Very rarely is the first thought regarding the Mongols anything but the stereotypical barbarian images that have become popular. The Mongols are generally perceived to be a savage people that devastated Asia and Eastern Europe, massacring hundreds of thousands of people and territories in their conquest (Rossabi 1). Unfortunately most of the primary sources regarding the Mongols depict negative images, because they were written by those who were conquered by the Mongols. The Mongol side of the story is rarely told (Rossabi 2), thus it is important to compare and contrast each source in an attempt to truly understand the Mongol people.
When comparing Grigor of Akanc’s “History of the Nation of Archers”, Marco Polo’s “The Description of the World”, and an unknown author’s “The Secret History of the Mongols” a comprehensive account of the Mongol’s is given. These authors provide readers with information that portrays the Mongols both positively and negatively. This is due to the fact that these authors had different encounters with the Mongols, or none at all.
By looking into accounts written by those who had varying opinions of the Mongols one is able to obtain a broader understanding of the Mongols.
In Grigor of Akanc’s “History of the Nation of Archers” the reader is given insight into how the Mongols were viewed by those who never actually interacted with them. Grigor was born around 1280 (Bedrosian), and yet his accounts of the Mongols spanned from 1230 to 1270, so he could never have actually witnessed any of the events he wrote about (Rossabi 25). Grigor’s sources for his information were often oral accounts provided by Armenian visitors to the Akner Monastery (Bedrosian). He often confused fact with myth, and this is obvious in his “History of the Nation of Archers” (Rossabi 25).
When describing the Mongols, he describes them as being “terrible to look at and indescribable, with large heads like a buffalo’s, narrow eyes like a fledgling’s, a snub nose like a cat’s, projecting snout like a dog’s, narrow loins like an ant’s, short legs like a hog’s, and by nature with no beards at all” (25). His account of the Mongol appearance is almost like that of a ghost story told around a camp fire; “They appear where least expected…they give birth to children like snakes and eat like wolves…death does not appear among them, they survive 300 years” (25).
His description elicits fear by portraying the Mongols as not like men, but animal like in every way. In Grigor’s depiction of the execution of the Caliph of Baghdad his portrayal of the Mongol Kahn, Hulawu is actually quite positive. He describes the Kahn as “very good, loving the Christians, the church, and priests” (99). He continues to say “Hulawu Tan himself was of a great mind and great soul, just, and quite learned. He was a great shedder of blood, but he slew only the wicked and his enemies, not the good or the righteous” (100).
While Grigor provides such a positive portrayal of Hulawu here, also included in this text is an example of the brutality of the Mongols, explaining how they slaughtered and imprisoned the people of Baghdad mercilessly. Hulawu then imprisoned the Caliph with no food or water for three days and then had him killed. Hulawu also sent 2,000 pigs to the Arabs along with detailed instructions on how the pigs were going to be cared for and proclaimed that each man who did not eat the flesh of swine was decapitated (100).
Marco Polo, unlike Grigor, is believed to have reached China and therefore been witness to his depictions of the Mongols. While he may have witnessed some of the things he writes about, he was seen as gullible and accepting of local myths and legends, so his accounts must be read with scrutiny (Rossabi 101). In comparison to Grigor’s “History of the Nation of Archers” Marco Polo’s “The Description of the World” provides a much more positive description of the Mongols. In his writing about the Order of Assassins, it appears as though Marco Polo is in awe.
He gives an elaborate description of what he calls the most beautiful garden in the world. He goes into great detail of the garden made to resemble the paradise men would go to when they died that Mahomet spoke of to the Saracens. The garden was filled with “an abundance of delight” where fountains ran with wine, honey, milk, and the clearest water (102). While this garden was intended to be somewhat of a heaven on earth, it only served this purpose for those who were to be Assassins.
Men would be given opium and while they slept they would be brought to the garden they would awake thinking they had died and gone to the place Mahomet spoke of (Marco Polo 103). It was here that men would be made into bold murderers or swordsmen to kill whoever Alaodin desired (Marco Polo 101). Despite any tales of Mongol greatness, violence remains a theme in their lives. Marco Polo also gives insight into how some of the Mongol Kahn’s accepted the cultural practices of the people they conquered.
When he tells of the Province of Camul he describes a culture in which the people would give their wives as gifts to strangers who were passing through. The strangers would stay in the homes of men with their wives and daughters who they would often share beds with. While Mongu the great Kahn saw this as shameful practice and immediately, the people saw the custom as an honor (Marco Polo 152-153). The people suspended the custom as Mongu wished, but appealed to him that they did not know any other way to live. To this Mongu replied, “for my part I have done my duty; but since you wish your shame and contempt so much, then you may have it.
Go and live according to your customs, and make your wives a charitable gift to travelers” (Marco Polo 154-144). This account of the Mongol’s shows their willingness to allow areas they conquered to continue to live according to their customs. It appears as though they did not intend to rule the people, but to simply gain wealth through their conquest. “The Secret History of the Mongols” is the largest and most significant original Mongol work of the 13th century, however only a Chinese translation remains and many of the speeches in the text were not witnessed.
The exact date of the work, its original title, form, and authorship are still debated, so it is difficult to assess whether or not biases influenced the writing (Cleaves and Kahn 729). While this writing often depicts Genghis in a heroic light, Mongol leaders’ faults and misconducts are still exposed (Rossabi 43). In this text the reader learns of Genghis Kahn as a child. The text begins with the story of how Genghis lost his father, was abandoned by his people, and ultimately became a great ruler.
Childlike qualities are given to Genghis, as he cries when Todogen dies and the mention of his fear of dogs (The Secret History of the Mongols 48). As he gets older more of his brutality is brought to light when he murders his own brother (50). This text also portrays the loyalty and honor of Genghis as a ruler. This is shown when he has Jamugha, his estranged anda captured. He tries to make amends with Jamugha and form an alliance again, however Jamugha refuses. Jamugha believes that he will never be as good as Genghis and there is no reason for him to be his ally.
At Jamugha’s request Genghis has him killed: “Execute Jamugha without shedding his blood and burry his bones with all due honor” (55-59). This is yet another text that portrays the Mongols in a positive light as relatively understanding people, while at the same time exemplifying their brutality. All three authors provide accounts of the Mongols that portray a violent and often brutal people, and yet at the same time they are shown to be somewhat understanding. With all three authors providing the same contrasting view, it is fair to assume there is some truth to all accounts.
By comparing these three authors, Historians are given an account that is written by someone who witnessed nothing of which he wrote, someone who is believed to have reached his destination to witness his accounts, and an unknown author that is an original Mongol text. Each account must be taken with scrutiny, as they all have their weaknesses. Grigor was only told of the accounts he wrote, so he may have unknowingly perpetuated biases. Marco Polo over exaggerated his importance and was gullible to myths, so he may have altered the truth to fit his needs.
While “The Secret History of the Mongols” it written by Mongols, only a Chinese translation remains. Not only could this text include Mongol biases, but the Chinese translator could have changed some of the text. The origin of the source is always crucial to its reliability. It appears these texts provide a comprehensive understanding of the Mongol people, both their good qualities and bad. Unfortunately each author possesses their own separate interests or ignorance to the actual events; therefore it is difficult to know what in Mongol’s history is fact and what is fiction.
Cite this Mongolian History; the Good, the Bad, the Fact, the Fiction Essay
Mongolian History; the Good, the Bad, the Fact, the Fiction Essay. (2017, Jan 10). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/mongolian-history-the-good-the-bad-the-fact-the-fiction/