The Mongols and the Silk Road

The Mongols and the Silk Road

By John Masson Smith, Jr.

The Silk Road Foundation Newsletter, Vol.1:1 (2003)

Introduction: The Mongols reached Europe in 1221, on a reconnaisance of the western extent of the Eurasian steppe, the land on which Mongol armies could most easily support themselves “wherever a horse is able to tread.” Their force was a detachment of the great army Chinggis Qan (Genghis Khan) was leading through Central Asia, eastern Iran, Afghanistan, and into India. The detachment crossed northern Iran, wintering in Azerbaijan (1220-21), passed the Caucasus mountains, spent the next winter in the Crimea, explored the Volga region, and returned to Mongolia; it fought winning battles all along the way, including one against an alliance of Turkic Cuman nomads and Russians. The incursion came to the notice of Europe, but since such nomad disturbances in that region were a common occurrence, and because the new intruders had withdrawn, apparently for good, it made little impression.

In 1236-42 the Mongols returned, acting on the knowledge gained on their previous expedition: that the steppe extended into the North Pontic region (Ukraine and Crimea), that their armies could therefore sustain themselves all the way-the horses eating grass and the soldiers eating horses-and that the local inhabitants were incapable of serious resistance. This time the Mongols came in great force, with at least twelve tümens (divisions of, nominally, 10,000 men), judging by the number of commanders, mostly princes, mentioned. They overwhelmed the Cumans, Russians and Hungarians, and defeated a large army of Germans and Poles. And although the Mongols shortly abandoned Hungary (probably indefensible by a nomad-based garrison), they based a large army in Ukraine and on the Volga, conscripting many of the Cumans and monitoring their Russian vassals, and conjoined to it further forces in North Central Asia (approximately Kazakhstan), creating the sub-realm of the empire that came to be known in the West as the Golden Horde. This threatening new power caught the attention of Europe: the Mongol empire now had a presence and a frontier in Eastern Europe.

In the Middle East, Mongol task forces, beginning in 1229, established bases in Azerbaijan, and from them intimidated or forced into vassal status the Trebizondian Byzantines, Anatolian Seljuks and Cilician Armenians, among all of whom Westerners, mostly Italians, had an important commercial presence. The European Crusaders on the Levant coast too now had a new, Mongol near-neighbor in Iran and Anatolia. In 1256, these Mongols were heavily reinforced by contingents sent to exterminate the (original) Assassins, subjugate or destroy the Caliphate in Iraq, and extend the empire to the southwest. Although Syria and Egypt were successfully defended by the Mamluks, the Assassins were wiped out, as was the Caliph. Baghdad was wrecked, and much commerce that had been focussed on it now shifted north to Tabriz and Trebizond.

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