The Mongolian Empire has a well-deserved reputation for its brutality (it did, after all, kill 40 million in the 12th century, enough people to alter planetary climate conditions). But it’s positive legacies are nearly as profound, if less well known.

The first aspect is art. While the Mongols didn’t produce much literature or fine art during the Mongol Empire, they appreciated and cultivated the arts of the sedentary peoples around them. The Mongol Khans became great patrons of the arts, supporting artists and artisans of all kinds. While not artists themselves in the traditional Mongolian culture, once peace was established in the Empire, all the Khans and sub-khans protected and patronized the arts. Under Genghis Khan, textile workers, architects, stone carvers and jewelers were relocated from the Middle East and Central Asia to Mongolia to create the magnificent works of art desired by the Mongols.

The second factor is trade. To facilitate trade, Genghis offered protection for merchants who began to come from east and west. He also offered a higher status for merchants than that allowed by the Chinese or Persians who despised trade and traders. During the Mongol Empire, merchants found protection, status, tax exemption, loans and consistent aid from the Khans. For the 100 years of the height of the Empire, the East-West trade routes became the fabled Silk Road which for the first time linked Europe to Asia, allowing the free flow of ideas, technologies and goods. Valuable spices, tea, Asian artworks and silk headed west to waiting merchants in the Middle East and Europe. Gold, medical manuscripts, astronomical tomes and porcelain headed east to Asia. Ideas and new technologies also flowed in both directions along the Silk Road.

The third aspect is religious tolerance. Many Mongols were shamanists at the same time they practiced other religions. Genghis’ sons married Nestorian Christian women, for example, although they also held shamanist beliefs. As the Mongols swiftly began conquering the lands around them, Genghis and his advisors decided on religious tolerance as a policy. Rather than antagonize conquered peoples by suppressing their religion, the Mongols exempted religious leaders from taxation and allowed free practice of religion whether it be Buddhism, Nestorian Christianity, Manichaeism, Daoism or Islam. This policy ensured an easier governance of conquered territories.