The Mongolian Empire owes its fame really to Genghis Khan, a man whose legend is based on the fact that he once killed over a million people in an hour and begot so many children that there are now sixteen million male descendants of his alive today.
But, besides the former figure being physically impossible, there is so much more to the Mongols than the figure of this violent and philandering man. Their imperial success was such that they conquered and ruled the largest contiguous land empire in history, which stretched from cities such as Beijing on the Pacific in the east to the Danube and the Persian Gulf in the west.
You’ll find all the essential information on the Great Khan dynasty here. So, if you are studying the OCR A Level on Genghis Khan and the Explosion from the Steppes or if you are just interested in learning more about the nomadic tribes and warriors that helped to build the modern world, then keep reading and see what’s what.
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When and Where was the Mongol Empire?
So, back to old Genghis Khan – the man that created the Mongol Empire. He was born around 1162, probably in Dulüün-Boldog, a settlement near the modern Mongolian capital, Ulaanbaatar.
We know that he led the Mongolian Empire to be the largest land empire ever, which, at its peak, covered a massive nine million square miles. The Mongols were primarily nomadic people – meaning that they didn’t have a specific permanent settlement – but, as the Empire grew, they developed capital cities in Karakhorum, in Avarga, and in Khanbaliq, the city that is now Beijing.
Genghis Khan (or Chinggis Khan, depending on your preference) declared the start of the empire in 1206. After fifty years of incredible successes, the political system began to fragment. Throughout the end of the thirteenth century, the Empire slowly broke into four parts: the Golden Horde, the Yuan Dynasty, the Chagatai Khanate, and the Ilkhanate. By 1294, these different grouping were fairly stable.
These systems would fight between each other and, due to their political independence, they each declined individually. The Yuan ceased to exist by 1368, and the Ilkhanate by 1375. The Chagatai Khanate collapsed in 1687 whilst the Golden Horde split into two parts – in Crimea and Kazakhstan – which ended in 1783 and 1874 respectively.
The Origins of the Mongol Empire
Before gaining the title of a Khan – or emperor – Genghis was known as Temüjin, and he came from a family of Khans who ruled a state considered to be the predecessor of the Mongol Empire.
After many years of struggle between different tribes on the Mongolian plains, Genghis was able to unite them through conquest or alliance. The most important of these were the Merkits, Naimans, Keraites, Tatars, and Uyghurs – including some Turkish tribes.
In 1206, Genghis gave himself the title of the Supreme Khan of all the Mongols and from this position of sole ruler set out to conquer the world. This specific ambition had been previously absent from Mongolian thought – and it is thought that the philosophy of a single ruler came from Chinese culture.
Mongolian Government and Power
But Genghis Khan’s empire was not all about riding on horseback and declaring blood-brother pacts, as we now believe in the west. Rather, it needed – and it enjoyed – a system of government that could maintain its power over such a large area of land.
Under Genghis’s request, armies were sent in all directions simultaneously, to fight on all the frontiers of the Empire – and their almost constant victories gave them their bloodthirsty reputations.
By 1220, the Mongols had conquered Central Asia from Siberia to Iran and Afghanistan. Parts of the Mongol armies continued into the Middle East, capturing Turkey, Syria, and Iraq – with a famous siege of Baghdad, the then capital of Islam, in 1258. They continued through Europe into Poland, Croatia, Hungary, Czech, and Austria – with Poland, Hungary, and Bulgaria devastated by 1242.
All of these military campaigns led to a massive displacement of people. The family of Osman I, the first leader of the Ottoman Empire, was part of the migration of people fleeing the Mongols.
One of the Mongols’ main feats was the conquest of much of northern China – over a period of about sixty years. By 1279, when Kublai Khan – the fifth Great Khan – set up the Yuan dynasty in Khanbaliq, the whole of China came under the rule of a foreigner for the first time in history.
Many of the Chinese people that were conquered were enlisted to fight in further Mongol invasions.
The Mongolian political system was based around the sole leadership of the Khan, who was supported by his family. With such a diverse ethnic base – resulting from the lands which were conquered – loyalty to the one figure was enforced in order to diminish the potential for rebellion. Promotion, reward, and power were given on the basis of merit – and the aristocracies of the conquered territories were cast aside.
The Mongolians are now known for one thing, besides being impressive warriors. That’s the religious freedom they promised to all the people that they conquered – from Buddhists to Muslims to Jews. The leaders of the different religious and ethnic groups were part of a council that tried to do justice to the particularities of each group.
Across the stretch of the Mongol Empire, laws were defined by the Great Yassa – a text that has been lost to history, but that is thought to have had a semi-religious quality. This text defined behaviour, and many crimes were punishable by death. In one extreme example, if a soldier didn’t pick up something dropped by a person in front of him, he could be killed!
And in what seems to be an incredibly modern pair of achievements, the Mongols had one of the earliest systems of international passports, as well as a messenger service – known as Yam – which was incredibly fast.
The Achievements of the Mongolian Empire
The Mongolians strengthened and stabilised the famous Silk Road – the trade route linking east to west that stretched from Beijing and Shanghai to Anatolia. Tax exemptions were given to tradesmen and merchants who wanted to make use of this route – and Marco Polo, the famous Italian merchant, was one of the people to take advantage of this system. It is said that Polo was very impressed by the system of paper money that was in use throughout parts of the Mongol Empire.
The Pax Mongolica – or the ‘Mongol Peace’ – was the period of peace that the continent enjoyed after the Mongolian conquests, and that benefited from the cultural and political stability that the unified empire offered. As the whole of the Silk Road was under Mongol rule, trade flourished and it spread huge amounts of technologies, resources, and culture from China to as far as Britain.
Culture, Science, and Technology
Whilst the Mongolian Empire is not known for the quality of its artistic artefacts – many of them now lost – it is understood that the Mongol aristocracy were very enthusiastic patrons of the arts in the territories under their control. Under Genghis, for example, architects, jewellers, and stone masons were all encouraged to move to the then capital, Karakhorum, to develop their art there.
In the different parts of the Empire – in Afghanistan, in China under the Yuan dynasty, and in the Golden Horde – the Mongolian system and its peace provided the conditions under which artists could continue their work. It is thought that Genghis himself was very enthusiastic about studying the different cultures under his domain.
One technology developed by the Mongols that proved to be essential for winning their large swathes of territory was the stirrup, which allowed Mongol cavalrymen to stand up on their horses!
The Mongol Empire in Decline
Succession and Fragmentation
After the death of the fourth Khan, Möngke – who left no heirs – in 1259, disputes over succession to the position of Emperor broke the empire into civil war. After the Toluid Civil War, which lasted until 1264, and a number of other wars, the empire fragmented into four separate entities.
These were severely weakened and, over the centuries, different powers took advantage of this weakness. The Yuan dynasty was ultimately destroyed by the Chinese Ming (predecessors to the Qing Dynasty), whilst the Golden Horde was beaten by the Russian Empire. The British Empire would ultimately defeat what was left of the Chagatai.
Having moved from a nomadic lifestyle to a sedentary one, it is thought that the change in political system ultimately brought the downfall of the new Mongolian dynasties. The Golden Horde, the most nomadic of the four fragments, lasted the longest for this precise fact.
The Black Death is thought to have ravaged the Mongolian population, as it passed through the Silk Road trade route so quickly. The Ilkhanate Empire, for example, was destroyed by plague, as the Khan Abu Sa’id was killed by the disease, along with all of his sons. Following this, the Ilkhanate disintegrated rapidly.