mongolia, game of thrones, recurve bow, bow, archery, horse riding, exhibition, moesgaard museum, nationalmuseet, ethnography, anthropology, genghis kahn, mongol empire

The unstoppable horde: How the Mongolian recurve bow created the greatest empire ever

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Asia

I am imagining it was something akin to the famous ‘Loot Train Attack’ from the latest season of Game of Thrones, where the Dothraki army annihilated the small Lannister force, protecting their wagons filled with gold… First the rumble of hooves like distant thunder. The moment of realisation, sending a chill of dread through the defending men. For they have heard the tales; the mounted army now appearing over the crest of the distant hill will show no mercy. Their military skill and technology make your feeble swords and longbows seem childish by comparison.

First, would come the storm of arrows, falling like a deadly rain. Your men would lose hope, fall out of formation, panic and scatter as they tried to protect themselves from the inevitable. And then they are upon you. The bolts from their powerful recurve bows, fired off from atop swiftly moving horses, penetrate chain mail and boiled leather. The ranks of unstoppable horses cut through your lines, leaving death in their wake…

mongolia, game of thrones, recurve bow, bow, archery, horse riding, exhibition, moesgaard museum, nationalmuseet, ethnography, anthropology, genghis kahn, mongol empire

A still from the Loot Train Attack scene in Game of Thrones, season 7, episode 4.

Of course, the Dothraki had a great big dragon helping them, which I am sure made their victory all the easier. Genghis Kahn and his great horde had no dragons, but they were none the less just as unstoppable. Their superior tactics and military technology resulted in the expansion of what was to become the largest empire in human history. Like the Dothraki from Game of Thrones, who were, I have no doubt, in part inspired by the Mongol empire of the 13th and 14th centuries, the Mongol warriors were superior equestrians. And they were armed with the powerful recurve bow. The recurve bow has several advantages to the longbow used in Europe at the time; it is short, which allows for it to be fired from horseback, and it is composited of wood, horn, and sinews, making it much more elastic and powerful. Indeed, it is known as the most powerful bow ever made.

In our special exhibition On the steppes of Genghis Khan – Mongolia’s nomads’, we exhibit several recurve bows, one up to 700 years old, and several which are less than a century old. The technology has not changed much; perhaps because it was perfected a long time ago.

When I first saw the bows in the exhibition, they confused me; they seemed to be the wrong way around:

mongolia, game of thrones, recurve bow, bow, archery, horse riding, exhibition, moesgaard museum, nationalmuseet, ethnography, anthropology, genghis kahn, mongol empire

This bow is from the 14th or 15th century, on loan from the National Museum of Mongolia, Ulaanbaatar

Of course, they were not. As the following illustration showed, when the bow is strung, it is curved back upon itself, creating the powerful tension, which gives it its deadly velocity:

mongolia, game of thrones, recurve bow, bow, archery, horse riding, exhibition, moesgaard museum, nationalmuseet, ethnography, anthropology, genghis kahn, mongol empire

Illustration from the exhibition ‘On the steppes of Genghis Kahn: Mongolia’s nomads’

With this bow as his army’s main weapon, Genghis Kahn created an empire twice the size of the Roman Empire, and it continued to expand after his death. And while the Mongol Empire is long gone, the archery skills that played such a vital part in its creation are still alive and well in Mongolia today. In the exhibition, you can see how the festival of Naadam, ‘The three games of men’, is still being held today. The three games are wrestling, archery, and horse riding. I for one hope that they keep the skills alive, but maybe contain them to the sports field. I certainly would not like to stand at the receiving end of a cavalry of Mongolian warriors, armed with recurve bows – even if they left the dragon at home.

If you have not seen Game of Thrones, and feel very confused about all this talk of dragons and Dothraki, watch this clip. I promise that it is an outstanding and eerily beautiful action scene, even if you have no idea what is going on:

Do you want to know more about the wonderful Mongolian collections? Visit the exhibition ‘On the steppes of Genghis Khan – Mongolia’s nomads’ at Moesgaard Museum, or read Christel Braae’s fascinating and richly illustrated book Among Herders of Inner Mongolia: The Haslund-Christensen Collection at the National Museum of Denmark (2017).

//Sophie Seebach

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