In defense of the Mongols – Culture – Al-Ahram Weekly

The Mongols have not always had good press. Despite their extraordinary geopolitical success – the Mongol Empire stretched across Asia from China to Europe at its height in the 13th century CE – for many people their name is still associated with acts of cruelty. and violence.

The Empire’s founder, Genghis Khan or Chinggis Khan (“universal ruler”), named Temujin at birth in 1162 and died in 1227 CE, managed to unite his own steppe people, nomadic herding groups living in what is now Mongolia, and then send them on an almost unparalleled empire-building mission across Asia.

Within a few decades, this not only brought the other nomadic peoples of the Asian steppe under Mongol rule, but also the settled populations surrounding it. Much of what is now Russia, most of northern China, all of Central Asia, and most of Southwest Asia, including what is now Iran and Iraq today were once under Mongol rule.

However, this empire building had a price, and those designated as enemies by the Mongols could only expect a quarter of an hour. The Mongol siege and subsequent destruction of Baghdad, seat of the Abbasid Caliphate of the Arab world, in 1258 CE was one of the most violent acts the medieval world had seen.

In a week of destruction after the city was taken by Hulagu Khan in February of that year, some 100,000 people were killed – up to two million according to some Arab historians – and the city was largely destroyed, including many of its famous palaces, mosques, madrassas and libraries. The Abbasid Caliph Mustaasim was killed.

According to the later Arab historian Ibn Kathir, the Mongols “came down on the city and killed all they could, men, women and children, the old, the middle-aged and the young. Many people went into wells, latrines and sewers and hid there for several days without coming out. Most people gathered in the caravanserai [markets] and locked themselves in. The Mongols opened the gates by breaking them or burning them. When they entered, people fled upstairs and the Mongols killed them on the rooftops until blood flowed from the gutters into the streets.

The destruction was a setback from which the city never recovered, and Baghdad, the former capital of the Islamic world, became a provincial city at best, as cultural and political power shifted west. According to 15th-century Egyptian historian Al-Maqrizi, Hulagu then sent a letter to the Egyptian Mamluk Sultan Saifeddin Qutuz warning him that Cairo’s fate would resemble that of Baghdad if it did not surrender to the invading Mongol forces. .

However, “Qutuz gathered the emirs together, and they agreed to kill the envoys and go to Salihiyya” in Palestine to confront the Mongol forces then occupying Aleppo and Damascus. “In Cairo, Fustat and the rest of Egypt, proclamations were issued to go to holy war for the cause of God and to defend the religion of the Prophet of God,” Al-Maqrizi wrote. Arriving in Salihiyya, Qutuz “summoned the emirs and urged them to fight the Mongols. He reminded them of the carnage, subjugation and burning that had befallen other lands and made them fear that the same thing could happen again” in Cairo.

It was only the later defeat of the Mongol forces by the Egyptian Mamluks at the Battle of Ayn Jalut in Palestine in 1260 that halted their advance into the Mediterranean, possibly saving Cairo and other cities from the violence inflicted in Baghdad.

With such a history behind them, one would think that it would be a reckless historian who would defend the record of the Mongols, so uncompromising are the writings of medieval historians about them. However, a defense of the Mongols is precisely what French historian Marie Favereau aims to achieve in her new book The Horde, a history of the Mongols intended largely for the general public.

Although Favereau cannot be expected to excuse the actions of the Mongols in Baghdad or the other cities they subjugated, she does her best to place them in context, explaining who the Mongols were. , how they ran their business. , and what drove them on what has become for most of Asia a path to world domination.

ABOUT THE MONGOLS: Arab historians are unanimous in describing the death and destruction caused by the Mongol invasions, seeing in them the cause of disasters of unprecedented magnitude for the populations concerned.

They did not always take care to explain who the Mongols were, however seeing them sometimes as a kind of natural disaster, sometimes as a scourge from God. An exception is the Persian historian Rashad Al-Din, born in 1247, who, after living through the later Mongol conquests, became chief minister of the Mongol Ilkhanid dynasty whose rule spanned what is now the Iran, Iraq and much of Turkey.

As Favereau notes, Rashad Al-Din’s History of the Mongols, commissioned by the Ilkhanid ruler Ghazan and written in Persian, is one of the main contemporary sources on the Mongol conquests, another being the Mongols’ own secret history, a story similar to a chronicle. written in Mongolian by an anonymous author who tells the story of Genghis Khan’s death.

Rashad Al-Din was very aware of who the Mongols were, as the author of an official history, and his account contains fascinating vignettes of Mongol decision-making. Explaining the decision of Mongke Khan, grandson of Genghis Khan, to eliminate the Abbasid regime in Baghdad, he says that “reflecting that since the time of Genghis Khan some countries had been conquered by conquest or surrender, while others had not yet been freed, “Mongke decided” that he would send one of his brothers to each part to subjugate this country entirely while he himself would sit at the center of his kingdom in the old house of the Mongols”.

The brother chosen to subjugate the Abbasids was Hulagu, whom “he named [to subjugate] the western countries of Iran, Syria, Egypt, Rum [the Byzantine Empire], and Armenia. His other brother Qubilay, later mentioned by the English poet S. T. Coleridge in his poem “Kubla Khan”, was sent to subjugate the countries of eastern China, Tibet and parts of northern India.

Arab commentators could not have known this context, and for some of them, like the 14th century historian Ibn Khaldun, the Mongols were a form of punishment. He says sternly that “the Abbasid state was drowned in decadence and luxury and had put on the garments of calamity and impotence. [when it] was overthrown by the pagan Tatars [Mongols]who abolished the seat of the caliphate and annihilated the splendor of the lands and made disbelief prevail in place of belief because the people of faith, immersed in self-indulgence, preoccupied with pleasure and abandoned to luxury, were become deficient in energy and reluctant to rally to his defense.

Fortunately, there were still advantages to be had from the Mongol invasions, such as from the earlier arrival of the Turkic peoples from Central Asia who had themselves provided the fighting strength of the Egyptian Mamluks. The latter, brought as slaves to Arab countries and converted to Islam, had won “the firm resolve of true believers while preserving their nomadic virtues unsullied by civilized ways of life…and the profusion of luxury”, said Ibn Khaldun.

Having become the sultans of the Mamluk state, they had “directed the affairs of the Muslims in accordance with divine providence and the mercy of God… Thus, the contributions follow one another and the generations follow one another and Islam rejoices in the benefit he withdraws. they and the branches of the kingdom bloom with the freshness of youth. Once properly incorporated into the Islamic order, the Mongols, too, could bring about a revival.

In his book, Favereau takes readers from the founding of the Mongol state by Genghis Khan through the period of its expansion under Mongke Khan and others to its eventual breakdown in the 14th century when powerful warlords began to carve out their own dominions. Its general intention is to show how this state functioned as a true political order – the Mongols were never simply bands of itinerant pirates – and how it underwent a process of continuous evolution such that it was able to absorb peoples of many different cultures and religions inside. a unique empire that for a time connected China and East Asia with Europe.

It includes many fascinating details, including the Mongol state on the move across Asia – the Mongols still retained their nomadic ways and thus lived in felt-walled tent cities that could be packed up and moved to a new location – from the Mongol diet, mainly meat and fermented mare’s milk, and modes of reproduction of the system, with censuses of conquered populations in preparation for the collection of taxes.

Given her focus on the internal organization of the Mongol state, Favereau has little to say about the campaigns in the Arab world – she devotes a single paragraph to Hulagu’s conquest of Baghdad – and she views them as peripheral to the Arab world. ‘Mongol Empire as a whole. Even the victory of the Egyptian Mamluk forces over the Mongol army at Ayn Jalut, which she describes as “a side effect of the Mongol vs. Mongol war”, since the Mongol forces had been seriously depleted, Hulagu having previously been called in to s’ dealing with internal politics. difficulties.

Many historians used to look down on the Mongols, says Favereau, refusing to believe that a nomadic empire could reach the political sophistication of a sedentary civilization, or building genealogical histories from the point of liberation “from the Tartar yoke”. . Yet today, she adds, more understand that “Genghis Khan had no grand design to conquer” and that he “assimilated the dominated peoples”. They understand, or should understand, that “nomadism is not necessarily resistant to state building” and that “Mongolian leaders have developed unique, effective and humane approaches to political negotiation and social integration “.

Far from conforming to Ibn Khaldun’s theory, “the Mongols did not settle and become like their subjects” after a period of conquest, she says, “On the contrary, they absorbed foreign cultures into theirs… and their power was mostly based on their ability to synthesize diversity.


*A version of this article appeared in the April 21, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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