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Lesson 9: Mongol Conquests and Eurasian Integration

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Reading Assignment

Stavrianos, chapter11; Barraclough, pages 46-47

Lesson Objectives

At the end of lesson 9 you should be able to

* understand the significance of the Mongol conquests in terms of continental integration.

* discuss the dynamics and process of Mongol imperial expansion and decline; and

* assess the comparative achievements of Chingiz (Genghis) Khan and Timur Lang, two of the greatest conquerors in history.

Key Names and Terms

Pax Mongolica
Chingiz Khan
Kublai Khan
Marco Polo
Timur Lang


In lesson 9 you will see how the Mongol conquests carved out an empire from Korea to Hungary that integrated for the first time, within a single dominion, the larger part of the Eurasian landmass. You will trace how this largest land-based empire in history came to be created by a horde of nomadic barbarians of the Mongolian steppe. In the course of the lesson you will see what were its achievements and what was its place in the history of the period we are studying. You will have a glimpse of the role played by religion in the Eurasian steppes during Mongol conquests as a result of interaction of various peoples, and how it contributed to the ultimate decline of the Mongols. The political and military achievements of Kublai Khan, possibly the most well-known of the successors of Chingiz Khan, will also be evaluated. Finally, this lesson will provide an account of the exploits of Timur Lang, another famous steppe conqueror, and after him, the passing away of the Central Asian steppe nomads as the greatest (and the bloodiest) empire-builders from the stage of history.

Significance and Extent

In the thirteenth century of the common era, the heartland of the continents of Europe and Asia was integrated, at least for some time, by the establishment of the Mongol Empire. The Mongol Empire is the largest of all continental empires in history. The conquests of the Mongols comprised the greater part of the Eurasian landmass, stretching from the Pacific Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea.

The Mongol Empire covered the greater part of the vast Eurasian steppes, a barren, treeless grassland, punctuated by deserts and mountain ranges, and exploited mostly by pastoral nomads. Despite the many differences in languages and races, a fairly uniform culture pervaded throughout the steppes for a number of reasons. First, the migratory pastoral peoples of the steppes had similar adaptations to their environmental habitat. Moreover, they had similar relationships with the settled peoples of the sown lands in the periphery. Finally, different tribes and tribal federations of the steppes cooperated closely with each other. Thus, when the Mongol conquests created an empire comprising both the nomadic and the sedentary peoples of eastern Europe, and West, Central, and East Asia, they ushered in a period of political integration of Eurasia.

For the first time in history, the Mongols created a single political organization, the scale of which was politically and culturally larger than that of a civilization. By dint of its sweeping geographical scale, and by the nature of its impact on the entire landscape, the Mongol conquests could only be compared to another barbarian onslaught, namely the great migration of the Indo-Europeans in the second millennium B.C.E. Only the periphery of the Eurasian inhabited world--Western Europe, Siberia, parts of South and Southeast Asia, and Japan--escaped the effects of the Mongol conquests.

The Mongol conquest put an end to the millenia-old relationship of cooperation and conflict between peoples of the steppe and the sown lands, as it caused a political integration of agriculturists under the domination of pastoralists. Despite slaughter and devastation of cities and croplands, the Mongols improved communications. Moreover, commerce prospered, and cosmo-politanism flourished under Pax Mongolica, the name historians give to the continental political stability brought about by the stable and harsh Mongol rule.

With the subsequent disintegration of the Mongol Empire, the people who derived most advantage from it--the nomadic Islamicized Turkish peoples--carved empires like the Ottoman in the Balkans (Southeast Europe), the Maghrib (North Africa), and West Asia, the Safavid in Persia, and the Mughal in India. Czarist Russia and Ming China, too, were successor states of the great empire of the Mongol Khans.

The Conqueror from the Steppes

The Mongol Empire was founded by the greatest conqueror in world history, Temujin, or "The Blacksmith," still better known as Chingiz or Genghis Khan (ca. 1167-1227). In 1194, he was conferred the title of Chingiz Khan (the Universal Khan or chief) at a tribal assembly after he won a campaign against the Merkits, a partially Christianized Turco-Mongol confederacy that was very powerful in contemporary Mongolia. In 1206, after Chingiz Khan had crushed the hostile Turco-Mongol tribes between the Altai and the Khingan Mountains, his title of the supreme ruler of Mongolia was confirmed by the kuriltai (the grand national assembly of Mongol chieftains).

In a spectacular career spanning from 1206 to his death in 1227, Chingiz Khan made himself the master of an empire that stretched from the Amur to the Volga rivers, more than twice in extent than the territories conquered by Alexander the Great. After making himself the overlord of the Mongolian steppes and desert, Chingiz Khan launched fierce aggression against the sedentary societies, with the purpose of conquest rather than plunder or settlement. By 1209, he compelled the weak Tibetan Buddhist kingdom of Hsi-Hsia, north of the Great Wall of China, to recognize his sovereignty. In 1215 he overran northern China, and three years later, incorporated the territories of Kara-Khitay, a Muslim Turkish people of the Altai region, and incorporated their territories into his growing empire.

Moving west, Chingiz Khan directed himself against the Muslim Sultan (king) of Khwarazm, Muhammad Shah, who ruled over Persia (Iran). Invading with a large army in 1219, and deliberately practicing genocide, the Mongols put to waste the Persian towns, sparing of the vanquished only the men of trades. Within two years, amid savage carnage, western Turkestan and Afghanistan passed under Mongol control.

Pursuing the ruler of Khwarazm to the west, one of Chingiz Khan's marshals devastated Azerbaijan and crushed the army of the Christian kingdom of Georgia near Tiflis in 1221. Crossing into the steppes north of the Caucasus Mountains, this Mongol army routed the Kipchak Turks, annihilated the princes of Russia in the battle of the Kalka in 1222, laid to waste parts of the Crimean Peninsula, and even advanced up the Volga River before returning east.

Meanwhile, Chingiz Khan himself crossed the Hindukush Mountains and defeated a Khwarazm army on the River Indus in 1222, and had a long sojourn in the steppes of western Turkestan. Then he retired to punish the refractory vassals in the kingdom of Hsi-Hsia in 1225. The rebel countryside was, like eastern Persia before, turned into a virtual charnel-house, but Chingiz Khan died in 1227, before the enemy capital, Ning-hsia, fell to the Mongols, to be completely ravaged and its whole population destroyed.

Chingis Khan: An Estimate

Chingiz Khan remains one of the greatest generals of all times, a captain of nomadic hordes whose forte lay not in innovation, but in adapting and improving existing practices of steppe warfare. His battle-hardy and harshly disciplined army was made up of mixed tribal levies, consisting mainly of cavalry and a siege-train. Mongol mounted archers with heavy bows were feared all over the central Eurasian plains. Their army had effective strategic and tactical reconnaissance, having an effective body of couriers, spies, guides, and scouts. The army maintained the mobility of its dispersed corps, while maintaining communication among them. This kind of fluid field operation ensured their ability to converge at the decisive time and place to encircle and totally annihilate the enemy.

Also behind the phenomenal success of the Mongol army was the psychological warfare they propagated by sheer savagery and terror. Their wholesale massacres of populous cities that dared to resist the Khan sent shock-waves throughout the land his cavalry fought to subdue. So terrifying and demoralizing were its effects that often it paralyzed the will of the opponents to resist, and sometimes entire nations surrendered without resistance.

Chingiz Khan was not only a brilliant general, he was an able administrator as well. He spared the artisans, craftsmen, and engineers of his victim populations and sent them to Mongolia, and he recruited civil ministers and army officers from all nations. This wealth of talent thus obtained strengthened his military forces and civil administration immensely. Chingiz Khan instituted an efficient land-revenue and trade-customs collection system, organized the yam (post-station) system for quick relay of couriers across the realm, made highways secure, and suppressed robber-gangs. Much of the credit for these measures went to his scholar counselor, Chu-tsai. Chingiz Khan himself was responsible for the beginning of Mongol interest in trade. Not only were the large bands of bandits liquidated--caravans, too, were afforded mobile security, and farmers were protected against marauding raids by nomads. Merchants were accorded extensive privileges and protection, and exempted from direct taxation. Profit-making was encouraged, and bankruptcy discouraged--a third bankruptcy would mean a certain death penalty for a businessman.

Law and Religion of the Mongols

As Chingiz Khan was responsible for ushering in an era of Pax Mongolica in which trade flourished between such far-flung regions as Persia and China, he was also a lawgiver to his diverse subject peoples. He promulgated the Yasa code of law, which was recorded in the Uighur script, and which no subsequent yarlik (or decree) could contradict, supersede, modify, or annul. This code of law standardized customary laws of the nomadic Mongols. On the one hand, it laid down the death penalty for theft, adultery, espionage, desertion, and rebellion. On the other hand, it granted religious toleration to all creeds--Buddhists, Christians, Jews, and Muslims, and exempted the clergy of any faith from taxation.

In this connection, one should examine the belief system of the Mongols in the thirteenth century, and Chingiz Khan's policy of religious toleration. During this time, the Mongols were not affected by Nestorian Christianity, Confucianism, Mahayana Buddhism, or Islam. In fact, the Mongols had no organized system of belief, or any fixed place of worship. They revered shamans, or priests, who in a state of frenzy induced by drug or dancing, claimed to be in communion with spirits of deceased humans and animals, for purposes of magic, cure, or divination.

The Mongols also had a vague belief to please a supreme sky-god or Tengri, the supreme sky-god, to whom horses were periodically sacrificed. Chingiz Khan had an unshakeable conviction that the Mongols were a chosen people of his God, and that he himself was to conquer the world. Any resistance, disloyalty, or insubordination to the Great Khan meant transgression of and aggression against the divine will. This entailed summary death for any defeated enemy who dared to fight, even in self-defense.

Successors of Chingis Khan

After the death of Chingiz Khan in 1227, his empire continued to expand for the next two generations, until it stretched from Hungary to Korea. The formal permanent capital of this intercontinental empire was Karakorum, on the Orkhon River in Mongolia. The great conqueror had partitioned his empire so that each of his successors received a yurt (grazing area--actually a Khanate, or part of the empire), with ulus (imperial military levies) and ingus (share of imperial tributes).

Under Chingiz Khan's son, Ogedei, who was assisted by his late father's brilliant general, Subedei, the northern Chinese Chin empire was conquered in 1233, and the following year the southern Chinese Sung Empire was attacked. In 1236, Korea was finally taken after a sustained Mongol onslaught. In western Asia, Persia was again overrun, and Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Georgia devastated.

In 1236, the Mongols under Subedei invaded eastern Europe and had crushed resistance in the Volga region before one of Chingiz Khan's grandsons, Batu, invaded central Russia, killed the Grand Duke, and occupied Moscow in 1238. In 1240, Batu destroyed Kiev in the same year, while Subedei invaded Wallachia and Poland a year later. One Mongol army defeated the German-Polish army of Duke Henry of Silesia with great slaughter at the Battle of Liegnitz (or Legnica) in April, 1241. Laying waste to Moravia, it joined the main Mongol force in Hungary.

In April, 1241, Subedei attacked the Slavic forces of King Bela IV of Hungary at the Battle of Mohi and annihilated it. But soon, the death of Ogedei, internal dissensions among the Mongol princes, overextension of their lines of logistics, and the end of the geographical expanse of the Eurasian steppes made the Mongols decide to turn away from western Europe in 1242.

Another of Chingiz Khan's grandsons, Mongke, ruler of the Great Khan dispatched his brother, Hulegu, against the Muslim empire in western Asia. Hulegu destroyed Baghdad in 1258, executed the last Caliph of the Arabic Abbasid dynasty, and conquered Mesopotamia and Syria. Mongol advance to the eastern Mediterranean, and then to northern Africa, was decisively checked, however, as the troops of the Muslim Mameluk Sultan of Egypt defeated them at the Battle of Ain Jalut in Palestine in 1260, and drove them out of Syria into Mesopotamia. With the death of Mongke in 1259, the apparent unity of the Mongol empire was shattered as wars of succession broke out. As a result of the Mameluk victory, and a subsequent Muslim counteroffensive against the Mongols, the latter's westward drive was permanently contained.

Kublai Khan

In 1260, Kublai Khan, another brother of Mongke, succeeded in becoming the last Great Khan. He continued with the Mongol conquests and shifted the imperial capital from Karakorum in 1264 to Khan-Balik (the "Khan's City," later Peking). In 1279, the Sung Empire finally fell, and southern China was overrun by the Mongols. The richest provinces of China now passed to Kublai Khan, who now controlled East Asia from the river Amur to the Gulf of Tonkin. Kublai Khan enjoyed the nominal sovereignty over the Mongol Empire, but really he made himself the emperor of China, accepted the Chinese system of bureaucratic administration, and aspects of Chinese culture, and devoted himself to the political affairs in China. Upon settling down permanently, the Mongols in Kublai Khan's time instituted a sophisticated political rule. After his conquest of the Sung Empire, he founded, in its place, the hybrid Sino-Mongol Yuan dynasty in 1280, which lasted until 1368, before his incompetent succcessors were supplanted by the Mings.

Kublai Khan is famous in the Western world because of the fabulous nature of description of his empire and reign left in the memoirs of the Venetian traveler, Marco Polo, who was at the Great Khan's court during 1275-1292. Kublai Khan constructed the Grand Canal system linking northern China with the lower Yangtze plain in order to acquire sufficient foodgrains from the south. He also introduced a national paper currency. Trade flourished during his reign under the Muslims of Central Asia. Chinese ports traded with Java, Malaya, Ceylon (Sri Lanka), southern India, and even Ormuz in the Persian Gulf, exporting porcelain, silk, and tea.

For the first time (during the reign of Kublai Khan) China and Europe were linked by international trade routes, one running from Crimea to Peking, via the Lower Volga basin, the other running from Trebizond (in northeastern Turkey) to northern Kansu (in northwestern China), via Persia. Kublai Khan continued with his grandfather's policy of religious toleration: he favored both Buddhists and Christians. The greatest significance of his reign, however, lay in the fact that he succeeded in uniting the Chinese empire, divided since the fall of the Tang dynasty in 907.

But the reign of Kublai Khan also experienced military reverses for the Mongol empire. We have already seen how the Mongols under Hulegu first encountered military defeat at the hands of the Egyptian army in 1260. Now, under Kublai Khan, they faced further setbacks. In 1274 and 1281, Japan was twice invaded (in the Kyushu Island) unsuccessfully by a Sino-Korean fleet sent by him. This repulse of the Yuan fleet checked the eastward expansion of Mongol dominions to Japan.

Kublai Khan brought Indo-China (Southeast Asia) under Mongol control by conquering Champa (southern Vietnam) in 1283, and securing the submission of Annam (northern Vietnam) in 1288, and that of Siam (Thailand) in 1294. The court of Khan-Balik sent an embassy to the Hindu kingdom of Khmer (Cambodia) in 1294, and the Mongols conquered Mien (Myanmar) in 1297. But the founder of the Hindu kingdom of Majapahit (Indonesia), Raden Vijaya, repulsed one of Kublai Khan's armies that landed in Java in 1292 under Chinese generals. Clearly, the Mongol rule in Southeast Asia was short-lived, and had rather temporary effects.

Meanwhile, the Muslim Sultans of Delhi (northern India) also repelled a series of Mongol incursions from Central Asia across the river Indus between 1285 and 1303. The army sent by Ghazan, the Khan of Persia to Syria in 1303, marked the end of westward expansion of the Mongols. After that, Mongol conquests were never resumed in earnest.


One reason for Mongol decline in the west, and their subsequent eclipse by the Turks, lay in their acculturation to the ways and customs of settled life and the conversion of many of their leaders to Islam. The western Khanates of the Asian steppes had a large Turkish population, and the Mongol rulers were gradually Turkicized and slowly permeated by the Islamic culture. Even the Mongol language among the ruling elite everywhere, except Mongolia itself, rapidly declined.

As early as 1257, the Khan of Kipchak, Berke had converted to Islam as a result of a dispute over the Caucasian frontier with his cousin, Hulegu of Persia. He then forged an alliance with the Mameluk Sultan of Egypt. In 1295, Ghazan, the Khan of Persia, adopted Islam and assumed the name of Mahmud. After his conversion and until this day, no non-Muslim has ruled in Iran. Also, many of the Mongol elite in the Khanate of Persia followed Ghazan, and accepted Islam. Finally, with the murder of the last Khan of Persia, Abu Said, the last Mongol Empire in Persia passed away.

The Mongol Khanates of the west also became slowly Islamicized. In the Kipchak Khanate (or the Golden Horde, in Russia), although Berke's successors were non-Muslims, it was engulfed by Muslim Turks from all around. Turkish became the state language, and a new hybrid race of Muslim Tartars--a fusion of Mongols, Turks, and Slavs--evolved. Berke was only personally a Muslim, but his successor, Ozbeg, who converted to Islam in 1312, made it the state religion of his kingdom. Ozbeg's name has been perpetuated by the Islamic Turco-Mongol confederacy of the Uzbegs. In the Chagatai Khanate of Central Asia, its Buddhist ruler, Tarmashirin, a contemporary of Ozbeg, too, converted to Islam, and mounted raids into Afghanistan and northern India.

Timur Lang

The western Khanates were fragmented into small principalities, and the great Mongol Empire wrought by the arms of Chingiz Khan and his immediate successors seemed to be dissolving in the second half of the fourteenth century. But a Muslim (Sunni) Turco-Mongol chieftain of the Chagatai Khanate, Timur Lang (ruled 1360-1405), known to Europeans as Tamerlane, resurrected temporarily Chingiz Khan's empire with comparable brutality and bloodshed. But Timur Lang's achievements were temporary and barren of any enduring result; his empire did not even establish order and stability over the steppes like his predecessor Chingiz Khan did. Traditionally regarded as the last great Mongol conqueror, Timur Lang was recognized as a Great Khan by both the Kipchak and Chagatai Khanates.

From his capital at Samarkand (now in Uzbekistan), Timur Lang set out to carve an empire, posing as the champion of Islam and a successor of Chingiz Khan in the Chagatai Khanate. In the 1370s, he consolidated his hold over Mawarannahr (Trans-Oxiana). From 1380 to 1395 he campaigned in Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Anatolia, and ravaged Mesopotamia, Persia, and the Kipchak Khanate as far as Crimea and the lower Don valley. In 1393, he sacked Baghdad, and in 1398, he destroyed the Indian capital city and its inhabitants.

Having advanced westward again, Timur, between 1399 and 1401, sacked Aleppo, Damascus, and again Baghdad. In 1402 , he defeated the Ottoman Sultan Bayezid at the Battle of Angora (Ankhara). Three years later, while invading China, he died on the banks of the river Oxus (or the Syr-Darya). The ensuing succession conflict ensured the rapid decline of the Timurid Empire.

Timur Lang: An Appraisal

Timur Lang has gone down in history as a tireless and bloodthirsty campaigner--perhaps the most brilliant Asian commander, he was certainly, too, the most destructive, even more than Chingiz Khan. It is not surprising that his extensive and exterminatory campaigns produced no enduring result. Timur Lang was lacking in the imperial vision of Chingiz Khan and some of his successors, and indulged in wanton destruction, even of the settlements along the caravan routes in order to divert channels of trade. And unlike Chingiz Khan and his descendants, Timur Lang and his successors were incompetent administrators who did not care to appoint able governors for the empire. Dynastic struggles further weakened the Timurid throne, and his successors were more patrons of arts, letters, and sciences than aggressive conquerors. The Timurid Empire shrank to its core-area of Trans-Oxiana by the middle of fifteenth century. In the year 1500, Timur Lang's capital of Samarkand fell to the Uzbegs. Subsequently, one of his descendants, Babur, having failed to recover Samarkand, invaded India, and became the first Mughal emperor of Delhi in 1526.

Aftermath of the Conquerors

The Mongol conquests were a staggering chapter in the history of Eurasia. The Mongols were exponents of genocide comparable in scale perhaps only to the ancient Assyrians. But after the fourteenth century, decline had set in, and Timur Lang's empire dealt the final blow to the central Asian Khanates. As a result, fragmentation again ensued, the great empire falling apart into a number of small principalities. Most historians now agree that the Pax Mongolica was virtually ruined after the death of Kublai Khan. Finally, Islam having survived the Mongol onslaught, slowly engulfed the Mongol menace as we have seen above.

The Mongol Age, although it witnessed, for the first time in history, an imperial integration of the heart of Eurasia, represented the triumph of nomadic barbarism over civilized societies. Nevertheless, it witnessed a great mingling of cultures--Chinese, Persian, Turkish, and Christian. Assimilation with and acculturation to the subjugated societies changed the Mongols, especially in China and Persia. In Central and West Asia, where they developed deeper roots, they actually lingered longer as masters. Yet ultimately, these original nomads who brought about the Eurasian integration (and whose significance in world history is discussed at the beginning of this lesson), were themselves absorbed and controlled in central Asia by the Russians and the Chinese, in Iran by the Persians, and in West Asia by the Russians and the Turks.

Suggested Reading

Saunders, John J. The History of the Mongol Conquests, 1971

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