Empire in Asia

A New Global History

Culture and Conquest in Mongol Eurasia

Book Cover

Book Title

Culture and Conquest in Mongol Eurasia. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001


Allsen, Thomas T.


Allsen focuses on the role Mongolian nomads play in the cultural exchange between East and West in the 13th and 14th centuries. Using detailed political and institutional contexts of the Mongolian Empire, founded by Genghis Khan in 1206, he presents Mongolian nomads as a key broker of cultural transmission, particularly between the two khanates of Yuan China and Il-Khanate (Persia). He considers how nomads, in contrast to sedentary peoples, held vast potentials for cultural transmission and interaction, facilitating profound exchanges in the areas of historiography, agriculture, government policy and the arts between the two ends of the Mongolian Empire.

Ultimately, the book is necessarily largely inferential and hypothetical in nature. The Mongolians, as nomads, prized oral traditions and had only limited literacy; the lack of fixed settlements also meant that important artifacts are scattered across vast territories, making their procurement and analyses far more difficult. Allsen’s subject matter is an ambitious one simply because the Mongolian Empire, and the nomads which composed it, was such a fluid, flexible body comprising elaborate webs of relationships and rivalries. From Genghis to Mongke to Kublai, the political landscape was ever changing, and the resulting cultural flows changed with it. The book is therefore an attempt to piece together bits of historical information into a coherent narrative.

Scope (Topics Covered, Time Period)

The book begins by setting up the political and institutional context of the Mongolian Empire. It starts with the establishment of the Empire by Genghis Khan in 1206, and ends with its demise in 1344 with the dismantling of the Yuan Dynasty by the Chinese Ming. Allsen focuses primarily on the interaction between China and Iran; the other two khanates, the Golden Horde in Russia and the Chaghanaids in the center, are less prominent in his discussion.

After providing historical background, the book turns its attention to the movement of specific cultural wares across the Mongolian Empire: agricultural products and practices, historiographical and cartographical knowledge, cuisine, and medicine. The final section takes a more theoretical approach, analyzing the Mongols’ cultural and political priorities within the framework of contemporary ethnographic models for the study of cultural exchange.

Argument (Methodology, Significance)

Allsen makes constant reference to primary sources rather than analyses by fellow scholars. The book regularly turns to evidence from Rashid al’Din’s Collected Chronicles, Marco Polo’s extensive traveling diaries, and Bolad’s court documents and personal observations; along the way it also quotes numerous travelers and leaders from both East and West. By basing his work on first-person accounts, Allsen paints a vivid picture of complicated rivalries, alliances, practices and events of the Mongolian Empire. There are, however, many instances in which Allsen warns of the unavailability of crucial sources. Some documents were either never in existence, or destroyed; others were only orally kept and never immortalized in written words. Where such traditional historical sources are absent, Allsen resorts instead to archaeology and numismatics.

The book continually emphasizes the diverse nature of the Empire, drawing on a wide range of documents authored by witnesses from various cultural backgrounds. While the more widely discussed European colonial societies systematically imposed dominant cultures on subjugated peoples, the Mongolian nomads functioned as mediums through which East and West engaged in more balanced form of cultural diffusion. Furthermore, this transmission of culture was not a bilateral one between conqueror and conquered; it was an intricate multi-way transaction between numerous sedentary subjects through mobile Mongolian agency. This was further complicated by the fact that, unlike others, the Mongolian Empire featured jarring divisions between the four khanates and lacked an undisputed center. Allsen therefore offers a detailed, holistic account of a unique empire which has thus far only garnered moderate scholarly interest.

Annotated by Jennifer Yip