Empires: Mongol and Il-Khanid

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The Mongol empire, which at its peak stretched from Java to Lithuania, was the creation of Genghis Khan (c. 1167–1227) and his descendants. They exercised direct rule for over a century in Iran and Transoxania, southern Russia, and China, and in the less accessible heartland of these regions, particularly in parts of Central Asia, where Mongol khans were recognized as the legitimate rulers until well into the seventeenth century.

The father of Temujin, the future Genghis Khan, was murdered by a rival tribe of Tatars when Temujin was still a small boy. Abandoned by most of his father's followers, he spent a hard childhood, first simply surviving and then working for revenge. By 1206 he had succeeded in unifying most of the tribes in Mongolia and eliminating the Tatars and other powerful groups, incorporating the survivors into his own forces. He was enthroned as ruler of the Mongols and adopted the title Genghis Khan.

There followed a sustained attack, first on the neighboring powers such as the Tanguts (Hsi Hsia) and then on north China, ruled by the Jurchen (Chin) dynasty (1115–1234). Peking fell in 1215, but it took many more campaigns for the Chin to be crushed. The scale and determination of their resistance was one of the factors that helped to transform the Mongol assaults from raids on the traditional nomadic model into more permanent wars of conquest and occupation, for there is little to suggest that the annexation of north China was part of Genghis Khan's original intentions.

As the Mongol war machine gathered momentum, its belligerence necessarily attracted further acts of defiance and inevitable punishment. Their attention drawn ever westward by the flight of their vanquished foes, the Mongols came up against the Khwarazmian empire, based on the cities of the Jaxartes and Oxus rivers. The massacre of a Mongol-sponsored merchant caravan in Otrar in 1218 provided the pretext for the invasions of the Transoxania and eastern Iran, where the Khwaramshah's tenuous control was quickly destroyed in a devastating series of sieges. Pursuing the Khwaramshah across northern Iran, the Mongol generals Subetei and Jebe then turned north across the Caucasus and defeated a Russian force at the Kalka river in 1223, before returning to Mongolia.

By Genghis Khan's death in 1227, these widespread and crushing victories opened up huge new territories to the Mongols. It was the work of his descendants to consolidate them into an empire. His son and successor, Ögedei (1229–1241), continued the conquest of North China and further expansion west, where the Mongols won great victories in Poland and Hungary before consolidating their rule over southern Russia based on the steppes north of the Caspian Sea. These territories, of the so-called Golden Horde, were held by the descendants of Genghis Khan's oldest son, Jochi. They maintained their dominance over the disunited Russian princes until the early sixteenth century, by keeping separate from them and retaining the essence of their nomadic lifestyle. Nevertheless, their capital at Sarai on the Volga became a great cosmopolitan trading center. As early as the 1260s, but definitively by the 1330s, the khans of the Golden Horde had converted to Islam.

By contrast, in Iran, an ancient sedentary civilization (like China), a transformation in outlook was required if the nomadic Mongols were to rule effectively. The original conquests were consolidated by Genghis Khan's grandson, Hulegu, who captured Baghdad in 1258 and took the title Il-Khan or subject Khan (to the Great Khan in Mongolia, and later in China). Hulegu's dynasty, the Il-khanids (1258–1335), relied heavily on the Persian bureaucratic families to operate their oppressive financial administration, but there remained a fundamental reluctance to abandon Mongol precedents. The unwritten Mongol code of law, the Yasa, continued to be honored, even after the accelerated Islamization that followed the conversion of Ghazan Khan in 1294. Ultimately, the Il-khanate ran out of heirs, the dynasty suffering from an endemic instability in the succession to the throne that had first caused the fragmentation of the empire into four main regional states and then the weakening of the states themselves.

In the last of these states, the Chaghatay Khanate, which embraced Transoxania, Turkestan, and Sinkiang, the Mongols retained rule longer than elsewhere, owing partly to the terrain and the preponderance of desert and steppe over the isolated oases along the celebrated "silk route." Even more than in the case of the Golden Horde, the Mongols could prey on their subjects from a distance, while the largely Turkicized subjects were more like the Mongols themselves: not Russians, Persians, or Chinese, with their alien traditions and norms. These regions were initially part of the inheritance of Ögedei and his elder brother Chaghatay, but the descendants of Ögedei were almost eliminated when they lost the succession to the Great Khanate in 1251 as the result of a coup by the Toluids (descendants of Genghis Khan's youngest son, Tolui). While the Western Chaghatay leaders began to embrace Islam in the early fourteenth century, pagan ways prevailed in the east up to the sixteenth century.

Controlling a vast area of Asia, the four contiguous Mongol empires opened up territories to new movements of people, fueling a process of cultural exchange, artistic patronage, and commercial relations, which did much to counteract the initial savagery of their conquests. Despite their first assault on Islam, ultimately the Mongols were responsible for spreading Islam among the Turkic peoples and tribes who were brought into Central Asia as a result of the Mongol conquests.

An illustrated manuscript of Genghis Khan and his sons appears in the volume one color insert.

See alsoPolitical Organization .


Allsen, Thomas T. Culture as Conquest in Mongol Eurasia. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Morgan, David. The Mongols. Oxford, U.K.: B. Blackwell, 1986.

Spuler, Bertold. A History of the Muslim World. Princeton, N.J.: M. Wiener Publishers, 1994.

Charles Melville