Updated: May 15, 2022
“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."
Francesco Pegolotti, Italian merchant, Pratica della Mercatura (Merchant's Handbook), ca 1370 CE
When we think of the Mongols, we think of a fierce, warrior tribe. We have the image of them being fearsome in battle, and we sense the fear they instilled in those they defeated. We may consider them savage, brutal, and in the modern sense, barbaric. Yet, most of what we know of the Mongols has come to us secondhand. Contemporary sources fall into two main categories: chronicles by those who suffered firsthand at the conquests of the Mongols and those travelers, outside observers, who commented on the Mongols through the lens of their own bias. To be sure, the Mongols were brutal, born from the conditions on the Central Asian Steppes. Their advancing armies, under Ghengis Khan, brought social, political, and economic disruption both to Europe and to China. Yet, once the Mongols established control over a territory stretching from the Balkans to China, they would assert stability that revitalized old trade routes. This stability led to a new era of commerce that would help usher in a "rebirth" - Renaissance - in Europe.
The height of most imperial states has been marked by a period of perceived hegemony, unity, and peace. These conditions often came at the cost of imperial expansion into formally independent regions. Calgacus, the Caledonian (Ancient Scotland) leader, is reputed to have said "they make a desert and call it peace" about the so-called Pax Romana. In this regard, the Mongols were no different than their Roman or Han Dynasty counterparts before them or later imperial rulers. There is much effort, as well, in maintaining these conditions. Peace and stability, though, are boons to long-distance travel and commerce. For nearly three hundred years, the Mongols established an infrastructure that rejuvenated the old Silk Road trade networks that connected East and West.
The Silk Road was not a single thoroughfare but a complicated network of trade routes that connected Europe and Asia. Nor were these connections the same but evolved differently in different periods. During the Roman period and the Han Dynasty, there is ample evidence of thriving a transcontinental trade. These same trading routes facilitated the spread of Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. After the collapse of the major states of Rome, Persia, and China, overland commerce across the interior of Central Asia became more complex, more treacherous, and more expensive. From the 9th century CE to the early 13th century, the steppes were occupied by a succession of scattered and independent principalities, kingdoms, and tribal rulers. It was hard to conduct business in a myriad of tax systems and security. The direct flow of goods and ideas was curtailed, and transactions were done over shorter distances and through multiple intermediaries: all this added cost and diminished incentive.
When Ghengis Khan solidified his control over much of the Central Asian Steppe, he understood the need to revive commerce along the Silk Road network of routes. He and his successors implemented a series of programs that would reestablish overland trade. The Mongol khans would work hard at maintaining internal peace and a business-friendly approach to promote prosperity. This Pax Mongolica, as it has been termed, would have broad implications, especially for Europe.
The Mongols implemented a standard trade tariff and system of taxation, one that we would characterize as progressive, that was uniform throughout the empire. They encouraged trade between cities and actively invested in developing urban centers. Artisans and skilled craftsmen were prized. The Mongols engaged in re-settling skilled workers, often by force and by kidnapping. Marco Polo, on his travels, encountered colonies of weavers from the Middle East who had been relocated to parts of Mongolia and Northern China. Willem of Rubreck, a Franciscan monk who traveled in the mid-13th century, noted how he met a Parisian goldsmith and his Hungarian wife. Both had been kidnapped from Belgrade in the Balkans and taken to Karakorum, then the capital city of the Mongol empire.
The Mongol empire controlled a region stretching from the Pacific to the Balkans. Within this vast territory, under the central authority of the Mongol khans, travel became more accessible and safer. Part of this was due to guarantees of safe passage within the boundaries of the empire. Unique tokens were given out to various groups and acted like passports do today. These tokens were known as gereges. The highest value tokens were given to individuals of great importance or tasked with a special mission. Other tokens were given to military commanders and governors of the provinces. Tokens were given to travelers, merchants, and foreign ambassadors. Marco Polo received a token from Kubla Khan with an inscription that read, “By the power of eternal heaven, this is an order of the Great Khan. Whoever does not show respect to the bearer will be guilty of an offence.”
Communication is critical in both business and in maintaining military control. To this end, the Mongols instituted an efficient postal system, not unlike the Pony Express of the American West. Having been raised on the open steppe, the Mongols were famous for their horseriding abilities. They employed this skill not only on the battlefield but in the delivery of messages across the vast distances of the empire. The system consisted of a network of yams or waystations. These waystations, positioned from 20-40 miles apart, furnished fresh horses and housed messengers. Messengers rode as fast as they could to the next yam, where they could get a new mount. They even traveled at night using torches. In this way, the news could travel hundreds of miles in a day. Towns and cities near a yam were required to supply the yam with all available horses. If a messenger lost a horse in between waystations, he was permitted to commandeer any person's horse. According to some contemporary records, by the end of the 13th century, a network of 10,000 yams had been established with 300,000 horses across the swath of Mongolian-held territory.
Many merchants and travelers, such as Marco Polo and the Muslim Ibn Battuta, took advantage of the renewed security offered by the Mongols. Large numbers of goods were traded and sold throughout the 13th and well into the 14th centuries. Spices, silks, precious metals, raw materials were exchanged across the trading network. The population of cities burgeoned, and they became urbane centers of art and culture. The Mongols practiced religious tolerance for the most part, so these same cities became melting pots of belief. Places like Samarkand were centers of learning and repositories of knowledge. Cities were not only marketplaces for goods but also places where ideas and innovations could be exchanged. Paper money, printing, bills of credit, gunpowder, the compass, and other technologies traveled East to West. Thriving trade spurred new types of institutions like banking and insurance. By the end of the 13th century, the Mongols had made a treaty with the Republic of Genoa. The Genoese established Kaffa, a port city on the Black City. Through Kaffa, the Genoese built a monopoly on goods being traded from the East. Through them, and later their rivals, Venice, most of the products and technology of Asia were reintroduced to Europeans. And this would lay the foundation for the Italian Renaissance.
This free flow of people, cultures, goods, and ideas also meant that other, more deadly things could easily travel from place to place. Yersinia Pestis is the bacteria that causes bubonic plague. It originated in the highlands of the northwestern steppes of Asia. The plague took advantage of the increase in the movement of people across the continent. In 1347, it reached the port city of Kaffa, and there it hitched a ride on a fleet of ships bound for Genoa. The Black Death had arrived in Europe.
The Mongol empire suffered the fate of most empires - rebellion and civil war. The empire fragmented into several regional khanates. The Ottoman Turks replaced them in Asia Minor and the Middle East. The Ming Dynasty succeeded them in China. Since antiquity, the Silk Road, both physically and symbolically, represented the potential of a global economy. Throughout history, different powers, realizing the wealth and importance of the Central Asian steppes, have battled to control this vast region. Even today, China is seeking to create a modern Silk Road by expanding its sphere of influence and establishing trade and political ties with the Middle East and Africa.
The Silk Roads: A New History of the World: Peter Frankopan
Along the Silk Roads in Mongol Eurasia: Michael Biran, editor
Life Along the Silk Road: Susan Whitfield