Mongol Empire: The Birth, Rise, and Fall of an Empire

An empire arose in the steppes of Mongolia in the thirteenth century that forever changed the map of the world, opened intercontinental trade, spawned new nations, changed the course of leadership in two religions, and impacted history indirectly in a myriad of other ways.

At its height, the Mongol Empire was the largest contiguous empire in history, stretching from the Sea of Japan to the Carpathian Mountains.

Although its impact on Eurasia during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries was enormous, the Mongol Empire’s influence on the rest of the world—particularly its legacy—should not be ignored.

Mongolian People: Nomads of the Steppe

The Mongolian people have a deep history that goes back to ancient times when they lived as nomads on the vast steppes of Central Asia.

This large area of grassland runs through what we now call Mongolia and reaches into parts of China. From early on, the harsh weather and tough living conditions on the steppes shaped Mongolian life.

They were people always on the move, herding goats, sheep, cattle, and horses, living in a cycle with nature. This nomadic way wasn’t just about surviving; it was about making the best of what the land offered. The ability to quickly move from one place to another defined their way of living, as they followed their herds, looking for grass and water.

Over centuries, various tribes roamed these steppes, including ancestors of the Mongols. These early Mongols were masters of horseback riding and archery, living in societies bound by family ties and led by a mix of chosen and natural leaders. Despite being influenced by nearby civilizations like China, the Islamic world, and Siberian tribes, the Mongols kept a unique culture that was all about moving through and living off the vast lands they called home. Even today, this nomadic spirit is alive in Mongolia, with traditional tents, horses, and the endless steppe landscape being central to what it means to be Mongolian.

READ MORE: Ancient Civilizations Timeline: The Complete List from Aboriginals to Incans

The Rise of Genghis Khan

Genghis Khan, born and known as Temüjin (1165-1227), emerged on the steppes as a charismatic leader, slowly gaining a following before becoming a nökhör (companion or vassal) to Toghril (d. 1203/1204) Khan of the Kereits, the dominant tribe in central Mongolia. While in the service of Toghril, Temüjin’s talents allowed him to become a major leader among the Mongol tribes.

Eventually, Temüjin’s increase in power and the jealousy it provoked among other members of Toghril’s supporters caused Temüjin and Toghril to part ways and ultimately clash in battle. Their quarrel came to a head in 1203 with Temüjin emerging as the victor.

Genghis Khan Unites the Mongols and Establishes an Empire

Temüjin unified the tribes of Mongolia by 1206 into a single supra-tribe known as the Khamag Mongol Ulus or the All Mongol State. In doing so, Temüjin reorganized the social structure by dissolving old tribal lines and regrouping them into an army based on a decimal system (units of 10, 100, and 1000). Furthermore, he instilled a strong sense of discipline into the army.

Although he had defeated all of his rivals by 1204, it was not until 1206 that Temüjin’s followers recognized him as the sole authority in Mongolia by granting him the title of Genghis Khan (Genghis Khan), meaning Firm, Fierce, or Resolute Ruler.

The Height of the Mongol Empire

At its zenith, the Mongol Empire, under the leadership of Genghis Khan and his successors, stretched across vast territories, making it the largest contiguous land empire in history.

By the early 13th century, the empire had expanded to cover approximately 24 million square kilometers, encompassing large parts of Asia and extending into Europe and the Middle East. That was 16% of the Earth’s ENTIRE land area! The geographical expanse of the empire meant that it included a variety of climates, cultures, and peoples, from the steppes of Central Asia to the banks of the Danube River. Genghis Khan unified the Mongol tribes and launched a series of military campaigns that would see the swift and strategic conquest of territories far beyond their nomadic homelands.

The political structure of the Mongol Empire was notably inclusive and meritocratic, allowing conquered peoples and talented individuals to serve in administrative positions regardless of their ethnic or cultural background.

Genghis Khan established a legal code known as the Yassa, which, among other things, enforced religious tolerance and the protection of trade and travelers. This approach facilitated the integration of diverse populations and the efficient governance of the vast empire. The empire was divided into khanates, each ruled by a relative or trusted general of Genghis Khan, and this division allowed for local autonomy within a unified imperial framework.

This structure remained until the reign of Kublai Khan, under whom the empire reached its cultural and political zenith but also began to show signs of fragmentation.

Trade and the military were two pillars that significantly contributed to the rise and sustenance of the Mongol Empire. The reestablishment and protection of the Silk Road under Mongol rule led to an unprecedented flow of goods, ideas, and people between the East and West.

This not only enriched the empire economically but also facilitated cultural exchanges that had lasting impacts on Asia and Europe. Militarily, the Mongols were unsurpassed, employing advanced strategies, superior horsemanship, and adaptability to different environments and combat situations.

Their military campaigns were characterized by swift movements, psychological warfare, and the integration of siege warfare technologies from other cultures. This combination of factors allowed the Mongols to establish an empire that, at its height, was unmatched in size, diversity, and influence.

Genghis Khan’s Death and the Continuation of the Empire

It is widely accepted that Genghis Khan died in 1227, although the exact circumstances of his death are unclear and fraught with mythological connotations. There are several theories about how he died, but none can be conclusively proven.

One prevalent theory suggests that Genghis Khan died from injuries sustained in a fall from his horse during a campaign against the Western Xia dynasty in China. He is said to have ordered his sons and army to continue the war against Xixia. Indeed, even as he lay ill in his bed, Genghis Khan instructed them, “While I take my meals you must talk about the killing and the destruction of the Tang’ut and say, ‘Maimed and tamed, they are no more.’”

Given that he was in his 60s at the time—a significant age, especially for a warrior leading campaigns across vast terrains—this scenario appears plausible. Another theory posits that he was killed in battle during these same operations, either by a direct wound or by an arrow strike.

After resting his army, he invaded Xixia in 1227 and besieged the capital of Zhongxing. During the course of the siege, Genghis Khan died from injuries sustained from a fall from his horse while hunting.

In addition to these theories, there are also various legends surrounding his death, including one that he was struck by lightning. What adds to the complexity of discerning the truth behind Genghis Khan’s death is the strong Mongol tradition of shrouding the deaths of their leaders in secrecy.

After his death, his body was reportedly returned to Mongolia and buried in an unmarked grave, following Mongol customs aimed at keeping the burial site undisclosed.

The location of his tomb remains one of the great unsolved mysteries to this day.

Empire after Genghis Khan

Ögödei (d.1240-41), Genghis Khan’s second son, ascended the throne in 1230 and quickly resumed operations against the Jin Empire, successfully conquering it in 1234. Although Genghis Khan had announced previously that he had been sent as the scourge of God, Ögödei promoted the idea that Heaven (Tengri the sky god) had declared that the Mongols were destined to rule the world.

Before invading a region, Mongol envoys delivered correspondence indicating that as Heaven had decreed that the Mongols were to rule the earth, a prince should come to the Mongol court and offer his submission. Any refusal to this request was seen as an act of rebellion not only against the Mongols but also against the will of Heaven.

This process was aided by a multi-ethnic bureaucracy staffed not only by the Mongols but in fact in large part by the educated elites from the sedentary conquered populations such as Chinese, Persians, and Uighurs. Thus the letters were translated and delivered in triplicate—each one being in another language so that there was a high probability that someone at the other court could read the letter.

Ögödei backed his intentions of world domination by sending armies out to multiple fronts. While Ögödei led his army against the Jin, another army conquered Iran, Armenia, and Georgia under the command of Chormaqan (d.1240). Meanwhile, a massive force under the leadership of Prince Batu (fl. 1227-1255) and Sübedei (1176-1248), the renowned Mongol general, marched west, conquering the Russian principalities and the Pontic and Caspian steppes before invading Hungary and Poland.

While they did not seek to control Hungary and Poland, the Mongols left both areas devastated before departing, possibly due to Ögödei’s death in 1241.[11]

Ögödei’s son, Güyük, came to the throne in 1246 only after a lengthy debate over who would succeed his father. In the interim, Güyük’s mother Toregene served as regent. Once in power, Güyük accomplished little in terms of conquest as he died in 1248.

His wife, Oghul-Qaimish, served as regent but did little to assist in choosing a new khan. Her inattention led to a coup in which Möngke b. Tolui (d. 1250-51) seized power with the backing of most of the Genghisid princes in 1250.

Under his reign, the Mongol armies were once again on the march. He and his brother Qubilai (d. 1295) led armies into the territory of China’s Southern Song (1126-1279), south of the Yangtze River, while Hülegü (d. 1265), another brother, led an army into the Middle East.

READ MORE: The Cradle of Civilization: Mesopotamia and the First Civilizations

Hülegü’s forces successfully destroyed the Ismailis in 1256, a Shi’a group in northern Iran also known as the Assassins. The Persian chronicler Juvaini, who also worked in the Mongol bureaucracy, reveled in the destruction of the much-feared Ismailis, who used assassination in order to intimidate and extend their influence in parts of the Middle East.

Juvaini wrote that “So was the world cleansed which had been polluted by their evil. Wayfarers now ply to and fro without fear or dread or the inconvenience of paying a toll and pray for the fortune of the happy King who uprooted their foundations and left no trace of anyone of them.”[12]

Hülegü then moved against the Abbasid Caliphate in Baghdad. The Caliph, nominally the titular leader of Sunni Islam, refused to capitulate but did little to defend the city. The Mongols sacked Baghdad and executed the Caliph, ending the position of Caliph among the Sunnis in 1258. Hülegü’s armies invaded Syria, successfully capturing Aleppo and Damascus.

Hülegü however, withdrew the bulk of his army in 1259-60 after receiving news that Mongke had died during the war against the Song. Meanwhile, the Mamluk Sultanate of Egypt struck the Mongol garrisons in Syria, defeating them at Ayn Jalut in 1260.

As the Mongol Empire spiraled into civil war after the death of Mongke, Hülegü never recovered from the Syrian conquests. Instead, a civil war with the Mongols in the Pontic and Caspian steppes (the so-called Golden Horde), and those in Central Asia occupied much of his attention.

Due to the lack of a clear principle of succession other than being descended from Genghis Khan, warfare between rival claimants was frequent. Civil war erupted after Möngke’s death as two of his brothers vied for the throne. Qubilai eventually defeated Ariq Boke in 1265, but the damage to the territorial integrity of the Empire was great.

While the other princes nominally accepted Qubilai as the Khan of the empire, his influence dwindled outside of Mongolia and China. Qubilai and his successors, known as the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368), found their closest allies in Hülegü and his successors.

READ MORE: A Full Timeline of Chinese Dynasties in Order

Hülegü’s kingdom, known as the Il-khanate of Persia, dominated Iran, Iraq, modern Turkey, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia. Central Asia was ruled by the Chaghatayids, the descendants of Chaghatay, Genghis Khan’s third son, although often they were the puppets of Qaidu, a descendent of Ögödei and rival of Qubilai Khan.

Meanwhile, in Russia and the Pontic and Caspian steppes, descendants of Jochi, Genghis Khan’s first son, held power. Their state was often referred to as the Golden Horde in later periods.

Since the Mongol Empire was the largest contiguous state in history, its impact on world history is incalculable as it impacted the pre-modern world in a variety of ways, both directly and indirectly.

Other Important Figures

Besides Genghis Khan and Ögödei, several other Mongolian figures, including Kublai Khan and Hülegü Khan, stood out in contributing to the latter half of the empire’s history.

Subutai

Known as one of history’s greatest military strategists and commanders, Subutai served under both Genghis Khan and Ögedei Khan. Of humble origins, he rose through the ranks to become the empire’s most feared general, contributing to the Mongols’ military successes across Asia and Europe. He orchestrated more than twenty campaigns, conquering numerous territories without ever suffering a major defeat. Subutai’s strategies and techniques in warfare would be studied by military leaders for generations.

Kublai Khan 

Another of Genghis Khan’s grandsons, Kublai Khan’s reign marked the peak of the Mongol Empire’s influence, particularly with the establishment of the Yuan dynasty in China (1271–1368). Kublai Khan effectively extended Mongol rule to the entirety of China, becoming its Emperor.

His era was distinguished by significant developments in the arts, science, and culture, adopting and adapting the sophisticated bureaucratic structures of the Chinese to administer the vast empire. Under his rule, the empire engaged in extensive trade with distant lands, including Europe, fostering a period of economic prosperity and cultural exchange.

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Hülegü Khan

A grandson of Genghis Khan, Hülegü was tasked with expanding the Mongol Empire into the Middle East. His most notable achievement was the conquest of the Abbasid Caliphate with the capture of Baghdad in 1258, which not only marked the end of the Islamic Golden Age but also demonstrated the ruthless efficiency of Mongol military strategy.

The establishment of the Ilkhanate by Hülegü in Persia significantly influenced the political landscape of the Middle East and further integrated Islamic culture and knowledge into the Mongol Empire.

The Mongol Conquests and Expansion of the Empire

The inception of the Mongol conquests was deeply rooted in Genghis Khan’s strategic vision to unify the Mongol tribes, driven by the desire for consolidation of power and expansion of territory.

His initial military campaigns beyond Mongolia, notably against the Tangut kingdom Xixia and the Jin Empire, were not mere raids but calculated efforts to capture and retain key regions of economic and strategic value. Hence, they were greatly successful.

The Mongol military’s unparalleled success stemmed from its organizational precision, speed, and adaptability. Their warfare tactics, encompassing psychological warfare to spread fear among enemies, and their prowess in direct combat enabled them to subjugate vast territories quickly.

The Mongols’ skill in incorporating conquered peoples’ techniques and technologies into their military strategy also contributed to their triumphs.

Expansion to Northern China and Persia

Seeking to eliminate threats and secure trade routes, the Mongols began their incursion into Central Asia around 1209, targeting the Khwarazmian Empire by 1218 following the murder of a Mongol trade caravan. Genghis Khan’s strategy involved a multi-pronged approach, dismantling the Khwarazmian Empire’s defenses by simultaneously attacking multiple points.

The decisive moment came with the capture of Bukhara in 1220, a symbolic victory that underlined Mongol dominance. The campaign extended until 1221, concluding with the defeat of the Khwarazmian prince Jalal al-Din near the Indus River, effectively marking the Mongol’s western boundary at the Amu Darya.

Ogedei Khan Attacks Europe

Under Ogedei Khan, the Mongols initiated their invasion of Europe in 1237, starting with a swift campaign against the Rus’ principalities. The Mongols sacked cities such as Ryazan, Vladimir, and Kyiv, pushing westward. By 1241, they had reached Poland, Hungary, and the borders of the Holy Roman Empire.

The Battle of Legnica in April 1241 and the Battle of Mohi in the same month showcased the Mongols’ tactical brilliance. The sudden death of Ogedei Khan in December 1241 led to the withdrawal of Mongol forces back to Mongolia, halting further advance into Europe.

Kublai Khan Attacks China and Japan

Kublai Khan, who became Great Khan in 1260, focused on securing all of China under Mongol rule. His campaigns against the Song Dynasty culminated in the conquest of the Southern Song, with the capture of its capital, Hangzhou, in 1276.

The Song Dynasty officially ended in 1279, marking the start of Mongol rule over all of China. Kublai Khan also launched two major naval expeditions against Japan in 1274 and 1281, both of which failed due to adverse weather conditions and staunch Japanese defense, illustrating the challenges of Mongol expansion across the sea.

The Mongols in China

The establishment of the Yuan Dynasty by Kublai Khan in 1271 marked the beginning of Mongol rule over China, which lasted until 1368. Kublai Khan’s reign was notable for its administrative reforms aimed at improving efficiency and stability across the vast empire.

He adopted elements of Chinese bureaucracy while maintaining Mongol identity, attempting a synthesis of cultures. Significant efforts were made to restore and extend the Grand Canal, enhancing the transport of grain to the capital, Dadu (modern Beijing).

The Mongols’ Influence on China’s Yuan Dynasty

Under Mongol rule, a unique governance system emerged that melded traditional Chinese bureaucratic elements with Mongolian military prowess, leading to effective control and expansion of the empire.

The Yuan era was marked by significant cultural integration, as the Mongols encouraged the influx of goods, technologies, and ideas, fostering a period of rich cultural diversity and economic prosperity.

Additionally, the Mongols’ emphasis on religious tolerance and their policy of employing administrators from various ethnic backgrounds facilitated the blending of Chinese, Central Asian, and Islamic influences in art, architecture, and social structures.

The Khanates and Decline

The Mongol Empire, once the largest contiguous empire in history, was not defeated by a single external enemy but gradually fragmented due to internal strife, succession disputes, and the establishment of separate Mongol states, known as khanates.

These divisions weakened centralized control and the cohesion that had enabled the Mongols’ rapid expansion. The vastness of the empire made it increasingly difficult to manage, leading to the autonomous regions drifting apart and becoming vulnerable to external pressures and internal decay.

After the death of Möngke Khan in 1259, the Mongol Empire was split among his descendants into several khanates, including the Yuan Dynasty in China, the Ilkhanate in Persia, the Chagatai Khanate in Central Asia, and the Golden Horde in Russia and Eastern Europe. This division marked the beginning of the decline, as the khanates pursued their own interests and often engaged in conflicts with each other.

The absence of a strong central authority and the rivalry among the Khanates eroded the unity that had characterized Genghis Khan’s empire. Each khanate gradually adopted the culture and customs of the regions they ruled, further distancing themselves from their Mongol heritage.

Economically, the empire’s decline was hastened by overreliance on conquests to sustain its economy. The constant expansion that had brought wealth and resources to the empire could not be maintained indefinitely. As the pace of conquests slowed, revenues decreased, leading to financial strain.

Moreover, the Black Death in the 14th century severely impacted the Mongol Empire, decimating populations and disrupting trade routes such as the Silk Road. This catastrophic plague further weakened the economic foundations of the Mongol khanates, making them susceptible to decline and conquest.

The Yuan Dynasty’s fall in 1368 to the Ming Dynasty’s forces marked a significant point in the Mongol Empire’s decline. In China, the Mongols were driven out due to a combination of military defeats, famine, flooding, and peasant rebellions fueled by heavy taxation and oppressive rule.

This loss of China, a key territory, significantly diminished Mongol power. In the other khanates, similar patterns of internal instability, economic distress, and increasing assimilation into local cultures led to their gradual weakening.

By the end of the 14th century, the Mongol Empire’s fragmentation was complete, with the once-mighty empire dissolved into various states that bore little resemblance to the empire Genghis Khan had established.

The Mongol Legacy

The Mongols changed Asia in numerous ways, starting with uniting Mongolia under Genghis Khan. This move got rid of old tribal divides and set up a new order based around Genghis Khan’s family, leading to the Mongolia we know today. Everywhere in Mongolia, Genghis Khan’s influence is visible, from money to schools and even the airport named after him.

Their expansion pushed other groups to move and mix, shaping the future of regions like Turkey with the rise of the Ottoman Empire. One of Genghis Khan’s lasting impacts was the Mongolian script, which he introduced after seeing its value despite not being able to read himself. This script is part of Mongolia’s heritage today, showing how the Mongols valued communication and culture.

Trade and sharing of knowledge were big during the Mongol Empire, leading to a period where Asia was very connected. This time, called the Pax Mongolica, saw goods like silk and inventions such as gunpowder move across vast distances. It set the stage for a world where cultures and economies are interconnected, showing the Mongols had a big role in starting global trade.

Religion also changed under the Mongols. They were originally shamanistic but embraced and spread Islam and Buddhism as they expanded. For example, the title Dalai Lama was created during this time, linking Buddhist leadership with Mongol rule. The Mongols also affected Islam by ending the traditional line of Caliphs in Baghdad, moving the center of Islamic learning to Cairo.

The impact of the Mongol Empire went far beyond their military conquests. They connected the world in ways that lasted long after their empire fell, from trade to religion and culture.

It is said that 0.5% of the male population in the world has some ancestral connection to the Mongol Empire. There is no greater tribute to the impact of the empire than this simple estimation.

References

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Kler, J. (1941). Hunting Customs of the Ordos Mongols. Primitive Man, 14(3), 38–48. https://doi.org/10.2307/3316448

May, T. (2019). The Mongols. Arc Humanities Press. https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctvmd838h

https://mongolianempire.com/post/the-vast-reach-of-the-mongol-empire-at-its-height/

https://multimedia.scmp.com/magazines/post-magazine/article/genghis-khan/index.html

Morgan, D., & Morgan, D. O. (2009). The Decline and Fall of the Mongol Empire. Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, 19(4), 427–437. http://www.jstor.org/stable/27756097

JACKSON, P. (1978). THE DISSOLUTION OF THE MONGOL EMPIRE. Central Asiatic Journal, 22(3/4), 186–244. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41927240

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