The Silk road linked Asia and Europe together and ushered in an era with extended cross-continental connections. It facilitated not only commercial transactions but also culture diffusion. Keeping their universalism in mind, the Mongols granted both local and foreign merchants with unprecedentedly high status and also treated them with hospitality. This page will firstly provide basic demographics of trading activities happening along the Silk road and then discuss Mongol’s contribution of cross-continental transactions.



Images of Cross-Continental Transactions Prior to Chingiz Khan’s Conquest:


From the inception of the Mongol empire, even prior to Chinggis Khan’s subjugation of the eastern Islamic world (1219– 25), Muslims were more or less connected to the Mongols. The majority of Mongol’s Muslim trade partners joined the transactions from Iran and Central Asia, where Ilkhanate had not yet formed. They served in various capacities, including merchants, ambassadors, and sometimes administrators of the Mongol’s newly conquered territories. Ja-far Khwaja (1201– 21?), an Arabic-speaking Muslim, for instance, was one of the first Muslims who took over important roles in the earlier stage of the Mongol Empire. (Biran, p.143)


However, comparing to the compact commercial relations between the Islamic world and China, which significantly flourished during the Umayyad era and the earlier ages (8-9th century), the east-west connections of the Mongols seemed to be frequently unwinded in terms of scales and disciplines. Especially after emergence of new regional polities in Central Asia and the East such as the Tangut Xixia (1038-1227), the Buddhist Kitan Liao (907-1125), and the later Qara Khitai (1124-1218), the continental Silk Roads were divided into regional commercial networks, which usually served exclusively to internal transactions within the individual polity. The terminated cross-continental transaction, to some extent, regained its vitality after interventions of the Mongols. (ibid, p.144)


Image of the Silk Road prior to Chingiz Khan’s reign



Basic Demographics of Trade: What Were the Subjects of Trade?

— Did Mongol’s Demand of Commodities Facilitate Cross-Continental Connections?



The luxurious textiles were greatly valued by the Mongol Khans and generals. The demand was unprecedently huge. Silk clothes and gold thread were essential decorations in public affairs such as ceremonial occasions, as clothes signified different characteristics, values, and classes (Polo 87). High-quality silk clothes and other fabrics were also considered as a way of largesse to members of the military elites and to royal princes (Jackson, p.212). Evidences that showcase how the Mongols were easily impressed by silk are abundant. For instance, Chingiz Khan was once overly impressed by the gold brocade Uighur people brought him as a gift. He immediately ordered his enslaved weavers to learn skills from Uighur one and produce it in large quantities. The brocade was also added it to empire’s requirement of tributes. (Secret History of Mongols, p.238) In terms of qualities, Muslim weavers were somehow more preferred than Chinese. Given the long-standing production experience of the Islamic world, Muslim weavers not only applied their skills in making clothes but also in producing high-quality furnishings such as decorations of residence. Due to the popularity of silk, silk itself was often recognized as a well-accepted currency and was used as an expedient between different currencies (Kalra, p.102). Along the silk roads that connected Islamic world and the Mongol Empire, silk itself had notably become the most circulated commodities.



Trade of slaves and thus cross-continental connections was somehow driven by the Mongol attack on different places. The unexpected invasion of Qupchaq led by Batu Khan of the Golden Horde, for instance, transformed thousands of Qupchaqs residents into refugees (Jackson, p.212). A great number of them were sold by the Mongols who captured them; some desperate Qupchaqs doomed their kinsfolks into similar destiny in exchange for the necessities of life. (Al-Umari, p.122) The victims of slavery were not only confined to fugitives and refugees, but also the Mongols themselves. According to Rashīd al- Dīn’s source, a great number of Mongol youngsters were kidnapped or sold by parents facing dire difficulties (Rashīd al- Dīn, p.1487). At the other end of the Ilkhanate, the market of Indian slaves was also dynamic. A sizable population, perhaps several thousands, was sent from Kashmir each year. After loosing Indian borders in 1262, the Ilkhanate lost much of its supplies. The remaining Indian slaves were mainly Indian prisoners the Mongols taken over from other places (Jackson, p.118).



Another important reason why the Mongols intentionally promoted transaction activities are the horses. Horses contributed greatly to the 13th century conquest of the Mongol empire. Each typical Mongol soldier owned 7-9 horses under Chingiz Khan’s reign. (Büntgen and Di Cosmo, p.3) Given such a large demand, the Mongols never hesitated to search for foreign supplies. The largest importers of the Mongols were their Egyptian allies in Mamluks and the Jochid Khan who stationed at the north of the Caspian Sea. Jochid Khan alone sold several thousands of horses to the Mongols annually (Jackson, p.214). Through maritime routes, Iran also became important trading partners of the Mongols (Yokkaichi, p.87). First shipping through the Persian Gulf and then crossing the Indian peninsular, horses could be transported to the Mongol’s territories in China. The techniques of transporting livestock oversea had at that time matured already. Typically, merchants lifted horses like cargos so that each ship could lift 20-30 horses. The inner-structures of the ships were usually designed with stalls to hold horses like stables. Given the danger of sea sick, which could be fatal, merchants would leave each horse with enough spaces and ensured ventilation.




Patronage of the Mongols: Establishing New Trading Centers and Routes


Exploration of Trading Routes:

The Mongols enriched cross-continental trading activities through exploring new routes of trade, which often extended beyond the limits of the Mongol Empire. The most commonly used route connected Derbent, a western Russia city, to Qaraqorum, the capital of the empire under Chingiz Khan’s reign. Along the route merchants would pass through Siberia, where the Mongols imported furs from (Allsen, p.29). Furthermore, according to Rubruck, the trade from China to Russia reached an unprecedentedly lively degree, even under Mongke Khan’s strick regulation of commercial activities. The southern route extended from Tabriz (a trading center of the Islamic world, will be introduced later) to Ganzhou, in north-western China. This route linked the Mongols with their largest warhorse suppler, Jochid Khan, and it extended further southward to north Africa and to India on other end, where the Mongols bought slaves, spices, and other consumer goods from (Lopes, p.164).


Under Mongol’s rule, well-sited cities were often developed into trading centers. For instance, Tabriz superseded Baghdad and became both the trading and crafting center of the western Asia in 1295. According to Marco Polo’s documentation, Tabriz was a well-sited place where merchants from India and Islamic territories such as Persia and Arabia gathered (Polo, para.30). Marco Polo mentioned specifically the international trade of special stones. It was also a place blending different religious beliefs, giving birth to many inter-cultural products of Islam and Nestorian Christianity. (Polo, para.30) Given Tabriz’s flourished connections to both the eastern and the western world, it was in the early 14th century named the new capital of the Ilkhanate by Abaqa Khan, the fourth Ilkhan. Being further patronized, new ramparts and walls were built to enclose the suburb areas and maintain its leading position as the largest trading center of the Central Asia (Morgan, p.142).


The Significance of Maritime Routes:

Except of continental trading routes and cities, there were major maritime routes which were all heavily used under the Mongols. The most-used one was under Mamluk control through Egypt. The route was partly organized and regulated by the Golden Horde, due to the good diplomatic relations between Egypt and the Golden Horde. Given outstanding ship building techniques of the Chinese—including the invention of the magnetic compass and the fixed stern rudder (Cunliffe, p.466)—trade extended from the Indian and South China Sea to the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf (reaching the African coast) became possible and was actually taking place. (Kalra, p.102)


In addition to maritime trade in the Mediterranean and the South China Sea, Mongols of the Golden Horde significantly stimulated oversea transactions across the Black Sea trade and the Volga River (Vinokurov and Liebman, p.33). For the Ilkhanate, Yuan China as their trading partner was extremely important especially during times when hostilities exist between Ilkhanate and the Mongols of Central Asia. The ports of Hormuz and Kish were two of the main places where transactions took place. (Kauz, p.61) In addition, waterborne trading routes were not only limited to seas and oceans, but also rivers and canals. Qubilai Khan invested time and effort in securing access to grain for Beijing, the capital of Yuan, through the Grand Canal, the longest artificial river at that time (Kalra, p.102).




Image of the Silk Road at the end of Qublai Khan’s reign



Protections: What Ensured Merchants’ Safety Along the Silk Road?


The Postal System and Its Significance:

The Mongol postal system, an important legacy of Chingiz Khan’s time, was put into important use by Qublai Khan and his successors to foster trade and inter-continental communication. Under Qublai’s reign, the Mongol postal system comprised more than 1400 postal stations, which were strategically stationed across the majority of the Empire, especially on the trading routes. These postal stations, in total, had access to more than 50,000 horses, 400 carts, and other transporting animals such as mules and sheep. Typically, two contiguous postal stations were separated 20-40 miles apart, so that merchants and messengers could take advantages of spare foods, shelters, and transportations along their trips. (Henry Yule, ch.26) Although the extended privileges enjoyed by merchants were unprecedented, the postal system was at the same time strictly regulated by the Mongol Law Yassa. Under Mongke Khan’s reign, merchants were charged fees to avoid possibilities of abuse of resources (Kalra, p.113). Also, subjects and related parties of trade were under supervisions, so that merchants who traded with Mongol’s enemies would be penalized. However, strict regulations did not logically contradict with Mongol’s enthusiasm towards trade. Encouraged by Mongke Khan, all regional Khanates held a significant number of reserves to ensure government business and guarantee payments were successfully transacted. (Kalra, p.102)


Safety of Merchants:

Among the privileges granted by the Mongols to merchants, safety—at that time not an ensuring factor—greatly promoted distributions of merchants and commodities. In times of war and conquest, the Mongols made significant efforts to protect merchants and envoys. For instance, each trader or envoy were granted by the Mongols with a paiza, an engraved metal pendant that symbolized his identity and therefore ensured his safety. The postal stations, besides, served as temporary shelters and an efficient alarming system for the merchants. Once war broke out unexpectedly, messengers of each postal station would deliver the information to each other and the stationing people, so that one could reasonably decide whether to temporarily immobilize oneself or to evacuate from the regions. (Kalra, p.41) Besides protecting transients, the significance of postal stations consisted in foreseeing and preventing conflicts as patrols. In the late 13th century when the loyalty of Qaidu, the ruler of central Asian Mongols, was suspected, Qublai Khan built 30 postal stations in Qaidu’s territories in order to keep his army under monitor (Boyle, p.326; Allsen, p.104). In this way, the Mongol courts across the realm were connected and could get information in a speedy manner.





Postal stations of the Mongol Empire





In conclusion, the administrative structures and institutions the Mongols created during their reign seamlessly extended commercial activities throughout their territories. The privileges they offered to merchants are perhaps appealing even in today’s economy: markets, capitals, and protections. Given the Mongol’s universalistic ideology, the Mongol’s role in cross-continental trade was commonly misinterpreted as indifferent inbetweeners or mediators. However, both the subtle techniques such as constructing ships and institutions like the postal system instantiated the instrumental role they played as participants of the trade. Throughout the history of all nomadic societies, exchange and trade had always been the major focus of nomadic people—including the Mongols. They situated themselves in the center of trade and cultures, where everything was diffused in energetic ways. Mongol appetites determined the kind of goods that were traded. The policies they instituted magnified the volume of trade and spurred commercial activity in innumerable regions of Eurasia. Within the unbounded macroeconomy the Mongols created, not merely commodities and their economic values were transmitted, but also an unparalleled cultural, political, and social tie was formed.





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