Encounters Among Enemies: Preliminary Remarks on Captives in Mongol Eurasia

Encounters Among Enemies: Preliminary Remarks on Captives in Mongol Eurasia

By Michal Biran

Archivun Eurasia Medii Aevi, Volume 21, 2015

Introduction: Captives – persons taken and held as prisoners of war (Arabic and Persian: asīr; Chinese: fu; Old Slavic: polon – were an inseparable part of Mongol warfare, both raids and conquests, from the days of Temüjin onwards. For the steppe nomads, humans were a resource scarcer than territory. They formed a valuable part of the booty not only due to their potential skills – as labor force, arrow fodder or experts of various kinds – but also for their value as merchandise that could profitably be sold in the Empire’s slave markets or – in the case of high-class captives – be ransomed for a considerable price.

While the collective experience of Mongol prisoners is one of agony and desperation, not all captives suffered such a grim fate. Skilled captives could advance even in captivity, while others used their captivity to acquire connections or skills that helped them in their future careers. Captivity was therefore a major channel of mobility, both physical and social, in Mongol Eurasia.

Based on a large corpus of multi-lingual sources, this study aims to provide a preliminary analysis of the fate of captives in Mongol Eurasia in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, both in the United Empire (1206-60) and in the four successor states centered in China, Iran, Central Asia and the Volga region. It seeks to explain who was taken captive, why and when? How were captives treated? How did captivity end? And what can be learnt from the captives’ stories about Mongol society and social mobility under Mongol rule?

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