roasted marmot

Jane Black wrote in the Washington Post, “Even when cooking wasn't possible, they found ways to soften or tenderize food. Steak tartare, for example, is thought to get its name from the Tartars who rode in Genghis Khan's army. Moving swiftly and without time to make camp or cook a hot meal, the riders would put slabs of meat under their saddles, riding on them all day until they were tender enough to eat. [Source: Jane Black, Washington Post, July 12, 2009]

Among herders the typical diet consist primarily of milk, milk products, meat from the animals they herded, usually mutton, milk teas, millet, airag (koumiss) and liquor. Milk products have traditionally been consumed fresh in the summer and fall. Butter is made from milk, skimmed of during boiling. The remaining milk is fermented with a special yeast to make various kinds of cheeses and yoghurt. Some milk are fermented and distilled into a special kinds of vodka. After distillation the remaining curdled liquid is mixed with flour, roots and bird cherries and frozen into a solid that was consumed during the winters.

Ligaya Mishan wrote in the New York Times: Yuan feasts, as documented in “Proper and Essential Things for the Emperor’s Food and Drink,” a dietary manual codified for the Chinese court in the 14th century, offer a more complicated picture of the tension between conquest and assimilation. The Mongol influence was clear, especially in dishes involving lamb, every part used, as described by the Chinese biochemist Hsiang Ju Lin in “Slippery Noodles: A Culinary History of China” (2015): deep-fried tendons, air-dried intestines, raw liver, ears, tongue and whole heads garlanded with kidneys, stomach and lungs. A number of ingredients, such as red currants and smartweed, were not cultivated but foraged from the wild, following the folk wisdom of the steppes. At the same time, imperial menus also reflected “a collective culinary heritage,” the American scholars Paul D. Buell and Eugene N. Anderson note in “A Soup for the Qan” (2010), and included Turkic noodles, Tibetan tsampa (roasted barley flour) and dishes from as far away as Baghdad and Kashmir. This was “a deliberate attempt to represent the Mongolian world order in visible, tangible, edible form” — the empire made manifest on the table, in a show of might. [Source: Ligaya Mishan, New York Times, May 11, 2020]

Modern Buryats (a Mongolian group) eat the meat of all kinds of animals but prefer mutton, except in the winter when they like to eat beef. Meat is usually prepared in slightly salted water. The bouillon is used as a flavoring for noodles or millet. Out on the steppe, sheep is boiled in salt water over a stove fueled by cow dung. The Mongols break off large chunks of sheep fat and pop in their mouths. Mutton liver, preferably wrapped in stomach lining, is regarded as a delicacy. Many animals are slaughtered in late autumn and the meat is frozen so it can be eaten in the winter.

Nomads boil and eat the lungs, heart, stomach, liver and intestines of the animals they slaughter. Their favorite food is often pieces of pure fat. Big events are celebrated with a feast featuring a sheep slaughtered by slitting its stomach and reaching inside elbow-deep and squeezing the artery between the heart and brain. Nomads have traditionally eaten the intestines and drank the blood of freshly slaughtered animals. The head and eyeballs are considered special treats given to guests. A sheep bladder filled with blood, tied at the ends and boiled is considered a real delicacy. It was said Mongol 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.

Websites and Resources: Mongols and Horsemen of the Steppe:
Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; The Mongol Empire ; The Mongols in World History ; William of Rubruck's Account of the Mongols ; Mongol invasion of Rus (pictures) ; Encyclopædia Britannica article ; Mongol Archives ; “The Horse, the Wheel and Language, How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes shaped the Modern World", David W Anthony, 2007 ; The Scythians - Silk Road Foundation ; Scythians ; Encyclopaedia Britannica article on the Huns ; Wikipedia article on Eurasian nomads Wikipedia

Mongol Diet

aaruul (dry Mongolian cheese), the ideal nomad transport food

John Masson Smith Jr. wrote in Journal of Asian History: “The diet of pre-imperial Mongols was simple, calorically-sufficient — and poorly balanced. Then as now (or until very recently) the average Mongol family possessed a herd consisting largely of sheep, with some goats, and a few each of bovines and camels. Then, however, families kept more horses (ponies, actually) to maintain a military capability. For decent subsistence, a family required l00 sheep or the equivalent; for its military role, at least five (gelding) ponies; besides these, perhaps three more ponies and some oxen and camels were useful for transportation; and a mare or two for milking. From these animals the Mongols, like the other nomads of Inner Asia, obtained most of their food. [Source: “Dietary Decadence and Dynastic Decline in the Mongol Empire” by John Masson Smith, Jr., University of California, Berkeley, Journal of Asian History, vol. 34, no. 1, 2000]

“In the words of John of Plano Carpini, who visited the Mongols in the 1240s: “[The Mongols] have neither bread nor herbs nor vegetables nor anything else, nothing but meat … They drink mare’s milk in very great quantities if they have it; they also drink the milk of ewes, cows, goats and even camels.” Although many nomads exchange animal products for goods, including foods, from settled peoples, those of Outer Mongolia, where the Mongols under Chinggis Khan got their start, were (and still are) a long way from the nearest substantial farmlands, and for them imported food would have been an expensive, and for the average family, no doubt rare luxury.

“The Mongols’ main meat foods were mutton and lamb; although by all accounts, their favorite was horse-meat, it was a preference that the average family could seldom indulge. The other principal type of food was milk (in various processed forms), again chiefly from sheep, but mare’s milk by preference. The predominance of sheep in the herd and the importance of mutton and sheep’s milk in the diet, as well as the predilection for horse-meat, probably arose from the very high caloric value of these foods, a matter of central importance for practitioners of the hard — and in Mongolia, cold — nomadic life. Beef — our meat mainstay — has 1,073 kilocalories [kcal — the same “calories” that we count when dieting] per lb; mutton has 1,834, and horsemeat 1,855. Likewise, cow’s (whole) milk provides around 400 kcal/lb, and sheep’s milk 511.6 Pound for pound, pint for pint, you get the best caloric return from sheep and horses.

vegetables that grow in Mongolia

“Fat provides most of these calories: 89% of them in the case of mutton, which is 40% fat; and 67% with sheep’s milk (7.5% fat). One low-fat food was available. Since most of the Mongols’ animals provided milk for only about 5 months a year (cf. cows at 10-11 months), the Mongols had to process milk into forms that would keep well during the seven “dry” months. They rendered cow’s milk into a dried skim milk solid, the approximate equivalent of our non-fat milk powder. But they kept and ate the by-product, butter, off-setting the healthful effect of the dried skim.

“Interestingly, poor Mongols probably benefited from a better-balanced diet. After Chinggis’ father died, most of his family’s herds were stolen, so that his mother had to feed her children edible plants: wild pears, bird cherries, garden burnet root, cinquefoil root, wild onion, shallot, lily root, and garlic chives. Despite this diet of what the Mongols considered second-rate foods, Chinggis and the other boys “grew up into fine men” in the words of the Secret History.”

William of Rubruck on Mongol Food

William of Rubruck (c. 1220 – c. 1293, or ca. 1210-ca. 1270) was a Flemish Franciscan missionary, monk and explorer. His account is one of the masterpieces of medieval geographical literature comparable to that of Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta and is the most detailed and valuable of the early Western accounts of the Mongols. Born in Rubrouck, Flanders, he is known also as William of Rubruk, Willem van Ruysbroeck, Guillaume de Rubrouck or Willielmus de Rubruquis. He travelled to various places of the Mongol Empire in Asia before his return to Europe. [Source: Wikipedia]

Rubruck wrote: “Of their food and victuals you must know that they eat all their dead animals without distinction, and with such flocks and herds it cannot be but that many animals die. Nevertheless, in summer, so long as lasts their cosmos (koumiss, mare’s milk), that is to say mare's milk, they care not for any other food. So then if it happens that an ox or a horse dies, they dry its flesh by cutting it into narrow strips and hanging it in the sun and the wind, where at once and without salt it becomes dry without any evidence of smell. With the intestines of horses they make sausages better than pork ones, and they eat them fresh. The rest of the flesh they keep for winter. [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; /~]

Mongolian dried meat

“With the hides of oxen they make big bags, which they dry in admirable fashion in the smoke. With the hind part of the hide of horses they make most beautiful shoes. With the flesh of a single sheep they give to eat to fifty men or a hundred; for they cut it up very fine in a platter with salt and water, for they make no other sauce; and then with the point of a knife or a fork which they make for the purpose, like that which we used to eat coddled pears or apples, they give to each of the bystanders a mouthful or two according to the number of the guests. Prior to this, before the flesh of the sheep is served, the master takes what pleases him; and furthermore if he gives to anyone a special piece, it is the custom, that he who receives it shall eat it himself, and he may not give it to another; but if he cannot eat it all he carries it off with him, or gives it to his servant if he be present, who keeps it; otherwise he puts it away in his captargac, which is a square bag which they carry to put such things in, in which they store away bones when they have not time to gnaw them well, so that they can gnaw them later and that nothing of the food be lost. /~\

William of Rubruck on Animals in the Mongols' Diet

William of Rubruck wrote: “The great lords have villages in the south, from which millet and flour are brought to them for the winter. The poor procure (these things) by trading sheep and pelts. The slaves fill their bellies with dirty water, and with this they are content. They catch also rats, of which many kinds abound here. Rats with long tails they eat not, but give them to their birds. They eat mice and all kinds of rats which have short tails. There are also many marmots, which are called sogur, and which congregate in one hole in winter, twenty or thirty together, and sleep for six months; these they catch in great numbers. There are also conies, with a long tail like a cat's, and on the end of the tail they have black and white hairs. They have also many other kinds of small animals good to eat, which they know very well how to distinguish. [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; /~]

Mongol hunters painted by Chinese during the Song Dynasty

“I saw no deer there. I saw few hares, many gazelles. Wild asses I saw in great numbers, and these are like mules. I saw also another kind of animal which is called arcali[=a wild sheep], which has quite the body of a sheep, and horns bent like a ram's, but of such size that I could hardly lift the two horns with one hand, and they make of these horns big cups. They have hawks and peregrine falcons in great numbers, which they all carry on their right hand. And they always put a little thong around the hawk's neck, which hangs down to the middle of its breast, by which, when they cast it at its prey, they pull down with the left hand the head and breast of the hawk, so that it be not struck by the wind and carried upward. So it is that they procure a large part of their food by the chase. When they want to chase wild animals, they gather together in a great multitude and surround the district in which they know the game to be, and gradually they come closer to each other till they have shut up the game in among them as in an enclosure, and then they shoot them with their arrows. /~\

Mongol Food Supplies and Transport

John Masson Smith Jr. wrote in Journal of Asian History: “Over the course of about two generations (1206-1279), the Mongols conquered a good part of the known world, including China, Russia and much of the Middle East. From the proceeds of this empire, the Mongol rulers then tried to make more food available to their nomad subjects, and to provide for themselves all they could eat of their favorite dishes, plus a staggering supply of intoxicating drink. [Source: “Dietary Decadence and Dynastic Decline in the Mongol Empire” by John Masson Smith, Jr., University of California, Berkeley, Journal of Asian History, vol. 34, no. 1, 2000]

“At first, the Mongols relied on commerce to enlarge food supplies. This was very expensive. In 1221 a Chinese traveler encountered a caravan bringing food to Mongolia and reported that “Eight catties [about 100 lbs at 1-1/3 lbs/cattie] of flour here [in western Mongolia] cost as much as fifty pounds of silver, for it is brought on the backs of camels from beyond the [Tien] Shan, some two thousand li [one li is 1,364 feet or about a quarter-mile] away by foreign traders from the Western lands.”

drying meat on a ger (yurt, tent)

By 1234, such prices apparently came to be considered excessive even by Ögödei Qa’an, Chinggis’ spend thrift successor, since he established a state program to supplement the food supply of Outer Mongolia. “[H]e had issued [an edict (yasa)] to the effect that every day five hundred wagons fully loaded with food and drink should arrive [in Qara-Qorum (Khara Khorum) in central Outer Mongolia] from the [Mongols’ Chinese] provinces to be placed in stores and then dispensed therefrom. For [grain] and [wine] there were provided great wagons drawn by six oxen each.”

“To calculate the amount of food supplied, we need to estimate the size of the wagonload. Among the Inner Asian vehicles described by Pegolotti, a Florentine trader with knowledge of commerce to East Asia, are a wagon drawn by one ox carrying about 1,000 lbs (10 Genoese cantaras), and a three-camel wagon with a load of about 3,000 lbs (30 cantaras); Pegolotti does not mention a six-ox wagon. If three camels could pull 3,000 lbs, it seems to me that six oxen might draw at least 4,000 lbs, in which case the supply of food and drink to Qaraqorum (Khara Khorum) could have amounted to 1,000 tons a day. If the loads were two-thirds food and one-third drink, most of the people of Outer Mongolia could have received each day two pounds of food (probably grain, flour or pasta), and a pint of drink a day.

“Other important characteristics of the supply-system may also be estimated: grain-wagons took four months for the round-trip between Ta-t’ung, the Chinese frontier city that was the starting-point for the Mongolian supply system, and Qaraqorum, according to Hsiao, pages 59-60. This was a distance, round-trip, of some 1,500 miles, thus covered at an average pace of 12.5 miles per day [mpd] — not counting time for loading, repairs, etc. Compare the 17 mpd pace of commercial travel across Inner Asia, from Tana on the Black Sea to Kanchow in China, as listed by Francesco Balducci Pegolotti, La Pratica della Mercatura, ed. Allan Evans (Cambridge, MA: Mediaeval Academy of America, 1936), 21; this East-West transport probably moved faster because it used smaller wagons and faster draught animals. At this pace, the 900-odd miles between Beijing and Qaraqorum could have been covered in 53 days; the round-trip (without allowance for delays in turn-around) in 106 days. So that 500 wagons should arrive at Qaraqorum each day, 60,000 wagons would have been needed (without allowance for down-time), along with 360,000 oxen, at six per wagon (without allowance for replacements or relays), plus at least 60,000 teamsters (assuming a minimal one per wagon).

Mongol Banquets

John Masson Smith Jr. wrote in Journal of Asian History: ““For their own consumption, the Mongol leaders arranged lavish supplies of horsemeat and qumis. Ibn Battuta, who visited the Golden Horde in Russia in the early fourteenth century, reports, for instance, that he “went one day to the audience of the [Mongol] sultan Uzbak [Ozbek] during the months of Ramadan. There was served horse-flesh (this is the meat that they most often eat) and sheep’s flesh, and rishta, which is a kind of macaroni cooked and supped with milk.” [Source: “Dietary Decadence and Dynastic Decline in the Mongol Empire” by John Masson Smith, Jr., University of California, Berkeley, Journal of Asian History, vol. 34, no. 1, 2000]

Guyuk Khan;s feast

“On another occasion, the Mongol commander Tughluk Timur invited Ibn Battuta to a religious ceremonial banquet: “The servants … brought in the dishes, consisting of the flesh of horses, etc., and also brought mare’s milk. Afterwards they brought the buza [fermented millet], and when the meal was finished the Qur’an readers recited with beautiful voices.” After this and other religious presentations, “more food was served, and they continued in this fashion until the evening”

Qubilai Khan (Kublai Khan) is said to have hosted banquets with as many as 40,000 guests. According to Marco Polo, Qubilai Khan had “a very fine piece of furniture of great size and splendour in the form of a square chest, each side being three paces [about 8 ft] in length, elaborately carved with figures of animals finely wrought in gold. The inside is hollow and contains a huge golden vessel in the form of a pitcher with the capacity of a butt, which is filled with wine. In each corner of the chest is a vessel with the capacity of a firkin, one filled with mare’s milk, one with camel’s milk, and the others with other beverages. … From [the chest] the wine or other precious beverage is drawn off to fill huge stoups of gold, each containing enough to satisfy eight or ten men. One of these [stoups] is set between every two men seated at the table. Each of the two has a gold cup with a handle, which he fills from the stoup. And for every pair of ladies one stoup and two cups are provided in the same way.”

Smith wrote: “Qubilai, probably like the other Mongol rulers, provided such lavish service frequently: at the New Year’s festival; at the festivals for each of the thirteen lunar months; on assorted “festive occasions”; and on birthdays. The birthdays in particular must have added up to a lot of partying. Marco Polo describes only Qubilai’s in detail, but remarks that “all the [Mongols] celebrate their birthdays as festivals” — and Qubilai had four wives and 22 sons by them (along with an unspecified number of daughters), plus a number of concubines and 25 more sons by them (and surely more daughters as well). And then there were his other relatives, his great commanders, their wives, children, and so on.”

“An alternative, less lavish scale of provisioning — and a much longer guest list — may be estimated from Rubruck’s statement that “[The Mongols] feed fifty or a hundred men with the flesh of a single sheep…” Mongolian sheep average 121 lbs in weight (Epstein, 34), of which about 44%, or 53 lbs, is edible, and provides 1,834 kcal/lb (Dahl and Hjort, 201, 204). At the more generous of these rates, the 90 horses could have served 20,000 guests — and each of them could have had about 5 pints of qumis, assuming 1,000-lb loads on the carts carrying drink.”

Koumiss, Other Alcoholic Drinks and Mongol Drinking Habits

mare milking

John Masson Smith Jr. wrote in Journal of Asian History: The Mongols “had (and have) a great liking for mare’s milk [koumiss]. Not on account of richness of the milk, which, by comparison with the milks of other domesticated animals, is virtually a diet drink at only 214 kcal/lb, but because mare’s milk (qumis) becomes alcoholic with fermentation. Not very alcoholic, however, ranging from 3.25% down to 1.65. Since, as Plano Carpini noted “Drunkenness is considered an honorable thing by [the Mongols],” they had to develop high-volume drinking habits and customs to offset its weakness. Plano Carpini again: “They drink mare’s milk in very great quantities if they have it.” [Source: “Dietary Decadence and Dynastic Decline in the Mongol Empire” by John Masson Smith, Jr., University of California, Berkeley, Journal of Asian History, vol. 34, no. 1, 2000]

“And Rubruck amplifies this: “In summer they do not bother about anything except [qumis] … When the master begins to drink, then one of the attendants cries out in a loud voice ‘Ha!’ and [a] musician strikes his instrument. And when it is a big feast they are holding, they all clap their hands and also dance to the sound of the instrument, the men before the master and the women before the mistress. After the master has drunk, then the attendant cries out as before and the instrument player breaks off. Then they drink all around, the men and the women, and sometimes vie with each other in drinking in a really disgusting and gluttonous manner. … When they want to incite anyone to drink they seize him by the ears and pull them vigorously to make his gullet open, and they clap and dance in front of him.”

“However, the pre-imperial Mongols were probably largely spared the perils of drink. Mare’s milk is generally available only in summer as Rubruck suggests, during three to five months of the mares’ lactation period, and most of it is imbibed at that time. To live exclusively off qumis, at, say, 2,000 calories a day, at least nine pints per person would have been needed: that is, the daily milk production of two mares (above and beyond the needs of their foals). Two mares would have been about as many as an ordinary family would have kept. They would have sufficed to enable the man of the family to devote himself to qumis during the five milking months of spring and summer. (Observers of Inner Asian nomads have commonly re-marked that the men have nothing to do in peacetime.)”

shubat (fermented camel milk) left versus koumiss (fermented mare's milk) right

As the Mongols expanded their empire, “Qumis was no longer the only alcoholic drink available. Now that the conquered sedentary lands were paying tribute, much of it in kind, including drink (as we have seen in Ögödei’s provisioning scheme), the imperial Mongols were also supplied with “rice mead” or “rice ale”; with “honeymead”, that is, fermented honey (bal); with a fermented millet drink (buza); and with a red wine “like the wine of La Rochelle,” according to Rubruck. Most of these were surely stronger than qumis — much stronger in the case of the red wine — and they were available all year. Wine, rice wine, fermented honey, and distilled qumis (qara qumis) were all served at the khan’s court in winter. The Mongol rulers served up these drinks in some style.”

See Separate Article KOUMISS (AIRAG)

Great Drinking Machine at Mongke Khan’s Palace

Mongke Khan (1251-1258) was Genghis Khan’s third successor and ruler of a large chunk of the Mongol Empire. William of Rubruck wrote: At Mongke Khan’s great palace,” he “has his drinkings twice a year: once about Easter, when he passes there, and once in summer, when he goes back (westward). And the latter is the greater (feast), for then come to his court all the nobles, even though distant two months journey; and then he makes them largess of robes and presents, and shows his great glory. There are there many buildings as long as barns, in which are stored his provisions and his treasures. In the entry of this great palace, it being unseemly to bring in there skins of milk and other drinks, master William the Parisian had made for him a great silver tree, and at its roots are four lions of silver, each with a conduit through it, and all belching forth white milk of 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; /~]

Mongke's great drinking fountain

“And four conduits are led inside the tree to its tops, which are bent downward, and on each of these is also a gilded serpent, whose tail twines round the tree. And from one of these pipes flows wine, from another cara cosmos (koumiss, mare’s milk), or clarified mare's milk, from another bal, a drink made with honey, and from another rice mead, which is called terracina; and for each liquor there is a special silver bowl at the foot of the tree to receive it. Between these four conduits in the top, he made an angel holding a trumpet, and underneath the tree he made a vault in which a man can be hid. And pipes go up through the heart of the tree to the angel. In the first place he made bellows, but they did not give enough wind. /~\

“Outside the palace is a cellar in which the liquors are stored, and there are servants all ready to pour them out when they hear the angel trumpeting. And there are branches of silver on the tree, and leaves and fruit. When then drink is wanted, the head butler cries to the angel to blow his trumpet. Then he who is concealed in the vault, hearing this blows with all his might in the pipe leading to the angel, and the angel places the trumpet to his mouth, and blows the trumpet right loudly. Then the servants who are in the cellar, hearing this, pour the different liquors into the proper conduits, and the conduits lead them down into the bowls prepared for that, and then the butlers draw it and carry it to the palace to the men and women.” /~\

Lactating mares produce only about 2 quarts (4.5 lbs) of milk a day surplus to the needs of their foals so Mongke would have needed a sizeable herd of milking mares to provide the roughly 13,000 US gallons of qumis for this party, as well as for another, similar one he held five days later, on 29 June. Consider, for example, the 3,000 mares that supplied milk to Batu, the khan of the Golden Horde (Rubruck, 99). [Source: “Dietary Decadence and Dynastic Decline in the Mongol Empire” by John Masson Smith, Jr., University of California, Berkeley, Journal of Asian History, vol. 34, no. 1, 2000]

Drinking at Mongol Banquets

At the great Mongol banquets, the guests and hosts drank steadily. Plano Carpini attended the post-election and enthronement banquets for Guyuk Khan, and reported that “the chiefs held their [electoral] conference inside [a] tent. … There they remained until almost mid-day and then they began to drink mare’s milk and they drank until the evening, so much that it was amazing to see. … [Some days later] they placed [Guyuk] on the imperial throne, and the chiefs knelt before him and after them all the people, with the exception of us who were not subject to them. Then they started drinking and, as is their custom, they drank without stopping until the evening.”[Source: “Dietary Decadence and Dynastic Decline in the Mongol Empire” by John Masson Smith, Jr., University of California, Berkeley, Journal of Asian History, vol. 34, no. 1, 2000]

replica of Mongke's great drinking fountain at modern Karakorum in northern China

Ibn Battuta participated in an imperial banquet of the Golden Horde, to which Mongol commanders of a thousand and above (perhaps 187 of these, assuming that the regular, nomad army of the Golden Horde consisted of 17 tumens, each of ten thousands), along with religious dignitaries and distinguished guests (like Ibn Battuta) were invited. Boiled horse-meat and mutton were served first. “After this, drinking vessels of gold and silver are brought. The beverage they make most use of is fermented liquor of honey, since, being of the Hanafite school of [Islamic] law, they hold fermented liquor to be lawful. When the sultan [Ozbek Khan] wishes to drink, his daughter takes the bowl in her hand, pays homage … and then presents the bowl to him. When he has drunk she takes another bowl and presents it to the chief [wife], who drinks from it, after which she presents it to the other [wives] in their order of precedence. The sultan’s heir then takes the bowl, pays homage, and presents it to his father, then, when he has drunk, presents it to the [wives] and to his sister after them, paying homage to them all. The second son then rises, takes the bowl and gives it to his brother to drink paying homage to him. Thereafter the great [commanders] rise, and each one of [the 17 of] them gives the cup to the sultan’s heir and pays homage to him, after which the [other] members of the royal house rise and each one of them gives the cup to this second son, paying homage to him. The [170] lesser [commanders] then rise and give the sons of the king to drink. During all this [ceremony], they sing [songs resembling the] chants sung by oarsmen.”

After this feasting and drinking — a celebration of the end of Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting — Ozbek Khan was supposed to attend prayers at the mosque. “The [khan] was late in coming, and some said that he would not come because drunkenness had got the better of him, and other said that he would not fail to attend the Friday service. When it was well past the time he arrived, swaying. … We then prayed the Friday prayers and the people withdrew to their residences. The sultan went back to [his great tent]” and until the afternoon prayers, “continued as before” — drinking, presumably. Guests at Ozbek’s celebration received gifts in addition to hospitality: “To the limit of vision both right and left I saw wagons laden with skins of qumis and in due course the sultan ordered them to be distributed among those present. They brought one wagon to me, but I gave it to my Turkish neighbors.” If this wagon was one of the one-ox type, it could have carried 131 gallons of qumis.

Quantifying Drinking at Mongol Banquets

koumiss drinking stuff

John Masson Smith Jr. wrote: “Consumption at one royal Mongol party may be quantifiable. On 24 June 1254, Mongke Khan hosted a “great drinking festival” supplied, according to Rubruck, with “a hundred and five carts laden with mare’s milk, and ninety horses [to be eaten] …” Mongolian ponies weigh on average around 600 lbs, of which about 240 lbs is meat, so 90 ponies would yield about 20,000 lbs of meat. Mongke’s view of rations appropriate for his guests may be estimated from his allowance for Rubruck’s traveling party of four: one sheep every four days. This would have provided a daily ration of three pounds of mutton – 5,502 kcal — for each man. At three pounds of horse-meat per guest, Mongke’s 90 horses would have fed about 7,000 persons with 5,565 kcal apiece. Assuming 1,000-lb loads on the carts carrying drink, each of the 7,000 would also have been served about two gallons of qumis, the approximate equivalent of 19 shots of 80-proof whiskey. [Source: “Dietary Decadence and Dynastic Decline in the Mongol Empire” by John Masson Smith, Jr., University of California, Berkeley, Journal of Asian History, vol. 34, no. 1, 2000]

“A guest-list of 7,000 is plausible: the khan’s entourage consisted in large part of his Imperial Guard, the kesig, a force of 10,000 men drawn from the Mongols’ best families, and Mongke probably invited them all (Qubilai did so every month, as we are told by Marco Polo) save those on guard and catering duty. This duty fell to the night-guards and quiver-bearers, 1,000 of each, leaving as likely guests the 8,000 day-guards.

“Qubilai’s entertainment of his kesig. Ration-data for the week-long feasting that followed the election of Mongke at the kuriltai in 1251 are also available, in Juvaini, The History of the World-Conqueror, trans. J. A. Boyle, vol. 2 (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1958), 573; and Rashid al-Din/Boyle, 207. The feasting Mongols, they say, were provided each day with 2,000 wagon-loads of drink: qumis and wine; and 3,000 sheep and 300 cattle and horses to eat. The liquid provisions must have consisted in large part of wine, since it would have required an enormous number of milking mares, giving about two quarts a day (surplus to their foals’ need), to provide the 1.75 million gallons of milk/qumis needed for the week’s feast. The number of animals eaten, equivalent to the property of 45 or fewer families, is a reasonable provision. The quantity of rations that so many animals would have yielded is huge, around 240,000 lbs of meat a day, but proportionate to the demand that can be projected from stated or suggested figures for the troops in attendance on the principals at the feast, Batu had provided Mongke with three tumens as guards: perhaps 21,000 by the customary seven-out-of-ten rule of thumb for calculating troop readiness. Then there were twenty princes and commanders named as attending; three are said to have brought a thousand troops with them, and probably the rest did too. And Mongke probably had his own guard tumen. Finally, if all these troops traveled with their families — say a wife and three children per soldier — the scale of the supply makes sense. By way of comparison Qubilai, on occasion, hosted parties with more than 40,000 guests.

Heavy-Drinking and Mongol Alcoholism

more koumiss drinking stuff

John Masson Smith Jr. wrote in Journal of Asian History: “Mongol leaders drank not only at mealtime, but during business hours. Rubruck had several interviews with the Khan Mongke, and at the first he observed that Mongke “appeared to me intoxicated,” while at the last, the khan “drank four times, I believe, “during the meeting.” It is important to emphasize that the women of the Mongol ruling establishment drank as heavily as the men. Wives attended and drank like their husbands at the parties of Mongke and Qubilai mentioned earlier. “[S]inging and loud shouting in drunkenness … is not considered reprehensible either in men or women.” “[Mongol women] … may get very drunk, yet in their intoxication they never come to words or blows.” Rubruck and his party were entertained by one of Mongke’s wives, who served them “rice ale, red wine … and [qumis]. The lady, holding a full goblet in her hand, knelt down and asked a blessing, and all the priests sang in a loud voice and she drank it all. My companion and I were also obliged to sing an-other time when she wanted to drink. When they were all nearly intoxicated food was brought [mutton and carp], and of this I ate a little. In this way they passed the time until evening. Then the lady, now drunk, got into a cart, while the priests sang and howled, and she went on her way.” [Source: “Dietary Decadence and Dynastic Decline in the Mongol Empire” by John Masson Smith, Jr., University of California, Berkeley, Journal of Asian History, vol. 34, no. 1, 2000 ]

“A generation later royal women still engaged in heavy drinking. Ghazan Khan, ruler of the Mongol Middle East (1295-1304), attempted to set limits to expenditures by princesses on purchases of clothing, animals and provisions; allowances for children, salaries for servants — and the expenses of the sharabkhana, approximately “wine-cellar.” Specification of wine supplies as an expense item distinct from “provisions,” and the need to control its costs, suggests that the Mongol princesses, like the princes, khans and indeed the Mongols in general, as far as they were able, were still drinking their heads off.

staple of the modern Mongolian diet: boiled meat, usually mutton

“Heavy drinking, in turn, often led to alcoholism. The Mongols recognized this early on, but were unable to deal with it, even given the warnings and example of Chinggis Khan. Chinggis drank, but in a controlled fashion, unwilling to suffer mental confusion; he knew the symptoms and consequences of binge drinking: dulled senses, impaired physical control, clouding of the mind, and addiction lead to impoverishment. He tried to set limits on indulgence: no more than three drinking binges a month, preferably fewer and best none. But custom, holding drunkenness an honorable condition, won out, and, with the ready availability of strong alcoholic beverages augmenting the Mongols’ high-volume drinking practice, led many Mongol rulers to drink themselves to death. Ögödei, Chinggis Khan’s successor (1229-1241), “drank continuously and to excess,” and eventually died of it, despite the efforts of his brother, Chaghatai, who “appointed an emir … to watch over him and not allow him to drink more than a specified number of cups … [but] he used to drink from a large cup instead of a small one, so that the [amount was large although the] number [of cups] remained the same.” Guytik, Ögödei’s successor, likewise overindulged, undermining a weak constitution and leading to an early death and a short reign, 1246 -1248 (perhaps saving Europe from a second Mongol invasion). Abaqa, ruler in the Middle East from 1265 to 1282, died in delirium tremens and one of his later successors Oljeitu (1304-1318), expired, at age 35, of “digestive disorder brought on by the intemperate habits common to all the Mongol princes.”

Poor Health and Early Death of the Mongols

John Masson Smith Jr. wrote in Journal of Asian History: “Most Mongol rulers lived short lives. Those in the Middle East died, on average, at about age 38, and the successors of Qubilai (Kublai, Khubilai) in the Far East at 33 (adding in Qubilai raises the average since he lived, atypically, for 78 years; Chinggis lived into his 60s; for the rest, few passed 50). Comparison of the Mongol and Manchu (Qing) dynasties shows the importance of longevity. In each of the Mongol realms of China, the Middle East and the Golden Horde, an average of eleven Mongols ruled for an average of about a century (107 years): Qubilai and nine successors ruled China for 110 years (1260-1370); the Golden Horde had twelve khans in 132 years (1227-1359); and nine Mongols held the Middle East for 80 years (1255-1335). Nine Manchus, with an average reign of 29 years, occupied the throne of China for over two and a half centuries (1644 -1908).| [Source: “Dietary Decadence and Dynastic Decline in the Mongol Empire” by John Masson Smith, Jr., University of California, Berkeley, Journal of Asian History, vol. 34, no. 1, 2000]

drying Kyrzyg cheese in the sun

“The Middle Eastern Mongol dynasty had further problems: high infant mortality and infertility....Regular and plentiful consumption of high-calorie foods — especially horse-meat — had predictable consequences. Gout, according to Ibn Battuta, was a common affliction among the Mongols of the Golden Horde. Ibn Battuta, 489: “‘We went to visit … the sultan’s daughter. … Her husband … was present, and sat with her on the same rug. He was suffering from gout, and was unable for this reason to go about on his feet or to ride a horse, and so used to ride only in a wagon. … In the same state too, I saw the amir Naghatay, who was the father of the second [wife of the sultan], and this disease is widespread among the [Mongols].”

“In the Far East, Qubilai suffered from it for the last 27 years of his life; he also grew to be “grotesquely fat.” Nevertheless, he lived a very long life — 1215-1294 — for a Mongol ruler. Mongol men were not alone in overeating: in Rubruck’s view, the Mongol women were “wondrous fat. Cardio-vascular problems, although not then subject to diagnosis, may be suspected as well.

Did Heavy Drinking and Poor Diet Bring Down the Mongol Empire

John Masson Smith Jr. Argues that the vast quantities of liquor and food consumed by the Mongol Khans and members of the elite may have contributed to the fall of the Mongol Empire. Masson Smith Jr. wrote in Journal of Asian History: “Ann Lambton considers that “the possibility cannot be ruled out that once the Mongols settled in Persia, they ceased to be good breeders.” I suggest that the Mongols’ difficulties stemmed in large part from dietary inadequacies and improprieties.” The early Mongols consumed “a high-fat and high-cholesterol diet, somewhat checked by food shortages... with a penchant for drunkenness. [Source: “Dietary Decadence and Dynastic Decline in the Mongol Empire” by John Masson Smith, Jr., University of California, Berkeley, Journal of Asian History, vol. 34, no. 1, 2000]

“General if less conspicuous overindulgence may also account for a decline in dynastic longevity. Chinggis and two of his sons lived reasonably long lives for the thirteenth century: Chinggis for at least 60 years (perhaps having acquired a taste for vegetables after having to eat them as a child), Chaghatai for some 57 years, and Ögödei, despite his drinking, for 55 years. Tolui, however, died at only about 42. Of Tolui’s principal sons who died of natural causes (Mongke fell fatally ill on campaign, and Ariq Boke conveniently died in awkward political circumstances), Qubilai, as mentioned, lived for 78 years, but Hulegu, founder of the ruling Middle Eastern lineage, died at 48. Most subsequent Middle Eastern rulers did not even approach Hulegu’s unremarkable standard. Abaqa also died at 48. Hulegu’s third successor, Arghun, apparently already concerned about poor health when only in his early thirties, began to take a longevity-medicine made of sulfur and mercury — and soon died. Ghazan lived to only 32, Oljeitu to 35, and Abu Sa’id, the last real Middle Eastern sovereign, to 30. The successors of Qubilai likewise declined rapidly in lifespan. Timur died at age 42, Qaishan at 31, Ayurbarwada Buyantu at 35, Yestin Timur at 35, Tugh Timur at 28, Irinjibal Qutuqtu at 7, and Toghon Timur at about 50.

squeezing the water out of Mongolian cheese with heavy stones

“Male alcoholism complemented by heavy drinking on the part of Mongol women may have compromised fertility as well as longevity. Just as Qubilai’s long life of 78 years shows what might have been, so does his procreativity. He had, as mentioned, 47 sons (and probably about as many daughters), by four wives and numerous concubines. Hulegu had 21 children by 5 wives and some concubines. Abaqa fathered 9 children by 15 women. Arghun begat 8 children, one of whom died as a child, by more than 9 women. Ghazan had 7 consorts but only 2 children; one died in infancy. Of Oljeitu’s 12 women, 3 had no offspring, and of his 9 children by the others, 6 died as infants. Abu Sa’id had only one (posthumous) child by at least two wives. Given what we are now told about fetal alcoholism syndrome and the diminution of male fertility from binge drinking, we can perhaps understand this unimpressive record.

“The corollary of short life spans was short reigns, as mentioned at the outset. Short reigns, in turn, made for frequent successions, which were often disruptive, since Inner Asian tribal peoples had no firm rules or principles governing the transmission of chiefly authority. Chinggis had insisted that successions should be settled at a leadership conference (kuriltai), but even his decree did not hold for long. After the death of Mongke in 1259 — by which time the Mongols had clearly taken the measure of all their opponents and felt less compulsion to solidarity — the Mongol princes increasingly resorted to force or the threat of force in claiming chieftaincy, and increasingly this armed competition led to military stalemate and political fragmentation. The corollary of infertility in the Middle Eastern lineage was dynastic extinction. After the death of Abu Sa’id, no reputable descendants of Hulegu could be found to replace him, except a candidate of desperation, his sister, Sati Beg, whose brief reign was not a success; other failed figureheads included four Huleguid nonentities, a distant nephew of Hulegu, a descendant of Chinggis’ brother, Jochi-Qasar, an obscure individual awarded the great Persian royal name “Anushirvan,” and finally, a second “Ghazan,” known only from a few coins. All of these ephemeral sovereigns were puppets of Mongol generals who, between them, pulled apart the Middle Eastern realm.

“Had the descendants of Chinggis spent less time at the table, they might have lasted longer on the throne, and produced more stable, more capable, and even farther-flung government. But in enjoying too thoroughly the pleasures enabled by the vast empire they had seized, their even greater original intention, to conquer the world, became once again only the subject of drunken boasting, as it had been among Inner Asian nomads during the millennium before the coming of Chinggis Khan.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Robert Eno, Indiana University;; Asia for Educators, Columbia University; University of Washington’s Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, /=\; National Palace Museum, Taipei; Library of Congress; New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; China National Tourist Office (CNTO); Xinhua;; China Daily; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Time; Newsweek; Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia; Smithsonian magazine; The Guardian; Yomiuri Shimbun; AFP; Wikipedia; BBC. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.

Last updated February 2019

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