Mongol Empire: Origin Story, Military Invasions, Rise, and Fall
But how did it all start for the Mongol Empire? Just how massive was the empire? And who were some of the great leaders that changed the course of the empire?
Below, World History Edu explores the origin story, rise, conquests, and fall of the Mongol Empire, one of history’s greatest and fiercest:
Genghis Khan & the Birth of the Mongol Empire
Before becoming a powerful empire, the Mongols were a group of pastoralist nomads. They were poor and the harsh weather of the Central Asian steppes made life difficult for them.
At his birth, Genghis Khan was named Temüjin. He was the son of a Mongol chief. During that time Mongolian plateau was divided into five confederations, each ruled by different tribes: Khamag Mongol, Mergid, Keraites, Naiman, and Tartar. These tribes had, for the most part, been in conflict with each other for many years. Temujin was from Khamag Mongol, which had been established by his great-grandfather Khabul Khan. He believed that for the Mongols to survive, they needed to unite.
When he was a young adult, Temujin, who was then a military commander, went to war against Kurtait who was the most powerful ruler at the time. The young warrior defeated Kurtait; and with his victory, he was able to expand Kharag Mongol through a series of successful military conquests, including defeating other confederates like Naiman and Tartar.
Unlike previous warlords that distributed the spoils of war among the nobles, Temujin encouraged his fighters to share any spoils from a war amongst themselves. But not everyone admired his benevolence, particularly his uncles. Believing that they were the rightful heirs to the throne, they schemed to have Temujin removed from power.
It would take a lot of courage and tactical genius on the part of Temujin to ward off the plots of his uncles. Between 1203-1205, Temujin was embroiled in a fierce war against his relatives, as well as members of other rival tribes.
Nonetheless, by 1206 he had defeated his enemies, united the other tribes, and was made khan (emperor) of the Great Mongol State. During his coronation, he also bestowed himself with the title of Genghis Khan. Historians like to maintain that Genghis Khan’s ascension to throne marked the birth of the powerful Mongol Empire.
Genghis Khan’s military conquests
Shortly after becoming emperor, Temujin (now Genghis Khan) embarked on his first military campaign and defeated both the Tangut and Jurchen tribes. By conquering those tribes, he was able to expand the Mongol Empire into Northern China. In 1218, he sent his army to fight against the Khwarazm Empire (in modern-day Iran) after an earlier Mongol trade mission had been intercepted by an Iranian leader.
Genghis Khan was an expert war tactician. He used decimals to create groups of soldiers and also established an imperial guard called the Kheshig. While he was kind to his people, he was seen as fierce to many other empires and cities, who were prepared to surrender to him to avoid any brutalities.
The first emperor of the Mongol Empire died in 1227, and by the time of his death, the empire had expanded into Korea, the Middle East, and sections of India and Russia. To put into perspective just how large the Mongol Empire was at the time of Genghis Khan’s death; the empire was double the size of the Roman Empire.
The Mongol Empire at its peak
These are some of the empire’s biggest achievements chalked in its existence, between the 13th and 14th centuries:
At its peak, the Mongol Empire covered much of Eurasia, but its conquests were usually marked with extreme violence and destruction. When the empire was birthed kind courtesy of Genghis Khan, it first focused on unifying the other nomadic tribes in Central Asia.
Shortly after becoming emperor, one of Genghis Khan’s first tasks was to launch invasions into China. The Mongols would later defeat the Jin and Song dynasties in 1234 and 1279, respectively.
In 1253, the Kingdom of Dali became a Mongol vassal state, and with the support of Duan Xingzhi, the King of Dali, the empire also expanded into Yunnan. After attempting nine invasions, the empire was finally able to conquer Korea. However, during the reign of Kublai Khan, the Mongols were unable to invade and conquer Japan. While sailing to the island, they were caught up in strong storms at sea, which the Japanese called “kamikaze.” Kublai Khan’s biggest achievement was starting the Yuan Dynasty while in china during 1271.
In the south and southeast Asian regions, the Mongols occupied several regions in India (i.e. the Punjab region). Hundreds of years later, between the 16th to 19th centuries, the Mughal Empire was established by Emperor Babur who was said to be of Mongol descent.
How the Mongol invasion of Bagdad brought an end to the Islamic Golden Age
Under Kublai Khan’s reign, the empire also expanded into Burma, but they were unable to conquer neighboring Vietnam. The Mongols then set their sights westwards, fighting against empires in Mesopotamia and the Middle East, including in what is today’s Iran, Turkey, Iraq, the Caucasus, and Palestine. They won several battles such as the Siege of Baghdad (1258).
In the 13-day siege, Mongol forces, who were led by Hulagu Khan (i.e. the grandson of Genghis Khan), successfully defeated forces of the Abbasid Caliphate of Baghdad under the leadership of Al-Musta’sim (reign: 1242-1258). Having gravely underestimated the resolve and ferocity of the Mongols, the Abbasid Caliph Al-Musta’sim not only lost his life, but his city, which was the jewel of the Islamic Golden Age, was irrecoverably lost.
Not even the Great Library of Baghdad (i.e. the House of Wisdom) was sparred by the Mongols. The Mongols’ sacking and looting of Baghdad in 1258 marked the end of a very prosperous and enlightening period of the Islamic world, i.e. the Islamic Golden Age.
Mongol invasion of Europe
In addition to their legendary invasion of Baghdad, the Mongols also carried out large-scale military campaigns in Eastern and Central Europe, invading kingdoms in Bulgaria, Poland, Hungary, and many others. They also invaded several Russian cities. Some historians maintain that the Mongol military campaigns into Europe helped spread the bubonic plague (i.e. Black Death) that ravaged Europe in the 14th century.
Although there weren’t any records of how much destruction the Mongols caused, the invasions and conquests carried out by the Mongols had a long-lasting impact on the known world. From the reign of Genghis Khan in 1206 to that of Timur (aka Tamerlane the Conqueror) in 1405, the death toll from their military expeditions fell between 20-57 million people.
Pax Mongolica & Control of the Silk Road
For the most part, the Mongol Empire is globally remembered for embarking on some of the world’s deadliest conquests. But what is mostly forgotten is the fact that following the bulk of its conquests, there was a time when there was relative peace within Mongol-hold Eurasia in the 13th and 14th centuries. That era of stability was called the Pax Mongolica (1227-1260) or the “Mongolian Peace.”
During that period, the Mongol Empire had expanded well into Europe and Mesopotamia, and its army had also expanded in size, with many of its soldiers stationed at major roads to protect travelers and also ensure that trade activities proceeded smoothly. They also introduced a mailing system called “Yam”, which connected the empire to other towns and cities.
During the Pax Mongolica, traveling within Eurasia was much safer compared to the previous era. As a result this, trading activities on the Silk Road shot up. The Silk Road had long served as the major trade route between Europe and the rest of the western world and Asia. Many ancient empires fought among themselves for full control of the Silk Road in order to gain economic advantage and power. Because of years of wars and attacks, by the time of the Mongol Empire, the Silk Road had been abandoned. However, when the Mongols took over, order was restored and the Silk Road flourished like never seen before.
As trade activities resumed on the Silk Road, many new materials and technologies were introduced in Eurasia. These items included garment materials like silk, as well as jewels and other artifacts. It was also through this route that Europe gained access to gunpowder, which the Chinese had invented.
With travel to and fro Asia now accessible and relatively safe, many notable people like the Italian explorer and merchant Marco Polo traveled to Asia in a bid to find new products to sell and also expand his market.
There was a lot of development in the Silk Road region. Many new cities and businesses, including banks, sprang, making travelers feel at ease knowing they could keep their money safe.
Who were some of the famous emperors of the Mongol Empire?
The Mongol Empire is synonymous with Genghis Khan, and while he was perhaps the empire’s greatest emperor, many other successors contributed to its success:
Ogedei Khan succeeded his father Genghis Khan to become the second emperor of the Mongol Empire. During his 12-year reign, from 1229 to 1241, he continued his father’s works and expanded the empire well into Korea, Persia, India, and China. Ogedei also oversaw the construction of many buildings, including palaces, pavilions, and even the city of Karakorum, which he completed in 1235.
Ogedei was known for his humility and was described as one always willing to hear the opinions of his advisors and generals. But he was also known for some of the empire’s atrocities, such as ordering four thousand little girls over the age of seven from Oirat in Western Mongol to be raped and later captured to work as prostitutes. He was also an alcoholic, and it is believed that his excessive drinking might have accounted for his death in 1241.
Having reigned for two years, from 1246-1248, Guyuk Khan was one of the few khans with the shortest reigns. Before his rise to the throne, he trained under his father, Ogedei and grandfather, Genghis. When his father died in 1241, it took Guyuk Khan five years to succeed him. His mother, Toregene Khatun instead served as regent to make sure any threats to her son’s position had been suppressed. In the end, Guyuk was elected khan in 1246.
Despite his short reign, he was a good leader. He reversed many of Torgene’s unpopular policies, which likely was the source of tension between him and his mother. Their relationship further worsened when he ordered the execution of a courtier called Fatima when he suspected her of using witchcraft to kill their brother, Koden. Güyük’s military campaigns in so many ways paved the way for future khans to gain full control over China as they waged war against the Song Dynasty.
Similar to his father, Guyuk Khan might have lived longer had he not succumbed to alcoholism, which affected his health. He died in 1248, with historians split on whether he’d been poisoned or that his health had finally failed him.
Mongke Khan was the fourth Great Khan of the Mongol Empire and grandson of Genghis Khan. Much like his predecessors, Mongke Khan expanded the empire further into China and Syria. He also introduced several administrative reforms to the empire. He reigned for eight years, from 1251-1259, during which time he led the empire resolutely.
Much like his grandfather Genghis Khan, Kublai Khan was also extremely popular. Following the empire’s successful invasion into China in the 13th century, he went on to establish the Yuan Dynasty in an attempt to unite the land. He was successful, and by 1279, he was the first Mongol to rule over China.
Kublai Khan was known for his intelligence and kindness. He oversaw many construction projects and also improved the empire’s mailing system, and invested heavily into scientific pursuits. It was also during his reign that paper currencies became popular.
It was also in his time that he encountered the famous explorer Marco Polo. They had a good relationship, with Kublai Khan bestowing upon the Italian several diplomatic positions. The emperor also had some failures, including the empire’s attempt to invade Japan and imposing excessive taxes on the Northern and Southern Chinese people.
At the time of his death in 1294, Kublai Khan was extremely obese and suffered from gout.
Other notable leaders of the Mongol Empire
In addition to the above Great Khans, the Mongol Empire could boast of many prominent generals and matriarchs, including the General Subutai, Batu Khan, and Hoelun.
Hoelun was not a ruler per se; she instead the mother of the empire’s first ruler, Genghis Khan. When her husband, Yisugei, was poisoned, she and her son escaped to live in the steppes. In “The Secret History of the Mongols”, Hoelun was depicted as a determined woman and mother who ensured all her children were taken care of. She is praised for instilling in Genghis Khan many noble and admirable traits, including courage and determination, which ultimately proved useful when he went on to unite all of Mongolia under one rule.
What was life like during the age of the Mongol Empire?
Like many other empires before and after it, the Mongol Empire had several practices that made it unique and gave its people a culture and identity. Here are some interesting social elements that formed the empire:
While the Mongols never had any set religious practices or writings, their religious beliefs were an amalgamation of different religions, including shamanism, animism, and ancestral worship. They believed that spirits dwelled in natural elements such as rainstorms or mountains. Additionally, both men and women practiced shamanism and were provided with the gift of divination, traveling to the spirit world, and interacting with spirits.
Eventually, the Mongols also adopted other religions, including Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism. The Mongols also worshiped a sky deity called Tengri, who they believed had given them the mandate to take over the world. It was with this belief that guided Genghis Khan, as well as other khans, to lead many successful invasions and conquests.
Much like the men, Mongol women were also trained in horse riding and using bows. They held several high positions in the communities with some of them becoming shamans or participating in tribal meetings. Women had the right to inherit and own properties. In some cases, the wives or mothers of khans also served as regents in the event of a death, and their reigns could last for several years. A case in point was Toregene Khatun who served as regent for about five years.
They also supported the male warriors during battles by handling all logistics aspects. During battles, the women were usually at the back with the war supplies. The women also looked after the home and could make decisions on behalf of the family.
Some prominent Mongol women include Hoelun (mother of Genghis Khan), Toregene (ruled as regent from 1241-1246), and Alan Goa (Mongolian mythical character).
Mongols saw marriage as the union of two clans as a well as a means to forge alliances. As a result, they practiced exogamy, which is the practice of finding a partner from another clan. The Mongol men were required to pay a bride price or earn permission to marry from a bride’s father through labor.
It was often the case that woman’s family charged very high bride price, so most of the men resorted to abducting wives from rival tribes during invasions. On other occasions, the bride’s family would allow the groom or his family to pay a dowry, which was more affordable than the bride price. To completely avoid paying anything, some families agreed on betrothing their children.
Many Mongol men practiced polygamy, as it was a patriarchal society, The Mongols did not frown on divorce; however, if the marriage ended by adultery, both husband and wife would be executed.
Some historians believe that at the start of the empire around 1206, the Mongol army numbered up to at least 105,000 soldiers. Genghis Khan was credited for organizing the army, using a smart decimal system. It comprised groups that each contained ten men. The groups were as follows: “arbans” (10 soldiers), “zuuns” (100 soldiers), “Mingghans” (1,000), and “tumens” (10,000).
Because of their nomadic lifestyles and early horse training, they were excellent horse archers. It’s said that Mongol fighters were adept at wielding other weapons, including lances, while on horseback. They were also skilled engineers and could build machines such as catapults and trebuchets. In extreme cases, they were capable of building machines while in battle using whatever resources they had.
Their nomadic lifestyles also meant that traveling long distances was no problem for them. This is just one of the reasons why they were able to expand into other Asian regions, as well as Europe. They were known for easily adapting to various weather patterns, using this to their advantage during conquests.
But the Mongols were typical land dwellers, and while that helped them immensely, it also exposed a weak spot. They were not exactly sailors at sea and failed to navigate brutal storms such as the ones they had encountered while on their failed mission to invade Japan. In some other instances, such as when they had to rely on sailing to conquer the Song Dynasty, they showed some level of naval prowess.
The Mongols were rather advanced for their time, especially since its emperors invested heavily in science and technology. Ogedei Khan was known for his interest in astronomy; and to show his dedication to the discipline, he ordered for repairs on the Zhongdu spherical astrolabe (a model of celestial bodies) two times in 1233 and 1236. He also called for the Damingli calendar to be revised and adopted it for use throughout the empire.
Later rulers like Mongke Khan had also expressed his interest in having an observatory built in Karakorum, the capital of the Mongol Empire between 1235 and 1260. However, he died before fulfilling that task. His successor, Hulagu Khan, sought the services of an astronomer named Tusi to help build the Maragheh Observatory located in Persia in 1259. The observatory housed about 400,000 books that Tusi had managed to collect from other Mesopotamian cities after the Mongols had raided them.
During Kublai Khan’s reign, he built several observatories and libraries across China. Later emperor Ghazan Khan (reign: 1295-1304), who was a polyglot, constructed the Tabriz Observatory in 1295.
Arts and Culture
Not much of the Mongols’ arts, including paintings and literary works, survived over the course of time. However, one of the empire’s earliest books, called “The Secret History of the Mongols”, managed to survive. It was written in Mongolian, and it detailed Genghis Khan’s life, family tree, as well as the birth of the empire, and the subsequent rule of his son Ogedei.
An interesting fun fact to include is that the Mongols were also likely one of the first groups of people to create correction fluid, which they created using resin and vegetable pigments. They also appreciated paintings, but most of the artwork produced by Mongols depicted more horses than it did the people.
Mongol Empire’s system of governance
As emperor, Genghis Khan introduced a code of laws called “Yassa.” It contained information on various punishments for people who disregarded or flouted the rules. For example, a mounted soldier following another would be sentenced to death if they failed to pick up something the other soldier in front of them had dropped. Additionally, if other tribes or cities failed to heed to the terms of “Yassa”, they were raided and its citizens killed.
Per the terms of “Yassa”, leaders were chosen based on their accomplishments. The empire also adopted a parliamentary system of governance which consisted of an assembly called the “kurultai.”
In addition to the Mongol constitution, Genghis Khan designed a national seal and also encouraged the Mongols to adopt the Mongol alphabet. Citizens who were artists, lawyers or teachers were also not required to pay taxes.
Mongol leaders were known for steering away from the internal politics of the people they conquered. The handpicked local administrators to govern on behalf of the empire.
Additionally, the opted not to interfere in the religious practices and local customs of the places they conquered. Mongol leaders allowed all religions to flourish in the empire, so long as the religion did not threaten the stability or progress of the empire.
Atrocities committed by the Mongols
The Mongol Empire was extremely powerful and wealthy, but all that didn’t come with sheer luck. Instead, the leaders and generals of the empire had to muster a lot of courage and discipline. In many cases, they had to act in a barbaric manner in order to accomplish what they set their minds to. Therefore, what are some of the heinous atrocities and dark secrets of the Mongols? Below are some few examples:
Torture, murdering and killing came natural to them
Executions were often gruesome. When Guyuk Khan ordered the execution of Fatima, he ensured that lips, nostrils, and ears were sewn up before being wrapped up and cast into a river.
Because they did not believe in shedding the blood of royals, they executed royals by crushing them. For example, when they killed the leader of the Abbasid Caliph, Abu Ahmad Abdallah al-Musta’sim in 1258, they wrapped him up in a carpet and left him in the path of stampeding horses who trampled him to death.
Sexual abuse and rape
Unlike other ancient empires, Mongol women had much more independence and could occupy high offices, with some of them serving as regents. However, that didn’t mean life was particularly easy for women in a society that was mostly patriarchal.
During invasions and sieges, several foreign women were captured or forced into marriage with Mongol men. During Ogedei’s reign, he ordered the raping of some 4,000 young girls.
While the Mongols were mostly tolerant of other religions, they believed that their rise had been divinely appointed. This was perhaps the reason why they believed they had the right to kill as many people during their military campaigns.
When Genghis Khan captured the city of Bukhara (located in modern-day Uzbekistan), he famously said to the people, “You have committed great sins…If you had not committed great sins, God would not have sent a punishment like me upon you.” These sorts of beliefs were widely upheld by subsequent rulers such as Guyuk and Mongke Khan.
Ogedei Khan’s plot to eradicate the Chinese population
As nomads, the Mongols spent a lot of their time out in the pasture, and each time they had planned an invasion, they typically sent smaller groups of soldiers to destroy any villages or farmlands that did not belong to them. The idea was that by the time the rest of the troops arrived there, most of these lands would have become open fields.
For many years, the opportunity to conquer China had evaded the Mongols. So, during the reign of Ogedei Khan, he decided to use this approach. However, his plan was nothing short of grisly; he wanted to kill the Chinese peasants in the north and turn that area into large pasture lands. Fortunately, Ogedei’s Chinese advisor, Yelu Chucai, stopped him from going through with the plan and the ruler listened to him.
Why many Mongol khans struggled with alcoholism
The Mongols typically weren’t heavy drinkers. The only alcoholic drink that was fairly common among them was fermented milk from mares. For a long time, that was the only alcohol they knew. However, as the empire gained more control of trade routes, they had access to various types of alcoholic drinks such as wine.
By the end of Genghis Khan’s reign, many Mongols had started to suffer from alcoholism. Future successors like Ogedei also struggled with the condition, and it is likely that the khan died from it. Ogedei’s drinking was so bad that it was rumored that he took vital decisions concerning the empire while drunk.
How did the Mongol Empire fall?
The decline of the Mongol Empire began after the reign of Kublai Khan. The Khan’s reign had seen the unification of all of China, and the empire’s capital was moved from Karakoram to China, in a location now known as Beijing.
At this time, the empire was too massive for it to be managed by one universal ruler. And for many years, the empire found itself grappling with fierce civil wars triggered by power struggles among the grandsons of Genghis Khan.
Following Kublai’s death in 1294, the Mongol Empire was divided into four khanates. About seven decades later, the Yuan Dynasty fell, paving way for the rise of the Ming Dynasty. A few years later, in 1380, a Russian alliance defeated the Mongols.
Several other states like Ukraine, Persia, and Belarus also reclaimed their lands from the Mongols. By the 15th century, it had lost many of its territories and was now a small empire. The Golden Horde was one of the last regions to succumb to the empire’s decline in 1502.
Apart from the empire being too big for the Mongols to manage, several other reasons accounted for its fall. These included Kublai’s failed attempt to invade Japan, as well as civil wars and rebellions between the various khanates. All of those factors weakened the empire’s central government.
Legacy of the Mongol Empire
The Mongols were known for their destructive and ruthless behaviors, but they also brought many improvements to the world and changed the course of history. The following are some more interesting facts about the Mongol Empire:
Largest Land Empire in the World
It took Genghis Khan roughly 25 years to claim more territories than the Roman Empire, which existed over four centuries. Many other khans further expanded the empire, and when it was at its highest and most powerful, the empire covered around 9 millions square miles. The Mongol Empire is best known as the largest contiguous land empire in history.
The Mongol Empire’s conquest of Asian and European regions brought forth the “Pax Mongolica”, where there was relative peace. During that era, the Mongols took over the Silk Road and improved world trade. They also made traveling along the Silk Road safer, boasting that a woman could traverse along the road while holding a gold nugget.
Further boosting trade along the Silk Road was the communication system that made good use of horse messengers and relay posts.
They Spread the Plague
When the bubonic plague started in China, the active trading on the Silk Road played a role in spreading it to Europe.
Rise of Russian Power
Russia benefited largely under the Mongol Empire when some leaders were appointed tax collectors on behalf of the Mongols. It was a likely sign that the Mongols barely visited the lands they had seized from the Russians. But the Russians used that to their advantage; and during the reign of Ivan III (also known as Ivan the Great), he reclaimed the lost lands and started the Russian Tsardom. Ivan, who ruled from 1462-1505, is hailed for securing victory over the Great Horde in 1480, which in so many ways marked Russia’s independence.
Depopulation & Death Toll
The Mongol Empire killed many people during its numerous conquests. For many years, the number of people who died at the hands of the Mongols has been heavily debated amongst historians. Some researchers believe the death toll to be around 30 million people, whereas others placed their estimates between 50-80 million people. The Mongols weren’t selective concerning who they killed, whether men, women, or children. Some accounts even state that the Mongols derived pleasure in “humiliating women.”
The Mongols might have also decimated at least half of China’s population. Before the invasion, China’s population was set to be about 120 million; however, and after the Mongols had conquered the land in 1279, it dropped to about 60 million. However, some scholars have pointed that there are several other factors that might have accounted for the halving of China’s population, including the bubonic plague.
In the Islamic kingdoms, the Mongols killed between 10-15 million people. Following the rise and fall of the empire, Iran’s population could not reach what it previously was until the 20th century. The Mesopotamian region, which was believed to be the birthplace of humanity, was severely depopulated and many of its lands were turned to open fields.
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