Mongols, Rape and Popular Culture

If most places in the world of George R.R. Martin’s series A Song of Ice and Fire have a rape culture, still Dothraki are different; Dothraki have a society based on rape. Others rape in war, but only Dothraki rape at wedding celebrations – in the open, ‘like animals’, as the norm. Dothraki are meant to be reminiscent of Mongols and other steppe peoples. Why Mongols? Why rape? Our popular culture (I’ll use ‘ours’ in this post about largely English-language fiction, to own it, being a white woman, British-Australian. I don’t need to address PoC with a post like this.) – our popular culture equates Mongols with rape. It goes unquestioned. The Mongols raped their way through China, Iran and Europe, is the common wisdom, and the common material for fiction on or inspired by the Mongols. But how historical is this? In this post I look at the evidence, and at our habit of stigmatising the Mongols with rape, above other peoples – such as ourselves – in fiction.

Dothraki are animalised sexually: they have sex in public like their horses; the Dothraki sexual position is ‘dog-style’, from behind; the bestial sexual customs of Dothraki are kept front and centre in the story.

The Dothraki mate like the animals in their herds. There is no privacy in a khalasar, and they do not understand sin or shame as we do.

She was afraid of the Dothraki, whose ways seemed alien and monstrous, as if they were beasts in human skin and not true men at all.

Yet every night… Drogo would come to her tent… to ride her as relentlessly as he rode his stallion. He always took her from behind, Dothraki fashion…

Daenerys teaches her husband Khal Drogo to couple face to face – like human beings.

It is instructive to look at Martin’s first novel Game of Thrones (1996) alongside a novel of the same vintage, the 90s, Pamela Sargent’s historical fiction about Genghis Khan, Ruler of the Sky (1993). Possibly Martin read Sargent, both being in the American science fiction crowd, but I won’t hang an argument on that. Though dated to the 90s, of course, Martin’s fiction is still very much active in our culture, while Sargent’s has become a lesser-known. But Martin conceived of the Dothraki in the same decade that Sargent used the Mongols to tell a story about rape. Sargent has more frequent rape in her novel, and more violent, than Martin manages in his sections on Dothraki. Yet she comes from a very different place. I knew her as a feminist SF writer and editor of the Women of Wonder anthologies. Her reason to write about rape was a feminist one. Her choice of setting was the same as Martin’s: let’s use the Mongols.

To fail to ask why is racist. On racist stereotypes bell hooks says: ‘the sexual stereotype of black men [is] as overly sexual, manly, as “rapists”.’ Jeff Yang talks of American ‘stereotypes of Asian males as emasculated and nonsexual.’ When Black means hyper-sexual, while Asian means emasculated, where do the Mongols sit? They are Asian, but they are everybody’s rapists. They have been fantasized as a threat to white women. An old scare about the Mongol stain emerging in Europeans down the centuries has been replaced by a DNA meme – ‘1 in 200 men alive today descended from Genghis Khan’ – which on investigation (you can do this on the internet) is pseudo-scientific tripe.[1] The assumption behind both memes is a lot of rape. Never mind that when a similar percentage of modern European populations are attributed to Charlemagne, the case of the white Christian king is not immediately explained by the proposal that he had intercourse with every woman in sight.


Evidence for the early thirteenth century – Chinggis Khan’s conquests – is simply insufficient to say much about rape. Did Mongol armies rape in war more than other armies, so that they are justifiably associated with such stories? Did they rape at home, more than other societies? Was rape more prevalent among them than we call the baseline, so that we choose them to be the protagonists of such stories? The answer is: not to our knowledge. It can’t be proved either way.

Here’s a transcript of Jack Weatherford when questioned at a talk:

I know of no documented case where [rape in war] happened… The whole Mongol masculinity is so different than ours… Steppe culture in general – rape was not a part of it… To my knowledge, [rape in war] did not happen. I cannot prove this, but no-one can prove to me it did happen.[2]

Weatherford goes out on a limb, not for the first time, since we can scarcely imagine war without rape. Most obviously, he discounts the ‘horrid acts to women’ in Ibn al-Athir. Weatherford is not alone in this judgement. To Ibn al-Athir, who watched from Mosul out of the Mongols’ reach, as to Juzjani who escaped and wrote from Delhi, Mongols were evil and prone to every evil act. There is no possibility of scrutiny of what they heard and wrote down. How are we to distinguish rumour, news, and horror tales from the thirteenth century, when we can’t today? We can assess historians.

Juvaini is the most detailed source for the sack of cities in Chinggis Khan’s war against the Khwarazm Shah in Turkestan and Iran – for the worst of the massacres. In his description of sack and massacre, a city to be plundered has its residents ordered outside and kept under watch, ‘men and women’ the same. Where the population is to be punished with massacre, they are killed without distinction. Indiscriminately – but indiscriminately does not mean an unleashed slaughter. Massacres weren’t messy but done with discipline and efficiency, each soldier allocated an equal number to kill. Juvaini’s usual ‘men and women’ might be thought a pat phrase, if not for a single city where the procedure changes. At Merv, under Tolui’s command, Mongols put the men and women into separate groups. Juvaini takes the opportunity to sentimentalise the women’s situation:

The Mongols now entered the town and drove all the inhabitants, nobles and commoners, out onto the plain. For four days and nights the people continued to come out of the town; the Mongols detained them all, separating the women from the men. Alas! how many peri-like ones [peris are fairies] did they drag from the bosoms of their husbands! How many sisters did they separate from their brothers! How many parents were distraught at the ravishment of their virgin daughters!

If he had reason to write like this at other sites, he would. At Merv, both groups were massacred just the same, without mention of a sexual motive for splitting them up. Splitting them caused upset, however – we see from Juvaini’s sentiments. It would not be efficient to split them. Treatment of women was a flashpoint, likely to cause trouble. Juvaini and Ibn al-Athir have two different stories about the death of a well-known religious scholar at Bukhara. In Ibn al-Athir, the Mongols commit ‘horrid acts with women’ while people look on and weep; some, the scholar and his son among them, cannot accept the sight and choose rather to protest, fight and be inevitably killed. Juvaini has this same religious scholar give the local imam a speech of quiescence. It’s possible both have the right of it: pious resignation until he challenged Mongols on women. Protest did not have to be about sexual assault; it was enough that Mongols killed women just like men – they did not make the distinctions a chivalrous society was used to.

It is not that we don’t hear about women, it is not that they are ignored. The explicitness or vagueness of language is a problem. For example, the word ‘ravishment’ in the quote above at Merv. ‘Ravish’ means ‘to seize away’, like Juvaini’s other escalating sentences; it can also mean ‘to rape’. The word is an ambiguous translation of an imprecise original. Juvaini makes some use of the stock phrase ‘rapine and pillage’. Rape and pillage go together (‘like a horse and carriage’, Sinatra might sing) in our speech habits too. The Mongol army was alien to most of our witnesses. It behaved in ways unfamiliar to them. A stock phrase cannot be conclusive. Juvaini records a sentence from an eyewitness at Bukhara, circulated by survivors for its ‘succinct Persian’: ‘They came, they sapped, they burnt, they slew, they plundered and they departed.’ Absent is ‘they raped.’

Silence is not evidence that a thing did not occur, but my aim here is to prove our lack of evidence. In a lack of evidence, our assumptions rush into the breach, with those auxiliaries our fantasies.

I’m going to attempt a general comment. In my view, industrial-scale rape alongside industrial-scale massacre can be ruled out. Silence is not evidence. Even so, Juvaini, who does not stint on description of the massacres, and who sentimentalises women victims, does not have rape as an official practice, and that is weighty. And if it wasn’t ordered, it wasn’t done, large-scale – not in an army whose discipline was inexplicable to witnesses from other societies. Mongols laid enormous stress on communal action. You did it in a group or you didn’t do it. This was the grounds of their efficiency. To exceed orders – to do violence where he had specified no violence – was severely punished by Chinggis. Rape, I think, at sacks or at the scene of massacres, was either ordered or frowned upon. No in between is likely.

What about captured women?

In the sacks I dealt with above, it is wives and daughters of the (Qangli Turk) garrisons who are taken into captivity, while women of the main city populations (Iranian) are not. Those led into captivity are lost sight of, even queens. The Khwarzm Shah’s mother eked out a ‘miserable existence’ (no details) among the Mongols for twelve years; Chinggis Khan gave other royal women of Khwarazm to Muslims in his service.

We should not think of captive women as necessarily in the custody of men. Often they were distributed to royal and noble Mongol women, who ran households (these may seem to us more like caravan convoys) staffed and well-populated by women.  Pascha, who by luck has her story told in the sources, is one of these.[3] Friar William of Rubruck is in the Mongol capital Karakorum:

We were discovered by a woman from Metz in Lorraine, named Pascha, who had been captured in Hungary… She belonged to the household of the lady who had been a Christian and whom I mentioned above, and told us about the unheard-of destitution she had suffered prior to her arrival at the camp. But now she was well enough off: she had a young Russian husband, by whom she had three very fine little boys, and he knew how to construct dwellings, which they regard as a worthy craft.

After a journey on foot from Europe – a journey the friar himself, on horseback with Mongol companions, found a harsh trial – she was given to an Oirat wife of Mongke Khan. Intriguingly, she has been wed to another captive. Did her mistress marry them, to make the useful household unit they are when the friar finds them? Friar William makes no inquiry or comment about sexual abuse of this young woman.

A more extraordinary captive’s story is that of Fatima. A Muslim woman captured in the Khwarazm campaign, she became a companion to Queen Toregene, who, once in charge of the state as a khan’s widow, made Fatima de facto prime minister.

Ordinary stories do not get preserved.

One thing we can say with certainty is that ‘miscegenation’, which disgusts Dothraki, did not bother Mongols in the least. They were exogamous to begin with, and Chinggis’s sons and grandsons had wives from the royal families of defeated enemies. Also, adoption of enemy children was common practice: Temujin does this with steppe enemies, and then with a Tangut boy too. When Dothraki after a victory are raping women over piles of corpses, Daenerys again tries to civilize them: ‘If your warriors would mount these women, let them take them gently and keep them for wives… let them bear you sons.’ Qotho, a cruel Dothraki, laughs: ‘Does the horse breed with the sheep?’ But Mongols did not need to have such a conversation.

And Chinggis Khan himself? Now I have words with Rashid al-Din. The more gaudy tales about Chinggis Khan often come from Rashid, whose account of Chinggis has a legendary flavour, in distinction from his coverage of the grandchildren’s times, where he is in sharp focus. It is Rashid who tells us Chinggis had ‘nearly five hundred wives and concubines, each taken from a different tribe. Some he requested after the Mongol fashion of marriage, but most he took as booty when he conquered a territory or tribe.’ Hundreds of wives and hundreds of children is not gospel, although it is an internet fact. Rashid al-Din, prime minister, ex-Jewish Muslim who wrote the first world history, was nothing if not representative of the new cultural mash-up of the Mongols in government in Iran and China. When he writes, Mongol rulers have harems and concubines, but these are not Mongol words, and Chinggis kept to a frugal Mongol lifestyle. True, Chinggis’ wives after Borte were political signals; he took one from each steppe people who joined him, and then demanded a princess in treaty with Tangut and China, this being a clause that signified he had the better of them in the treaty. Further than that we are in guesswork, and Rashid’s five hundred looks like an exaggerated brag that he conquered five hundred tribes and peoples. In addition to Borte’s nine children, Rashid names four others, from women of the steppe. He doesn’t claim there were more offspring, in spite of the number of wives. To lose track of offspring would be suspicious, what with the prestige of the Chinggis line. Children from a casual rape were not thought nothing of: twice in his genealogies of Chinggisids, Rashid tells us that a certain child – a named Chinggis descendent – was begotten when his father had sex, once, with a slave’s wife. In each case the father isolated the woman in a tent away from her husband to see whether a pregnancy resulted, afterwards returned her to her family, and brought up the child. Rashid al-Din doesn’t leave out of his Chinggis count two who died in infancy, and his practice is to include daughters as well as sons. Thirteen children looks like a complete list.

Most general histories of the Mongols repeat Rashid’s five hundred wives figure and repeat the DNA meme. They do not offer a specific discussion of rape. It isn’t for the sake of Chinggis’ reputation that I want more scrutiny, more caution; it’s because these claims foster a connection between ‘Mongols’ and ‘rape’. Wives acquired in conquest are not the same as later institutionalised harems. Historians who write jocularly – one recent history book has Chinggis ‘go forth and multiply’ – need to remember they are writing about rape. What ends up on the internet is that Genghis ‘f___d every woman in sight’.

Rashid, too, is responsible for a quote that has grown to be ubiquitous; you can scarcely read about Genghis Khan without it. Because it’s so perfect – too perfect, we ought to suspect.

A man’s greatest pleasure is to defeat his enemies, to exterminate them and seize everything they have; to watch their wives weep, to ride their smooth steeds, to treat their lovely queens and concubines as pyjamas and pillows, to gaze on and kiss their rose-tinted faces, to suck their sweet lips berry-tinted like their nipples.

This quote is very often put into plainer language, so as to sound more like a thing Genghis Khan might say and less like a Persian historian. You’ve met the flowery language of Persian historians with Juvaini and his peris, above. To fiddle with the quote may seem like a fair way to do history. It is not a fair way to do history. You can’t change the words into more believable ones and then present them as what Genghis is known to have said. I’m afraid that’s cheating with the evidence. Did Chinggis talk about pyjamas and pillows? No. Did he say this at all, in his own language? His own language can be found solely in the Secret History of the Mongols, the only extant primary source. It is where to hear how the early Mongols thought and spoke, what stories they told themselves, what figures of speech they used; where to study their imaginations. I can only answer that similar talk of the use of women’s bodies, or of war as a pleasure (rather than a condition of life) does not occur in the Secret History.

So what about that Mongol lifestyle, what about abduction of women in steppe society? On this our source is the Secret History and we know so much because both Temujin’s mother and his wife were abducted. Since it is Temujin’s family we tell the story, and what we do is add violence. Value-add is violence-add, to us. Almost always, we have Borte, Temujin’s chief wife, raped violently by the man she is given to in an enemy tribe. Both Pamela Sargent and Stephanie Thornton in her novel The Tiger Queens: The Women of Genghis Khan (2014) make him rape her in public, for humiliation or as normal treatment of a captured wife. None of this is from the Secret History. The text only says that this man ‘cared for’ or ‘kept’ her, and he is given a conscience in the story. He is her husband by coercion, but he is not a violent type and does not insult her. Mongol society had its rules around abducted women, had its expectations. In our fictions, we imagine violence instead.

Two incidents of mass sexual violence

Note: These two stories, post-Chinggis, are not told in the Secret History either. Again I have to say they are not gospel.

The Oirat had flouted Ogodei’s instructions as to where to give away their daughters. His new instructions were to assemble the girls of Oirat, four thousand by report, and whoever was present had to rape them. For once – and I mean once – we have in our sources a scene out of Game of Thrones; this is the kind of thing that happened at the celebrations when ‘Daenerys Targaryen wed Khal Drogo with fear and barbaric splendour’. Now let’s notice the differences. The Mongols thought this a tyrannical act and a disgrace to Ogodei. It was an enormity and a one-off. Ogodei included it in his four misdeeds when near the end of his life he gave in public his own verdict on his khanship, with a list of four things he did right and four things he did wrong. For Dothraki, on the other hand, this is perfectly normal behaviour.

Tolui on campaign in China is being pursued by an army much bigger than his own.

Because of their own multitude and superiority and the fewness of the Mongols, pride and vanity had taken root in their brains and they looked with the glance of contempt upon the Mongol army and spoke big words, saying: ‘We shall encircle these Mongols and their king, and take them prisoner, and do this and that to their womenfolk.’ And they gave expression to shameful ideas and unworthy desires.

After a fraught few days the Mongols defeat the Chinese army.

And because they had jeered at the Mongols, speaking big words and expressing evil thoughts, it was commanded that they should commit the act of the people of Lot with all the Chinese who had been taken prisoner.

‘The act of the people of Lot’ — for Rashid al-Din, with reference to the Sodom story in the Quran — is anal intercourse. Tolui takes revenge for the enemy’s obscene threats to Mongol women, and he takes it on the bodies of those who threatened. He seems to have invented this revenge for the situation. We don’t know what he might have heard of as a precedent. By this time the Mongols have fought halfway around the known world, and been exposed to much in foreign practices in warfare. Although this campaign is in North China, the enemy threats had teeth because Mongol women operated near front lines, involved in the baggage and in custody and transportation of loot. We think ‘camp followers’, but this is Mongol wives and daughters in official function.[4] It is worth noting too that obscenity has not been found a Mongol speech habit, in times when we can attest such things; foreign obscenities might have been upsetting.

You notice these are both cases of ordered rape – not licensed abandonment. They were ordered to rape and they did, whether tribal comrades or Chinese men. Mongols’ obedience to orders astonishes outsiders. Obedience is a dangerous weapon, as we know.

Tales of our own masculinity

Where I have dots in my transcript of Jack Weatherford, he explains to the questioner that Mongolians do not have the ‘macho’ culture of the West. It’s typical that Temujin is younger than his wife, the other way round from the West. Weatherford briefly sketches out a masculinity his audience doesn’t recognise. Mongolia is having its Me Too moment, but the terms won’t be exactly the same. Masculinity is not a constant across cultures, although the ‘young men’ bracket towards which much Mongol fiction is aimed, aren’t asked to consider this. They want to see themselves. In the first of Conn Iggulden’s Conqueror series, Wolf of the Plains about young Genghis, masculinity is written as emotional lock-down and an absent father. Everything womanly is devalued and thought weak, down to the wives’ tribe Olqunot. There is no honour in this tribe living off giving wives to other tribes — unlike what’s in the Secret History, where the wife-giving tribes have prestige and boast of their peaceful relations to others. Instead, in Iggulden, they are debased, despised, and they bash their wives and daughters. Temujin’s father Yesugei cannot express his feelings, and his sons have to work very hard for a slight word of approval from him. It is a script of use to boys who have a difficult relationship with their fathers, and who see that men around them have trouble to emote. This isn’t criticism: it is right that our fiction be written for us. The bad thing is the ‘feedback loop’ whereby we believe this about Mongols – and disbelieve pictures that don’t resemble this.

Helen Young says that readers are caught in a ‘feedback loop’ in which George R.R. Martin’s work helps to create a neomedieval idea of the Middle Ages, which becomes their idea of what the Middle Ages ‘really’ looked like, which is then used to defend Martin’s work as ‘realistic’ because it matches their idea of the Middle Ages.[5]

If we come to acknowledge the simple truth that there is no reason to pin rape culture on the Mongols ahead of other medieval societies, that would be a great step forward. But at this point in the feedback loop, to disassociate Mongols and rape in the public mind frankly looks impossible. When we choose to portray Mongol men (against the evidence) as ultra-masculine, non-emotional and anti-weak, with a contempt for women, we prime them to be rapists. We prime ourselves to think of them as rapists.

Hyper-masculinity and its ills is Sargent’s main subject in her novel on Genghis Khan. Like Iggulden, she addresses a Western readership to say what she wants to say about men to them. She has a poignant story of a son, the consolation of the women’s quarters while he is a child, who at adolescence learns a shame of the womanly, acts from then on as if he despises his mother-figures, and takes his place in the ranks of men for whom rape is normal sex. This is a terribly sad story and told for a purpose. But whether we want to teach boys how to be men, or whether we want to spotlight toxic masculinity, in either case we write about Western culture. We displace Asian masculinities, we project ours into a Mongol setting. In a funny way this means we do examine our own rape culture when we write about the Mongols (or Dothraki). But we avoid admitting it’s ourselves. The distance of the Mongol setting lets us look at hyper-masculinity, emotional inability, and rape culture – our problems. Sargent was either aware that the masculinity she wrote about was Western or else she universalised. In her feminist fiction it is half-acknowledged that our toxic masculinity is the subject. She still badmouths the Mongols in order to do this, so I’m conflicted about her fiction.

You can see the difference if you watch English-subtitled films made in Mongolia about Chinggis Khan and his times. To grow up and be a man does not need that rejection of the mother, of the woman, seen in our fiction. The way Mongolian films portray grown men and their mothers – through the story of Chinggis Khan – would get a laugh, or an embarrassed titter, in Hollywood. These films are also far less violent than would float in Hollywood.

Jochi’s paternity makes a case study. Jochi is the child conceived around the time of Borte’s abduction and which man fathered him, Temujin or the enemy husband, was uncertain. The story we like to tell is about disputed paternity, and very often we have Temujin reject Jochi or hold his origins against him. The Japanese movie Genghis Khan: To the Ends of the Earth and Sea (directed by Shinichiro Sawai, 2007) makes disputed paternity the crux of the plot. Temujin’s mother and wife were both abducted; in the film first Temujin has to prove he is a true son, and then Jochi has to prove the same to Temujin. Both were in danger of infanticide at the hands of their fathers. Infanticide, as far as I know, is not attested in Mongol life. We hear a great deal about adoption of children, which suggests the steppe’s problem was underpopulation, not an excess of mouths to feed.

A scene in the Secret History tells us differently. Chagatai, the next son, is disgruntled to be number two and calls Jochi a bastard. Chinggis and one of his oldest friends react with shock and dismay. Jochi answers Chagatai, ‘Our father has always treated me the same as his other sons, and now you…’ The Secret History, I say again, is the only extant primary source. But audiences (in Japan this time) want a tale about the importance to men of paternity. So Temujin’s generosity to Jochi becomes a grudge in the great majority of our fiction. An honourable exception is Sergei Bodrov’s movie Mongol (2007), which has Temujin cheerfully adopt not one but two children of Borte’s by other men.

The Stallion Who Mounts the World

Dothraki await ‘the stallion who mounts the world.’

The stallion is the khal of khals promised in ancient prophecy, child. He will unite the Dothraki into a single khalasar and ride to the ends of the earth, or so it was promised. All the people of the world will be his herd.

Clearly the Stallion references Genghis Khan, whom Juvaini calls ‘the world-conqueror’. Perhaps I have said enough to make you see how unMongol this imagery is. It is a sexualised image that certainly the Mongols did not use in any official capacity, such as this Dothraki prophecy and public acclamation. It is fantasy. It is of the same stuff as the DNA meme. I have seen newspapers tell us that the DNA study means Genghis Khan was the alpha male of rapists in world history. I have seen history books say almost as much. But this is our sexualisation of conquest. The Mongols, to my knowledge, never spoke in these terms, or inclined towards such images. This is us.

image at WikiCommons
Description from the Commons: ‘The Bulgarian Martyresses, 1877 painting by the Russian painter Konstantin Makovsky, depicting the rape of Bulgarian women by Africanised Ottoman bashi-bazouks during the suppression of the April Uprising a year earlier, served to mobilise public support for the Russo-Turkish War (1877–1878) waged with the proclaimed aim of liberating the Bulgarians.’

I use this piece of propaganda because a writer whose work has been important to me, Dostoyevsky, fired up into one of his worst phases of ethnonationalism and issued racialised propaganda for this war himself, due to how newspapers wrote up the rape of Bulgarian women by Turks.

[1] You can begin here:

[2] ‘Jack Weatherford speaks about Genghis Khan at Embry-Riddle Honors Series’ on YouTube Weatherford on rape begins at 1:06:24.

[3] Carolyne Larrington in Winter Is Coming: The Medieval World of Game of Thrones (I.B. Taurus 2016) says that Pascha’s circle were voluntary visitors, ‘Europeans who had come to trade or work there’. No, this is a community of captives.

[4] Some primary sources on women here, translated by Paul D. Buell:

[5] Shiloh Carroll, Medievalism in A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones (Boydell & Brewer 2018), 6%.

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