Most Famous Rulers of the Mongol Empire
At its peak, the Mongol Empire (1206-1368) was vast and covered much of Eurasia. It also brought forth many developments that changed the course of history, including international trading, courier systems, and several other combat tools, siege equipment, and accessories. It all started with one man named Genghis Khan, but the empire was able to stand on its feet with his successors until the very end.
Here are some of the greatest khans who brought much success to the Mongol Empire:
Genghis Khan (r. 1206-1227)
Genghis Khan founded the Mongol Empire around 1206 by uniting the nomadic tribes of Mongolia after years of conflict. Even more impressively, he used his 21-year reign to expand its territories, from China to Western Asia. At the time of warrior-ruler’s death, he had conquered close to one-third of Eurasia. To put into perspective just how large the Mongol Empire was. Scholars state that the Mongol Empire was close to two times the size of the former Roman Empire.
Genghis Khan was also known for being ruthless during his military sieges and invasions. He was a powerful and smart warrior who showed no mercy to his enemies and many people across Eurasia; between 20-40 million reportedly died from his campaigns and many others were displaced, as he destroyed towns and cities for good.
Whereas he was known to be cruel in battle, he showed kindness and favor towards the Mongols. He brought stability by introducing Yassa, which was a code of laws set to govern his people. He also promoted religious tolerance, especially since the Mongols had diverse religions. Again, he believed in swiftly killing enemies instead of torturing them. He was also fair in political appointments, opting to select people based on merit and not on their privilege. Additionally, he shared his war spoils amongst his soldiers.
In education, Genghis encouraged his people to adopt the Uyghur alphabet. In foreign trade, he brought peace and order along the Silk Road, which connected Eastern and Western traders. He also started what is known as the first international mailing system, which was later developed by his successor and son Ögödei.
Ögödei Khan (r.1229-1241)
Before Genghis died (in 1227), he ordered for his empire to be divided into four khanates, with each khanate under the rulership of his sons, including his third son, Ögödei Khan. Eventually, Ogedei was chosen to serve as Great Khan over his brothers in 1228. He refused at first but later took up the position the following year.
At the start of his reign, he decided to increase the empire’s coffers by imposing taxes on the citizens of other conquered territories. This plan was successful, and with these funds, Ogedei was able to carry out his mission of expanding the empire further. Blessed with very astute military generals, Ögödei was able to stretch the empire’s borders into what is today’s Russia, Ukraine, Iran, Iraq, and China.
In addition to those conquests, Ögödei was responsible for developing Karakorum, the Mongol capital that his predecessor had established. The city gave the Mongols, who were traditionally nomads, a centralized home. Thanks to the expansion of trade activities achieved by his father, Karakorum quickly became a bustling city with many beautiful religious buildings.
That wasn’t all. Ögedei also improved communication within the empire, the Mongol messenger system. Under his reign, the empire extended further into China after he toppled the Jin Dynasty in 1234.
He passed away in 1241. The cause of death was said to be due to overdrinking. It must be noted that at the time of Ögödei’s death, western Europe was on the brink of capitulating to the Mongol Empire. The deceased khan’s generals had to put on hold their military campaigns in the West in order to attend to coronation issues back home.
Möngke Khan (r. 1251-1259)
Möngke Khan was the grandson of Genghis Khan. Much like his grandfather and other predecessors, he also expanded the empire further into East Asia and the Middle East.
During his 8-year reign, the empire also underwent some administrative changes. He centralized the government and issued taxes on traders. He also established a monetary affair department in 1253 to control the production of paper money.
Möngke promoted religious tolerance and continued the practice of exempting religious bodies from paying taxes. He built several religious buildings in the capital Karakorum, including mosques, Buddhist monasteries, and churches. He was also welcoming to foreigners and met with several Europeans like the explorer, William of Rubruck, as well as other visitors from the Latin Empire. He welcomed healthy religious arguments, ensuring that it never posed a threat to the empire.
As the capital was moved (by Kublai Khan) from Karkorum to what is now Beijing, Mongke Khan is considered the last great Mongol emperor to rule from Karkorum.
Kublai Khan (r.1260-1294)
Kublai Khan was not only a ruler of the Mongol Empire, but he was also the founder of the Yuan Dynasty in China, making him the first foreign emperor of China. As ruler of the Yuan dynasty (also known as the Great Yuan), Kublai was referred to as Emperor Shizu.
Kublai Khan is credited with establishing two capital cities in China: Xanadu and Khanbaliq. The latter, which was known to Mongols as Daidu, was sited in modern-day Beijing. The former, also known as Shangdu, served as his summer capital.
Kublai rose to power after a succession struggle with his younger brother Ariq Boke following the death of their father, Mongke in 1260. Eventually, he was proclaimed the Great Khan by the kurultai. He thus became the fifth khagan-emperor of the Mongol Empire.
However, his conflict with his Ariq Boke caused the eruption of a civil war known as the Toluid Civil War (1260-1264) which fragmented the empire into four khanates: the Golden Hordes in the Northeast, Yuan Dynasty (also known as the Great Khanate) in China, Ilkhanate in the Southeast and Persia, and the Chagatai Khanate in Central Asia.
Eight years after becoming khan, Kublai finally brought down the Song Dynasty in China and founded the Yuan Dynasty in 1271. Like Möngke, he was also welcoming to foreigners and developed a friendship with the Italian merchant and explore, Marco Polo. He also embraced Chinese culture.
As khagan-emperor (i.e. Great Khan), Kublai maintained a somewhat nominal power over the three successor khanates.
Under his rule, life in Eurasia was relatively peaceful. While Kublai was generally a good leader, his campaigns to invade and conquer Japan failed, leading to a gradual decline of the Mongol Empire.
Along with Genghis, Kublai remains one of the most notable people in Mongolian history, especially since he was the one to ensure that the empire enjoyed the results of the previous works his predecessors had done.
Upon his death in 1294, he was succeeded by his grandson Temür Khan (reign: 1294-1307).
The Yuan dynasty (i.e. the Great Yuan) established by Kublai Khan lasted from 1271 to 1368. It was able to reach a territorial extent of around 11 million square kilometer (or 4.2 million square miles). The Yuan dynasty covered areas in present-day China, Korea, Mongolia, southern Siberia, and Afghanistan.
Did you know…?
- Kublai Khan efeated the Southern Song dynasty in 1279 – at the Battle of Yamen. The battle was fought in modern-day Yamen in Xinhui County, Jiangmen, Guangdong, China.
- He is the second son of Tolui, youngest son of Genghis son. His mother was Sorghaghtani Beki – Tolui’s chief wife.
- Kublai Khan is the first non-Han emperor to rule all of China.
Temür Khan (r.1294-1307)
Temür was the grandson of Kublai Khan and the second emperor of the Yuan Dynasty, as well as the sixth Great Khan of the Mongols. During his reign, he cemented his complete control over the Mongol Empire and also employed several Tibetans into government offices.
The ruler was also against imposing excessive taxes on his people. In China, citizens occasionally enjoyed tax exemptions, and the Mongols also enjoyed tax exemptions for two years. Eventually, in 1302, he decreed that the people were not required to give more than their tax quotas. Despite these policies, corruption thrived, and the empire’s paper monetary system lost most of its value.
Temur is also credited for bringing peace between the Yuan Dynasty and the other Mongol khanates: Ilkhanate, Chagatai Khanate, and the Golden Horde, following the Kaidu-Kublai War that had divided the empire.
Töregene Khatun (r.1241-1246)
Not many women ruled the Mongol Empire, but the very few that did often served as regents, and of such was Töregene Khatun. She was married to Ogedei Khan until his death in 1241. From there, she started her regency, steering the affairs of the empire until 1246, when her eldest son Güyük Khan was elected Great Khan.
It is said that Töregene was bethrothed to Ögedei after Genghis Khan raided and conquered her tribe, the Naiman tribe in modern-day Western Mongolia. Ögedei, the third son of Genghis Khan, already had numerous wives. Regardless, Töregene managed to outshine all the other women and quickly gained a lot of power and influence in her court.
As regent, she played a key role in the empire’s military conquests. When the Song Dynasty captured her envoys in 1242, she launched attacks against them until they requested a ceasefire. She also managed to gain the alliances of the Sultanate of Rum, the Lesser Armenia, and the Empire of Trebizond.
Throughout her regency, she used her position to prepare the throne for her oldest son Güyük, fighting off her other stepsons who contested her decision. With the support of Chagatai Khan, the second son Genghis Khan, she was able to purge many of the old officials and courtiers of her deceased husband, replacing them with her own officers.
Even though she had helped her son become khan, it is said that the mother-son relationship soured during the reign of Guyuk.
Following her death in 1246, Kublai decided to rename her Empress Zhaoci, which means “brilliant kind empress.”
Did you know?
In addition to Güyük, Töregene gave birth to four sons: Kötän, Köchü, Qarachar, and Qashi.
Ayurbarwada Buyantu Khan (r.1311-1320)
Ayurbarwada Khan was the fourth emperor of the Yuan Dynasty and the eighth Great Khan of the Mongol Empire. He is best known for promoting religious principles, particularly Confucianism, and infusing those principles into the empire’s administrative system.
Before ascending the throne, he worked in the administrative offices of the empire under the reign of his brother Khayishan Kulug Khan. Ayurbarwada’s love for Confucianism and Chinese history made him detest the corruption that took place during Khayishan’s reign.
Upon the death of his brother in 1311, Ayurbarwada was made emperor. He the reformation of the government his mission. For example, he reversed most of his brother’s policies and closed down the Department of State Affairs that Khayishan had established. He also reduced the number of government offices and put a hold on the buildings that his predecessor had started constructing. Many of his reforms displeased some of the Mongols.
Ayurbarwada is also known for bringing back the imperial examination system, which was a required test that public workers had to take in order to be employed to work for the empire.
The Mongol ruler also ordered the compilation of the empire’s rules and regulations. Additionally, Ayurbarwada published several books on Chinese culture and history, including “Shang Shu”, “Dacue Yanyi”, and “Xiao Jing.”He also invested heavily into agriculture to help the empire generate more income.
In diplomatic relations, he asserted his dominance over the empire’s vassal states. By doing so, the states continued to pay their tributes to the empire.
Toghon Temur (r.1333-1368)
Toghon Temur, also known as Emperor Huizong of Yuan, was the last emperor of the Yuan Dynasty and Mongol Empire. It was during his reign (from 1333 to 1368) that the dynasty lost control to the Ming Dynasty. Still, he managed to improve the empire before its final fall. He was also famous for his foreign marriage to a Korean woman called Lady Ki.
When he was crowned emperor, much of the empire was under the control of warlords, and for a long time they ruled, through a man called Bayan, with absolute authority. Eventually Temur formed an alliance with Bayan’s nephew and overthrew the warlords in a coup.
With his power secured, he cleared the government offices and removed Bayan’s workers. Many other Chinese citizens who had been banished or exiled by Bayan also returned home.
Toghon Temur brought back the imperial examination system that his enemy had previously halted. Temur also embarked on some academic pursuits and ensured that the histories of former dynasties, including the Song, Liao, and Jim empires were completed by 1345.
He was a skilled diplomat and had relationships with the Avignon Papacy in France and the Japanese.
But by the 1340s, the empire had started to suffer from rebellions and natural disasters. Temur also was no longer interested in serving the people and refused to intervene in the struggles. In 1368, the Ming dynasty defeated the Yuan army. Temur abandoned his seat, fled to the steppes of Inner Mongolia, and died two years later, in 1370.