The Mongols were a confederation of tribes of mostly illiterate, nomadic horsemen that hailed from the steppes north of China, where nomadic tribes had lived for centuries. Early in their history they were a group of feuding tribes not much different from other feuding tribes on the steppe. The term Mongols can be used to describe the historical Mongols as well as modern Mongol ethnic group. [Source: Mike Edwards, National Geographic: Genghis Khan: December, 1996; After Genghis Khan: February 1997]
The Mongols were traditionally a predominantly pastoral people, following their herds of horses, cattle, camels, and sheep on to seasonal pasturage areas. When they camped they lived in felt-covered gers (yurts). Shamanism was their traditional religion. Tibetan Buddhism was introduced in the 16th century and competition between the two produced s syncretic mix sometimes called Lamaism. The earliest example of the Mongol written language dates to 1240. [Source: Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.]
After they were unified under Genghis Khan (Chinggis Khan, Chingiz Khan Jenghiz Khan) , the Mongols were like a land-bound, Asian version of the Vikings, roaming far and wide, using horses instead of ships and conquering large swaths of territory. Under Genghis Khan, the Mongols were forged into a brilliant and efficient offensive fighting force that used swift cavalry charges to defeat any foe they faced and conquer the known world. Marco Polo wrote the Mongols were "of all of men in the world the best able to endure exertion and hardship and the least costly to maintain and therefore the best adapted for conquering territory and overthrowing kingdoms."
Books: “The Devil's Horsemen, the Mongols and the Invasion of Europe” by James Chambers; "The Mongol Empire and Its Legacy", Amitai-Preiss, Reuven, and David O. Morgan, eds. Leiden: Brill, 1999; “The Mongols” by Stephen Turnbull; “Genghis Khan and the Mongol Conquests” by Stephen Turnbull. René Grousset's “The Empire of the Steppes” provides a detailed historical analysis of Mongolian history from the Scythian period to the annexation of Mongolia by the Manchus. David Morgan's “The Mongols” (1986) provides a succinct account of the high point of Mongol history in the thirteenth and the fourteenth centuries. A more general treatment of Mongol history in the context of general Asian history is in “East Asia: Tradition and Transformation” by John K. Fairbank, Edwin O. Reischauer, and Albert M. Craig. “The Minorities of Northern China” by Henry G. Schwarz and Russia and “The Golden Horde” by Charles J. Halperin provide useful information on Mongol integration into neighboring cultures. For those interested in original source material, The “Secret History of the Mongols,” translated by Francis Woodman Cleaves, should be consulted. [Source: Robert L. Worden, Library of Congress, June 1989]
Websites and Resources on the Mongols Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; The Mongol Empire web.archive.org/web ; The Mongols in World History afe.easia.columbia.edu/mongols ; William of Rubruck's Account of the Mongols washington.edu/silkroad/texts ; Mongol invasion of Rus (pictures) web.archive.org/web ; Encyclopædia Britannica article britannica.com ; Mongol Archives historyonthenet.com ;
Rise of the Mongols
The Mongols arose from obscure origins in the recesses of Inner Asia to unify their immediate nomadic neighbors and then to conquer much of the Eurasian landmass, ruling large parts of it for more than a century. Emerging from a newly consolidated heartland north of the Gobi in the thirteenth century, the Mongols and their armies — made up of conquered peoples — thrust through western Asia, crossed the Urals, invaded the countries of Eastern Europe, and pressed on to Austria and the Adriatic. They also advanced through southwest Asia to the eastern Mediterranean and conquered the Chinese empire. Around the same time, they embarked on ambitious maritime expeditions against Java and Japan. The Mongols were phenomenally hard driving and ambitious for such a small group, and their accomplishments were considerable. Only the Mamluks of Egypt, the "divine winds" of Japan, and the Mongols' own legal tradition — the need to elect a new khan — halted the inexorable Mongol advances. [Source: Robert L. Worden, Library of Congress, June 1989 *]
The Mongols seized half of Asia, threatened Europe and made China parts of its kingdom for more than a century and Russia for two centuries. At its peak the realm of the Mongols stretched from central Europe to China, from Siberia to the Indian subcontinent, encompassing nearly one-fifth of the planet and attracting Silk Road explorers no less than Marco Polo himself. To forge this massive empire, the Mongols slaughtered millions in a campaign of violence that would not be equaled until World Wars I and II in the 20th century. But not everything about the Mongols was negative. They opened up trade and the exchange of ideas between the East and West that could not have happened if Asia was divided into a patchwork of kingdoms.
Stefano Carboni and Qamar Adamjee of the Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “Genghis Khan (ca. 1162–1227) and the Mongols are invariably associated with terrible tales of conquest, destruction, and bloodshed. This famed clan leader and his immediate successors created the largest empire ever to exist, spanning the entire Asian continent from the Pacific Ocean to modern-day Hungary in Europe. Such an empire could not have been shaped without visionary leadership, superior organizational skills, the swiftest and most resilient cavalry ever known, an army of superb archers (the "devil's horsemen" in Western sources), the existence of politically weakened states across Asia, and, of course, havoc and devastation. [Source: Stefano Carboni and Qamar Adamjee, Department of Islamic Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org \^/]
Mongol military power reached its apex in the thirteenth century. Under the leadership of Genghis Khan (Chinggis Khan) and two generations of his descendants, the Mongol tribes and various Inner Asian steppe people were united in an efficient and formidable military state that briefly held sway from the Pacific Ocean to Central Europe. [Source: Library of Congress, June 1989]
The Mongol Empire was the largest empire the world has ever known: at its largest extent it was twice the size of the Roman Empire and the territory conquered by Alexander the great. The only other nations or empire that rivaled it in size were the Soviet Union, the Spanish empire in the New World, and the British empire of the 19th century.
The Mongol conquest didn't take long. After expanding out of the Mongolian steppes at the beginning of the thirteenth century, the Mongolian hordes moved quickly. Genghis Khan conquered Beijing in 1215, Central Asia and the present-day Ukraine in 1217, eastern Turkey in 1243 and Baghdad and much of the Middle East in 1258. The Mongols also campaigned and plundered in Poland, Hungary, Austria, Lithuania, Bohemia, and Germany, and sent chills down the spines of rulers in Vienna, Venice and Constantinople.
Genghis Khan's grandson Kublai Khan expanded the Mongol Empire southward to the Persian Gulf, Burma and Vietnam and eastward to the Danube. With a little better luck he would have conquered Japan and Java as well. In China, he founded Beijing and established a dynasty that endured there for more than a 100 years. His descendants founded the Mogul Empire in India that lasted there for 350 years until 1876. The Manchu rulers of China were a Mongolian dynasty. The Turk also had links to Mongolia.
At its height in 1259, the Mongol empire stretched from Burma to Hungary, and encompassed nearly all of Asia and Russia, much of the Middle East, and parts of Europe. expanded into Burma and Vietnam but failed to conquer Japan and Java. The third Great Kahn Guyuk once said, "All empire from sunrise to sunset have been given to us, and we own them." Keegan wrote: No single sequence of campaigns by a single people before or since has ever subjected so large an area to military domination.
Modern Mongolia comprises only about half of the vast Inner Asian region known throughout history as Mongolia. Furthermore, it is only a fraction of the great Mongol Empire of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries that stretched from Korea to Hungary and encompassed nearly all of Asia except the Indian subcontinent and parts of Southeast Asia.
A DNA-analysis company in Britain made headlines by theorizing that many modern Caucasian males probably carry Genghis genes, because it was the warlord's practice to massacre the men in the territories he conquered and then impregnate the women.
3rd century B.C.: Iron weapons in use; Xiongnu invasion of China repulsed.
2d-1st centuries B.C.: Nomads expand west; pressure on China continues.
1st-2d centuries A.D.: Renewed attacks on China.
A.D. 317: Xianbei conquer northern China.
386-533: Period of Northern Wei Dynasty, established by the Toba in northern China mid-8th century; possible early Mongol links with Tibetan Buddhism.
916-1125: Period of Kitan Liao Dynasty, established over eastern ongolia, Manchuria, and northern China.
1038-1227: Tangut Western Xia Dynasty, established in northwestern China.
1115-1234: Jurchen establish Jin Dynasty in Manchuria, northern China.
1139-47: Jurchen defeat Mongols in Pamirs.
1196-1206: Temujin unites Mongols, assumes title of Genghis Khan.
1209-15: Mongols conquer south to Beijing, west to Lake Balkash.
1220-26: Southwest Asia conquered; invasion of Europe and China.
1227: Genghis dies.
1231: Korea invaded.
1235: Capital rebuilt at Karakorum.
1237-41: Expedition into Europe that was halted at Vienna with death of Ogedei.
1240-1480: Suzerainty over Russia established by Golden Horde; Conquest of Song China.
1260: Mongols defeated by Egyptian Mamluks.
1261: Khublai becomes great khan.
1274 and 1281: Unsuccessful attempts at invasion of Japan.
1279: Yuan Dynasty established in China.
1368: Yuan Dynasty destroyed; Mongols driven back into Mongolia.
1388: Chinese troops destroy Karakorum.
1391: Timur defeats Golden Horde.
1400-54: Civil war ends Mongol unity.
Possible Reasons for the Mongol Conquests
Traditionally, the main issue in which conflicts arose was over land use. Much of the fighting between the Chinese and Mongols revolved around expansion by Chinese farmers into traditional Mongol grazing areas and pushing herders into inferior pasture lands.According to the “New Catholic Encyclopedia”: The initial reasons for these wide conquests were economic. Horses were the only raw material the Mongol economy had in plentiful supply, and war was the most efficient and productive way of using them. To secure the products needed by his people, in the form of booty or through taxes levied on subjugated peoples, Genghis evolved a most efficient strategy, based on the extensive use of cavalry. As usual, the political theory that justified such actions was supplied only after the event when it was asserted that Genghis had been chosen by God to rule the world. [Source: “New Catholic Encyclopedia”, Gale Group Inc., 2003]
According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “There has been considerable speculation about the reasons for the Mongol eruption from Mongolia, and though there is no scholarly consensus on specific reasons, many have pointed to the causes of ecology, trade disruptions, and the figure of Genghis (Genghis) Khan. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu/mongols ]
“Ecology: In the period from 1180-1220, Mongolia experienced a drop in the mean annual temperature, which meant that the growing season for grass was cut short. Less grass meant a real danger to the Mongols' animals, and, since the animals were truly the basis of the Mongols' pastoral-nomadic life, this ecological threat may have prompted them to move out of Mongolia.
“Trade Disruptions: A second reason often mentioned is the attempt by Mongolia's neighbors in north and northwest China to reduce the amount of trade with the Mongols. Since the Mongols depended on trade for goods that they desperately needed — such as grain, craft, and manufactured articles — cessation of trade, or at least the diminution of trade, could have been catastrophic for them. The attempts by the Jin dynasty, which controlled North China, and the Xia dynasty, which controlled Northwest China, to reduce the level of trade that the Mongols could expect, created a crisis for the Mongols. Unable to obtain goods that they so desperately needed, the Mongols' response was to initiate raids, attacks, and finally invasions against these two dynasties.
Genghis Khan's Personal Mission: A third explanation has to do with Genghis Khan himself, in particular his shamanic beliefs. It is said that Tenggeri, the sky god of the Mongols, gave Genghis the mission of bringing the rest of the world under one sword — that is, bringing the rest of the world under the shamanic umbrella — a mission that may have motivated Genghis to begin his conquests. Whatever the explanations, they all gravitate around the figure of Genghis himself. Thus it is important to see what Genghis' policies led to and to analyze his life and career.”
Importance of Mongol Tribal Bonds and Organization
According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “The major lessons that Genghis Khan learned from the hardships of his early years (his father's untimely death forced his mother to eke out a survival for the family in the harsh desert lands of Mongolia) convinced him that no one could survive in the daunting landscape of Mongolia without maintaining good relations and seeking help on occasion from one's allies. Genghis's earliest experiences thus convince him of the importance of forging alliances. One's anda (blood brother) pricked his finger and mixed blood with one to forge a blood brotherhood. Genghis found many andas, and his blood brothers, realizing his superior abilities and his charisma, would often join under his banner. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu/mongols ]
“Early in his rise to power, Genghis attempted immediately to break down the tribal groups that joined him, because he felt that loyalty in the tribal group would belong to the tribal leader rather than to himself. He wanted to eliminate any feeling of tribal identity and convert it to a Mongol identity — a unit that would be much larger, greater than that of the tribe, wherein the loyalty would remain with him, rather than with a tribal leader. Thus, when a tribe did join him, he quickly dispersed its members through the various units that he controlled.
“Genghis Khan's organized units were based on the principle of ten. He organized his people into units of ten, a hundred, a thousand, and ten thousand, and the head of a unit of ten thousand would have a strong personal relationship with Genghis himself. That kind of loyalty was to be extremely important in Genghis's rise to power and in his ability to maintain authority over all the various segments of his domain.
“Genghis's military tactics showcased his superiority in warfare. One particularly effective tactic Genghis liked to use was the feigned withdrawal: Deep in the throes of a battle his troops would withdraw, pretending to have been defeated. As the enemy forces pursued the troops that seemed to be fleeing, they would quickly realize that they'd fallen into a trap, as whole detachments of men in armor or cavalries would suddenly appear and overwhelm them.
How Such Small Group Succeeded
How did such a small group succeed? According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “One answer to this question is that the Mongols were adept at incorporating the groups they conquered into their empire. As they defeated other peoples, they incorporated some of the more loyal subjugated people into their military forces. This was especially true of the Turks. The Uyghur Turks, along with others, joined the Mongol armies and were instrumental in the Mongols' successes. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu/mongols ]
“A second explanation is that the rest of Asia was declining at this point. China at this time was not a unified country — in fact, it was divided into at least three different sections, all of which were at war with one another. Central Asia was fragmented, and there was no single leader there. As for Russia, it was only a series of fragmented city-states. And after four centuries of success, the Abbasid dynasty in Western Asia had by this time lost much of its land.
“By 1241, Mongol troops had reached all the way to Hungary but had to withdraw that very year because of the death of Ögödei, the Great Khan. The Mongol elite returned to Mongolia to select a new Great Khan, but they were unsuccessful in their efforts to form a consensus on the matter. For the next 19 years, there would be a variety of disputes over who was the most meritorious of Genghis Khan's descendants and who ought to be the next Great Khan.”
Military Importance of Mongol Horses
Morris Rossabi wrote in Natural History: ““Genghis Khan and his descendents could not have conquered and ruled the largest land empire in world history without their diminutive but extremely hardy steeds...A Chinese chronicler recognized the horse’s value to the Mongols, observing that “by nature they [the Mongols] are good at riding and shooting. Therefore they took possession of the world through this advantage of bow and horse.” [Source: “All the Khan’s Horses” by Morris Rossabi, Natural History, October 1994 =|=]
The Mongols prized their horses primarily for the advantages they offered in warfare. In combat, the horses were fast and flexible, and Genghis Khan was the first leader to capitalize fully on these strengths. After hit-and-run raids, for example, his horsemen could race back and quickly disappear into their native steppes. Enemy armies from the sedentary agricultural societies to the south frequently had to abandon their pursuit because they were not accustomed to long rides on horseback and thus could not move as quickly. Nor could these farmer-soldiers leave their fields for extended periods to chase after the Mongols. =|=
“The Mongols had developed a composite bow made out of sinew and horn and were skilled at shooting it while riding, which gave them the upper hand against ordinary foot soldiers. With a range of more than 350 yards, the bow was superior to the contemporaneous English longbow, whose range was only 250 yards.
“Genghis Khan understood the importance of horses and insisted that his troops be solicitous of their steeds. A cavalryman normally had three or four, so that each was, at one time or another, given a respite from bearing the weight of the rider during a lengthy journey. Before combat, leather coverings were placed on the head of each horse and its body was covered with armor. After combat, Mongol horses could traverse the most rugged terrain and survive on little fodder. =|=
Mongol Historical Sources
History had traditionally been kept alive through oral epics, performed by nomadic bards, until writing was introduced in the Genghis Khan era in the 12th century. Because the Mongol Empire was so vast the Mongols were written about in many languages by numerous chroniclers of divergent conquered societies, who provided a wide range of perspectives, myths, and legends. Much of what has been written about the Mongols was produced by people who came in contact with the Mongols—often enemies or hostile neighbors of the Mongols, who generally did not have nice things to say and were less than objective—not the Mongols themselves. Because many foreign accounts are about the Mongol invasions and were written by the conquered, the Mongols often are described in unfavorable terms, as bloodthirsty barbarians who kept their subjects under a harsh yoke. Mongol sources emphasize the demigod-like military genius of Chinggis Khan, providing a perspective in the opposite extreme.
The term Mongol itself is often a misnomer. Although the leaders and core forces of the conquerors of Eurasia were ethnic Mongols, most of the main army was made up of Uralo-Altaic people, many of them Turkic. Militarily, the Mongols were stopped only by the Mamluks of Egypt and by the Japanese, or by their own volition, as happened in Europe. In their increasingly sophisticated administrative systems, they employed Chinese, Iranians, Russians, and others. Mongolia and its people thus have had a significant and lasting impact on the historical development of major nations, such as China and Russia, and, periodically, they have influenced the entire Eurasian continent. [Source: Robert L. Worden, Library of Congress, June 1989 *]
The most well known Mongolian work is "The Secret History of the Mongols". A Chinese copy was found by a Russian diplomat in Beijing a 1866. An original Mongolian copy has never been found. Much of what is known about the Mongols comes from this book, which has been dated to A.D. 1240. Its author is unknown.
Contributions by the Mongols
One way the Mongols played an important role in world history was by facilitating cultural contact between east and west Asia, as well as creating the conditions by which western Europe learned about China and East Asia, which in turn contributed to Europe’s seaborne expansion into Asia and the Americas. [Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica]
According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “Most Westerners accept the stereotype of the 13th-century Mongols as barbaric plunderers intent merely to maim, slaughter, and destroy. This perception, based on Persian, Chinese, Russian, and other accounts of the speed and ruthlessness with which the Mongols carved out the largest contiguous land empire in world history, has shaped both Asian and Western images of the Mongols and of their earliest leader, Genghis (Chinggis) Khan. Such a view has diverted attention from the considerable contributions the Mongols made to 13th- and 14th-century civilization. Though the brutality of the Mongols' military campaigns ought not to be downplayed or ignored, neither should their influence on Eurasian culture be overlooked.[Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu/mongols ]
“The Mongol era in China is remembered chiefly for the rule of Kublai Khan, grandson of Kublai Khan. Kublai patronized painting and the theater, which experienced a golden age during the Yuan dynasty, over which the Mongols ruled. Kublai and his successors also recruited and employed Confucian scholars and Tibetan Buddhist monks as advisers, a policy that led to many innovative ideas and the construction of new temples and monasteries.
“The Mongol Khans also funded advances in medicine and astronomy throughout their domains. And their construction projects — extension of the Grand Canal in the direction of Beijing, the building of a capital city in Daidu (present-day Beijing) and of summer palaces in Shangdu ("Xanadu") and Takht-i-Sulaiman, and the construction of a sizable network of roads and postal stations throughout their lands — promoted developments in science and engineering.
“Perhaps most importantly, the Mongol empire inextricably linked Europe and Asia and ushered in an era of frequent and extended contacts between East and West. And once the Mongols had achieved relative stability and order in their newly acquired domains, they neither discouraged nor impeded relations with foreigners. Though they never abandoned their claims of universal rule, they were hospitable to foreign travelers, even those whose monarchs had not submitted to them.
“The Mongols also expedited and encouraged travel in the sizable section of Asia that was under their rule, permitting European merchants, craftsmen, and envoys to journey as far as China for the first time. Asian goods reached Europe along the caravan trails (earlier known as the "Silk Roads"), and the ensuing European demand for these products eventually inspired the search for a sea route to Asia. Thus, it could be said that the Mongol invasions indirectly led to Europe's "Age of Exploration" in the 15th century.
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons
Text Sources: Mike Edwards, National Geographic: Genghis Khan: December, 1996; After Genghis Khan: February 1997; National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wikipedia, BBC, Comptom’s Encyclopedia, Lonely Planet Guides, Silk Road Foundation, "The Discoverers" by Daniel Boorstin; "History of Arab People" by Albert Hourani (Faber and Faber, 1991) and various books and other publications.
Last updated October 2022