The Mongols


The Mongol Empire (1206–1405) was the third largest empire in history, covering over 33 million km² (12 million square miles) at its peak, with an estimated population of over 100 million people. The Mongol Empire was founded by Genghis Khan in 1206, and at its height, it encompassed the majority of the territories from East Asia to Central Europe.

Genghis' grandson, Hulagu Khan, finished the invasions that Genghis had begun when he defeated Khwarzim Empire, Baghdad, and much of the rest of the Middle East from 1255 to 1258. Persia temporarily became the Ilkhanate, a division of the vast Mongol Empire. In 1295, after Ilkhan Mahmud Ghazan converted to Islam, he renounced all allegiance to the Emperor Chengzong of Yuan China who had recently succeeded his grandfather Kublai Khan as Great Khan. The Ilkhans patronized the arts and learning in the fine tradition of Iranian Islam; indeed, they helped to repair much of the damage of the Mongol conquests.

In 1335, the death of Abu Sa'id, the last well-recognized Ilkhan, spelled the end of the Ilkhanate. Though Arpa Ke'un was declared Ilkhan his authority was disputed and the Ilkhanate was splintered into a number of small states. This left Persia vulnerable to conquest at the hands of Timur the Lame or Tamerlane, a Central Asian conqueror seeking to revive the Mongol Empire. He ordered the attack of Persia beginning around 1370 and robbed the region until his death in 1405. Timur was even harsher than Genghis had been and was responsible for killing 70,000 people in Isfahan. He conquered a wide area and made his own city of Samarkand rich, but he made no effort to forge a lasting empire. The Persian Empire was left in ruins.


The Mongols proper originated from the Lake Bajkal area, north of Mongolia. Since prehistoric times, the Bajkal area has been a center of cultural exchange and development, due to its complex and fertile ecosystems, and its significance as a source of fish and game. Trade and warfare was a way of life in borderless central Asia, where traditional nomad societies from Siberia to the Bajkal and Turkic areas shared similar shamanistic beliefs, symbols, and practices. However, the Mongols as a unified people did not exist as a political entity until coordinated by Genghis Khan.

Genghis Khan (born Temudchin) through political manipulation and military might, united the nomadic, tumultuous Mongol-Turkic tribes under his rule by 1206. He quickly came into conflict with the Jin Dynasty empire of the Jurchens and the Western Xia of the Tanguts in northern China. Under the provocation of the Muslim Khwarezmid Empire, he moved into Central Asia as well, devastating Transoxiana and eastern Persia, then raiding into Kievan Rus' (a predecessor state of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine) and the Caucasus. Before dying, Genghis Khan divided his empire among his sons and immediate family, but as custom made clear, it remained the joint property of the entire imperial family who, along with the Mongol aristocracy, constituted the ruling class.

The Empire

The Mongol Empire: c1260


The Mongol Empire (1206–1405) was the third largest empire in history, covering over 33 million km², with an population of 100+ million people. (Curiously, the Mongols themselves were never more than two million people who came from the edge of the Gobi Desert.) The Mongol Empire was founded by Temuchin, later called Genghis Khan in 1206, and at its height, it encompassed the majority of the territories from East Asia to Central Europe.

The Mongol Empire started out as a Mongol nation of unified Central Asian confederations such as Mongols, Naimans, Uighurs, Merkits under Genghis Khan, but was expanded by numerous conquests such as China, Middle East and European regions under multiple Khans and Khagans. After unifying the Mongol and Turkic tribes, the Empire expanded through numerous conquests throughout continental Eurasia starting with the conquests of the Western Xia in north China and the Khwarezmid Empire in Iran.

Genghis Khan divided his realm into four Khanates, subdivisions of a single empire under the Great Khan (Khan of Khans). The following Khanates emerged after the regency following Ogedei Khan's death, and became formally independent after Kublai Khan's death:

During its existence, the Pax Mongolica facilitated cultural exchange and trade between the East, West, and the Middle East in the period of the 13th and 14th centuries. The Mongol Empire established commercial and political connections between the Eastern and Western areas of the world that have remained to the present day. The Mongol Empire was ruled by the Khagan. After the death of Möngke Khan, it split into four parts (the Yuan Dynasty, Ilkhanate, Chagatai Khanate and the Golden Horde), each of which was ruled by its own Khan.

Mongol Military

The Mongol-Turkic military organization was simple, but effective. It was based on an old tradition of the steppe, which was a decimal system known in Iranian cultures since Achaemenid Persia, and later: the army was built up from squads of ten men each, called an arban; ten arbans constituted a company of a hundred, called a jaghun; ten jaghuns made a regiment of a thousand called mingghan and ten mingghans would then constitute a regiment of ten thousand (tumen), which is the equivalent of a modern division.

Unlike the Huns or Vikings, the Mongols were quite competent in conducting a siege. They were very careful to recruit artisans from the cities they plundered, and along with a group of experienced Chinese engineers, they were experts in building the trebuchet and other siege machines. These were mostly built on the spot using nearby trees. Within a battle Mongol forces used extensive coordination of combined arms forces. Though they were famous for their horse archers, their lance forces were equally skilled and just as essential to their success. Mongol forces also used their engineers in battle. They used siege engines and rockets to disrupt enemy formations, confused enemy forces with smoke, and used smoke to isolate portions of an enemy force while destroying that force to prevent their allies from sending aid.

The army's discipline distinguished Mongol soldiers from their peers. The forces under the command of the Mongol Empire were generally trained, organized, and equipped for mobility and speed. To maximize mobility, Mongol soldiers were relatively lightly armored compared to many of the armies they faced. In addition, soldiers of the Mongol army functioned independently of supply lines, considerably speeding up army movement. Skillful use of couriers enabled these armies to maintain contact with each other and with their higher leaders. Discipline was inculcated in nerge (traditional hunts), as reported by Juvayni. These hunts were distinct from hunts in other cultures which were the equivalent to small unit actions. Mongol forces would spread out on line, surrounding an entire region and drive all of the game within that area together. The goal was to let none of the animals escape and to slaughter them all.

All military campaigns were preceded by careful planning, reconnaissance and gathering of sensitive information relating to the enemy territories and forces. The success, organization and mobility of the Mongol armies permitted them to fight on several fronts at once. All males aged from 15 to 60 and capable of undergoing rigorous training were eligible for conscription into the army, the source of honor in the tribal warrior tradition.

Another advantage of the Mongols was their ability to traverse large distances even in debilitatingly cold winters; in particular, frozen rivers led them like highways to large urban conurbations on their banks. In addition to siege engineering, the Mongols were also adept at river-work, crossing the river Sajó in spring flood conditions with thirty thousand cavalry in a single night during the battle of Mohi (April, 1241), defeating the Hungarian king Bela IV. Similarly, in the attack against the Muslim Khwarezmshah, a flotilla of barges was used to prevent escape on the river.

In 1218, Genghis Khan sent ambassadors and merchants to the city of Otrar, on the northeastern confines of the Khwarizm shahdom. The governor of Otrar had these envoys executed. Genghis attacked Otrar in 1219, Samarkand, and other cities of the northeast. By then the Mongol empire had reached its greatest expansion. Hulagu Khan, grandson of Genghis, finished the invasions from 1255 to 1258 and swept his army through Persia and Syria, destroying the Islamic caliphates, the Abbasids and Ayyubids, and led the 1258 Sack of Baghdad, considered to be the single most disastrous event in the history of Islam.

However, the Mongol Empire had serious internal dissension, and although the center of power was the Great Khan in Karakorum, the Empire split into four "khanates", one for each of four of Genghis's grandsons. Hulagu's portion (Persia) was known as the Ilkhanate and stretched through the area today that covers parts of Turkey and Iran on the west, and Pakistan on the east. The section to the north, covering parts of Russian and Eastern Europe, was called the Golden Horde. Relations between the khanates were tense and battles, while they attempted to extend the Empire westwards into Europe, and the Middle East.

The Mongol expansion throughout the Asian continent from around 1215 to 1360 helped bring political stability and re-establish the Silk Road vis-à-vis Karakorum. With rare exceptions such as Marco Polo or Christian missionaries such as William of Rubruck, few Europeans traveled the entire length of the Silk Road. Instead traders moved products much like a bucket brigade, with luxury goods being traded from one middleman to another, from China to the West, and resulting in wildly extravagant prices.


Mongol Cavalry


The first battle between Russia and Mongols was on 31 May 1223, when Subutai's Mongol army of 30.000 had invaded the Black sea steppes and defeated the Alans and Cumins (called Polovtsy by the Russians). The Cumins asked the Russian princes for help and the three strongest princes agreed. Mstislav III Romanovich of Kiev, Mstislav Pantelejmon Svyatoslavich of Chernigov, and Mstislav Mstislavich of Galich, fielded their badly coordinated army against the Mongols. In 1237-1241 Russians themselves were fiercely attacked by the Mongols. By then Chinggis Borjigin, Great Khan of the Mongols had conquered an enormous territory and created a Mongol Empire in central Asia from the Pacific to Central Europe. Mongols were called Tatars in Europe, although the Tatars were only one nomadic tribe from the area near China. In the wake of the Mongol invasions of the 1230s, Volga Bulgaria was absorbed by the Golden Horde and its population evolved into the Chuvashes and Kazan Tatars.

Domestic wars ruled out a Russian army and the Mongols defeated the disunited princes one by one. In the winter of 1237, Batu Khan's Mongol Horde devastated the Ryazan principality; the Mongols burned the capital and killed the population. In January 1238, the Mongols defeated the army of Vladimir-Suzdal land and captured both Moscow and Suzdal. On February 7 they captured Vladimir. On 4 March 1238, at the Battle of Sit River, the Mongols defeated the army of Grand Prince Yurij II Vsevolodovich who was killed in the battle.

The inhabitants of Kozelsk, a small town on the Zhizdra River in Russia managed to resist the Mongols for seven weeks. Sadly, they learned the cost of heroic fighting against the Mongols. In May 1238 Batu Khan's army captured Kozelsk and Batu ordered his men to raze the town to the ground and kill all the people. The Mongols then retired to the steppes near the Don River, to reorganise and plan for the next campaign. In spring of 1239 he destroyed the Pereyaslavl principality and in the autumn it was the turn of Chernigov-Seversk.

In 1240, Batu's Horde moved through south Russia and in September they surrounded Kiev and began their seige using catapults, mangonels, poisoned arrows, and naphtha fire. Prince Daniil Romanovich had neither gained allies, nor organised the effective defence of Kiev. In December 1240, the Mongols captured Russia's strongest city in the Ukraine and burned Kiev to the ground. This was the end of the Kievan Rus era. The Horde then devastated nearly all the towns of south Russia by the end of January 1241. By the summer of 1241 the conquest of Russia was virtually complete and Batu turned to Poland, Hungary, the Czech kingdom; and then reached the borders of North Italy and Germany. At this point the inevitable problems of time and space became apparent and promised reinforcments failed to appear. The Mongols had suffered significant losses and by the end of 1242 had to return to their western capital at Sarai. In the pacified, secure steppes of the Volga River they formed the Golden Horde.

The Mongols governed Russia and Volga Bulgaria from Sarai, one of the largest cities of the mediaeval world. The princes of southern and eastern Russia had to pay tribute to the Golden Horde, but got charters authorizing them to act as deputies to the khans. The Mongol efficiencies inspired the Russians to improve both their military tactics and transportation. Under Mongol occupation, Russia developed its own postal road network, conducted a census, created a comprehensive fiscal system, and reorganised their ineffective military.

Mongol China

Kublai Khan & Marco Polo


Möngke Khan unwittingly provided his brother Kublai, or Qubilai, with a chance to become Khan in 1260, assigning Kublai to a province in North China. Kublai expanded the Mongol empire and became a favorite of Möngke. Kublai's conquest of China is estimated to have killed over 18 million people.

Later, though, when Kublai began to adopt many Chinese laws and customs, his brother was persuaded by his advisors that Kublai was becoming too Chinese and would become treasonous. Möngke kept a closer watch on Kublai from then on but died campaigning in the west. After his older brother's death, Kublai placed himself in the running for a new khan against his younger brother, and, although his younger brother won the election, Kublai defeated him in battle, and Kublai became the last true Great Khan.

He proved to be a strong warrior, but his critics still accused him of being too closely tied to Chinese culture. When he moved his headquarters to Beijing, there was an uprising in the old capital that he barely staunched. He focused mostly on foreign alliances, and opened trade routes. He dined with a large court every day, and met with many ambassadors, foreign merchants, and even offered to convert to Christianity if this religion was proved to be correct by 100 priests.

By the reign of Kublai Khan, the empire was already in the process of splitting into a number of smaller khanates. After Kublai died in 1294, his heirs failed to maintain the Pax Mongolica and the Silk Road closed. Inter-family rivalry compounded by the complicated politics of succession, which twice paralyzed military operations as far off as Hungary and the borders of Egypt (crippling their chances of success), and the tendencies of some of the khans to drink themselves to death fairly young (causing the aforementioned succession crises), hastened the disintegration of the empire.

Another factor which contributed to the disintegration was the decline of morale when the capital was moved from Karakorum to modern day Beijing by Kublai Khan, because he associated more with Chinese culture. Kublai concentrated on the war with the Song Dynasty, assuming the mantle of ruler of China, while the more Western khanates gradually drifted away.


1          Adapted from,; and; Per Inge Oestmoen, Mongol history and chronology from ancient times at,; and Russia the Great, Mongolian Invasion at,

2          See BBC Report, Chinese writing '8,000 years old',, dated 18 May 2007.

3          See Gavin Menzies, 1421 The Year China Discovered America.

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