Today we will be looking at the rise and legacy of the Mongol Empire. We will trace it from its humble beginnings in the frozen tundra of northern Mongolia to its eventual dominance, spanning over 9 million square miles (23 million square kilometers)—an area roughly the size of the African continent. Additionally, we will discover how the Mongol Empire was an empire of culture as well as conquest, giving the modern world several of the systems we take for granted each and every day.
Expansion of the Mongol Empire 1206–1294
Temujin, better known by his later name Genghis Khan, was born into the violent and competitive Mongolian culture, where wars between clans were both bloody and commonplace. As a young man, he had a vision to unify the warring tribes into a single Mongolian nation. He began realizing this vision by forming alliances between his tribe and other tribes while defeating those who refused to join his banner. Enemy leaders were put to death, while the remaining clan members were absorbed into his ever-growing tribe. In 1206, he established a unified Mongolian nation that covered an area about the same size as modern-day Mongolia. It was at this point that he was given the title of Universal Ruler, which in Mongolian is Chinggis (Genghis) Khan.
Portrait of Genghis Khan. National Palace Museum in Taipei, Taiwan.
Having established the Mongolian state, which consisted of more than one million people, Genghis went on to ensure its stability. He established a policy of choosing skilled people for administrative positions rather than family members, which resulted in a more reliable and efficient system of government. He abolished the taking of Mongolians into slavery, outlawed the theft of livestock, and even ordered the creation of a written language for the previously illiterate Mongolian people. This era of establishment included outreach to other nations, offering trade and diplomatic relations between Mongols and foreigners for the very first time. This came to an end, however, when the Sultan of the Khwarezmid Empire betrayed a trade agreement with the Mongols, killing the Mongolian merchants and ambassadors in the region. In response, Genghis Khan declared war on the Khwarezmid Empire, which covered modern-day Iran, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan.
Genghis’ ruthlessness and intelligence combined to give the Mongol invaders one victory after another. He defeated city after city, showing no mercy to those who offered resistance.
The Mongol armies were primarily comprised of cavalry, providing them with exceptional mobility and speed. Their movements and maneuvers were coordinated through signals and a well-structured messenger system. During battles, they heavily relied on bows and arrows and only resorted to hand-to-hand combat after causing disruption among the enemy’s ranks. Additionally, their effective use of spies and propaganda was a contributing factor to their overwhelming success in expeditions. Prior to attacking, they typically requested voluntary surrender and offered peace, sparing the population if their proposal was accepted. However, if resistance was encountered, wholesale slaughter or enslavement of the population was a common outcome, except for individuals whose particular skills or abilities were deemed useful.
The Mongols at war. Illustration Rashid al-Din’s work “Jami’ al-tawarikh,” 1st quarter of 14th century.
Reconstruction of a Mongol warrior. Genghis Khan: The Exhibition.
The lands of the Khwarezmid Empire became the lands of the Mongol empire, which would eventually reach from the Sea of Japan in the east to central Europe in the west, and from Siberia in the north to the Indian subcontinent in the south. It became the largest continuous landmass empire in history, covering an astonishing 9.27 million square miles (24 million square kilometers). It was one of the largest empires in terms of population, seeing a full quarter of the world’s population living under Mongolian rule.
Despite the militant nature of the Mongol Empire, it also produced many cultural innovations, including things we still use to this day, such as the use of paper money and a postal system. Venetian merchant Marco Polo wrote his work The Travels, in which he described the many wonderful inventions and innovations in the Mongol Empire that were still unknown in the west. As well as forging an empire, Genghis Khan also established cultural contact and interaction with the west for the first time, creating a route of trade and communication known as the Silk Road. This affected science, trade, and even religion with the sharing of numerous ideas and traditions from both sides.
Although notorious for its harsh tactics in warfare, the Mongol Empire briefly ushered in an era of peace, stability, flourishing trade, and secured travel known as “Pax Mongolica” (Mongol peace) from approximately 1279 to the end of the empire. Nevertheless, the passing of Genghis Khan in 1227 ultimately marked the downfall of the empire he established. Conflicts among his successors eventually resulted in the partition of the empire into four factions. By 1368, all four divisions had collapsed.
“If you had not committed great sins, God would not have sent a punishment like me upon you.” —Genghis Khan
“If you’re afraid—don’t do it,—if you’re doing it—don’t be afraid!” —Genghis Khan
“An action committed in anger is an action doomed to failure.” —Genghis Khan
“Conquering the world on horseback is easy; it is dismounting and governing that is hard.” —Genghis Khan
The Secret History of the Mongol Queens: How the Daughters of Genghis Khan Rescued His Empire by Jack Weatherford
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