Civilization: The Mongol Empire



Central Asian background

Genghis Khan

Genghis Khan’s successors

The decline of the Mongol empire

Mongol Empire circa 1207  By Kiruge.
Partially based on “Mongolian National Atlas”, 2009
Reproduced under Creative Commons 4.0


In the 13th century an awesome episode in world history unfolded. For millennia, the nomadic societies of central Asia had menaced the great centres of civilization in the Middle East, China, India and Europe. However, they had achieved nothing comparable to what would now come about. A line of warlords brought the entire population of the central Asian steppes under their direction and mobilised it into a single military system, a machine of conquest unparalleled in its effectiveness and ferocity. The largest land empire in world history was the result.

Central Asian background

The grasslands of central Asia are unsuitable for intensive farming, and are unable to support a dense population. Historically, the thinly scattered population lived in small nomadic groups, herding cattle and sheep across the vast steppes. Their settlements were tented encampments, which they moved from time to time as their herds moved on. Their men spent much of their time on their sturdy steppe ponies, accompanying their animals across the plains. They were superb horsemen, able to keep the saddle for long periods and travel huge distances.

The climatic conditions of are extremely harsh, with searingly hot summers and freezing winters. These conditions bred a tough people. The men were skilled warriors, fighting with bow and arrow from their fast-moving ponies; their warfare was highly mobile, and when they raided agricultural populations bordering the steppe, the settled farmers, with their more static tactics, found it almost impossible to stand against them.

Each tribe had its own territory in which to herd its animals. The boundaries of these territories could be fluid, and disputes over grazing grounds were common. Vendettas between tribes and clans were also a regular feature of steppe politics, and quarrels over status. Violent struggles between different groups was endemic, with each tribe and clan feeling a keen sense of its own identity. At times, the steppe regions of Eurasia were engulfed in maelstrom of conflicts, which tended to spill over into the farming regions beyond. The steppe societies were much more geared to warfare than more settled farming societies, and this made their regular raids onto the agrarian civilizations all the much more devastating.

Intensively farmed land, however, is not suitable for horse grazing. Armies of horse-borne steppe warriors were unable to remain too long away from grasslands before running out of animal fodder. Quick and destructive raids were easy, but to hold agricultural regions as conquered territory represented a major challenge. To do so, the nomads had three alternatives.

The first option (the most common) was to conquer farming areas adjacent to the steppes, and establish states which brought areas of settled farming populations with areas of grasslands under one rule. Nomadic forces could be repeatedly recruited from the latter to hold down the former. Several kingdoms in north-west China, for example the Xi-Xia were of this kind.

A variation of this was for the steppe rulers and their forces to remain in the steppes and control farming regions by the threat of punitive raids if tribute and other forms of subservience were not forthcoming. This was the approach taken by the Golden Horde Mongols in Russia.

A second option was for nomads to turn farmland over to grazing. This necessitated a drastic fall in the farming population of these areas, as pasturage is not compatible with densely populated terrain. The most famous example is probably the Mongol conquest of northern China, which dealt a devastating blow to that region from which it took centuries to recover. On a smaller scale, repeated episodes of this kind contributed greatly to the degradation of the irrigated farmlands of the Fertile Crescent in the Middle East.

A final option was for nomadic horsemen to abandon their ancestral ways and settle down as a ruling class of an agrarian state. This was the course mostly followed by the Mongols after their conquest of southern China, and by Turkish conquerors such as the Seljuqs in the Middle East.

Trade contacts

Apart from raids and invasions, peoples of the steppe had plenty of trade contacts with surrounding civilizations going back thousands of years. By the second millennia BC a series of small trading communities were strung out across a long, narrow east-west band of central Asia. This functioned as a long-range trade route from an early date, along which many low-level exchanges carried small, high-value goods from the Middle East, Europe and India to China and East Asia, and vice versa.

Ideas and technologies travelled along this route too. Skills in metalwork and chariot-making crossed from west to east in ancient times. With the rise of great empires at both ends of the route (the Han empire in the east and the Roman empire in the west), trade along this central Asian route intensified, with Chinese-produced silks, highly valued in the west, as a mainstay. These were exchanged for precious metals from the Roman world. Later, Buddhist missionaries travelled along this route to great effect; and it is likely that later still, advances in military technology (stirrups, the crossbow, gunpowder) and in paper-making and perhaps printing travelled from China to Europe, helping to lay the foundations for the age of Western dominance.

The Mongol military was composed of cavalrymen
who were able to cover large distances quickly

Different centuries, different civilizations

Over the centuries, the techniques used by the horse-nomads in pursuing their lifestyle gradually evolved. Improved horse breeding methods led to stronger horses with greater stamina. Better skills in horsemanship improved military tactics. However, the broad outlines of steppe life remained the same for millennia.

From around 1000 BC, the horse nomads of the eastern steppe were a constant threat to the Chinese states which were growing up in the Yangtze valley. The rise of a unified Chinese state in the late 3rd century BC, under the Qin and Han dynasties, temporarily erected a barrier to the eastward activities of the steppe peoples, now under the leadership of the Xiongnu. This may well have been related to a westward shift in activity: several centuries later the Huns, who were probably related to the Xiongnu, stood at the head of a confederacy which threatened the Roman empire. In the event, after inflicting great damage, the horde fragmented on the death of its charismatic leader, Attila.

By this time the unity which the Han dynasty had brought to China was a thing of the past, and from the 4th century, different groups of steppe peoples from central Asia established kingdoms in northern China. On the steppes themselves, a Turkish confederacy came to dominate a vast tract of central Asia. This collapse in the 6th century, and for several centuries after that the steppes were a region of constant struggle between different peoples. This seething cauldron ejected various groups into all the major regions of civilization in Eurasia. To the west, Europe was invaded by Bulgars, Magyars, Cumans and Chechenegs; to the south, the Middle East was conquered by the Seljuq Turks and later the Kwarazm Shah; India was menaced by the White Huns; and north China was settled by the Jin, Liao and Xienbei peoples.

Genghis Khan

This chaotic situation on the steppes was brought to an end by the rise of a the Mongol empire. This was the work of the remarkable Mongol leader, Genghis Khan, and his descendants.

The future Genghis Khan was born with the name Temujin in the mid-12th century. He was the son of one of several Mongol chiefs contending for preeminence at that time. His early career was spent as just one warrior-leader vying for power in the violent and treacherous world of Mongol politics. Through a shrewd use of intelligence and diplomacy, a repeated ability to subvert rivals’ power by bringing their followers over to his side, and an ability to turn defeated enemies into some of his most loyal followers – plus a generous dollop of brutality when he felt the situation called for it – Temujin had united all the Mongol tribes under his leadership by 1206. In that year an assembly of Mongol chiefs elected him khan of all the Mongols, and he took the title Genghis Khan.

Genghis Khan, National Palace Museum in Taipei, Taiwan

For the next few years Genghis conducted campaigns into northern China. Here, in the early 13th century, were two large states, the Xi Xia and the Jin, with close dealings with the steppe peoples.  By 1211 he had reduced the Xi Xia to vassaldom, and four years later had soundly defeated the Jin, massacred their army, sacked their capital and forced the Jin emperor to establish a new capital far to the south.

Genghis then sent a small army westward to crush the Kara-Khitan confederacy (1218). Here, the Mongols achieved success large by the skilled use of diplomacy to foster splits within the enemy’s ranks. After insults from the Kwarazm Shah, who controlled Iran, Genghis led a massive campaign against this powerful ruler. The following conquest (1220-21) was one of the most brutal in world history, with the entire population of several cities either massacred or sold into slavery.

The Mongol forces then divided into two, with one half raiding Afghanistan and India, and the other campaigning through Azerbaijan, the Caucuses and Russia. Both forces then returned to Mongolia.

Meanwhile the Xi Xia and Jin states in northern China had thrown off the Mongol yoke, and in 1226 Genghis Khan moved against them again. Genghis died the following year, just as Xi Xia was on the point of total defeat.

Genghis Khan’s successors

Genghis was succeeded as the supreme Mongol leader by his third son, Ogedei, who took the title Great Khan. Other sons of Genghis were allotted control of different parts of the Mongol empire, each with the title of “khan”.

Ogedei completed Genghis’s destruction of Xi Xia. By 1234 Mongol forces had destroyed the Jin state as well. Meanwhile, the Mongol power in Iran had been shaken by a major rebellion, and Ogedei had to send forces to regain control there. This was achieved by 1231. Mongol forces then went on to conquer the Caucuses, which took up most of the 1230s.

Ogedei also brought western central Asia under firm Mongol control. In 1237-40, Batu Khan, a grandson of Genghis Khan, conquered Russia. Batu then campaigned in Poland, Hungary, and an army assembled by the Crusading knights in northern Germany were swept out of the way. The Mongol forces continued their advance into Bohemia and into the Holy Roman Empire, and were  advancing on Vienna when news came of Ogedei’s death. By this time (1241), at the other end of Eurasia, the Mongols had reduced Korea to vassal status. To the south, he had carried out an invasion of the Indian subcontinent, though the Mongols never managed to turn this in permanent occupation.

Ogedei’s death brought to the surface rivalries between the grandchildren of Genghis Khan. The council to elect Ogedei’s successor was delayed for four years until all agreed to attend. During this interregnum Ogedei’s widow, Toregene, acted as regent. Finally, in 1246, all the Mongol princes agreed to either attend an election (to be held in Karakoram, the Mongol capital), or send representatives. A new Great Khan was duly elected: Ogedei’s son, Gyuk.

Meanwhile, Mongol expansion continued. Anatolia was invaded (1241-3), and the Seljuk sultanate of Rum was reduced to vassal status; and campaigns continued on various borders of the empire. However, trouble soon brewed between Guyuk and his cousin, Batu, whose headquarters were in the western steppes. The two grandsons of Genghis Khan were leading armies against one another when Guyuk died, in 1248.

The death of Guyuk led to another interregnum as different branches of Genghis Khan’s family faced off with each other. Civil war was barely averted, but eventually one of Genghis’ grandsons, Monke, was recognised as Great Khan (reigned 1251-9). He owed his elevation largely to Batu’s backing, and followed it with a purge of is rivals and their supporters. He then took measures to strengthen central control over the empire’s finances, carrying out a census of the empire between 1252 and 1258, and to attempt to reduce corruption at the Mongol court.

The name Monke Qayan in Mongolian Script

Monke entrusted his brothers with major regions of the empire; Hulagu was assigned Iran, while Kublai was assigned China and the East. Kublai continued the war against southern China, and his generals succeeded in occupying Tibet and the kingdom of Nanzao, on the south-west border of China. Mongol forces under Hulagu took steps to put an end to the menace of the Assassin sect, which had controlled a large area of northern Iran for many years (this campaign was not completed until 1271), and marched on Baghdad. This great city, the historic centre of the Islamic caliphate, was besieged, captured and sacked in 1258. The long line of caliphs was ended when the last of them was executed in his palace. The Mongols followed this up be bringing the small Muslim states of Iraq and eastern Syria under their control.

Meanwhile, Monke decided to take personal command of the war against southern China, but in1259 died in an epidemic which was sweeping through the Mongol army there.

Once again the difficulties of choosing a new great khan asserted themselves. All the Mongol leaders withdrew their forces from the task of conquering new territory, and began marching them towards the centre of the empire where the succession would be decided. The Mamluq leaders of Egypt, knowing that they were next in line for conquest, were able to take advantage of this withdrawal and inflicted a defeat on those Mongol forces which had been left behind in Syria (1260). This would prove to mark the limit of Mongol expansion in this direction.

Within the Mongol empire, full-scale civil war broke out between the various leading contenders of the Great Khanate. By 1264 Kublai had emerged as the victor, recognised by all as Great Khan (reigned 1264-94).

Kublai’s most notable achievement was the final conquest of south China. This was completed by 1279. He followed this up by invasions of Vietnam, Burma, Java and Japan (twice), but none of these led to permanent conquests. Kublai moved his Mongolian capital from Karakoram to the south west, at Shangdu, and established a new capital city in northern China, in Dadu (modern Beijing). He spent his time between these two cities and ruled more as a Chinese emperor rather than a Mongol khan. Indeed, he had officially founded a new Chinese dynasty, the Yuan, in 1271. Nevertheless, the other Mongol khanates continued to recognise Kublai as the Great Khans. Apart from a few small-scale quarrels, peace between the various divisions of the Mongol empire prevailed during his reign.

The decline of the Mongol Empire

Under Kublai’s successor as great khan, his grandson Temur (reigned 1294-1307), the khanates treated each other more or less as independent (though mostly friendly) states. Tensions between them led to periodic wars, but there was a widespread realisation that divisions could lead to weakness, and cooperation was preferable to civil war.

In 1295 the Ilkhan ruler in the Middle East converted to Islam, and the rulers of the western Mongols (by now called the Golden Horde) were Muslims from 1313. This religious divergence emphasised the increasing political independence of the several khanates, which were united by declining sense of kinship with each other. Cooperation  between the khanates became more and more precarious. Temur’s successors made only fitful and half-hearted efforts to assert their supremacy over the other khanates, preferring to rule as Chinese emperors. Nevertheless, until the second quarter of the 14th century peace generally prevailed between the Mongol khanates.

From the mid-1330s, the Ilkhanate in the Middle East began to disintegrate. Political instability set in other parts of the Mongol world as well. In central Asia Mongol rule fragmented amongst many regional warlords, some unrelated to the family of Genghis Khan. From the 1350s Mongol garrisons were expelled from Korea and Tibet, and finally, after a long period of warfare, from China (1368).

In the later 14th century, a central Asian conqueror, Timur the Lame, sought to revive the Mongol empire. He created a wide realm extending across much of central Asia and down into Iran, and from this base he and his generals invaded Syria, Anatolia, the territory of the Golden Horde, and northern India. In all these places he wrought havoc and destruction, spreading terror wherever he went.  After his death in 1405, his empire swiftly retreated back to eastern Iran, leaving a wide swathe of weakened and destabilised societies in its wake.

The one major remnant of the Mongol empire which now remained was the Golden Horde of western Asia. This had long lost contact with its Mongolian homeland, and invasions by Timur’s generals left it in a sad state of division and weakness. The Russian states, under the leadership of the grand princes of Moscow, were soon able to assert their independence, and this gradual but irreversible process was accompanied by the break up of the Golden Horde itself into several khanates. Over the coming centuries these were to fall one by one to the rising power of Russia; the last one to be absorbed into this new empire was the khanate of the Crimea, in 1783. The Russian empire would continue to expand, taking in all the central Asian heartlands of the old Mongol empire.

To be completed:

Mongol government

Mongol warfare

Mongol religion and culture

Trade and travel in the Mongol Empire

The Mongol impact on different regions

The Mongol legacy