The Mongols: Resurrection of the Silk Road, Precursors to Modern Trade

 Map of the Mongol Empire [The extension of the Mongol Empire from 1206 CE to 1294 CE]. (n.d.). Retrieved March 24, 2018, from

Map of the Mongol Empire [The extension of the Mongol Empire from 1206 CE to 1294 CE]. / Image from HistoryOnTheNet

The Mongols were solely responsible in the revival of the Silk Road trade, which collapsed with the fall of the Tang Dynasty.

By Devadevan Thillaikumar / 05.01.2018

The Mongol Empire and Trade

The Mongol empire was the largest empire that spread across a vast swathe of the Eurasian landmass and was the primary military superpower of the 13th to 14th centuries CE. By 1279CE, its furthest extent ranged from modern day Ukraine to the southern tip of modern China which faces the South China Sea (Johnson, 2018). During the Mongol era, Eurasia was changed dramatically in terms of demographics, political sovereignty, military superiority and trade (Johnson, 2018). This dramatic change can be simply summarized into 2 words: Mongolian control.

The impact of military conquests and the subsequent rule by Chinggis (or Genghis) Khan and his successors on the world have been extensively covered and featured by many historical documentaries, movies and in academic textbooks. However, the most important footprints left by the Mongols on the world is trade (Morgan, 2009). The Mongols were solely responsible in the revival of the Silk Road trade, which collapsed with the fall of the Tang Dynasty (Adshead, 2004) in the early 10th century AD. This revival once again linked China to the important cities around the world and culminates to the historical visit by the Venetian explorer/trader, Marco Polo in the 13th Century (Allsen, 2010).

Therefore, the stand of this blog post is the Mongol Empire at its apex revived the Silk Road trade between the East and the West, which set the stage for the evolution of international trade to its current form today. This stand will be explored in 3 separate sections: the brief history of the Silk Road and its fall, the efforts undertaken by the Mongols in the revival of the Silk Road and the importance of this revival in the world that we live in today.

The History of the Silk Road and Its Fall

The route that was popularly known as the “Silk Road” was historically referred by many Chinese merchants and other traders along the central Asian continent as the “Road to Samarkand”. Similarly, Persian traders depended on this land-based trade route for the supply of silk which was a closely guarded secret by the Chinese throughout the centuries. The Silk Road estimated beginning was 103 BCE to being fully developed during the Han Dynasty (206 BCE-221 CE) (Adshead, 2004).

The Silk Road [Route of the Silk Road and the different commodities being traded at their places of origin]. / Map from Traveling Matters

From China, the Silk Road began from Hangzhou and Guangzhou provinces then going northwards to Xian and Dunhuang, out into Lop Nur and Kashgar in central Asia or to Lhasa which then continues towards Northern India (Mathura, Patalipura, Taxila), stretching into the middle east (Samarkand, Rayy, Merv) and into Antioch and finally terminating at Europe where the Roman Republic (which evolved later Roman Empire) was the primary power in that continent (Xinru, 2010). Though this travel route was named after the Silk material produced by the Chinese (major commodity being traded), other products such as Ceramics, Tea, Mint, Wool, Textiles, Jade, Crystals and metal works were also traded along this route (Xinru, 2010).

The Silk Road continued to be the primary trade route even after the collapse of the Han Dynasty and will persist for almost 700 years, where its most stable period was during the Tang Dynasty (618 CE-907 CE). This was due to the territorial reach of the Tang dynasty by 700 CE which stretched towards Central Asia (though well within borders of modern china) which guaranteed protection of traders carrying valuable commodities against raiders and the so-called “barbaric” tribes such as the Turkics (Adshead, 2004).

Tang Dynasty [Furthest reach of the Tang dynasty, circa 700 CE].  / Wikimedia Commons

However, the collapse of the Tang Dynasty directly led to the collapse of the Silk Road for this very reason where the safety of traders was no longer guaranteed. Subsequent Chinese dynasties in the following centuries were not able to or unwilling to give the same protection to the traders along the Silk Road. The Silk Road became inactive for at least the next 4 centuries (Adshead, 2004).

In the beginning of 13th Century AD, this situation will dramatically change when the Mongol horsemen began to be rallied and unified by one of their Chieftains. This Chieftain will christen himself as the first Great Khan of the Mongolians and will lead his people in a conquest of epic proportions. His name is Temujin Borjigin but the world will always remember him as Genghis Khan (“Mongol Empire: Who was Genghis Khan”, 2002).

The Mongol Revival of the Silk Road

Genghis Khan established his empire over Eurasia by the end of the first decade of the 13th century (Lane, 2004). Being the supreme overlord among his fellow Mongolians, he also gained political and military control across the vast lands of Central Asia, effectively linking Europe to China via a long contiguous land empire. With this establishment, trade began to be revived along the Silk Road and began to prosper, exceeding the glory during its days in the Tang dynasty (Beckwith, 2009).

While the trade along the Silk Road may no longer be as relevant in modern times, it was highly prominent during the Mongol era (Xinru, 2010) and even beyond that (subsequent centuries after the death of Genghis Khan) and this prominence was due to the Mongol themselves, through their policies and actions undertaken. This may in fact be the largest ‘footprint’ that the Mongol Empire has left behind in history and also paving the way for large-scale multi-level international trade all around the world (Xinru, 2010).

Marco Polo [Marco Polo, 13th Century Venetian merchant who was famous for introducing or re-introducing Europe to the East.]. /

The Mongol conquest by Genghis Khan involved heavy military action, the subjugation of cities and even the extermination of entire populations (“Mongol Empire Overview- History”, 2002). Genghis Khan was not bloodthirsty but yet he was willing to maintain that reputation as a means to ensure obedience to his rule as well as easy conquest of neighbouring territories. But Genghis Khan was not simply satisfied with military victories, he wanted his newfound empire to be well governed and well controlled. To that end, he divided up his conquered territories and established a series of military governors who had the supreme military as well as political authority over the regions they administered (“Mongol Empire Overview- History”, 2002).

To ensure continued obedience, the Mongols did not overly intervene in the runnings of the day-to-day life of its subjects and allowed for freedoms of religious worships and cultural practices which the mongols explored with fascinated interests (Pederson, Hessl, Baatarbileg, Anchukaitis & Di Cosmo, 2014).  Furthermore, the Mongols established way stations and rest stops throughout the empire, especially along the Silk Road (Allsen, 2010). These stations provided a chain of garrisons from which Mongol soldiers rested and change their sturdy horses and patrolled the empire against potential enemies and raiders (Beckwith, 2009).

These garrisons apart from serving the patrolling Mongol soldiers, had an added benefit for the merchants and traders (Beckwith, 2009). For them these garrisons served as waystations and rest stops from their journeys. Also the proximity of each garrison meant that the travelers had constant protection from raiders and brigands, who usually target these travellers for their valuable goods and invaluable lives (Beckwith, 2009). This protection proved highly effective as not only did incidences of raiding dwindled (together with the raiders themselves) but saw an upsurge of traders and travelers using the Silk Road. This was the beginnings of international trade that was historically unprecedented as travelers far from Europe traveled to the East up to China and vice versa exchanging goods and even philosophical ideas and concepts (Morgan, 2009).

Mongol Warrior of Genghis Khan [A mongol warrior on horseback, preparing a mounted archery shot.]. / Wikimedia Commons

Another major benefit to the revival of Silk Road trade was Pax Mongolica or “Mongol Peace” (Rossabi, 2004). The widespread rule of the Mongols over a large part of Eurasia meant that the local regions were under a unified political system of administration under military governors and this meant stability for many of the communities living there (Lane, 2004). This stability then led to unhindered economic growth and Mongols despite their savagery in warfare, had a fair system of taxation and regulations on products and were content to leave the their conquered communities their own form of economic governance apart from “taking their usual cut” which was not exorbitant or overbearing (Rossabi, 2004).

This allowed flourishing of local economies that meant increase in production of goods which resulted in a stable supply of products that traders can trade with. A prime example can be seen in Samarkand, which was destroyed by the Mongols and then rebuilt with the sole purpose of facilitating trade between the East and the West, “from the northern reaches of the Yellow Sea to the oasis cities in the Taklamakan” (Morgan, 2009).

Conquering the cities of central and East Asia and the Middle East introduced the Mongols to various goods and products and many of which belonging to the luxury category (Morgan, 2009). Among these products Silk was highly prized and even the Mongols realized its value in the realm of international trade. Thus they became the foremost in the advocating global trade, particularly trade in the Silk Road  which they promulgated through a policy of open trade. This policy allowed products from China and Southeastern Asia to make their way into Eastern Europe and the Middle East, and vice versa (Rossabi, 2004).

Siege of China [Digital image]. / Wikimedia Commons

The Mongols actively maintained and protected the trade routes, making it safe for trade relations flowing to and fro the East and the West and they did not engage in practices that hampered trade such as expensive taxation or corruptible behaviors such as bribery (Rossabi, 2004).  In this revived international trade over the Silk Road, its namesake, Silk was no longer the main commodity being traded instead, Spices and gems were exchanged, as well as ideas and technology (Morgan, 2009).

Merchants in the ancient times were despised by society at large (Biran, 2013). They were often seen as ‘parasites’ and  dishonest people, making profits off ‘honest folk’ such as farmers and artisans by re-selling their products at a higher price. The Mongols, however, being nomadic in nature, have always welcomed merchants and traders, as a means to get hard-to-get products they were unable to produce easily themselves.The Mongols by tradition and convention were more suited towards warfare and in the engagement of other professions such as crafting and trading, they were not as enterprising as compared to their counterparts in the Chinese and Muslim worlds (Pederson et al., 2014).

Thus their non-military professions were often in a smaller scale and only catered to within their mongol communities (Pederson et al., 2014). However with their conquests came the desire as well as demand for the myriad of goods that the world had to offer them and since their own traders could not cater to these demands, they turned to foreign traders (Rossabi, 2004). Thus international trade in the 13th Century CE found its most powerful patron, the Mongols.

To attract more traders from around the world to trade with and trade in Mongol Empire, many Mongol governors and officials introduced policies and measures that extremely favorable towards traders and trading (Pederson et al., 2014). For example, traders were given tax exemption, special status, loans, and even a form of passport that guaranteed them safe passage along the Silk Road. Also throughout the Silk Road, trading outposts and way stations were set up to Paper money was also used as currency, backed by precious commodities such as silk and precious metals (Pederson et al., 2014). Thus the Mongolians not only revived the Silk Road but expanded it to new heights, becoming the precursor to the international trade that we today.

The Impact on the Future

The revival of the silk road not only affected trade in Chinese civilizations but the cultural exchange that occurred between china and the west offered mutual benefit and promoted progress between the two (Xinru, 2010). While tangible products like silk, spices and gems were the reason for the creation of one of the world’s first long-distance economic relationships, the transfer of culture and ideas have evidently had the longest lasting effects (“Mongol Trade: Linking East to West- History”, 2002). As the Silk Road was one of the very first connections between Western and Asian cultures, this resulted in the sharing of technology, religion and cultures (Beckwith, 2009). One example of this exchange would be the exchange of what was known as the ‘Chinese Four Great Inventions’; gunpowder, paper-making, these were just some of the history changing technologies that were introduced to the west via the revival of the silk road (Biran, 2013). Among the aforementioned inventions, silk spinning and silkworm breeding were transmitted to the west. This led to increased development and advancement in the world (Xinru, 2010).


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