before so seriously had depleted their resources and strength as to make any sustained, united action unrealizable. That grand accomplishment cannot possibly be said to be materially determined. Further; the spiritual strength, the sure-footed determination found in him and his contemporaries as well as the remarkable lasting feelings of veneration for Chingis Khan among his own and other peoples defy rational explanation. Centuries after the physical death of the Great Mongol, ambitious leaders claimed descent from him in order to bolster the legitimacy of their political aspirations.

It is of course possible to outline many of the methods the Mongols employed to achieve supremacy in Asia and Eurasia. But conventional approaches cannot, and do not seek to, explain the emergence of a Mongol nation whose members possessed a common unifying cause and abilities enabling them to achieve their grand design in spite of all disadvantages of a small people confronted by large, powerful civilizations like the Chinese and the Islamic world. China and the Moslem states in the Middle East were formidable adversaries, with populations and armies far outnumbering the Mongols.

Yet the great Mongol's people subjugated these old, mighty and highly developed civilizations. This was also unprecedented. For millennia, the great Oriental states had at least held the human tides from Inner Asia in check, and largely enjoyed a status quo in their relationship with the men from north. With the advent of Temuchin, the balance became inexplicably tipped in favor of the "barbarians," and that in such a degree that the mighty "civilized" states fell to the Mongols. Objectively, this should be next to impossible.

Consequently, trying to explain the extraordinary achievements of the thirteenth-century Mongols by material explanations and other observable causes soon makes one run into grave difficulties, simply because such an approach fails to take into account the underlying, and positively more decisive, determinants. Tangible, quantifiable criteria can do no more than at best indicate preconditions for certain political, economic and social lines of development. Whether or not these will materialize in real events depends on subtle, hidden determinants that cannot be subjected to precise analysis, much less serve as basis for accurate predictions. Historical examination and research has for long suffered from a tendency to discard the moral, mental and spiritual forces as movers of history. Instead we have witnessed a concentration upon measurables and economic factors.

There are reasons to ask whether this approach is after all an optimally fruitful one, if we intend to obtain a more complete picture of the world. Perhaps the immaterial components of existence are the principal movers of history? Unwillingness to accord these determinants the explicit place in the course of history they deserve is "safe" in the sense that it ensures a continuing conformism, for the writing of history has its conventions, shaped by a weltanschauung formed in the Western world the last four hundred years or so, leading to an ascendancy of a way of thinking that is extremely fruitful when applied to observable phenomena in the physical universe, but fails to ask questions, let alone produce answers in cases or subjects where direct observational verification is not possible. Of course, scientific scrutiny, in the strict sense, can only be made in relation to observable phenomena, but it should be needless to point out that the failure to observe does not prove non-existence. When the Chingis-Khanite Mongols unswervingly attributed their Purpose in the world and their unequaled successes to supernatural powers and their influences, we ought to pay attention to it. Even for those who choose not to believe in such explanations, it is historically intriguing to witness this way of human thinking as an element of psychosocial identity and an obviously very powerful source of inspiration and confidence.
There are numerous phenomena that do not lend themselves to investigation in the "scientific" way, meaning that measurable, quantifiable and immediately obvious explanations are not obtainable. Then it is a monumental mistake to apply thinking derived from the established worldview of the physical sciences to problems where this approach only confounds the matter and forms obstacles to our understanding.

History is an excellent example, and yet we need not be in doubt that there have indeed been strict conventions controlling what questions we were to ask, as well as what ultimate conclusions are accepted by traditions established by earlier investigators. The crucial question then arises: Are we to persist in repudiation of any attempt on making inquiries and arriving to conclusions not conforming to hitherto prevalent traditions of thought, or should we allow ourselves to investigate the world unbound by conventional modes of thinking, in the very realistic realization that they often fail to yield the answers we seek?

Refusal to let go of traditional ideas about how to perform study and research unfortunately leads to refusal to inquire into areas and phenomena outside the limits set by customary notions of what kind of questions we are permitted to ask. Typically interpretations are made according to principles not relevant to the phenomenon at hand, or else it is commonly declared as being either insignificant or just accidental, thus it is made less threatening to our conventional Western views.
In Temuchin's and his people's understanding, their historical role was one they were destined to play. Traditional, sanctioned Western thought does not acknowledge the concept of destiny, and the West has mostly been averse to as much as consider this idea so essential in the Mongol conception of the Universe. Instead we have preferred to write it off as dark superstition, and consistent with this disdainful approach, nations or ethnic groups believing otherwise are often seen as undeveloped, ignorant, culturally and philosophically inferior.

Regarding our historical treatment of the Mongols, the West has tended to dismiss them as crude barbarians, thereby overlooking that measured by humanitarian standards, the people of Chingis Khan were no more brutal and cruel than the Chinese in their age, not to mention the Europeans at the time or during the Imperialist era. We must understand that even though Chinese annals at the time described the Central Asian peoples as "barbarians," this label covered in fact all peoples who were not Chinese, in much the same way as ancient Greeks held all foreigners to be barbarians. Thus it will be understood that the Western simplified notion of the Mongols as low barbarians has served to maintain our comfort, since it would be much too troublesome for our worldview, if we were to fully accept that these enigmatic people were far from being the primitive, undeveloped nomads much of conventional, Western-biased historiography has depicted them into being. If they were barbarians in the truest sense, then their achievements must be of little importance and further investigation of their history pointless. Consistent with this approach, the Mongols have commonly been depicted as an insignificant parenthesis in history, for a comparatively short time ruling an empire, and then disappearing without leaving much traces after them.

Widespread as it has been, this view is so contrary to the facts as it could possibly be. The Mongols in the era of Chingis Khan were no primitive barbarians. Moreover, they had a destiny, a purpose. The Mongol invasions resulted in migrations of people, in the opening of trade and broad exchange of culture and ideas between East and West. Political effects also include the unification of China and Russia. For bad and good, it was the works of the Mongols to unify these two subsequently so historically significant states. We should not question that the achievements of the Mongols benefited Humanity in general, even though the outer manifestation of war and violence brought short-term destruction and pain in its time. It is salutary to bear in mind that what we call "destruction" is more than what is visible on the physical surface. Transformational processes in operation frequently express themselves through disasters, a mechanism that is described within the science of paleontology as punctuated equilibria. An equilibrium is punctuated, that is overthrown, when one line of development has continued so far as to mean the exclusion of other elements that are necessary for the balance of forces to be maintained. To illustrate with an even more familiar example: This is the ultimate reason why disease and disaster exist in the human realm. Moreover, this is also the reason why old Mongolian wisdom advise everyone who wants some physical or spiritual thing to be living, and living in the sense of being maintained, to always allow a modicum of the opposite principle to co-exist with the main objective. Otherwise, imbalance will produce a result contrary to what was wanted.

Most important of all: The Mongols carried a rich spiritual heritage stemming from thousands of years of a life whose main ingredients were close contact with a harsh, outstandingly changeable and unpredictable, but also at times exquisitely beautiful Siberian nature, in addition to an extensive exposure to the age-old Chinese civilization. Their religious universe was a synthesis of highly evolved elements found in Taoist and Buddhist thought, interwoven with indigenous Inner Asian animistic insights and shamanistic practices dating several thousands of years back. Shamans with their practices here played a crucial role as connectors between the physical and the spiritual realms. Evidence of all this has for a long time been available in historical records, in addition it has become increasingly demonstrated by archaeological research.
The Mongols knew, and carry this consciousness within them to this day: Every outlook, ideology, belief system, manifestation or appearance in Universe is true in the sense that it is true and valid on its particular area of application. Hence the Truth is to be found in everything. Not that everything is true. It is not, but mind-bogglingly and paradoxically enough it still is within its own context.

Granted that the harmonizing of Man and his faculties with other forces in Cosmos is of crucial importance for our using our potentials and our well-being, the Shamanistic traditions of the Mongols may show us the way to something important for us. What our civilization has mistakenly interpreted as the "primitiveness" and "barbarism" of the Mongols are expressions of the great ability of this people to live not against Nature, but in cooperation with it. Due to an over-emphasis on the rational mind, our civilization has to a considerable extent lost this precious ability, and we have to regain it, or the consequences of alienation from Nature will dwarf every disaster hitherto seen in world history. It is time for us to realize this.

Regarding their methods of warfare, they were the most sophisticated in their day, and the spiritual force of their guiding principles behind all their activities has never in history found any equal. Any unbiased observer will also perceive that the Mongols won their victories by stratagem, adaptability, understanding, and mobility rather than brute force. Their system of intelligence was unmatched in the 13th century world, and while their European opponents knew nothing about the Mongols, Subedei, Chingis Khan's greatest general, had amassed immense knowledge on the minutest details on the West, even down to the family connections of the rulers of Russia and Western Europe. This was put to good use during the Mongols' European campaign 1236-1242. Only the premature death of Chingis's son and first successor, Ogodei, prevented the Mongols from further adventures in the Christian world. By 1242, however, they were on their way to spiritual decay, as the new rulers became increasingly depraved. At the same time, the old veteran generals and shamans chosen by Chingis Khan passed away.

His foremost advisor, the de facto Mongolian Shaman of State, the Chinese sage Yeh-lu Chu-ts'ai, died in 1243, his faithful baghatur Subedei, the victor of China, Persia and Russia, died in 1246. When the processes of degeneration and dilapidation were no longer counterbalanced by people of the highest inner dignity and integrity, the Mongol empire went down to its destruction, and by 1260, merely thirty-three years after the death of Chingis Khan, the Mongols had reverted to old habits of internecine strife, and the Empire disintegrated.

How are we to explain the Mongol Phenomenon? How can we approach what may be called "The Secret of The Mongols"? And what is its relevance for us in our over-urbanized and in many ways unnatural world? Could it be that the Mongols have something to teach us with respect to our relationship to Nature as well as to the fruition and utilization of our innate human potentials? There is no denying that their animist/shamanist relation to Nature is something Modern Man would learn much from, if we can see beyond the carnage and destruction, appreciate their role in the world, and then begin to acknowledge the phenomenal physical, psychological, philosophical and spiritual powers of the Chingis-Khanite Mongols.

When speaking about the Mongols proper, we refer to the people that originated in the region around Lake Bajkal, somewhat north of present-day Mongolia. Since prehistoric times, the Bajkal area has been a center of cultural exchange and development, due to its complex and fertile ecosystems, and its resultant significance as a source of fish and game, and also to its situation at the borderline between the Siberian regions in the North and the Turkic steppe cultures in South. Added to this is the importance of the ancient Chinese cultures, with which the people in this area were ever in sustained contact through trade, with all its accompanying social and cultural interactivity, as well as warfare. It will be understood that the Mongols thus are a people that came in contact with and learned from diverse cultures and civilizations. The wide experience that resulted gave the Mongols the knowledge, perception and versatility to understand the characteristics of different peoples. Shamanistic beliefs, symbols and practices are very similar among all traditional nomad societies from Siberia and the Bajkal area to the Turkic areas in the South, bespeaking an intimate interaction of long standing, which is hardly surprising in view of the many similarities in habits and lifestyle between the nomad peoples in Central Asia. Chinese influence also was significant, and the elements described above together constitute the outer components of the Mongol nation.

However, the Siberian element, that is the physical and spiritual realities and principles of the dark and cold areas of the Northern regions, stands out as the predominant one in the origin and creation of the Mongol phenomenon. This fact can be traced in the mythology, and let us never forget that mythology is the most important source of the self-understanding of any given people. We also know of some details in the construction of the framework of their felt tents, (the ger) and other equipment that point in the direction that the Mongols have their principal origins in ancient forest cultures on the Siberian Taiga.

Here it is noteworthy that the Mongols as a unified people did not exist as a political reality until the advent of Chingis Khan. The singularly important role of this historical personality in the development of the Mongol phenomenon in all its facets is established beyond doubt. We are then led into an old bone of contention among historians: That of the ultimate role of "great" personalities in the unfoldment of history. This is an issue never to be resolved, suffice it to say here that even though one subscribes to the view that great personalities are great because they appear in the milieux wherein there is an optimal interaction between their abilities on the one hand, and on the other the socioeconomically predetermined course of historical events, which finds the individual in question the most suitable for a leading role, powerful individuals at any rate serve as the foremost exponents and symbols of the movements, groups, or states they are the leaders of. Hence, it would seem that by studying these prominent individuals and their origin one might arrive to an understanding of the phenomena in which they play a key role.

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