The Mongols for the most part have been viewed as violent barbarians, who were responsible for displacing the populations, and changing the face of history through their widespread massacres. This was seen mainly through a plethora of Islamic sources that obscured the legacy of the Mongols through exaggeration and propaganda. However, in recent years scholars have been able to disprove the mentality that ‘they came, they sapped, they burnt, they slew, they plundered, and they departed’.

Scholars have shown how they were able to integrate themselves into the political landscapes of the places they ruled, namely in Iran, Central Asia and China. The language and lexicon used by scholars of the past, who described the Mongols as mindless barbarians, has ceased to dominate scholarly academia, which can be credited to the likes of Charles Melville, George Lane, and Michal Biran, the likes of which will be explored in the course of this article. My aim is to show how the Mongols were a central part of the lands they conquered and were pragmatic when it came to administration, religious tolerance and warfare. The Mongols reinvigorated cross-Eurasian trade, and in the process taxed it, they established close relations between Iran and China and were pioneers of international trade. Attitudes towards the Mongols have changed drastically and here it will be shown how scholars are starting to see the Mongol conquests and their aftermath as beneficial in terms of religious diversity, culture, architecture and a sophisticated administration.

We see through their military conquests how attitudes towards the Mongols have changed. The following evidence will show how there was a rapid sense of exaggeration among historians whether they were Arab, Persian, or Central Asian and when attempting to look closer at these sources, there were common features which were fabricated to make the Mongols look more ferocious than they were.

Before, scholars would emphasise the brutality of the Mongols through their copious use of primary sources from Muslim chroniclers such as the Arab chronicler Ibn al-Athir (1160-1233) who writes: ‘These [Mongols], however, spared none. They killed women, men, children, ripped open the bodies of the pregnant and slaughtered the unborn’. However, it is important to note that this particular quote was written long after the conquests and is reflective of the hatred that many Arab chroniclers had for Mongols due to several attacks on Islamic cities including the siege of Baghdad in 1258. For example, the conquest of Samarqand was not reflective of the stereotypical Mongol who would have devastated everything he saw. The inhabitants of Samarqand surrendered as soon as the Mongols arrived and the Qadis who had 50,000 people under their protection were spared. Contemporaries staying in Samarqand including the Chinese monk Chang Chung (from December 1221) saw how merchandise was being sold in the bazaars, people were returning back to the city and the increase in the production of gardens which ‘not even Chinese gardens could compare to’.

Looking at the lexicon used by contemporaries indicates how they fabricated their narratives. For example, Islamic scholars continually used the numbers four and seven when describing Mongol incursions. It was estimated that 400 troops remained in the city of Nishapur to finish off the mass executions, 70,000 people were slaughtered in Sabzivar and Nisa etc. Contemporaries claimed that two million people were killed in Herat but it has now been proven that this is not possible as it wasn’t big enough to hold that many people.

There was a method to the Mongols’ madness when it came to their military activities which has been emphasised by scholars in recent years. Propaganda was used by the Mongols themselves which actually saved a lot of lives as opposed to causing widespread unrest. For example in Khurasan, craftsmen, artisans and their families were transported to the east ‘to practice their crafts in other parts of the empire’ and Genghiz Khan made sure that the Sufi Master Najm al-Din Kubra would be safely transported out of the city. Although he refused the offer, his disciples were set free and are a reflection of how these so-called ‘barbarians’ were respectful of culture and learning.

It is important to mention how the Mongols themselves contributed to the propaganda that created the image of them as barbarians. For example, Genghiz Khan described himself as ‘the punishment of God’ and was ‘pleased that others perceived him to play this role’. Many scribes both within the Mongol administration as well as those outside it contributed to this negative reputation of the Mongols. ‘And if ye do otherwise [than surrender]. What do we know? God knoweth’. This in effect saved lives, for example, Hulegu was welcomed by the population in Iran in the 1250s.

The notion that the Mongol invaders caused widespread depopulation has been challenged by scholars in recent years. Charles Melville has provided great insight into the state of the societies the Mongols invaded prior to their incursions. Nishapur had already experienced two devastating earthquakes, was severely weakened by the raids of the Turkish Ghuzz tribes (60 years before the Mongols arrived) and was caught in-between violent disputes among the Shafi’i, Shiite and Hanafi factions. The same was for Ray where this ‘violent internecine strife’ between these religious groups meant that only the Shafi’i quarter survived when the Mongols arrived. Yakut talks about how the city was ‘deserted and an empty shell’.

Looking at Baghdad specifically, Hulegu ordered the viziers to rebuild Baghdad and ‘reopen the bazaars’. It is important to note that the collapse of Abbasid rule has direct links to the high frequency of floods that plagued Baghdad and arguably is a reason why Baghdad succumbed quicker than expected. There were major floods in 1255 and 1256 preceding the Mongol invasions. The Mongols were ‘compelled to take measures’ and subsequently rebuilt the canal and the qanat system of underground irrigation which is not reflective of negative contemporary depictions of the Mongols as a ferocious and bloodthirsty entity.

Much work was done in the reigns of Hulegu and Juvaini in rebuilding what was destroyed. In addition, through Mustaufi’s geography we see how the social landscape of Mongol Iran was not depopulated and many places including Isfahan flourished under Mongol-Ilkhanid rule. This shows how the overall attitudes of scholars today demonstrate how the Mongols were not detrimental to the political, social and cultural landscape of the places they conquered but ensured that measures would be taken to rebuild what was destroyed by mostly organic factors that had very little to do with the physical presence of the Mongols (i.e., mostly floods).

Recent scholarly studies have shown how the Mongols had a complex administration which was not reflective of a barbaric nature but more so of their pragmatic and liberal attitude from Genghiz Khan to Hulegu. The Mongols maintained practices of the Steppe but also incorporated Chinese, Persian and Uighur elements into administrative practices.

For example, they used the experience of the Uighurs and also the Kitan who governed Northern China which shows the increase in the employment of Chinese officials from the years 1211-27. Genghiz appointed his adoptive brother; Sigi-Quduqu as the supreme judge who was in charge of judicial matters. We see through the ‘Secret History of the Mongols’ how there was an organised bureaucracy which was made possible and facilitated by the Mongols. Genghiz ordered Quduqu to record everything in the ‘blue book’ for the use of ‘further administration’. Census taking was prominent under the Mongols and was advocated by Genghiz Khan, respectfully carried on by Ogodei and reached its full potential under Mongke.

These censuses had the aim of fixing taxes and levying troops but more importantly, would identify ‘the persons who were experts in scientific and technical knowledge’. This shows how the Mongols were not detrimental to the places they conquered as they employed people who would provide a service for the empire regardless of their past affiliations and beliefs. Mongke established centralising administrative structures and incorporated methods from different cultures. This included the Mongol Amir Arghun Aga who had knowledge of the Uighur script and collected taxes in the territories under his control. Furthermore, many Persians were an integral part of the Mongol administration. Namely, the ‘Men of the Pen’ (Divanists) who were ‘acquainted with administrative procedures’. They were able to supply officials to the Mongol administration, built contacts with Ogodei and travelled to Mongolia showing how close-knit their relationships were and how in effect, a dual-administrative system was being upheld which will be explored.

In Mongol Iran especially, scholars in recent years have emphasised how there was a dual-administrative system where the administrators were both made up of staff of local origin and Mongols. This shows how the Mongols were not alien to the societies they ruled, and were able to work hand in hand with people from different ethnic groups which goes against the traditional notion that the Mongols were just a group who, ‘when the steppe pastoralist did invade the settled world, he looted and destroyed as much as his heart desired’.

In the tributary states, the Mongols exercised administrative control through the Darughachi. These collected taxes and tribute, acted as a supervisory to the personnel who were controlling local dynasties and were an effective surveillance who maintained control and stability. The Mongols through their advocacy of international trade promoted intercultural exchange. The Mongols in recent years have been renowned for their consolidation of trade. Under the Mongols, there was an increase in the demand for precious metals, gems and cloth. Furthermore, the land routes flourished under the Mongols, namely the Pax-Mongolica which led to continuous movement of peoples, goods, and ideas which again contributed to a dual-administrative system. This enabled for example, Persian astronomers to arrive in Yuan ‘as the Mongols wanted a second opinion on the reading of heaven’s portents’.

When looking at the Mongol empire broadly, the top administrators were Chinese, Persian, Uighur, Armenian, European and Turkish as well as Mongol. This demonstrates the meritocratic nature of the Mongol administration; based on merit as opposed to ethnicity or religion. Ultimately, trade was facilitated by the Mongols which enabled architectural developments under their rule, influenced by both Persian and Chinese styles.

In recent years, scholars have demonstrated how the Mongols were men of culture and sophistication. We see how Mongol rulers were concerned with their appearance as a people and empire and how this subsequently played out in the architecture and the preservation of cultural centres of the conquered lands.

In recent years, historians such as George Lane have emphasised the willingness of the Mongols to insert themselves into the landscape of the places they conquered by building their own cities. According to Rashid Al-Din, Genghiz Khan ‘wanted a world distant from the frugality and coarseness of the steppe in which he grew up’. He did this by improving the image of his courts where public debates were held including 12 idol temples of unspecified religions including mosques and churches. Rashid Al-Din claimed that the Khan Ogodei was told that Baghdad was the most beautiful city. In retaliation to this, he ordered that ‘a city be built to outshine it’ namely, the city of Qaraqorum. This became their new capital and we see the centralizing elements that the Mongols had, for example, a third of the city was occupied by the bureaucracy and included scribes and translators from all conquered lands showing how the ‘globalised’ nature of the Mongol empire was in effect.

Furthermore, we see how this diversity meant religions could flourish where there were places of worship for Taoists, Buddhists, Christians, Muslims and many others which will be explored later. Under the Mongol Ilkhanids, Maragreh became an internationally renowned ‘intellectual metropolis’. For example it was due to the Mongols’ pragmatic nature that Nasir al-Din Tusi’s University in Maragheh survived and flourished. Bar Hebraeus used the libraries around Iran, ‘stocked from the ruins of Baghdad, Alamut and other conquered cultural centres to research his own acclaimed studies’. This disproves the now defunct notion of traditional scholars that the Mongols had no respect for culture and destroyed the libraries and everything in them.

Primary sources of contemporaries like Clavijo the Spanish ambassador to Persia show how enthusiastic they were with, “’fine roadways with open spaces … many great buildings and horses … market streets where goods of all kinds are sold … an immense concourse of merchants and merchandise’. In Mongol China, many palaces and gardens were built by Qubilai Khan and Marco Polo was very impressed with the architectural innovations that were taking place under the Mongols. Primary sources also show the colourful nature of the buildings e.g., the roofs were ‘painted in vermilion, green, azure, blue, and yellow’ and ‘shone in the sun like jewels’. Also, Kaiping which was 125 km north of Beijing and built on the edges of the steppe acted as a major urban centre for the Mongols. It was here that they adopted Chinese urban styles and this was reflective of the ruler’s need to demonstrate that he was in fact a ruler as opposed to a conqueror.

In recent years, scholars have started to emphasise the religious and cultural tolerance of the Mongols and how this enabled the arts to thrive under Mongol rule. Drug and medicinal innovations were advocated by the Mongols. Trade meant that rhubarb travelled from China into Iran, the physicians of West Asia introduced new medicinal techniques to those living in the East ‘through the agency of Mongol courts’ who ultimately facilitated this and enabled this to happen.

Rashid al-Din and the statesman Bolad encouraged and enabled the exchange of medicinal knowledge which is why we see a large number of medicinal books circulating between China and Iran during this period. Furthermore, painting thrived under the conquered lands of the Mongols. In the same period we see how Muslim arts were becoming widespread with innovations in textiles, performing arts, cuisines and science.

The Mongols organised schools for language training, encouraged translation and funded compilations of multi-lingual vocabulary due to the fact that they used several languages and scripts in the management of the empire. In Mongol Iran especially, a famous learning center was established around 1260 in the capital Maragheh and attracted many scholars from around the world where they came to see the observatory built for Nasir al-Din al-Tusi (a Persian scientist and astronomer).

Religion under the Mongols shows how tolerant they were and in short, not barbaric. Islamic judges, clerics, Christian priests, and Buddhist monks were exempt from all forms of taxation and did not have to participate in forced labour. Also, this tolerance was reflective throughout the reign of the Empire. For example, Hulegu in the siege of Baghdad ensured that the priests, clerics and sheikhs of various groups would be granted safe passage. This included the Sayyids, Danishmands and Erke’un (Christian priests).

Tabrizi poets flourished under Ghazan Khan (1295-1304) in Tabriz where their mosque, madrassas and ‘khāngāh’ were all built by the Khan himself. This ultimately is reflective of the multicultural diversity of the Mongol empire and Biran and George Lane have shown us how the Mongols were ardent admirers of knowledge, the arts and religion.

In conclusion, the attitudes towards the Mongols in recent years have changed drastically where there is now more emphasis on the Mongols’ pragmatic side. There is no doubt that massacres occurred, but the deaths and casualties along the way were widely exaggerated for propaganda purposes. Even the Mongols themselves knew that by presenting the image that they were ruthless barbarians, populations would not dare stand up to their might. This tactic worked. Furthermore, the Mongols instigated long-term development on the lands they conquered and were able to integrate themselves into the political, cultural, religious and social landscape of these places.

Scholars today emphasize how the Mongols did not just sweep into these lands, loot everything and then leave but facilitated trade which meant that goods as well as ideas and people could interact with each other, internationally. Charles Melville was able to show how the contemporary sources of the deaths during the Mongol invasions were exaggerated and how destruction and depopulation was not irreversible. George Lane by focusing on the everyday lives of the Mongols showed how they were a people of culture, interested in the arts, had a central administrative structure and facilitated architectural designs using both Persian and Chinese influences which shows how they assimilated into others’ cultures whilst retaining many elements of their own steppe tradition.