- The warrior on the left has two things common to both the Mongols of Genghis Khan's day and the Kazakhs centuries later: the composite recurve bow and the hunting falcon. The bow was made of layers of horn, wood or bamboo, and sinew which were glued together with animal glue. This design made for a very powerful bow which did not have to be too long and unwieldy (like the English long bow, whose power was a function of its size). Warriors could therefore load and shoot this bow quickly and easily while riding a horse or pony. The mounted archer formed the backbone of the Mongol army.
- The falcon was used for hunting by the Mongols, and it would continue to be used by the Kazakhs. I learned that the Golden Eagles in Central Asia are powerful enough to take down a wolf!
- The musician is once again playing the two-stringed dombra of the Central Asian steppes.
- The seated figure on the right is offering a ram's head, which has long been given to the most important member or guest at a feast.
Thoughts on the MongolsThe Mongols had consolidated control of this part of Central Asia by 1223. In my opinion, the Mongols and Genghis Khan are often given an undeservedly bad rap in the West, where we usually associate them with violence and terror. In reality, they were no more ruthless than other soldiers of their day. Perhaps Genghis Khan differed only in his thoroughness in eliminating enemies and rivals during his rise to power and while extending his dominion. The establishment of Mongol supremacy across the Eurasian steppe brought benefits to many of the people who found themselves under Mongol domination. However, the aristocracy--who also happened to be the writers of history--typically were not better off. They lost their power to tax and control the peasants who lived at their mercy and served at their command. On the other hand, commoners experienced many benefits of unification: stability, lower taxes, safe and widespread trade, faster communication, religious tolerance, freedom to travel, and the spread of knowledge, ideas, and technology across previously closed borders.
A little bit about Genghis Khan
The boy who would become Great Khan was born in 1162 (the most commonly accepted date) in the northeast of present-day Mongolia and named Temujin by his father, one of many Mongol chieftains. The Mongols of his day were nomadic herders of sheep and horses. When Temujin was nine, his father was murdered by a rival tribe of Tatars in the continuance of an old feud. Temujin's family were abandoned by their tribe and spent the next few years struggling to survive on their own. With no livestock and few possessions, they had to hunt and gather food in order to survive.
At the age of ten, Temujin killed his older half-brother Behter, who apparently had tried to bully him one time too many. He was captured and forced into slavery by another group of Mongols, but he escaped around the age of fourteen. Toughened by his years in the wilderness and educated by his mother in the skills necessary to survive in the Asian steppe, Temujin was recognized as a leader and began to build up a following of his own. By 1206, he had eliminated his rivals one at a time, and he was proclaimed Genghis Khan--which translates to "oceanic ruler," i.e. universal ruler--by a great assembly of Mongols. He had consolidated power and united all of the Mongol tribes. They were now poised to break out of the Mongol steppes and start taking over the rest of the world.
The Mongols extend their reach
Now that Genghis Khan had united the Mongols, they created a formidable fighting force. Using tactics that they had honed in large and organized hunts, they invaded and took over much of China before turning westward, across the Tian Shan Mountains to the empire of Khwarezm. Khwarezm had its power base in Persia, but it reached eastward into present-day Kazakhstan and westward into the Caucasus.
Controlling much of the Silk Road, Khwarezm was quite a wealthy empire. According to the history books, Genghis Khan sent a caravan of Muslim merchants to Khwarezm to open trade routes between their empires, and they were massacred by the governor of Otrar, a city in present-day Kazakhstan. When the emperor of Khwarezm refused to apologize or make any sort of restitution, Genghis Khan was provoked to leave his Chinese campaign and invade Khwarezm.
This was the war that earned the Mongols a reputation for brutality. Mongol soldiers destroyed fields and irrigation works in order to compel surrender. They laid seige to city after city, sometimes massacring entire populations of towns that resisted. By 1223, the Mongols had conquered most of present-day Kazakhstan, and the remainder of Khwarezm would come under their control during the annual campaigns of Genghis Khan's successors.
Genghis Khan died in August 1227 and was buried in a secret place in the mountains, probably close to his birthplace near the Onon River. His successors continued expanding their empire until they reached even deeper into Russia, the Caucasus, the Southwest Asia, and Eastern Europe. At its extent, the Mongol Empire was the largest the world has ever known.
Why so much about Genghis Khan and the Mongols in a blog about Kazakhstan? Besides the fact that Kazakhstan lies squarely in the center of the Mongol Empire, Kazakhs are close cousins to the Mongol herders and warriors that reigned in the medieval steppes.
And there will be more on that next time!