When someone on Quora, a discussion forum, asked “What was the greatest empire in world history?”, one history enthusiast named Balaji Viswanathan made a detailed and comprehensive case for the Mongols. Far from bloodthirsty conquerors — though they were certainly that — the humble nomads founded one of history’s most extensive, advanced, and influential empires in human history, one whose legacy remains to this very day.
First, we begin with the Mongols’ better known achievement: conquering everyone that stood in their way, including some of the most powerful states of the time.
It didn’t matter whether you were a super-advanced civilization at the apex or totally nomadic—you lost to the Mongols.
The Mongols could run over the brutally cold lands of Siberia and the brutally hot lands of Arabia. They didn’t care if they were running into the empty grasslands of the Steppes or the deep tropical jungles of Burma. They could run the paddy fields of China and also run through Himalayas as though it was some irrelevant hill. They could as easily mount the horses as easily as they could launch naval attacks. It is as though geography is some irrelevant detail that they didn’t bother about.
If the enemies packed themselves solidly in a phalanx, Mongols would decimate them with arrows. If the enemies spread thinly, Mongols would chase them with lancers. They would also easily overcome enemy archers, cavalry, and swordsmen. In short, there was not a single technology nor strategy nor weapon that could hold against the Mongols.
They were the ultimate superpower the world has seen.
This unmatched military prowess did not stem solely from sheer tenancy and brutality, though those were certainly factors. Rather, it came down to the Mongols’ unusual (for the time) willingness to exercise pragmatism in all their affairs.
The Mongols actually built a very professional force that was open-minded and highly innovative. They were master engineers who used every technology known to man, while their competitors were lax and obstinate. They kept a diverse governance and learned from every avenue possible.
A lot of world’s technology growth (including the dissipation of gunpowder, paper, and the printing press to much of Europe) happened as a direct result of their conquests. In short, they helped greatly shape the world we live in.
In their forces, a Christian, Muslim, Confucian, Buddhist all were treated the same, and they were not stuck much in ideologies. In that sense, they were far superior to every European colonial power.
They were extremely innovative and played on key weaknesses of the opponents. They would bring European/Middle East trebuchets to fight the Chinese, and to fight the Middle East they would bring the Chinese siege crossbows and gunpowder. If they didn’t get stone for trebuchets, they would cut huge trees and soak the logs in water to act as rocks.
Unlike many conquerors,the Mongols proved to be enlightened and competent rulers as well. The same pragmatism and innovation that made them unstoppable on the battlefield also proved useful in peacetime.
Genghis Khan brought the writing system to Mongolia that is still used by many Mongolians. The Mongol empire spared teachers of taxation and led to the great spread of printing all over East Asia. They also helped the rise of an educated class in Korea.
Mongols built a spectacular international postal system through a big chunk of Eurasia called thewhose efficiency was not matched for the next five centuries.
They started creating standardized banknotes and paper currencies centuries before Europe created its own.
Under Mongols there was a fantastic “free trade area” that connected most of the known world. Trade flourished as merchants traveled without worrying about raids. Economy prospered. It is in this time that Marco Polo and other Europeans could visit Asia.
In an era of religious fighting, the Mongols built a religious tolerance that spanned almost all religions they knew—Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, Confucianism.
Chinese sciences, astronomy, medicine, engineering, and mathematics exploded in the Mongol era, as the Khans understood the value of sciences. Some great scientists in this era includeand . Mongols also produced a highly accurate calendar.
Art and theater flourished in the Yuan era of China. They introduced a variety of European advancements in glass and musical instruments in China.
Mongols had a constant thirst for knowledge and were very quick learners. They also spread whatever they learn from various cultures. This caused an explosion of ideas. Europe rose to its age of exploration within a century of the contact with the Mongols.
All these impressive accomplishments and contributions aside, there is no denying that the Mongols were nonetheless bloodthirsty and brutal; millions perished as they cut a merciless swath through some of the most populated parts of Eurasia. But that has sadly always been the case with empire, especially at that time.
If you want to learn more about the Mongols, their complex origins and character, and the legendary figure who led them to greatness, I recommend Jack Weatherford’s 2005 book, Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World. It presents a similarly nuanced, if not sometimes admirable, view of these unlikely empire builders.