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The Decline and Fall of the Mongol Empire


When historians explain the end of empires, they often follow a ‘decline and fall’ paradigm which owes its fame to Edward Gibbon's great book on the Roman Empire. Recent historians of Late Antiquity, however, have tended to doubt its validity. This article considers the reasons for the end of the Mongol Empire of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. It examines the division of the empire into four khanates, the eventual collapse of each of which is then studied. It suggests that the khanates which retained more of their original nomadic ethos – the Golden Horde in the Pontic steppes and the Chaghatai Khanate in Central Asia – were able to survive longer than those – in the Ilkhanate in Persia and the Great Khanate in China and Mongolia – which had their centres in sedentary lands. It concludes that in all cases, ‘fall’ was the result of internal factors, about which there was nothing that was inevitable, and that there is little evidence of a long ‘decline’. Hence the ‘decline and fall’ paradigm does not seem to provide an adequate explanatory framework.

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1 Recently cited, most appositely, by Merrills, A.H., History and Geography in Late Antiquity (Cambridge, 2005), p. 284 and n. 214, p. 306, n. 312.

2 A version of this was subsequently published as “Edward Gibbon and the East”, Iran, XXXIII (1995), pp. 85–92.

3 It is possible that this has changed since the appearance of a readily available, and superb, Penguin paperback edition of The Decline and Fall (ed. D. Womersley, 3 vols, Harmondsworth, 1994/5).

4 It is perhaps reflected, for example, in the title of an important recent book on the history of Iran: Pourshariati, Parvaneh, Decline and Fall of the Sasanian Empire. The Sasanian-Parthian Confederacy and the Arab Conquest of Iran (London, 2008).

5 Ward-Perkins, B., The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization (Oxford, 2005), p. 32. The book contains many incidental felicities, such as its author's observation (p. 49) that the last part of the Western Roman Empire to fall to barbarian assault was North Wales, which was conquered by Edward I's English hordes in 1282: a point made earlier by Campbell, James, The Anglo-Saxons (Oxford, 1982), p. 19.

6 Brown, Peter, Society and the Holy in Late Antiquity (London, 1982), p. 7.

7 Ward-Perkins, op. cit., pp. 3–4.

8 Heather, P., The Fall of the Roman Empire. A New History of Rome and the Barbarians (New York, 2006; first published London, 2005).

9 Ibid., p. 459.

10 Central Asiatic Journal, 22 (1978), pp. 186–244.

11 See Biran, M., Qaidu and the Rise of the Independent Mongol State in Central Asia (Richmond, 1997).

12 See Manz, Beatrice Forbes, The Rise and Rule of Tamerlane (Cambridge, 1989), whose explanation of the apparently random character of Tamerlane's conquests is somewhat on these general lines, albeit in a very much more sophisticated form than as presented by me here. It should be noted that Professors Reuven Amitai and Peter Jackson are inclined to take Ilkhanid rhetoric about continued expansion and the adding of Syria permanently to the Mongol Empire much more seriously than I am: see e.g. Amitai, “Mongol imperial ideology and the Ilkhanid war against the Mamluks”, in R. Amitai-Preiss and D.O. Morgan (eds), The Mongol Empire and its Legacy (Leiden, 1999), pp. 57–72; Jackson, The Mongols and the West 1221–1410 (Harlow, 2005), pp. 180–183.

13 See for example, and most notably, Allsen, Thomas T., Culture and Conquest in Mongol Eurasia (Cambridge, 2001).

14 I have discussed this point further in “The Mongol Empire in world history”, in Komaroff, L. (ed.), Beyond the Legacy of Genghis Khan (Leiden, 2006), pp. 435436.

15 Quoted in Morgan, D.O., “The Mongol armies in Persia”, Der Islam, 56/1 (1979), pp. 8196: at p. 93. I am less convinced than I was when I wrote the article that Ghazan's iqta’s ever in fact saw the light of day. On this whole issue, see Reuven Amitai, “Turko-Mongolian nomads and the iqta’ system in the Islamic Middle East (ca. 1000–1400 AD)”, in Khazanov, A.M. and Wink, A. (eds), Nomads in the Sedentary World (Richmond, 2001), pp. 152171.

16 Lane, George, Early Mongol Rule in Thirteenth-Century Iran. A Persian Renaissance (London, 2003).

17 Melville, Charles, “Abu Sa'id and the revolt of the amirs in 1319”, in Aigle, D. (ed.), L'Iran face à la domination mongole (Tehran, 1997), p. 115.

18 Here I recycle and expand on some remarks in my “The Mongols in Iran: a reappraisal”, Iran, XLII (2004), pp. 134–135.

19 See especially his The Fall of Amir Chupan and the Decline of the Ilkhanate, 1327–37: a Decade of Discord in Mongol Iran (Bloomington, 1999), as well as a number of articles.

20 Morgan, The Mongols, 2nd. ed. (Oxford, 2007), p. 150.

21 Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society (1989), p. 161.

22 Dardess, J.W., “Shun-ti and the end of Yüan rule in China”, in Franke, H. and Twitchett, D. (eds), The Cambridge History of China 6: Alien Regimes and Border States, 907–1368 (Cambridge, 1994), p. 576.

23 Buell, P. D., “Qanate China”, in his Historical Dictionary of the Mongol World Empire (Lanham, etc., 2003), pp. 5370: at pp. 65–66.

24 Dardess, op. cit., pp. 576–577.

25 Dardess, op. cit., p. 578.

26 Buell, op. cit., p. 63.

27 See Manz, Beatrice Forbes, The Rise and Rule of Tamerlane (Cambridge, 1989).

28 Collins, Leslie, “On the alleged ‘destruction’ of the Great Horde in 1502”, in Bryer, A. and Ursinus, M. (eds), Manzikert to Lepanto: the Byzantine World and the Turks 1071–1571 (Amsterdam, 1991, Byzantinische Forschungen, 16), pp. 362399.

29 Collins, Leslie, “The military organisation and tactics of the Crimean Tatars during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries”, in Parry, V.J. and Yapp, M.E. (eds), War, Technology and Society in the Middle East (London, 1975), pp. 257276.

30 Hathaway, J., The Arab Lands under Ottoman Rule, 1516–1800 (Harlow, 2008), p. 59.

31 Roemer, H.R., in Jackson, P. and Lockhart, L. (eds), The Cambridge History of Iran 6: the Timurid and Safavid Periods (Cambridge, 1986), p. 278; Roemer, H.R., Persien auf dem Weg in die Neuzeit. Iranische Geschichte von 1350–1750 (Beirut, 1989), p. 328.

32 I am grateful to Peter Jackson and Morris Rossabi, who read and commented on a draft of this paper.

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Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society
  • ISSN: 1356-1863
  • EISSN: 1474-0591
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