Early in the 13th century, Mongol horsemen swept out of their homeland in the steppes to conquer the known world. They killed millions of humans and destroyed many of the greatest cities of the ancient world. How, exactly, did a relatively small number of Mongol cavalry carve out the largest empire the world had seen?
When one looks at events from the perspective of Big History, it’s rare that one individual plays a really crucial role, but we must accept that it was the Mongol leader Chinggis Khan, who claimed a mandate from heaven to rule the world, who was primarily responsible for creating the Mongol Empire.
The son of a minor Mongol chief, he was born in 1162 and named Temujin or Man of Iron. One of our most important sources of information about him is The Secret History of the Mongols, an anonymous work written for the Mongol royal family some decades after Chinggis Khan’s death. It is the earliest known work in the Mongolian language. The opening lines of The Secret History of the Mongols give us some sense of Temujin’s future, “Chinggis Khan was born with his destiny ordained by Heaven above.” When his father was killed by enemies, Temujin spent years in exile on the steppes, gathering followers and using tribal war and diplomacy to patch together a new Mongol confederacy. His efforts were crowned in 1206 when he was recognized by the Mongol tribal council as Chinggis Khan, a title that can be interpreted as Great Ruler, or Strong Ruler.
The Creation of the Mongol Empire
Chinggis commenced the creation of the Mongol Empire by launching campaigns against the Uyghurs and Tanguts in Central Asia; and then against the Jin dynasty, which had been established by the Jurchen, a semi-nomadic people. The Jurchen had taken control of Northern China in 1127, forcing the ethnic Han Song dynasty to the south. Mongol armies began raiding northern China in 1211, and by 1215 had captured the Jurchen capital near modern Beijing, which was renamed Khanbaliq, or City of the Khan. Leaving part of his army in China, Chinggis Khan next led Mongol forces west into Afghanistan and eastern Persia, regions that were under the control of the Khwarezm Turks.
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When the shah tried to have Chinggis Khan murdered, the Mongols sought bloody revenge. By the time the Mongols had finished the Khwarezm armies were shattered and the shah lay dead on an island in the Caspian Sea.
The Mongols offered the Khwarezm shah the chance to avoid conflict by establishing trade relations with the Mongols; but when the shah tried to have Chinggis Khan murdered, the Mongols sought bloody revenge. By the time the Mongols had finished the Khwarezm armies were shattered and the shah lay dead on an island in the Caspian Sea. Mongol forces had ravaged dozens of cities and killed 100s of 1000s of people in a show of devastating force and brutality that was felt in the region for centuries afterward.
This is a transcript from the video series The Big History of Civilizations. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.
Chinggis Khan died in 1227, having laid the foundations for empire. Through the strength of his own personality, he had united the Mongols into a powerful force and established Mongol supremacy in Northern China, Central Asia and parts of Persia. But like so many conquerors before him, Chinggis was a military ruler who never attempted to establish any form of civil administration for his empire. This meant that even as his sons and grandsons continued Mongol expansion, it also fell upon them to take up the task of designing a more durable political structure. Just before his death, aware of the potential for conflict amongst his offspring, Chinggis had divided the empire into four sections or khanates, each to be administered by one of his sons or grandsons.
Ogedei Khan and the Four Empires
In 1229 the Mongol council of chiefs elected Chinggis’s third son Ogedei as Great Khan, a position of leadership over the other khans. Ogedei immediately launched campaigns in all directions—west into Afghanistan and Persia; northwest into Armenia, Georgia, and eastern Europe; south into China to renew the campaigns against the Jin, and eastwards into Korea until that entire peninsula came under Mongol control. Only Ogedei’s death may have prevented the conquest of Western Europe. The great khan had given his permission to conquer all of Europe as far as the Great Sea, the Atlantic Ocean, and when Ogedei died on December 11, 1241, Mongol forces were on the outskirts of Vienna, about to launch a winter campaign into Austria and Germany.
Ogedei was a unifying leader who, like his father, was able to use his tactical skill and force of character to defuse potential internal power struggles. But after his death in 1241, fighting broke out between the khans.
Ogedei was a unifying leader who, like his father, was able to use his tactical skill and force of character to defuse potential internal power struggles. But after his death in 1241, fighting broke out between the khans, and the four-khanate structure that Chinggis had planned for evolved into a very real division of the Mongol realm into four separate regional but allied empires whose relationships were often messy and tense.
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Rulers known as the great khans now took control of China, always the wealthiest part of the empire. Descendants of another of Chinggis’s sons, Chagatai, took control of Central Asia; Persia was ruled by a group of Mongols known as the Ilkhans. And Russia was dominated for the next two centuries by the Mongols known as the Golden Horde, so named according to a color system which designated other hordes as black, blue, red and white.
The Golden Horde
It was the Golden Horde under Ogedei that had launched the invasions of Russia and Eastern Europe in the 1230s, and these continued in the decade following his death. The Golden Horde prized the steppes north of the Black Sea as prime pastureland for their horses, so reminiscent of the environment of their Mongolian homeland. They regularly raided and plundered the small Russian states to the north, but they were not at all attracted to the deep forests of Russia so made no attempt to settle there.
Mongols descended from the Golden Horde continued to rule in Crimea until the late 18th century, playing a significant role in several military campaigns of the early-modern period.
Through regular raiding, however, the Golden Horde maintained hegemony over Russia until the mid-15th century, when the princes of Moscow finally rejected Mongol domination and began to build their own powerful state. Even after that, as Russia grew to become a great empire, Mongols descended from the Golden Horde continued to rule in Crimea until the late 18th century, playing a significant role in several military campaigns of the early-modern period. To the southeast, Chinggis’s grandson Mongke led armies into Tibet, and also maintained pressure on the Koryo dynasty in the Korean peninsula.
The Destruction of Baghdad
In the heartland of Eurasia, it was Mongke’s brother Hulegu who destroyed the Muslim Abbasid caliphate that had ruled the Islamic world since 750, a monumental and shattering victory that brought to an end the Classical Age of Islam. The great Abbasid capital of Baghdad was surrounded by Mongol forces on both sides of the Tigris River in December 1257, and when the caliph refused to negotiate, the city was besieged until it surrendered on February 10th 1258.
Three days later Hulegu unleashed his forces, which swept through the city on a week of brutal destruction; 100s of 1000s of residents were slaughtered, and the Grand Library of Baghdad containing countless literary and scientific masterpieces was ransacked and destroyed. As the streets ran with blood, eyewitnesses reported that the Tigris River turned black with the ink of the enormous number of manuscripts thrown into it. The stench of rotting corpses was so bad that Hulegu was forced to move his camp upwind.
Hulegu’s army was amazingly cosmopolitan, including a squad of skilled Chinese sappers who were masters in the construction and use of siege machinery. It was Chinese General Guo Kan who actually led the siege of Baghdad; he and his men constructed a palisade and ditch, and huge siege engines and catapults to destroy the walls of the city. Despite the brutality he displayed at Baghdad, Hulegu was effective at integrating the soldiers, artists and administrators of all the peoples he conquered to create a unified syncretic force.
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The Mongol Military Machine
Perhaps this is a good place to further consider the question of Mongol military effectiveness. Just how was it that a relatively small number of Mongol cavalry was able to carve out the largest empire the world had seen?
The first reason was Mongol military organization, which was based on the decimal system and made full use of the great tradition of militarized nomad tactics. The smallest unit of the army was a squad of 10 men, called an arban; this was the Mongol Band of Brothers. Ten arbans constituted a company of a 100, called a jaghun. Ten jaghuns made up the equivalent of a regiment of 1000—a mingghan; and 10 mingghans constituted a force of 10,000 mounted warriors called a tumen, the equivalent of a modern division.
Mongol forces were exquisitely tailored for mobility and speed.
Mongol discipline was fierce; all males aged 15–60 who were tough and fit enough to handle rigorous training and incredibly lengthy and arduous campaigns were conscripted into the army. Discipline and toughness were further enhanced through the long and demanding traditional hunts that all soldiers participated in, even in times of peace. Sharp hunting skills also enabled the soldiers to forage during long campaigns rather than rely on the supply lines that sustained traditional armies. Mongol forces were exquisitely tailored for mobility and speed; soldiers were lightly armored, particularly compared to the heavy armor used by many of their opponents.
Mongol armies often used frozen rivers as interstate highways to plunge unexpectedly into the heart of cities that were situated along the banks.
Mongol commanders also carried out carefully planned military campaigns that relied upon careful reconnaissance and the gathering of intelligence about the strength and deployment of their enemies. Mongol forces could fight on several fronts at once. They could traverse large distances quickly even in appallingly cold winters, often using frozen rivers as interstate highways to plunge unexpectedly into the heart of cities that were situated along the banks. The Mongols were also surprisingly adept at hydrological engineering as a tactic of war. During Chinggis Khan’s attack against the Khwarazmian Empire, a flotilla of barges was constructed across the river to prevent the escape of the shah’s forces.
And we must also acknowledge that the Mongols were skilled in their use of terror tactics, both to control conquered peoples, but also to send brutal messages to would be enemies, particularly in the early stages of the empire’s expansion. So Mongol commanders practiced mass murder, torture and forced resettlement of 100s of 1000s of conquered peoples to force their will upon millions of humans across Eurasia.
Common Questions about the Mongol Empire
The first major defeat for the Mongols was by the Egyptian Mamluks in 1260 and again in 1281 in Western Syria. The empire was still reigning large. In 1303, the Mamluks forced the Mongols from Syria. Finally, the Mongol Empire was overthrown in 1368 by the Ming Dynasty.
Genghis Khan was not Chinese; he was Mongolian. The Mongols were ruled by the Chinese at the time of his birth, but he would eventually establish the Mongol Empire which was four times the size of the Roman empire at its peak.
Countries that fell the the Mongol Empire include the vast majority of China, India, Russia, Persia, Eastern Europe, Korea, the Middle East, and South-East Asia.
Genghis Khan was a Tengrist. Tengrism was a Central Asian pagan religion based on animism, magic and polytheism.