Mongols. Few conquering peoples have excited such fear, trepidation, vilification – and, according to the French historian Marie Favereau, such a thorough misunderstanding. In The Horde, an ambitiously revisionist account of the Mongol Empire, Favereau presents the thirteenth- and fourteenth-century conquerors of the steppe as sophisticated stewards of globalism, rulers who practiced remarkable tolerance and stimulated far-reaching economic growth.

At the heart of this book is the idea of a “Mongol exchange”: the confluence of people, commodities, and ideas which rivalled only the Columbian exchange – the fifteenth- and sixteenth-century encounter between Europe and the New World – in historical significance.

The scale of Mongol conquest is awe-inspiring. Beginning under Genghis Khan in the early 1200s, this nomadic people broke out of their sub-Siberian homelands to overrun much of the known world. In the east, they subjugated China and Korea. To the south, they decimated the Islamic powers of the West Asia, Transoxiana, and Iran; their horsemen even reached the vicinity of Lahore. Much of Eastern Europe fell under their sway while to the north Mongol scouts might have encountered the ice floes of the Arctic Ocean.

What explains such rapid and expansive empire-building? Favereau disputes the idea of a Mongol “Manifest Destiny” – that Genghis Khan had ambitions of global conquest and the subjugation of sedentary civilisations. Turning this thesis on its head, she instead points to Mongol pursuit of rebellious fellow nomadic peoples, like the Qipchaqs, who fled across the grasslands of Central Asia to seek refuge ever westward, imploring Russians for protection and then the Hungarians.

“The conquests of China, Iran, and Russia were side effects of a nomad-on-nomad war in which sedentary powers interfered,” Favereau explains. Lightning quick Mongol advances soon made clear to many a sedentary ruler that interference had been a fatal miscalculation.

Secrets of their success

The Horde focuses on the westernmost component of the Mongol-dominated world. Here, the Jochids (also known as the Golden Horde), descendants of Genghis Khan’s son Jochi, established sway over territory including much of modern-day Bulgaria, Romania, Moldova, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Russia west of the Yenisey River. At first glance, it might seem that the Jochids received short shrift amongst Genghis’s heirs: they did not have the wealth of China, which was under the control of the great khan, nor could they stake claim to the vibrant trading hubs of the Middle East, Iran, and Transoxiana, which were in the hands of the Ilkhanids and Chagatayids.

Yet the Jochids established the longest lasting and most economically dynamic component of the Mongol Empire. How did they do this? Favereau offers several explanations. First, the Mongols created sophisticated political institutions. They regularly met in quriltais or assemblies where even high-ranking women participated in the affairs of state. Social order, redistribution of wealth, and communal sharing of resources were guiding Mongol principles.

Second, they were unusually tolerant rulers, making minimal interference into local customs and welcoming people of all faiths and backgrounds to settle in their territories. A Franciscan friar thus commented that the Jochids “could not care less to what religion someone belongs as long as he performs the required services, pays tributes and taxes and satisfies his military obligations according to their laws.”

Last, the Jochids were remarkable economic administrators. They pursued policies to deliberately enhance trade revenues: the establishment of cities, markets, and communication networks coupled with low rates of taxation and guarantees of security along trade routes. This turned Jochid territory, centered on the grasslands of the Volga-Don region, into a dazzlingly cosmopolitan commercial nexus. Genoese, Venetians, Jews, Greeks, Armenians, Russians, Central Asians, and Arabs rubbed shoulders in towns and port cities which serviced everywhere from Western Europe to China.

Once the Jochids embraced Islam, they cultivated lucrative West Asian economic alliances which enabled merchants to “navigate from the Volga to the Nile.” The peace and order which the Mongols brought to Eastern Europe and West Asia, Favereau contends, undergirded a vast integrated market involving Hanseatic ports, Italian city states, Constantinople, and the flourishing cities of the Islamic world.

The Mongol exchange

One of the most fascinating features of Mongol rule was how they utilised the steppe. For sedentary civilisations bordering on Central Asia – like China, Iran, or Russia – the steppe had been a menacing threat, an indefensible border and the source of nomadic incursions. Mongols, in contrast, made the steppe into a premodern superhighway of sorts. Across the horizonless grasslands, they established postal stations for a system of rapid communication.

The Jochids, who maintained their nomadic lifestyles in spite of the booming cities in their territories, relied upon frozen steppe rivers as north-south migration routes or camp sites. And, most importantly, the steppe became the fast route for trade between Europe, Central Asia, and East Asia.

This was the Mongol exchange: a moment when relative peace, infrastructural development, and a mostly uniform monetary system enabled economic horizons to wildly expand. Jochid territory included the “northern road,” one of the main overland routes of the Silk Road, which extended from the Danube plains to the hinterlands of modern Beijing. This route was “one of the keys to Jochid power” due to its global commercial importance.

Along this route, and another path deep in the Siberian taiga, merchants ferried furs, silks, and other luxury goods from one end of the known world to the other. Importantly, traders recognised that this network depended upon Mongol rule and administration.

According to Favereau, this was the premodern world’s most significant exchange of goods, people, and ideas (the Silk Road was utilised by religious itinerants as well). In fact, Favereau believes that the Columbian exchange “should be seen in part as a legacy of the Mongolian exchange,” since European explorers like Columbus were seeking out alternate routes eastward to the ones the Mongols had earlier commanded.

The end and the legacy

Unfortunately, one other thing flourished in the Mongol exchange: Black Death. Favereau believes that “Mongols were at least partially responsible for the spread of the plague” in the mid-fourteenth century, a pandemic which makes today’s Covid-19 crisis absolutely pale in comparison. Essentially, Mongol empire-building disturbed the natural environment of Yersina pestis, the bacterium which causes the plague, while Mongol-facilitated trade enabled its spread.

The Mongols’ deep involvement in the fur trade was particularly at fault: they hunted marmots, facilitating human contact with flea-infested animals carrying Y pestis, and then went after their predators, leading to exploding populations of marmots and other rodents. Inside Jochid trade networks, plague was quickly transmitted via grain shipments to European centers such as Genoa and Venice. Like today, globalism’s downsides could be traced through disease vectors.

The Black Death was a hammer blow to Jochid dominance. A far more serious setback was the internecine warfare that increasingly consumed Mongols, a product of bloody succession battles (like their distant heirs, the Mughals in India, Jochid rulers regularly committed fratricide to eliminate possible rivals).

Common historical narratives place the end of Jochid dominance around the 1400s, but here again, Favereau offers a revisionist alternative. While Jochid power might have splintered, successor states, including Russia, adopted Mongol institutions and notions of legitimacy (a similar process occurred in India after the ebbing of Mughal political authority).

In fact, Favereau believes that it is impossible to imagine modern Russia without Mongol influence: the Jochids shifted the center of Russian authority away from Kiev and towards an unassuming town in the north, Moscow. Moscow’s ruling princes, in turn, worked with Jochid successors as they built up a consolidated Russian empire.

Perhaps The Horde’s greatest contribution is this: helping us reevaluate our notions of what makes for a sophisticated civilisation. As a migratory people, the Mongols were constantly on horseback – they even had portable churches and mosques. Yet nomadism, Favereau tells us, did not preclude complex empire building. As nomads, the Mongols were perhaps more inclined than sedentary powers to be flexible and assimilative when dealing with their subject peoples.

“Pastoralism is not a primitive stage on the path to modernisation,” Favereau concludes. “Pastoralism is a different choice, one that enabled the Jochids to fashion a unique imperial entity that mimicked no sedentary model.” If, indeed, the Mongols presided over a significant precursor to modern globalism, then we must see the wide-open steppe as an important stage and facilitator for the creation of today’s political and economic order.

The Horde: How the Mongols Changed the World

The Horde: How the Mongols Changed the World, Marie Favereau, Harvard University Press.