Islam’s Pyrite Age

June 30, 2020 Category: History


Debunking Other Myths About The Mongols

During the late Middle Ages, there emerged a slew of tall tales designed to denigrate the Mongols.  Let’s look at four of the most outlandish.

ONE:  Genghis destroyed the network of “kariz” (irrigation canals) in Persia.  False.  Determined to vilify Genghis, revisionist historians told tales about the “qanat” (the Arabic term for the canals) being filled in with sand during the Mongol invasions.  This makes no sense, as the Mongols were aficionados of technology; and eagerly appropriated any new technology they encountered.  As testament to this, the famed network of canals at Turpan remained entirely in tact after the Mongol conquest.  Common sense also belies this cockamamie bit of apocrypha.  The amount of work that would have been required to accomplish such a (pointless) task would have been Sisyphean; an idiotic allocation of time and energy.

Any destruction wrought during Mongol sieges was done to send a message (a warning to others who might resist); and occurred during the course of battle.  This is something that the elimination of vital public works would not have accomplished.  In any case, the Mongols COVETED infrastructure, so would not have been moved to deprive a newly-acquired municipality of such a useful resource (irrigation) sheerly out of spite.

TWO:  Genghis destroyed the libraries at Balkh.  False.  This makes no sense, as the Mongols actively encouraged the dissemination of books; and were trailblazers when it came to literacy.  In 997, the Ghaznavids (under Mahmud of Ghazni) overtook the city from the Samanids.  It was then overtaken by the Seljuks in 1059.  That was followed by the Kara-Khitans and Kara-Khanids.  It was then ruled by the Khwarazmian shahs and Kartid sultans…both of whom the Mongols allowed to remain in power (as vassals).  Clearly, the citizenry was not wiped out.  By the time Marco Polo visited the city c. 1300, he described Balkh as (STILL) a great center of learning.  When Ibn Battuta visited the city c. 1333, he described the city as sparsely inhabited, yet with its great universities still standing–replete with beautiful inscriptions in lapis paint.  It was Tamerlane who razed the city–replete with its libraries AND citadel–in 1389.

THREE:  Genghis slaughtering hundreds of thousands at Nisha-pur and Herat c. 1221.  False.  Such accounts are wildly exaggerated; and can be traced to the Islamic hagiographer, Ata-Malek of Juvayn of Khorasan, who was known for outrageous assertions and virulent anti-Mongolian bias.  Juvayni routinely used comically-inflated numbers to describe events.  Obviously, there were not even close to that many people residing in such cities.

FOUR:  The Mongols would promise city-dwellers that nobody would be harmed if they surrendered.  Then–after the city’s leaders would surrender–they would slaughter everyone anyway, just to be cruel.  False.  This is actually the OPPOSITE of the surrender-or-perish policy for which the Mongols were known.  They always gave a city the choice to surrender; and ONLY attacked when the overture was rebuffed (typically, after numerous warnings).  An eminently practical people, the Mongols were certainly not afraid to fight; but they preferred NOT TO fight–that is: if violence could be avoided.  Always frugal with their limited resources, they avoided casualties in their own ranks whenever they could; so were not looking for a lethal confrontation if it was not necessary.

Barring the razing of [Old] Urgench, nearly all the cities that surrendered without resistance received relatively good treatment.  Ironically, it was a concern for casualties in FUTURE campaigns that prompted Ghengis’ worst excesses earlier on.  So sustaining large numbers of dead and wounded when besieging a city meant they would take a terrible revenge when the city finally fell.  The fiercer the resistance, the greater the carnage wrought.  Again: This was to send a message so as to AVERT such eventualities going forward.

This myth is told mostly about the siege of Merv under Tolui Khan (grandson of Genghis and father of Hulagu) in 1221.  As it turns out, such an account primarily comes from Juvayni.

We also encounter such confabulation regarding the siege of Kiev; yet the city was not sacked until the end of 1240 (thirteen years after Genghis died).  It occurred during Batu Khan’s campaign through Kieven Rus (Ruthenia / Galicia / Volhynia), which began with the sacking of Ryazan three years earlier.  It was the military general, Möngke (brother of Hulagu), who led the attack…AFTER he’d offered the city the usual terms of surrender.  Möngke’s overture was not only rebuffed by the city’s leader (the pompous voivode under King Danylo: Dmytro); his envoys were killed when they’d been sent to offer such terms.  THAT is what prompted the extreme Mongol response.

Unlike the (utterly gratuitous) violence seen under Tamerlane generations later, the destruction wrought by the Tengri-ist / Buddhist Mongols was not indiscriminate; it was calculated.  Genghis Kahn was deliberately conspicuous with his use of violence, and strategic with how he deployed it; as it was seen as PR.  He ordered the slaughter of large numbers of people in certain places under certain circumstances, to set an example so that others would be more apt to submit without a fight.  The strategy worked.

As Peter Frankopan put it: “In return for unstinting support, the leader provided goods, booty and status.  Genghis Khan’s genius was to be able to supply these benefits prodigiously enough to guaranteed loyalty–and to do so with metronomic regularity” (The Silk Roads, p. 155).  Frankopan may have noted that the exact same statement could just as well have been made about most other conquerers–from Alexander the Great to Mohammed of Mecca.  Frankopan added: “In fact, the Mongol’s success lay not in indiscriminate brutality, but in their willingness to compromise and cooperate” (p. 173).

During the early 13th century, the Mongols sacked numerous cities across Asia–including Otrar (in 1219), Samarkand, Bukhara, and Balkh (in 1220) as well as [Old] Urgench, Nisha-pur, Herat, and Merv (in 1221).*  Tellingly, most of these cities underwent a REVITALIZATION pursuant to Mongol seizure.  When people WERE slaughtered by the Mongols, it was never for ideological purposes; it was always to set an example.

Mongols sometimes ordered the skulls of the slain to be gathered and put into massive piles–a task that had no purpose other than to send a message to those who would consider resistance in the future.  In other words: It was a draconian way to deter casualties going forward.  To reiterate: The primary reason for slaughter was to dissuade other cities from fighting when they were offered terms of surrender.

Predictably, demonization of the Mongols soon became a vocation in Dar al-Islam; and continues to be so to the present day.  Menacing caricatures circulated around the world, portraying them as savages–sometimes as centaurs, sometimes with the heads of wolves, sometimes as demons.  This is all, of course, risible balderdash.

The Mongols were, in reality, highly sophisticated and pioneers of cosmopolitanism.  They used cutting-edge technology in battle; and invested heavily in public infrastructure after seizing a city.  In valuing pluralism, they allowed for complete freedom of religion.

If one lived in an urban center during the Middle Ages, residing in any of the multi-cultural, well-managed municipalities of the Mongolian realm was probably one of the best options…UNLIKE medieval Europe, which was under the theocratic boot of the Roman Catholic Church (where one most likely lived in squalor, as a serf, with nil civil liberties).  In recognizing the merits of cosmopolitanism, the Mongols did not abide serfdom, and guaranteed freedom of religion.  For more on this, see my essay: “The Universality Of Morality”.

So why the slanted record?  Of the unflattering portrayals of the Mongols, Frankopan explains: “This slanted view of the past provides a notable lesson in how useful it is for leaders who have a view to posterity to patronize historians who write sympathetically of their age of empire–something Mongols conspicuously failed to do” (p. 157).  It’s the victors who write the official record.  More to the point: Rulers who are determined to propound a vaunted legacy will commission chroniclers who will tout THEM whilst disparaging their adversaries.  Hence what comes to be the prevailing version of “history”.

The problem is that much of the information we now have about the Mongol conquests comes from highly biased sources–most notably: the “Tarikh-i Jahangushay” [“History of the World Conquerer”]…which was written by…Juvayni.

Alas, people often end up believing what they very much prefer to believe; which is typically what it is CONVENIENT for them to believe.  After all, most farce is self-ingratiating; and propaganda is invariably self-serving (with respect to those who are promulgating it).

Funny enough, the disingenuous characterization of the Mongols is even espoused by esteemed historians like Frankopan.  After having portrayed the Arab conquests as hallmarks of tolerance and “concord” earlier in “The Silk Road”, he portrays the Mongol conquests as “the road to hell.”  If we are to believe Frankopan, Mohammedan hegemony was characterized by tempered civility; whereas Genghis’ hegemony was characterized by unadulterated barbarism.  In the opening passages on the Mongols, he echoes the usual tropes: They were “living like animals”, behaving like savages, and all the other derogatory caricatures with which we have become all-too-familiar. **

To reiterate: The Mongol conquests humiliated the Muslim world.  It comes as no surprise, then, that there was seething resentment that lingered for centuries; and consequently made its way into sanctified Islamic lore.  In the advent of the Mongol conquests, Muslim expositors fumed about divine punishment and the end of the world.  Writing about the Mongol “hordes” in luridly apocalyptic terms, they became unscrupulous propagandists more than evenhanded chroniclers.  They weren’t so much impartial historians as they were propounders of sanctified lore.

In assaying these disingenuous–nay, downright erroneous–accounts, we should always note that almost all of them came from those who had an ax to grind.  The only chronicle that WAS made by the Mongols, “The Secret History Of The Mongols”, was destroyed by the Soviets under Stalin.  The sole redaction that survived was discovered by the Kazan monk, Pyotr Ivanovich Kafarov in 1872.

The point, then, is that many popular tales of Mongol atrocities were wildly exaggerated by their enemies and critics.  This is most flagrantly so when it came to Islamic historiographers–who, needless to say, had a staunch, vested interest in demonizing those who had humiliated them.  Ironically, the Mongols themselves were more than happy to play along with this propaganda, as the terrifying accounts made opponents more likely to surrender without a fight.  (You want to spread rumors of a single Mongol warrior slaughtering a million civilians with each wave of his sword, so be it!  Free publicity.)

Note that three European sources are used for most accounts of the Mongols–each of which has highly questionable credence:

  • A fanciful historiography by Giovanni of Perugia [“Pian del Carpine”] (a.k.a. “Carpini”): The “Hystoria Mongalorum”
  • A fanciful ethnography by Franciscan emissary, “C” of Bridia: The “Hystoria Tatarorum”
  • A fanciful historiography by Christian authors that came to be known as the Galician-Volynian Chronicle (the oldest manuscript of which is the Hypatian Codex from the late 15th century)

The hair-raising accounts of Carpini were popular in medieval Europe.  He told of hooved creatures with the heads of dogs lurking at the frontiers of the Mongol homeland. (Gadzooks!)  Meanwhile, “C” told of monstrous races; which were described as dog-faced, ox-footed savages. (Gadzooks!)  He even wrote about Gog and Magog (lifted from the Alexander Romance) as well as the magnetic island of Tataros (lifted from tales of Sinbad the Sailor)…indicating that his accounts were based largely on (hand-picked) ancient fables that were popular at the time.  Then, of course, there was the “Tarikh-i Jahangushay” by Juvayni.  Before long, people were speaking of Mongols as demonic creatures (half horse, half men) that came from the edge of the world, bringing the apocalypse in their wake.

All made for a captivating narrative.  The majority of it was sensational balderdash.

For a more scrupulous portrayal, I recommend the following modern sources:

  • “The Empire Of The Steppes: A History of Central Asia” by Rene Grousset
  • “Empires of the Silk Road” by Christopher Beckwith
  • “The History of The Mongol Conquests” by J.J. Saunders
  • “Genghis Khan And The Making of the Modern World” by Jack Weatherford
  • “Genghis Khan: Life, Death, And Resurrection” by John Man

Other worthwhile–though less scholarly–books include Frank McLynn’s “Genghis Khan: His Conquests, His Empire, His Legacy” and Richard Foltz’s “Religions Of The Silk Road”.  Other than the slap-dash treatment of Genghis Khan and Tamerlane, Peter Frankopan’s “The Silk Roads” is an excellent resource.  For more on the ACTUAL deeds–and achievements–of the Mongols, see my essay on “The Universality Of Morality”, where I dispel other misconceptions.

{* It should be noted that Tamerlane did far more damage to many of these cities–especially Balkh and [Old] Urgench.  Frankopan notes: “While it is difficult to be precise about the scale of death inflicted in the [Mongol] attacks, it is worth noting that many (though not all) of the towns apparently overcome by waves of attackers recovered quickly–suggesting that the later [Muslim] Persian historians on whom we [tend to] rely may have been keen to over-emphasize the devastating effects of the Mongol attacks.”  That said, he allows that “even if [said historians] magnified the suffering, there could be no doubt that the winds that blew violence from the east did so with tremendous force” (p. 158).  As it turns out, in his exposition, Frankopan HIMSELF makes use of highly biased accounts of Genghis–including Juvayni’s “History of the World Conquerer”.}

{** Frankopan offers a caveat to his own unflattering portrayal.  “It was a pattern repeated time and again: money poured into towns that were rebuilt and re-energized; with particular attention paid to championing the arts, crafts, and production.  Blanket images of the Mongols as barbaric destroyers are wide off the mark.  [Such accounts] represent the misleading legacies of the histories written later [mostly by Muslims], which emphasized ruin and devastation above all else.”  Frankopan mentions this before–ironically–reverting to the uncharitable caricature HIMSELF, opining that the Mongols were “bringing the apocalypse”.  Eeesh.}

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