The Pax Mongolica: When the Mongols Brought Peace to Europe and Asia
The Pax Mongolica (translated from Latin to mean ‘Mongol Peace’) refers to a period in history when a large part of Europe and Asia was under Mongol control as a result of the military campaigns of Genghis Khan and his successors. The conquests of the Mongol Empire had an oddly stabilizing effect on the territories that it controlled, hence ushering in a period of peace.
Life on the Silk Road Before the Pax Mongolica
The Mongol Empire was founded by Genghis Khan during the 13th century and its expansion continued under his successors. This was the largest contiguous empire in history, and at its height it stretched from China in the east to parts of Central Europe in the west. The two ends of the world were once connected by the famous Silk Road. This route allowed trade, culture, and technology to be exchanged between the East and the West.
The Silk Road had existed long before the Pax Mongolica. In the period immediately preceding the rise of the Mongols, however, the route was no longer as safe as it once had been. In the West, Christianity and Islam were at war, whilst the steppe areas were controlled by nomads. This meant that it was not easy, and actually quite dangerous, for people to travel from one end of the Silk Road to another.
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A close up of the Catalan Atlas depicting Marco Polo traveling to the East during the Pax Mongolica. ( Public Domain )
The Achievements of Pax Mongolica
The situation changed with the Pax Mongolica. As the Mongols controlled the entire length of the Silk Road, they were also able to impose their authority on it. Indeed, Genghis Khan and his successors promoted the use of the Silk Road, and were serious about maintaining the safety of the Silk Road for travelers. For instance, permanent army garrisons were placed along major routes, and patrolling this vast area was possible thanks to the size and mobility of the Mongol army. The safety of the Silk Road during the Pax Mongolica is often illustrated by the saying that a maiden with a gold nugget in her hand could travel across the empire without being harassed.
Mongol riders with prisoners. Illustration of Rashid-ad-Din's Gami' at-tawarih. ( Public Domain )
International trade flourished as a result of the Pax Mongolica, and luxury goods traveled between East and West. One of the steps taken by the Mongols to further encourage this trade was to put in place a single system of trade tariffs and taxes. Prior to the Mongol conquests, each state controlling the different parts of the Silk Road would have had its own system of trade tariff and taxes, making it less convenient for merchants. Moreover, the Mongols established a postal system, called the Yam, which enabled letters and messages to be carried swiftly over long distances, making communication much easier.
Letter from Mongolian ruler Oljeitu to King of France Philippe le Bel, in 1305. (PHGCOM/ CC BY SA 4.0 )
It was not just goods that traveled along the Silk Road, but ideas and technology as well. It is well-known that the Silk Road allowed Buddhism to enter China during the Han Dynasty, and the use of this route by missionaries continued during the Pax Mongolica. Thanks to the Mongols, Tibetan Buddhism made its way into China and Mongolia, Islam spread into Eastern Europe, and Nestorian Christianity saw a revival in Eurasia. Whilst some of the Monfol khans converted to the faiths they encountered, others maintained their traditional religion. Nevertheless, in both instances, the Mongols did not impose their religious practices on their subjects, and religious freedom was enjoyed by their people.
Persian miniature depicting Ilkhanate ruler Ghazan's conversion from Buddhism to Islam. ( Public Domain )
The Demise of the Pax Mongolica
The flourishing of the Silk Road eventually played a role in the demise of the Pax Mongolica. During the 14th century, the bubonic plague broke out, and, due to the Silk Road, it traveled swiftly across vast distances.
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In Europe, the pandemic became known as the Black Death. It has been estimated that up to 25% of Asia’s population succumbed to the plague, whilst between Europe lost between 50-60% of its population. This severe depopulation was one of the factors contributing to the end of the Pax Mongolica.
The burial of the victims of the plague in Tournai. Detail of a miniature from "The Chronicles of Gilles Li Muisis" (1272-1352), abbot of the monastery of St. Martin of the Righteous. Bibliothèque royale de Belgique, MS 13076-77, f. 24v. ( Public Domain )
Another problem that the Mongols faced was the fragmentation of their empire. By the end of the 13th century, the Mongol Empire had fragmented into four khanates – the Yuan Dynasty, the Ilkhanate , the Chagatai Khanate, and the Golden Horde . With the exception of the Yuan Dynasty, which was replaced by the Ming Dynasty, the other khanates fragmented even further, which meant that the Silk Road reverted to the state it had been before the arrival of the Mongols. Thus, the period of the Pax Mongolica came to an end.
Top image: Modern Mongol horsemen at the eagle festival. Life may have been tranquil for hunters during the time of Pax Mongolica too. Source: carfull…in Wyoming/ CC BY NC ND 2.0
By Wu Mingren
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