In the fourteenth century, the city of Tabriz stood as a proud symbol of flourishing global trade. This was the first age of globalisation. The traveller Marco Polo described the city as one where merchants of all nationalities ‘make large profits’, and ‘stay and lodge’ together in fine factories, which sit a mile from the centre. He wrote of merchants travelling up to two hundred miles to reach this trading city, with Rashid al-Din making great wealth from lining the route with his properties. Contrary to traditional interpretations of the Mongol Empire, in Tabriz was proof of a plethora of cultures successfully working together in the name of wealth creation.

Underlying the success of such were two key differences to our own period of globalisation today. Firstly, cultural and political homogeneity was not perused. Secondly, partly as a result of the latter, a very different definition of control pervaded the minds of rulers. One where outcomes mattered more than processes, and the imposing of uniformity in internal beliefs and identities wasn’t sought. In analysing these contrasts are lessons for both the European Union and the UK, as Brexit trade negotiations force each to face questions of economic, political and cultural control.

A Lesson for the UK.

Almost seven hundred years ago, authorities on behalf of two eminent economic powers were trapped in an intense conflict, which threatened a globalised network of trade. Hostility had been growing between Venice and Genoa on the one side, and on the other the Mongol Empire.

The dispute had been triggered by the former’s refusal to deliver to Mongol authorities the nobleman Andrelo Civran who was guilty of slaying a Mongol. This provoked a crisis not about economic flows but political control. This was an open challenge to Mongol legal power within their own trading area, and thus they reacted fiercely in launching a vehement military response by sieging the city of Caffa in 1343. The Genoese responded with a trade embargo of all Mongol goods. Incidentally this helped trigger the start of the Black Death pandemic in Europe, as Mongols threw infected corpses over city walls.

The dispute revealed a fundamental truth about global empires and their trading networks. Whilst Mongol rulers allowed for great cultural and political diversity within their empire, such as in Tabriz or its capital Karakorum, when it came to relations with rival powers no such difference would be accommodated. As strong defenders of their borders and corresponding legal rights, the Mongols thus teach a vital lesson to UK negotiators. In any globalised period, trading networks are fiercely protected from external actors. The EU stridency in defending its single market would thus be proudly celebrated by their Mongol ancestors.

A Lesson for the EU.

What wouldn’t find Mongol praise however, is the EU’s pursuit of internal homogeneity. Across the single market and customs union, the same standards are strictly maintained and a uniform currency imposed against the wishes of many governments. In addition, rules on permitted religious dress set by EU Courts, and the enforcement of the union’s flag and anthem, peruse an element of cultural homogeneity.

Unlike other empires in history, the Mongols didn’t impose a uniform culture and identity on its subject peoples. It thus accommodated a great range of people, and consequently flourished both economically and culturally. Exchanged goods and ideas were combinations of Steppe, Chinese, Muslim and Iranian cultures. This included a Compendium of Chronicles where artists adapted a scene of Nativity to show the birth of Prophet Mohammed, and the ‘Tartar Cloth of Gold’ which mixed Islamic inscriptions of Abu-Said, with Mongol symbols of animals and hunting. In addition, the Mosque of Arg Alishah which served as an example of architectural prowess, was a symbol of cultural heterogeneity with its tomb chamber uniquely located behind the iwan.

This cultural exchange created a ‘shared culture of things’ where people in the empire could assign different meanings from the same object or building.  Such accommodation for different identities and cultures facilitated largely peaceful exchanges between peoples across the empire. By not enforcing a single culture through a forced process of top-down conversion, it allowed local populations to receive and understand foreign objects and cultures in their own way. An indication of the significance of this can be found in the detrimental impact when after the fifteenth century the powers that dominated the Silk Road began to become closed societies and foster a pride in the identity of their own cultures. The princes of Moscow presented themselves as guardians of true religion and consequently causal arrivals from the catholic west or the steppes were hindered.

In the economic realm too, political difference was instrumental in ensuring successful outcomes. For example, Mongol rulers were forced to abandon their implementation of the paper chao currency in Tabriz, after refusal by private merchants to use it (which brought vibrant markets to a halt). This reversal brought greater economic prosperity, by allowing private merchants to dictate the fortunes of the market, and thus create conditions most advantageous to the creation of wealth on their part.

As the EU will look to reaffirm its own trading area following Brexit negotiations, history of the Mongols would teach them to be cautious in enforcing homogeneity either culturally or politically, at least within their own walls.

How to square this paradox of internal homogeneity and external difference?

Running through the desires of the UK Government, EU leaders, and Mongol rulers is a want for control. Yet in this second period of globalisation because of what took place in the nineteenth century, control now means something very different.

In the 1800s an extensive programme of state building took place, both in the uniting of nations like Italy and Germany, and also the centralising of political control in establishing democracies, coupled with many of the first large state-led infrastructural projects. As a result of this, a new notion of control was born. Where rulers equated control with the relative centralisation of economic and political power, whilst also seeking cultural homogeneity. The latter was born out of late 1890s nationalism, which was motivated by internal solidarity and imperial assertiveness in the face of strengthening European neighbours. In Italy the architect Camillo Boito urged his colleagues to ‘attempt to develop a truly national style’ and in 1899 Demolins founded in France the Ecole Des Roches.

The Ecole reflected the nationalist ambition in creating a strong elite body of men destined to assume positions of responsibility in enhancing their country’s future, and reflected a new facet of this idea of control, in imposing a homogenic set of beliefs about the nation. Control became about people internally, not what they produce materially, but rather what they think and speak.

In contrast, the Mongols saw control as something only over outputs. If cultural difference and political confrontation (over the Chao currency), created a more prosperous economic and social environment then heterogeneity was aimed for. A legacy of the nineteenth century is the calculation amongst today’s rulers that control should be both over people’s internal beliefs, irrespective of what they produce, and also that a successful state is one in control of economic processes, in the guise of rules and standards. Rather than allowing encounters of difference to formulate the best outcomes.

The future?

This year we have all been remined how quickly things can change. Technology once on the periphery of schools and workplaces, is now likely to remain a large part of all our lives. Another technological transformation is underway, with one of its impacts being the growing autonomy of individuals from the state.

Already people can form online communities, distinct in character and belief from their geographical neighbours. Already, people can trade in currencies such as Bitcoin. Both of these not being under the control of the state. It can be argued that the diffusion of information and location that this technology creates, will make any sense of national togetherness harder to generate.

The story of this century is likely to be the growing autonomy of the individual, at the expense of state control. In the face of this problem, the Mongols offer a possible solution.  That being the adoption of an older definition of control. One where government retreats a little, takes more of a backseat, and allows processes based on cultural and political difference to flourish, whilst waiting to benefit from the resultant outcomes. After all, there are many areas of the UK that could do with the creation of their own Tabriz.

The Mongol Empire collapsed when their rulers began to integrate with local populations and pursue homogeneity.  Our period of globalisation has been severely challenged by governments seeking nineteenth century definitions of control, in a time of greater cultural difference.