Empire of the Horse

Part of the Horse exhibition.

The vast Mongol empire, ruled by Genghis Khan and his descendants in the 1200s and 1300s, covered most of Asia, the Middle East, and Russia. Far larger than any empire built by the Greeks, Romans, or Russians, it stretched from the Mediterranean to the Pacific Ocean, making it the largest mass of connected land conquered by anyone in history, before or since.

Horses made possible the conquest of this immense empire--and also the successful management of it for more than 100 years. Outside of Mongolia, Genghis Khan's horsemen are thought of today as ruthless raiders who swept into cities to loot and pillage. But they did much more than destroy. They created an era of unprecedented travel, trade, and cultural exchange.

Mobile Mongols

In Genghis Khan's army, every soldier traveled on horseback. This all-cavalry army was easily the most mobile military force in the world. The Mongols' horses could travel almost anywhere, grazing as they went, even if they had to kick through snow to reach grass. The Mongols themselves could also travel long distances without provisions. The Italian explorer Marco Polo described Mongols riding for 10 days at a stretch while living on dried milk and blood from their horses.

A horse figurine from China, dated 206 BC - AD 220. Of bronze, tarnished green, the horse has strong arched neck, a styled mane, and a stocky body.
Horse figurine, China, 206 BC-AD 220, Bronze.
Denis Finnin/AMNH

Silk Road

The feared Mongol horsemen not only conquered most of Asia, they created a vast trade network that linked previously isolated civilizations. The ancient Silk Road trade routes date back to well before the Mongol empire. But it wasn't until the Mongol army made them safe from bandits that the Silk Road blossomed, enabling caravans of camels and donkeys to carry goods, people, and ideas between Asia, Europe and the Middle East.

Bowed Instruments

Until about 1,000 years ago, almost all stringed instruments were plucked. All bowed instruments, from the European violin to the Mongolian horsehead fiddle, trace their origin to Central Asia, where the first bows strung with hair from horsetails were invented. The idea quickly spread via the Silk Road and other trade routes.

Celestial Horses

This bronze horse was made during the Han dynasty (206 BC-AD 220). During the Han dynasty, the Chinese mounted an expedition to Ferghana, 2,000 miles west of the Chinese capital, Xian, to acquire superior horses. This expedition is credited with opening the eastern leg of the Silk Road. Ferghana horses were famous for sweating blood--a mystery now thought to be caused by parasites under their skin.


An older man in traditional clothes kneels on the floor with a stringed instrument and bow.
Khuur musician
Obert/AGE Fotostock

Horsehead Fiddle

The Mongolian horsehead fiddle, or morin khuur, has a carved horsehead on the end and its two strings are made of hair from a horse's tail. In Mongolia, music, horses, and mysticism are all related: Horses carry people in the material world, and music carries people to the spiritual world. Musicians refer to the instrument as their steed, and they sometimes mimic the sound of hoofbeats and whinnies as they play.

Key to the Kingdom

Using a Mongol pass like the one in the exhibition, a visitor could travel all over the empire of Kublai Khan, Genghis Khan's grandson. His immense transportation network included thousands of luxurious way-stations offering fresh horses for travelers along the Silk Road and other trade routes. Like a combination passport and credit card, the pass told everyone that the wearer was to be treated as a guest of the great Khan. The Italian explorer Marco Polo wrote, "The whole organization is so stupendous and so costly that it baffles speech and writing."