Separate piles of heads of men, women and children were built into pyramids; and even cats and dogs were killed in the streets.
Sayfi Heravi on the sacking of Naishapur
Exactly how nasty were the Mongols? Let’s be honest, they would probably be the last people in world history you would invite round for wine tasting and canapés. One famous anecdote concerning their rule for example claims that un-cooperative Russian nobles were assembled and forced to lie on the ground. A heavy wooden gate was then thrown on them and a table and chairs set up on the top side of the gate. Following this a victory banquet was thrown (which no doubt involved some stamping and enthusiastic dancing) and the unfortunate Russian princes were suffocated under the weight of the platform. Ironically, in doing so the Mongols were showing a certain degree of respect by not shedding noble blood; a similar principle was applied with the last Abbasid Caliph in Baghdad who was executed by being rolled in a carpet and kicked to death by horses.
In ‘The Better Angels of our Nature’ Stephen Pinker (quoting White’s estimates again) claims that the hordes of Genghis Khan and his successors managed to wipe out 40,000,000 people. This puts them at second in the all-time ‘Possibly the worst things people have done to each other’ list with an adjusted death toll of 298,000,000 (mid-20th century equivalent). Pinker writes:
The Mongol invasions of Islamic lands in the 13th century resulted in the massacre of 1.3 million people in the city of Merv alone, and another 800,000 residents of Baghdad. As the historian of the Mongols J. J. Saunders remarks "There is something indescribably revolting in the cold savagery with which the Mongols carried out their massacres. The inhabitants of a doomed town were obliged to assemble in a plain outside the walls, and each Mongol trooper, armed with a battle-axe, was told to kill so many people, ten, twenty or fifty. As proof that orders had been properly obeyed, the killers were sometimes required to cut off an ear from each victim, collect the ears in sacks, and bring them to their officers to be counted. A few days after the massacre, troops were sent back into the ruined city to search for any poor wretches who might be hiding in holes or cellars; these were dragged out and slain". The Mongols’ first leader, Genghis Khan, offered this reflection on the pleasures of life: “The greatest joy a man can know is to conquer his enemies and drive them before him. To ride their horses and take away their possessions. To see the faces of those who were dear to them bedewed with tears, and to clasp their wives and daughters in his arms.”
How credible are such estimates? It is certainly plausible if we take the contemporary chroniclers such as Ibn al-Athir and Al-Nasawi at face value. These state the Mongol Army (estimated at perhaps 130,000 men) massacred hundreds of thousands and in some cases millions of people. 1,600,000 people were killed at the sack of Harat, and 1,747,000 at Nishapur (another source says 2,400,000). The Mongol leader Hulegu claimed in a letter to Louis IX of France that he killed two million people during the sack of Baghdad . This would mean the Mongols were pulling off operations on the scale of the siege of Leningrad and the battle of Stalingrad regularly over the course of their conquests. According to Jack Weatherford in ‘Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World’ these figures are ‘preposterous’. David Morgan in ‘The Mongols’ is as sceptical, but less emphatic, regarding these estimates as not statistical information but instead ‘evidence of the state of mind created by the character of the Mongol invasion’.
Weatherford states that ‘conservative scholars place the number of dead from Genghis Khan’s invasion of central Asia at 15 million within five years’, however ‘even this more modest total…would require that each Mongol kill more than a hundred people’. If we took the chroniclers estimates, according to Weatherford this would mean ‘a slaughter of 350 people by every Mongol soldier’ (this would trump even the 87 people killed by Arnold Schwarzenegger during the course of the movie Commando).
Even so, it is somewhat glib to say that the chroniclers exaggerate – though this is often the case in ancient and medieval history . One approach to determine their authenticity is to try to quantify exactly what the population of Central Asia was at the time. According to David Morgan this is difficult due to the lack of comprehensive Islamic archaeology and the fact that mud brick buildings do not respond well to repair. In many places however, such as at Harat it is possible to see where the pre Mongol walls stood – according to Morgan none of the sites appear to have been big enough to accommodate the populations noted in the sources; even under a siege where the population would have been swelled by refugees . Another problem is that if we accept the contemporary figures then this would indicate the Mongols were outnumbered by ratios of 50-1 and you would think they would have greater success at fighting off their assailants.
Bernard Lewis and David Morgan state that the Mongol devastation was not universal. Only Transoxania and Khurasan had to suffer Mongol wrath at its worst whereas South Asia was never submitted to a full scale assault. Parts of Russia were devastated but some areas escaped lightly or completely . The campaign against the Chin Empire in China was destructive but that later undertaken against the Sung was less so in order to take over as intact a country as possible,
The only way in which the 40 million figure given in ‘Better Angels of our Nature could be rendered plausible is if the statistics given for China from Sung and Chin times to after the expulsion of the Mongols in 1382 are accurate. These show a drop in population from 100 million to 70 million in 1290s  and 60 million in 1393 – a drop of 40 million. How responsible are the Mongols for this apparent holocaust?
We have already seen the problems with attempting to rely on the Chinese censuses which all too often appear to reflect the effectiveness of the central administration rather than the actual population. According to Timothy Brook in ‘The Troubled Empire’ many Chinese in Mongol areas were simply not reported, having been en-serfed and thus disappeared from the records altogether. Additionally the 14th century in China saw extensive flooding of the Yellow river and the subsequent famine, outbreaks of disease in the 1330s and a major outbreak of what is thought to have been the Black Death from 1353-4. China in the 14th century experienced below average temperatures, harsh winters and a shorter growing season. The Yellow river flooded 6,000 square miles and 17 walled cities causing severe epidemics. Military disruption would have caused refugees to move south into communities where they would have been treated as transients and therefore not counted in taxation censuses.
What conclusions can be made – if any - on the extent of Mongol destructiveness? Certainly the invasions were appalling and exacted a heavy toll on agriculture and towns. Some modern studies tend to take a revisionist stress the positive aspects of Mongol rule, however as Hugh Kennedy remarks in Mongols, Huns and Vikings:
‘Revisionist historians have questioned the extent of Mongol ferocity and destructiveness, suggesting that such accounts are largely rhetoric and hyperbole. However, the weight of contemporary evidence is very strong and it is backed up by the archaeology. Of the great cities sacked by the Mongols, only Bukhara and Urgench were rebuilt on the same site: Balkh, Otrar and Nishapur were ruined for ever and at Merv a new town was founded two centuries later well away from the remains of the old. Samarkand was rebuilt outside the old walls while the ancient city remained as it is today, a desolate .waste of mud-brick ruins’.
Nonetheless – while the Mongols themselves would have been absolutely delighted to have been credited with the annihilation of 40 million people in the 13th century (around 9% of the world’s population at the time) – the number seems pretty unlikely. It’s the same as the number of civilians killed in World War II with a vastly higher world population and more destructive forms of weaponry. 11-15 million doesn’t seem outside the realms of possibility – a staggering total but still some way short of the inflated total given by Pinker . If that figure is correct then the Mongol Conquests killed 2.5% of the world's population (450 million) in over a hundred years - from the 1230s to the late 14th century. By contrast World War II managed to wipe out between 1.5 and 2% of the World's population in only six years.
One of the less well known aspects of the Mongol conquests was their capacity for propaganda. Regarding the above quote Jack Weathersford writes in ‘Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World that:
‘Rather than finding such apocalyptic descriptions derogatory, Genghis Khan seemed to have encouraged them. With his penchant for finding a use for everything he encountered, he devised a powerful way to exploit the high literacy rate of the Muslim people, and turned his unsuspecting enemies into a potent weapon for shaping public opinion. Terror, he realized, was best spread not by the acts of warriors, but by the pens of scribes and scholars. In an era before newspapers, the letters of the intelligentsia played a primary role in shaping public opinion, and in the conquest of central Asia, they played their role quite well on Genghis Khan’s behalf. The Mongols operated a virtual propaganda machine that consistently inflated the number of people killed in battle and spread fear wherever its words carried.’
Similarly George Lane remarks that the Mongols ’deliberately exaggerated and encouraged the horror stories that circulated around them and preceded their arrival in order to ensure an unhesitating surrender of the cowed population’.
 In David Morgan’s ‘The Mongols’ he states this figure as 200,000 however he was misled by an editor’s translation and has corrected it to 2 million in later editions. Clearly this figure is ludicrously high (see the estimates for Baghdad’s Medieval population in footnote 4).
 Even such a towering figure as Julius Caesar in his ‘Gallic Wars’ claimed that in a single battle against two tribes he had defeated an enemy 430,000 strong without losing a single soldier.
 Estimates of Baghdad’s population range from 96 million (!?!) by an 11th century source Hilal al-Sabi to perhaps 200,000 to 500,000 inhabitants (Jacob Lassner Massignon and Baghdad) The most plausible range for the time is probably between 200,000 and 600,000, a very large city by Medieval standards but not sufficiently large to meet Hulugu or Pinker’s total. Estimates of the killed range from 80,000 to 1 million. The lower end seems far more credible.
 John Fennell argues that although some Russian cities were captured and presumably damaged or destroyed, many others were probably bypassed and escaped sack.
 The 1290 census did not include Yunnan and other areas and also did not enumerate several categories of people, claiming that ‘migrants living in the wilderness are not included in the total’. According to Peter C. Perdue in ‘Exhausting the Earth’ it is generally accepted that the 1393 census did not count the entire population
 The Mongols don’t get off the hook completely here as it was the creation of their empire that cleared the way for the advance of plague from Central Asia into China.
 Any estimate has to be taken with a considerable pinch of salt. John Man estimates that the Khwarezmian massacres claimed 1.2 million lives – 25-30% of 5 million. Hulagu’s conquests may have claimed roughly the same number and a slightly lower total can be assumed for the incursions into Eastern Europe and Rus. Clearly the Chinese census cannot be taken at face value in estimating population lost & most of the total must be due to plague. Assuming the real decline was 30 million (allowing for a significant undercount in the censue) and Mongol actions accounted for 25% of deaths gives 7.5 million. This would give a grand total of 11.5 million over the course of around a century.
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