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Ages of Conquest: a Kings and Generals Podcast

Feb 3, 2020

Nomadism! It is a term closely  associated with the Mongols and other inner Asian peoples of the vast Eurasian steppe-lands.  Yet what does it entail, specifically? How did it influence Mongolian culture, religion and warfare? We are going to explain this all in detail, hopefully providing you a solid foundation for our forthcoming discussions on the Mongol Empire. I’m your host David and welcome to Ages of Conquest: a Kings and Generals Podcast.  This is the Mongol conquests.


Let us begin with a description from a Chinese writer on peoples from Mongolia, which provides an apt generalization: “The animals they raise consist mainly of horses, cows, and sheep, but include such rare beasts as camels, asses, mules, and the wild horses known as taotu and tuoji. They move about in search of water and pasture and have no walled cities or fixed dwellings, nor do they engage in any kind of agriculture. Their lands, however, are divided into regions under the control of various leaders. They have no writing, and even promises and agreements are only verbal. The little boys start out by learning to ride sheep and shoot birds and rats with a bow and arrow, and when they get a little older they shoot foxes and hares, which are used for food. Thus all the young men are able to use a bow and act as armed cavalry in time of war. It is their custom to herd their flocks in times of peace and make their living by hunting, but in periods of crisis they take up arms and go off on plundering and marauding expeditions. This seems to be their inborn nature. For long-range weapons they use bows and arrows, and swords and spears at close range. If the battle is going well for them they will advance, but if not, they will retreat, for they do not consider it a disgrace to run away. Their only concern is self-advantage, and they know nothing of propriety or righteousness.

    From the chiefs of the tribe on down, everyone eats the meat of the domestic animals and wears clothes of hide or wraps made of felt or fur. The young men eat the richest and best food, while the old get what is left over, since the tribe honours those who are young and strong and despises the weak and aged. On the death of his father, a son will marry his stepmother, and when brothers die, the remaining brothers will take the widows for their own wives. They have no polite  names but only personal names, and they observe no taboos in the use of personal names.”

    Now here’s the thing: that is not a description from the 13th century, but rather, the second century BCE! This is a very famous passage from the Chinese ‘grand historian,’ Sima Qian, a writer from the early Han Dynasty, describing not the Mongols, but the Xiongnu. And everything he says in this excerpt is just as applicable to the Mongols of the 13th century CE as it is to the Xiongnu a thousand years before them, from the animal lists, little boys learning to shoot, everyone acting as armed cavalry to the sons marrying their widowed stepmothers. Pastoral nomadism, which is where people with no fixed abode undergo seasonal or regular migrations with their various herds for fresh pasture, has long been the staple form of subsistence in Mongolia. Even today, about 40% of modern Mongolians still live in this fashion. 


With irregular rainfall in arid summers and long, harsh winters, agriculture has never been extensively practiced in the country, though never totally unknown. Mongolia today is about the size of western Europe: the south of the country towards the low mountain range which divides China proper from the steppe is more arid, made up mostly of the Gobi desert, a mix of sand, scrub brush and gravel. To the east, the Greater Khingan Range separates the Mongol inhabited steppe from Manchuria, and in the west the Altai range serves as the natural barrier splitting the Mongol steppe from the western Eurasian steppe. The north of Mongolia edges onto the forests of eastern Siberia, with the deepest lake in the world Lake Baikal, a rough border between the Mongols and what they called the hoi-yin irgen, the forest people. Between these barriers was a territory of vast grassland, rolling hills and low mountains, rivers and lakes. It is a land greatly suited to pastoral nomadism. It is Mongolia.


    Living out of their felt tents, known in Mongolian as gers or in Turkish as yurts, Mongolian families generally herded a collection of animals known as the ‘five snouts:’ sheep, goats, oxen, camels and the most prestigious, the horse. The ratios of these animals would depend on the region and the conditions, such as those living on or closer to the Gobi desert using greater numbers of camel than those in the far north of the country. Generally, sheep and goats were kept in the greatest numbers, with an ideal herd size being about one thousand head. The sheep provided mutton and the felt so necessary for constructing their gers. Goats provide milk, meat and soft cashmere, while also requiring less water than sheep, making them more desirable in more arid regions. Yet both had to be carefully managed, as they graze grass very close to the ground while the sharp hooves of the goats can damage pastures. Overgrazing had to be carefully avoided, and indeed in modern Mongolia, the expansion of the cashmere industry and resulting growth in goat herds, has led to an increase in desertification in the country. 


    Oxen and bactrian camels were used in smaller numbers, more for hauling than for meat, the camel in particular being too expensive, too useful and their gestation too long at 12 to 14 months for routine slaughtering. The milk from the oxen was utilized, and in more recent centuries oxen have been cross bred with yaks, especially for herders in higher elevations. Horses were exempt from hauling carts and the like: this was the job of the herds of oxen, and dozens could be yoked together to haul the great mobile gers mounted on the backs of carts. The camels could carry loads of 400 pounds or 181 kilos, and pull loads exceeding 900 pounds or 408 kilos. Their famed suitability for dry, arid climate made them a particularly valuable tool for those herders of the Gobi regions, and coats of camel hair were considered a fine gift. 


    But of course, we would be remiss for discussing Mongolian nomadism without mentioning the horse. The Mongol horse today is considered to have changed little since the thirteenth century: a short, sturdy animal, sure footed, with great endurance and physical strength, this is an animal aptly suited to the climate of Mongolia, where large Arab stock breeds even in modern times struggle to survive the often harsh winters. Often inaccurately called ponies, being rarely taller than fourteen hands, or 56 inches at the shoulder, this is a resilient, intelligent animal which was and still is the pride of any herder. 


In a country with few roads even today, the horse is the most reliable tool for crossing the steppe. Aside from transportation, they were the tools which facilitated herding, giving a Mongol herdsman a high vantage point to look over his herd, move among them or chase after separated flocks. In winter, the horses pawed through the snow, allowing access to the winter grazing to keep the other livestock alive. A Mongol would ideally not rely on a single horse, but dozens, for long journeys using remounts rather than tire out an individual mare or gelding, which were preferred over stallions, kept only for reproduction or protecting herds.


    As noted by Sima Qian, Mongols learned to ride early on. In fact, before they could even walk, they were tied to their saddles, building up the requisite balance and endurance for long hours on horseback. This is part of what made them such excellent horse archers: by the time they came of age, they had long developed the ability to maintain themselves in the saddle as if the horse’s legs were their own. While most of these animals provided milk for dairy products, it was mare’s milk which held the highest honour, which when fermented became airag, or the Turkish kumiss. A drink of low alcohol level, it was a delicacy and something which one could drink considerable amounts of. Even a few foreign travelers to the Mongol Empire, such as the Franciscan William of Rubruck, developed quite a taste for it. It was considered a manly thing to drink copious amounts of airag, vomit, and continue drinking more. Something which was fine for the low alcohol content of airag, but would become more of an issue when the Mongols were introduced to the stronger alcohols of the sedentary world, and applied this same practice.


    In modern Mongolia, a herder is considered to be in poverty if he has a herd of less than one hundred animals, seen as a minimum amount needed for eating and replenishing stock after the hard winter. Mongols and other steppe peoples generally did not provide fodder for the animals, at least extensively, relying instead on year round grazing. In the cold winters of Mongolia, this winter grazing can be difficult, and if a dzud event occurs, when periods of freezing and thawing and dropping temperatures leave the grass hidden below layers of ice, thousands upon thousands of animals can die: for that reason, herders could be responsible for hundreds or even thousands of animals. 


Pasture had to be carefully managed: pastoral nomadism is not the ‘aimless wandering’ it can sometimes be presented as, but careful, indeed even strategic, movement of animals to ensure the appropriate pasturage is maintained, not just for that season, but the upcoming winter and also future years. As we’ve mentioned, goats and sheep can crop the grass too close to the root and damage it, while the urine from animals concentrated in an area too long will poison the grass. Winter pastures, where the location is in the shade of mountains, hills and treelines as the only protection against the winter winds had to be left alone during the rest of the year. Different animals require different amounts of water, which can mean different sections of the herd must be fed over vast distances to accomodate what local water sources are nearby, while striving to avoid too much animal manure and urine polluting that water. Flash floods in Mongolia can also be an issue in the spring time, where low country provides no protection for rapidly rising waters: herds and gers too close can be swept away suddenly. On top of all of this, they must also recognize the grazing rights to territory owned by other families, clans and tribes: grazing in someone else's land, and ruining it for them, could lead to retaliatory raids. 


    To successfully do all of this, the Mongols gained exceptional experience in logistics, moving these herds without constant loss of life. The herders themselves grew strong, forced to endure hardship after hardship and lean times. The Mongols were noted by more than a few authors of the period as being able to live off of scraps, drinking blood from the veins of their mares or their milk, and when an animal dropped dead,  devouring every possible part they could, ensuring nothing went to waste. This was a hard life, but it meant that when on campaign, the Mongols could endure that which few other armies could, and allowed them to move over areas which would have been impassable for others, such as the Gobi, Alashan and Kyzylkum deserts. They were not reliant on baggage trains, as much as they were on baggage herds.


    Men and women were expected to be able to do the same work, though there were general divisions in labour. It was necessary that both groups understood how to do the work of the other, especially should one die, or the men be absent while at war, or extra help was needed with particular jobs. To paraphrase historian Timothy May, aside from warfare, the men focused on maintaining the herds and taking them out to pastures, while women gathered local foods, cleaned and processed  food and animals products and maintained the campsites and gers. During the imperial periods, the women and families would take on more significant roles, now responsible for producing and maintaining much of the armaments the men took to war with them. 


Men could take multiple wives provided they had the means to support them. Marriages were arranged and socially, women had fewer restrictions on them than their counterparts in China, Europe and the Islamic world, something often noted to the chagrin of writers from those same regions, though we should be careful not to view this as a precursor to modern notions of gender equality. Women learned how to shoot an arrow from horseback because it was a necessary part of survival, though the cases of female warriors are of some controversy. 


Chinggis Khan himself had a number of women take major roles in his life as advisers, such as his mother Hoelun (ho-e-lun) and chief wife Borte (bort-ee), and for most of the 1240s the Mongol empire was ruled by the widows of Ogedai Khan, and then of his son Guyuk, though no woman ever made the claim to hold the imperial title herself. As mentioned in Sima Qian’s description, sons and brothers could marry their widowed stepmothers or sisters-in-law, known as levirate marriage. This is something which confused many a medieval author, who were forced to refer to a woman as an individual’s wife and mother, as was the case of the Naiman queen Gurbesu and her son-in-law and husband, Tayang Khan! Generally, this helped prevent widows and their young children from becoming abandoned, while also maintaining the political ties this marriage may have established in the first place. 


    In a land of such open space, where one can quite literally see their enemy coming from many kilometres away, it is perhaps no surprise that the bow is such a favoured weapon, both a tool for hunting as a supplement to what meat their herds provided, and as a tool for war. The famed Mongol bow is a composite recurve design. A bow like an English longbow is made from a single strip of wood, a self-bow; whereas a composite bow was made of layers of different materials, generally a wooden core, with sinew on the back and horn on its belly, held together with natural glues. A recurve bow has the ears or siyah, the ends of the bow, curve back away from the archer and putting the whole thing under much greater tension. 


The result was a weapon of marvelous strength, shooting an arrow with far greater energy compared to a self bow of similar poundage. At 130-140 cm long, or 51-55 inches, it was a relatively short bow, making it excellent for use on horseback. Constructing these bows was a long and difficult process, and the final quality would vary depending on the skill of the maker. Arrows were approximately 75-82 cm in length, or 29-32 inches long, the shafts of bamboo, reeds or willow wood with birch nocks. Mongols drew their bows with their thumbs instead of the forefingers, allowing a cleaner draw facilitated by a thumb ring. Unlike European archers, the arrow was nocked on the far side of the bow, placing the string between the archer and his arrow. Arrowheads varied widely, depending on the target, and were made of bone, horn or iron. A well known favourite was the ‘whistling arrows,’ arrows with the horn head hollowed out so that, as it traveled through the air, it produced a distinct whistling noise, serving to signal other units and frighten enemies.


    Mongol children, both boys and girls, learned to shoot from horseback at a very young age. To be a truly proficient horse archer in battle, it is a skill which must be learned from childhood and ingrained to the culture, and this was very much the case for the Mongols. It takes a lifetime of skill to build the muscles necessary to shoot arrows for hours if needed, especially while maintaining the balance to ride a horse at the same time. Numerous medieval authors remark on the accuracy and power of Mongol archers: one Armenian historian of the period, Grigor Aknertsi, went as far as to call them the Nation of Archers! The distance the arrows could go is a matter of some debate, caused by some confusion between maximum distance and maximum effective combat range, which could be significantly less. There is a stone inscription in Mongolia, commemorating an occasion in about 1224, when Chinggis Khan’s nephew Yisungge supposedly sent an arrow roughly 520-535 metres, or 569-585 yards, or over 1700 feet! For that, we must note first that this may be a case of some exaggeration, like a fisherman increasing the size of the fish he caught with each retelling: the noted historian Igor de Rachewiltz suggested the inscription was erected in the 1240s, when Yisungge held more political power, and could have ‘politely suggested’ the increase of an impressive shot to even greater lengths. 


As well, for such long ranges, these were not heavier war arrows being used, but lighter ‘flight arrows,’ designed to go great distances, but would not have as much punch when they landed. Actual range for combat has been suggested to be about 150 meters, about 164 yards, though some authors have suggested as low as 30 meters, or just under 100 feet, would be the preferred range, a ‘sweet spot,’ as it were, between distance while maintaining penetrative power. To penetrate armour, heavier arrows are needed, but heavier arrows cannot fly as far while maintaining their energy, whereas those long distance arrows will lack the weight to go through armour at range. 


It is often said that their animals provided everything the Mongols needed, with even their dung utilized as fuel for fires, known as argal. However, they were not able to gain quite everything they needed from this. While metal forging was undertaken in limited amounts, and blacksmiths were not totally unknown, it was rare, and they would have to rely on trading or raiding to the south to acquire at least the raw materials for this process. Therefore, due to the costs and difficulties involved, things like swords would be very uncommon, instead preferring weapons which used less metal to make and had other uses as tools, like spears, knives and axes. A pot for boiling water and meat had far more utility for the average Mongol than a sword ever would. This interest in material items, such as silks, spices, porcelain and even replenishing livestock herds depleted by war, would be an important component of initial Mongol interests to China and the sedentary world, and we will make further notes on that later. 


While there was interest in the goods of the Chinese, there was much less interest in their lifestyle or civilization. The settled, agricultural life, and hiding behind city walls, made the Mongols think their enemies weak and unable to suffer hardship; there are more than a few examples of Mongols making statements along the lines of ‘where can you go to escape us, hiding in your city walls?’ In the Secret History of the Mongols, when Chinggis Khan suffers a fall from horseback while campaigning against the Tangut, a general remarks that they should withdraw and return after the Khan had healed, saying: 

The Tang’ut people 

are ones who have towns with pounded-earth walls, 

are ones who live in permanent camps. 

They won’t leave, carrying off their towns with

    Pounded-earth walls.”


Culturally, the Mongol tribes shared little with their Chinese neighbours, aside from the obvious differences of nomadic versus settled. The Mongols had no written language, and the languages spoken in Mongolia in the 12th century, Mongolian and Turkic, are completely unrelated to Chinese. In religion, they were very distinct. Whereas the Chinese had ancestor worship, Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism and various sects and combinations thereof, things were rather different in the steppe. Some tribes to the south and west like the Kereyit and Naiman were in fact Nestorian Christians, though ones who still made use of shamans. Named for Nestorius, the Patriarch of Constantinople from 428 to 431, the Church of the East as it is also known were deemed heretics by the Third Ecumenical Council of Ephesus in 431. The adherents had fled to the Sassanid Empire, before being pushed out of there into Central Asia, ultimately coming to contact with the Naiman and Kereyit perhaps around the 10th century. Some Mongolian names were garbled forms of Chirstian names, such as Solomon becoming Shiremun, the name of a grandson of Great Khan Ogedai. 


Outside of the Kereyit and Naiman, most of the tribes would have been shamanist-animists. It was the job of the shaman to act as a healer and mediator between the physical world and the spirit world, interacting with the gods and spirits who inhabited it, or those spirits who had become stuck in the physical world. The most well known of these gods was the sky, heaven, known as Tengri, and Etugen-eke, the earth-mother. The exact nature of Tengri, often called koko mongke Tenggeri, or Eternal Blue Heaven, before the imperial period is not well understood. See, there seems to have been an unintentional anthropomorphization of Tengri, into something a bit more in line of the personal God of the Abrahamic religions. This may not have been by the Mongols themselves, but by Christian and Muslim authors who merely saw Tengri as another name for God or Allah and indeed, there are many cases where Tengri is used as a translation for these terms. 


As the Mongol Empire gradually transformed into a continent spanning geopolitical entity, Tengri transformed to accommodate this: almost every letter sent by the Mongol imperial court opens with ‘by the Will of Eternal Blue Heaven.’ But before the unification of the Mongols, Tengri’s exact nature may have been much less personal. One did not convene with Tengri, at best thanking him for a storm passing by their encampment. Neither was his wrath the sole thing to fear: fire, rivers, mountains all had spirits, and it was the duty of the Mongols and their shamans not to offend them. Knives could not be pushed into a fire; dirty things and humans could not be washed in running water. The spirit world was not like the Christian Heaven were everything was better and an eternal paradise. A person’s status did not change upon death. People of noble blood had more powerful spirits, and while alive that person’s soul was believed to be inside the blood. Therefore, spilling the  blood, especially of nobility or royalty, on the earth outside of battle was not only dishonourable, but a great danger, offending the earth and their spirit could now become stuck to that location. This affected even the Mongolian method of animal slaughter, which sought to spill as little blood as possible, instead knocking the animal unconscious, turning it over and pinching, cutting or crushing the aorta, depending on the animal. This had the advantage of also preserving all of the blood, a useful ingredient for sustaining a hungry herder and his family.


When Chinggis Khan formed his law code, the yassa, many of its promulgations were the enforcement of these taboos, designed to maintain heaven’s fortune for the Mongols. Violating these restrictions could bring natural disaster: thunderstorms and lightning in particular were dreaded, and seen as the wrath of heaven. Mongolia’s geographic position, an inland continental climate of high elevation, helps make these storms particularly severe. And when a man on horseback can literally be the highest thing around for hundreds of kilometres, essentially the only lightning rod, you can understand why it could be such a concern for them.


For the Mongols, life was difficult, and the afterlife would not be any better. Without a strong political authority to maintain order, people would turn quickly to raiding, capturing and stealing women and herds. These turned into rivalries which were slow to be forgotten, leading to retaliatory raids which only brought further retaliation, cementing long grudges. Orphaned children could become burdens upon the small family groups, and as a young boy named Temujin learned in about 1170, they and their hungry siblings could be abandoned. Yet this hard life made the Mongols into hardy warriors, skilled archers and superb horsemen: if a general could come along to mold them into an army, then they could truly be a weapon to be feared.


We hope that you have enjoyed this introduction to Mongolian nomadism: we hope it has given you some insight into the life of these herders, and perhaps some of the cultural factors which influenced Chinggis Khan. In our next episode, will introduce the tribes and politics of twelfth and thirteenth century Mongolia and North China, the political world Chinggis Khan entered into, so be sure to hit subscribe to the Kings and Generals podcast and to continue helping us bring you more outstanding content, please visit our patreon at Thank you for listening, I am your host David and we will catch you on the next one!