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regular-article-logo Tuesday, 25 June 2024

On a medieval chessboard

Looking at the small, poverty-stricken country of Mongolia today, it’s near-impossible to imagine that the Mongols once created the largest contiguous empire in history, stretching far into China, across Central Asia and deep into the Middle East, covering much of Russia and skirting eastern Europe — and doing all of this in record time

Jayanta Sengupta  Published 08.03.24, 10:55 AM
An artist's representation of a mongol war

An artist's representation of a mongol war Pinterest

Book: THE MONGOL STORM: MAKING AND BREAKING EMPIRES IN THE MEDIEVAL NEAR EAST

Author: Nicholas Morton

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Published by: Basic

Price: Rs 699

In 1206, when Qutbuddin Aibak was founding the Delhi Sultanate, another middle-aged man named Temujin was chosen as the leader of the Mongol herds and, thus, became the first overlord of the Mongol Empire; his name was Chinggis Khan. This turned out to be the pivot of cathartic changes in a transformative century. Looking at the small, poverty-stricken country of Mongolia today, it’s near-impossible to imagine that the Mongols once created the largest contiguous empire in history, stretching far into China, across Central Asia and deep into the Middle East, covering much of Russia and skirting eastern Europe — and doing all of this in record time. Just as its rapid expansion made it difficult for contemporary observers to keep up with it, similarly, it also declined and fell apart in an unusually short period.

Nicholas Morton’s book tells the pulsating story of this blood-churning century from the first invasions of the Middle East and Central Asia by Chinggis’ hordes in the initial decades of the thirteenth century to the demise of the southwestern branch of the empire that stretched from Turkey in the west to Iran, Afghanistan and Tajikistan in the east in the 1330s. This period witnessed countless casualties at Mongol hands and in the many conflicts their invasions spawned. It also put paid to a number of veteran entities — the Crusader States, the Latin Empire of Constantinople, the Anatolian Saljuq Empire and the Abbasid Caliphate, among others. Baghdad, the exalted capital of the Islamic world, was laid waste to in 1258 in a bloodthirsty sacking that felled around 200,000 people. The recent DNA research that has shown that roughly 1% of the global male population has descended from either Chinggis Khan or his immediate family thus appears to be a brutal irony, retrospectively giving the ‘Great Khan’ a place in history for ‘peopling’ the world even though he had depopulated large parts of it.

Morton’s theatre is a swarming medieval chessboard, comprising the Turkic Saljuqs in Iran, Kurds in Syria and Egypt, Frankish knights of Constantinople, Armenian-ruled Cilicia, Latin Crusader kingdoms in Greece, the Levant, the remnants of the Abbasid Caliphate in Iraq, and a cluster of tiny Byzantine states, among many others. He moves at breakneck speed over this vast Christian-Muslim complex, reconstructing events and consequences as they unfolded, not only documenting the bloodlust and the gore of the Mongol depredations but also addressing a key question: “In times of chaos and upheaval, when the norms of existence collapse, who survives?”

The book shows that the waves of the Mongol conquest did not so much result in a Pax Mongolica as a bewildering series of transient, episodic alliances and conflicts across the Middle East. The stage for renewed warfare had been set when Chinggis first carved up his great empire among his sons. By the time his grandson, Kublai Khan, conqueror of China, died in 1294, the Mongol Empire had already fractured into four rival segments, foreshadowing its eventual demise a few decades later.

Morton’s forte is military and political history, but he breaks out of these confines to highlight the economic and the religious aspects of his narrative. The marauding forces devastated agriculture and trade, but from the debris arose new commercial routes and markets and new connections — between the Mongols’ Middle Eastern capital, Tabriz, and Beijing, for instance, the route Marco Polo took on his way to seeing Kublai Khan. Mongol ‘pacification’ also bolstered trade along the Silk Route. For all their success in relegating Christian crusaders to the sidelines of history, and their ingenuity in killing the Caliph of Baghdad by getting him trampled by horses, the Mongols treated the other religions on an equal footing until they themselves converted to Islam at the turn of the thirteenth century. This made the Mongol imperium an even more fertile ground for the proselytising activities of wandering sufis.

Overall, this is a riveting book — marred only a little by a whiff of Eurocentrism in the use of the term, “Near East”, to mean Western Asia — that combines compelling readability with academic rigour. A sweeping account of the long-term consequences of the “Mongol Storm” does stop short of describing the Mongol ancestry of the Mughals, but this is just a minor quibble. Maybe the Indian East was not Near (East) enough!

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