The Mongols and the West
By Morris Rossabi
Asia in Western and World History: A Guide for Teaching, edited by Ainslie T. Embree and Carol Gluck (East Gate Book, 1997)
Introduction: Eurasian history proper begins in the second half of the thirteenth century with the Mongols. Though their empire did not last for long – some authorities assert it survived for as little as forty years, and it certainly did not endure for much more than a century – they made a major contribution by inextricably linking Europe and Asia. The states and empires of the two continents had traded with each other as early as the flrst century B.C.E., and nomadic peoples from Asia such as the Xiongnu had raided and invaded European territory since the fourth century C.E. The fabled Silk Road, which wound its way from northwest China through the oases of central Asia, the towns and marketplaces of Persia, and the ports on the Mediterranean and then westward to Europe, had facilitated trade between Asia and Europe. But there had been no direct relations between Europe and East Asla and no European had set foot in China until the Mongol invasions.
The Mongol conquests ushered in an era of frequent and extended contact. Once the Mongols had achieved relative stability and order in their newly acquired domains, they neither discouraged nor impeded relations with foreigners. Though they never abandoned their claims of universal rule, they were hospitable to foreign travelers, even those whose monarchs had not submitted. They encouraged and expedited travel in the sizable section of Asia that was under their rule, though conflicts among the various Mongol khanates did, on occasion, interfere with transport and trade. There were numerous hazards to intercontinental contact – bandits, rebellions against Mongol rule, and the perils of desert and mountain travel. Yet European merchants, craftsmen, and envoys were, for the first time, permitted to journey as far as China. European monarchs and the popes exchanged letters and emissaries with the great khans; nearly all the Mongol khans promoted trade. Asian goods reached Europe along the caravan trails, and the European demand for these products eventually inspired the search for a sea route to Asia. Thus the Mongol era indirectly led to the European age of exploration of the fifteenth century, which culminated in the discovery of the sea route around the Cape of Good Hope to Asia and in the unsuccessful effort of Christopher Columbus to find a western route to the Indies. From Mongol times on, the flow of people and products from Europe to Asia increased dramatically. Developments in Asia often had reverberations in Europe and vice versa.