If you look at a map of the world, one thing you’ll notice is that Europe and Asia are on the same land mass. There is no ocean separating them. Tall mountains, sure. But besides that, the two are basically joined at the hip.
Today, due to cultural differences, we consider them separate continents. But because of their geography, their histories have always been connected.
However, the strength of that connection has depended on the changing political situation in each region. The presence of a strong, centralized power in one or both regions has always brought the two closer together.
First came the Romans, uniting Europe and many parts of Asia in ways never before seen. Later, it was the Mongol’s turn. Their rapid conquest of vast European and Asian territories in the 13th century transformed both regions and the world at large.
The Rise of Genghis Khan and the Mongol Empire
Today, Mongolia is the largest landlocked nation in the world. It covers a wide area on the Eurasian Steppe, which is a large, high-elevation plateau stretching from the Pacific Ocean to the eastern edges of Europe. Its topography is dominated by vast grasslands, aka savannahs.
For most of the Early Medieval period (500-1000 AD), the region of Mongolia was populated by ethnically similar yet politically separate tribes. For most of this period, the different tribes cooperated with one another just as much as they fought. There was no one there to convince (or force) everyone to get along.
This changed in the early 12th century with the rise of a man named Temujin. Charismatic and powerful, Temujin began conquering other Mongolina tribes and banding them together. His success helped him achieve god-like status amongst the Mongolian people, earning him the title for which he is now remembered: Genghis Khan.
After conquering his fellow Mongolian tribes, Genghis Khan moved south and invaded Northern China. He then moved west, towards Pakistan and Kazakhstan, laying the foundation for a larger-than-life empire.
The Mongolian Advantage
The Mongolian people living at the time attributed Temujin’s tremendous success to his godlike character. But modern historians have a different understanding.
In short, thanks to their calvary, the Mongols had a huge advantage over the majority of the armies they attempted to conquer.
Masters of horses, Mongolian horseback-riding warriors were no match for the slower ground troops they encountered, first while conquering surrounding cultures in Asia and then later when they moved into Europe.(vice-versa). They were faster, more numerous, stronger, and harder to attack than any of their enemies.
This military advantage turned the Mongolian army into one of the most feared in history. And they used this fear to build an empire that changed the world.
The Death of Genghis Khan and Mongol Expansion into Europe
Despite his godlike states, Genghis Khan was in fact a mere mortal and died in 1229 AD. When he did, his empire stretched from the Pacific Ocean to the Caspian Sea. This made it the largest in the world at the time.
Gengis Khan’s son, Ögedei, took over from his father.
Like many sons-of-conquerors throughout history, Ögedei set out to finish what his father started. He carried on in Asia, marching through Middle Eastern nations such as Syria and Turkey. But his eyes were set on a different prize: Europe.
Why did he want to control so much land so far from his home? That’s an answer only conquerors can give.
European knights, heavily armored and also skilled on horseback, thought they could handle the Mongolian advance. But such heavy armor made them too slow and turned them into easy targets. So, just like they had in Asia, the Mongolians made quick work of their first European combatants and expanded their empire even further.
In just ten years, Ögedei and his armies swept across Russia and invaded and conquered Hungary and parts of Poland. They might have continued had Ögedei not suffered the same fate as his father: mortality.
Ögedei’s Death and the Mongol Retreat
It’s a tale as old as time: a conqueror bands his people together and acquires a vast swath of territory. Then, when he dies, those who survive him fight for control over the empire their dead relative built. This fight then leads to the breakup of the empire and the formation of multiple smaller realms.
No matter how hard they try, no one can keep things together.
A classic example is the empire of Alexander the Great of Macedonia (Greece). But the Mongol Empire formed by Genghis Khan and Ögedei is another.
Due to this infighting, the Mongols were driven out of Europe and split into four different empires after Ögedei. But just like Alexander the Great’s bickering relatives couldn’t end his legacy, the division of the Mongolian empire did not mean the end of Mongolian influence in
In fact, in many ways, it was just getting started.
The Pax Mongolica
Peace and prosperity go hand in hand. They always have and they always will. It’s a simple formula, really. When people aren’t fighting, they’re working together, and then everyone wins.
But how that peace comes about, well that isn’t always so…peaceful. It might seem contradictory, but often that peace is the result of aggressive conquest (aka war). The bloodiness of conflict can sometimes reduce instability and help civilizations grow and improve.
This is exactly what happened as the result of Mongolian expansion. It ushered in an era known today as the Pax Mongolica.
The word Pax means Peace in Latin, the language of the Romans. And this concept of a “pax ” comes from Roman times. In the 3rd century, Rome’s dominance and conquest of much of Europe and Western Asia unleashed an unprecedented period of prosperity known today as the Pax Romana.
Since then, pretty much any time this happens (a big power emerges and brings peace to the land), we call it “pax ______.” Yet another example of Rome’s enduring legacy.
The Pax Mongolica was ultimately defined by the connections it created between the East and West, i.e. Europe and Asia. The growth of the Mongolian empire from the Pacific Ocean all the way to Hungary and Poland helped establish trade routes between Europe and Asia that made trade and commerce between the regions much more possible.
Plus, unlike in the past, when European traders made it into Asia they could count on the protection of Mongolian authority, which spread across essentially the entire Asian continent.
Interconnectivity between the two regions brought them closer together and opened the door for new levels of prosperity never before seen in either part of the world.
The Return of the Silk Road: Connecting Asia and Europe
This network of trade routes between Asia and Europe has been known throughout history as the Silk Road. Asian silk has always been a prized commodity in Europe. Trade for it first brought Europe and Asia together, but it wasn’t long before more than just silk moved between the two regions.
The first highpoint of the Silk Road came during Roman times, when Europe was controlled by a powerful central authority. But after the fall of Rome, the Silk Road went largely dormant. Travel between the two regions was dangerous due to a lack of political stability and unimproved routes. But the rise of the Mongolian empire and subsequent khanates (the name for powerful Mongolian states that were born from the Mongolian Empire) removed some of this danger and reignited trade between the two areas in a big way.
Silk, ginger, cinnamon, and eventually gunpowder made its way to Europe from the East, greatly benefiting the ruling classes. And silver, horses, and linen traveled east to Asia. This helped improve the economies in both regions as farmers, miners, craftsmen, and, of course, merchants gained access to new markets.
However, this improved connection between East and West was not all fun and games. The increased movement of people and goods between Asia and Europe may have also contributed to the spread of the Bubonic Plague. A viscous disease, the Plague ravaged Europe in the 14th century and killed some 30-50 percent of the population.
As they say, with a little good also comes a little bad.
The Beginning of the Renaissance
In many ways, this reignited trade contributed to the period of European revitalization known today as the Renaissance. During this era, art and culture flourished in never-before-seen ways. And new ideas about the world spread, ideas about freedom and democracy and the correct form of government (aka not just kings and queens running the show).
The backbone of all this change was economic prosperity. With more money to spend on art, literature, philosophy, etc., Europe went through a period of cultural transformation. In many areas, this prosperity was the direct result of increased trade relations with Asia made possible by Mongolian conquest and political domination.
A great example of this is the Italian city of Venice. Its merchants established lucrative trade networks throughout Europe and Asia, got rich off them, and then used this money to fund art. This turned Venice into a cultural hotspot that we now see as vital to the Italian renaissance.
Violence Breeds Peace
Sometimes, things have to get worse before they can get better. And this is a good way to explain the story of the Mongolian conquest and empire.
The formation of this vast political entity was a bloody period of history. But, ironically, this bloodshed helped launch an era of sustained stability and prosperity. The Pax Mongolica, which lasted some 200 years, reignited relations between Asia and Europe and transformed both regions into the earliest versions of their modern selves.
Written by Matthew Jones