The Mongol storm: making and breaking empires in the medieval near east


With this book, Nicholas Morton has filled a gap in the field in the study of the Mongol military genius and the immense impact of their conquests in the 13th century. This impact was truly international in scale, encompassing regions as far east as Japan, Korea, and China, as well as the Middle East and central Europe. Morton has also successfully managed to address two, parallel audiences: the lay reader, in the form of history enthusiasts; and the academic audience. Detailed references and a comprehensive bibliography, as well as a large selection of maps, are helpful to the latter group.

One of Morton’s skills is in providing plenty of context to the Mongol conquests. For instance, the invasions of Central Asia and Persia, covered in the early chapters, are approached not in isolation but with reference to the wider impact on the region. This is also true of his discussions of the Mongol targeting of Eastern Europe, notably the crushing of the Volga Bulgars and the Rus principalities in 1236, the capture of Kiev in 1240, and the successes against European armies in Hungary and Poland in 1241. This was all at a time when even Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul) was threatened by the seemingly unstoppable Mongol advance.

It was the sacking of Byzantine Constantinople by the Christian Crusader armies of western Europe in April 1204 that provided the Mongols with a significant opening for advance. The ‘astonishing and brutal act’ of the sacking, Morton states, saw a dividing line drawn between Western Christendom and their Byzantine Eastern Orthodox co-religionists, shattering the notion of Europe as a monolith perpetually at war with an ‘Islamic’ east. Amid this maelstrom, the Mongols acted opportunistically, and Morton’s analysis demonstrates that their arrival into the Near East theatre was facilitated by the chaos of the already established conflicts between the Islamic powers and their Christian Crusader enemies. Morton is clear on how the Mongol arrival in this region impacted these wars and the ever-shifting alliances that were a consequence of them.

This book also provides an excellent overview of Mongol military efficiency. Morton looks in turn at their manoeuvres as steppe armies, their weaponry, training, organisation, overall resilience, and many other factors. He also discusses their highly innovative ‘mobile wagon cities’, and the effectiveness of these in their many conquests. But he also looks at their failures, such as at the hands of the Mamluks – who shared much of their origins and culture with the Mongols – at Ayan Jalut in 1260, Elbistan in 1277, and Homs in 1281. This series of defeats destroyed the myth of Mongol invincibility, as did their failed attempts to conquer China, and subjugate Japan, between 1274 and 1281. The Japanese tradition of fierce resistance to invaders played a significant part in this latter defeat.

Morton also demonstrates that, contrary to the ‘clash of civilisations’ theory often propagated by historians, the Mongols actually interacted positively with the various Christian and Islamic powers they encountered. Their expertise and inventions also transcended political and cultural boundaries, especially in terms of trade. Morton cites the example of Cilician Armenia (which had been under Mongol authority) in the facilitation of the silk trade through to Italian city-states like Genoa. Silk had exploded in popularity in Europe at that time, and notably popular were ‘Tatar fashions’ in clothing. The author also looks at the prominence of women within Mongol society, and their sense of religious tolerance; they did not especially favour one religion, so long as the conquered acknowledged them as their sovereigns.

Although some academic readers may wish for more focus in a few areas, this is still a deeply researched work of history. Morton provides the reader with an excellent synopsis not just of the Mongols and their achievements, but of the impact that they have had on the international order from the 13th century to the present day.

The Mongol storm: making and breaking empires in the medieval near east, Nicholas Morton, Basic Books, hbk (£25), ISBN 978-1399803557