The Circulation of Military Technology in the Mongolian Empire

The Circulation of Military Technology in the Mongolian Empire

By Thomas T. Allsen

Warfare in Inner Asian History (500-1800), edited by Nicola Di Cosmo (Brill, 2002)

Introduction: The Mongols’ repertoire of weapons at the beginning of the thirteenth century did not differ appreciably from the pattern of armament that had predominated in the nomadic world since the first centuries of the Christian era. As they expanded beyond the steppe, however, they began to appropriate the military technology of their enemies and subjects. A dramatic case in point is their rapid mobilization of Chinese and Korean maritime skills to create a navy that performed a crucial role in the defeat of the Southern Sung (1127– 1279), the major seapower of eastern Eurasia. This propensity is noticeable as well in their acquisition of West Asian defensive armor—chainmail, helmets, breastplates, and horse armor. There is, for example, early eyewitness testimony that the Mongols coveted Alan-made breastplates. Equally revealing, the Mongolian word for “cuirass,” begder, goes back to the Persian bagtar, “chainmail.” In the opinion of one scholar, the Mongolian army in the West, which arrived as light cavalry, was soon transformed into a medium or heavy armored cavalry under Persian influence.

Such borrowings, moreover, were subsequently transmitted throughout Eurasia. It did not, for instance, take the princes of Rus long to emulate their Mongolian adversaries. In 1252 German envoys visiting Hungary were much impressed with the regiments of Danilo, ruler of Galicia, because they arrived in full battle array wearing “Tartar armor [oruzh’iu Tatar’skomu]” that protected both rider and horse. These “glittering arms,” it is safe to say, were not of “Tartar” manufacture. Almost certainly, the prototypes were fabricated in the Islamic East by local artisans drafted into service by their Mongolian overlords. Writing in the early fourteenth century, Rash“d al-D“n states that in the early days of the empire individual artisans (zˆn)— bowyers, arrow-makers, quiver- and bow-case makers, swordsmiths and others—were attached to particular cities, while others were brought together in factories (kˆrkhˆnah) directly under the supervision of Mongolian courts. All, he adds, were paid, at least in principle, by drafts assigned on the provinces. And, it must be remembered, the territories the Mongols brought under their dominion in the thirteenth century included most of the ancient centers of military technology. Iraq, the seat of the ‘Abbˆsid Caliphate which fell to the Mongols in 1258, produced chainmail, helmets, and swords, and Baghdad itself had a special quarter devoted to these crafts.

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