Episode 24: The Legacy of the Mongols
The Big History of Civilizations (2016)
Dr Craig G Benjamin
In this lecture, Benjamin explores how the Mongols swept out of the Central Asian steppes in the 13th century to conquer most of the known world, creating the largest empire the world has ever known (before or since). After bringing China, Korea, Central Asia, most of the Middle East and much of Eastern Europe under their control, in 1241 they attacked the outskirts of Vienna. They were repelled, thwarting attempts to conquer western Europe.
The Mongols were ruled via networks of clan chiefs, under the leadership of a primary clan chief known as the “Khan.” Traditionally they were less patriarchal than agrarian civilizations, allowing women considerable freedom, respect and influence. Many became political and military leaders.
Benjamin attributes the Mongols’ military success in part to their skill has hunters (which made lengthy supply lines unnecessary), their use of horse in battle the composite bow.* They killed millions of people and destroyed many ancient cities, along with the agricultural infrastructure that supported them.They also destroyed the Islamic empire.
Chingges (Genghis) Khan is credited with the major military victories leading up to Pax Mongolica, a Mongol-controlled cultural zone stretching from China to Eastern Europe. . Following his death in 1227, his sons and grandsons split the Mongol territories into four Khanates. Although infighting between Khanates led to a steady loss of territory, the Mongols controlled Russia until the mid-15th century and ruled Crimea until the late 18th century.
In 1234, China’s Jin dynasty fell to the Mongols. In 1260, Kubla Khan became emperor in northern China, establishing the Yuan dynasty. In 1276, he conquered the Song Dynasty in Southern China and brought all of China under his control. Between 1274 and 1291 he employed Venetian merchant and explorer Marco Polo as his advisor.
In 1335, Mongolian rule collapsed in Persia. The latter enjoyed self-rule until invaded by Turks in the 14th century. In China, civil war between competing warring factions, aggravated by severe monetary inflation, led the Yuan dynasty to collapse in 1368.
Benjamin believes the main contribution of the Mongols was the security they provided for overland trade. This facilitated the spread to Europe of numerous Eastern inventions, such as paper, printing, the compass and gunpowder. These inventions, in turn, would allow Europe to conquer the globe in the 16th century.
*A composite bow is a traditional bow made from horn, wood, and sinew laminated together, a form of laminated bow.
The film can be viewed free on Kanopy with a library card.