The world before the Mongols.
Map Created by Thomass Lessman for Wikimedia
“I will now tell you all about the Tartars and how they acquired their empire and spread throughout the world.”
– Marco Polo, The Travels 
I suspect the Mongol Empire needs no introduction to the readers of The Stage. No conquests so expansive (and few so destructive) can be found in the annals of human history. The creation of the Mongol Empire is rightly seen and depicted as a pivot upon which the history of human civilization turned. These events deserve serious study and reflection.
While the Mongol conquests are not as well known  as their exceptional role in world history warrants, they are not ignored or forgotten by those who speak, write, and think about history, great power politics, or military affairs. References to the Mongol experience can be found in both scholarly tomes and common conversations on a variety of topics. As I study and think about these things I have noticed a curious impulse that afflicts historians, military writers, and intelligent people of all stripes: a habit of equating the Mongol empire and its conquests with all of the nomadic empires and peoples to emerge from the steppe.
This tendency is easy to understand. The Mongols were the most successful empire-builders the Eurasian steppes and deserts have ever produced; in the present day they remain the best remembered–often the only remembered–people of their type. If one wishes to understand the two thousand year struggle between ‘sown and steppe’ then the Mongols are the natural place to begin the analysis. Given the Mongol’s unparalleled accomplishments, it seems right to recognize them as the culmination of the Inner Asian tradition and the epitome of all nomadic hordes.
There is a flaw in this approach. If the accomplishments of the Mongol conquest were truly unparalleled (and they were) then it makes little sense to seek their parallels with other nomadic empires! The Mongols are a poor window into the world of nomadic warfare because their wars differed so dramatically from those waged by every other nomadic polity. Not a Scythian, Xiongnu, Cimmerian, Sarmatian, Xianbei, Hun, Yuezhi, Avar, Rouran, Magyar, Khazar, Göktürk, Uighur, Seljuk, Khitan, Tangut, Kipchak, Jurchen, or Khara-Khitai that preceded Chingis Khan nor a Crimean, Kazan, Uzbek, Zunghar, Timurid, Borjigin, Manchu, or Ottoman that followed him was able to achieve what Chingis and his three successors did. Most of them never wanted to.
The truly interesting question, therefore, is not “what can the Mongols teach us about the way nomadic empires worked?” Better to ask: “what made the Mongols different from every other nomadic empire?“
The question is harder to answer that it sounds. To even attempt to do so demands a detailed knowledge of the empire’s early history, familiarity with other nomad peoples and their history, and the patience to wade through a fractious and often very technical debate waged between historians, anthropologists, and archeologists over why and how pastoral nomads created empires in the first place.
If the task sounds a bit unpleasant or even asinine – well, it has been. But I have found myself so intrigued with the question that I cannot let it go, and as a result have spent the last few months diving into libraries attempting to read everything that I can  on the subject.
I am not sure I have a definitive answer to this question. I do not think I will for some time yet. But as I was working on some notes related to this project it occurred to me that the material I have learned, summarized, and organized may be of interest to those who visit The Stage.
This blog attracts an odd medley of readers; nomad studies may not be everyone’s cup of tea. But it is my hope both those readers who come for the discussions of history and those who come for the discussions of military strategy that are hosted here will find this project engaging as I have.
To restate this preface in a simpler way: prepare for a lot posts on the Mongols.
 Chapter XLVI. Trans. Ronald Latham (New York: Penguin Classics). 1958.
 Contrary to my usual complaint, this can be said of both those in the West and East. The popular historical memory of the Chinese, Koreans, and Japanese, whose societies fell under Mongol assaults or fought vigorously to repel them, give little room to the Mongol Empire. Only the Russians, it seems, have retained those conflicts as an honored part of their national identity.
 On this account, Bryn Hammond‘s GoodReads reviews and John J Emerson‘s Master Bibliography on the Mongols were indispensable resources whose reading suggestions were integral to my entire course of research.