Chapter 11

The Mongols Rule!

In This Chapter

• Genghis Khan and the rise of the Mongols

• Pax Mongolia

• The grandsons of Genghis Khan

• Timur the Lane

• The Mongols in world history

Now we’ll examine the Mongols, who have been mentioned briefly in previouschapters. The Mongols were a disruptive conquering force in history, but, on the other hand, they opened up a new era of interregional exchange that had not been seen since the classical period of world history.

Introducing the Mongols

The Mongols started out as a group of nomadic tribes in and around the Gobi Desert and the steppes of central Asia. These tribes were hardened by their environmental circumstances as they eked out a life of herding goats and sheep and hunting and gathering. Unlike most other societies, men and women were treated equally in Mongolian society, and things like becoming skilled at riding a horse and bravery in battle and the hunt were essential.

In due time, the tribes formed related clans, which slowly developed into regional kingdoms that continually competed for power on the steppes of central Asia with the neighboring Turkic peoples. This prevented the Mongolian people from developing any lasting empire, although during the fourth and tenth centuries they controlled portions of northern China.

The Rise of Genghis Khan

The birth of Temujin in 1162 marked an end of the Mongolian age of obscurity. A prince of one of the regional Mongolian kingdoms, Temujin built on his father’s success and created a series of tribal alliances that united the eastern and western Mongolian kingdoms. In 1206, Temujin was elected khan, or supreme ruler, of the Mongolian kingdoms at the kuriltai, a meeting of all Mongol chieftains, and took the name Genghis Khan, meaning “ruler of all.”

The Mongol War Machine

Genghis Khan had an army of natural warriors. The harsh environmental conditions in which the Mongolians were raised made them tough and resilient. From years of hunting game, they were expert marksmen with the short bow, able to accurately use the weapon on horseback at a range of 400 yards. Thus Genghis Khan had armies of swift cavalry at his beck and call.

Genghis Khan brought to the Mongolian armies discipline, unity, and a command structure that made the armies not only tough and fast but efficient. The armies were divided in units of 10. The first unit was the tumens, made up of 10,000 warriors, then smaller units of 1,000, 100, and finally 10. Each unit had a commanding officer who received his orders from the commander of the unit above.

What in the World

Mongol warriors were known to spend days on their horses, even sleeping in the saddle during long marches. It was documented on several occasions that the Mongolian cavalry traveledclose to a hundred miles in a day’s time.

The cavalry units (the Mongolians had no foot soldiers) were divided into heavy, who wore more armor and more weapons, and light cavalry. To help with communication between units, a messenger force was created that could ride for days without stopping and even sleep on their horses—they were actually bandaged to the horses so they did not fall! Finally, they had special units to map the terrain, so the armies were prepared for any environmental eventuality.


With an army waiting, Genghis Khan was ready to expand his empire with an assault on Asia. His first strike was in 1207, when the Mongolian armies humbled the Tangut kingdom of Xi Xia in northwest China. Then Genghis Khan attacked the powerful Qin empire, established by the Manchu-related Jurchens a century earlier.


Mongol invasions.

During these campaigns, Genghis Khan used a terrifying policy of retribution in which resistance was met with swift death. Whole towns that resisted the Mongolian armies were killed after defeat, including women and children, usually in a grisly manner. Tales of this policy preceded the Mongolian armies as they moved westward against the Kara Khitai Empire. It was annexed as part of the Mongolian Empire by 1219. The Mongols then overwhelmed the Islamic Khwarazm Empire, and by 1227 the Mongolian Empire stretched from eastern Persia to the North China Sea.

In addition to the policy of retribution, the Mongolian armies used sound military tactics to defeat their adversaries. One tactic was to charge the enemy’s main army with a lesser force. After a short engagement, the Mongolians would retreat, apparentlydefeated. When armies would move to pursue the retreating Mongolians, the other Mongolian units would out-flank and surround the disorganized enemy army. As the Mongolian armies conquered more territories with stronger fortresses and cities,their tactics began to include siege weapons.

After Genghis Khan had established his Mongolian Empire, he created a capital at the city of Karakorum and instituted some policies that few expected from a conqueringMongol. First, he consulted Chinese Confucian scholars, Muslim engineers, and Daoist holy men to build his capital city and develop his governmental policies, which were very progressive.

For example, Genghis Khan‘s policy of religious tolerance throughout the empire was unique compared to most other civilizations. Thus did the bloodthirsty conquerorbring peace to Asia, which some historians have referred to as a period of Pax Mongolia, or Mongolian peace. Genghis Khan’s armies protected the people and trade of the empire. This protection revitalized the commerce of the Silk Road and reestablishedinterregional connections between Asia, Europe, Africa, and the Middle East.

The Death of Genghis Khan

Of course, all good things must come to an end, and so it was with the rule of Genghis Khan. In 1226, Genghis Khan turned southward to complete his conquest of China, which he had always regretted not finishing earlier. With an army of close to 200,000 warriors, Genghis Khan invaded China, making short work of the Chinese cities in the North. However, in August 1227, just as China was on the verge of collapse, the great Genghis Khan died. The invasion was discontinued as the Mongolian armies returned to the capital city of Karakorum with the body of Genghis Khan for burial. (Out of respect for their great ruler, they killed every living thing that preceded them on the long march home!)

The Mongolian chiefs then met to elect another grand khan. They elected Ogedei, the third son of Genghis Khan, who was very satisfied with consolidating his rule of the Mongolian Empire from the capital of Karakorum rather than conquest. So it appeared that rest of Asia could breathe a sigh of relief. The Mongols were done with conquest. Little did they know that it had only just begun.

Conquest Again!

Ogedei might have been satisfied staying at home, but his sons, the grandsons of Genghis Khan, were not. Batu, Hulegu, and Kublai all made significant conquests to expand the Mongolian Empire further in Asia and the Middle East and into portions of Europe.

Batu and the Golden Horde

Batu was given charge of Mongolian armies in the western regions of the empire and, in 1236, he invaded Russia. The Russian princes refused to unite under the prince of Kiev, and their kingdoms were individually ravaged and conquered by Batu’s 100,000 Mongolian warriors. Eventually Kiev itself was reduced to rubble by the Mongol siege machinery, and the Russian princes were forced to submit and pay tribute to Batu as vassals of the Golden Horde, the name used for Batu’s territories and armies.

The impact of this invasion on Russia was great. The Russian princes had to develop better military organization. They also learned from the Mongolians the ins and outs of centralized rulership; something the independent princes had trouble with. Finally, the years of Mongolian rule during the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth centuriescut Russia off from some of the key cultural movements of Europe, which led to a unique Russian identity that some (especiallyPeter the Great!) considered “backward.”

What in the World

The Russians called the Mongolians “Tartars.” This term was derived from the place of punishment in the underworld of Greek mythology called Tartarus. So calling someone a tartar was referring to him as someone from hell.

For Batu, Russia was just a warm-up exercise for the big show: Europe, which he believed had riches and resources beyond imagining. The Europeans, at first, thought well of the Batu and the Golden Horde. The legend of Prester John, a mythical Christian ruler whose kingdom in central Asia was supposedly separated from Europe during the period of Islamic conquest, was still strong in the European consciousness.Europeans believed that one day Prester John’s descendants would help to defeat the growing power of Islam in the Middle East. The Mongolians had, of course, come from central Asia conquering Islamic lands. But after the conquest of Christian Russia, the Europeans knew that the Mongolians had not “come in peace.”

In the initial military encounter with European forces, the Mongolians defeated an army of Hungarians and German knights led by King Henry of Silesia. It looked like Europe was open for conquest. As fate would have it, however, Batu’s father, Ogedei, died, and he had to journey to the Mongolian empire’s capital of Karakorum. After Ogedei’s burial, Batu returned to the lands of the Golden Horde and built a new capitalat Sarai on the Volga River. By then, Batu had changed his mind about Europe and spent the remainder of his days harassing the Islamic lands of the Middle East and collecting tribute.

Of all of the cities of Russia, Moscow benefited the most from rule of the Golden Horde. The leaders of Moscow collected more from their people than they needed for the tribute and eventually developed the financial resources to resist the Mongols. By the fifteenth century, Moscow united the other princes of Russia, a feat that Kiev could not pull off, and defeated the Golden Horde at the Battle of Kulikova. This established the prince of Moscow as the leader of the Russia princes and ended Mongolian rule in Russia.

Notable Quotable

"Swarming like locusts over the face of the earth, they have brought terrible devastation to the eastern parts [of Europe], laying it waste with fire and carnage. After having passed through the land of the Saracens, they have razed cities, cut down forests, overthrown fortresses, pulled up vines, destroyed gardens, killed townspeople and peasants.”

—Matthew Paris from the Chronica Majora

Hulegu and the Islamic Heartlands

Like Batu, Hulegu, another grandson of Genghis Khan, was given command of Mongolian armies in the southwest region of the Mongolian Empire. Hulegu surveyedthe surrounding regions and determined that the Islamic territories of the Abbasid dynasty were ripe for conquest. By 1258, Hulegu’s Mongolian armies had captured the Abbasid territories and destroyed the city of Baghdad, then moved westwardacross the Middle East conquering as they went.

They were stopped by a rather strange alliance. The Egyptian slave army of Mamluks, led by Baibars, was given permission to cross over territory in Palestine controlled by Christian crusaders to meet and defeat the Mongolian army. The Islamic Mamluks were the sworn enemies of the Christian crusaders, but both felt that religious differences should be set aside to stop this Mongolian threat. The defeat by the Mamluks convinced Hulegu to settle down and consolidate the rule of his newly conquered territories. His Mongolian kingdom stretched from the borders of the Byzantium Empire to the Oxus River in central Asia.

Kublai Khan and the Yuan Dynasty

Even with all their conquests, the Mongolians had not forgotten the unconquered empire of China. During the powerful Song dynasty, Kublai, yet another grandson of Genghis Khan, started to make advances into China. Unlike his brothers, who conquered vast territories rather quickly, Kublai battled for the Chinese Empire from 1235 to 1271.

During this period (and probably to the chagrin of his brothers), Kublai assumed the title of the Great Khan. Twelve years later, the Great Khan was vindicated when the great Chinese empire fell to his armies. But rather than impose Mongolian conventionsof rulership on the Chinese, Kublai Khan established the Yuan dynasty, similar to the traditional dynasties of China’s past. He then placed the capital at Tatu, which is present-day Beijing.

Notable Quotable

"Being the adherent of no religion and the follower of no creed he eschewed bigotry, and the preference of one faith to another, and the placing of some above others; rather he honored and respected the learned and pious of every sect, recognizingsuch conduct as the way to the Court of God. And as he viewed the Muslims with the eye of respect, so also did he hold the Christians and idolaters in high esteem.”

—Ala-ad-Din Juvaini on the Kublai Khan and religious toleration (c. 1260)

Mongolian culture and ideas also came with Kublai Khan and the Mongolian armies. Muslims from the western region of the empire were brought in for governmental bureaucracy and development. Foreign travelers,once few and far between, came from Europe, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia. Kublai Khan insisted on religious tolerance in all of the territories, makingBuddhists and Daoists who had fallen out of favor very supportive of Mongolian rule. Chinese literature and art blossomed, producing one of the most enduring works of Chinese drama, The Romance of the West Chamber. With progressive reforms and the protection of the Mongolian armies, the Chinese initially enjoyed the rule of the Great Khan, who had brought prosperity to China. Eventually, the honeymoon ended.

What in the World

Marco Polo (1254-1324) was one of the foreigners whom Kublai Khan employed in the Yuan dynasty government, serving as an advisor to Kublai Khan’s court for a short time duringhis 20-plus year trek across Asia. Polo later wrote about his travels in the book Travels of Marco Polo, which was instantly popular and generated interest in the lands of Asia.

The Chinese began to resist the Mongolian cultural influence after contradictions were observed. First, the Mongolians were very resistant to Chinese culture and maintaineda wall of separation from the Chinese. Additionally, the Mongolians appeared to play favorites, using foreign rather than Chinese officials. The Mongolians also helped the artisan and merchant classes, who, according to Confucian Chinese standards,were the “mean” people and at the bottom of the Chinese social structure. So Kublai Khan, although progressive, was unintentionally alienating the very important Confucian scholar-gentry class of China, which formed much of public opinion.

The end of the Yuan dynasty started with the failed invasions of Japan in 1274 and 1280. The Chinese people perceived that the Mongolians were not quite as tough as they appeared to be, and by the 1350s this perception manifested itself in the secret White Lotus Society, which was filled with Yuan dynasty haters and Song dynasty supporters. With their help and many others, a poor peasant family man named Ju Yuanzhang led a revolt that overthrew the Yuan dynasty and began the Chinese Ming dynasty. After the takeover, the Mongolians retreated back to Mongolia, markinga decline in their power across Asia.

One Last Mongol

Just as the people of Asia, the Middle East, and even Europe thought that the “all clear” had sounded, another nomadic group stepped forward to strike fear in the hearts of the people with swift cavalry attacks and a policy of retribution.

This nomadic group was the Turks, led by Timur-i-Lang or Timur the Lane. During the 1360s, after the decline of the Mongolian empire, Timur the Lane very quickly carved a Turkish Empire out of Persia, the Fertile Crescent, India, and southern Russia. After consolidating his conquests, Timur the Lane established a capital city at Samarkund in central Asia from which to rule his newfound empire. But his empire did not have the strength and longevity of the Mongols, and, after his death in 1405, the empire quickly fell into civil war between his army commanders. In the end, Timur the Lane and his Turkic armies were a watered down version of the conquest and the power of the Genghis Khan and the Mongols.

The Upside of Bloodthirsty Mongol Conquerors

Regardless of the bloodshed created by Genghis Khan and the Mongols, the Mongols did much to revitalize interregional exchanges between Asia, Europe, the Middle East, and even Africa. During the Pax Mongolia, trade and commerce was renewed under the watch of Mongol armies.

Additionally, the civilizations conquered by the Mongols learned how to centralize government over diverse peoples and vast territories, so that, when the Mongols declined in power, the kingdoms and states of Europe, Asia, and the Middle East were able to continue centralizing power and developing interregional exchanges. The Mongols started the engine that ushered in the modern period of world history.

The Least You Need to Know

• Genghis Khan established the Mongolian Empire through conquests of Asia.

• Genghis Khan’s grandsons expanded the Mongolian Empire farther with the conquest of Russia, Persia, and China.

• Mongol power declined after the loss of China to the Ming dynasty in the mid-fourteenthcentury.

• Timur the Lane quickly created the Turkic Empire that included portions of central Asia, the Middle East and Russia, although the empire dissolved after this death.

• The Mongol conquests ushered in a new age of interregional exchange and centralized government in Asia, Europe, and the Middle East.

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