The Horde

May 14, 2023 [books] #reviews #mongols

Book: The Horde: How the Mongols Changed the World
Author: Marie Favereau

Soon after Chinggis Khan died, the Mongol Empire was divided between his four sons, following a long-standing Mongol practice. This division eventually turned permanent, with each becoming their own imperial formation. There was the empire of the Ogedei Khan, the de facto Great Khan, encompassing most of East Asia. Tolui Khan inherited the Mongol heartland. Chagtai Khan inherited Central Asia, which included Northern Iran. Jochi Khan, once Chinggis's favorite, died before his father. His children inherited the Eurasian Steppe. This included parts of what is modern day Russia, the area around lower Volga. Jochi's inheritance is the subject of this book. By virtue of being the most distant from the Great Khan, with an open border available for expansion, they became one of the most powerful and influential movers of the Mongol Empire, even while these successors would never go back to Mongolia. They called themselves Orda, The Horde.

Modeled after Pax Romania and Pax Britannia, the author's central thesis is that there was Pax Mongolica, a period of stability in dominions Mongols conquered between 1200 and 1300. This led to an explosion of trade networks that led to an significant increase in exchange of goods. The empires of the Mongols facilitated the flourishing of art, the development of skilled crafts, and the progress of research in various areas such as botany, medicine, astronomy, measurement systems, and historiography. The author characterizes this shift as being as monumental as the Columbian exchange, and calls it the Mongol exchange. The Mongols prioritized trade, and merchants were often rewarded with lofty distinctions, legal privileges, and tax exemptions. A lot of the book is the focus on the unique Mongol policies that meant there was no clash between empire building and globalization. They did not work their subjects to death like the later Atlantic overlords did as long as they could tax them to mutual benefit. They even converted religions if it means furthering their interest. In the 1260s the Jochid elite converted en masse to Islam in order to win powerful friends and trading partners in Muslim-ruled lands. This extraordinary focus on trade was tied to the Mongol belief system.

"The Mongols saw commodities as receptacles or mediums of something immaterial, and circulation of this immaterial something was essential to the cosmic balance of the world. Specifically, the qubi, the redistribution system, supported not only the living but also the dead, whose spirits needed to be continuously appeased in order to protect the living from negative interference by the “ill dead.”

Another thesis is that there wouldn't be a modern Russia if not for the Horde's deliberate economic policies that fostered Russian growth. This contests the idea of the "Tartar Yoke", that the Russian nation celebrated by nationalists is one created in opposition to despotic Mongol rule. Russia in the 12th century was splintered between various groups that were in conflict with each other - Novogord, Tver, Muscovy and so on. The Jochids conquered them all and made them vassals, thus unifying them for the first time. Jochid policies eventually favored the duchy of Moscow, making it the most powerful of the Russian principalities and initiating a shift from the Kievan regime, the consequences of which are still apparent today. On the Steppe, all the various Turkic and Chinese tribes defeated by the Mongols became Mongol. Thus it was with Kereit and then the Merkit warriors whose families were assimilated, and their leading women were married into Temüjin’s family. This was also true of the Eurasian steppe, with the Qipchaqs elite becoming the Jorchid elite. But the Rus - the Mongols allowed them to form their own identity as long as they paid tribute to the Horde. While in China and Central Asia, the Mongols were much more interventionist, in Russia, they allowed the landowners to keep their domains intact.

One of the commodities of the Mongol exchange with some consequence in the world is that of slaves from the Steppe. The Mamluks of Egypt now had a direct line to their principal source of military manpower, as their warrior slaves arrived mainly from the Qipchaq steppe. I found it interesting that the author doesn't comment on the morality of this trade, considering how much condemnation most discussions of Atlantic one entails. The Black Death in the fourteen century hastened the dismantling of the Mongol empires(s). The pandemic shattered trade and circulation, the lifeblood of the Chinggisid regimes, weakening them forever. The covid pandemic did not lead to the destruction of the current world systems. Yet. So is what we have more robust than the global empire of the Mongols? It's certainly a thought that Pax Americana and the death of capitalism is not really nigh.

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