May 4, 1997
The Mongols rose to power because they were a highly advanced culture as seen through their
military technology, their trade and preservation of elaborate art work, and their fair
The Mongols were one of the most feared groups in history. The very mention of the
name “Genghis Khan” struck terror into every king and every peasant. How did a scattered
collection of goat herders, led by the fatherless child of a minor chieftain, build the largest
empire in history? How were they able to build an empire that would eventually stretch across
Asia, India, the Mid-East and Eastern Europe? The Mongols were able to rise to power because
they were a highly advanced culture as seen through their military technology, their trade and
preservation of elaborate art work, and their fair administrative policy.
One of the greatest factors in the Mongol’s favor was their highly advanced military
technology. Mongols were so skilled at siege-craft that they rarely lost when besieging a castle.
In order to use the latest in military siege craft, the Mongols contracted Chinese and Middle
Eastern engineers who could design, build and use siege devices like catapults (Lemonick, 67).
On one occasion the Mongols built their own wall outside the city’s own walls so they could
shoot missiles from relative safety. When the Mongols besieged a city, they also used many
ingenious strategies. One of the most commonly used Mongol tactic was to besiege the city for a
while, then fall back. The army inside the city walls, thinking the Mongols were retreating,
would open the gates and come out in pursuit. From there the powerful Mongols would destroy
the tired army, which was probably suffering water and food shortages inside the sealed-off
walls. One very clever tactic used by the Mongols was the use of water.
“On one occasion that the caliph’s troops ventured forth, the Mongols broke a dike
behind them, trapping them with flood waters.” (Edwards, The Great Khans, 25)
This quote refers to an incident when the city of Nishapur, capital of Shah Mohammed. The
Mongols used almost the same strategy when attacking Xi Xia. The Mongols, unable to take the
city by conventional means, looked to a nearby river and broke its levy. This flood either
threatened to or did destroy the city’s wall, and forced the city to surrender (Edwards, Lord of the
Mongols, 37). The Mongols also had good weapons for non-siege warfare. Their greatest
battlefield asset was their horse. The hardy Mongols ponies were treated with such care that
many people today may think of it as pampering. Because of these ponies, the Mongol cavalry
had the ability to advance on its enemy at astonishing speed. Mongols also made use of stirrups,
which allowed them to ride standing up and to shoot arrows in any direction. The Mongols also
had a well-developed communication system, called “orto” that involved riders carrying
messages on horseback, similar to the pony express. This system was highly important in
learning about and deterring any potential enemies (Kessier, 52).
The Mongols also made a lasting contribution through their preservation and creation of
superb art work. A great gift of the Mongols was their preservation of Chinese, Indian, and Mid-
Eastern art styles. During the reign of Kublai Khan many Chinese works including porcelain and
silk clothing were brought to his court.
“Bejeweled and robed in silk, he Kublai Khan ruled from a palace whose walls
were plated with gold and silver and decorated with the figures of dragons, beasts
and birds” (Time, 26)
Kublai obviously had a taste for Chinese luxuries. By bringing artworks to his court, he was able
to preserve them. The Mongols also influenced the works of other countries, as seen here:
“The discovery of Chinese and Indian inspired imagery on porcelain and sculpture
confirm Mongolia’s role in the cultural exchange between China and Eurasia.”
Much artwork that is today considered to be ancient Chinese was influenced or actually made
by the Mongols. They were able to make such influences due to their control of the “silk road,”
the thousand mile long trade network linking Russia, Mongolia, China and India. On this trade
route the Mongols also traded their own work. Their art, however, was much more practical. As
opposed to making vases and paintings, the Mongols carved elaborate designs on their saddles
and weapons like their bows and arrows.
Although the Mongols are often portrayed as ruthless cannibals, their treatment of their
vassals was fair and just. The Mongols did not randomly attack and pillage their subject. It was
only when the vassals rebelled that the Mongols attacked. One Mongol technique was that they
left Mongol representatives to make sure the city would not rebel. When the city paid its tribute,
they were treated well by the Mongols. It was only when they defied the Mongols that they were
punished. A technique the Mongols used to determine if a country was going to remain loyal
was by leaving diplomats. If they were killed after the Mongols left, the Mongol army would
return to destroy the disloyal city. On one occasion the Xi Xia empire refused to provide the
Mongols with troops in a time of need. Several years later, the Mongols returned to Xi Xia and
re-invaded the city, destroying the entire Xi Xia kingdom. On another occasion, a caravan under
Mongol protection was traveling through Utar. Believing the caravan was a cover for spies, the
governor killed all the people in it. Genghis sent an ambassador to the governor’s ruler, Shah
Mohammed, demanding the governor be handed over for punishment. The Shah brought
disaster upon himself by decapitating the ambassador and sending his head back to Genghis.
The Mongols attacked the Shah’s empire and completely destroyed it. The governor who killed
the caravan, Inalchug, was killed by having molten metal poured down his throat. Mohammed
was also executed. One of the Mongol’s greatest qualities was their tolerance of all religions.
Once a state was conquered its religion was allowed to remain in tact. When the Mongols
invaded the kingdom of Kara-Khitai, they were welcomed by the Muslim population, who were
not allowed to worship under the leader Kuchlug. Kuchlug had even executed a Muslim
religious leader. When Genghis and his army took the kingdom, he took the Muslims under his
wing and killed Kuchlug (Edwards, 29). He also allowed the kingdom’s government to remain.
The Mongols can be viewed as a very cultural and advanced civilization through their
military innovations, their contribution to the art world and their fair treatment of their loyal
subjects. The Mongols are often shown in European artwork as eating human flesh; or not being
human, but monsters with no heads. As you can see the Mongols were not any of these things.
Although they were ambitious conquerors, one must remember that they were more tolerant of
different races and religions than many nations can say they are today.