Having watched John Green’s crash course world history videos for the upcoming lessons, I’m sure all of us are pretty familiar with the Mongols by now. Before we move on to our topic proper, let us introduce and briefly share the history of the Mongols with you!
Often portrayed as being backward and barbaric by many, and the Mongols numerous successful conquests have often been depicted as savage assaults. However, is that true? The man behind the vast and powerful Mongol Empire is none other than the famous, Genghis Khan. But, who is he exactly?
Born under the name of Temüjin, Genghis Khan (c.1167-1227) was the founder and ruler of the Mongolian Empire. However, it was only after he proved supreme through his formidable military and conquest tactics, that he was bestowed the title of Genghis Khan in 1206. His new title carries the meaning of "Universal Monarch." Known as a ruthless warlord, Genghis Khan was responsible for the deaths of as many as 40 million people. This probably explained why upon the arrival of Genghis Khan, many neighbouring territories would rather surrender out of fear, than go through fierce battles and struggles.
Despite all those singular stories of him only being a fierce warrior and merciless conqueror, Genghis Khan was also a skillful ruler and administrator, creating the largest empire in history by ruling Eurasia from China to the Middle East and Russia. His many achievements during his rule were well received, and he was bequeathed a glorious description by the Chinese “一代天骄 yí dài tiān jiāo — a great son whom the sky is proud of”.
Now that we have introduced Genghis Khan, we must not forget his people too, and they are the Mongols.
The Mongols were well known for their impressive bow and arrow skills as well as horse-riding skills.
As the Mongolians lived a wandering life, it was often difficult for them to communicate efficiently with their leaders. So what did they do? Let us introduce you to….
Not this yam of course..
But the Yam system.
As mentioned earlier, Genghis Khan had accomplished many achievements during his rule. Of them, one of the most influential was the Yam system. Under his reign, the Mongols developed a postal system called Yam (or Örtöö, meaning “checkpoint”), which allowed them to boost communication effectiveness among various parts of the Mongolian Empire.
So how did it work? The Yam was a series of stations that were placed about 24-64 kilometres from each other, and messengers would travel from one station to another to deliver mail, pass intelligence reports and vital news.
What was the main function of the Yam?
You may think that the Yam was for merchants to sell their goods and engage in trade. However, the main function of the Yam was actually to allow Genghis Khan to deploy merchants, ambassadors, representatives, etc to the rival lands to extract information.
The Yam system expedited the transfer of intelligence communiqués, improved the Mongol’s intelligence gathering capabilities, and created a security system. For the convoys to clear security, and be handed incoming goods, they had to possess the appropriate paiza (tablet of authority). The paiza was an inscribed metal plaque, which not only functioned as a passport, but was also a symbol of Mongol authority. Each paiza varied in its composition materials and illustrations, according to the rank of the person.
The paiza illustrated here is a passport, made of iron with inlay of thick silver bands forming characters in the Phagspa script
Both messengers and station operators enjoyed extended privileges. This vast communication network allowed goods and information to be transmitted swiftly and efficiently, and was essential in allowing Genghis Khan to “maintain contact with his extensive network of spies and scouts”, as well as receiving intelligence of the “military and political developments” of his neighbouring enemies.
Even Marco Polo, an early Venetian explorer, witnessed and confirmed the efficiency of this early yet greatly intelligent invention of the Yam postal system. Thanks to the ease of communication and movement, Genghis Khan and his successors were therefore able to govern their vast empire more effectively, giving rise to economic and political stability.
The Yam system built by the Mongols is astounding as it challenges our impression of the Mongols as simply being uncivilised barbarians. The construction of the Yam system demonstrates to us that Genghis Khan possessed great foresight. Knowing that he needed to acquire intelligence of other kingdoms for the planning of attacks and conquests, Genghis Khan came up with elaborate strategies, and schemes. Such vision and planning allowed the Mongolians to conquer vast territories, and construct a powerful empire, creating one of the largest empires in the whole of human history.
Just an interesting nugget.
You can read about Genghis Khan's contributions to the climate here!
The Mongols are complex, and they have no singular, defining story. We hope that our blog post is able to shed some light, and hopefully, challenge your initial perceptions of the Mongols (: