The Pax Mongolica

The Pax Mongolica

The Pax Mongolica

The Pax Mongolica


by Prof. Daniel C. Waugh, University of Washington, Seattle

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Few subjects provoke more heated debate than the impact of the Mongols. Were they primarily a destructive force, leaving a swath of ashes and barren earth, or did they create conditions for the flourishing of cities, trade and cultural exchange across Eurasia? Evil or good? The answer, in fact, is not quite so simple, since it very much depends on when and where we look. Riazan's tragedy at the hands of the Mongols in 1237 is no more "typical" than is prosperity of Sarai, the capital of the Golden Horde, at the time of Ibn Battuta's visit nearly a century later. Yet both are real, and their descriptions not mere propaganda on the part of the Christian monk who wrote the "Tale" or the pious Moroccan Muslim...

The development of the Silk Road commerce under the Mongols was a result both of its direct promotion and the creation of an infrastructure which ensured safe conditions for travel. The direct policies obviously could cut two ways. There is ample evidence that craftsmen were re-settled individually and en masse at the whim of the khans. The Franciscan monk, William of Rubruck, traveled to the Mongol capital Karakorum in 1253-55. Among those he met there was a Parisian goldsmith, Guillaume Bouchier, who had been captured at Belgrad on the Danube. Bouchier's French wife had also been carried off during the Mongol invasion of Hungary. Thomas Allsen has carefully documented how the Mongol taste for luxury Middle Eastern textiles led to the transplantation of whole colonies of weavers from the Middle East to Mongolia and north China. Marco Polo describes such settlements in the time of Qubilai Khan. Of course, what was positive for the heartland of the Empire likely had a negative impact on the areas from which the craftsmen were conscripted.

Competition and conflict could indeed interrupt traditional trade routes, but even in the period when the Mongol Empire was falling apart, we can document the relative safety and speed of travel all the way across Eurasia. To a considerable degree, the explanation lies in the Mongol rulers' development of the postal relay system (yam), which so favorably impressed contemporaries. In the first instance, of course, the system (rather like the pony express in the American West) was designed to speed official communication.

Those on the business of the khan could show their badge of authority (paidze) and expect to receive fresh mounts at the regularly placed relay stations. Clearly the invocation of the ruler's authority could provide favored travelers with some degree of security. We cannot but be impressed by the ability of defenseless Franciscans to travel across most of Eurasia in the middle of the thirteenth century. Marco Polo was one of many Europeans who made it all the way to China on diplomatic, religious or commercial missions. In his commercial handbook compiled around 1340, the Florentine merchant Pegolotti summed up very well what to expect:

The road you travel from Tana Azov to Cathay is perfectly safe, whether by day or by night, according to what the merchants say who have used it. Only if the merchant...should die upon the road, everything belonging to him will become the perquisite of the lord of the country in which he dies...And there is another danger: this is when the lord of the country dies, and before the new lord who is to have the lordship is proclaimed; during such intervals there have sometimes been irregularities practised on the Franks and other foreigners...

This then was the Pax Mongolica (Mongol Peace), a situation created by the Mongols which at least for a time facilitated commerce and communication.

Mongol rule did bring with it initial destruction, the imposition of heavy financial burdens, and the loss of political independence, at the same time that it seeded political renewal in some areas and contributed selectively to economic expansion. In short, Riazan and Sarai can coexist on the same historical canvas.

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