Today, we are going to go in depth on one of the greatest empires in history, and most certainly, the largest continuous land empire, to ever arise (and second largest empire ever, to the British Empire at it’s peak, when taking in overseas territories).
Before the formation of the Mongolian Empire, what is now Mongolia (and parts of Northern China) were populated by nomadic tribes that roamed the steppes of Mongolia, Siberia, China, and going so far as Korea, Kazakhstan, and Transoxiana (modern day Iran, Uzbekistan, and India) . In the 8th century BCE, Western Mongolia was inhabited by Scythians and the Yuezhi peoples (both not exactly Mongolian in heritage, but people that were nomadic, and used horses extensively, possibly influencing future Mongol peoples). The earliest known proto-Mongolian tribe were known as the Xiongnu people, who are theorized to be the original tribe known as the Huns (the Huns and Xiongnu carried many of the same characteristics in both language and culture, but as they spread further and further westward towards Europe, they adapted and intermingled extensively eventually leading to what is known as the European Huns and the traditional Xiongnu known more commonly as the “Iranian Huns”. This theory that they are the same people is debated but is also considered the most plausible theory for the Hunnic origins). The Xiongnu were the reason that many northern Chinese villages and towns were building walls to keep raiders out (that were later linked to become the Great Wall of China). In around the 4th century BCE we had the Donghu tribe, which were conquered by the Xiongnu early on. After the Chinese people beat back the Xiongnu, the Donghu tribe took over the gap and split into two groups; the Wuhuan in the southern part, and the Xianbei in the northern part. The Wuhuan eventually got pushed into what is now Siberian Russia, while the Xianbei further split into separate groups (the Northern Wei Dynasty, which later fully adapted into the Chinese society, and the Rouran Khaganate, which were the first Mongol tribe to use the title of “Khan”). After that we have the Göktürks in the mid-500’s, who became a significant force when they rebelled against the Rouran and did the thing most of the Mongol and proto-Mongol tribes did, and invaded Chinese settlements nearby. In the mid-600’s, you have the Uyghur’s and the Kitan. Kitan got invaded by the Chinese Tang Dynasty. The Uyghur Empire lasted until 846 when rebellions by multiple groups caused their collapse. Ironically, some of the new empires formed from their collapse expedited the growth of the Mongol Empire under Genghis Khan a couple hundred years later. After the fall of the Uyghur, you had the Khitan (or Qidan, not to be confused with the Kitan, a different tribe) who eventually became known as the Liao dynasty, which started as a semi-nomadic culture, to more of a settled society. But, there were still nomadic tribes to the north, west, and east of them (including the remaining Göktürk people, the Tatar people, the Uyghur, and the Tangut).
The following were the Mongol Clan’s and Tribes that eventually set forth the framework for what became the Mongol Empire:
-The Keraites (A confederation of 5 tribes, the Tumen Tubegun, the Dungkhait, Ubchikh, Jirgin, and the Ongchijid). A notable thing about the Keraites is that they were predominantly Nestorian Christian (and most likely, the origin of the Prestor John legends).
-The Tatar Confederation (a group of Tatar tribes, often used as mercenaries against other Mongol tribes before the rise of Genghis). Many of the Tatar tribes were destroyed, and others moved westward into Eastern Europe (settling in regions like Ukraine, Russia, and Uzbekistan, while marrying into Polish and Russian nobility). The surviving tribes Airi’ut, Buiri’ut, the Tariat, and the Juyin. The Chakhan, the Alchi, the Duta’ut, and the Alukhai were all Tatar tribes that were mentioned to be destroyed.
-The Merkit (or Merged) tribes, which were almost always in conflict with the Khamag Mongols (which included the Borjigin Clan, which includes members like Khabul Khan, Genghis Khan, and Hotula Khan). This eventually lead to their destruction (and the destruction of tribes that sheltered them). There were 3 main Merkit tribes, the Uduyid, the Uvas, and the Khaad.
-The Naimans, who were possibly Mongolized Turks (suspected because many of their titles were Turkic in origin, and they were described as both Turkic and Mongol speaking). Unlike the other groups, they weren’t really divided into separate tribes, but more just one tribe separated by where they lived (those living within the mountains had their own leadership, but weren’t known as a separate tribe).
-Khamag Mongols were a group of tribes, most notably, the Borjigin, the Jadaran, and the Khiyad. The Borjigin had the first Khamag Khan (Khabul Khan, the great-grandfather to Genghis Khan), the Khiyad also had a Khan, and the Jadaran tribe had what was known as the Gur Khan (Universal Ruler) in Jamukha (blood-brother to Genghis Khan).
There were other tribes, but these were the major groups.
The Rise of Temujin/Genghis Khan/Chinngis Khan
Temujin (the birth name of Genghis Khan) was the son of a Borjigin khan (during a time when the Borjigin were considered a minor clan, his grandfather and great-grandfather were pretty major leaders of the Khamag Mongol Confederacy). He allied with one of the Kerait khans (his fathers ally, Toghrul Khan), and rose to power rather quickly as a successful military tactician. After getting control of the Borjigin clan, he went to war with his Kerait allies against other tribes to bring them under his command. Some of these battles involved the Merkit Mongols after they kidnapped his wife (in which Temujin, Toghrul, and Jamukha of the Jadaran Tribe, Temujin’s blood brother and childhood friend went to reclaim her and start wiping out the Merkit tribes, which was also a task that Temujin’s great uncle Hotula Khan had also attempted earlier). Eventually a couple of Temujin’s uncles and brothers who all also had rightful claims to their clan’s leadership and rule, and started challenging him to rule. Jamukha was voted in as the Gur Khan (Universal Ruler) which triggered a civil war between him and his allies, against Temujin. One of the leading causes of Jamukha getting the vote over Temujin was due to Temujin’s policy of “No one loots without his permission first” and the institution of sharing the spoils amongst the warriors and their families instead of giving it all to the aristocrats. This ultimately made Temujin very unpopular amongst many other leaders while making him beloved amongst both the merchant class, and the peasant class. At the point of the civil war, Temujin’s former ally Toghrul became the strongest Mongol leader and took the Chinese title “Wang Khan” (Wang being the word for Prince, so Wang Khan would translate as Prince-King or Prince-Ruler). Temujin changed his name to Chinngis Khan (which got bastardized into modern English as “Genghis Khan”) after winning the civil war and getting elected the leader by the kurultai (the general assembly or council. Leadership of the Mongol tribes was generally democratically decided, via votes of all the Tribal khan’s). Instead of taking the traditional title of “Gur Khan” or “Tayang Khan”, he took up the name Chinngis Khan (which got bastardized into modern English as Genghis Khan). This is generally considered the start of the Mongol Empire, and the first main use of Mongol people (generally, any Mongolic-speaking tribes that were under Genghis’s rule were called Mongols, any Mongolic-tribes that weren’t under Genghis’s rule were known by their tribal names). The civil war was from 1203-1205, and he was the official leader of the Mongol Empire by 1206.
Mongol Social Policy and Structuring under Genghis Khan (1206-1227)
There was rapid change and organization under Genghis Khan’s rule. One of the big ones was the abolition of tribal confederacies. Instead he organized the regions into easily divided numbers. A neighbourhood was a group of families that could field 10 soldiers (adult males), and this was known an Arban. 10 Arbans made a Zuun or Zagutu (100 soldiers). 10 of those made a Mingghan (1,000 soldiers), and 10 Mingghan made a Tumen (10,000 soldiers). Another major change was that it was now forbidden to sell women, to rob people, hunting animals during breeding season (to ensure that there was always enough food during hunting season), and it was forbidden to fight other Mongol tribes (again, Mongol being Mongolic-speaking tribes that were under Genghis. Remember, there were multiple tribes, some of which were traditionally rivals or enemies). He had also established complete religious freedom within the empire, as he didn’t expect other people to adapt to a foreign religion, so he encouraged all religions, as long as you followed all the rules. Notable religions within the Empire included Tengrism (a modern term for the central-Asian Turkic and Mongol shamanism), Nestorianism (Also known as the “the Church of the East”, a branch of Christianity that was popular in central and east Asia at the time), Islam, and Buddhism. He also adopted the Uyghur script as the official written language of the Empire (many of the Mongolic tribes didn’t have an official written script before this). One of the more modern concepts that Genghis had implemented was Progressive Taxes (the more you made, the more money you got taxed on. Clergy of all religions, and the poor were exempt from taxes), and he encouraged both local and international trade (giving rise to a prominent and well-off merchant class). One of the biggest things that changed under Genghis Khan was how people got promoted and put into power. Initially, people who served admirably and were loyal to Genghis during the civil war got positions of power, but as the empire expanded, he promoted people based on merit. If you were the best person for the job, you got the promotion (which allowed enemy combatants or even slaves to rise to the ranks of generals, or important advisors, judges, or teachers). This also helped promote loyalty to Genghis (and later Khan’s) because the best got promoted rather than those who were family members, or owed political favours. It also helped keep corruption lower (while Mongolia wasn’t immune to corruption, it was far less rampant than other large empire, or multicultural empires).
During the massive reforms that took place, there was still expansion of the empire. In 1207 the Uyghur state, the Taiga people (a people who settled and thrived on the Yenisei river) and the Karluk kingdoms willingly joined the newly formed Mongol Empire. The Chinese Jin dynasty to the south was known for keeping power in the region by political manipulation of the un-unified Mongol tribes into fighting each other instead. This got the attention of Genghis Khan who wanted to test the strength of his new Mongol army. So to prepare for war with the Jin, he conquered the Tangut empire (also known as the Western Xia, or the Xi-Xia) and they pledged vassalage to the Mongol Empire. This was all the warm-up Genghis needed, and he quickly invaded, and forced the surrender, of the Jin Empire. The surrender in 1214 also resulted in roughly 3000 camels worth of tribute to be given to the Mongols. Though Jin still stoked the fires against the Mongol people, which resulted in Genghis sending his warlord Guo Wang Mukhulai (a former slave turned general) to conquer the Jin (taking most of their land).
Another Mongol Warlord (and one of Genghis’s top generals) Jebe of Besud (originally an enemy combatant, who managed to wound Genghis in the Mongol civil war) was a key part of the initial Jin invasion. More importantly, he also expanded the Mongol Empire heavily by taking 20,000 soldiers and conquering the Qara (Kara) Khitai Khanate (also known as the Western Liao). He was so successful that Genghis actually worried about Jebe betraying him. Jebe made an act of loyalty upon hearing that, providing Genghis with a gift of 100 white horses (the kind of horse that Genghis was riding when they had fought against each other in the civil war).
Then there was the Khwarezm Empire, which covered a bunch of key trade outposts that Genghis hoped to use. Genghis saw himself as the supreme ruler of the east while seeing the Khwarezm Shah as the supreme ruler of the west, and hoped for peaceful relations. The Khwarezm Shah on the other hand could only see “One supreme ruler on Earth, as there is only one sun in the sky.” War was declared between the two empires when the Khwarezm Shah executed 450 Mongol diplomats and merchants. The Khwarezm army was more than a dozen times larger than the Mongol forces, but despite that, their lack of strong leadership, and the more advanced tactics of the Mongol forces, resulted in many Mongol victories (and the sacking of the cities of Samark, Merv, Otrar, and Buhara). Jebe, and Mongol chief strategist Subutai (who lead 20 military campaigns, 65 pitched battles, and conquered 32 nations under Genghis Khan, and Ogedai Khan) chased down the fleeing Shah and conquered what would have been modern Iraq, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia, and parts of Northern Iran, and the Crimean region of Russia/Ukraine. During these recent campaigns (near 16 years of constant war), in August 1227, Genghis Khan had died.
At the time of Genghis Khan’s death, Mongolia, Kyrgyzstan, Azerbaijan, Iraq, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Georgia, Turkmenistan, and Turkmenistan, would have been fully conquered, with large parts of China, while some of Afghanistan Iran, Ukraine/Russia would have been under control of the Mongol Empire.
Mongol Empire under Ogedai, Guyuk, Mongke, and Ariq Boke (1227-1264)
Under Ogedai (who was voted in as the next Khan, but also recommended by his father, Genghis), the capital of Mongolia was moved from Avarga to Karakorum. During Ogedai’s 16 year reign, that the Jin were fully conquered, as well as what would have been Korea (both North and South), the Volga region of Bulgaria (descendants of the Huns, which would make them like the distant cousins of the Mongols anyways), Poland, Hungary, Moldavia, and the Moravian region of the Holy Roman Empire. Ogedai died under mysterious circumstances in 1241.
Ogedai’s son Guyuk took power in 1246, and died himself in 1248, and accomplished very little in terms of territorial conquest, but he did reverse some unpopular policies enacted by the regents in charge between Ogedai’s death and his enthronement. But, history would have been different had he not died early, as later Khan’s focused on expanding control in Asia, he had wanted to focus on pushing further into Europe (where he likely would have been rather successful, as all previous engagements with European forces in Central and Eastern Europe were all sweeping successes for the Mongols).
In 1251, Mongke (or Monghe, depending on where you get your sources) succeeded his cousin Guyuk as the Great Khan (or King of Kings) of the Mongol Empire. Even though he died in 1259, he had finished the conquests of Iran and Afghanistan, as well as Syria and parts of Turkey. He died without a son, but his younger brother (Ariq Boke) was elected as the next Khan in 1260. The Toluid civil war (Mongke, Ariq Boke, and Kublai, were all sons of Toluid, youngest son of Genghis) took place during most of Ariq Boke’s reign (which ended in 1264, with the civil war starting in 1261)
Kublai Khan and the Yuan Empire (1260-1294)
Kublai Khan became the Khan in 1960 (he crowned himself during his campaign in Song China), and became sole Khan in 1964 after winning the Toluid civil war with his other brother Ariq Boke.. He transitioned the capital from Karakorum to Khanbaliq (modern day Beijing) and continued to Sinicize (make more Chinese in nature) the Mongol Empire in an attempt to placate the large amount of Chinese citizens they have (outnumbering the rest of the population of the Mongol Empire combined). One of these changes was the renaming of the Mongol Empire to the Yuan Empire. Kublai’s campaigns included the complete conquest of China with the defeat of the Song dynasty (the Song imperial family surrendered in 1276), the invasions of Burma (Modern day Myanmar, a little east of India and Bangladesh), the invasion of Sakhalin (Russia’s largest Island, just north of Japan), the invasions of Java (Indonesian island), Dai Viet (Dai Viet being the empire that dominated northern Vietnam), Champa (the empire that dominated southern Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia). Those invasions were not successful, with Java remaining completely independent while Champa and Dai Viet while victorious, offered to become vassals of the newly renamed Yuan Empire to prevent further invasions (of which they likely would not be able to be resist a second invasion). There were also two attempted invasions of Japan, of which both were complete failures. The first invasion actually started off with multiple victories, before suffering a couple key defeats. In their initial retreat back to the mainlands to regroup, a storm wiped out almost the entire navy giving the Japanese Kamakura Shogunate a complete victory. The second invasion had 5 separate losses that resulted in the complete destruction of the navy and army sent over there (as well as the losses of several high ranking generals). One thing that thrived under Kublai was international trade. Merchants went through the entire Empire (stretching itself from Vietnam, Korea and Eastern Russia, to Syria, Afghanistan and Iran, to Ukraine, Poland, and Western Russia) all the way to England, France, Venice, to Western Africa, to southern India. In fact this kind of trade helped stimulate the arts, cuisine, philosophy, and science throughout huge parts of the world as there was a massive exchange of ideas and materials.
The Shattering of the Empire and Successor States
At the time of Kublai Khan’s death (in 1294) there was great dissatisfaction in the western parts of the empire with the increasing Chinese influence over the empire (including some of the higher ranking families taking on Chinese names, and the adoption of a Tibetan script as the official written language of the Empire. Many of the western regions were already semi-autonomous during Kublai’s life and were only united after his death in name only. The four main factions were the Yuan Empire (covering China, Eastern Russia, Mongolia, and south-east Asia), the Chagatai Khanate (covering central Asia, specifically Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, north and eastern Afghanistan, and small parts of Russia, Uzbekistan, and China)., the Ilkhanate (covering Turkey, south and western Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Turkmenistan, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and a fraction of Pakistan), and the Golden Horde (which covered all of western and central Russia, and all of or parts of Ukraine, Poland, Hungary, Wallachia, Lithuania, Bulgaria, Uzbekistan, and Finland). While these 4 divisions (the three Khanates and the Yuan) were all technically Mongolian in origin, by the time these empires had fallen the Yuan (which ended in 1635) were primarily Chinese, the Ilkhanate (1353) was increasingly Arabic, the Chagatai (western part was conquered in 1370, the eastern part lasted until the 1680’s) remained Mongolian in culture, and the Golden Horde (1502) became Turkish in nature (except the northern part which became Russian in the form of the Tartars). Not only had those 4 groups arose, but as the empire fell apart, the Kingdom of Poland, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, the Joseon dynasty (Korea), The Ming Dynasty (China), the Mamluk Sultanate (Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, North Africa), the Anatolian Beyliks (which later became the Ottoman Empire), and the Timurid Empire (founded by Timur, or Tamerlane) were also considered successor states (most of Russia was still city-states, that paid tribute to various Mongol khanates for a couple hundred years after the dissolution of the Mongol empire, including to some of the Golden Horde’s successor states, mostly out of fear of another great Mongol invasion).
The Mongol Empire at it’s height had direct control of the above map. This does not include tributaries (countries that were vassals of Mongolia, basically glorified colonies) which included large parts of the Middle East, North Africa, Vietnam, north-west Russia, and parts of Finland in the Karelian region. This is why most maps of “The Mongol Empire” will often show control down into India, Thailand, and the entirety of the Balkans. Remember, at it’s height, the Mongol Empire covered between 16 and 20% of the worlds landmass (sources argue about how much of Russia/Finland/Central Europe and the Middle East was directly under their control at the same time).
The Major trade routes of Mongolia, as you could see, they controlled the majority of the trade between Asia and Europe, and were still key in trade with Africa and the rest of Asia. As you can see on this map, compared to the other map, the range of the Mongol Empire is different as well. Trade was highly protected in the Mongol Empire, going so far as that it was recorded you could travel the length of the empire with gold being openly shown and no protections and no one would rob you. Unfortunately, that protection did not extend once you left the Mongol empire which still made trade dangerous outside of the empire (and thus, merchants still often traveled with armed guards once near the borders of other countries). This was also a key part in the spread of the Black Plague in Europe. Much like later on when the Europeans wiped out large portions of the Native Americans and Amerindians of North, Central, and South America, the Black Plague was a disease that most East Asians were naturally immune to, but Europeans were not, and suffered a huge loss of life for it.
For those who wish to see a short (11 minute) video with a brief history of the Mongol Empire (with a bit of humour) check out the Crash Course World History #17: Wait for it…. The Mongols! (The Mongols were a running joke in the series, specifically because a large amount of rules that made successful empires, or ruined them, the Mongols were exempt from).