Lebanon appears to be the latest Middle Eastern country making an interminable slide into chaos and social upheaval. The clashing of heavily-armed supporters of the pro-Syrian Hezbollah (by this I mean support of Bashar Al-Assad’s regime) and anti-Syrian government forces on the streets of Beirut and Tripoli threatens to return Lebanon to the horrific days of civil war that engulfed the country between 1975 and 1990.
The Syrian Crisis and its many offshoots, the never-ending violence between Israel and Palestine, sectarian brutality in Iraq, war in Afghanistan, the nuclearisation of Iran; these are just the latest problems besetting a historically fragile region. For the majority of the Middle Eastern population, peace is an alien concept. Yet it has existed in the region.
After the destruction wrought by the three main Crusades of the 11th, 12th and 13th centuries in the Holy Land, the Middle East underwent a century of unprecedented social stability, cultural exchange and, most significantly, relative military dormancy. The cause? The Mongol invasions set in motion by Genghis Khan at the turn of the 13th century and continued by his successors down to the reign of his grandson Khubilai.
Under Khubilai Khan, the Mongol Empire stretched from Southern China to Siberia, from Korea to Hungary and to Syria, encompassing almost the entirety of what we now deem the Middle East. A series of vassal states had been established, paying tribute to the Mongol Great Khan whilst maintaining a degree of control over internal affairs. The system was an effective one. Having subdued every civilization in their path, the Mongols had rendered military conquest of one’s neighbour by an ambitious state obsolete. Any attempt at territorial expansion would be deemed an affront to Mongol predominance and result in a timely annihilation at the hands of the masterly Mongol army. With a cavalry prowess nurtured on the Steppe grasslands of home and an uncanny ability to adopt and enhance the siege and explosives technology of conquered vassals, the 13th century Mongol army was the finest the world has ever seen. Such a monopoly on the use of force, and the ruthlessness to subdue the smallest uprising, served warning to states to keep their peace.
Not only was there a military deterrent to war in the Middle East but a commercial one too. The Mongols greatly improved the trade routes between east and west ushering in a period of great cultural, religious and mercantile exchange. Merchants, so often despised elsewhere in the Middle Ages, grew prosperous and the Mongol system of sharing tribute amongst all families of the tribe became mirrored across their empire. These benefits negated the need for expansionist warfare.
Although the Mongol Empire eventually severed into various factions that became too short-sighted to recognise their common ancestry, the Pax Mongolica was a momentous period of history. Many of the great philosophers, physicians and scholars of the time originated in the Middle East. The Mongol Peace allowed them to flourish and for their theories and works to find their way west, having a direct impact on the coming of the European Renaissance.
Such is the historical importance of a stable and prosperous Middle East. Were some miracle to provide the region with comparable conditions today, who knows what advantages it could bestow on the rest of the globe? Unfortunately, such advantages are likely to remain in the domain of theory.