The Chinggis Khan statue east of the modern capital of Mongolia, Ulaanbaatar, houses a collection of artifacts and stands to show Chinggis Khan’s importance for the Mongolian people until today (photo: Susanne Reichert)

As I write this short communication for the spring newsletter I am sitting in a yurt in the Mongolian steppes and think about how I got here. I travelled from Ann Arbor to Germany to get on a plane to Ulaanbaatar, then into a car to drive into the countryside. I traversed not only several time zones but also climate regions, cultures, urban and pastoral divides. And yet, Mongolia is not the “exotic” other that one might assume from this description. Rather, I am interested to learn how we might overcome such dichotomies. As a Feodor Lynen-fellow of the Alexander von Humboldt-Foundation I decided to join the community of the University of Michigan, since here I find the combined expertise needed for my research project: I look into the empires of Chinggis Khan and Charlemagne in a cross-cultural perspective and conduct for the first time a systematic comparison between the two. Now, you might ask yourself, why? What do they have in common?

Although the Carolingian and Mongol empires appear starkly different – on the one hand a sedentary society based on agriculture, on the other one based on pastoralism – structural similarities are apparent, such as re-distributional mechanisms within the political economy or the fragmentation into different realms in following generations. Both were founded by highly charismatic and influential leaders, infamous for their bloody and ruthless conquests. The most striking similarity, however, lies within their mode of governance as both rulers had itinerant courts. Carolingian and Mongol courts moved constantly and seasonally, where they took advantage of local communities to support their retinue. Both diverted from traditional ways of governance and attracted foreign specialists to their courts, implemented new scripts and visual vocabularies. Both establishments of rule are accompanied by profound restructuring, the effects of which on the local population are largely unknown (such as the opening of markets, the introduction of new agricultural cultivation techniques/grain varieties, churches or other religious buildings).

For each of the two empires, their core areas are placed in the center of the investigation, in the case of the Mongols primarily the Orkhon valley with the capital Karakorum, in the case of the Carolingians the northern Rhineland between Aachen and Cologne. The inclusion of subsequent rulers allows for a diachronic perspective that aims at identifying changes in ruling practices and the underlying dynamics in the course of expansion and consolidation. As I am an archaeologist by training, the study is deeply rooted in the archaeological materials available but will incorporate written sources as well as close examination of the visual cultures of the two cases.

The intensive, systematic comparison is intended to reveal similarities in mechanisms and practices that lead to a deeper understanding and sharper description of the two cases. The central goal is to recast the way we think about empires. Rather than reiterating dichotomous notions of nomadic versus sedentary societies, this combined study of an Inner Asian and a European regime seeks to uncover common principles of governance and strategies for maintaining social power, thereby overcoming this artificial dichotomy. In this way, the proposed study represents a completely new endeavor within the broader field of comparative, global history and specifically in archaeology.