MONGOL LIFE, HORSES AND YURTS

MARCO POLO ON MONGOL LIFE


Chinggis Khan's (Genghis Khan’s) encampment, from an early 14th century manuscript of Rashid al-Din

According to the Silk Road Foundation: “The fact that Marco was not a historian did not stop him offering a long history about the Mongols. He provided a detailed account of the rise of Mongol and Great Khan's life and empire. He described the ceremonial of a Great Khan's funeral - anyone unfortunate enough to encounter the funeral cortege was put to death to serve their lord in the next world, Mangu Khan's corpse scoring over twenty thousand victims. [Source: Silk Road Foundation silk-road.com/artl/marcopolo <+>]

“He told of life on the steppes, of the felt-covered yurt drawn by oxen and camels, and of the household customs. What impressed Marco most was the way in which the women got on with the lion's share of the work:"the men do not bother themselves about anything but hunting and warfare and falconry." In term of marriage, Marco described that the Mongols practiced polygamy. A Mongol man could take as many wives as he liked. On the death of the head of the house the eldest son married his father's wives, but not his own mother. A man could also take on his brother's wives if they were widowed. Marco rounded off his account of Mongol's home life by mentioning that alcoholic standby which had impressed Rubrouck before him:"They drink mare's milk subjected to a process that makes it like white wine and very good to drink. It is called koumiss". <+>

Horses were key to the Mongols' existence. According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “Horses offered mobility to the Mongols, permitting them to roam the steppes in search of pasture for their flocks, as well as to round up other horses that have been allowed to graze freely faraway from an encampment. Riders gathering the horses together were equipped with a pole at the end of which was a special lasso. Children, who became skilled riders at an early age, assumed this responsibility on occasion. In summer, women milked the mares, sometimes as often as eight or nine times daily. Much of the milk was allowed to ferment, producing an alcoholic drink known as airag (or koumiss). In traditional times horses gave the Mongols the decided tactical advantage of mobility in conflicts against sedentary civilizations. They could, for example, initiate a hit-and-run raid on a Chinese village, fleeing to the steppelands and thus evading the less mobile Chinese forces. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu/mongols <|>]

Websites and Resources: Mongols and Horsemen of the Steppe: Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; The Mongol Empire web.archive.org/web ; The Mongols in World History afe.easia.columbia.edu/mongols ; William of Rubruck's Account of the Mongols washington.edu/silkroad/texts ; Mongol invasion of Rus (pictures) web.archive.org/web ; Encyclopædia Britannica article britannica.com ; Mongol Archives historyonthenet.com ; “The Horse, the Wheel and Language, How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes shaped the Modern World", David W Anthony, 2007 archive.org/details/horsewheelandlanguage ; The Scythians - Silk Road Foundation silkroadfoundation.org ; Scythians iranicaonline.org ; Encyclopaedia Britannica article on the Huns britannica.com ; Wikipedia article on Eurasian nomads Wikipedia

Mongol Written Language


Guyuk Khan's stamp

The Mongols were primarily an illiterate people who had no written language of their own and used scripts for other cultures, such as the Uyghurs in what is now western China, when writing was necessary. Somewhat similar to written Tibetan, modern written Mongolian is written vertically starting in the upper left hand corner of the page. The script was devised by the ancient Sogdian culture of Central Asia and introduced to the Mongols by the Uyghurs in the 13th century. Mongolian

In the early 13th century, under Genghis Khan, the Mongols created a vertical script based on the Uyghur script, which was also adopted by many Turkic-speaking peoples and is related to the alphabets of Western Asia. It looks like Arabic written at a slant. The source of the Uyghur alphabets was the alphabet of the Sogdians, a Persian people centered around Samarkand in the A.D. 6th century. Uyghur-derived written Mongolian uses a phonetic alphabet with 27 consonants and seven vowels sounds. The words look like characters, They are often written vertically.

Frustrated by inability of the Uygur language to transcribe Chinese sound, Kublai Khan commissioned a new written language in 1269 based on Tibetan script. The language, called Phags-pa, never really caught on but it was used on the bronze passports which all diplomats used to travel unimpeded anywhere in the Mongol Empire.

There were not that many Mongols and over time they tended to be assimilated into the groups they conquered. In the Middle East they became Muslims. In China they became Chinese. Only in Mongolia did they retain their identity.

Mongol Clothing

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “The national dress, worn both by men and women, is a form-fitting robe known as a del. The del was often woven out of silk frequently imported from China. During festivals or celebrations, women wore a variety of headdresses, including the traditional elaborate boghtagh. Elite women often had exquisite jewelry, which constituted a considerable quantity of the family's wealth. Small but valuable items such as jewelry were ideal means of preserving wealth, as they could readily be carried during the Mongols' frequent migrations. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu/mongols ]


Coronation of Ogedei

William of Rubruck wrote: “Of their clothing and customs and appearance you must know, that from Cataia [=China], and other regions of the east, and also from Persia and other regions of the south, are brought to them silken and golden stuffs and cloth of cotton, which they wear in summer. From Ruscia, Moxel, and from Greater Bulgaria [=a region in the middle Volga, not to be confused with minor Bulgaria mentioned above] and Pascatir [a region between the upperl Volga and Ural R.], which is greater Hungary, and Kerkis [=Kerghiz], all of which are countries to the north and full of forests, and which obey them, are brought to them costly furs of many kinds, which I never saw in our parts, and which they wear in winter. And they always make in winter at least two fur gowns, one with the fur against the body, the other with the fur outside exposed to the wind and snow; these latter are usually of the skins of wolves or foxes or lynx; and while they sit in the dwelling they have another lighter one. The poor make their outside (gowns) of dog and kid (skins). [Source: “The Journey of William of Rubruck to the Eastern Parts of the World, 1253-55" by William of Rubruck, translation by W. W. Rockhill, 1900; depts.washington.edu/silkroad /~\]

“They make also breeches with furs. The rich furthermore wad their clothing with silk stuffing, which is extraordinarily soft, light and warm. The poor line their clothes with cotton cloth, or with the fine wool which they are able to pick out of the coarser. With this coarser they make felt to cover their houses and coffers, and also for bedding. With wool and a third of horse hair mixed with it they make their ropes. They also make with felt covers [both] saddle-cloths and rain cloaks; so they use a great deal of wool. You have seen the costume of the men. /~\

“The men shave a square on the tops of their heads, and from the front corners (of this square) they continue the shaving to the temples, passing along both sides of the head. They shave also the temples and the back of the neck to the top of the cervical cavity, and the forehead as far as the crown of the head, on which they leave a tuft of hair which falls down to the eyebrows. They leave the hair on the sides of the head, and with it they make tresses which they plait together to the ears. /~\

“And the dress of the girls differs not from the costume of the men, except that it is somewhat longer. But on the day following her marriage, (a woman) shaves the front half of her head, and puts on a tunic as wide as a nun's gown, but everyway larger and longer, open before, and tied on the right side. For in this the Tartars differ from the Turks; the Turks tie their gowns on the left, the Tartars always on the right. Furthermore they have a head-dress, which they call bocca, made of bark, or such other light material as they can find, and it is big and as much as two hands can span around, and is a cubit and more high, and square like the capital of a column. This bocca they cover with costly silk stuff, and it is hollow inside, and on top of the capital, or the square on it, they put a tuft of quills or light canes also a cubit or more in length. And this tuft they ornament at the top with peacock feathers, and round the edge (of the top) with feathers from the mallard's tail, and also with precious stones. The wealthy ladies wear such an ornament on their heads, and fasten it down tightly with an amess (a fur hood), for which there is an opening in the top for that purpose, and inside they stuff their hair, gathering it together on the back of the tops of their heads in a kind of knot, and putting it in the bocca, which they afterwards tie down tightly under the chin. So it is that when several ladies are riding together, and one sees them from afar, they look like soldiers, helmets on head and lances erect. For this bocca looks like a helmet, and the tuft above it is like a lance. And all the women sit their horses astraddle like men. And they tie their gowns with a piece of blue silk stuff at the waist and they wrap another band at the breasts, and tie a piece of white stuff below the eyes which hangs down to the breast. And the women there are astonishingly fat, and she who has the least nose is held the most beautiful. They disfigure themselves horribly by painting their faces. They never lie down in bed when having their children.” /~\


Khitan mural


Mongol Nomadic Life

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “The Mongolian pastoral nomads relied on their animals for survival and moved their habitat several times a year in search of water and grass for their herds. Their lifestyle was precarious, as their constant migrations prevented them from transporting reserves of food or other necessities. Rarely having the luxury of surpluses to tide them through difficult times, they were extremely vulnerable to the elements. Heavy snows, ice, and droughts (judging from contemporary times, droughts afflicted Mongolia about twice a decade) jeopardized their flocks and herds and heightened their sense of fragility. The spread of disease among the livestock could also spell disaster. Herders hunted and farmed to a limited extent but were dependent on trade with China in times of crisis. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu/mongols <|>]

“The reproduction of sheep and goats is essential for the survival of Mongol pastoralism. The animals are culled annually for food, hide, and skin, and many do not survive the harsh winters. Replenishment of the herds and flocks, therefore, is vital. But encouraging successful procreation and survival of the young requires tremendous skill and knowledge. Another threat to the survival of the sheep and goats are wolves. They generally attacked the young but were also known to threaten adult animals. Herders kept and trained fierce dogs to protect the herds from such predators. In addition, the Mongols periodically went on hunts to cull the wolf population.” <|>

Mongol Animals: Sheep and Goats

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “The most numerous and valuable of the Mongols' principal animals, sheep provided food, clothing, and shelter for Mongol families. Boiled mutton was an integral part of the Mongol diet, and wool and animal skins were the materials from which the Mongols fashioned their garments, as well as their homes. Wool was pressed into felt and then either made into clothing, rugs, and blankets or used for the outer covering of the gers [or tents]. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu/mongols <|>]



“Dried sheep dung was collected and used for fuel. Though the Mongols used wood and currently also use coal as fuel sources, animal dung was often the most readily available source. Women, and secondarily children, were responsible for gathering the dung. Survival of young sheep (and other animals) was vital to maintaining the pastoral-nomadic way of life, and a significant responsibility for Mongol women was to coax the ewes to nurse their young. <|>

“Goats were not as pervasive as sheep in the Mongol flocks, but the Mongols consumed goat meat, milk, and cheese. The poor wore goat skins; and in more modern times, goats have become valuable as the source for cashmere. Because goats were not as tough and needed more care than sheep, the Mongols kept fewer goats. In addition, because goats consume the grass to the root when they graze, they devastate the grasslands, resulting in desertification. Mongols in traditional times therefore limited the number of goats in their flocks. Modern demand for cashmere caused many herders in the 1990s to increase their numbers of goats, potentially undermining the traditional ecological balance. <|>

Mongol Animals: Camels and Yaks

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “The Bactrian or two-humped camel permits the Mongols to transport heavy loads through the desert and other inhospitable terrain. The camel is invaluable not only for transporting the folded gers and other household furnishings when the Mongols move to new pastureland, but also to carry goods designed for trade. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu/mongols <|>]

A camel could endure the heat of the Gobi desert, could drink enormous quantities of water and then continue for days without liquid, required less pasture than other pack animals, and could extract food from the scruffiest shrubs or blades of grass — all ideal qualities for the daunting desert terrain of southern Mongolia.In addition to the camel's importance for transport, the Mongols valued the animal's wool, drank its milk (which can also be made into cheese), and ate its meat. No wonder then that "in the Mongol epoch the camel enjoyed the highest esteem he was attain in the Chinese lands". [Source: "The Camel in China down to the Mongol Dynasty," by Edward H. Schafer, in Sinologica 2 (Basel: Verlag für Recht und Gesellschaft, 1950]

“Yaks and oxen require excellent grazing grounds and cannot endure well in the deserts and other marginal areas. They are found primarily in the steppelands, and thus there are fewer of them than sheep or goats. Yaks offer meat and milk, and the Mongols often use yak and ox carts to transport their belongings as they migrate from one region to another.” <|>



Mongols and their Horses

Mongol horses during the time of Genghis Khan in the 13th century were small but durable with a thick neck, short legs and a large head. They were "obedient, even tempered and ideal for winter fighting." Horses were rarely used as beasts of burden. Oxen were used to pull and carry loads in rocky terrain and camels were favored on grass and sand. Mongol children learned to ride at around the age of our of five.

Edward Wong wrote in the New York Times: “Until the 20th century, horses were in the blood of all Mongolians. Their language has more than 70 words to describe the animals’ coloring. When a great horse dies, its skull is placed atop a cairn on a mountain, and Mongolians make offerings there. Mongolian horses are short and stubby, but that is exactly what helped Genghis Khan conquer half the known world. His warriors could leap on and off their horses in the middle of battle. They also learned to whirl around and shoot arrows while riding away from their enemies. [Source: Edward Wong, New York Times, July 11, 2008 */*]

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “Horses offered mobility to the Mongols, permitting them to roam the steppes in search of pasture for their flocks, as well as to round up other horses that have been allowed to graze freely faraway from an encampment. Riders gathering the horses together were equipped with a pole at the end of which was a special lasso. Children, who became skilled riders at an early age, assumed this responsibility on occasion. In summer, women milked the mares, sometimes as often as eight or nine times daily. Much of the milk was allowed to ferment, producing an alcoholic drink known as airag (or koumiss). In traditional times horses gave the Mongols the decided tactical advantage of mobility in conflicts against sedentary civilizations. They could, for example, initiate a hit-and-run raid on a Chinese village, fleeing to the steppelands and thus evading the less mobile Chinese forces. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu/mongols <|>]

Mongol Equipment and Things Their Horses Provided

The Mongol saddle had disc-shaped stirrups that served as platforms and allowed the riders to perform various maneuvers in battle. The Mongols could use their lances, sabers and bows and arrows with frightening results while riding full speed on their horses. They could shoot arrows forward, to the side and to the back. They were especially adept at shooting targets from the rear.


Morris Rossabi wrote in Natural History: ““A wood-and-leather saddle, which was rubbed with sheep’s fat to prevent cracking and shrinkage, allowed the horses to bear the weight of their riders for long periods and also permitted the riders to retain a firm seat. Their saddlebags contained cooking pots, dried meat, yogurt, water bottles, and other essentials for lengthy expeditions. Finally, a sturdy stirrup enabled horsemen to be steadier and thus more accurate in shooting when mounted. [Source: “All the Khan’s Horses” by Morris Rossabi, Natural History, October 1994 =|=]

Horses provided food as well as transport. Each soldier had around five horses — the horse he was riding plus four remounts which could be used when the horse he was riding got tired or injured. Mongol soldiers usually changed their mounts every day to conserve their animals’ energy. It was said riders could survive for months on the milk and blood from their mounts. Soldiers would often stay in the saddle for days, slitting a vein in the neck of the horse to drink its blood so he would not have to stop for meals.

“According to Marco Polo, the horse also provided sustenance to its rider on long trips during which all the food had been consumed. On such occasions, the rider would cut the horse’s veins and drink the blood that spurted forth. Marco Polo reported, perhaps with some exaggeration, that a horseman could, by nourishing himself on his horse’s blood, “ride quite ten days’ marches without eating any cooked food and without lighting a fire.” And because its milk offered additional sustenance during extended military campaigns, a cavalryman usually preferred a mare as a mount. The milk was often fermented to produce kumiss, or araq, a potent alcoholic drink liberally consumed by the Mongols. In short, as one commander stated, “If the horse dies, I die; if it lives, I survive.” =|=

Military Importance of Mongol Horses

Morris Rossabi wrote in Natural History: ““Genghis Khan and his descendents could not have conquered and ruled the largest land empire in world history without their diminutive but extremely hardy steeds...A Chinese chronicler recognized the horse’s value to the Mongols, observing that “by nature they [the Mongols] are good at riding and shooting. Therefore they took possession of the world through this advantage of bow and horse.” [Source: “All the Khan’s Horses” by Morris Rossabi, Natural History, October 1994 =|=]


Mongol Empire at its Peak

“The Mongols prized their horses primarily for the advantages they offered in warfare. In combat, the horses were fast and flexible, and Genghis Khan was the first leader to capitalize fully on these strengths. After hit-and-run raids, for example, his horsemen could race back and quickly disappear into their native steppes. Enemy armies from the sedentary agricultural societies to the south frequently had to abandon their pursuit because they were not accustomed to long rides on horseback and thus could not move as quickly. Nor could these farmer-soldiers leave their fields for extended periods to chase after the Mongols. =|=

“The Mongols had developed a composite bow made out of sinew and horn and were skilled at shooting it while riding, which gave them the upper hand against ordinary foot soldiers. With a range of more than 350 yards, the bow was superior to the contemporaneous English longbow, whose range was only 250 yards.

“Genghis Khan understood the importance of horses and insisted that his troops be solicitous of their steeds. A cavalryman normally had three or four, so that each was, at one time or another, given a respite from bearing the weight of the rider during a lengthy journey. Before combat, leather coverings were placed on the head of each horse and its body was covered with armor. After combat, Mongol horses could traverse the most rugged terrain and survive on little fodder. =|=

Mongol Family Life and Women

The soldiers and their families slept in gers, portable tents that were easily assembled and taken apart and were carried on the backs of pack animals when the tumen was on the move. Fuel for cooking and heating came from animal dropping collected by women and children. Camel dung was particularly prized for its clean burn.

In the Mongol Empire, women enjoyed equal rights with men. Even subject people were granted these rights. Women devoted much of their time to milking the thousands of animals, the Mongol’s primarily food source. When the Mongols were fighting, the women helped the men by killing the wounded and collecting arrowheads.

Although the great khans had many wives and concubines, one wife, usually the first, enjoyed a high status and often was a trusted advisor and major player in court affairs.

Khans

The Khans were the leaders of the Mongols. They included Genghis Khan, his sons and his grandsons---Batu Khan, Magu Khan, Kublai Khan, and Hulag.

"The Mongol Khans," wrote historian Daniel Boorstin, "were as able a dynasty as ever ruled a great empire. They showed a combination of military genius, personal courage, administrative versatility, and cultural tolerance unequaled by any European line of hereditary rulers. They deserve a higher place and a different place than they have been given by the Western historian." [Source: "The Discoverers" by Daniel Boorstin]

When a Mongol army was on the move, the great khan's tumen was usually far behind the main strike forces and the golden-cloaked khan usually rode on horseback beside the golden ger. Lance-bearing khan guardsmen rode at the front of the tumen. Next to the golden ger flew the khan’s banner “a grey wolf, representing the son of the blue sky, on a gold background---and a standard that carried white horsetails if the Mongols were at peace and black tails if they were at war.

The royal entourage consisted of guards, family members, generals, servants and trusted advisors. The khan's falconer held a particularly high position.


Ladies at the Mongolian court at Bogd Khan in the early 20th century


Mongolian Tents

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “The Mongolian nomads have developed a circular felt-covered dwelling, the ger (or yurt in Turkish language), adapted to the difficult conditions of their daily life (cold, wind, sun) and easy to be moved, as they can be raised and dismantled in 30-60 minutes. The gers have beautiful carved and decorated doors, south oriented. When entering into a ger, airag and cheese are blown and snuff bottles are exchanged. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu/mongols <|>]

Stefano Carboni and Qamar Adamjee of the Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “The nomadic way of life required dwellings with a light structure that were easy to transport, assemble, and dismantle. The typical Central Asian tent, known today as a yurta or ger, is a circular construction with a conical roof made of a wooden trellis covered with felt. Practical and functional, this structure has not undergone substantial change since ancient times. The interior of the tent becomes a home when wool rugs are spread on the floor, colorful textiles are hung on the walls, and a stove is placed in the center, its vertical pipe piercing the circular aperture in the roof. [Source: Stefano Carboni and Qamar Adamjee, Department of Islamic Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org \^/]

“A Mongol royal tent was the epitome of luxury and allowed the ruler to reconcile semi-nomadic and sedentary lifestyles. This tent was exceptionally large and was transported, fully assembled, by placing it on a wheeled contraption pulled by oxen. Its interior was lined with sumptuous textiles made by the best weavers of Iran, Central Asia, and China. Its floor was covered with the warmest and most comfortable Persian rugs. Gold and silver cups, ewers, and bowls were placed on low red-lacquered wooden tables and trays. A large number of smaller and slightly less luxurious tents belonging to the traveling members of the retinue made the entire caravan a grand sight. In this way, the Ilkhanid rulers would travel from their summer capital at Tabriz in northwestern Iran to the winter capital at Baghdad in Iraq.\^/

“The Mongols, however, never lost their taste for lavish objects related to their ancestral nomadic roots. Their love of the horse and of personal adornment associated with the nomadic life continued even after they adopted the urban concept of the court. Horses were bedecked with gold saddles and trappings, probably only for parading. Sumptuous silk coats, flamboyant hats decorated with eagle and owl feathers for men and with gold plaques and pearls for women, richly embroidered leather boots, and ostentatious belts were part of daily fashion.” \^/

Books: Carboni, Stefano, and Komaroff, Linda, eds. The Legacy of Genghis Khan: Courtly Art and Culture in Western Asia, 1256–1353. Exhibition catalogue.. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2002. Wardwell, Anne E. "Panni Tartarici: Eastern Islamic Silks Woven with Gold and Silver (Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries)." Islamic Art 3 (1988–89), pp. 95–173.


Mongol Asar maikhan (literaly "pavilon tent"), a kind of decorated yurt, here in China on the Qinghai plateau, near Qinghai Lake and Tibet


William of Rubruck on Mongol Yurts

William of Rubruck wrote: “Nowhere have they fixed dwelling-places, nor do they know where their next will be. They have divided among themselves Cithia [=Scythia], which extendeth from the Danube to the rising of the sun ; and every captain, according as he hath more or less men under him, knows the limits of his pasture land and where to graze in winter and summer, spring and autumn. For in winter they go down to warmer regions in the south: in summer they go up to cooler towards the north. The pasture lands without water they graze over in winter when there is snow there, for the snow serveth them as water. [Source: “The Journey of William of Rubruck to the Eastern Parts of the World, 1253-55" by William of Rubruck, translation by W. W. Rockhill, 1900; depts.washington.edu/silkroad /~\]

“They set up the dwelling in which they sleep on a circular frame of interlaced sticks converging into a little round hoop on the top, from which projects above a collar as a chimney, and this (framework) they cover over with white felt. Frequently they coat the felt with chalk, or white clay, or powdered bone, to make it appear whiter, and sometimes also (they make the felt) black. The felt around this collar on top they decorate with various pretty designs. Before the entry they also suspend felt ornamented with various embroidered designs in color. For they embroider the felt, colored or otherwise, making vines and trees, birds and beasts. /~\

“And they make these houses so large that they are sometimes thirty feet in width. I myself once measured the width between the wheel-tracks of a cart twenty feet, and when the house was on the cart it projected beyond the wheels on either side five feet at least. I have myself counted to one cart twenty-two oxen drawing one house, eleven abreast across the width of the cart, and the other eleven before them. The axle of the cart was as large as the mast of a ship, and one man stood in the entry of the house on the cart driving the oxen. /~\

“Furthermore they weave light twigs into squares of the size of a large chest, and over it from one end to the other they put a turtle-back also of twigs, and in the front end they make a little doorway; and then they cover this coffer or little house with black felt coated with tallow or ewe's milk, so that the rain cannot penetrate it, and they decorate it likewise with embroidery work. And in such coffers they put all their bedding and valuables, and they tie them tightly on high carts drawn by camels, so that they can cross rivers (without getting wet). Such coffers they never take off the cart. /~\


Mongol caravan


“When they set down their dwelling-houses, they always turn the door to the south' and after that they place the carts with coffers on either side near the house at a half stone's throw, so that the dwelling stands between two rows of carts as between two walls. The matrons make for themselves most beautiful (luggage) carts, which I would not know how to describe to you unless by a drawing, and I would depict them all to you if I knew how to paint. A single rich Mongol or Tartar has quite one hundred or two hundred such carts with coffers. Batu has twenty-six wives, each of whom has a large dwelling, exclusive of the other little ones which they set up after the big one, and which are like closets, in which the sewing girls live, and to each of these (large) dwellings are attached quite two hundred carts. And when they set up their houses, the first wife places her dwelling on the extreme west side, and after her the others according to their rank, so that the last wife will be in the extreme east ; and there will be the distance of a stone's throw between the iurt of one wife and that of another. The ordu of a rich Mongol seems like a large town, though there will be very few men in it. One girl will lead twenty or thirty carts, for the country is flat, and they tie the ox or camel carts the one after the other, and a girl will sit on the front one driving the ox, and all the others follow after with the same gait. Should it happen that they come to some bad piece of road, they untie them, and take them across one by one. So they go along slowly, as a sheep or an ox might walk. /~\

“When they have fixed their dwelling, the door turned to the south, they set up the couch of the master on the north side. The side for the women is always the east side, that is to say, on the left of the house of the master, he sitting on his couch his face turned to the south. The side for the men is the west side, that is, on the right. Men coming into the house would never hang up their bows on the side of the woman. /~\

Mongol Caravans

When the Mongols were making war, they traveled in tumens, great caravan that Ibn Battuta described as "a vast city on the move." A large 50,000-person tumen sometimes extended for 50 miles across the steppe. It moved at a rate of about five miles a day, stopping four times a day to milk the animals. In wartime several tumens could converge, forming an army of 100,000 or more.

A 50,000-person tumen and its logistical support embraced 75,000 oxen and camels; 2,000 collapsible ger; 10,000 infantrymen; 30,000 family members; a cavalry of 10,000 men that surrounded the caravan in a screening formation; 40,000 fresh horses; and domestic herds of 100,000 sheep and 10,000 goats to provide milk meat and wool for the moving army.


recreation of a yurt-carrying cart


"They do not need a baggage train or stores, since they have with sheep, horses, and other animals, and live exclusively off their meat," wrote Ibn-al-Athir. The milk of the animals was their primary source of nourishment. When food was particular scarce they could drink their animal’s blood.

William of Rubruck on Traveling by Cart on the Russian Steppe

William of Rubruck wrote: “They gave us the choice whether we would have carts with oxen to carry our effects, or sumpter horses. And the merchants of Constantinople advised me to take carts, and that I should buy the regular covered carts such as the Ruthenians [=Russians] carry their furs in, and in these I could put such of our things as I would not wish to unload every day; should I take horses it would be necessary to unload them at each stopping-place and to load other horses; and furthermore I should be able to ride more slowly following the gait of the oxen. Then I accepted their advice, unfortunately, however, for I was two months on the way to Sartach, which I might have traveled in one had I gone with horses. /~\

“I had brought with me from Constantinople, on the advice of merchants, fruits, muscadel wine and dainty biscuits to present to the first captains (of the Tartars), so that my way might be made easier, for among them no one is looked upon in a proper way who comes with empty hands. All these things I put in one of the carts, since I had not found the captains of the city, and I was told they would be most acceptable to Sartach if I could carry them to him that far. /~\

“We set out on our journey about the calends of June (1st June [1253]) with our four covered carts and two others which were lent us by them and in which was carried bedding to sleep on at night. And they gave us also five horses to ride, for us five persons, myself, and my companion Friar Bartholomew of Cremona, and Gosset the bearer of the presents: "the bearer of this letter" (Near the end of the narrative we learn that Rubruck was detained in Acre in Palastine and sent the narrative to King Loius via Gosset], and Homo Dei the dragoman [interpreter], and the boy Nicholas whom I had bought at Constantinople by means of your charity. They gave us also two men who drove the carts and looked after the oxen and horses. After having left Soldaia we came on the third day across the Tartars, and when I found myself among them it seemed to me of a truth that I had been transported into another world.. I will describe to you as well as I can their mode of living and manners.” /~\


from the History of Genghis Khan


William of Rubruck on Mongol Social Customs

William of Rubruck wrote: “And over the head of the master is always an image of felt, like a doll or statuette, which they call the brother of the master: another similar one is above the head of the mistress, which they call the brother of the mistress, and they are attached to the wall: and higher up between the two of them is a little lank one (macilenta), who is, as it were, the guardian of the whole dwelling. The mistress places in her house on her right side, in a conspicuous place at the foot of her couch, a goat-skin full of wool or other stuff, and beside it a very little statuette looking in the direction of attendants and women. Beside the entry on the woman's side is yet another image, with a cow's tit for the women, who milk the cows: for it is part of the duty of the women to milk the cows. On the other side of the entry, toward the men, is another statue with a mare's tit for the men who milk the mares. [Source: “The Journey of William of Rubruck to the Eastern Parts of the World, 1253-55" by William of Rubruck, translation by W. W. Rockhill, 1900; depts.washington.edu/silkroad /~\]

“And when they have come together to drink, they first sprinkle with liquor this image which is over the master's head, then the other images in order. Then an attendant goes out of the dwelling with a cup and liquor, and sprinkles three times to the south, each time bending the knee, and that to do reverence to the fire; then to the east, and that to do reverence to the air; then to the west to do reverence to the water; to the north they sprinkle for the dead. When the master takes the cup in hand and is about to drink, he first pours a portion on the ground. If he were to drink seated on a horse, he first before he drinks pours a little on the neck or the mane of the horse. Then when the attendant has sprinkled toward the four quarters of the world he goes back into the house, where two attendants are ready, with two cups and platters to carry drink to the master and the wife seated near him upon the couch. And when he hath several wives, she with whom he hath slept that night sits beside him in the day, and it becometh all the others to come to her dwelling that day to drink, and court is held there that day, and the gifts which are brought that day are placed in the treasury of that lady. A bench with a skin of milk, or some other drink, and with cups, stands in the entry. /~\

“In winter they make a capital drink of rice, of millet, and of honey, ; it is clear as wine : and wine is carried to them from remote parts. In summer they care only for cosmos (koumiss, mare’s milk). There is always cosmos near the house, before the entry door, and beside it stands a guitar-player with his guitar. Lutes and vielles [i.e. guitars] such as we have I did not see there, but many other instruments which are unknown among us. And when the master begins to drink, then one of the attendants cries with a loud voice, "Ha!" and the guitarist strikes his guitar, and when they have a great feast they all clap their hands, and also dance about to the sound of the guitar, the men before the master, the women before the mistress. And when the master has drunken, then the attendant cries as before, and the guitarist stops. Then they drink all around, and sometimes they do drink right shamefully and gluttonly. And when they want to challenge anyone to drink, they take hold of him by the ears, and pull so as to distend his throat, and they clan and dance before him. Likewise, when they want to make a great feasting and jollity with someone, one takes a full cup, and two others are on his right and left, and thus these three come singing and dancing towards him who is to take the cup, and they sing and dance before him ; and when he holds out his hand to take the cup, they quickly draw it back, and then again they come back as before, and so they elude him three or four times by drawing away the cup, till he hath become well excited and is in good appetite, and then they give him the goblet, singing and clapping and stamping their feet until he is drunk.” /~\


Hulagu, leader of a Muslim kingdom, and his Christian wife Dokuz Kathan


William of Rubruck on Mongol Men and Women

William of Rubruck wrote: “It is the duty of the women to drive the carts, get the dwellings on and off them, milk the cows, make butter and gruit, and to dress and sew skins, which they do with a thread made of tendons. They divide the tendons into fine shreds, and then twist them into one long thread. They also sew the boots, the socks and the clothing. They never wash clothes, for they say that God would be angered thereat, and that it would thunder if they hung them up to dry. They will even thrash anyone doing laundry and confiscate it. Thunder they fear extraordinarily; and when it thunders they will turn out of their dwellings all strangers, wrap themselves in black felt, and thus hide themselves till it has passed away. Furthermore, they never wash their bowls, but when the meat is cooked they rinse out the dish in which they are about to put it with some of the boiling broth from the kettle, which they pour back into it. They also make the felt and cover the houses. [Source: “The Journey of William of Rubruck to the Eastern Parts of the World, 1253-55" by William of Rubruck, translation by W. W. Rockhill, 1900; depts.washington.edu/silkroad /~\]

“The men make bows and arrows, manufacture stirrups and bits, make saddles, do the carpentering on (the framework of) their dwellings and the carts; they take care of the horses, milk the mares, churn the cosmos or mare's milk, make the skins in which it is put; they also look after the camels and load them. Both sexes look after the sheep and goats, sometimes the men, other times the women, milking them. They dress skins with a thick mixture of sour ewe's milk and salt. When they want to wash their hands or head, they fill their mouths with water, which they let trickle on to their hands, and in this way they also wet their hair and wash their heads. /~\

“As to their marriages, you must know that no one among them has a wife unless he buys her; so it sometimes happens that girls are well past marriageable age before they marry, for their parents always keep them until they sell them. They observe the first and second degrees of consanguinity, but no degree of affinity; thus (one person) will have at the same time or successively two sisters. Among them no widow marries, for the following reason: they believe that all who serve them in this life shall serve them in the next, so as regards a widow they believe that she will always return to her first husband after death. Hence this shameful custom prevails among them, that sometimes a son takes to wife all his father's wives, except his own mother; for the ordu of the father and mother always belongs to the youngest son, so it is he who must provide for all his father's wives who come to him with the paternal household, and if he wishes it he uses them as wives, for he esteems not himself injured if they return to his father after death. When then anyone has made a bargain with another to take his daughter, the father of the girl gives a feast, and the girl flees to her relatives and hides there. Then the father says: "Here, my daughter is yours: take her wheresoever you find her." Then he searches for her with his friends till he finds her, and he must take her by force and carry her off with a semblance of violence to his house. /~\

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p> “As to their justice you must know that when two men fight together no one dares interfere, even a father dare not aid a son ; but he who has the worse of it may appeal to the court of the lord, and if anyone touches him after the appeal, he is put to death. But action must be taken at once without any delay, and the injured one must lead him (who has offended) as a captive. They inflict capital punishment on no one unless he be taken in the act or confesses. When one is accused by a number of persons, they torture him so that he confesses. They punish homicide with capital punishment, and also co-habiting with a woman not one's own. By not one's own, [I] mean not his wife or bondwoman, for with one's slaves one may do as one pleases. They also punish with death grand larceny, but as for petty thefts, such as that of a sheep, so long as one has not repeatedly been taken in the act, they beat him cruelly, and if they administer a hundred blows they must use a hundred sticks: I speak of the case of those who have been sentenced to a beating by the court. In like manner false envoys, that is to say persons who pass themselves off as ambassadors but who are not, are put to death. Likewise sorcerers, of whom I shall however tell you more, for such they consider to be witches.” /~\



Great Khan's Golden Ger

At the front of the great khan's tumen was a golden ger where great khan held court. Mounted on a cart pulled by two dozen oxen, it served as an administrative center where the Khan met foreign dignitaries and held meetings with his generals. The gers of his wives were also generally carried in one piece on a cart rather than taken apart for transport like other gers. The wooden wheels on the massive carts were constantly lubricated with animal fat.

The golden ger was always positioned so that its door faced south. The great khan sat on golden throne with his principal wife on the north side. The khans sons sat on the east side along with lesser wives and children. Visitors and ministers were always required to stand on the west wall. A brazier stood at the center of the ger and guests were usually served fermented mare's milk.

Guards were stationed outside the door of the ger. "Entering into and going from the palace tent," said Genghis Khan, "must be relegated by the night guards...The night guards watch over my golden life."

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wikipedia, BBC, Comptom’s Encyclopedia, Lonely Planet Guides, Silk Road Foundation, The Discoverers by Daniel Boorstin; History of Arab People by Albert Hourani (Faber and Faber, 1991); Islam, a Short History by Karen Armstrong (Modern Library, 2000); and various books and other publications.

Last updated February 2019

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