Even before the rise of Genghis Khan and the Mongol Empire, the Mongols favored trade. As a pastoral, nomadic people, their lives focused on their herds. For that reason, they made very little among themselves. They hunted and herded, but very few Mongols were weapon-makers or potters or weavers. Many of the items the Mongol people needed for living, they had to trade for with the settled agricultural peoples around them.
Nor were Mongols interested in doing things other than hunting, herding and living in their nomadic groups. They didn’t settle in cities or attend schools. They did, however, like trade. And they enjoyed being warriors, at which they were exemplary.
As Genghis began building his empire, he realized the Mongol army would need many things: bows and arrows, swords and spears for war, tack for the horses, leather for armor and, once it was discovered that silk worn under leather could prevent an arrow from penetrating the body, silk clothing. Genghis Khan also needed people who could read and write to administrate the lands coming under his sway. The Mongols needed trade as never before.
To facilitate trade, Genghis offered protection for merchants who began to come from east and west. He also offered a higher status for merchants than that allowed by the Chinese or Persians who despised trade and traders. .During the Mongol Empire, merchants found protection, status, tax exemption, loans and consistent aid from the Khans. For the 100 years of the height of the Empire, the East-West trade routes became the fabled Silk Road which for the first time linked Europe to Asia, allowing the free flow of ideas, technologies and goods.
The Mongols not only offered the use of the Yam system to merchants, but set up protective associations for them called Ortogh. Instead of extortionist tax rates, the Mongols gave traders tax exemption. Genghis offered a form of passport to merchants that gave allowed them to safely travel along the Silk Road. The Mongols even loaned money at low interest to merchants. If paper money was used as currency, it was backed with silk and precious metals.
As a result of the Mongol Empire, international trade was born on a level never seen before. Valuable spices, tea, Asian artworks and silk headed west to waiting merchants in the Middle East and Europe. Gold, medical manuscripts, astronomical tomes and porcelain headed east to Asia. Ideas and new technologies also flowed in both directions along the Silk Road. Mongols opened their doors to all religions and diplomats from all over the known world. East learned of West and visa versa.
For the first time, Mongols settled in a city, Karakhorum, which was built by Ogedai Khan, Genghis’s third son. Mongolian sons attended schools and learned the many languages needed to run the empire. Although the Mongol Empire began in blood and conquest, its long-term effect, as envisioned by Genghis Khan, was to secure a general peace and establish international trade over a huge portion of the world.
The Mongolian Empire was one of the largest empires in history, stretching across much of Europe and Asia in the 13th and 14th centuries. The empire resulted from the unification of nomadic Mongolian tribes under the supreme ruler Genghis Khan around 1206 CE. The Mongols rapidly expanded their empire as they invaded, conquered, and enforced Mongolian rule across thousands of miles. Eventually due to several factors the Empire was split into four distinct and separate khanates or hordes led by its own Great Khan (the Chagatai Khanate in Central Asia, Ilkhanate in Persia, Golden Horde in Russia, and Yuan dynasty in China). Along with Mongolian rule came the Pax Mongolica which linked eastern and western cultures allowing for the spread of ideas, technologies, and trade. Although the Mongols began as nomadic peoples with simplified governmental structures, they developed a complex political structure to effectively rule their vast empire. In particular, Mongolian politics were defined by the prominence of the basic unit of clan and kurultai assembly, the various political positions and changes enacted during empirical rule, and the yassa (law code).
Throughout Mongolian history, the most basic political structure ruling societal interactions was the clan. A clan was composed of several families (often blood related) and included all persons. Technically the ulus and wealth accumulated belonged to every member of the clan; although a single leader may have held authoritative power, the ownership of land and wealth extended to all members (Gale Encyclopedia). Several clans joined together formed a tribe.These tribes met at vast assemblies called Kurultais which acted as social gatherings, and parliamentary style political elections for tribal leaders (Burgan). Signaling the beginning of the empire, Genghis Khan was elected Great Khan in 1206 at the Kurultai and became the ruler of all of Mongolia. The Kurultai remained as consultative body advising the Great Khan, and electing new ones. Even after the formation of the Mongolian Empire, the clan unit and kurultai assembly remained as integral components of Mongolian politics.
After the rise to power of Genghis Khan in the early 13th century, Mongolian politics were adapted to rule the vast empire they now controlled. At the head of the system was the Great Khan who held absolute power; to ensure this power, Genghis replaced former leaders with loyal military commanders, created army divisions made up of diverse tribal and ethnic groups, and implemented an imperial guard of specialized soldiers called the keshikten which protected and carried out his orders (Gale Encyclopedia) . The Great Khan was advised by the assembly of tribal leaders at the Kurultai and also created several other official positions to help administer the empire (Burgan). These positions were chosen based on merit, and were not hereditary. Prime ministers called the beqlare-beq and ministers called viziers assisted in advising the Great Khan. In addition, military governors called basqaqs were appointed to rule conquered lands by collected heavy taxes, recruiting soldiers, and settling disputes. These taxes (which began as a share of the herd in early Mongolian times) became payable in goods or money as the Mongols began to conquer sedentary societies. Heavy taxes were collected from almost all people by officials called the jarquchi and distributed to all clan members. These new positions allowed for Mongolian politics to be effective and capable of ruling conquered territories.
Mongolians were well known for a strict adherence to the Yassa which governed the social and legal behaviour of the Mongols and conquered peoples. The Yassa was an accumulation of decrees from Genghis Khan, traditional Mongolian customs, and from the contributions of the Tatar Shigi-Qutuqu (Gale Encyclopedia). Qutuqu was given judicial power as chief judge under Genghis and recorded Genghis’s decisions in a Uyghur script book called the Koko Debter. However, the Yassa was a secret code that was likely unwritten; as a result, it could be liberally interpreted and its flexibility allowed for the implementation of foreign legal systems (Lane). The Yassa was known for its strong punishments: capital punishment was used for crimes such as spying, treason, desertion, theft, adultery, and continued bankruptcy. Additionally, it treated water with great respect, and gave religious tolerance and freedom to conquered lands while exempting priests and religious institutions from taxation. The Mongols held the Yassa in high respect and were famously disciplined and obedient as a result of their legal and political system (Lane).
Mongolian politics were a key feature of the empire as a whole: they evolved from simple clan-and-tribe based institutions to a complex and effective political system capable of supporting one of the largest empires in history. Their defining characteristics of the clan and kurultai assembly, political evolution in empirical times, and law code yassa allowed for these nomads to administer such a large and mostly sedentary empire. By keeping a rigid, militarized, and merit-based political structure, the Mongols were able to govern the entire reach of its borders, and maintain high degrees of order, discipline, and stability while encouraging trade and the flow of ideas through the Pax Mongolica. The politics behind the Mongolian Empire may seem rudimentary, but in fact they supported and gave meaningful structure to an empire reaching across almost the entire scope of Europe and Asia.
Article Written by Quinn Albert