The Mongols

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The Mongols

T he Middle Ages in Europe and the Middle East were marked by three invasions of nomads from Central Asia: first the Huns, then the Turks, and finally the Mongols. The Mongols would conquer the largest empire of all, a vast realm that stretched from the Korean Peninsula to the outskirts of Vienna; but the Mongols' empire would fall apart almost as quickly as it came together. For a brief time, however, the Mongols—a people with no written language, and thus no real past history—would dominate much of the known world and hold many nations in terror.

Genghis Khan (c. 1162–1227)

For centuries, the Mongols had lived on the steppes (pronounced "steps") or plains of Central Asia, herding sheep and occasionally raiding other tribes. There was little to distinguish them from any number of other nomads—that is, until the appearance of an extraordinary young chieftain. His name was Temujin (TIM-yuh-jin); but in 1187, a group of clans declared him their "rightful ruler," and it was by this title— Genghis Khan (JING-us)—that his name would resound through history.

After a series of battles, Genghis united the Mongols for the first time in 1206. Soon after he took power, the government of the Sung Dynasty in China sent an ambassador to him, demanding an oath of loyalty. Genghis's response was to sweep into China in 1211 at the head of his army, which like other Central Asian invaders before them was filled with extraordinary horsemen and skilled archers. They were also quite well organized, being divided into groups of 10,000, called a horde, which were further subdivided all the way down to groups of ten men, the basic unit in the Mongol army.

Despite the fact that the Chinese had long despised the Mongols and other nomadic tribes as "barbarians," a number of Chinese generals and government officials were so impressed by Genghis's power that they changed sides. This gave the Mongols the benefit of Chinese knowledge, not only of warfare and technology, but also of another mystery: reading and writing. By 1215, Genghis had taken the city that is today China's capital, Beijing (bay-ZHEENG); the Mongols named it Khanbalik (kahn-bah-LEEK).

Genghis conquered the Manchus, a people of northeastern China related to the Mongols, and in 1218 a Mongol force launched a war on the Korean Peninsula. Meanwhile their leader moved westward, and between 1219 and 1225 he conquered a Turkic khanate that controlled a huge region in Central Asia. Other Mongol forces moved deep into Russia in 1223, but in 1226 Genghis himself turned back toward China to deal with a rebellious group there. He died on August 18, 1227, having conquered more land than any ruler since Alexander the Great fifteen hundred years before.

Conquests in Eastern Europe (1227–41)

In tribal fashion, Genghis had divided his lands between his three sons, who elected the youngest among them, Ogodai, as their leader. But Ogodai lacked his father's vision, or perhaps his ruthlessness, and though the Mongol realms would grow under his leadership, the driving force was gone.

Words to Know: The Mongols

A division with the Mongol army; the term "hordes" was often used to describe the Mongol armies.
Treeless grasslands and plains in Russia and Central Asia.
Forced payments to a conqueror.

Poor timing, motivated by concerns over succession, characterized Mongol actions in Eastern Europe. Juchi Khan, the son who had led

the attack on Russia in 1223, had returned to the homeland following the death of Genghis; but in 1235 Ogodai sent Juchi's son Batu Khan to resume the attack. Batu's army was composed mainly of Tatars (TAT-arz), another nomadic nation of Central Asia, and by 1236 it had entered the heartland of Russia. The army sacked Moscow and Kiev in 1240, and in 1241 devastated Poland and neighboring Silesia (sy-LEE-zhuh). They poured into Hungary, and by July 1241 were prepared to take Vienna. Then suddenly they were gone: Batu had received word that Ogodai was dead, and he hastened back to Karakorum (kar-uh-KOHR-um), the Mongol capital, to participate in choosing a successor.

If Batu had kept on going westward, it could have changed the whole course of history, with the Mongols perhaps leaving an imprint on Western Europe as they did on Russia. There the Mongol-Tatar force, which came to be known as the Golden Horde, maintained control for several centuries. Though Mongol rule in Russia was not extraordinarily harsh, and the conquerors interfered little with the affairs of the locals, they did expect

hefty payments of tribute. They also kept Russia isolated from the changes taking place in Europe, and this would have an effect on that land for centuries to come.

A shift to Southwest Asia (1241–60)

The Mongols did not choose the new khan (chieftain), Kuyuk, until 1246, and when they finally renewed their efforts in the west, they shifted their focus from Europe to the Arab lands. This, combined with the fact that Kuyuk had taken an interest in Nestorian Christianity, convinced many Western Europeans that he was doing God's work. (Nestorian Christians believed that Jesus Christ had two separate identities, one human and one divine.) Some even suggested that Kuyuk might be linked with Prester John, a fabled Christian king in the East whose existence had been rumored since the 1100s (see box, "Prester John," chapter 18).

But Kuyuk died in 1248, and it took the Mongols three more years to choose another khan, his cousin Mangu. Mangu sent Hulagu, yet another cousin, into Persia and Mesopotamia (modern-day Iran and Iraq). Hulagu destroyed the Assassins, a terrorist group associated with the Ismaili sect of Islam, in 1256 before sweeping into Baghdad and killing the last Abbasid caliph in 1258. Upon Mangu's death, Hulagu gave himself the title Il-khan, and thenceforth all of southwestern Asia would be a separate khanate under his rule.

The Mongols had already destroyed what was left of the Seljuks in 1243, and when Hulagu invaded Syria, it appeared they were about to destroy the last remaining Muslim power, the Mamluks. This inspired great hope in Western Europe; but in a battle at Goliath Spring in Nazareth on September 3, 1260, it was the Mamluks who defeated the Mongols. Mongol conquests in the west thus came to an end.

Kublai Khan (1215–1294)

In the years after Genghis's death, four separate khanates emerged. Aside from the Golden Horde in Russia and the realm of the Il-Khan in southwest Asia, the Chagatai (chah-guh-TY) khanate, named after one of Genghis's sons, covered the area that today includes Kazakhstan and other former Soviet republics in Central Asia. To the east, in an area that comprised the Mongolian homeland and the Mongols' most prized possession, China, was the realm of the Great Khan, Genghis's successor and the leader of the Mongols. Since Genghis's death, the Great Khans had been minor figures, but in 1260, leadership fell to the greatest of Genghis's descendants: Mangu's and Hulagu's brother Kublai Khan (KOO-bluh).

Kublai and his brothers conquered southern China, all the way to the borders of Tibet, and in 1264 Kublai established his capital at Khan-balik. By 1279 he controlled all of China, and founded the Yüan (yee-WAHN) Dynasty, the first foreign dynasty to rule that country. Kublai extended Mongol conquests deep into eastern Asia, subduing Korea in the north and Burma in the south, but invasion attempts failed in Japan in 1274 and 1281, and in Java in 1293.

He is best remembered for the splendor of his court in Khanbalik, and for his interaction with the great European explorer Marco Polo, who lived in China from 1275 to 1292.

Tamerlane and the end of the Mongols (1294–c. 1500)

The Yüan Dynasty lasted until 1368, but none of its later rulers possessed Kublai's strength, and the Chinese eventually overcame them. Yet the Mongols had one last moment of glory under Timur Lenk (tee-MOOR; 1336–1405), or "Timur the Lame," who became known to Europeans as Tamerlane. Though he was not related to Genghis Khan, Tamerlane saw himself as a successor to the great conqueror, and he set out to build an empire of his own.

First he established his capital at Samarkand (sah-mur-KAHND), an ancient city in what is now Uzbekistan, in 1370, and in the years from 1383 to 1385 he conquered Khorasan (kohr-ah-SAHN) on the Iran-Afghanistan border, as well as eastern Persia. Conquests between 1386 and 1394 won him Armenia, Mesopotamia, and Georgia (see box, "Georgia and the Mongols"), and in the process he destroyed the power of the Golden Horde in Russia. In 1398 he sacked the Indian city of Delhi, but by 1401 he was moving westward again, attacking first Damascus and then Baghdad. A year later, he defeated the Turks in a major battle, and captured their sultan, Bajazed, who committed suicide. Soon he was heading east once more, intent on conquering China; but he died on the way.

Tamerlane would be remembered for his cruelty as a conqueror and for his establishment of Samarkand as a great cultural center. His descendant Babur founded the Mogul dynasty in India, and Babur's grandson Akbar would prove to be one of the most enlightened rulers in history.

Such contrasts were typical of the Mongols' history: from Genghis's time onward, they had been feared as bloodthirsty conquerors who cooked their enemies in pots of hot water, yet they were also known as patrons of culture who could be fair rulers. Genghis had declared that all Mongols were equal, and in administering many of their conquered lands, the Mongols had likewise treated subject peoples as equals.

Recognizing their own lack of civilization, the Mongols had adopted the civilizations of the lands they ruled and often the religions as well. Ironically, this fact aided in their downfall: too small in numbers to overwhelm any population for long, the Mongols simply faded into the local landscape, and those who remained in Mongolia went back to the simple herding lifestyle they had practiced before Genghis's time.

Georgia and the Mongols

Like many other countries that made up the former Soviet Union, Georgia received its independence in the early 1990s; yet it had a history that went back to ancient times. Located in the area called the Caucasus (KAW-kuh-sus), a region between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea, Georgia's history was long tied with that of the Eastern Roman Empire, and the majority of its people were Orthodox Christians. Nonetheless, Muslims conquered it in the 640s, and ruled through the Bagratid (bahg-RAH-teed) family, a powerful Georgian dynasty. Yet when the Abbasid caliphate began to fade, Bagrat III (978–1014) took the opportunity to unite Georgia for the first time.

In 1122, Bagratid rulers seized the Georgian capital of Tbilisi (tuh-BLEE-see), which the Arabs had held for half a millennium, and Georgian power reached its peak under Queen Tamara (tuh-MAR-uh; ruled 1184–1212). The Mongol invasion in 1220, however, spelled the end of independent Georgia, and the country dissolved into a number of competing states. During the 1300s, Georgian rulers tried to reassert their authority, and in 1327 they drove out the Mongols. Tamerlane's invasion in 1386, however, broke the remaining power of the Georgian monarchs.

For More Information


Dijkstra, Henk, editor. History of the Ancient and Medieval World, Volume 11: Empires of the Ancient World. New York: Marshall Cavendish, 1996, pp. 1531–42.

Roberts, J. M. The Illustrated History of the World, Volume 4: The Age of Diverging Traditions. New York: Oxford, 1998, pp. 104–114.

Web Sites

"Genghis Khan: Timeline." National Geographic. [Online] Available (last accessed July 28, 2000).

The Mongols. [Online] Available (last accessed July 28, 2000).

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