The Mongol Empire

This article deals with one of the most remarkable empires in world history. A nomadic people of central Asia who had previously made little impact on history suddenly conquered an enormous empire. This ultimately covered the whole of central Asia, Russia, China, and most of the Middle East.

It was the work of an extraordinary series of leaders and rulers, most notably Genghis Khan and his grandson, Kublai Khan.

Mongol Empire circa 1207  By Kiruge.
Partially based on “Mongolian National Atlas”, 2009
Reproduced under Creative Commons 4.0



In the 13th century an awesome episode in world history unfolded. For millennia, the nomadic societies of central Asia had menaced the great centers of civilization in the Middle East, China, India and Europe. However, they had achieved nothing comparable to what would now come. A line of warlords brought the entire population of the central Asian steppes under their direction and mobilized it into a single military system, a machine of conquest unparalleled in its effectiveness and ferocity. The largest land empire in world history was the result.

Central Asian background

The grasslands of central Asia are unsuitable for intensive farming, and are unable to support a dense population. Historically, the thinly scattered population lived in small nomadic groups, herding cattle and sheep across the vast steppes. Their settlements were tented encampments, which they moved from time to time as their herds moved on. Their men spent much of their time on their sturdy steppe ponies, accompanying their animals across the plains. They were superb horsemen, able to keep the saddle for long periods and travel huge distances.

The climatic conditions of are harsh, with searingly hot summers and freezing winters. These conditions bred a tough people. The men were skilled warriors, fighting with bow and arrow from their fast-moving ponies; their warfare was highly mobile, and when they raided agricultural populations bordering the steppe usually found it almost impossible to stand against them.

Struggles for territory and status

Each tribe had its own territory in which to herd its animals. The boundaries of these territories could be fluid, and disputes over grazing grounds were common. Vendettas between tribes and clans were also a regular feature of steppe life, and quarrels over status. Violent struggles between different groups were endemic, with each tribe and clan feeling a keen sense of its own identity. Only rarely were the different groups united under the leadership of a single ruler, although from time to time large confederation son tribes did arise to dominate a large area of the steppes.

At times, the steppe regions of Eurasia were engulfed in a maelstrom of conflicts, which tended to spill over into the farming regions beyond. The steppe societies were much more geared to warfare than more settled farming societies, and this made their regular raids onto the agrarian civilizations all the more devastating. Occasionally a nomadic people was able to conquer a large territory beyond the steppes, and even, in the face of great challenges, convert it into a stable kingdom or empire.

The episode with which this article deals with was the one occasion when all the peoples of  the steppes came under the rule of a series of powerful rulers; and thus united, they conquered the largest land empire the world has seen. The British Empire, which came much later, was larger; but it was based on sea power and its territories were scattered right around the world. The Mongol empire had its territories all gathers together in one place; they covered the greater part of Eurasia, the largest continent in the world.

The Mongol military was composed of cavalrymen
who were able to cover large distances quickly

Genghis Khan

For a long period before the 13th century, no single group was able to assert dominance over a wide area of the steppes. As a result, violent struggles between the different tribes and clans was endemic. This situation was brought to an end by the rise of one of the most remarkable figures in world history – Genghis Khan.

The future Genghis Khan was born in the mid-12th century, in an area of the eastern steppes called Mongolia. His original name was Temujin. He was the son of a minor Mongol chief, and he spent his early life as just one more warrior-leader vying for power in the violent and treacherous world of the steppes. He experienced major set-backs as well as successes, but over the years he grew more and more powerful as his following increased in size.

Uniting the Mongol tribes

Temujin would later gain the reputation as being one of the greatest war leaders of all time. In fact, though, his abilities seem to have laid elsewhere. He made sure that he knew as much as he possibly could about his enemies, especially their weaknesses. This enabled him to use diplomacy very effectively, and he was repeated able to subvert rivals’ power by bringing their followers over to his side. He also showed a remarkable ability to turn defeated enemies into some of his most loyal followers; and he did not shrink from ruthlessly eliminating opponents when he felt the situation demanded it.

Through these varied methods Temujin united all the Mongol tribes under his leadership. In 1206 an assembly of Mongol chiefs elected him khan of all the Mongols, and he took the title Genghis Khan.

Genghis Khan, National Palace Museum in Taipei, Taiwan

Northern China

For the next few years Genghis conducted campaigns into northern China. Here, in the early 13th century, were two large states, the Xi Xia and the Jin, both of which had close dealings with the steppe peoples.  By 1211 he had reduced the Xi Xia to vassaldom, and four years later had soundly defeated the Jin, massacring their army and sacking their capital. This forced the Jin emperor to establish a new capital far to the south, nearer central China.

Campaigns in the West

Genghis then sent a small army westward to crush the Kara-khitan confederacy (1218). Here, as in many other areas, the Mongols achieved success largely by the skillful use of diplomacy, to foster splits within the enemy’s ranks.

At that point, the ruler of the powerful Kwarazm empire, who controlled Iran and much else besides, gravely insulted Genghis by murdering the envoys he sent to him. Genghis led a massive campaign against him, and conducted  one of the most brutal conquests in world history (1220-21). The entire population of several cities were either massacred, with skulls piled high in to pyramids outside their gates, or were sold into slavery.

The Mongol forces then divided into two, with one half raiding Afghanistan and India, and the other campaigning through Azerbaijan, the Caucuses and Russia. Both forces then returned to Mongolia.

Northern China again

Meanwhile the Xi Xia and Jin states in northern China had thrown off the Mongol yoke, and in 1226 Genghis Khan moved against them again. Genghis died the following year, just as Xi Xia was on the point of total defeat.

Genghis Khan’s successors

Genghis was succeeded as the supreme Mongol leader by his third son, Ogedei, who took the title Great Khan. Other sons of Genghis were allotted control of different parts of the Mongol Empire, each with the title of “khan”.

Ogedei completed Genghis’s destruction of Xi Xia. By 1234 Mongol forces had destroyed the Jin state as well. With all of northern China now under his control, Ogedei apparently proposed turning what was one of the most productive agricultural regions of the world into one huge pasturage for his army’s horses. This would have involved the starvation or massacre of millions of Chinese. He was prevailed upon to reconsider the idea, with the argument (made by a Chinese official) that taxing the land would be of more benefit to him.

Meanwhile, the Mongol power in Iran had been shaken by a major rebellion, and Ogedei had to send forces to regain control there. This was achieved by 1231. Mongol forces then went on to conquer the Caucuses, which took up most of the 1230s.

Conquests and successions

Ogedei’s reign also saw western central Asia brought firmly under Mongol control. In 1237-40, Batu Khan, a grandson of Genghis Khan, conquered Russia. Batu then invaded west, into central Europe. campaigned in Poland and Hungary, and an army assembled by the Crusading knights in northern Germany were swept out of the way. The Mongol forces continued their advance into Bohemia and into the Holy Roman Empire, and were  advancing on Vienna when news came of Ogedei’s death. By this time (1241), at the other end of Eurasia, the Mongols had reduced Korea to vassal status. To the south, he had carried out an invasion of the Indian subcontinent, though the Mongols never managed to turn this in permanent occupation.

Ogedei’s death brought to the surface rivalries between the grandchildren of Genghis Khan. The council to elect Ogedei’s successor was delayed for four years until all agreed to attend. During this interregnum Ogedei’s widow, Toregene, acted as regent. Finally, in 1246, all the Mongol princes agreed to either attend an election (to be held in Karakoram, the Mongol capital), or send representatives. A new Great Khan was duly elected: Ogedei’s son, Gyuk.

Meanwhile, Mongol expansion continued. Anatolia was invaded (1241-3), and the Seljuk sultanate of Rum was reduced to vassal status; and campaigns continued on various borders of the empire. However, trouble soon brewed between Guyuk and his cousin, Batu, whose headquarters were in the western steppes. The two grandsons of Genghis Khan were leading armies against one another when Guyuk died, in 1248.

The death of Guyuk led to another interregnum as different branches of Genghis Khan’s family faced off with each other. Civil war was barely averted, but eventually one of Genghis’ grandsons, Monke, was recognized as Great Khan (reigned 1251-9). He owed his elevation largely to Batu’s backing, and followed it with a purge of his rivals and their supporters. He then took measures to strengthen central control over the empire’s finances, carrying out a census of the empire between 1252 and 1258, and to attempt to reduce corruption at the Mongol court.

The name Monke Qayan in Mongolian Script

The end of the Islamic Caliphate

Monke entrusted his brothers with major regions of the empire; Hulagu was assigned Iran, while Kublai was assigned China and the East. Kublai continued the war against southern China, and his generals succeeded in occupying Tibet and the kingdom of Nanzao, on the south-west border of China. Mongol forces under Hulagu took steps to put an end to the menace of the Assassin sect, which had controlled a large area of northern Iran for many years (this campaign was not completed until 1271), and marched on Baghdad. This great city, the historic center of the Islamic Caliphate, was besieged, captured and sacked in 1258. The long line of caliphs was ended when the last of them was executed in his palace. The Mongols followed this up be bringing the small Muslim states of Iraq and eastern Syria under their control.

Hulagu was the first of the Il-khans (“subordinate khans”), who were to rule much of the Middle East for a century or so. At first, they acknowledged the overlordship of the Great Khan, but later behaved as independent rulers.

Meanwhile, Monke decided to take personal command of the war against southern China, but in1259 died in an epidemic which was sweeping through the Mongol army there.

Mongol expansion checked in the Middle East

Once again the difficulties of choosing a new great khan asserted themselves. All the Mongol leaders withdrew their forces from the task of conquering new territory, and began marching them towards the center of the empire where the succession would be decided. The Mamluq leaders of Egypt, knowing that they were next in line for conquest, were able to take advantage of this withdrawal and inflicted a defeat on those Mongol forces which had been left behind in Syria (1260). This would prove to mark the limit of Mongol expansion in this direction.

Kublai Khan

Within the Mongol empire, full-scale civil war broke out between the various leading contenders of the Great Khanate. By 1264 Kublai had emerged as the victor, recognized by all as Great Khan (reigned 1264-94).

Kublai’s most notable achievement was the final conquest of south China. This was completed by 1279. He followed this up by invasions of Vietnam, Burma, Java and Japan (twice), but none of these led to permanent conquests.

A new Chinese dynasty

Kublai moved his Mongolian capital from Karakoram to the south west, at Shangdu, and established a new capital city in northern China, in Dadu (modern Beijing). He spent his time between these two cities and ruled more as a Chinese emperor rather than a Mongol khan. Indeed, he had officially founded a new Chinese dynasty, the Yuan, in 1271. Nevertheless, the other Mongol khanates continued to recognize Kublai as the Great Khan. Apart from a few small-scale quarrels, peace between the various divisions of the Mongol empire prevailed during his reign.

The Decline of the Mongol Empire

Under Kublai’s successor as Great Khan, his grandson Temur (reigned 1294-1307), the khanates treated each other more or less as independent (though mostly friendly) states. Tensions between them led to periodic wars, but there was a widespread realization that divisions could lead to weakness, and cooperation was preferable to civil war.

The fragmentation of the empire

In 1295 the Ilkhan ruler in the Middle East converted to Islam, and the rulers of the western Mongols (by now called the Golden Horde) were Muslims from 1313. This religious divergence emphasized the increasing political independence of the several khanates, which shared a declining sense of kinship with each other. Cooperation between the khanates became more and more precarious. Temur’s successors made only fitful and half-hearted efforts to assert their supremacy over the other khanates, preferring to rule as Chinese emperors. Nevertheless, until the second quarter of the 14th century peace generally prevailed between the Mongol khanates.

From the mid-1330s, the Ilkhanate in the Middle East began to disintegrate. Political instability set in in other parts of the Mongol world as well. In the 1340s the Black Death, the deadliest pandemic in word history, spread around the empire, and well beyond. This reduced the population of the Mongol world significantly; more directly, it probably weakened trade along the Silk Road across central Asia. This will have had a negative impact on the revenues flowing into the coffers of Mongol rulers; this in turn probably helped along the process whereby in central Asia Mongol rule fragmented amongst many regional warlords, some unrelated to the family of Genghis Khan.

From the 1350s Mongol garrisons were expelled from Korea and Tibet, and finally, after a long period of warfare, from China (1368).

Timur the Lame

In the later 14th century, a central Asian conqueror, Timur the Lame, sought to revive the Mongol empire. He created a wide realm extending across much of central Asia and down into Iran, and from this base he and his generals invaded Syria, Anatolia (where he dealt a major blow to the Ottoman Turks, temporarily checking their expansion), the territory of the Golden Horde in Russia, and northern India (where he helped destroy the power of the Delhi Sultanate). In all these places he wrought havoc and destruction, spreading terror wherever he went.  After his death in 1405, his empire swiftly retreated back to eastern Iran, leaving a wide swathe of weakened and destabilized societies in its wake.

The one major remnant of the Mongol Empire which now remained was the Golden Horde of western Asia. This had long lost contact with its Mongolian homeland, and invasions by Timur’s generals left it in a sad state of division and weakness. The Russian states, under the leadership of the Grand Princes of Moscow, were eventually able to assert their independence, and this gradual but irreversible process was accompanied by the break up of the Golden Horde itself into several khanates. Over the coming centuries these were to fall one by one to the rising power of Russia; the last one to be fall was the khanate of the Crimea, in 1783. The Russian Empire would continue to expand until it met the borders of the Chinese Empire of the Qing dynasty. Between them, the Russian and Chinese empires would take in all the central Asian heartlands of the old Mongol Empire.