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The Myth of The Cruel Mongol

Author: Abhijit Iyer-Mitra
Publication: Swarajyamag.com
Date: January 14, 2018
URL:   https://swarajyamag.com/politics/the-myth-of-the-cruel-mongol

As the latest left-wing story goes, we're meant to believe that Alauddin Khilji was somehow "better" than the Mongols he fought. A whole propagandist genre has emerged with apologias claiming that as bad as Alauddin was, he saved India from something far worse. While victim Olympics are the forte of liberals, comparative histories are always precarious. Are we, for example, to say that Hitler was better for Germany than Stalin, simply because he defended Germany from Stalin? Or was Stalin better for Russia than Hitler even though Stalin ended up killing far more Russians than the Germans did. As this article will attempt to show this "Alauddin was better than the Mongols" thesis is complete codswallop, based on a highly selective reading of history, acute confirmation bias, single source atrocity literature review, and whitewashing of several schools of Russian thought in favour of the preferred Europeanist and Marxist interpretation.

Let us for starters accept the leftist contention that there was no "India" till the British unified us into a national consciousness. If that were indeed the case then the contention that Alauddin saved "us" or "India" is bogus as there was no "us" or "India" at the time - just one rapacious feudal class oppressor sultan, whose only identities were ethnic and religious, who hated the majority of his subjects and was hated by them, protecting his fiefdom from another. However, where we must assess Alauddin being "better" than the Mongols against, are some hard parameters of what constitutes "better" and what exactly constitutes "Mongol", "brutality" or "worse".

My contention is that Mongol rule was equal to, or in some cases, better than than the rule of the Delhi Sultanate. The categories for analysing this are:

1) chronology (which Mongols and what period of the Mongol conquests are we talking about)

2) deaths (did the original feared Mongols kill as many people as is claimed)

3) the economy (did the Mongols have a positive or negative effect on the economies of the regions they ruled) and finally, most importantly from an Indian point of view,

4) secularism (did the Mongols exercise religious bigotry and tailor governance around this)


The first issue that crops up in defining Alauddin's campaign against the Mongols is, which "Mongols" are we talking about? Curiously, what bogus historians do is transpose atrocity literature from 1258 and earlier - during the conquests of the Khagans Genghis and Batu, and Khan Hulagu to a post stabilisation, post fragmentation period of the Mongol Empire forty years later. This is problematic for several reasons.

First, the expansion phase of any empire is its most violent phase, mostly because it is changing a status quo. That expansion happens, as Ian Morris and Yuval Harrari explain, in order to monopolise resources, and results in "caging" or a move from a nomadic lifestyle to a sedentary life of agricultural surpluses and trade. The effects on warfare of such sedentarism can be quite profound, because as military historian John Keegan points out, the rewards expected also change - from plunder to produce. He shows how the slaying of animals on a regular basis and small tribe sizes with less labour specialisation mean, that all members of the tribe take part in the culling of animals, which consequently makes them less squeamish about killing. Surpluses here are gained by plunder, and a lack of killing inhibition combined with plundering make for a particularly cruel combinations.

As sedentarism sets in, the reward is not so much plunder, as there is far more money to be made in trade and agriculture. This means that instead of wholesale depopulation, the focus shifts to punishment to ensure dues. This is the phase that started from the 1220s onwards in which the Mongol conquests were about grabbing land. The siege of Baghdad in 1258 can be seen as the culmination of this process. Jack Wetherford, similarly listing the sources, finds it hard to gather much atrocity literature after this initial period. The sedentarisation of the Mongols happens rapidly, within 20-50 years, depending on the branch we are talking about. In case of the Chagatai (the Khanate being discussed with regards to Alauddin Khilji) it was Duwa Khan's father - Ghiasuddin Baraq, who sedentarised the horde settling on a capital at Qarshi and replacing the traditional Mongol Yassa law with validation by the Ulema. His predecessor Mubarak Shah had converted to Islam, but had retained Yassa Law.

This is why most of the atrocity literature and actual proof of large scale depopulation ends by the 1250s, Baghdad being the final expression. By 1280, all indications - literary or archaeological, are of a return to normal patterns of war in Central Asia.

The question of self-identification at this stage in the evolution of the Mongol identity is an important one as one must examine what the Chagatai Khanate identified itself as at this point? Mongol or Muslim? We really do not know, though the competition between Yassa Law and Islamic jurisprudence is an important marker.

However, we can extrapolate from what was happening to the "Mongol" identity elsewhere.

The Toluid civil war was largely fought on the issue of Khagan Kublai going "native", becoming too sedentary and too Chinese, according to his younger brother, Ariq Boqe. Similarly, when Hulagu Khan of the Golden Horde sacked Baghdad in 1258, his cousin, the Khan of the Golden Horde - Berke, a Muslim, was so filled with religious indignation at the killing of his Caliph that he promptly allied with the Mamluk Sultanate in Egypt against Hulagu. Again, surprisingly, Hulagu was a Nestorian Christian who had a deathbed conversion to Buddhism. The General Qitbuqa, who commanded his forces at the disastrous battle of Ain Jalut in 1260, was also a Christian. At Ain Jalut, the Mongol's allies were Christian Georgians and Armenians, and yet Ain Jalut was not seen as a Christian on Muslim war, surprising given the Crusades were ongoing. Hulagu's general, who commanded the siege of Baghdad in 1258 and became its first governor was Guo Kan, a Chinese Han, variously described as Taoist or Buddhist.

The Mamluk Sultanate of Egypt itself was a complex study in identity at this time as it identified itself as "Turkey", but the ruling class prioritised the Islamic identity to create unity among a Turkic slave ruling class, comprising a plethora of Turkish sub-national identities. What we know for a fact is that they at no point identified themselves as Arabs - a huge point of contention with the modern Arab appropriation of Kurds like Salahaddin. This was almost exactly the same as Alauddin Khilji himself, identifying as a Turk and a Muslim and not as an Indian. In fact, the Turko-Mongol identity itself was a mixed one - both occupying similar territory, worshipping the same gods, and intermarrying freely. The Turkic content of Mongol armies simply bloated as the Mongols absorbed the western Turkic tribes. To rephrase the Cold war quip about the space race "our Germans versus your Germans" - this was, by the 1250s, a case of "your Turks versus our Turks".

All of this brings us to two conclusions - first that Mongol warfare patterns had by 1280s and definitely 1290s shifted decisively to standardised Central Asian forms. Brutal, but nowhere near as cataclysmic as the forms of warfare practiced elsewhere. Moreover, the use of the word "Mongols" by this point is equally superfluous given how mixed the Turko-Mongol identity had become.

In short, Alauddin Khilji and Duwa Khan practiced the exact same patterns of warfare, driven by the almost the exact same economic impulses, which were very different from the early impulses of the Mongols a mere 50-70 years prior. The major difference was that Alauddin was not able to stabilise his empire even to the rudimentary extent that the Mongols had. As a result, his reign - unlike the sedentary Mongols of the time - was a reign of perpetual war, running in effect a garrison state. Equally, the Turk versus Mongol narrative is deeply problematic from the 1250s onwards due to the free intermingling of populations and the complex identity crises emerging in Central Asia and the fragmented Mongol empire. It is probably a testament to the fact that the prominent Indian atrocity literature of this period refers not to the atrocities perpetrated by the Chagatai Khanate in its invasions of India, but rather the slaughter of Mongols settled in India by Alauddin for their perceived disloyalty. The time to compare "Genghis Style" Mongol tactics - against those of Turkic Sultans in India ends well and truly during the reigns of Iltutmish to Nasiruddin Mehmud (Balban's predecessor). Comparing these two periods is as absurd as saying "The Mughals - Babur being a direct descendent of Duwa Khan - were far worse than the Lodis, because of what Genghis and Batu did".


This then leads to the second issue - did the unified Mongol Khaganate, in the initial stages, from Genghis to Mongke, indeed kill off as many people as we are led to believe? Here is where things start getting really interesting. For it is at this point that facts on the ground start to diverge from censuses and economic growth.

For clarity's sake we therefore need to separate the 4 main geographies of Mongol Conquest: Central Asia, China, Khwarezmi Persia, and Kievan Rus. Central Asia is the one conquest we know the least about as these lands were mostly nomadic or semi-nomadic at the time, and we have no literary records of them. What we do know however, is that all of Genghis' sons took Turkic wives, two of whom - Torgene and Sorghaghtani - were elevated to the position of Great Khatun (empress) of the Mongol Khaganate. Torgene Khatun was of the Kazhak Turkic, Naiman tribe, while Sorghaghtani Beki was of the Turkic Kerait tribe, also placed roughly within modern Kazakhstan. The history of this region, starting with the great Gokturk Khanate, also shows a significant commonality and amongst whom intermarriage was common. At any rate there is no conclusive literature on how the Turks were absorbed into the Mongol empire.

The second conquest was of China. What is curious is the Chinese demographics of this period. As per J D Durand, while Chinese censuses are very hard to interpret, the last Song Census in 1223 shows a total population of around 28 million, while the first Yuan (Mongol) census of 1290 shows a population of around 58 million. This, given the Song controlled the most fertile and populous regions of China that accounted for about 60 per cent of Yuan China's population. Going by available Chinese censuses themselves - important because they were the unit of tax collection - the depopulation thesis simply cannot be supported. Equally important are the traveller accounts of China during this period - notably that of Marco Polo, that do not support the telltale signs of depopulation. Indeed, the intra-Ming period population drop from the 1381 census indicating a population of around 60 million, to the 1450 census indicating a population of 53 million over a similar 70 year gap seems far more calamitous.

The third conquest was Khwarezmi Persia. This, almost without doubt, constituted a cataclysmic genocide, and the way Genghis chased the Khwarezmi Sultan around till he died in penury, reeks of personal malice. There was a reason for this - as the Sultan first killed off a Mongol trade party and then executed the ambassadors Genghis sent. John Man estimates a fatality figure of 1.25 million or around 25 per cent of the population, but at any rate the population of Persia did not reach pre-1220 levels till the late 1700s. What is important to note here however, is that percentage-wise, the population killed is not particularly salient. Julius Caesar's Gaulish campaign, by his own admission in Bello Gallico, killed of a million people in the years 58 to 50 BC also averaging 25 per cent of the population. Specific tribes like the Helvetii bore a much higher toll with about 70 per cent of their population being wiped out. His other campaigns in Egypt and Spain did not have such high fatality figures, singling out Gaul as as a punitive conquest, much like the Mongol campaign against Khwarezmia and quite unlike the Mongol conquests of Russia and China.

Finally we have the conquest of Russia. Again going by B. T. Urlanis' figures (estimates, not from a census like in China) we have a period of population stagnation with Russia stuck at roughly 11 million during the 1200 to 1300 period.

Now, should we take the 1300s when Khilji is alleged to have showered his benevolence on India and protected us from the Mongols, we are faced with a large scale plague across the empire. Curiously, the Mongol empire actually made the transmission of this plague from east to west possible due to massively increased trade. George Sussman, for example, estimates that China lost a full 25 to 30 per cent of its population to the bubonic plague, compared to between 30 to 60 per cent of the population in Europe during the same period. Now, some papers, for example, claim that Mongol invasions produced so much reforestation that it easily counts as the biggest depopulation. All of this ignores the fact that the time period surveyed for the Mongol invasions - 1200 to 1380 - overlaps with the black death period in China and Central Asia. Equally, this spans the period all the way from Genghis Khan to the campaigns of Timur (crowned in 1370), with the latter identifying himself resolutely as a defender of Islam.

What is surprising then is that in-spite of devastating population losses to the Plague, population estimates for China show an increase, while those for Russia show stabilisation over the same period.


What is particularly salient about the Mongol conquered regions, is that their economies actually grew. This is clearly visible in John Man's exploration of the reign of Kublai Khan. It shows one of the clearest cases of the massive economic growth that happened under Mongol rule - a single market created over an unprecedented geographical expanse. The logic of this expounded by Pinker and explained in detail by Ian Morris in his seminal War: What is it good for is quite simple: war produces large states and forces the rule of law onto people. To grasp this point you need only imagine a 100 different kingdoms formerly all fighting each other, being unified into one great big whole. The wars get transferred to the periphery of the unified state, and even if the total number of deaths increase, the percentage of population killed always remains far lower than when small potentates were fighting each other. Simply put, empires - larger politically unified states, statistically, even at their worst, kill far fewer people than disunited, unstable political entities.

The enormous wealth creation that happened is for all to see. It was under the Chagatai rule (the same ones we are led to believe were worse than Alauddin) that Samarkand and Bokhara were to become centres of the Silk Road trade. This accelerated under the Chagatai feudatory under Timur as described by Justin Marozzi.

One of the surest measures of wealth is the flourishing of architecture and the transmission of culture. On the one hand, while the Delhi Sultanate's core area was almost completely devoid of Hindu temples, on the other, Mongol rule preserved and improved upon existing art and consolidated societies. The second flowering of Persian architecture in Central Asia happened under Chagatai rule. Russia had a whole host of churches that survived Mongol rule, including those in the cities that were sacked. It was under the Mongols, that the new Russia - Muscovy - that the modern Russian identity was formed, subsuming the previously incoherent and warring principalities. Russian Orientalists therefore argue that Russia was the creation of the Mongol empire, adopting its customs and warfare lock stock and barrel. The sacred crown of Russia - the Cap of Vladimir Monomakh was crafted by the Golden Horde - one of the fragmented Mongol states - and every Tsar had to be crowned with it in the orthodox ceremony in Moscow, even after the capital moved to Saint Petersburg and the formal crown became the Imperial State Crown of Catherine the Great. It is remarkable then that the Russian institution of serfdom is passed off as result of Mongol rule, when Simon Sebag Montefiore shows through documentary evidence that Russian peasant were free to move from farm to farm and freehold land. As his book on the Romanovs shows, serfdom was in fact institutionalised around 350 years later under Mikhail Romanov crowned in 1613 and then turned into nothing short of slavery by his successor, Alexis Romanov.

Similarly in China, John Man lists the period of incredible creativity that Mongol consolidation produced - leading right up to the treasure fleets of the Ming Dynasty that followed and the extraordinary contribution of the Mongols to Tibetan Buddhism. What is remarkable here is that this entire period sees Chinese science and culture progress, not regress like what we see in medieval India which represents a decisive civilisational break from the past. John Man (much like the school of Russian Orientalists see Russia), sees modern China as the successor state to Kublai Khan's Yuan dynasty when combined with Qing Emperor Kang Xi's proclamation of the multiculturalism of China, ending its ethnocentric definition of "Chinese".

In short, the Mongols were a mode of cultural transmission and perpetuation, much unlike the Turkic invasions of India, which were cultural disruptors. This brings us to that unique aspect of civilisation : religion.


Perhaps the thorniest point is the destruction of religious sites, and this is where the comparison of the Delhi Sultanate in general, and Alauddin Khilji in particular, still rankles. And this where the enlightened secularism of the Mongols shines through, when contrasted with the mindless bigotry of Khilji. Not only did their destructive tendencies dampen down with sedentarism, they were an open minded people to begin with as far as religion went.

Genghis Khan himself married off two of his sons to Turkic princesses - the earlier referred to Torgene and Sorghaghtani. What is remarkable is that Sorghaghtani Beki was, and remained, a Christian throughout her life, and was not required to convert to Mongol Tengirism. That her Christian faith did not matter shows from the fact that two of her sons, Mongke and Kublai, went on to become Khagan. When she was posthumously declared Empress in 1310, in due deference to her beliefs, the secular ceremony included a Nestorian Christian ceremony. Another one of her sons, Hulagu, a Christian like his mother, went on to become the Khan of the Ilkhanate in Persia and his descendents converted to Islam soon thereafter.

The Golden Horde is equally remarkable. This part of the Mongol empire was given to the sons of Jochi (Genghis' eldest son - thought by many to not be his son at all, but accepted by Genghis as his own). The first independent Khan here was Jochi's son: Batu - a Tengirist. Batu's first son who went on to reign briefly for a year, Sartaq, was a Christian and his second son, Berke, who ascended the throne thereafter was a Muslim. Sartaq, though he reigned for just one year, has one curious distinction. His daughter Feodora went on to marry Gelb Belozersky of Russia, and in so doing, became the direct ancestor of Tsar Ivan IV (Ivan the Terrible). This was nothing new. The number of Mongol Nestorian Christians made intermarriage a reality and this happened quite frequently. So much so that taking a Mongol wife was not seen as out of the normal till the late 1700 when racism of the European variety set into Russia. For example, in 1735, Tsaritsa Anna forced Prince Mikhail Golytsin to take a Kalmyk Mongol wife. The outrage was not in the fact that she was Buddhist or Mongol, but rather in the fact that she was ugly. As things turned out Prince Golytsin and his wife got along just fine and seemed to have remained in a happy marriage well after the Tsaritsa's death.

In short - the Rurikid Monarchy of Russia had Mongol blood direct from Genghis Khan and such intermarriages were common well into the Romanov age.

Now, when we say that any of the Delhi Sultans were "tolerant by the standards of the time" that is an outright lie. How can one consider the religious frenzy of the Delhi sultans that lasts a full 320 years (and indeed beyond into the Mughal and Suri empires), not tempered by birth in India or indeed marriage to Hindu princesses (all of whom were required to convert) as the norm, when the Mongols of this period displayed exactly no signs of religious fanaticism whatsoever? Yet, what we find is that once conversion to Islam happens, and the Muslim identity is consolidated, the same level of fanaticism sets in - for example with Timur. While there are assessments that claim he was a non-believer, the fact remains he used the language of religion to justify his conquests and massacres, something the Mongols never felt the need for.

This is therefore the fundamental hypocrisy of the 'Liberal narrative'. In reality, while Muslim rule in India utterly destroyed Buddhism and weakened Hinduism, leaving a religiously desolate landscape in areas under direct rule, the Mongols were can be credited for consolidating the Orthodox Church of Moscow, Tibetan Buddhism, and also the Islamic tradition in Persia and Central Asia. This tolerance of the Mongols, lasted with them, upto some point after their conversion to Islam. Ibn Taymiyyah, a noted theologian of his times, developed his blatantly racist concept of Takfir: that is to say inferior Muslims against whom jihad was permissible, precisely in response to Mongol Muslims. Like any bigot who confuses a lack of zealotry with a lack of piety, he labelled the Mongols as the latter, calling for Muslim purity and the ridding of impure Muslims. This zealotry of the Ibn Taymiyyah ilk, expected of Muslim rulers to win the favour of the Ulema, was what Timur, another Turko-Mongol warlord, displayed a full 165 years after Genghis Khan began his invasion of China.

In short, the Mongols failed to liberalise Islam, but Islam over a period of time made zealots out of the Mongols. The zealotry we are talking about - is what 320 years of Delhi Sultans displayed and was in fact necessary to maintain religious sanction of their rule, and essentially prevented their assimilation into the population at the time, unlike the Mongols of the same period. Yet, we are told by these same liberal historians that while atrocity literature written by the victims of the Mongols must be treated as sacrosanct, atrocity literature written by Sultans themselves, extolling their barbarity in order to buttress their religious credentials must be ignored.


The Mongols were definitely not Human Rights poster boys, but there was nothing worse about them than any Delhi Sultan. Quite to the contrary, in several aspects they were far better. Given the size of their empire and the population of the conquered nations, the fatalities they caused are well within the fatality figures of any empire as has been shown. Similarly, what has been shown in the preceding narrative is that they were remarkably enlightened on religious issues, despite being surrounded by a sea of toxic zealotry, whether western Christianity or Islam. Most importantly because they brought a relatively long period of stable rule over a vast territory - the single biggest land empire the earth has ever seen, they boosted locals economies through the creation of a vast market, which in turn pumped surpluses into that quintessential of wealth: culture. In this, they acted as transmitters and perpetuators of all aspects of culture, be it education, science or indeed religion. The argument thus, of Alauddin Khilji "saving" India or being "better" is therefore simply unsustainable.
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