5 Interesting Aspects of Medieval Mongol Culture

The Mongols, in the time of the great Khans, had a unique and interesting culture that often gets overlooked in favor of their military significance in history.

May 28, 2024By Greg Beyer, Assistant Editor; African History

medieval mongol culture interesting aspects


The rise of the Mongols was meteoric. From a loose collection of tribes on the grasslands of Asia to the biggest contiguous empire in history controlled by the powerful Khans, the Mongols cut a bloody swath of destruction, leaving genocide and misery in their wake as they felled all who stood before them.


Their legacy is generally thought of in military terms and their impact on the world’s population. What is equally fascinating, however, is their culture.


From a nomadic disposition, the Mongols offered an intriguing juxtaposition to the cultures of many with whom they came into contact.


These are the things that gave the Mongols a unique culture.


1. Religion

mongol shaman ceremony
A Mongolian shaman wearing traditional clothing. Source: Bernd Thaller / Pxhere

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When it comes to belief, the Mongols were extremely tolerant of other religions, as the Mongol Empire covered vast areas in which multiple belief systems existed. This may have come from the fact that the Mongols’ original animist beliefs did not expound any doctrine of religious intolerance, nor did it have the established structure of authority, such as in the Abrahamic religions.


Of primary importance to the evolution of Mongol beliefs, their animistic religion became infused with many aspects of Buddhism, which came as an influence from the territories conquered from China.


The original religion that the Mongols practiced was called Tengrism. It is a monotheistic religion still practiced by small groups in Central Asia. The religion has a close connection with the sky, which is the domain of the one God. The Mongolian word for “sky” is “tenger,” a fact that speaks to the importance of the heavens in Mongol thought. They were nomadic and spent most of their time outdoors, and as such, they were constantly watched over by the open sky.


mongolian wilderness camel
In the Tengrist beliefs, religion and nature are deeply intertwined. Source: Bernd Thaller / Pxhere


Like many other monotheistic religions, some spirits represent various features and forces of nature. These spirits were divided into various classes, such as good “white” and malevolent “black” spirits. Additionally, “Lord-Spirits” are the souls of clan leaders, “Protector-Spirits” are the souls of great shamans and shamanesses, and the “Guardian-Spirits” comprise the souls of the lesser shamans and shamanesses.


Many people’s spirits are believed to end up being connected with geographical features, the size and relevance of which are related to the popularity and relevance of the person during their lifetime.


It is believed that the spirits will punish those who pollute the natural features and elements. Out of reverence for the water spirits, Lus, Mongolians didn’t wash very often, believing their dirt would offend and pollute the spirits of water.


Thus, medieval Mongol culture was particularly unsanitary compared to most of their contemporary cultures.


2. Mongol Hygiene

orkhon waterfall mongolia
Orkhon Waterfall in Mongolia. Source: Martin Vorel / libreshot.com


Genghis Khan famously passed a decree that anyone who took water, dirtied it, and put it back into the source would be executed. Such was the reverence for the water spirits. It also meant that the Mongols had very exacting and particular habits when it came to how water was used. This meant that washing wasn’t done unless absolutely necessary, and washing clothes was strictly forbidden. The one pragmatic reason for this was that they were coated in grease and animal fat, which made them waterproof.


Naturally, intentionally urinating into a body of water was forbidden, and the penalty was death.


Mongol toilet habits were also shocking to outsiders. During the 1250s, Franciscan missionary William of Rubruck traveled through Mongol lands. He was surprised when his Mongol traveling companions relieved themselves no further away from him “than one can throw a bean,” he wrote. He also noted how the Mongols washed themselves:


“When they want to wash their hands or head, they fill their mouths with water, which they let trickle on to their hands, and in this way they also wet their hair and wash their heads.”


For the most part, their hands were constantly dirty, and they used their clothes to wipe their hands on after eating.


When they encountered illness, the Mongols understood it as a spiritual disorder, but they did understand that diseases could spread by being in proximity to the affected. Diseased individuals were often quarantined, which shows they were more advanced in dealing with diseases than many other contemporary cultures. Predictably, the Mongols were also noteworthy for weaponizing disease. When besieging a city, they would fling infected corpses into the enemy city to spread contagion.


3. Food

airag goyo travel
Airag is an important part of Mongol culture. This fermented milk drink is still popular and is the national drink of Mongolia. Source: Goyo Travel


Unlike most of the conquered peoples within their empire, the Mongols were not sedentary. They lived a nomadic life, and as such, their diet reflected this way of living. Dairy formed a large part of their diet, but milk was rarely consumed fresh. It was processed into cheese, yogurt, or lightly fermented horse milk called airag.


Wild game was always on the menu, but the Mongols were also pastoralists and kept flocks of sheep. Mutton therefore formed a large part of the Mongol diet. Meat was cut into strips and was, for the most part, preserved by drying or smoking. Occasionally, the meat was eaten fresh. It was usually boiled and flavored with plants, generally wild onions or garlic.


Blood also formed an important part of the diet, and it was used fresh to make broth and sausages. Horses were also eaten, but only on special occasions, as horses formed a vital part of Mongol culture and served many other necessary functions unrelated to being food.


Of course, as the empire expanded, the Mongols were presented with a variety of other foodstuffs which were traded for and incorporated into their diet. Grains were common and were turned into porridge. They were also turned into dough and fried in fat. Alcohol in the form of rice wine from China and grape wine from Central Asia was also introduced and became popular with the Mongols.


4. Horses

mongolian horses in mongolia
Horses formed the center of Mongol life and culture, much the same as they do today for many Mongolians who still live the traditional nomadic lifestyle. Source: Martin Vorel / libreshot.com


Being nomadic, horses formed a central part of Mongol culture. Their way of life, including their methods of warfare, depended heavily on these animals. The horses native to Mongolia were smaller than their contemporaries but were fast and hardy, able to withstand much colder temperatures than most other breeds.


This breed is also fairly self-sufficient. They require little maintenance and are able to feed themselves, even in thick snow, which they dig through to get to the grass beneath.


mongolian horse horse
Mongolian horses are small but hardy creatures. Source: Martin Vorel / libreshot.com


Such was the importance of the horse in Mongol culture that it is safe to say that the Mongol Empire would not have existed without them. Mongol cavalry was the prime component of conquest.


Virtually all Mongol families owned at least one horse, and such was the reverence for these animals that they were buried with their owners so that they could serve them in the afterlife.


5. Clothing

eagle hunter horse
A Mongolian man with his eagle. Source: Susan Portnoy


The clothing worn by the Mongols reflected their nomadic lifestyle and the need to keep warm on the cold steppe over which they held dominion. Their pragmatic approach to clothing included felt and leather hats and boots, baggy trousers, and long jackets with loose sleeves. The Mongol army did not enforce any uniform, and clothing worn in civilian life was also worn on the battlefield, although in combat, extra layers of armor would often be added, usually made of leather.


mongolian yurts 2
The Mongols lived in tents called yurts, a practice that remains unchanged for many people living in Mongolia in the present day. Source: Martin Vorel


Felt was wool that was pounded into thick material and was widely used in all clothing. It also went into making the yurts (tents) in which the Mongols lived.


Furs were highly prized and a valuable commodity on the Mongol trade routes. Many clothing items would be lined with fur, which added protection against the cold.


traditional mongol boots
Traditional Mongol boots. Source: mongolianz.com


Leather was obtained mostly from sheep, along with felt, pounded from the wool of this animal. Many items of clothing were made from leather, and it performed a vital function in protecting soldiers during battle.


Pants were worn by both men and women, and an outer robe called a deel or del was worn, which was fastened on the right breast with a flap that folds around the person’s body. The quality and style of the deel were indicative of the wearer’s status in Mongol society. Unlike many other cultures, there was not much differentiation at the lower levels of society between men’s and women’s clothing.


boqta hat yuan
Empress Chabi, wife of Kublai Khan, wearing a Gugu hat. Source: Wikipedia


However, one way wealthy women differentiated themselves was by wearing a Gugu hat, also known as a boqta. This hat was a tall headdress, usually decorated with pearls and feathers.


Both men and women wore earrings, and women decorated their hair with various items such as beads, pearls, feathers, or metal ornamentation. Men shaved their heads, leaving a patch of hair at the front, and so did not have the luxury of decorating their hair in the same style as the women.


mongolian writing script
The traditional writing script developed in the time of Genghis Khan. Source: Bernd Thaller / Pxhere


As sure as the Mongolian people have a unique culture today, so too did their ancestors who spread across Asia. Through their conquests, they left an indelible mark on the conquered people under them, and there were great exchanges in clothing, mannerisms, and customs.


Despite the opportunity for great influence on Mongol culture, it endured almost unchanged through the ages, retaining its cultural uniqueness. Many Mongolians today still practice the nomadic way of life as well as the traditions and customs practiced by the Mongols at the time of Genghis Khan over eight centuries ago.

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By Greg BeyerAssistant Editor; African HistoryGreg is an editor specializing in African history, he has authored over 200 articles. A former English teacher with a BA in History & Linguistics and a Journalism Diploma from the University of Cape Town, he excels in academic writing and finds artistic expression through drawing and painting in his free time.