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How Mongol Was the Mongol Empire?

The gigantic Mongol Empire built by Genghis Khan and his descendants became the largest contiguous empire in the history of the world. At its peak as a unified empire under a single khan, it stretched from China, Korea, and Southeast Asia across all of Central Asia and westward into Russia, Persia and the Middle East. Even after the unified empire fragmented into five rival khanates, they still were ruled by descendants of Genghis khan.

The traditional view of the Mongols' own contribution to the establishment of their empire in the 13th century is that it was essentially military. They were supremely effective cavalrymen, but in other respects were uncouth, even brutal. They had little interest in the active administration of their vast empire, which they were content to leave in the hands of non-Mongols such as the Persians and the Chinese, so long as the tax revenue came in. Recent research has suggested that this impression is in part a result of the nature of much of the surviving source material, and that in fact we have gravely underestimated the Mongols. Their initial conquests were indeed brutal, but thereafter they played a major and active role in both cultural transmission across Eurasia and in the actual government of the territories over which they ruled.

How was it possible for a small number of nomads to build a formidable war machine capable of world conquest and then govern a heterogeneous empire inhabited by peoples of divergent ethnicities, religions, and cultures? Is it appropriate to speak of a “Mongol” empire or was the reality something very different? These are some of the questions to be addressed by David O. Morgan, professor of history at the University of Wisconsin. Professor Morgan is a specialist on the Mongols and the Middle East. His publications include The Mongols (1986), Medieval Persia 1040-1797 (1988), and numerous articles including “The Mongol Empire in World History.”

David Morgan’s lecture at the Athenaeum is jointly sponsored by the Athenaeum, the department of history at CMC, and the Pacific Basin Institute at Pomona College.