Tuesday, December 13, 2011

How bad were the Mongols ?

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.”[1]

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 [2]. 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 [3]. 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 [4]. 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 [5]. 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 [6] 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.[7] 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 [8]. 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.

[1]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’.

[2] 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).

[3] 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.

[4] 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.

[5] John Fennell argues that although some Russian cities were captured and presumably damaged or destroyed, many others were probably bypassed and escaped sack.

[6] 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

[7] 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.

[8] 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.

Discuss this post at the Quodlibeta Forum


Mai said...


Anonymous said...


From what I understand, the consensus opinion is that 2000 years ago the city of Rome had more than a million people. However, I remember McEvedy and Jones arguing that it was actually closer to 150,000. Usual estimates for ancient Athens and medieval Constantinople are in the low six figures.

The 1801 UK Census found more than a million people in Greater London. That was before most modern technology was invented.

Anonymous said...

"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."

in the context of a mongol invasion i think city sizes would swell by a multiple from the surrounding countryside. i think up to four would be reasonable and at the very least two - so a reasonable city size estimate would then need to be at least doubled imo.

also a lot of the famine, floods and plagues that happened afterwards would have been the result of the invasion e.g. flood defences neglected.

Humphrey said...

Hi Anon – a good point. It is extremely hard to come up with any kind of reasonable demographic estimate given the paucity of the sources. Your guess is as good as mine.

Looking at this again, it seems likely that Abbasid Baghdad at its Medieval peak in the 9th century had something like 500,000 or upwards of inhabitants (Wickham – ‘Inheritance of Rome’). By the time we get to the era of the Mongol conquests we are talking about a city in decline. At its peak Baghdad covered 70 square kilometres (43 square miles) but by the 13th century it was much smaller with open land between inhabited quarters (Adams ‘Land Behind Baghdad’). By the time of the siege the business district was almost deserted and the city had just been devastated by flooding. So at a guess the population may have been 300,000 – 400,000. This population would have been protected by an 11th century semi-circular kilm-burnt brick wall in serious disrepair. Parts of the original round city may have survived at this time and may have formed the citadel.

Conceivably you could swell that population during a siege – and we know Hulugu drove refugees towards the city so its very likely. Swelling the population by 4 times you would get to something like 1.6 million. I don’t know the logistics but I suspect that level of increase would overwhelm the city in no time – Baghdad was less than half that at its peak and its food supply had decreased significantly. My guess would be the population had doubled to something like 600-800 thousand – a proportion of these in the western suburbs which were occupied quickly by the Mongols.

When it comes to estimating the numbers killed, these tend to increase with time and distance among the chroniclers. We also should not take the sensationalist accounts at face value as the situation on the ground was complex. The city was spared complete devastation; e.g Christians, Shiites and Jews were generally spared – in fact many Shia regarded Hulagu as a liberator (sectarian rioting played a key role in the destruction and plundering of the city). Orders were issued that certain districts and certain buildings were to be spared. The Chinese envoy to Hulugu, Chiang Te states that several tens of thousands were killed. Hulugu himself claimed he killed 2 million (Makrizi the 14th century historian of Egypt also uses this number). Juzjani - living in India - claimed 800,000. Chiang Te’s assessment is probably closer to the truth than Hulugu’s boast (calculated as propaganda to impress a European monarch). 100,000 seems a credible estimate - Alexander Mikaberidze (Conflict and Conquest in the Islamic World).

Humphrey said...

Anon - on the second point, I think I said the Mongols don't get entirely off the hook on the evidence for population decline. However the grain supply was in part disrupted by rebellions against the Yuan dynasty. Much of the decline in agricultural output occurred through changes in climate and the flooding of the Yellow river (it is true that the Mongols are blamed for neglecting flood defenses however the flooding was so catastrophic it might have been beyond control - the Mongols were capable of instigating large scale works to try to correct the situation). I think the lions share of the blame for the demographic slide should go to the Black Death.

Anonymous said...

"even this more modest total…would require that each Mongol kill more than a hundred people"

This isn't necessarily true. The Mongol's had many allies as well that participated in the invasions.

Andrew Brew said...

Sure, but when a size is given for a Mongol army, allied troops are generally included in the figure.

Anonymous said...

boring as fuck.

do you have a link to your sister's porn site?

Humphrey said...

Alas anon, I fear you are mistaken. I have no sister and I am therefore unable to furnish you with a link to her porn site you ill-mannered little twerp. Judging by your comment I would suggest you might be better suited with some punctuation lessons and a lobotomy.

Anonymous said...

ooooh burrrrnnnnn

tparchie said...

Suggest a copy of Ta' rīkh-i jahān-gushā might help. It's by Juvaini who was an administrator in Hülagu's Il-Khanate. It recounts many of the events in Khwarezm for the period up to 1258 - the destruction of the assassin stronghold.
The translation into English by John Andrew Boyle (1958) is exorbitantly priced but there are PDF downloads.

Anonymous said...

This blog was full of valuable information about the mongols behavior. We are currently studying the mongols in my AP World History class, and this blog was very helpful and full of factual information. The blog furthered my knowledge of Genghis khan and his empire which will help me tremendously in my class.

Paige Brazil said...

I found this blog rather interesting for many reasons. First, it gives in depth material about Genghis Khan and how he expanded his empire. Also, it talks about how the Mongols treated eachother and how they treated people of other civilizations. Overall, this blog was very helpful toward my knowledge of the Mongols for my AP World History class and full of factual information.

Dynevor Shannon said...

The figures from the Rawanda holocaust show what can be 'acheived' with only machetes....

Kadafi said...


Anonymous said...

I wouldn't say that the mongols were bad, I would say that they were people who were just really good at conquering countries and stuff osmaf the sort.

Anonymous said...

I wouldn't say that the mongols were bad, I would say that they were people who were just really good at conquering countries and stuff osmaf the sort.

Marcellus Wallace said...

Then again, World War 2 was quite a few years later, with a much higher world population. The Mongols conquered a lot of land, they killed quite a bit of people, and they committed their fair share of atrocities. They had no restraint; they couldn't have killed some people and be happy, they had to kill 2.5% of the world's population. Uncool, man, uncool. #Hashbrown trolo

Marcellus Wallace said...

I can admire, and also be disgusted, by the mere amount of people that the mongols killed, but what do you expect from an army of people being led by a guy who killed his brother over some food?

Anonymous said...

It is believable that the Mongols would be able to kill so many people because of their military advancements that gave them advantages. The Mongols were able to kill so many people because of the stirrups on their saddles that allowed them to shoot other warriors with their bows and arrows without having to stop moving or having to be on the ground. Therefore, it is credible that each Mongol soldier would be able to kill so many of his opponents because of the advantage he had over his enemies.

Anonymous said...

The large mass of people the Mongols killed even the amount of over 100 people per soldier is possible. The Mongols as we know were advanced in the military capabilities quite a bit compared to others in this area. Their techniques utilized horseback warfare by having the stirrup and their renowned horsemanship. By surrounding the enemy in a circle and killing everything inside while slowly pushing closer together was a method they practice in hunting their food as well. Even if the people in these areas that they conquered surrendered as soon as they knew the Mongols were there they were not guaranteed survival by any means. We also have to think that for these people to surrender instantly the Mongols must have been known for their slaughtering of entire villages.

M said...

Apart from how many people they killed, what saddens me is how many books they burnt. They destroyed thousands of books, scientific and history etc.

Anonymous said...

sup broski

Gerald said...

Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

Your article is very well done, a good read.

Dee Hoffner said...

Having to read between the lines .. any idea what kind of people were killed? I can only think of one group that deserves this sort of Justice. The efforts of the Mongols under Genghis should be considered nothing short of Heroic.

Anonymous said...

Dee Moron (Hoffner), the Mongols killed Eastern Europeans, Chinese, Koreans, Indians, Middle Eastern Jews, Middle Eastern Christians and yes - the Muslims you dread. In fact, the Mongol invasions were what set back the Islamic Golden Age and caused the religious fanaticism in the centuries afterwards.
Ironically, the descendants of the Mongols became Muslims after their conquests. Guess you wouldn't want to incur their wrath now, eh?