Type of Government
The vast territory of the Mongol Empire was the world’s largest contiguous land domain, and at its peak it stretched from Japan to Hungary and covered twelve million square miles. Founded by the chief Genghis Khan (c. 1162–1227) in 1206, it was a formidable military power and maintained internal control by a system of draconian laws that demanded strict obedience and loyalty. His sons inherited a realm that evolved into five separate divisions, with names taken from the directions of the compass—the Blue (East) Horde, the Black (North) Horde, the Red (South) Horde, the White (West) Horde, and the Golden Horde that remained the center of the empire.
Genghis Khan was the title taken up by a Mongol named Temüjin, who came from a nomadic Tatar tribe in the Onon River region in Mongolia. The son of a tribal chief whose family’s status dropped precipitously when his father was poisoned by a rival clan, Temüjin emerged as a fierce military leader as a young man. He and his growing army had subdued a number of the perpetually warring Mongol tribes into a confederation by 1190, and then moved on to conquer the Turkic-speaking peoples in Central Asia. In 1206, at a Kurultai (assembly of chiefs), he was proclaimed Universal Ruler, or Genghis Khan, of the Mongol Empire. From there, he expanded into northern China and then westward, and his heirs led their armies all the way into Europe.
The Mongol Empire was ruled with absolute authority by the khans. All of them except Genghis Khan and the son who succeeded him, Ögödei Khan (1185–1241), were elected by the Kurultai, who served as a consultative body for the ruler. The khan was assisted by a prime minister—who had to be an ethnic Mongol—called the beqlare-beq (prince of princes), and several ministers of government known as viziers (burden-bearers). Conquered territories were administered by the baskak, a military governor responsible for collecting tribute and quelling dissent.
The highest offices of government were meted out by the khan according to merit, not inheritance. All conquered territories paid onerous tribute (obligatory payment to a government or sovereign), but religious freedom was guaranteed if the tribute was uninterrupted. By 1300 the empire had been divided into four khanates of Central Asia, Persia, China, and Russia, each of which was headed by a powerful khan.
Obedience and loyalty were crucial elements of control for such a vast empire. Years earlier, Genghis Khan had ordered a secret set of laws, called the Yassa, to be written down. The word yassa meant “order” or “decree,” and the code was rife with capital crimes (crimes punishable by death), such as failing to obey orders from one’s superior. Dissent and disobedience were dealt with severely, and entire towns would suffer if the seeds of a rebellion were discovered. The code gave preference to nomadic peoples such as the Mongols over settled groups, such as the Chinese, in its realm.
Political Parties and Factions
Genghis Khan’s sons took over the Mongol Empire after his death in 1227. From the original seat of Mongol power, Ögödei Khan ruled as Universal Khan and brought more of China under his control. Ögödei’s two nephews, Batu Khan (d. 1255) and Orda Khan (c. 1204–1280), ruled territories conquered in Persia, the Caucasus, Russia, and Turkey. One of Genghis Khan’s many grandsons, Kublai Khan (1215–1294), founded China’s Yüan dynasty.
The Mongols were so feared that the year of their invasion usually serves as a tragic milestone in the history of other powers. An example of this is the early thirteenth-century conquest of Kievan Rus’, which effectively destroyed that empire. In an illuminating tale of Mongol foreign diplomacy, Batu’s top general granted several Kievan princes what was considered an honorable death following the Mongol victory: the generals ate a meal atop a platform under which the six princes were slowly crushed to death. A generation later, Genghis Khan’s grandson Hülegü Khan (c. 1217–1365) took Baghdad by force in 1258, ending the five-hundred-year dominance of the Muslim Abbasid caliphate. In the 1360s Timur (1336–1405) conquered areas as far south as Delhi, India, and as far west as Ankara, Turkey. After his death, however, the empire began to weaken considerably. Because the khans ruled in territories located a vast distance from one another, meetings to formulate policy-making were extremely difficult to arrange, and Mongol unity began to collapse.
The Timurid dynasty founded by Timur incorporated large areas of Iran, Afghanistan, Central Asia, and the Caucasus. One of his successors went on to found India’s powerful Mughal Empire, who lost their hold on the Indian subcontinent to the British. Some historians theorize that Batu Khan’s planned invasion of western Europe would have succeeded had his heirs shared his interest in the plan.
The Mongol Empire served as a bridge between the ancient civilizations of Asia and the emerging modern ones of western Europe. The Pax Mongolica (Mongol Peace) reportedly made the famous ancient Silk Road safe for generations of traders, including Marco Polo (1254–1324), whose stories about the splendors of the Chinese court fascinated much of Europe. Batu Khan’s great-grandson was the uncle of Öz Beg Khan (d. 1341), who decreed Islam the official state religion of the empire, which firmly entrenched it in Central Asia and parts of southern Russia, where religious conflicts flared again in the twentieth century after the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
Hartog, Leo de. Genghis Khan: Conqueror of the World. New York: Taurisparke Paperbacks, 2004.
Morgan, David. The Mongols. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2007.
Prawdin, Michael. The Mongol Empire: Its Rise and Legacy. New Brunswick, N.J.: AldineTransaction, 2006.