Lecture Twenty

The Rise of the Mongols

Scope: While China under the Song was prospering economically and undergoing a great age of art and philosophy, a nomadic people in the grasslands beyond the Great Wall began to build a new steppe empire and would soon launch the greatest age of conquest yet seen by mankind. The leader of this process was a man namedTemujin, who would come to be known as Chinggis Khan, more commonly rendered as Genghis Khan. This lecture recounts the story of Temujin’s rise to power over the Mongols and their dramatic conquest of much of Eurasia in the 13th century. The empireTemujin built by the time of his death in 1227 extended from north China to Persia. His sons would extend it even further, from Korea to the Ukraine and from Syria to Vietnam.


I. Temujin forged the scattered tribes of the Mongols into a major power at the end of the 12th century.

A. Temujin was the son of a minor chieftain.

1. His father was murdered when Temujin was still a young man.

2. The Mongol tribes at that time were scattered and disorganized, without a strong leader.

3. Temujin and his family had to hide out in a remote part of the grasslands.

4. He conceived the ambition not only to avenge his father but to unite the tribes into a great fighting force.

B. In the 1180s and 1190s, Temujin built up his power base.

1. At the age of 16, he returned from his family’s exile and claimed a bride who had been promised him when he was a little boy.

2. He used family connections and his own courage and charisma to build an initial set of alliances with tribal leaders.

3. In 1190, he was made khan, or “chief,” of one of the tribal groups.

4. Several other young men, most notably one named Jamukha, were also rising in prominence at this time.

5. By around 1200, Temujin began to aim to unite all the tribes, but this caused fear and anxiety among some elders.

6. In 1204, he was deserted by many of his allies, and his hopes seemed to be crushed.

C. Temujin seized supreme power in 1206.

1. He inflicted a stunning defeat on his enemies, attacking them while they were drunk in celebration of the supposed collapse of his power.

2. He called a great assembly of the tribes, a quriltai, in 1206, at which he was elected Chinggis Khan, the ruler of all Mongols.

II. Once he achieved unity for the Mongols, he led them into a new age of conquest and expansion.

A. Power and prestige among the Mongols was based on an economy of animal husbandly, supplemented by the spoils of raiding.

1. A leader had to share out the loot from his military raids with his followers.

2. Once the Mongols were unified under a single leader, they needed a new source of booty and turned to their non-Mongol neighbors.

B. The Mongols began to attack neighboring states and the rich trade routes of Central Asia.

1. The Xi Xia empire, which lay south of Mongolia and west of the Jin state in northern China, was their first target.

2. The Mongols also launched attacks against the city-states along the Silk Road, such as Hami, Kashgar, and Samarkand.

C. The Mongols developed their own special military style.

1. They relied on fear and intimidation for much of their effectiveness.

2. They were great horsemen and could cover great distances with unbelievable speed; thus, they often took their intended victims completely by surprise.

3. When they besieged a city, they issued a basic ultimatum: Surrender and live or resist and die.

4. They incorporated the defeated armies of their enemies into their own forces, treating them well and, in the process, greatly expanding their military capability.

III. In 1227, Temujin died and was succeeded by his son Ogedei, but later, the empire was divided among his grandsons.

A. Temujin had led his forces on the conquest of much of northern China, Central Asia, and into Persia.

1. On his death, the Mongol armies returned to their homeland to elect a new leader.

2. In 1229, they chose Ogedei, who ruled until 1241.

3. The Mongols renewed their campaigns of conquests, extending them into Russia and Eastern Europe, further into the Middle East, and over greater stretches of north China and Korea.

4. After Ogedei’s death, the Mongols could not settle on a new leader, and rival groups fought among themselves.

5. Eventually, the empire was divided among four of Temujin’s grandsons.

B. Each of Temujin’s grandsons took control of a separate khanate.

1. Batu Khan took over Russia and the Ukraine, giving rise to the Cossacks.

2. Hulegu controlled Persia, and his descendants, known as the Ilkhan, would later conquer much of India, where they became known as the Mughals.

3. The line of Chagadai ruled over Central Asia, where the greatest of the later Mongols, Tamerlane, would arise in the 15th century.

4. Finally, Khubilai Khan became ruler over the Mongol conquests in East Asia and would complete the conquest of Song China in 1279.

C. The Mongol Age of Conquest was unprecedented and gave rise to some unusual events.

1. Travelers could go from the eastern Mediterranean all the way to the Pacific in relative safety, under Mongol rule.

2. When the Mongols invading Persia and the Middle East encountered the Crusades, there was a brief hope among the Europeans for an alliance.

3. This was based on the myth of Prester John, who was believed to be a Christian ruler of a great empire in Central Asia.

4. There were, in fact, followers of a form of Christianity known as Nestorianism among the ranks of the Mongols.

5. We will turn to the story of Mongol rule in China in the next lecture.

Essential Reading:

J. J. Saunders, The History of the Mongol Conquests.

Supplemental Reading:

Paul Ratchnevsky, Genghis Khan: His Life and Legacy.

Questions to Consider:

1. The Mongols were often ruthless in their treatment of conquered cities and countries. Why would people have continued to resist them?

2. The power of the Mongol armies came to seem almost unstoppable, yet when the reigning khan died, all warfare ceased as the commanding generals had to return to Mongolia for the great assembly to choose the new leader(s). What does this suggest about the nature of the Mongol polity?

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