“Homes, Workshops, Palaces, Shrines.” On the Portability and Mobility of Hordes
From This Year's Cundill History Prize Shortlisted Title The Horde: How the Mongols Changed the Worldby Marie Favereau
Hordes covered huge swathes of land. A massively elongated city, a single horde could contain thousands of people. When conditions were ideal, the numbers could reach a hundred thousand. Everything the people of the horde needed was portable: homes, workshops, palaces, shrines, statues. A horde was a self-sufficient unit that moved with its supply system, which included enormous numbers of horses, goats, sheep, oxen, and camels.
Herding was always central to the operation of a horde, though over time the hordes diversified their subsistence strategies to sustain their ever-growing populations. Seasonal diets were a byproduct of mobility. Mongols hunted and fished throughout the year, but winters demanded special arrangements. As the cold season progressed and the animals lost weight, the nomads relied more on carbohydrates. Herdsmen exchanged sheep and skins for grains; the Jochid elite supplemented their diets with millet and wheat from the many villages near their wintering grounds in the Volga delta and lower Don. Villagers sold produce at the hordes’ markets and seasonal trade fairs.
Year after year, the Jochid hordes moved up and down the great rivers of their territory. During the communal migrations, people rode horses and carts or walked. Women, including khatuns, knew how to ride, but only did so for short distances, work, and leisure. When the horde migrated, women perched on their two-wheeled carts and drove them. Along the bank of the Volga, “one woman will drive twenty or thirty carts,” Rubruck marveled. He explained how the women tied together, one after the other, carts drawn by oxen and camels. A cart might be piled with trunks of goods or might carry a substantial tent.“It seemed to me as if a large city was approaching me,” Rubruck wrote when he first saw a horde in early June 1253.
Within the first decade after settling in the western steppe, the Jochids had become almost entirely dependent on a particular type of tent, known as a tent-cart. The traditional Mongol trellis tent (yurt or ger) could be dismantled and packed onto a cart; in the case of the tent-cart, the tent was permanently embedded in a flat bottom. The tent-cart could be moved from a flatbed cart to the ground, but it could not be disassembled. In the east, Mongols frequently used tent-carts when the ground allowed it, but they never replaced the trellis tent. The western terrain, however, was more accommodating of tent-carts. The biggest ones needed more than twenty oxen to pull them.
The Jochids refined their transportation system in order to accommodate the great wealth they had amassed during the last Qipchaq campaign—clothes, fabrics, pelts, weapons, jewelry, tools, and other household utensils. Not only did they begin to make more tent-carts than trellis tents, but they also raised more oxen and camels, which were strong enough to pull or carry their heavy chests of goods. The camels were also trained to cross rivers while laden. In the 1250s, a wealthy Jochid had between one hundred and two hundred chests filled with belongings.
Some of the hordes were as impressive as the khan’s. “It seemed to me as if a large city was approaching me,” Rubruck wrote when he first saw a horde in early June 1253. This horde, migrating along the western banks of the Don, was led by one of Batu’s delegates. Rubruck learned that the delegate had no more than five hundred men under him—the rest of the people were families, workers, religious men, captives, and others. The difference between imperial and other hordes lay in the size of the keshig, for the khan’s camp was the seat of power.By positioning themselves according to the cardinal directions, inhabitants oriented themselves in space, society, and the cosmos. Birth, death, and politics altered the configurations of the moveable cities.
To recover the political landscape of the Horde, we need to understand the political geography of the nomads, a geography that had little to do with administrative division. Places like Sarai and Qaraqorum were not essential to Mongol power. Sources produced by sedentary people, who gauged the grandeur and sophistication of empires by the size and number of their cities, vastly overestimate the significance of sitting Mongol capitals. In reality those capitals were but small enclaves in a vast political universe. The capital was the khan’s horde.
Hordes—the khan’s and the others’—were more strictly organized than any sedentary city of the day. Moving in massive numbers required extreme discipline from humans and animals. Mongol horses were especially impressive. When dismounted, these horses were trained to follow their riders and could return to camp on their own. Mongol horses also did not need fodder; they fed themselves in winter by seeking grass under the snow, allowing them to survive where no other horses could. Westerners compared them to dogs, a compliment concerning the horses’ resourcefulness.
When setting camp, people knew exactly where to pitch their mobile homes. The tents were always positioned with the entrance door facing south. The camp formation was designed to regulate people and animals and ensure that everyone respected each other’s status. A settled horde integrated precedence of rank and lines of descent into its layout, with the khan’s tents in the center and other tents lined up west and east.
But the organization was not only a matter of status, for the camp layout bore a symbolic meaning. By positioning themselves according to the cardinal directions, inhabitants oriented themselves in space, society, and the cosmos. Birth, death, and politics altered the configurations of the moveable cities. Their flexibility made them more adaptable to changing circumstances than were sitting cities. The layout of a settled horde reflected its shifting social organization, and one could read from its plan whether the people were at war or peace.
The defense system of the Mongol camps was based on a circular layout called güre’en, the ring. To protect themselves against enemies and strangers, the Mongols camped in a circle, with the horde’s chief in the center. The Jochids settled in ring-camps during hunting parties and wars or when a small group had to travel across the steppe. In times of peace, they opted for the linear layout with the khan’s tents in the center. When needed, the horde could turn into a war machine almost instantly, providing the mobility required for swift attacks and strategic retreats.
Contemporaries thought the horde was the safest place on earth. Not only did the circle provide protection against marauders, enemies, and wild animals, but the location of hordes near rivers also limited the effects of fires. The shape of the horde further served to diffuse social discord by avoiding concentrations of people in overpopulated districts. The moveable city could always be extended to accommodate more people. Shift men kept watch day and night, but a horde was not a military camp, and women and children always outnumbered armed horsemen. In the early 1250s the Jochid hordes enjoyed peace after half a century of nearly constant warfare, and they adapted their moveable cities to take advantage of that peaceful life.
Work in the camp followed strict gender roles. Men were responsible for a number of tasks associated with herd management and animal slaughter. They also hunted, and they crafted bows, arrows, tents, carts, harnesses, and horse-riding equipment. As for the women, their activities fascinated travelers. “Their women make everything,” Plano Carpini wrote. “Leather garments, tunics, shoes, leggings and everything made of leather; they also drive the carts and repair them, they load the camels, and in all their tasks they are very swift and energetic. All the women wear breeches and some of them shoot like the men.” Rubruck noted that “the orda of a rich Mongol will look like a large town, and yet there will be very few men in it,” an observation that reinforces the key role women played in operating the camp.
Not only did women run the camp, they also owned the households. They would host their husbands regularly, as a husband had to switch homes often to visit each of his wives. This was a common practice at all levels of society, reflecting both the design of Mongol camps—prioritizing mobility—and of the decision-making power invested in women of all social classes. Rubruck noted that Batu’s twenty-six wives each had her own “large house,” and these were accompanied by smaller ones serving as “chambers in which their attendants live.” Sartaq, meanwhile, had six wives and his eldest son two or three. Rubruck counted “a good two hundred carts” belonging to each wife’s home. Spouses had assigned places in the camp layout reflecting their rank: the chief wife at the extreme west and the last wife at the far east.
Because the camp could be extended, the Mongols were able easily to accommodate newcomers, including traders, diplomats, wandering scholars, and religious men, any of whom would immediately be assigned homes. The security and social order within the camps impressed these visitors, who were used to city life. “Fights, brawls, wounding, murder, are never met with among them. Nor are robbers and thieves who steal on a large scale found there,” Plano Carpini observed. “Consequently their dwellings and the carts in which they keep their valuables are not secured by bolts and bars. If any animals are lost, whoever comes across them either leaves them alone or takes them to men appointed for this purpose.” Plano Carpini noticed that, in general, the Mongols were unusually respectful of each other.
Plano Carpini was also amazed that people did not enter the great khan’s pavilion through the large gate reserved for the ruler, even though the gate was unguarded at the time. Plano Carpini was astute in noting the discipline of the horde’s people. The Mongols had a strong sense of social hierarchy and numerous taboos, which guided and constrained them in their everyday lives. Theft, adultery, and revealing certain secrets were capital offenses. Even speaking to foreigners was, if not prohibited by law, discouraged as a matter of social norms. When ordinary Mongols did communicate with outsiders, they might withhold information or spread false rumors, lest they break the norm. Mongols rarely transgressed these basic rules and made sure that foreign visitors understood them.
The camp reflected the changing Mongol world and society in microcosm: as the empire and the individual hordes thrived, their camps took on new markers of success. Military victories, for instance, could bring considerable novelties. Celebrating khans commissioned the construction of special ceremonial tents made of silk and felt, which might accommodate thousands of people. The Mongols also adapted the tents they seized from vanquished enemies; after overcoming the Hungarians, Batu took over and inhabited the white tents of king Béla, demonstrating his superiority over the defeated ruler.
In general, the size and grandeur of tents and carts reflected lineage, status, and wealth. Thus Great Khan Güyük’s red, white, and golden tents could hold two thousand people, while the smallest tents in a given horde were around five and a half yards in diameter and housed perhaps five adults. Only felt of the highest quality was naturally white; typical felt was gray, so the women who owned the tents coated their felt with lime, white clay, or powdered bone to brighten it. Commoners also carefully painted and decorated their homes. They sewed into the walls pieces of colored felt representing “vines and trees, birds and animals.” Married women also made ornate carts for themselves. Even humble possessions could be beautiful.
Excerpted from The Horde: How the Mongols Changed the World by Marie Favereau. Published by Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. Copyright © 2021 by Marie Favereau. Used by permission. All rights reserved.