usa world animals vocab health science math brain
usa | world | animals | vocabulary | health | science | math | history


Mongol Empire

The Mongol Empire (1206–1368) was the largest contiguous land empire in world history (with its only rival in total extent being the British Empire). Founded by Genghis Khan in 1206, it encompassed the majority of the territories from southeast Asia to eastern Europe. Historically the time of Mongol Empire facilitated great cultural exchange and trade between the East, West, and the Middle East during the time between 13th century and 14th century.

The rapid expansion of the Mongol Empire was possible as a result of military skill, brilliant political and economic organization, and discipline. It unified large regions, some of which (such as uniting eastern and western Russia, the western parts of China) continue as nations even now. While much of the Mongol culture was integrated with local customs, and the descendants of the empire adopted Islam, the imprint of empire may be in us in other ways - recent genetic tests appear to indicate that one out of every 200 males in Eurasia may be descended from Genghis Khan.

Genghis Khan

At the time of Genghis Khan's death in 1227, the empire was divided among his four sons with his third son as the nominal supreme Khan, but by the 1350s, the khanates were in a state of fracture and had lost the organization of Genghis Khan. Eventually the separate khanates drifted away from each other (e.g. Golden Horde, Yuan Dynasty).

Genghis Khan, through political manipulation and military might, united the Mongol tribes under his rule by 1206. He quickly came into conflict with the Jin empire of the Jurchen and the Western Xia in northern China. Under the provocation of the Khwarezmid Empire, he moved into Central Asia as well, devastating Transoxiana and eastern Persia, then raiding into southern Russia and the Caucasus. While engaged in a final war against the Western Xia, Genghis fell ill and died. Through much hard work, Genghis had built an empire that in his mind was the heritage of the imperial house. Before dying, Genghis Khan divided his empire among his sons and immediate family, but as custom made clear, it remained the joint property of the entire imperial family who, along with the Mongol aristocracy, constituted the ruling class.

The empire's expansion continued for a generation or more after Genghis's death in 1227 — indeed, it was under Genghis's successor Ögedei Khan that the speed of expansion reached its peak. Mongol armies pushed into Persia, finished off the Xia and the remnants of the Khwarezmids, and came into conflict with the Song Dynasty of China, starting a war that would last until 1279 and that would conclude with the Mongols' successful conquest of China.

Then, in the late 1230s, the Mongols under Batu Khan invaded Russia, reducing most of its principalities to vassalage, and pressed on into Eastern Europe. In 1241 the Mongols may have been ready to invade western Europe as well, having defeated the last Polish-German and Hungarian armies at the Battle of Legnica and the Battle of Mohi. However, at this point, news of Ögedei's death led to first the partial suspension of the invasion and then to its effective conclusion as Batu's attention switched to the election of the next Great Khan.

During the 1250s, Genghis's grandson Hulegu Khan, operating from the Mongol base in Persia, destroyed the Abbasid Caliphate in Baghdad and destroyed the cult of the Assassins, moving into Palestine towards Egypt. The Great Khan Möngke having died, however, he hastened to return for the election, and the force that remained in Palestine was destroyed by the Mamluks under Baibars in 1261 at Ayn Jalut.

When Genghis Khan died, a major potential weakness of the system he had set up manifested itself. It took many months to summon the kurultai, as many of its most important members were leading military campaigns thousands of miles from the Mongol heartland. And then it took months more for the kurultai to come to the decision that had been almost inevitable from the start — that Genghis's choice as successor, his third son Ögedei, should indeed become Great Khan. Ögedei was a rather passive ruler and personally self-indulgent, but he was intelligent, charming and a good decision-maker whose authority was respected throughout his reign by apparently stronger-willed relatives and generals whom he had inherited from Genghis.


On Ögedei's death in 1241, however, the system started falling apart. Pending a kurultai to elect Ögedei's successor, his widow Toregene Khatun assumed power and proceeded to ensure the election of her son Guyuk by the kurultai. Batu, though, was unwilling to accept Guyuk as Great Khan but without the power in the kurultai to procure his own election. Therefore, while moving no further west, he simultaneously insisted that the situation in Europe was too precarious for him to come east and that he could not accept the result of any kurultai held in his absence. The resulting stalemate lasted four years — in 1246 Batu eventually agreed to send a representative to the kurultai but never acknowledged the resulting election of Guyuk as Great Khan.

Guyuk died in 1248, only two years after his election, on his way west apparently to force Batu to acknowledge his authority, and his widow Oghul Ghaymish assumed power pending the meeting of the kurultai. But she could not keep the power. Batu again remained in the west but this time gave his support to his and Guyuk's cousin, Möngke, who was duly elected Great Khan in 1251.

It was Möngke Khan who unwittingly provided his brother Kublai with a chance to become Khan in 1260. Möngke assigned Kublai, to a province in North China. Kublai expanded the Mongol empire, and made several good military moves, putting him in the favor of his brother the khan.

Later, though, when he began to rule and abide by more Chinese laws, his brother, Möngke, was persuaded by his advisors that Kublai was becoming too Chinese and would become treasonous. After meeting in person and several diplomatic moves on Kublai's part, they were at peace. Möngke kept a closer watch on Kublai from then on until his death campaigning in the west. After his older brother's death, Kublai placed himself in the running for a new khan against his younger brother, and, although his younger brother won one election, Kublai won another, staged in a less traditional place. Kublai was soon known as Kublai Khan.

He proved to be a good conqueror, but critics said he dwelt too long in China. When he moved his headquarters to Peking, there was an uprising in the old capital that he barely staunched. He focused mostly on foreign alliances, and opened trade routes. He dined with a large court every day, and met with many ambassadors, foreign merchants, and even offered to convert to Christianity if this religion was proved to be correct by 100 priests.

However, as his eyes strayed from the Mongol empire he ruled, the war-ravaged Mongol masterpiece he had worked so hard to expand began to decline, and only his returning attention saved it from a swift fall. Although turmoil always happened when a khan died, even as the empire grew larger, khans were still elected in the traditional manner. The decaying empire sagged when Kublai Khan died, and it rotted through after Kublai's successor failed to maintain the Pax Mongolica policy. After Kublai died in 1294, his heirs failed to maintain the Pax Mongolica and the Silk Road closed. Already during the reign of Kublai Khan, the empire was in the process of splitting into a number of smaller khanates.


Inter-family rivalry (compounded by the complicated politics of succession, which twice paralyzed military operations as far off as Hungary and the borders of Egypt, crippling their chances of success) and the tendencies of some of the khans to drink themselves to death fairly young (causing the aforementioned succession crises) hastened the disintegration of the empire.

Another factor which contributed to the disintegration was the decline of morale when the capital was moved from Karakorum to modern day Beijing by Kublai Khan, because Kublai Khan associated more with Chinese culture. Kublai concentrated on the war with the Song, assuming the mantle of ruler of China, while the more western khanates gradually drifted away.

The four descendant empires were the Mongol-founded Yuan Dynasty in China, the Chagatai Khanate, the Golden Horde that controlled Central Asia and Russia, and the Ilkhans who ruled Persia from 1256 to 1353. Of the latter, their ruler Ilkhan Ghazan was converted to Islam in 1295 and actively supported the expansion of this religion in his empire.

Click here to go back to the Asia page!

This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Mongol Empire".