The Horde: How the Mongols Changed the World

Image of The Horde: How the Mongols Changed the World
Release Date: 
April 20, 2021
Belknap Press: An Imprint of Harvard University Press
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“Marie Favereau’s new book The Horde is not the first history to challenge the depiction of the Mongol Empire as governed solely by ruthless conquerors and plunderers, but it is the most nuanced and comprehensive history . . .”

In his brilliant 1904 paper “The Geographical Pivot of History,” Sir Halford Mackinder noted that, “For a thousand years a series of horse-riding peoples emerged from Asia through the broad interval between the Ural Mountains and the Caspian Sea, rode through the open spaces of southern Russia, and struck home into Hungary in the very heart of the European peninsula, shaping by the necessity of opposing them the history of each of the great peoples around—the Russians, the Germans, the French, the Italians, and the Byzantine Greeks.”

Mackinder included among those horse-riding nomadic peoples Huns, Avars, Bulgarians, Magyars, Khazars, Patzinaks, Cumans, Kalmuks, and Mongols. The Mongols not only shaped opposing peoples by external pressures, but also shaped the politics and cultures of the nations that it subjugated.

For a long time historians viewed the Mongols of the 13th–15th centuries as a warlike imperial power whose conquests imposed a “yoke” on subject peoples that delayed their modernization. Once that yoke was gradually thrown off, according to this view, subject peoples were exposed to the more sophisticated cultures and ideas of Western Europe.

Marie Favereau’s new book The Horde is not the first history to challenge the depiction of the Mongol Empire as governed solely by ruthless conquerors and plunderers, but it is the most nuanced and comprehensive history—at least regarding the western portion of the empire. Favereau presents the Mongol Empire as an “administratively complex empire” that is “very different from the one that endures in the popular imagination.”

Chinggis Khan (the historically correct spelling of the founder of the Mongol Empire) unified many of the nomadic tribes of Central Asia and the Eurasian Steppe in the early 13th century. Favereau, who is Associate Professor of History at Paris Nanterre University, acknowledges that Chinggis was a “great warrior and strategist” but he is less appreciated, she writes, for instituting “an enduring political order that reshaped the steppe world and . . . influenced governance and society far beyond the borders he and his successors established.”

One of the 20th century’s greatest generals, Douglas MacArthur, once remarked that all commanders would benefit from studying the campaigns of Chinggis Khan. Chinggis instilled in his armies, Favereau notes, “strategic and tactical acumen, . . . frightening mobility, strict discipline, and adaptability to new environments.” But his goal was not to annihilate his enemies but to politically and economically integrate them into his expanding empire.

At its peak, the Mongol Empire covered about nine million square miles, stretching east to west from the Korean peninsula to modern day Hungary, and north to south from Russian Siberia to southern China. It was the largest contiguous land empire in world history. And it was an empire ruled by nomads. It was, Favereau writes, a “moveable state.”

Chinggis Khan divided the empire among his four sons: western Turkestan was given to Chagatay; northwest China and central Mongolia went to Ogodei; eastern Mongolia was assigned to Touli; and western Mongolia, the Siberian forests and the western Eurasian steppe was given to Jochi.

Favereau’s book, however, is not about the Mongol Empire as a whole, but rather focuses on the more western portions of the realm that were ruled initially by Jochi. Favereau defines the term horde as a “nomadic regime or power.” If Jochi’s horde was projected on today’s maps, she explains, “it would stretch across a region occupied by Ukraine, Bulgaria, Moldavia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Russia, including Tatarstan and Crimea.”

After summarizing the Mongol campaigns on the western steppe (then occupied by the Qipchaqs), Favereau notes that the horde was split into two by Jochi’s sons: Batu ruled the White Horde (initially Russia and Ukraine) and Orda commanded the Blue Horde (Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan).

Successive Mongol rulers in the west relied upon local elites among the subject nations to administer the territories the Mongols conquered. Favereau notes that this was especially true in Russia, where eventually Mongol preferences for princes in Moscow catapulted that city to greater importance than Kiev or Vladimir. Mongol Khans also established cooperative relationships with Russian Orthodox clergy and institutions “which blossomed under Mongol rule.” Here are examples of Mongol influence on the political and religious development of the Russian state and people.

Elsewhere in the western portion of the empire, Mongol rulers converted to Islam, and Favereau writes that, “the Islamization of the Eurasian steppes, Crimea, and Eastern Europe is one of the Horde’s most important legacies.” And Mongol Islamic rulers, she notes, “accommodated diverse religious communities.”

Economically, Favereau points out, “the Jochid khans prioritized fluidity in commercial markets and used their foreign policy to ensure the productivity of the fur and silver trades” and other products. The immense reaches of the Mongol Empire created a “Eurasian trade network” that linked Central Asia and China to the Middle East and Europe, including Italy.

The Mongols operated “as a high-level facilitator of a large-scale trade network,” Favereau explains. “Mongols financed and carried out trade themselves, but they also supplied the nodes and connections—ports, roads, river routes, fords, merchant-friendly settlements—that others used to transport goods.”

The western hordes used river systems and yam stations as supply and communication networks. The yam network included carts pulled by animals, horseback riders, and a secret communications network staffed by trusted messengers.

Mongol foreign policy was flexible and based on the notion that the enemy of my enemy is my friend. Favereau suggests that the Mongols did not seek to conquer the known world, as has often been said.

In Europe in 1242, there was great fear that Mongol armies would invade and conquer Eastern Europe and beyond. Favereau notes that Mongol forces crossed the Danube and entered Hungary, Austria, and Dalmatia that year, but suddenly withdrew upon learning that the Great Khan (Ogodei) had died. Favereau suggests that internal divisions within the empire may have played a large role in this decision. And eventually, internal division would be one reason for the downfall of the empire.

Another reason for the empire’s disintegration was the arrival of the Black Death in the 14th century—a global pandemic that had enormous economic and geopolitical consequences. The pandemic spread from the Eurasian steppe to Europe and the Middle East, and its global spread was attributable in part to the vastness of the Mongol Empire and its globalization of goods, animals, and people.

Although Mongol domination ended in the 15th century, the nomadic way of life in the steppe lived on among former subject peoples. Favereau contends that the Mongol Horde had a lasting impact on the world. It “shaped the politics of Russia and Central Asia and firmly anchored Islam in the Caucasus and Eastern Europe” and “knit together east and west.”