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Mongols: The Gatekeepers of the Silk Road

Did You Know?

Mongols rarely washed their clothes or themselves, because they believed the act of washing would pollute the rivers and anger the dragons that controlled the waters. 

Smelly much? Well, that wasn't the only thing the Mongols believed in - they were staunch believers of trade as well. Due to their nomadic nature, trade was important to sustain their way of life. Furthermore, trade boosted their economy, and so it was of  great value to the Mongols in the 13th and 14th century. 

Genghis Khan was really serious about trade. In fact, he was so serious about it that when Inalchuq 1 executed the trade caravan he sent, he killed him by pouring molten silver down his face. 2 Genghis being Genghis, he didn’t stop there. He went further to conquer Khwarezmia and killed 1.25 million Khwarezmians3.

  1. a governor from the Khwarezmian Empire
  2. Man, J. (2007). Genghis Khan: Life, Death, and Resurrection. New York, NY: St. Martin's Press. p. 163.
  3. 25% of the Khwarezmia population gone, just for a 500-man trade caravan. Revenge is sweet I’d say.

Got to keep in mind it is Genghis Khan, not Genghis Khannot right? 

Now, on to a more serious note!

Before the Mongols intervened and joined inner-asia in terms of trade, many nomadic groups were split up among a varied mix of independent, power-hungry tribes who did not get along with each other. In this environment, trade at the silk road 1 was mostly seen as doing deals with the enemy and was highly discouraged by bans and even violence.

Mdf (Contributing author on Wikipedia Commons). Eurasian Steppe Belt (26 May 2009). Public Domain.

All these threats kept commercial transit low over the steppe route at the comfortable 'nomad zone', a zone stretching between Hungary and Manchuria where there was water and enough food for animals for transport. Instead, the merchants preferred to gamble their lives by taking a desert route, which including it's obvious dangers, did not mean they wouldn't be attacked. All this was terrible for merchants, but after the Mongols stepped in (or should we say, steppe in lmao), traders with commercial goods, and various other types of travellers could start using the steppe routes considerably confidently, without much risk.

Thus, the Mongols’ intervention ensured the safety of the route and to top it off, they also provided merchants with more opportunities to trade. In doing so, the Mongols effectively reestablished the Silk Road and facilitated the exchange of good, cultures and ideas between the East and West.

  1. Fun fact: A German geologist and explorer Baron Ferdiand von Richthofen first invented the concept of “Silk roads” in 1877, which has been used as a metaphor of the European and Asian cultural interchange.
 Authors' Own

Authors' Own

Support for Merchants and Trade

Under the Mongol rule, merchants received extensive support which helped them to trade more effectively. In contrast with the Song Dynasty (960-1279) 1 when rulers were disdainful towards merchants and commerce, the Mongols perceived them positively. They sought ways to facilitate trade such as offering local and foreign merchants higher statuses along with tax exemption and loans at low rates of interest. Genghis even offered a form of passport to these merchants allowing them to safely travel along the Silk Road.

The Mongols also established merchant associations, known as Ortogh, 2 promoting caravan trade that cover long distances. Caravan trade between the East and West was exceptionally pricey where food, resources and wages had to be distributed out to the men. The establishment of Ortogh helped merchants to minimize their losses when a caravan trade fails, therefore alleviating the budget issue and encourage them to trade.

To further support commerce and trade, the Mongols introduced paper money in 1260 as the official currency. Merchants could trade more easily with paper money which was more portable compared to coins. 3 The Mongols also circulated paper money into the Persian economy in 1291. Although in both Mongolia and Persia, paper money eventually became a flop, the Mongols were still genuine about trade as evidenced by these domestic and foreign policies.

  1. In Chinese history, merchants were traditionally placed in the lowest hierarchy on the "Four Occupations" because they were seen as "parasites" who did not contribute to the society.
  2. A joint-association whereby merchants pool their resources together to support a caravan.
  3. Coins were usually made out of silver, gold, copper or iron - heavy things!

Enhanced Safety of the Silk Road

Back then in the 13th and 14th century, message systems were not as reliable as the present day and thus the Mongols employed the most effective long distance and high speed communication system – the Yam.

 Alan Levine,  Yam Yam Yam  (19 Jan 2012). CC BY 2.0

Alan Levine, Yam Yam Yam (19 Jan 2012). CC BY 2.0

No, not this yam of course.

 Emmanuel,  Guillaume de Rubrouck's route (1253-55)  (18 Feb 2006). Public Domain

Emmanuel, Guillaume de Rubrouck's route (1253-55) (18 Feb 2006). Public Domain

It is this yam! 

This system, originally created for the Khans 1 and unit leaders to communicate during war, eventually transformed into a service the merchants and traders adopted. This postal-station system provided supplies of food, sources and lodging, ensuring that travellers could rest and secure their supplies. Implanted every 20 miles or so along the major trade routes, these series of stations boosted the health and morale of the travellers.

  1. The supreme rulers of Turkish, Tartar, Mongols and emperors of China in the Middle Ages

The Results?

The Mongol’s support for merchants and establishment of the Yam and Ortogh revived the Silk Road as a trade network, ushering in the Pax Mongolica1. During this time, various interchanges of cultural and artistic knowledge took place. Monks, missionaries and scientists also travelled along these routes, sharing and passing on useful information to be later incorporated into their respective practices. The result was an extraordinary rise in trade across and throughout Eurasia.

  1. Pax mongolica was a period created by the mongols which facilitated the environment of trade and communication.

Goods and ideas such as silk, silver, gold, horses, spices, architectural, medicinal, religious ideas and many more were traded in the Silk Road. Chinese inventions such as gunpowder, paper, mechanical printing and blast furnace were also passed down along the Silk Road towards west.

One of the most famous goods traded along the Silk Road is undoubtedly silk which is a commodity demanded by Egypt, Greece and Rome. The Chinese silk cultivation was held in high regard, as seen by how they kept silk production highly confidential and competed to restrict the silk market. Even a war broke out because of it.

Silk was used for various purposes; one of it being to show a person’s wealth and power. Tyrian purple silk, also known as royal purple, was an example of the Roman sumptuary law1,which was restricted to only the elites in the Roman Empire to wear. This was evident with Alexander the Great, who wore deep purple-dyed robe silk and Julius Caesar who was brought into Rome under silk canopies. Silk became so valuable that it was used for royal gifts and was also used as a standard monetary unit, such as gold.

  1. Roman sumptuary laws were laws made by the leaders of the Roman Empire to limit the spending of the people and to ensure that their status was easily identifiable
 Anonymous Byzantine artist 9th century,  The Shroud of Charlemagne  (14 Nov 2009). Public Domain.

Anonymous Byzantine artist 9th century, The Shroud of Charlemagne (14 Nov 2009). Public Domain.

The arts of the Silk Road are some of the most important sources we have of historical information. With this, we know more about the past, by getting to understand ancient clothing, architectural styles and agricultural practices.  Art was passed down in the form of motifs, architecture and techniques along the Silk Road. The picture below shows a cave mural of worshipping Bodhisattva which is carved using a distinctive artistic style, Dunhuang art.

 Unknown ancient Buddhist artist(s),  Cave mural of Worshiping Bodhisattva  (24 February 2010). Public Domain.

Unknown ancient Buddhist artist(s), Cave mural of Worshiping Bodhisattva (24 February 2010). Public Domain.

It combines the arts of the Han Chinese artistic tradition, Turks, ancient Tibetans and some chinese ethnic minority. Techniques used were also incorporated from ancient Indian and Gandharan customs. Woah! This just shows that the Silk Road facilitated the spread of arts and culture and now we have murals originating from so many parts of the world. Kudos to the Mongols! Without them reviving the Silk Road, these ideas would not have been passed down or even have been selectively adopted by each civilisation. The Mongols were indeed important in helping cultures of different origins to spread elsewhere, making Eurasia even more connected than ever.

To conclude, the Mongols were a crucial part in the unification of the East and the West, which further painted the landscape of globalization, the spread of cultures and of course, trade and commerce. It’s popular to think that all the Mongols did was focus on violent territorial domination, and it becomes easy to forget their positive influences on trade in inner-asia. Though Genghis Khan was seen as purely violent, he was a political and economic genius. He also made sure the future generations of the Mongols had a civilization to be proud of, as we can see that with his grandson Kublai Khan - but more on that in the next blog post.

(Rumour has it Genghis Khan was a sick rapper as well, as you can see in this Epic Rap Battle where he destroys the Easter Bunny!)


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