Category Archives: Mongolia

Medieval German vs. Mongol Shock and Awe

Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, who ranks as one of Germany’s greatest historical and cultural heroes, best exemplified the use of terror in the West. When he tried to conquer the Lombard city of Cremona in the north of modern Italy in 1160, he instituted an escalating series of violent acts of terror. His men beheaded their prisoners and played with the heads outside the city walls, kicking them like balls. The defenders of Cremona then brought out their German prisoners on the city walls and pulled their limbs off in front of their comrades. The Germans gathered more prisoners and executed them in a mass hanging. The city officials responded by hanging the remainder of their prisoners on top of the city walls. Instead of fighting each other directly, the two armies continued their escalation of terror. The Germans then gathered captive children and strapped them into their catapults, which were normally used to batter down walls and break through gates. With the power of these great siege machines, they hurled the living children at the city walls.

By comparison with the terrifying acts of civilized armies of the era, the Mongols did not inspire fear by the ferocity or cruelty of their acts so much as by the speed and efficiency with which they conquered and their seemingly total disdain for the lives of the rich and powerful. The Mongols unleashed terror as they rode east, but their campaign was more noteworthy for its unprecedented military success against powerful armies and seemingly impregnable cities than for its bloodlust or ostentatious use of public cruelty….

One of the worst slaughters was unleashed on the citizens of Omar Khayyám‘s home city of Nishapur. The residents revolted against the Mongols, and in the ensuing battle an arrow fired from walls of the city killed Genghis Khan’s son-in-law, Tokuchar. In revenge for the revolt and as a lesson to other cities, Genghis allowed his widowed daughter, who was pregnant at the time, to administer whatever revenge she wished upon the captured city. She reportedly decreed death for all, and in April 1221, the soldiers carried out her command. According to widely circulated but unverified stories, she ordered the soldiers to pile the heads of the dead citizens in three separate pyramids–one each for the men, the women, and the children. Then she supposedly ordered that the dogs, the cats, and all other living animals in the city be put to death so that no living creature would survive the murder of her husband….

While the destruction of many cities was complete, the numbers given by historians over the years were not merely exaggerated or fanciful–they were preposterous. The Persian chronicles reported that at the battle of Nishapur, the Mongols slaughtered the staggeringly precise number of 1,747,000. This surpassed the 1,600,000 listed as killed in the city of Herat. In more outrageous claims, Juzjani, a respectable but vehemently anti-Mongol historian, puts the total for Herat at 2,400,000. Later, more conservative scholars place the number of dead from Genghis Khan’s invasion of central Asia at 15 million within five years. Even this more modest total, however, would require that each Mongol kill more than a hundred people; the inflated tallies for other cities required a slaughter of 350 people by every Mongol soldier. Had so many people lived in the cities of central Asia at the time, they could have easily overwhelmed the invading Mongols.

SOURCE: Genghis Khan and the Remaking of the Modern World, by Jack Weatherford (Three Rivers Press, 2004), pp. 116-118

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How Genghis Khan Reformed Looting on the Steppe

In [his] campaign against the Tatars, Temujin [later Genghis Khan] would institute yet another set of radical changes to the rules that had long governed steppe life, and these changes would both antagonize some of his followers, those of the aristocratic lineages, and deepen the loyalty felt for him by many others, those of the lower lineages whose lives he enriched with his reforms and distribution of goods. While conducting raid after raid, Temujin had realized that the rush to loot the gers of the defeated served as an impediment to more complete victory. Rather than chasing down the warriors of the raided camps, attackers generally allowed them to flee and focused instead on immediately looting their camps. This system allowed many defeated warriors to escape and eventually return for a counterattack. So on this raid, his second conquest of the Tatars, Temujin decided to order that all looting would wait until after a complete victory had been won over the Tatar forces; the looting could then be carried out in a more organized fashion, with all the goods being brought under his central control and then redistributed among his followers as he determined fit. He distributed the goods along the same lines by which the hunting men of the forest traditionally distributed the kill at the end of a group hunt.

In another innovation, he ordered that a soldier’s share be allocated to each widow and to each orphan of every soldier killed in the raid. Whether he did this because of the memory of his own mother’s predicament when the Tatars killed his father, or for more political purposes, it had a profound effect. This policy not only ensured him of the support of the poorest people in the tribe, but it also inspired loyalty among his soldiers, who knew that even if they died, he would take care of their surviving families.

After routing the Tatars, some of Temujin’s followers ignored his order against individual looting, and he demonstrated how serious he was about this reform by exacting a tough but appropriate punishment. He stripped those men of all their possessions and deprived them of the goods seized in the campaign. By controlling the distribution of all the looted goods, he had again violated the traditional rights of the aristocratic lineages under him to disperse the goods among their followers. The radical nature of his reforms angered many of them, and some deserted him to join the forces of [his blood brother and principal rival] Jamuka at this point, further drawing a line between the higher-prestige lineages and the common herders. Again, he had shown that rather than relying on the bonds of kinship and tradition, members of his tribe could now look to Temujin for direct support; with this move, he greatly centralized the power of his rule while at the same time strengthening the commitment of his followers.

Despite the minority discontent from within the Mongol ranks, Temujin’s new system proved immediately effective. By postponing the looting until the end of the campaign, Temujin’s army amassed more goods and animals than ever before. But the new wealth system also posed a new problem; the Mongols had not only defeated the Tatars, they had also captured almost the entire army and all the civilians.

SOURCE: Genghis Khan and the Remaking of the Modern World, by Jack Weatherford (Three Rivers Press, 2004), pp. 50-51

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Siberian Light on Mongolian Elections

Siberian Light shines a spot on the Mongolian elections:

Nabetz at New Mongols has a look at some international rankings, showing that not all of Russia’s non-European neighbours have problems with democratising, or resisting pressure from Russia and China to maintain pliable authoritarian regimes:

With numbers like this, it’s easy to understand why Mongolia has been able to have nine national parliamentary and presidential national elections in about 15 years–all of them free, fair, and, perhaps most tellingly, friendly (compare elsewhere in the region). That political power has changed been passed back and forth between several parties is an indication that the Republic is advancing more strongly, more peacefully, and more openly than ever….

Hopefully, the example of Mongolia will also bring an end to the sometimes fashionable belief that countries without a Christian tradition and/or occupation by American troops can’t democratise.

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Molokans in Armenia and a New Mongolia Blog

The invaluable Siberian Light notes a couple of far-outposts: a report on Molokans, Russian Old Believers in Armenia, and a link to a new blog from Mongolia.

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Legacy and Legality in Central Asia

IIAS Newsletter 34 in July 2004 contains three short articles presenting historical overviews of Central Asian law. Longer versions will appear in a Journal of Asian Legal History monograph entitled Central Asian Law: An Historical Overview (October 2004). Here are substantial excerpts from the article by Irina Morozova on “Legal systems and political regimes in post-socialist Central Asia” (in PDF format). It is all I can do to resist quoting the whole thing. It does a good job of sketching fundamental contradictions facing newly independent Central Asian nations today.

Traditional systems of law informing current practice include customary law (adat) and religious law (Sharia except in Christian Georgia and Armenia and Buddhist Mongolia). Adat has proven remarkably stable while Sharia has survived the centuries; they are closely linked and often identified as one. Customary law, functioning in the form of strong communal relationships and the awarding of social status according to age and kinship hierarchies, is strong in rural areas and exists in modified form in the cities. Religious systems of law in post-Soviet societies are weaker; seventy years of secular education have left their mark. While the new independent states all proclaim themselves to be secular republics, ideas of Muslim law are still alive. Sharia, however, is no longer in serious use. [A little optimistic, perhaps?]

Of the social institutions informing customary law, the social class of agsakals has been especially durable. At the top of the social pyramid resides the agsakal, an old man seen as experienced and wise; his decisions are to be followed by family and community. The institution of the agsakal is legally recognized in Turkmenistan where it is called The Council of Agsakals. In Mongolia, often called the most open and democratic country in Asia, respect for agsakals still persists, albeit in weaker form. The social group also survives in the Eastern and Southern regions of the Russian Federation – Buryatia, Tuva, Kalmykiya, Tatarstan, and especially in the Northern Caucasus.

Customary law is also reflected in the system of clans, very much alive in the contemporary politics of Central Asia and the Southern Caucasus. In the beginning of the 1990s the struggle between clans in Tajikistan became so acute that it led to civil war. One of the threats to the rule of the President of Turkmenistan S. Niyazov is consolidation of an oppositional clan. The Uzbek President I. Karimov regularly purges members of the Samarkand, Tashkent and Bukhara clans from his administration. In Kazakhstan, strategic industries and the most profitable sectors of the economy belong to, or are controlled by, members of the presidential family and their relatives. The principle of social-economic redistribution among members of the clan is one of the main obstacles to the development of Western-style legal institutions. Clan identity ill fits individually based democratic conceptions of law; the effective application of the latter is routinely sacrificed to the pursuit of clan interests.

The Soviet legal system imposed on the Central Asian and Caucasian peoples had a certain modernizing effect on traditional societies. While Soviet legal institutions appeared Western, they did not work in practice the way they were supposed to on paper. While social systems based on clan patronage and kinship were criticized during the Soviet period, they did not disappear – they adjusted themselves to Communist state-party hierarchies. By the 1960s, the reform of administrative systems was complete; clan relationships and the social cult of the agsakal had mutated into the structures of national nomenclatura….

The Soviet legacy

To date, debate on the state of law has focused on overturning the Soviet legacy. Concepts of legitimacy and law are now expressed in terms of democracy, civil society, human rights and the market economy. These concepts serve as antonyms to another range of terms: Soviet one-party system, totalitarian state, communist ideology and planned economy. Post-Soviet politicians, journalists and populists, perhaps believing that the new terms reflect acquired sovereignty, juggle them for career purposes. The active use of the democratic lexicon, however, has yet to further the understanding, much less the application, of democratically based law….

The past legitimizes

Central Asian intellectual elites play a significant role in developing legal concepts. During the late Soviet and post-Soviet periods, university professors and scholars in academies of science aspired to political influence; sociologists, historians and philologists now advise politicians. Academics are charged with developing discourses of nationhood and national development, and to emphasize their democratic and legal nature. [A formula for self-delusion?]

Concurrently governments appeal to the legacy of ancient and medieval Central Eurasian empires and khanates. There are simply too few regional analysts able and allowed to write on the essential contradictions between the political culture of the medieval khanates, the successors to which the present states pretend to be, and the democratic civil societies that they claim to be building…. Here we may be witnessing a modification of customary law: the more ancient the history of the nation, the longer the genealogy of the ruler, the more lawful the regime.

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Stormy Seas in Mongolia

James Brooke reports on Landlocked Mongolia’s Seafaring Tradition

Mongolia, the world’s largest landlocked country, with its capital almost 1,000 miles from an ocean beach, is the latest entry in the business of flags of convenience. With Mongolia’s red, yellow and blue colors now flying on 260 ships at sea, this unlikely venture is part business, part comedy and part international intrigue.

“We earned the treasury about $200,000 last year,” Bazarragchaa Altan-Od, head of the Maritime Administration, said, slightly tense for his first interview with the world press. “We have 20 to 30 new registrations every month. The number is increasing.” …

Mongolia’s maritime niche may be North Korea, which has revived relations in recent months with the ruling Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party, the former Communist party here. (On June 27, after a parliamentary election campaign that included corruption accusations against the government, the opposition Motherland Democratic Coalition unexpectedly won 36 of 76 seats. A final outcome is not expected until early July.)

North Korea flag vessels increasingly are watched around the world. Under the Proliferation Security Initiative, the United States and a dozen nations started to monitor North Korean vessels in 2003 for illicit cargos, like drugs, missiles or nuclear weapon fuel.

via The Argus

Let’s hope the Mongolia-flagged merchant fleet fares better than Kublai Khan’s invasion fleet in 13th-century Japan, which fell victim to the kamikaze. (The ships and sailors were mostly Koreans.)

Although noted for his administrative skill and policy of religious tolerance, Mongol Emperor Kublai Khan continued the trend of Mongol territorial expansion. Though he met with success in southern China, the conquest of Japan proved to be a difficult, and ultimately disastrous, endeavour. In 1274 the Mongols landed a large expeditionary force on the Japanese island of Kyushu, but this force was eventually driven off by skilled Japanese warriors. In 1281, the Mongols made another attempt, this time with an even larger force. Approximately 40,000 troops from North China and 100,000 troops from South China were transported in two huge invasion fleets that met and converged off Kyushu. But, unfortunately for the invaders and most fortunately for the Japanese, a colossal typhoon hit the coast, sinking many of the Mongol vessels. About one half of the troops perished or were captured, while those who managed to survive fled back to the Chinese mainland. It was as if the typhoon had appeared at the behest of Japan’s religious leaders, who had been fervently praying for deliverance as the invasion fleet approached. It is little wonder that the grateful Japanese termed this particular tempest Kamikaze or “divine wind.”

The Marmot’s (Final) Hole has more on Mongolia’s recent elections, in which the governing “Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party — the former Communist Party” lost its majority, thanks to a surprisingly strong showing by the Motherland Democratic Coalition.

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Camel Loathing

John DeFrancis’s loathing for camels grew with every step across the desert.

The very first sight of them filled us with distaste. When they arrived at the Temple of the Larks their burdens had made them seem bigger than they actually were. After they were unloaded Martin [his Canadian traveling companion] said they seemed tiny compared to the strapping geldings he had seen at Georg’s ranch. They were made to appear even smaller by the fact that they had shed half or more of their wool, exposing big pinkish blotches of skin. Although such shedding was perfectly normal, the mangy appearance gave them an air of utter decrepitude.

This impression was heightened by the forlorn way in which their two humps lay all flopped over, like the limp watches in a Dali painting. These stand firmly erect on camels in good condition. Contrary to popular belief, the single hump of Arabian dromedaries and the two humps of our Bactrians are reservoirs of fat, not water. The limp humps of our camels showed their complete lack of any reserve of fat that they might draw on.

We might have felt pity for the beasts if they had not had about them an air of hauteur that did not at all accord with their actual appearance–ungainly bodies with spindly legs, serpentine necks with reptilian heads, misshapen faces with doubly cleft harelips and unblinking eyes, protruding mouth and jaws that chewed the cud with a silly sideways motion. They made me think of scrofulous aristocrats with frayed cuffs and dirty collars, monocle in eye and ivory-handled cane aswing. At first I felt almost guilty to have such a visceral dislike for these supercilious creatures, but then I remembered reading that camels never evoke in humans the sort of relationship that dogs and horses often do.

A camel never looks you in the eye, the way an adoring dog does. They hold their arrogant heads up high and look right past you, as if you were not there, and indeed they appear to be totally indifferent to anything in their environment. It is not that they are lost in their own thoughts, for thinking, to redirect the male conceit of Henry Higgins, is something that camels never do. It takes them several years to learn to kneel, and even then they constantly need to be reminded by a sharp downward tug at their nose-cord.

Even the basic intelligence needed for survival is lacking. Other animals learn to avoid poisonous plants, but they have given their name to a plant called “camel poison” because only they are so stupid as to eat it, with dire results that they never foresee. From time to time disaster strikes whole caravans whose camels have all succumbed to the plant.

SOURCE: In the Footsteps of Genghis Khan, by John DeFrancis (U. Hawai‘i Press, 1993), p. 138

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Nestorians and Prester John on The Argus

Speaking of palimpsests: P F has a long and informative post over at The Argus on Nestorians and the Legend of Prester John. The first few paragraphs follow. Read the rest.

Nestorius was a fifth-century Patriarch of Constantinople, deposed and driven into exile for having preached heretical Christology, reportedly maintaining (though Nestorius himself denied it) that the Logos lived in the person of Jesus, who would thus be the bearer of God, and not the man-God, the orthodox position, two natures in one substance. Surprisingly, the decision to anathematize Nestorius turned out to have interesting consequences in Central Asian history, and perceptions of Central Asia in medieval Europe.

The Persian church had been autonomous from 410, possessing its own Patriarch, independant of the authority of the Western churches, and in 486 made a decision to uphold Nestorius’s teachings, in part to distinguish themselves from the West and reduce the chance that Persian Christians would gravitate to Antioch and Constantinople; non-Nestorians were driven from the country (though the Armenians condemned the move). Symmetrically, Nestorians fled Western areas to Persia, just as three hundred years earlier Christians had fled the then-pagan Roman Empire to take refuge with the Persian church.

By the middle of the sixth century, Nestorians churches had sprung up all over Asia, from Sri Lanka to Mongolia and from Egypt to China, and everywhere in between, including Turkestan, India, Afghanistan, and Kyrgyzstan. Like many missionaries confronted with illiterate societies, the Nestorians were led to create writing systems for the languages of peoples they wished to convert, such as Mongolian, Uighur, Sogdian, and Manchu, all based on Syriac.

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The Taste of Gobi Rations in the 1930s

Travel rations in the Gobi were somewhat less varied in the 1930s than they are now.

We started by drinking a bowl of “brick tea.” This was tea made by hammering off a chunk from a brick measuring about 6″ x 10″ x 1″ that weighed about two and a half pounds and was formed by compressing tea leaves into the least possible space in order to reduce the cost of transportation. Such bricks were widely used as a medium of exchange in the barter trade between Chinese and Mongols.

The chunk broken off from the brick is pounded, usually in a mortar, to loosen the compacted elements. Most teas are steeped in hot water according to the taste of the drinker. Brick tea is made by boiling. Mongols and Tibetans drink tea au lait, with added milk, butter, and salt. Chinese prefer it straight.

We had ours Chinese style. At first sip the tea tasted a bit like water in which a strip of rubber has been boiled. It improved only slightly with more sips.

Next we had a bowl of roasted or parched millet. Although millet is generally considered to be poor people’s fare, especially in contrast to high-status rice and wheat, it seemed to me not a whit inferior in taste to many of our cereals that are well known to be the breakfasts of champions…. Camel drivers generally eat the millet dry, washing it down with copious bowls of brick tea. Others prefer the somewhat more efficient technique of pouring handfuls of the cereal into their tea and then slurping down the combination. This was my preference, too …

We also had a small taste of two other cereals. One was a kind of oatmeal, not the flaky sort such as graces American breakfasts, but rather a finely ground flour, also roasted or parched. We ate it in a bowl of hot tea, making a sort of porridge, with the optional addition of a bit of sugar. I found it quite tasty. The other cereal, also a parched flour, tasted like bran. We sampled a few spoonfuls in our tea, again with a bit of sugar. It too seemed to me quite palatable.

SOURCE: In the Footsteps of Genghis Khan, by John DeFrancis (U. Hawai‘i Press, 1993), pp. 94-95

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The Feel of the Gobi Underfoot

John DeFrancis trekked across the Gobi in 1935, mostly on foot.

The term “Gobi” requires a bit of explanation. It is a Mongolian word with the literal meaning “gravel desert.” The term “Gobi Desert” is therefore redundant, but it is now firmly established in general usage, where it is applied to an area extending seven hundred miles from north to south and twelve hundred miles from east to west. This is centered along the border running east and west between Inner and Outer Mongolia.

But this huge expanse, the central portion of which is often designated “the Great Gobi,” actually consists of stretches comprising different kinds of terrain–sandy belts, barren rocky hills, patches of grassland, and gravel-covered soil. It is only the last of these, the gravel-covered stretches, that Mongols refer to as “gobi.” Foreign travelers in the area soon learn to use the term in both the restricted sense of the Mongols and the looser sense established by popular usage.

The distinction, which is sometimes expressed in writing by capitalization versus small letters, is important if we are to make sense out of a statement like “After crossing this sandy stretch we’ll have a belt of gobi before running into more sand.” When hoofing it through the desert one can hardly fail to be impressed by the differences in terrain and by the utility of the restricted Mongol usage of the term. And after slogging through a stretch of sandy soil it is a relief for one’s legs to come to a belt of good firm gobi.

We developed a refined feeling–literally a feeling–for the differences in the ground under our feet. Sight was not a completely reliable guide. Except for differences in color, one stretch of gobi often looked much like another. But our feet felt a difference.

Some stretches of gobi consisted of a thick layer of hard-packed gravel that held up well under our weight and made walking a pleasure. Others consisted of a thin covering of gravel on a friable crust that gave way to softer earth underneath. Walking over such terrain was almost as tiring as walking on sand.

There were differences between sandy areas too. Wind-blown sand that covered the ground with drifts and dunes was so tiring to walk on that we often made long detours to avoid such areas. Sand in dry riverbeds was occasionally somewhat compacted and so provided better footing.

Zhou said that there were actually five kinds of gobi–white, black, yellow, red, and blue. These colors refer to the kinds of gravel that covered the ground. The sand, soil, and rocks in their various hues added still more color to terrain that not only varied from place to place but changed shape before our eyes, sometimes because we saw the wind literally remaking the face of the land, always because in our progression we saw things from constantly changing perspectives. We found no little pleasure, or at least fascination, in the desert kaleidoscope.

SOURCE: In the Footsteps of Genghis Khan, by John DeFrancis (U. Hawai‘i Press, 1993), pp. 84-85

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