Published Online, 19 March (2006)
As history entered its thirteenth century of the Gregorian calendar, a movement was fomenting in the steppes east of Lake Baikal that would leave an unprecedented impact upon the whole of Asia. This was the Mongol irruption, or “catastrophe,” as some like to call it. Between the years 1206 and 1227, a great confederation of Mongolian tribes, led by Genghis Khan, subdued a vast territory stretching from Beijing to the Caspian Sea, and by 1272, there were few lands in Asia that the sons of Genghis did not rule. Debates about the long-term influence of the Mongols have gone both ways: some believe that the Mongol conquest was indeed a catastrophe, one that some parts of Asia took centuries to recover from. Others argue that, within a century, the Mongol ruling class had been absorbed into the cultural spheres that they resided in, and that, after the initial shock and wave of deaths, trans-continental trade and development resumed more or less unhindered.
While both arguments have their points to make, we cannot ignore a third factor – the psychological impact. Even if the destruction was not as widespread as we once thought, there must have been no doubt among the people living under Mongol rule that a new era was upon them. As Hodgson observes, “For two or three centuries in most of the areas where they went and, in places, much longer, the Mongol tradition was looked to unquestioningly as the norm and ground of all political authority.” This is best illustrated by the literature of post-Genghisid dynasties in Asia. Just as Islamic rulers before 1250 employed the titles and rhetoric of the seemingly larger-than-life days of the early caliphate, so would monarchs and generals of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries style themselves after this new invincible conqueror.