The Great Khans and the Mongol Imperium
Conquering the world on horseback is easy; it is dismounting and governing that is hard.
Genghis Khan (r. 1206-27)
In the 13th century a new and unexpected power exploded onto the Central Asian scene, rapidly conquering the entire length of the Silk Road from Chang’an in the east to Antakya in the west under a single empire for the first time in history, and producing as a consequence the last great flourishing of Silk Road trade before the latter’s decline and gradual disappearance in the 15th and 16th centuries. The engine for this new empire was Mongol expansion, and the man who made it happen was a nomadic ruler called Temujin, who would later assume the title Genghis Khan (1206-27), the name by which he would be remembered – with a shudder by settled peoples from Chang’an to Baghdad and Budapest, and with fierce pride by the nomadic Mongols.
Temujin was born c.1162 not far from Ulaan Baaatar, the present capital of Mongolia. Despite enduring a difficult childhood and relative poverty, he showed remarkable will power and military ability, gradually increasing in power and defeating his clan enemies until, in 1206, he united the feuding Mongol tribes under his sole leadership as Great Khan. He lived for a further 21 years, during which time his armies conquered a great part of Asia including the Silk Road between China and the Caspian Sea. On his death in 1227, the Mongol Empire is estimated to have encompassed 26 million sq kilometres, an area about four times the size of the Roman or Macedonian Empires at their peak.
Despite his ruthless efficiency as a military commander, Genghis was remarkably enlightened in matters of religion and culture, allowing his many conquered subjects considerable freedom of choice. He also set the seal on another aspect of Mongol policy – the encouragement of commercial and trade relationships between the increasingly far flung corners of their empire. This enlightened policy caused a brief but dazzling resurgence of the ancient Silk Road, as all merchants and ambassadors carrying proper documentation and authority were permitted – indeed encouraged – to travel throughout the vast Mongol realm under Imperial protection. As a consequence, overland trade between Asia and Europe greatly increased. During the 13th and early 14th century this policy encouraged hundreds, perhaps thousands of Western merchants to travel the Silk Route to China, the most celebrated of whom was Marco Polo…
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