* understand the significance of the Mongol conquests in terms of continental
* discuss the dynamics and process of Mongol imperial expansion and decline;
* assess the comparative achievements of Chingiz (Genghis) Khan and Timur
Lang, two of the greatest conquerors in history.
Key Names and Terms
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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,
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.
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.
Saunders, John J. The History of the Mongol Conquests, 1971