Destruction under the Mongol Empire

The death and destruction during the 13th century Mongol conquests have been widely noted in both the scholarly literature and popular memory. It has been calculated that approximately 5% of the world's population[1] were killed during Turco-Mongol invasions or in their immediate aftermath. If these calculations are accurate, this would make the events the hitherto deadliest acts of mass killings in human history.

Diana Lary contends that the Mongol invasions induced population displacement "on a scale never seen before," particularly in Central Asia and Eastern Europe. She adds, "the impending arrival of the Mongol hordes spread terror and panic."[2] In addition, the Mongols practiced biological warfare by catapulting diseased cadavers into at least one of the cities they besieged.[3][4][5][6]


Genghis Khan, and his generals and successors, preferred to offer their enemies the chance to surrender without resistance in order to avoid war, to become vassals by sending tribute, accepting Mongol residents, and/or contributing troops. The Khans guaranteed protection only if the populace submitted to Mongol rule and was obedient to it.

Sources record massive destruction, terror and death if there was resistance. David Nicole notes in The Mongol Warlords: "terror and mass extermination of anyone opposing them was a well-tested Mongol tactic."[7] The alternative to submission was total war: if refused, Mongol leaders ordered the collective slaughter of populations and destruction of property. Such was the fate of resisting communities during the invasions of the Khwarezmid Empire.

Invasion of Japan against samurai Takezaki Suenaga using arrows and bombs, circa 1293.


The success of Mongol tactics hinged on fear: to induce capitulation amongst enemy populations. From the perspective of modern theories of international relations, Quester suggests that, "Perhaps terrorism produced a fear that immobilized and incapacitated the forces that would have resisted."[8] Although perceived as being bloodthirsty, the Mongol strategy of "surrender or die" still recognized that conquest by capitulation was more desirable than being forced to continually expend soldiers, food, and money to fight every army and sack every town and city along the campaign's route.

The Mongols frequently faced states with armies and resources greater than their own. In the beginning,Temujin started off with a band of youths and some women, then he had troops of 20,000 initially facing the city states and interests of the Kin domain, which mainly included China, with then probably a 2-million-strong army, each city being populated with hundreds of thousands of inhabitants – and simply invading everyone was out of the question. Furthermore, a supine nation was more desirable than a sacked one. While both provided the same territorial gains, the former would continue to provide taxes and conscripts long after the conflict ended, whereas the latter would be depopulated and economically worthless once available goods and slaves were seized.

Thus whenever possible, by using the "promise" of wholesale execution for resistance, Mongol forces made efficient conquests, in turn allowing them to attack multiple targets and redirect soldiers and matériel where most needed.

Drawing of Mongols outside Vladimir

The reputation of guaranteed wholesale enactment on those who fought them was also the primary reason why the Mongols could hold vast territories long after their main force had moved on. Even if the tumens (tyumens) were hundreds or thousands of miles away, the conquered people would usually not dare to interfere with the token Mongol occupying force, for fear of a likely Mongol return.

The linchpin of Mongol success was the widespread perception amongst their enemies that they were facing an insurmountable juggernaut that could only be placated by surrender. The Mongols may have counted on reports of horrifying massacres and torture to terrify their foes. The goal was to convince all-and-sundry that the costs of surrendering were not nearly onerous enough to risk an un-winnable war, given the guarantee of complete annihilation if they lost. This strategy was partially adopted because of the Mongols' lesser numbers; if their opponents are not sufficiently subdued, there was a greater chance they can rise again and attack the Mongols when the Mongols left to deal with another town and settlements. This way they technically covered their rear and flanks, and avoided a situation in which they would have to again engage a people they already fought and subdued, thereby saving resources, in their point of view, from an unnecessary second engagement.

As Mongol conquest spread, this form of psychological warfare proved effective at suppressing resistance to Mongol rule. There were tales of lone Mongol soldiers riding into surrendered villages and executing peasants at random as a test of loyalty. It was widely known that a single act of resistance would bring the entire Mongol army down on a town to obliterate its occupants. Thus they ensured obedience through fear. Peasants frequently appear to have joined the troops or readily accepted their demands.[9]

Demographic changes in war-torn areas

The majority of kingdoms resisting Mongol conquest were taken by force (some were subjected to vassaldom and not complete conquest); only skilled engineers and artisans (at the time of Khubilai Khan, doctors) were spared.

The aim was to spread terror to others. Some troops who submitted, respectively overthrew or rose up against their rulers, were incorporated into the Mongol system in order to expand their manpower; this also allowed the Mongols to absorb new technology, knowledge and skills for use in military campaigns against other opponents.

Genghis Khan was by and large tolerant of multiple religions and there are no cases of him or other Mongols engaging in religious war, as long as populations were obedient. He also passed a decree exempting all followers of the Taoist religion from paying taxes. (This might appear to date from the time of Khubilai Khan.) However, all of the campaigns caused deliberate destruction of places of worship, if their populations resisted.[10]

Drawing of Mongols inside Suzdal under Batu Khan (with sword).

Ancient sources described Genghis Khan's conquests as wholesale destruction on an unprecedented scale in certain geographical regions, causing great demographic changes in Asia. According to the works of the Iranian historian Rashid al-Din (1247–1318), the Mongols killed more than 700,000 people in Merv and more than a million in Nishapur. The total population of Persia may have dropped from 2,500,000 to 250,000 as a result of mass extermination and famine. Population exchanges did also in some cases occur but depends as of when.[11]

China reportedly suffered a drastic decline in population during the 13th and 14th centuries. Before the Mongol invasion, Chinese dynasties reportedly had approximately 120 million inhabitants; after the conquest was completed in 1279, the 1300 census reported roughly 60 million people. The 92 Chinese cities destroyed by Mongols would not appear to account for this population fall, it might account for loss of 45 million people. While it is tempting to attribute this major decline solely to Mongol ferocity, scholars today have mixed sentiments regarding this subject. The South Chinese might likely account for some 40 million unregistered who, without passports, would not have appeared in the census. Entire peasant populations joining or enlisted for labour can result in a large population reduction due to food shortage problems. Scholars such as Frederick W. Mote argue that the wide drop in numbers reflects an administrative failure to record rather than a de facto decrease whilst others such as Timothy Brook argue that the Mongols created a system of enserfment among a huge portion of the Chinese populace causing many to disappear from the census altogether. Other historians like William McNeill and David Morgan argue that the Bubonic Plague, spread by the Mongols, was the main factor behind the demographic decline during this period. The plague also spread into areas of Western Europe and Africa that the Mongols never reached, most likely carried by individuals fleeing invasion. The Mongols practised biological warfare by catapulting diseased cadavers into the cities they besieged. It is believed that fleas remaining on the bodies of the cadavers may have acted as vectors to spread the bubonic plague.[3][4][5][12]

About half the population of Kievan Rus' may have died during the Mongol invasion of Rus. This figure refers to the area roughly corresponding to the modern Ukraine.[13] Colin McEvedy (Atlas of World Population History, 1978) estimates the population of European Russia dropped from 7.5 million prior to the invasion to 7 million afterwards.[14]

Historians estimate that up to half of Hungary's population of two million were victims of the Mongol invasion of Europe.[15]

Destruction of culture and property

Mongol campaigns in Northern China, Central Asia, Eastern Europe and the Middle East caused extensive destruction, though there are no exact figures available at this time. The cities of Herat, Kiev, Baghdad, Nishapur, Vladimir and Samarkand suffered serious devastation by the Mongol armies.[16][17] For example, there is a noticeable lack of Chinese literature from the Jin Dynasty, predating the Mongol conquest, and in the Battle of Baghdad (1258), libraries, books, literature, and hospitals were burned: some of the books were thrown into the river, in quantities sufficient to "turn the Euphrates black with ink for several days"".

The Mongols' destruction of the irrigation systems of Iran and Iraq turned back centuries of effort to improving agriculture and water supply in these regions. The loss of available food as a result may have led to the death of more people from starvation in this area than actual battle did. The Islamic civilization of the Persian Gulf region did not recover until after the Middle Ages.[18]

Foods and disease

Mongols were known to burn farmland; when they were trying to take the Ganghwa Island palaces during the invasions (there were at least 6 separate invasions) of Korea under the Goryeo Dynasty, crops were burned to starve the populace. Other tactics included diverting rivers into and from cities and towns, and catapulting diseased corpses over city walls to infect the population. The use of such infected bodies during the siege of Caffa is alleged to have brought the Black Death to Europe by some sources.[19]

Tribute in lieu of conquest

If a population agreed to pay the Mongols tribute, they were spared invasion and left relatively independent. While populations resisting were usually annihilated and thus did not pay a regular tribute, exceptions to this rule including Korea (under the Goryeo Dynasty), which finally agreed to pay regular tributes in exchange for vassaldom (and some measure of autonomy as well as the retention of the ruling dynasty), further emphasizing the Mongol preference for tribute and vassals (which would serve as a somewhat regular and continuous source of income) as opposed to outright conquest and destruction.

Different tributes were taken from different cultures. For instance, Goryeo was assessed at 10,000 otter skins, 20,000 horses, 10,000 bolts of silk, clothing for 1,000,000 soldiers, and a large number of children and artisans as slaves.[20]

Environmental impact

According to a study by the Carnegie Institution for Science's Department of Global Energy, the destruction under Genghis Khan may have scrubbed as much as 700 million tonnes of carbon from the atmosphere by allowing forests to regrow on previously populated and cultivated land.[21][22]

See also


  2. Diana Lary (2012). Chinese Migrations: The Movement of People, Goods, and Ideas over Four Millennia. Rowman & Littlefield. p. 53.
  3. 1 2 Vincent Barras and Gilbert Greub. "History of biological warfare and bioterrorism" in Clinical Microbiology and Infection (2014) 20#6 pp 497-502.
  4. 1 2 Andrew G. Robertson, and Laura J. Robertson. "From asps to allegations: biological warfare in history," Military medicine (1995) 160#8 pp: 369-373.
  5. 1 2 Rakibul Hasan, "Biological Weapons: covert threats to Global Health Security." Asian Journal of Multidisciplinary Studies (2014) 2#9 p 38. online
  6. Robert Tignor et al. Worlds Together, Worlds Apart A History of the World: From the Beginnings of Humankind to the Present (2nd ed. 2008) ch 11 pp 472-75 and map p 476
  7. David Nicolle, The Mongol Warlords: Genghis Khan, Kublai Khan, Hulegu, Tamerlane (2004) p. 21
  8. George H. Quester (2003). Offense and Defense in the International System. Transaction Publishers. p. 43.
  9. Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World - Jack Weatherford
  10. Man, John. Genghis Khan : Life, Death and Resurrection (London; New York : Bantam Press, 2004) ISBN 0-593-05044-4.
  11. Battuta's Travels: Part Three - Persia and Iraq
  12. "We Have Met the Enemy And They Are Small – A Brief History of Bug Warfare". Military History Now. Retrieved 26 December 2014.
  13. History of Russia, Early Slavs history, Kievan Rus, Mongol invasion
  14. Mongol Conquests
  15. Welcome to Encyclopædia Britannica's Guide to History
  16. Morgan, David (1986). The Mongols (Peoples of Europe). Blackwell Publishing. pp. 74–75. ISBN 0-631-17563-6.
  17. Ratchnevsky, Paul (1991). Genghis Khan: His Life and Legacy. Blackwell Publishing. pp. 131–133. ISBN 0-631-16785-4.
  18. The Story of Civilization: The Age of Faith, by Will and Ariel Durant
  21. Henley, John (2011-01-26). "Why Genghis Khan was good for the planet". The Guardian. Retrieved 2015-03-10.
  22. "Genghis Khan the GREEN: Invader killed so many people that carbon levels plummeted". Daily Mail. 2011-01-25. Retrieved 2015-03-10.

Further reading

Primary sources
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