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The Secret History of the Mongols

Anonymous Mongol scribe
circa 1240
Text

Paul Kahn, translator, The Secret History of the Mongols: The Origin of Chinghis Khan (Boston: Cheng & Tsui Company, 1998), 160.

The Secret History of the Mongols was written by an anonymous scribe shortly after Chinggis’s death. The scribe wrote it for the Mongol royal family to record the rise of Chinggis Khan and the conquests of the Mongols under his rule. Before Chinggis Khan, the Mongols were illiterate. Chinggis ordered captured experts to create a script for the Mongol language and a legal code to help rule the empire. Chinggis Khan knew that the Mongols needed more than just military skill to manage an imperial government. They needed a system of rule over the conquered people and lands. For that, the Mongols used trained officials and experts from the lands they conquered. What did Chinggis learn from Yalavech and Masgud, the Muslims from Khwarezm (northeastern Persia)? Where did he send them to be governors? The Mongols worried that captured people might betray their Mongol masters, so they often sent officials from one part of their empire to work in an area where they had no friends or relatives. The Mongols charged taxes and demanded obedience but otherwise allowed their subjects to continue living in peace. The Mongols valued merchants and craftsmen and encouraged foreign travelers. Chinggis Khan and his successors were also tolerant of religions other than their native shamanism. How did encouraging trade and travel, tolerating religion, and using experts and sending them to distant areas increase interconnection in Afroeurasia?

 

Vocabulary

Khwarezm: region in Central Asia; northeastern Persia

 

Cathay: North China

While the Mongols were extremely successful in military campaigns, they also succeeded in peaceful empire-building over an enormous area of land because they implemented an effective government and administrative system. The Mongols usually preserved the traditional administrative system of each territory, as the excerpt explains. However, the Mongols appointed officials based on merit rather than following the traditional elite hierarchy. Chinggis Khan and his successors eagerly employed foreign councils and advisers. Many of Chinggis Khan’s advisers were Uighurs (Turkic-speaking people living in northwestern China and Central Asia), and the Uighur script was adapted for writing Mongol. The Secret History of the Mongols is the oldest surviving literary text written in the Mongolian language. Mongol policies of encouraging trade and travel, tolerating religions, and using experts and sending them to other lands increased interconnection by increasing the numbers of people who were moving from one region to another within the empire. With the movement of people would also come the transfer of ideas and technologies.

Once he had conquered the Moslem people
Chinggis Khan appointed agents to govern in each of their cities.
From the city of Gurganj came two Khwarezm Moslems,
a father and son named Yalavech and Masgud,
who explained to Chinggis Khan the customs and laws of these cities,
and the customs by which they were governed.…

Since among all the Moslems Yalavech and Masgud
were the most skilled at the customs and laws for governing cities,
he appointed them the governors of Cathay,
Along with our own agents