Empire in Asia

A New Global History

The Mongol Transformation

Book Title

The Mongol Transformation: From the Steppe to Eurasian Empire. Medieval Encounters, Volume 10, Issue 1-3: 2004


Biran, Michal


Biran argues that the time of the Mongol Empire was the watershed period of Inner Asian history. In this article, he explains the reasons for its successful founding and maintenance before it crumbled into four separate entities. For instance, the Mongol Empire had its roots in its 10th and 11th century nomadic steppe predecessors, whose experiences ruling over conquered sedentary peoples proved to be invaluable to the Mongol leaders. The Mongols were also willing to accept that their new subjects were superior in some practices, and actively sought to adapt these practices to improve their own systems. Biran also discusses the influence of the Mongol Empire on various parts of the world, including Western Europe, Central Asia and the Middle East, as well as the legacies still visible today.

Scope (Topics Covered, Time Period)

Even though Biran’s ultimate focus is the Mongol Empire, he reaches frequently back to the 10th-13th century period to show how the earlier steppe empires influenced the Mongols. His discussion also encompasses the present day—for example, when he examines how the Il-khanate raised Iran to replace Egypt as the pivot of the Muslim world, or how Moscow developed as a legacy of the Golden Horde. Geographically, Biran claims that the existence of the Mongol Empire touched almost every major region of the world, including Western Europe, Central Asia, the Middle East, and Russia. Biran’s physical and temporal scopes are thus flexible and liberal as he seeks both to root the Mongol Empire in a historical context and to illuminate its imprints on the present.

Argument (Methodology, Significance)

Biran argues that the Mongol Empire was successfully created and maintained due to its pragmatic openness. He firstly points out that the Mongol Empire had the privilege of learning from the steppe empires that preceded them. These ex-nomads of Central Asia grew closer to sedentary civilization and developed the administrative skills necessary for sedentary rule. By the time Chinggis Khan attempted to conquer bordering sedentary civilizations, thereby expanding beyond the nomadic world, they had already established a coexistence of nomadic and sedentary peoples, effectively laying the foundation for Mongol rule. Secondly, the Mongols were fully willing to learn from their subjects and even allow them to rule and collect taxes in more faraway territories on their behalf. Thirdly, through the intersections facilitated by trade, the Mongols acted as agents of cultural exchange, selecting desirable traits and practices and assimilating them into their own systems. This openness toward and even encouragement of foreign influence was the Mongol Empire’s greatest strength.

Biran also argues that the Mongol Empire was a revolutionary, not evolutionary success. The theological foundation for the Mongols’ rule was that of the Tengri, or the right of a super-tribal unit to rule over the world. Before the Mongols, “the world” comprised all the nomads in Inner Asia. It was only after Chinggis Khan turned his ambitions toward the bordering sedentary civilizations that the “universal” rule of Tengri expanded to include other groups. Other revolutionary practices include the intentional dismantling of existing nomadic military organizations and Eurasian elites in order to ensure that loyalties extended beyond single tribes and belonged instead to the Chinggisids.

Finally, Biran discusses the impact of the Mongol Empire on other entities. For example, Western Europe benefited intellectually from its interaction with the Mongols, whose efficient statecraft and financial institutions provided much insight. While the Mongol Empire ultimately did not cause major disruptions to Eurasian geopolitics due to its willingness to rule through indigenous leaders rather than impose direct control, it left lasting impacts: for instance, the integration of the steppe peoples into modern-day China.

Annotated by Jennifer Yip