Political Legitimacy on the Mongolian Steppe

by Nathan Hamm on 4/10/2006 · 10 comments

This was the term paper for my Mongols class last term. I know it’s of interest to some readers, so I’m finally getting around to posting it. The third section could use heaps more work, but really, everything before that is more interesting to me. The introduction is below and the entire thing can be downloaded as a PDF. — Nathan

Over a period of 1,500 years, a handful of powerful empires arose from among the nomadic tribes in the modern Mongol steppe. Each of these empires united the various tribes inhabiting the steppe into larger political units that were able to threaten and extract resources from the sedentary societies to their south. Between these empires, politics on the steppe were often highly fractured. The basic unit of political life in these periods was the tribe. However, the empires that did arise over this period legitimized their right to rule over the other tribes of the steppe in remarkably similar ways. There are two pillars to legitimization of rule of empires based on the Mongolia steppe. The first concerns the spiritual ideologies used to justify the rule of a qaghan and his tribe over the other tribes of the steppe. This in turn is made up of two aspects. On the one hand, a qaghan needed the approval of Heaven to rule the steppe. Heaven’s favor granted the qaghan good fortune or charisma that marked him as Heaven’s chosen one. This charisma resided in the blood of the imperial family. Beginning with the Türk Empires, charisma alone was clearly not enough to legitimize a qaghan’s rule. With the Türks, a clear connection is made between the qaghan’s ability to maintain and manipulate royal charisma and the possession of the Orkhon Valley. The other pillar legitimizing the rule of a qaghan was his ability to obtain and distribute wealth to support his new state. These two pillars are closely intertwined. Rulers of steppe empires held up material successes as proof of Heaven’s favor and their possession of charisma. But in their spiritual ideology, it was Heaven’s ordination and their good fortune that allowed them the victories in the first place. What is clear is that both pillars fed off of each other and a qaghan could not keep his empire afloat without both of them.

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– author of 2991 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Nathan is the founder and Principal Analyst for Registan, which he launched in 2003. He was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Uzbekistan 2000-2001 and received his MA in Central Asian Studies from the University of Washington in 2007. Since 2007, he has worked full-time as an analyst, consulting with private and government clients on Central Asian affairs, specializing in how socio-cultural and political factors shape risks and opportunities and how organizations can adjust their strategic and operational plans to account for these variables. More information on Registan's services can be found here, and Nathan can be contacted via Twitter or email.

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Peter April 11, 2006 at 4:27 am



Nathan April 11, 2006 at 6:51 am

I’ll have you know it got an A+ from a notoriously tough grader! 🙂

Luke April 12, 2006 at 12:56 am

how did you decide which language to translate “tengri” from? Also When refering to Chinggis, most people will use the “aa” for khan, aa’s for the “great khaan” one “a” for lesser khans. Also what translation are you using for “qaraquram”? All I know is the Mongolian which writes it as one word, but if it is from a different language, that is cool.

Did you compare mandate’s from Tengri with any of the use of shaman’s?

Cool paper.

Nathan April 12, 2006 at 1:12 am

I didn’t really pick one particular language to translate tengri from, but rather kind of lumped different meanings into one. I’ve been told it can be used for “God” in modern Kirghiz, so obviously I didn’t use that meaning. But as far as I understand it, it’s a somewhat fluid concept across time and social classes, so it’s really hard to nail down.

I didn’t know the difference between “aa” and “a” in Mongolian. I used “khan” for the Mongol rulers because it’s a more commongly known term and “qaghan” for Turkic rulers. Were I to spell that in the modern Uzbek alphabet, I think it’d be qag’an, which I’d probably pronounce as qaan.

Unfortunately, I can’t remember the translation for “Qaraqorum.” I could look it up. I know that the first part of the word, in its many variants (“qora” in Uzbek), means “black.” I’m fairly confident that names using it are Turkic, though I admit I don’t know my Mongol colors.

I didn’t compare on the last part. It’d be interesting. My sense is that one needed a shaman, at least at some point, to claim Tengri’s mandate.

Luke April 12, 2006 at 8:04 am

yeah good stuff. “Khar” is indeed black in Mongolian, and Khaan in original Mongol bichig is the same, “Khagan” or Qagan. oh the small world of turkic languages and people, got to love it!

I have some super secret paper ideas on Mongolia if you ever want to try and publish something with me…..

Zachary April 17, 2006 at 5:28 pm

Interesting paper. Very similar to one of my own recent papers on models of state formation among the pre-Mongol steppe peoples.

Nathan April 17, 2006 at 5:32 pm

That’s almost what I wrote it on.

Konstantin May 26, 2006 at 8:23 pm

A interesting theme. I’ll take a look. I have studid M. Weber and maybe I can say to anything useful about the mechanisms of legitimation.
I haven’t found in your bibliography S. N. Eisenstand. It’s strange, becouse he is a great specialist in the theme of legitimacy of empires.

I’ll send a full comment later.

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