The Mongols, as many historians will admit, were by far the most formidable empire/force to be reckoned with in the 13th Century. Prior to this, the world had witnessed to wonder of the Egyptians, the efficiency of the Romans, and the "Mandate of Heaven" system that dictated appointment of rulers/dynasties in China. Nothing had prepared the world for the archer on horseback, and therefore, the Mongol empire, at it's height, reached from Korea to Central Europe. Here's a map from Wikipedia.
Quite vast, no doubt...the empire, that is. But I was more fascinated by 'how' they managed to do this. I mean, it's one thing to 'control' half the world at any given point in time, but it's a whole other thing to devise strategies and methods to maintain and hold on to territory. And this curiousity led to, well, more trouble because now I'm going to have that much more to talk about.
Who were the Mongols? They were a collection of a few ethnic sub-groups from an area that roughly encompasses the present-day Mongolia (Link 1, Link2). Being a nomadic people, and living in a harsh environment which forced them to scour the land for food, the Mongols were unlike many of the peoples in neighboring regions, such as China. According to Wikipedia, "The Mongols were largely dependent on trade with the city-dwelling peoples, but resorted to raiding villages when times were particularly hard. As nomads, they could not accumulate a surplus against bad times, or support artisans." Nice M.O., no doubt, but as we all know all this 'raiding' had to eventually lead to something bigger and better. And sure enough, it did.
When Genghis Khan arrived on the scene, and after he had consolidated the Mongol tribes into some sort of united front, he set about making in roads into neighboring territories...because it seemed like the 'right' thing to do? As it turns out, raiding among different Mongol tribes was 'rather' rampant, what with Genghis' wife being kidnapped by a rival clan/group and he having to organize a 'return raid' to rescue her...at a time prior to his unification efforts (Wikipedia). So, and in an effort to appease the 'raider' mentality that still existed, he had to turn this energy/tendency outward...and that's how they ended up conquering and ruling such a vast empire. Wow. I'm sure there are people out there, ex-failed despots and tyrants I mean, who probably went, "Damn, but he made it seem so easy..." And you have to give credit where credit is due, simply because the innovations undertaken at this time, in terms of military equipment and strategy would not be seen again till after World War I.
The most fascinating of these innovations was the Mongolian Bow. Well, it's the most fascinating for me, anyway. And the fact that it enabled the user to hit a target 320 meters away, while on horseback, and....wow, I can't even being to imagine the sheer terror on the faces of opposing soldiers who took up defensive positions against the Mighty Mongol Hordes! Crazy! And, as a result, I'm just displaying a few of the pictures from the site that I've provided in this paragraph, just so you can see the brilliance of technology.
Oh, and please be sure to check out this site if you're interested in finding out more about this... Now compare this to the English longbow which was about 6 and a half feet in length and managed a less formidable distance...about 160-230 meters. Not to mention the fact that archers were separated from cavalry, unlike with the Mongols. This for me was an eye-opener, because it meant that this was truly an effort to wage war with the intention of catching the enemy by surprise...kind of like Hitler's blitzkrieg, or 'lightning war'. The idea was to not let the enemy have enough of a chance to rally their defense...and, once 'exposed' would only be left with two choices...surrender or die.
And that brings me to another part of the Khan's brilliant strategy. He realized that decmiating the local population wherever he went, and since he was going so far away from home, would leave 'enemies' with the opportunity to band together...more importantly, to band together in a position behind him. So, he would give them a choice, like I mentioned in the previous paragraph. If people chose the first option, he would spare their lives as long as they pledged allegiance to him. If they chose the second option, he would kill most of the people, and send the 'survivors' out to the next place to spread word of the 'Khan' and his fierce nature...and the consequences of not obeying him etc. Oh, let's not forget that any 'surrendered' city had to remain that way, for any view towards future retribution rendered the city the next 'example' that neighboring cities/states would talk about for centuries to come...he he he. Now I know this sounds very destructive, but you can't alter an existing 'raider' nature now, can you? So, in the process some places were decimated. But in the end, a system of 'vassal' states was set up, and this enabled subsequent rulers to come into possession of, like I've said several times before in this post, one of the greatest land empires in the world ever.
Wow. I mean, so often you hear about ideas that failed because they were ahead of their time...but in a way, psychotic though that 'way' may be, examples such as this show us that it is possible to make of the world what you believe it to be. So, from the harsh regions of Inner Mongolia, to the doorstep and in the front door of Europe...
Just thought I'd leave you with a picture of the bow in action.