Destruction under the Mongol Empire

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Destruction under the Mongol Empire
Part of Mongol invasions and conquests
Attack type
massacres, famine, genocide[1][2][3]
Deaths20 to 57 million[4][5][6]
PerpetratorsMongol Empire
Timurid Empire

The Mongol conquests of the 13th century resulted in widespread and well-documented destruction. The Mongol army conquered hundreds of cities and villages and killed millions of people. One estimate is that about 11% of the world's population was killed either during or immediately after the Mongol invasions, around 37.75–60 million people in Eurasia.[7] These events are regarded as some of the most deadly acts of mass killing in human history.


Invasion of Japan against samurai Takezaki Suenaga using arrows and bombs, circa 1293.

To avoid war, Genghis Khan and his generals preferred to offer their enemies a chance to surrender without resistance. These enemies would then become vassals by sending tribute, accepting Mongol residents, and/or contributing troops. In return, the Khan would guarantee their protection, but only if those who submitted to Mongol rule were obedient.

If the enemy offered any resistance, what followed was massive destruction, terror and death. David Nicole notes in The Mongol Warlords that "terror and mass extermination of anyone opposing them was a well-tested Mongol tactic".[8] If an enemy refused to submit, the Mongols would employ a strategy of total war; with Mongol leaders ordering the collective slaughter of populations and the destruction of property. Such was the fate of resisting Muslim communities during the invasions of the Khwarezmid Empire.

The success of Mongol tactics hinged on fear to induce capitulation of enemy populations. From the perspective of modern theories of international relations, Quester suggested, "Perhaps terrorism produced a fear that immobilised and incapacitated the forces that would have resisted."[9]

As Mongol conquests spread, that form of psychological warfare proved effective at suppressing resistance to Mongol rule. There were tales of lone Mongol soldiers riding into surrendered villages and executing peasants at random as a test of loyalty. It was widely known that a single act of resistance would bring the entire Mongol army onto a town to obliterate its occupants. Thus, they ensured obedience through fear. Peasants frequently appear to have joined Mongol troops or to have readily accepted their demands.[10][full citation needed]

Demographic changes in war torn areas[edit]

Drawing of Mongols inside Suzdal under Batu Khan (with sword).

Ancient sources described Genghis Khan's conquests as wholesale destruction on an unprecedented scale in certain geographical regions, causing great demographic changes in Asia. According to the works of the Iranian historian Rashid al-Din (1247–1318), the Mongols killed more than 1,300,000 people in Merv and more than 1,747,000 in Nishapur. The total population of Persia may have dropped from 2,500,000 to 250,000 as a result of mass extermination and famine. Population exchanges also sometimes occurred.[11]

According to Diana Lary, the Mongol invasions induced population displacement "on a scale never seen before" in Eurasia, but especially in China, where the massive southward migration of Northern Chinese refugees actually managed to merge the southern and northern parts of China, an unexpected historical consequence.[12] China suffered a drastic decline in population in the 13th and the 14th centuries. Before the Mongol invasion, Chinese dynasties reportedly had approximately 120 million inhabitants; after the conquest had been completed in 1279, the 1300 census reported roughly 60 million people. While it is tempting to attribute the major decline solely to Mongol ferocity, scholars now have mixed sentiments on the subject. The South Chinese might account for 40 million unregistered persons who, without passports, would not have appeared in the census.[citation needed] Entire peasant populations joining or enlisted for labor could result in a large population reduction because of food shortages. Scholars such as Frederick W. Mote argue that the wide drop in numbers reflects an administrative failure of records, rather than a de facto decrease, but others, such as Timothy Brook, argue that the Mongols created a system of enserfment of a huge portion of the Chinese populace, causing many to disappear from the census altogether. Other historians, like William McNeill and David Morgan, argue that the Black Death, spread by the Mongols, was the main factor behind the demographic decline in that period. The plague also spread into areas of Western Europe and Africa that the Mongols never reached. The Mongols practiced biological warfare by catapulting diseased cadavers into the cities they besieged. It is believed that fleas remaining on the bodies of the cadavers may have acted as vectors to spread the Black Death.[13][14][15][16]

Colin McEvedy (Atlas of World Population History, 1978) estimates the population of European Russia dropped from 7.5 million prior to the invasion to 7 million after it.[17] Historians estimate that up to half of Hungary's population of two million were victims of the Mongol invasion of Europe.[18]

Destruction of culture and property[edit]

Mongol campaigns in Northern China, Central Asia, Eastern Europe and the Middle East caused extensive destruction, but there are no exact figures available for that time. The cities of Balkh, Bamiyan, Herat, Kyiv, Baghdad, Nishapur, Merv, Konye-Urgench, Lahore, Ryazan, Chernigov, Vladimir and Samarkand suffered serious devastation by the Mongol armies.[19][20] For example, there is a noticeable lack of Chinese literature from the Jin dynasty, predating the Mongol conquest, and in the Siege of Baghdad (1258), libraries, books, literature, and hospitals were burned: some of the books were thrown into the river in quantities sufficient to turn the Tigris black with ink for several months, according to legend;[21][22][23][24] further, "in one week, libraries and their treasures that had been accumulated over hundreds of years were burned or otherwise destroyed. So many books were thrown into the Tigris River, according to one writer, that they formed a bridge that would support a man on horseback."[25]

Genghis Khan was largely tolerant of multiple religions, but there are many cases of him and other Mongols engaging in religious war even if the populations were obedient. He passed a decree charging all Taoist followers to pay more taxes. All campaigns involved deliberately destroying places of worship.[26]

The Mongols' destruction of the irrigation systems of Iran and Iraq turned back millennia of effort in building irrigation and drainage infrastructure in these regions. The loss of available food as a result may have led to the death of more people from starvation in this area than the actual battle did. The Islamic civilization of the Persian Gulf region did not recover until after the Middle Ages.[27]

Foods and disease[edit]

Mongols were known to burn farmland. When they were trying to take the Ganghwa Island palaces during the at least six separate invasions of Korea under the Goryeo Dynasty, crops were burned to starve the populace. Other tactics included diverting rivers into and from cities and towns and catapulting diseased corpses over city walls to infect the population. The use of such infected bodies during the siege of Caffa is alleged by some sources to have brought the Black Death to Europe.[28]

Tribute in lieu of conquest[edit]

Those who agreed to pay the Mongols tribute were spared invasion and left relatively independent. While populations resisting were usually annihilated and so did not pay a regular tribute, exceptions to the rule included the Goryeo dynasty of Korea, which finally agreed to pay regular tributes in exchange for vassaldom and some measure of autonomy as well as the retention of the ruling dynasty, further emphasizing the Mongol preference for tribute and vassals, which would serve as a somewhat regular and continuous source of income, as opposed to outright conquest and destruction.

Different tributes were taken from different cultures. For instance, Goryeo was assessed at 10,000 otter skins, 20,000 horses, 10,000 bolts of silk, clothing for soldiers, and a large number of children and artisans as slaves.[29]

Environmental impact[edit]

According to a study by the Carnegie Institution for Science's Department of Global Energy, the annihilation of so many human beings and cities under Genghis Khan may have scrubbed as much as 700 million tonnes of carbon from the atmosphere by allowing forests to regrow on previously populated and cultivated land.[30][31]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Jones, Adam (2006). Genocide: A Comprehensive Introduction. Routledge/Taylor & Francis Publishers. ISBN 978-0-415-35385-4. p.3
  2. ^ The Encyclopedia of Genocide, ABC-CLIO, 1999, p. 48, article "Afghanistan, Genocide of"
  3. ^ Man, John (2004), Genghis Khan: Life, Death, and Resurrection, New York, NY: St. Martin's Press, ISBN 9780312366247 p.116-117
  4. ^ Ho, Ping-Ti (1970). "An estimate of the total population of Sung-Chin China". Histoire et institutions, 1. pp. 33–54. doi:10.1515/9783111542737-007. ISBN 978-3-11-154273-7. OCLC 8159945824.
  5. ^ McEvedy, Colin; Jones, Richard M. (1978). Atlas of World Population History. New York, NY: Puffin. p. 172. ISBN 9780140510768.
  6. ^ Graziella Caselli, Gillaume Wunsch, Jacques Vallin (2005). "Demography: Analysis and Synthesis, Four Volume Set: A Treatise in Population". Academic Press. p.34. ISBN 0-12-765660-X
  7. ^ "Twentieth Century Atlas - Historical Body Count". Retrieved 2020-10-21.
  8. ^ David Nicolle, The Mongol Warlords: Genghis Khan, Kublai Khan, Hulegu, Tamerlane (2004) p. 21
  9. ^ George H. Quester (2003). Offense and Defense in the International System. Transaction Publishers. p. 43. ISBN 9781412829939.
  10. ^ Jack Weatherford, Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World
  11. ^ Battuta's Travels: Part Three - Persia and Iraq Archived December 31, 2006, at the Wayback Machine
  12. ^ Diana Lary (2012). Chinese Migrations: The Movement of People, Goods, and Ideas over Four Millennia. Rowman & Littlefield. p. 53-55. ISBN 9780742567658. "In China a little later there were massive southward refugees movements, as the Mongols came into China from the north. The flight movements as the Mongols were fruitless in escaping from the Mongols, who soon brought all of China under their control, but the refugee movements accelerated the process of northern people filling up lands to the south of the Yangzi. The Mongol conquest had the unexpected consequence of consolidating northern settlement into the south."
  13. ^ Vincent Barras and Gilbert Greub. "History of biological warfare and bioterrorism" in Clinical Microbiology and Infection (2014) 20#6 pp 497–502.
  14. ^ Andrew G. Robertson, and Laura J. Robertson. "From asps to allegations: biological warfare in history", Military medicine (1995) 160#8 pp: 369–373.
  15. ^ Rakibul Hasan, "Biological Weapons: covert threats to global health security". Asian Journal of Multidisciplinary Studies (2014) 2#9 p 38. online[dead link]
  16. ^ "We Have Met the Enemy And They Are Small – A Brief History of Bug Warfare". Military History Now. 2014-02-07. Retrieved 26 December 2014.
  18. ^ "Welcome to Encyclopædia Britannica's Guide to History".
  19. ^ Morgan, David (1986). The Mongols (Peoples of Europe). Blackwell Publishing. pp. 74–75. ISBN 0-631-17563-6.
  20. ^ Ratchnevsky, Paul (1991). Genghis Khan: His Life and Legacy. Blackwell Publishing. pp. 131–133. ISBN 0-631-16785-4.
  21. ^ Frazier, I., "Invaders: Destroying Baghdad," New Yorker Magazine, [Special edition: Annals of History], April 25, 2005, Online Issue Archived 2018-06-12 at the Wayback Machine
  22. ^ Szczepanski, Kallie. "How the Mongols Took Over Baghdad in 1258." ThoughtCo. (accessed February 10, 2021).
  23. ^ James Raven, Introduction: The Resonances of Loss, in Lost Libraries: The Destruction of Great Book Collections since Antiquity, ed. James Raven (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), p. 11.
  24. ^ Ibn Khaldūn, Tārīkh Ibn Khaldūn, ed. Khalīl Shaḥḥadāh (Beirut: Dār al-Fikr, 2000), p. 5:613
  25. ^ Harris, History of Libraries in the Western World 4th ed [1999] 85)
  26. ^ Man, John. Genghis Khan : Life, Death and Resurrection (London; New York : Bantam Press, 2004) ISBN 0-593-05044-4.
  27. ^ Will and Ariel Durant. The Story of Civilization: The Age of Faith
  28. ^ "Emerging Infectious Diseases journal - CDC".
  29. ^ "Expanding the Realm". Archived from the original on 2015-03-17. Retrieved 2015-02-20.
  30. ^ Pappas, Stephanie (February 8, 2011). "Genghis Khan did it, but Black Plague couldn't: A look at historical events and their roles in altering carbon dioxide levels". NBC News. Retrieved May 24, 2020.
  31. ^ Julia Pongratz; Ken Caldeira; Christian H. Reick; Martin Claussen (20 January 2011). "Coupled climate–carbon simulations indicate minor global effects of wars and epidemics on atmospheric CO2 between ad 800 and 1850". The Holocene. 21 (5): 843–851. doi:10.1177/0959683610386981. ISSN 0959-6836. Wikidata Q106515792.

Further reading[edit]

  • May, Timothy. The Mongol Conquests in World History (London: Reaktion Books, 2011) online review; excerpt and text search
  • Morgan, David. The Mongols (2nd ed. 2007)
  • Nicolle, David. The Mongol Warlords: Genghis Khan, Kublai Khan, Hulegu, Tamerlane (2004)
  • Saunders, J. J. The History of the Mongol Conquests (2001) excerpt and text search
  • Turnbull, Stephen. Genghis Khan and the Mongol Conquests 1190–1400 (2003) excerpt and text search
Primary sources
  • Rossabi, Morris. The Mongols and Global History: A Norton Documents Reader (2011),