A Mongol khan on campaign; illustration from the Jamiʿ al-tawarikh

Pictures from History / Bridgeman Images

A Mongol khan on campaign; illustration from the Jamiʿ al-tawarikh, a world history by Rashid al-Din, circa 1305

Two millennia ago, The Records of the Grand Historian asked whether an empire could be ruled from horseback, and later histories seemed to confirm the view that imperial authority must be vested in cities. The great fourteenth-century scholar Ibn Khaldun developed a now familiar theory that “the rulers of a state, once they have become sedentary, always imitate in their ways of living those of the state to which they have succeeded.” So barbarian conquerors would be culturally conquered, and absorbed into the static civilizations they had once invaded.

Yet even as Ibn Khaldun was writing, the largest contiguous empire ever known stretched from Hungary to the Pacific: a Mongol realm of nomad herders, whose leaders governed their vast domain with the institutions and adaptive skills of their own culture. After Genghis Khan’s death in 1227, this prodigious empire had split into four “hordes” under his eldest sons, and within little more than fifty years attained its farthest reach. The easternmost of these hordes, the primus inter pares, was the dominion of the Great Khan: it embraced Tibet and China, where the Great Khan Khubilai established the Yuan dynasty in 1271. The Chagatay rule extended through the heart of Central Asia, and to the south the Ilkhanid suzerainty, with its epicenter in Persia, overflowed into Turkey and Afghanistan. Meanwhile, an immense area of the Eurasian steppeland, spreading through Siberia to the north and east, and pressing against the kingdoms and princely states of Europe in the west, was the terrain of the Golden Horde.

Given the paucity of Mongol documents, this giant empire has routinely been viewed through the records of its neighbors or victims—the Chinese, Persians, and Russians above all. The host of languages ideal for a global appreciation of the Mongols (Chinese, Russian, Mongolian, Arabic, even Tibetan and Korean) perhaps lies beyond the expertise of any one scholar. Yet since the 1980s a deeper and more comprehensive approach—pioneered by the American historian Thomas Allsen—has revolutionized the discipline, exploring the empire’s economy, ideology, and material culture and its impact on Eurasia and beyond.1

The Horde: How the Mongols Changed the World by the French scholar Marie Favereau follows this tradition and is the first book to be devoted exclusively to the Golden Horde. It is at once a microhistory, dense with regional politics and war, and a survey of the Horde’s wider influence. The Golden Horde differed from its fellow Mongol powers above all in its geography, located as it was at the frontiers of a disunited Europe. It also lay across a great caravan route that ran eastward, parallel to the old Silk Road, and it controlled the precious fur trade that traveled down the Volga watershed.

The Golden Horde adapted swiftly to the potential for economic exchange. The vast expanse of its sovereignty could be covered only on horseback, and the horse was its early lifeblood. There were horses for urgent sprinting or hours-long stamina, horses for pulling heavy carts, horses for war. These stocky, resourceful beasts were highly trained—they would return to camp untended—and could feed themselves even in winter, pawing the snow-covered steppe like reindeer to reach the grass beneath.

In “capturing the notion of a moveable state,” Favereau describes the khan’s court in constant migration—a self-sufficient, moving capital whose imperial tent, a gold panoply that could shelter two thousand men, was carried on a train of oxcarts. Its people were far from haphazard raiders. A regime of elite henchmen and an intricately organized soldiery were crucial strata in a hierarchy where the “golden lineage” of Genghis Khan long remained paramount. Genghis’s grandson Batu was the Horde’s founding ruler, and the dynasty held its power, however disrupted, for over a century.

The hierarchies of the golden lineage could elevate even women, if they were aristocratic, to positions of influence; paintings from the time offer glimpses of them enthroned in equal splendor beside their husbands. As in other nomad societies, women could be autonomous. Rare Western visitors were astonished by their robustness and energy. They loaded the camels and could drive a string of thirty oxcarts unassisted. Some were adept archers, and in huge, mobile camps they followed their men to the battlefield.

With the Mongols’ burgeoning power came gradual settlement. But the villages that sprang up along the rivers were makeshift affairs of brick and mud, sprawling and unfortified. On the Volga a quasi-capital rose at Sarai, established by Batu around 1250, and grew into a cosmopolis of artisans, farmers, and merchants from as far away as Syria, Egypt, even Greece—so many that a New Sarai was founded upriver. In this tolerant, pagan world, many mosques and churches appeared, but the Mongol court never settled, only pausing at Sarai on its way to new pasturelands. Their khans’ true throne was the horse, from which they governed and made war, and when they died they were entombed out in the steppe.


Within twenty years of Genghis Khan’s death, the Golden Horde had conquered the scattered principalities of today’s Russia and was mustered along the lower Danube. Soon the entire breadth of Asia from the Black Sea to the Pacific had become one immense Mongol federation. As its conquests faltered into civil conflict and tactical dealings with other powers—pacts were concluded with states as disparate as the Byzantine Empire, Mameluke Egypt, and the Republic of Genoa—there began a century of intermittent calm that historians have long called the Mongol Peace. (Favereau prefers the term “Mongol exchange” for its global import.) An equestrian messenger service, the yam, knit together the whole commonwealth in a relay of posthouses. The contemporary Persian historian Juvayni fancied that a virgin with a gold dish could walk unmolested from one end of the empire to the other. As for trade, Favereau writes, the Horde’s policies

helped to create the largest integrated market in premodern history, a network that connected the circuits of the Baltic, the Volga, the Caspian Sea, and the Black Sea in a single operative system, which was itself linked to Central Asia, China, the Middle East, and Europe. Against the enduring stereotype of parasitical nomads, we find that the Horde generated wealth.

The Mongols’ commercial strategies, Favereau argues, were rooted in traditional practices. The taxes (and sometimes plunder) that accrued to the khan were routinely handed down to his followers, then shared by them with their own retinue, descending in a redistribution that eventually fed into commerce. The circulation of luxuries was embedded in Mongol tradition. Sharing, at every level of the people, was believed a spiritual necessity, crucial to the well-being of the living and the appeasement of the dead—and to an enhanced afterlife for the donor. Hoarding was anathema. There was no difference, declared one Great Khan, “between buried treasure and dust.”

Favereau is reluctant to endorse any accepted date for the Horde’s demise. Gradually its rulers turned away from loyalty to the Great Khan in the east, and at length embraced a diluted Islam, sharing the transnational prestige of a widespread faith. By the early fifteenth century the Horde was sunk in war and breaking into regional khanates. Yet the most drastic weakening of the empire came not through any hostile power but through a pandemic: the Black Death.

The bacterium Yersinia pestis originated in rodents on the Eurasian steppe. The vector was mainly fleas. In the mid-fourteenth century, it seems, a genetic mutation in the bacterium arose somewhere in Central Asia and swept westward. Within ten years it had paralyzed global interchange—trade routes became plague routes—and decimated entire populations. The deaths among the Horde are impossible to assess, but a Mongol army besieging the Genoese Black Sea port of Caffa in 1345 was all but wiped out by the disease, and within a few years more than one third of Europe’s population lay dead. All the riches of the Indian Ocean and the Caspian and Black seas, wrote the poet Petrarch, could not make up for those who had been lost. And chief among the disease-carriers, Favereau suggests, were the fur-trading Mongols.

In The Horde Favereau pursues three major themes. Firstly, that far from being ravening plunderers, the Mongols employed shrewd administrative talents and efficient institutions of their own, and “did not need to rely on their sedentary subjects to forge an empire.” Secondly the Horde, though steeped in tradition, was suited to exploiting and adapting to unsettled circumstances by the innate flexibility of nomad life itself: “Mongol imperial successes came not in spite of nomadism but because of it.” Such contentions are largely borne out by her assiduously researched work. The Horde was not dependent on the skills of the conquered in the way, for instance, that the early Arab invaders depended on Byzantine and Persian bureaucracy, and Favereau’s insistence on the Mongols’ flexibility is amply justified. Yet almost from the start, themselves illiterate, they in fact pressed into service Uighur scribes, adopting their alphabet, and their rule flourished on the taxation of conquered peoples, as well as on the expertise of Muslim financiers and minters.

Favereau’s third theme concerns the Mongols’ wider impact. She highlights the long, vital part the Horde played in the cross-continental transition of goods and culture, and stresses the unified Islam that it fostered—a largely Sunni faith that persists in the region to this day. Although she acknowledges that “only the Russians survived the Mongol embrace with a sense of distinctive peoplehood intact,” she traces the present Uzbek and Kazakh nations to Mongol ancestry. But Mongolia itself, where Genghis Khan is revered almost as a god, is curiously never discussed.


Favereau concludes that the obliteration of the Mongols’ legacy—a legacy traceable in the empires that followed them—stems from Western conceptions of empire. Empire, it is assumed, must be sedentary, urban, usually industrial. “That Mongol rulers developed unique, effective, and humane approaches to political negotiation and social integration became unthinkable.”

By scrutinizing the organization and culture of the Horde from within, Favereau is among the scholars who seek to redress an old imbalance in Mongol studies, with its overreliance on foreign perceptions. The most complex of such perceptions, predictably, have been those of the Russians. It has long been a commonplace of Western historians that for more than two centuries Russia fell ruinously under the “Tatar yoke,” slowing its progress toward an enlightened Europe. For the Mongols struck the Russian lands like the Apocalypse. The first intimation that the scattered princedoms received was the sudden appearance of an alien army on their borders in 1223. “God alone knows who they are and whence they came,” an early chronicler lamented. But the bickering principalities failed to unite; their forces were routed, and the Mongols stormed up the Volga before vanishing back eastward.

They did not return for fourteen years. Then, in the winter of 1237, a 50,000-strong army under Batu arrived beneath the walls of Ryazan, which refused a demand for submission and was razed to the ground. The leading Russian princedom of Vladimir followed it into near-extinction, the small settlement of Moscow went up in flames, and during the next three years some twenty more towns were laid waste or frightened into subservience.

The Mongols preferred to campaign in winter, when they could move freely across frozen rivers. The greatest impediment to their advance was swampy terrain, which bogged down their siege engines and armored cavalry. But once in place, their battering-rams and stone-throwing catapults, adapted from Chinese technology, broke down the Russian fortifications of wood and beaten earth, and most towns fell within a few days. Often wholesale massacre followed. The Mongols’ terror went before them. In 1240 the panicked aristocracy of the old princedom of Kiev abandoned the city, which was half destroyed. Twenty years later brought the grudging submission of Novgorod, the last state to be coerced, and the subjection of Russian lands was complete.

Thereafter the Horde imposed its burden of taxation and levies indirectly, assigning collection to the Russian princes, who sometimes prudently delivered their tribute away from the public gaze. The princes’ collaboration in this system both entrenched their own dynasties and reduced local antagonism toward the Horde. In another astute move, Favereau writes, the Mongols exempted the Orthodox clergy from taxation, and so enrolled the favorable influence of a submissive church.

Thus there was no permanent Mongol administrative presence among the Russian population, and the political subordination of the principalities was relatively invisible on a day-to-day basis…. Princes, clergy, officials, messengers, and merchants could easily travel back and forth between the principalities and the hordes for purposes of politics and trade.

But this is almost too rosy a picture. If their dues were not paid, the Mongols were ruthless. Contemporary chronicles sent up a wail of misery at the Horde’s ravages (as well as the Russians’ own internecine wars), and were often so bewildered that God had allowed this pagan triumph that any hint of true subjugation, let alone occasional cooperation with the infidel, was masked beneath what other scholars have called “the ideology of silence.”2 Marx wrote that Russia was born of “the bloody mire of Mongol slavery…a yoke not only crushing, but dishonouring and withering the very soul of the people that fell its prey,” and Soviet scholars, shamed by Russia’s early vassalage, distorted or even eliminated it from the record. Yet in a parallel claim it was said that Russia saved European civilization by halting the Mongol advance westward. Alexander Blok, Russia’s foremost Symbolist poet, angrily asserted that his people had held a shield between Old Europe and the storming barbarians.

Now contemporary historians, even in Russia, are less obsessed by the suffering or shame of the “Tatar yoke” (a catchphrase introduced in the sixteenth century). There is growing interest in researching how the Horde shaped Russian society and politics, sometimes continuing old speculation that Mongol rule fatefully inured the country to an enduring autocracy, in alliance with a corrupted church. Favereau, in her admiration for the Horde’s polity, lays her emphasis elsewhere: on the increasing energy of Russian commercial life under Mongol governance, and even on some political interdependence. “Russians were deeply enmeshed in the nomadic state,” she asserts. Their princes married Mongol princesses.

As they themselves stirred into empire, the Russians borrowed the prestige and entitlement of the Mongol khans in an open translatio imperii. In the steppelands, wrote Thomas Allsen, the Muscovite rulers and even the Romanovs were “accepted as legitimate successors of the Golden Horde.” The Mongol loan words that entered Russian are evocative. Many relate to trade and the postal service: barysh (profit), tamozhnya (customs), dengi (money). Favereau writes:

The Russian principalities experienced extraordinary economic vitality during their vassalage to the Horde. New cities were built—as many as forty in northeastern Russia during the fourteenth century. Artisanal production grew dramatically and trade developed rapidly, bringing Eurasian long-distance commerce to the Baltic sphere, the far north, and small towns such as Moscow itself, which burgeoned only after the Jochids [the Horde] bestowed favor on Moscow’s leading family.

Is the Tatar yoke, then, a myth?

There is no ignoring the weight of Mongol power. Their notorious census-taking was the prelude to methodical extortion, and the tribute they exacted was not only a routine tithe of herds and household chattels but a tribute in human beings: young men, for the most part, forcibly conscripted into Mongol service. The Franciscan Plano Carpini, who traveled the empire as papal legate in 1246, described a draconian tax collector demanding one in three boys from every Russian family, as well as unmarried women. “Whoever does not produce these things,” he added, “is to be led off to the Tartars and reduced to slavery among them.” And there are other Mongolian loan words in Russian: kabala (debt-bondage) and kandaly (fetters).

Yet Russian unity, ironically, was a gift of the Mongols. It was by sycophantic submission, and subversion of fellow princedoms, that the formerly humble town of Moscow became chief among the Russian cities. In 1328 its astute ruler, Ivan Kalita, “Ivan the Moneybag,” was appointed grand prince and contrived to become overall collector of tribute on behalf of the Mongol khan. When Russia became a full-fledged tsardom more than two centuries later, Moscow was its preordained capital.

At the opposite end of the Mongol empire the sovereignty of the Great Khan had overwhelmed all China by 1279. This was not the first time that nomad invaders had infiltrated the Celestial Kingdom—the unifying Qin and even the great Tang dynasty were energized by so-called barbarian ancestry. But the Yuan dynasty founded by Khubilai Khan lasted less than a century, and the Mongol impact on China’s ancient and embedded civilization was routinely dismissed by early Sinologists as transient and shallow.

The British art historian Shane McCausland, in the handsomely produced The Mongol Century: Visual Cultures of Yuan China, 1271–1368, is concerned above all with tracing the Mongol influence through surviving artifacts. It is a complex and speculative task. The Mongols’ organizational skills and patronage are easier to identify than what they themselves created. And their impact, at first, was disruptive. The entrenched Chinese bureaucracy was drastically diluted. The rigorous exam system, which created a scholar class in government, abruptly ended. Mongols became the administrative elite. Ultimately, a greater diversity of education, languages, faiths, and ethnicities enriched the brief century of their rule, while the enormous reach of the Mongol domains vitalized a commerce in culture as well as goods.

While the Mongols of the Golden Horde indirectly established Moscow as Russia’s capital, those of the Great Khan, in 1272, laid down their own city. Khubilai Khan had already abandoned Karakorum, in the Mongolian steppe, for his summer palace of Xanadu, and now he moved within the Great Wall to found Dadu—the future Beijing—as the empire’s winter capital.

Early accounts describe a city laid out on the classic Chinese grid plan, where ministries, academies, and over a hundred temples surrounded an inner sanctum of imperial palaces. But outside the city walls spread grazing and hunting grounds, crowded with the felt-walled nomad dwellings that made both Xanadu and Dadu, writes McCausland, “as much like grand hunting encampments as seats of government and learning.” Steppeland grasses were imported. Khubilai’s main palace was floored in green-painted leather to resemble pasture, and muraled with paintings of his native plains, highlighted in gold.

All this vanished long ago, although you may still trace the ghostly grid of roads, conceived on Confucian precepts, in today’s Beijing. The Yuan era itself, under Mongol governance, left its heritage less tangibly: in mathematics, astronomy, medicine, print technology, and much else.

McCausland, of course, concentrates on the visual. The Mongol Century is a specialist work, whose illustrations are occasionally more eloquent than its prose. He identifies Mongol influence or patronage not only in painting and porcelain, but in an arrestingly wide range of other arts: relief sculpture, calligraphy, tomb murals, woodblock-printed books. The richly varied illustrations include those of printed paper money, gold saddle decorations, and even the official passes carried by yam postal riders, inscribed with death threats against anyone disrupting them.

In much of this, the Mongols’ aesthetic itself is hard to recognize. They had a passion for brightness and finery, McCausland writes, removed from the ancient decorum and sophistication of China. Their love of horses spills out in scroll-paintings of herdsmen feeding and tenderly bathing their sensitively observed charges, and a famous painting of Khubilai Khan hunting shows him on horseback with his wife, reinforcing a Mongol social order where women could be powerful and esteemed.

Within less than a century the Yuan dynasty was finished, brought down by internecine strife, natural disasters, and the raging Black Death. Between 1368 and 1369 the Mongols, with other foreigners, were expelled from China by the incoming Ming, whose reactionary dynasty, lasting three centuries, seemed to turn the Yuan into little more than a troubled interlude in the tremendous continuum of the Chinese past.

But out of the complex stresses of the Yuan rule, as McCausland’s careful study shows, there emerged a paradoxical vitality. The dynasty’s elite became subtly interwoven with its Chinese subjects. Whatever the Mongol impact on the Chinese may have been, the reverse process was often remarkable. By the middle of the Yuan succession, the khans were receiving Confucian education. They became patrons and collectors of art. Some were adept at that most canonical of Chinese skills, calligraphy, and there are records of their teacher’s severity to them and of their own critical judgments. Soon the time-honored Confucian exam system was restored (albeit with multiethnic candidates) and an academy of eminent scholars and artists—“The Hall of the Stars”—was meeting among the treasures of the imperial archive in Dadu.

In a Yuan-era Chinese treatise on “literary arts,” the study of Mongol script was included not simply as a shortcut to an official career but in acknowledgment of the Mongol rulers’ gravitation toward ancient Chinese culture: “Today, the civilization of our Princes is so close to antiquity and customs are once again pure.” Even if this was formal flattery, the brief span of these emperors suggested a dawning change, as if foreshadowing Ibn Khaldun’s theory that a sedentary society would at last seduce its conquerors.

In an earlier version of this article, an observation from The Records of the Grand Historian was misattributed to Sima Qian.