Lecture 22: The Mongol Empire

Last time I discussed broadly how nomadic tribes lived their lives and set the stage for understanding their effect on world history with a look at the Turkish in the Abbasid Caliphate and Afghanistan. The main point was that the nomadic way of life set these people up to be both destructive and creative. Nomads attacked and destroyed many settled regions, while also creating the conditions for future growth. Their role in world history allows us to consider a concept that has been contested, but that may have a use here, Eurasia. It’s an awful word. It does, however, highlight a long-term relationship between the great civilizations in China, India, and all around the Mediterranean. For thousands of years there was important traffic in ideas and products between Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. Roman coins have been found in Russia. Spanish iron ore was forged in North Africa. Chinese porcelain went to the Middle East. Persian textiles were sent to Europe’s medieval kings. Greek was once spoken in Afghanistan--Arabic in Spain. And then there is the great expansion of Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism. Tribal nomadism added another political dimension to this broad and long-term exchange of ideas and products, for nomads were great conquerors, subjecting many different societies to their rule. The greatest of these conquerors was, of course, the Mongols, and to them we now turn.
Before the 13th century, the Mongols were merely one of number of tribes living in what is now Mongolia. Linguistically related to the Turks, some Mongol tribes maintained friendly relations with Turkish tribes. Overall, however, the Mongols were politically fractured and unimportant during the 11th and 12th centuries. It was the rise of history’s greatest conqueror Chingis Khan that made the Mongols a powerful force. Much as Mohammed did for the Arabs, Chingis Khan united the Mongol tribes and set them loose upon the settled world. In the end, Chingis Khan would conquer the largest empire the world had known to that point, and his descendants would make it even larger. We will consider Chingis Khan and the Mongols in two parts. First, I will discuss the origins of the Mongol’s and Chingis Khan’s rise to a leadership position. Second, I will trace the course of Chingis Khan’s conquests.
Chingis Khan’s remarkable conquests were rooted in important changes in the Mongols’ social and political structure during the 12th century. At this time, the area that we now call Mongolia was sparsely populated and controlled by three main tribes, the Tatars, the Kereït, and the Naiman. All Mongol tribes lived on the margins of China’s world, with some of them becoming more sinicized than others. Chinese culture exerted a great pull on the Mongols, especially because the Liao dynasty that ruled in northern China was itself nomadic in origin. Moreover, after the Liao state collapsed in 1114, the nobility fled further west and allied itself with the Uighurs, a Turkish tribe, which spread Chinese influence ever further west.
These early Mongol tribes exhibited most of the characteristics that we discussed last time. Their religion was shamanistic. The people were organized along tribal and clan lines, and the leaders of a tribe were called Khan. The leaders of a tribal confederation were called Khaqans. A tribe’s power was based on the size of the steppe that it controlled: more grass meant larger herds and more horses. During the 12th century, however, this traditional social structure underwent an important change that Chingis Khan exploited later. The various Mongol tribes developed what is awkwardly called tribal feudalism. The term is awkward, since the Mongols were nomads, and feudalism refers to a settled form of life. Nonetheless, new social structures did emerge among the Mongols that allow us to use this term. First, the aristocracy began to separate itself ever more sharply from the commoners; that is, Mongol society lost the fluidity that was normal to a nomadic tribe. Second, the Khans began to rely more heavily on aristocratic families, giving each plots of land and intermarrying more heavily with them. The most trusted among the aristocrats were eventually transformed into the Khan’s personal bodyguards. Very slowly, a system of interlocking rights and duties appeared that was based on personal honor and bravery in battle. This was not land-based feudalism, but the personal connections on which it was based make the system appear to be inherently feudal.
This is the world into which a boy named Temüjin—one day to be called Chingis Khan—was born, somewhere between 1155 and 1167. (There is no agreement on the year.) A member of the prominent Borjigin clan, the young Temüjin had access to power and wealth, especially since his father Yesügi Batur was the grandson of a Khan. Unfortunately for Temüjin, when he was ten years old, his father was poisoned by an enemy in the Tatar clan. Together with his mother Höelün and his brothers, Temüjin tried to keep the family’s herd together, but other families confiscated the animals. As a result, the family fell into poverty, reduced to eating roots and even fish, which was a disaster for a people that normally lived on meat and milk. Temüjin seems, however, to have had one of history’s great magnetic personalities, as in spite of his family’s weak position, he kept finding and keeping allies.
The stories of his early exploits sound fishy, but they are accepted as genuine. For example, when in his teens Temüjin was taken captive by a rival tribe called the Taychiut, who kept him in a wooden cage. He tried to escape, but was discovered by a guard, who for no apparent reason helped him escape, even though it could have cost him his life. Another story holds that Temüjin went chasing after thieves one day who had stolen most of his family’s horses. During the search he came upon a stranger named Bo’orchu, and asked him whether he had seen the horses. Bo’orchu dropped what he was doing, gave Temüjin a fresh horse and helped him get back the horses. Bo’orchu later left his own family to become a trusted lieutenant.
Temüjin had a powerful personality, but his rise to power was also made possible by the nomadic feudal system. Although his property was gone, Temüjin was still the product of a respected clan, and this gave him entrée into the Mongol power structure. He was, for example, able to claim as wife the woman to whom his father had betrothed him. This was a master-stroke, since the woman, Börte, had been kidnapped by another tribe, the Merkït, in retaliation for Temüjin’s father having kidnapped his wife from them. Temüjin went to an old ally of his father’s, Toghril Khan, the head of the powerful Kereït tribe, and asked him for help in getting Börte and reuniting his scattered tribe. In the ensuing battle against the Merkït, Temüjin not only fought bravely but also gathered a cadre of loyal warriors around him. This would have important consequences later.
Perhaps the most important event in Temüjin’s rise was a request from a Northern Chinese dynasty against the Tatars. Seeing a chance to expand his power by defeating a rival, Toghril took his army and Temüjin into battle against the Tatars, not only defeating them but also exterminating the entire Tatar nobility. (This became standard practice, as we will see.) Meanwhile, Temüjin had grown so powerful through the wars that he was able to defeat Toghril in battle, even though the latter was a Khan. Temüjin then killed all the Kereït nobility and dispersed the Kereït commoners among his people as servants. Temüjin then turned on the remaining Mongol tribes and by 1206 he had united all of them under his command. At this point, Temüjin was “elected” Khan and was acclaimed as Chingis Khan, or Great Khan. It is also at this point that the various tribes that I have been talking about began to call themselves Mongols, a sign that Chingis Khan’s wars had helped to create a common identity among his people.
That we are now dealing with Mongols, as opposed to individual tribes, represents an important historical shift and offers some insight into the system that Chingis Khan created. Traditional Khans ruled through other tribal leaders, a trend that was exacerbated by the appearance of nomadic feudalism, as I have already discussed. Chingis Khan broke with this system, however, breaking up tribes and putting his people into military units, which were headed by some trusted lieutenant. He also did something extraordinary for a tribal leader; he founded a capital city, which was called Karakorum. This was exceptional, since nomads were not supposed to live in cities, and it suggests how Chingis Khan reconstructed nomadic structures of authority. Karakorum was supposed to be a new focal point for Mongol loyalties that was above their tribal affiliation.
Given what I said last time about the nomads’ traditional skills, you can see clearly that Chingis Khan was setting up a military explosion. During the 13th century, there were probably no more than 1 million Mongols, which was 1% of the Chinese population at the time. Chingis Khan was, nonetheless, able to raise a powerful corps of 100,000 to 125,000 skilled fighters, with which he attacked just about everybody. This army was strong and fierce. We have already discussed nomadic battle tactics, but it will be useful to consider now what effects Mongol military skills had. The Mongols rode horses. You know that. But in riding them well, and in having everyone on them, a Mongol army could move 100km per day in a pinch, which meant that they could strike fast and destroy a city or region before the defenders even knew what happened. Last time, I mentioned briefly how savage Mongol armies were, on occasion razing entire cities to the ground. This was an essential battle tactic, in that the Mongols understood the power of fear. Since people never knew when the Mongols would sweep down on them and expected nothing but death if they did, it made more sense to pay tribute up front than it did to fight. Thus, through skill and guile, the Mongols rapidly built an empire.
After uniting the Mongols, Chingis Khan set about attacking his neighbors. In 1209, he led an army against the northern Chinese state of Si-ki and incorporated it into his realms. In 1211, he led Mongol armies against the Chin. This is an important event, because it shows how important Chingis Khan’s military organization was to his ultimate victory. Chingis Khan’s armies were actually led by his four sons Djoji, Chagatai, Ögödei, and Tolui. Loyal and effective military leadership was the key to Chingis Khan’s rule, since it allowed him to give orders without having to worry about their being carried through. Chingis Khan’s army was, thus, a mixture of discipline and flexibility, with local commanders able to exploit opportunities that presented themselves within Chingis Khan’s broader vision. By 1214, Mongol armies were standing outside the walls of the city we now know as Beijing, though Chingis Khan signed a truce that gave the city a reprieve until 1215, when the Mongols came back and sacked the place.
With his victory in China complete, Chingis Khan now turned west. In 1217, he conquered the Tarim Basin and Turkistan, which gave his empire a common border with the Persians. It was only a matter of time before Chingis Khan started a war in the west. The ensuing conflict began over a matter of trade and honor. Mongol regimes always encouraged trade, and as Mongol armies expanded their territory, merchants and traders in the area came under direct Mongol protection. In 1219, a Persian governor in Otrar slaughtered a trade caravan under Mongol protection and stole their cargo. A delegation sent by the Great Khan to the Persian Shah ‘Al al-din Muhammad (1199-1220) demanded compensation, but Muhammad had them executed. There was now no choice but to go to war. In 1219, 150,000 to 200,000 men attacked the Persia. By 1220, the war was over and the Shah was dead. In 1222, Chingis Khan led an army into India. In 1223, other Mongol forces invaded Russia. In 1224, Chingis Khan had to return to Karakorum to put down an uprising. He died in 1227, after dividing his empire between four sons.
Having reached Chingis Khan’s death, we can step back for a moment and consider the phases of Mongols history. This history is best divided into three phases. The first phase runs from Chingis Khan’s birth to his death in 1227. The second phase begins with the election of Chingis Khan’s son Ögödei as Great Khan and runs to 1259. This period is marked by yet another flurry of expansion that made the Mongol empire the largest that has every existed. The final phase of Mongol History runs from the election of Khubilai Khan in 1265 to the empire’s end in the early 14th century. The Mongol Empire did not fall, in the sense of its capital being taken and burned; it really disintegrated. As it became clear that Mongol power was no longer sufficient to control this vast territory, the Mongols simply returned to the Central Asian steppe, living out their lives once again on world history’s margins.
Let us consider the second phase. In 1232, the Mongols returned their attention to China and subdued central China within two years. Then they turned west again, taking Moscow in 1238 and Kiev in 1240. In 1241, the Mongols attacked Poland, Germany, and Hungary, winning great victories at Liegnitz in Silesia and Mohi in Hungary. Mongol troops even reached Vienna, before pulling pack suddenly in the wake of Ögödei’s death. The Mongols remained mired in internal conflicts for the next decade. In 1251, however, with the elevation of Ögödei’s brother Möngke to Great Khan the Mongols continued their expansion. In 1252, the Mongols defeated a southwestern Chinese state called Nan-chao. Then, for good measure, they took eastern Tibet. In 1253, the last of the Persian princes was defeated. Five years later they deposed the last Caliph in Baghdad, in addition to invading Korea.
This leads us to the last phase. In 1259, Möngke died and another power struggle ensued. In 1264, Möngke’s brother Khubilai was finally recognized as the Great Khan. This is an important moment, for now the first signs of the Mongol Empire’s breakup appear. Khubilai began a process of sinicization, moving the capital from Karakorum to a city he had renamed Khanbaligh, which means place of the Khan. Now it is called Beijing. Khubilai did not speak Chinese, but he recognized the advantages of Chinese culture, especially when it came to managing a large empire. Khubilai even took a Chinese name for his dynasty, calling it Yüan. This was the first truly foreign dynasty in the history of China, and it helped to change both the conquerors and the conquered. In 1276, Khubilai took the southern Sung kingdom, before taking over the rest of China. He then moved south into Vietnam, but it was too hot for the Mongols, so they withdrew. Khubilai Khan also attacked Japan twice, in 1274 and 1281, which created not only a national mythology in Japan but also showed the limits of nomadic power. The khans were best off if their stuck to the steppe.
Now Khubilai was both the Emperor of China, the world’s greatest civilization at the time, and Emperor of a huge Mongol Empire. This Mongolian Empire could not be run centrally and was soon divided into smaller units called Khanates. The Great Khanate included China, Korea, Manchuria, Mongolia, and Tibet. The Central Asian Khanate comprised the Tarim Basin, Dzungaria, Eastern Turkistan, and Eastern Afghanistan. The Persian Khanate, or Il-Khanate, included Persia, Mesopotamia, Western Turkistan, and Eastern Afghanistan. The final Khanate was called the Golden Horde, which comprised Russia and Kazakhstan. These various dynasties soon went their own ways, becoming embedded in the local cultures and problems of each region.
There were fights between the Khans. Overall, however, it was an unprecedented period of peace for all of Eurasia. The travels of Marco Polo, for instance, occurred during Khubilai Khan’s reign, which marked a particularly cosmopolitan age. During this time, the Mongol court was full of foreigners, including Scandinavians, Hungarians, Greeks, Arabs, and Slavs. One of the more famous visitors to the Mongol court was Ibn Battuta, a Muslim traveler who also wrote a famous memoir his travels in sub-Saharan Africa. The Khans also sent people westward, however. The Nestorian Monk Rabban Sauma was born in Mongol controlled Peking around 1225 and visited Byzantium, Rome, Paris, and Gascony.
The Mongol Empire was short-lived. By 1382, the Mongols had been booted out of China, and the Russian nobility began its crusade against the Mongols in 1380 in the famous Battle of Kulikovo. The Golden Horde did not, however, lose full control of Muscovy until the time of Ivan the Terrible in the sixteenth century. The Khans in Persia were also out by the end of the century. Mongol power did not simply wane; it crumbled.
This provides us with a chance, nonetheless, to consider the Mongols more broadly. They were great conquerors. But their conquests had limits. Once the Khans became settled powers, it was possible for local forces to imitate their methods and even develop new ones. It is one thing to take over a society; it is quite another to run it. In running these vast empires, the Mongols eventually ceased being Mongols and their power disappeared. But the Mongols point us to a formative period for modern history. They provided the first true institutional bridge between Europe and Asia. This was particularly important for Europe’s medieval states, but it also affect the Islamic world, too. Understanding how Europe emerged from the Middle Ages and how the Ottomans and Safavids took over for the Caliphs is not possible without recognizing the central role the Mongols played in world history, if only for a short time. We’ll pursue the post-Mongol world in another lecture.

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