The rise of the Mongol Empire was a seismic event in Eurasian history. Expanding aggressively from their homelands, armies of mounted Mongol archers fanned out to conquer regions as remote from one another as the Pacific seaboard and the borderlands facing the kingdoms of Poland and Hungary.
As the 13th century progressed, historic empires, which until recently had asserted themselves confidently, now lay in crumbled ruins. This was a time of conquest, and the Mongols were not gentle in imposing their rule. Their armies left a trail of devastation in their wake, filled with plundered cities, piles of corpses and deserted settlements.
Once their armies had crushed all resistance, Mongol governors sought to revive commerce, rebuild industries and encourage prosperity. Like so many conquerors, they wanted to be able to extract taxation and, perhaps more importantly, ensure that everyone within their lands channelled their efforts towards the Mongol Empire’s ultimate goal: governance over all human civilization.
To this end, the Mongols went to great lengths to recruit skilled artisans and merchants who could be of value to their empire. Such individuals were often uprooted and transported for thousands of miles to locations where the Mongols felt that they could be of greatest use. Some, including Venetian traveler Marco Polo, entered the Mongol Empire voluntarily, offering their services as translators, diplomats or merchants.
Below are five ways the Mongol Empire influenced the history of technology and innovation.
1. They set up research centers, paving the way for scientific advances.
The Mongols’ leaders considered intellectuals and scholars to be important assets, and they generally sought to put them to work for the betterment of their empire. In the 1260s, Hulegu, a Mongol commander and grandson of Genghis Khan, established a research center for thinkers across Eurasia at a place called Maragha (now located in East Azerbaijan Province of Iran). Hulegu wanted these intellectuals to exercise their talents in his service and he was eager for them to devote themselves to the study of alchemy, astrology and anything that might improve the lifespan or health of the reigning sultan. Many of these goals were naturally unworkable, and yet by assembling so many highly trained thinkers, he paved the way for advances that would have a lasting impact, especially in the field of trigonometry, as George Lane shows in Early Mongol Rule in Thirteenth-Century Iran. Hulagu also worked with the Persian astronomer Nasir al-Din al-Tusi to build the Maragha Observatory, which was among the most advanced observatories in the world at the time.
2. They accelerated trade and expansion of new inventions.
The Mongol Empire encouraged free trade and often took items from one country and introduced them to other countries. This opened up new markets—and economies flourished.
The Mongol conquest of China meant that technologies which formerly had been little known in the wider world could now filter into the vast networks spanning the Mongol Empire. As Timothy May demonstrates in The Mongol Art of War, a key example is gunpowder. Little is known about how exactly gunpowder technology travelled out from China to the wider world, but it was in this period that it reached the Mediterranean and, from there, into the Byzantine Empire, Western Christendom and many parts of the wider world. Ahmad al-Hassan points out in a 2003 study, that some parts of the Muslim world already had access to gunpowder and its forbears. Even so, the advent of the Mongol Empire seems to have substantially accelerated the diffusion of this technology.
3. They spread weapon technologies.
While some military technologies were traveling westwards, others were heading east. During the 1270s, Mongol rulers in the Near East sent Muslim engineers capable of constructing advanced siege catapults into China to assist in the Mongols’ final overthrow of the Song dynasty. These were counterweight trebuchets which, as Michael S. Fulton writes in Artillery in the era of the Crusades, had been developed in the Near East during the Crusader wars of the late 12th century.
4. They experimented with paper money.
The Mongols experimented with the use of paper money, which had originally developed in China. As documented in writings by Marco Polo, Mongol leaders in the Near East deployed this new form of currency in their major trading emporium at Tabriz and insisted that people make use of it on pain of death. The result was calamitous, as local communities refused to trust the new paper notes. It remains, however, an example of the Mongols’ desire to experiment with the ideas and practices of their conquered subjects.
5. They organized highly efficient armies.
Meanwhile the Mongols’ opponents worked hard to learn from the formidable empire. In 1245, the Franciscan Friar John of Plano Carpini was sent by Pope Innocent IV on a mission into the Eurasian steppe to represent Christendom’s interests to the Mongols and gather as much information as possible about this new foe. When John returned to Italy, he presented a grim report describing the sheer scale and efficacy of the Mongol war machine. He advised Christendom’s rulers to learn from their model, known as the decimal system. According to this approach, squads of 10 soldiers are organized into companies of 100, who are then organized into formations of 1,000, and so forth. Having witnessed the efficacy of this system, John felt that only armies arrayed in the same way had a chance of defeating the Mongols in battle. His advice was ignored, but other powers made use of this system to great effect.
They Also (Inadvertently) Spread Disease
While the Mongol Empire’s conquests contributed to new innovations, it wasn’t solely ideas that crossed enormous distances during this period. The rise of the Mongol Empire also enabled the spread of the Black Death. As Monica Green suggests in a 2020 study, this plague may have been transmitted by the rodents and their fleas inadvertently carried by Mongol armies and traders out from the Tian Shan mountains to infect communities both within the empire and beyond its borders.
Over time, the Mongol Empire fragmented into different warring territories as its leading dynasties competed with one another for control over its vast territories. New rulers emerged, often adopting the culture and beliefs of the people under their control, serving to deepen the rifts within the empire. As the Mongol Empire diminished, a chapter closed on this period when ideas, religions (and diseases) travelled swiftly from one end of the continent to the other.