Of all the pastoral peoples who took a turn on
the stage of world history, the Mongols made
the most stunning entry.
Their thirteenth-century breakout from
Mongolia gave rise to the largest land-based
empire in all of human history, stretching
from the Pacific coast of Asia to Eastern
The Mongol Empire at its height:
This empire would join the nomadic peoples
of the inner Eurasian steppes with the settled
agricultural civilizations of outer Eurasia more
extensively and more intimately than ever
It also brought the major civilizations of
Eurasia—Europe, China, and the Islamic
world—into far more direct contact than in
earlier times.
Both the enormous destructiveness of the
process and the networks of exchange and
communication that it created were the work
of the Mongols, numbering only about
700,000 people.
This would be another of history’s unlikely
For all of its size and fearsome reputation, the
Mongol Empire left a surprisingly small cultural
imprint on the world it had briefly governed.
Unlike the Arabs, the Mongols left the world no
new religion or civilization.
Where the Islamic community offered a common
religious home for all converts—conquerors and
conquered alike—the Mongols never tried to
spread their own faith among subject peoples.
Rulers sometimes
consulted religious
specialists (the shamans),
who might predict the
future, offer sacrifices,
and communicate with
the spirit world, and
particularly with Tengri,
the supreme sky god of
the Mongols.
At the level of family life, that religion
centered on rituals invoking the ancestors,
performed around the hearth.
There was little in this tradition to attract
outsiders and the Mongols showed little
interest in religious imperialism.
The Mongols offered the majority of those
they conquered little more than the status of
defeated, subordinate, and exploited people,
although people with skills were put to work in
ways useful to Mongol authorities.
Unlike the Turks, whose languages and culture
flourish today in many places far from the
Turkic homeland, Mongol culture remains
confined largely to Mongolia.
Some Mongols became absorbed into the
settled societies they conquered.
After the decline and disintegration of the
Mongol Empire, the tide turned against the
pastoralists of inner Eurasia, who were
increasingly swallowed up in the expanding
Russian or Chinese empires.
Nonetheless, while it lasted and for a few
centuries after, the Mongol Empire exercised
an enormous impact throughout the entire
Eurasian world.
The steppes where the Mongols came from are
flat, grassy areas with few trees—similar to the
plains of North America.
The Onon River in Mongolia.
The steppes of Eurasia form "the largest
unified area of flatlands in the world," an area
too dry for farming without irrigation.
Such geography created unique conditions
that shaped Mongol history.
Without farming, the Mongols had to rely
heavily on the animals they kept: they rode
horses, used oxen and camels to transport
things, drank milk and ate meat and dairy
products, and covered their homes with felt
that they made from their sheep's wool.
Their herds lived on native grasses, and since
these nomads moved their homes from place
to place, their animals did not overgraze any
area of land. (Consider parallels with
traditional Native American societies of the
plains: form and portability of their dwellings,
management of animals, their impact on the
Their traditional type of dwelling, practically
unchanged from the time of Chinggis Khan, is
called a ger but is also known by the Russian
word yurt.
These structures are made of a wooden
support that stands in a cylindrical form, then
covered with a thick layer of felt, and have a
hole in the top (with a felt flap to close it
when necessary) to let out the smoke from
the household fire.
Snapshot: Key Moments in Mongol History
1162 Birth of Temujin
1206 Temujin becomes the Chinggis Khan (“Universal
1206-1227 Reign of Chinggis Khan
1209-1279 Conquest of China
1219-1221 Initial assault on Persia
1237-1240 Conquest of Russia
1241-1242 Attacks in Eastern Europe; then withdrawal
1258 Mongol seizure of Baghdad
Key Moments in Mongol History:
1271-1294 Kubilai Khan rules China
1274, 1281 Failed attacks on Japan
1295 Il-khan Ghazan converts to Islam
1348-1350 High point of the plague in Europe
1368 Ming dynasty established; end of Mongol rule
in China
 1480 End of “Mongol yoke” in Russia; Moscow
emerges as the center of the Russian state
World historians focus attention
on large-scale and long-term
processes of change in explaining
“what happened in history,” but
to understand the rise of the
Mongol Empire, most scholars
are forced to look closely at the
role of one individual—Temujin
(1162?-1227), later known as
Chinggis (or Genghis) Khan.
The twelfth-century world he was born into saw
the Mongols as an unstable and fractious
collection of tribes and clans, much reduced from
a somewhat earlier and more powerful position in
the shifting nomadic alliances in what in now
“Everyone was feuding,” declared a leading
Mongol shaman. “Rather than sleep, they robbed
each other of their possessions…there was no
respite, only battle. There was no affection, only
mutual slaughter.”
The early life of Temujin (Turkic temur=iron and
jin=smith…“blacksmith”) showed few signs of a
prominent future (this association with a strong
metal would later be shared with Josef Stalin.)
His father had been a minor chieftain of a noble
clan, but he was murdered (poisoned) by a tribal
rival before Temujin turned 10.
The family was deserted by other members of
their clan/tribe and they became social outcasts.
Temujin’s small family, led by a resourceful
mother, was forced to live by hunting, fishing,
and gathering wild roots instead of the mare’s
milk and mutton that was the staple diet of a
Mongol warrior.
Without their own livestock, his family had
fallen to the lowest level of nomadic life.
In these desperate circumstances, Temujin’s
remarkable character came into play.
As Temujin grew, his personal magnetism and
courage became well known and caught the
attention of a Khan (leader) of a tribe that had
been loyal to his father.
That Khan (Toghril) along with 20,000 warriors
helped the young Temujin reunite other tribes
that had been aligned with his father.
His followers were men like himself—warriors
who lacked powerful connections because their
clans had been defeated in battle.
His raids against his tribal enemies annihilated
his opponents, and his inclination to rely on
trusted friends rather than ties of kinship
allowed him to build up an extremely loyal
following of officers chosen on the basis of their
ability rather than their lineage.
His tribal alliances also received a boost from
Chinese patrons, who were always eager to
keep the nomads divided.
But his rise to power (and keeping it) amid
the complex tribal politics of Mongolia was
never a sure thing.
What contributed to his growing power base
were the constantly shifting alliances and
betrayals, a mounting string of military
victories, the indecisiveness of his enemies, a
reputation as a leader generous to his friends
and ruthless to his enemies, and the
incorporation of warriors from defeated
tribes into his own forces.
In 1206, at the age of 44, a Mongol tribal
assembly (a kuriltai) recognized Temujin as
Chinggis Khan (“universal ruler”), supreme
leader of a now unified Mongol nation.
A remarkable achievement that wasn’t noticed
beyond the highland steppes of Mongolia.
That would soon change.
The unification of the Mongol tribes raised an
obvious question: What was Chinggis Khan
to do with the large and powerful army he
had assembled?
Without a common task, the new (and
fragile) unity of the Mongols would dissolve
into quarrels and chaos; and without external
resources to reward his followers, he would
be hard pressed to maintain his supreme
Both issues pointed in a single direction—
expansion, particularly towards China, long a
source of great wealth for nomadic peoples.
In 1209, the first major attack on the settled
agricultural societies south of Mongolia set in
motion a half century of a Mongol world war, a
series of military campaigns, massive killing,
and empire building without precedent in world
The early campaigns established Chinggis’
typical methods: agents were sent ahead to
demoralize and divide the garrison and
inhabitants of an enemy city; massacres were
regularly used; populations could be
slaughtered despite a prompt surrender.
The Great Khan allowed no enemies to survive
in his rear as he progressed onto the next
campaign (even dogs were killed).
In the process, Chinggis, followed by his sons
and grandsons (Ogedei, Batu, Mongke, and
Kubilai) created an empire that contained
China, Korea, Central Asia, Russia, much of
the Islamic Middle East, and parts of Eastern
A recent historian wrote “In a flash, the
Mongol warriors would defeat every army,
capture every fort, and bring down the walls
of every city they encountered. Christians,
Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus would soon
kneel before the dusty boots of illiterate
young Mongol horsemen.”
Various setbacks—the Mongol withdrawal from
Eastern Europe (1242), their defeat in Egypt
(1260), the failure of their invasion of Japan (1274,
1281), and their difficulty penetrating the tropical
jungles of South East Asia—marked the outer
limits of the Mongol Empire.
How did a Mongol confederation, with a total
population of less than 1 million people and
few resources beyond their livestock, create
an imperial structure of such staggering
transcontinental dimensions?
According to one historian, “Mongol armies
were simply better led, organized, and
disciplined than those of their opponents.”
Each fresh victory brought new resources for
making war and new threats or insecurities
that seemed to require further expansion.
Like the Roman Empire, but far more rapidly,
the Mongol empire grew of its own
momentum without any grand scheme or
blueprint for world conquest.
By the end of his life Chinggis Khan came to
see his career in terms of a mission…“I have
accomplished a great work,” he declared,
“uniting the whole world in one empire...but
it is not sufficient that I succeed—all others
must fail.”
Thus the Mongol Empire acquired an
ideology in the course of its construction.
But what made this “great work” possible?
The odds seemed overwhelming, for China
alone outnumbered the Mongols more than
100 to 1 and possessed incomparably greater
Nor did the Mongols initially have any
technological superiority over their many
The key to the Mongol success was in their
A quote from an Arab source: “They had the
courage of lions, the patience of hounds, the
prudence of cranes, the cunning of foxes, the
long-sightedness of ravens, the wildness of
wolves, the passion of fighting-cocks, the
protectiveness of hens, the keenness of cats and
the fury of wild boars.”
It was also said that one of the defining features
of Mongol warriors was their smell…
Amir Khuzru (Persian poet): “Their eyes were so
narrow and piercing that they might have bored a
hole in a brazen vessel, and their stench was more
horrible than their color. …. Their chests, in color
half-black and half-white were covered with lice,
which looked like sesame growing on a bad soil.
Their bodies, indeed, were covered with these
The Mongols also had physical advantages
over their enemies:
Because they lived on the high plains of
Mongolia, their bodies would have more red
blood cells to transport an equal amount of
When they moved to the lower levels of Asia
and Europe, this meant that their endurance
and strength would be increased – this is the
same trick track and field athletes use today
when they have their training camps in high
elevations like Mexico City or Denver for
several months; it is called “blood doping”.
They were known for having great eyesight – it
was said that they could distinguish a man from
an animal from 18 miles away.
They had great visual memory – a built-in map
generator/GPS in their head.
They often did not have maps on paper, but
could remember a place and the way to it after
riding there once.
This was an essential survival skill in the
steppes, because in most areas, there were
no roads.
It is said the Mongols learned how to ride
even before they learned how to walk – when
they were 2 years old.
Each warrior was equipped
with a bow which gave tactical
flexibility during an attack; the
English at Crecy and Poitiers
(100 Years’ War) also won
through the use overwhelming
firepower against a numerically
superior enemy (the French).
 The Mongol bow: 166lbs pull,
350 yards range
The English longbow: 120lbs
pull, 150-200 yards range.
Mongolian Bow and English Longbow:
Mongol iron arrowheads:
The Mongol army consisted of professional
warriors: no peasants, all warriors: 10,000
Mongols = 10,000 fighters
(European army: 500 knights and 9500
All warriors were on horses (cavalry).
Average speed for the whole army: 60 miles
per day (4 to 5 times faster than any European
Each warrior had four or more horses and rode
them in turns.
The Mongols fought differently:
Retreat, other than in Europe and Japan, was not
dishonorable but used as a tactical weapon.
They did everything they had to, to win. Chivalry
and courtesy on the battlefield did not exist for
European knights and Japanese Samurai
cherished the noble idea of individual combat
against a worthy opponent.
This was not the way Mongol warriors fought.
In an effort to reduce divisive tribalism,
Chinggis Khan reorganized the entire military
structure of the Mongols into units of 10, 100,
1000, and 10,000 warriors.
This created more efficient and effective
command and control.
Conquered tribes were broken up and their
members scattered among these new units.
A highly prestigious imperial guard was also
recruited across tribal lines. From the imperial
guard the field commanders were drawn.
How to chose a commander – Chinggis Khan:
“There is no man alive who is braver than Yessutai;
no march can tire him and he feels neither hunger
nor thirst; that is why he is unfit to command.”
Because a commander has to care about his men
and protect the weakest of them, which Yessutai
apparently did not care about, he was not
promoted and remained in the ranks.
Promotion in the army was due to proven
capability, not birthright.
For example: Toguchar, Chinggis Khan’s son-inlaw, disobeyed orders and plundered villages
when he was a general, so he was reduced to
simple soldier, where he remained until killed in
Discipline and loyalty to their leaders
characterized Mongol military forces, and
discipline was reinforced by the provision that
should one or two warriors of a unit desert in
battle, all were subject to the death penalty.
Loyalty was cemented by their leaders’
willingness to share the hardships of their
“I eat the same food and am dressed in the
same rags as my humble herdsmen,” wrote
Chinggis Khan. “I am always in the forefront,
and in battle I am never at the rear.”
Such discipline and loyalty made possible the
elaborate tactics of encirclement, retreat, and
deception that proved decisive in many battles.
Whenever there was a great assembly (Kuriltai),
the commanders discussed the military strategy
for the next several years.
Everything was thoroughly planned in great
detail, from logistics to who would lead the
different armies.
The Mongols had the best intelligence and
reconnaissance: networks of spies and agents in
the enemy's countries and cities;
reconnaissance forces surrounding the army –
no one ever surprised a Mongol army.
They never attacked without a declaration of
“Whoever obeys us remains in possession of his
land, but whoever resists is destroyed. We send
you this order, so if you wish to keep your land,
you must come to us in person and thence go
on to him who is master of all the earth. If you
don’t, we know not what will happen, only God
It was said that a favorite saying of Chinggis
Khan was
“The greatest pleasure is to vanquish your
enemies and chase them before you, to rob
them of their wealth, and see those dear to
them bathed in tears, to ride their horses and
clasp to your bosom their wives and
One of the many legends surrounding
Chinggis Khan was that one Persian ruler
offered his submission in a unique way: he
gave the Khan a pair of socks, which had his
portrait painted on the soles, so that his
master might walk on his face.
They did almost everything differently than
their enemies:
For example, in Europe and Persia, the
campaigning season was summer, after the
spring planting and before the harvest in
The Mongols had no fields to plow; they
carried their food with them (cattle, horses,
goats); their campaigning season was winter.
For the Mongols, frozen soil was the best
ground for fast movement on horseback.
Rivers were frozen and not an obstacle
anymore (they fought some battles on frozen
They were used to harsh winters in Mongolia,
so they were accustomed to, and prepared
for those conditions.
Communications on
the battlefield were
done with black and
white flags which
ensured tactical control
over the army at all
Communications in that form did not exist in
European armies – everybody fought for himself,
and most of the time, there wasn’t even a battle
Mongol Battlefield Tactics:
Light cavalry stormed forward and showered the
enemy with arrows to harass and disorganize
Followed by two rows of heavy cavalry in armor
with lances and swords.
They often used pincher maneuvers.
There was always an escape given to a
surrounded enemy – that led to routing, as
those escaping were cut down quite easily
because there was no unit cohesion anymore.
The Mongols were known to pursue their
enemy for days, stretching dozens, even
hundreds of miles.
Dummies, women and slaves were put on the
spare horses, so that the strength of the Mongol
army would appear larger.
Their favorite tactic was the fake retreat: After this
tactic became known to their enemies, they just
retreated longer, sometimes for days.
At the Battle of Kalka River they retreated for 9
days until the Russians were spread out so far,
they could be cut down one by one very easily.
But they were not perfect:
The only defeat in the European/Middle Eastern
region came in 1260 at Ain Jalut in Palestine, at
the exact same site David had defeated Goliath
thousands of years before.
They were beaten by a Mamluk army from Egypt.
The Mamluks (means literally “slave”) were slaves
from Turkic tribes, sold to Egypt by the Mongols
after they had been defeated in 1238.
Mamluks: 120,000 men
Mongols: 25,000 men
They used terror and cruelty as weapon,
sometimes winning battles and sieges by
reputation alone.
The poor were promised liberation by the
The rich were promised greater riches and
Rumors were spread about deals that single
leaders made with the Mongols to drive
alliances apart.
 The Mongols were not initially good at siege
warfare – until they captured Chinese
engineers, who taught them how to do it
(some 1,000 Chinese artillery crews took
part in the Mongol invasion of Persia).
The siege weapons they most often used
were the mangonel and the trebuchet (which
could catapult huge rocks), giant crossbows
mounted on stands, gunpowder propelled
arrows and rockets.
 The Mongols then became masters of siege
warfare with the average time to take a city
…about a week.
They used captives from already conquered cities
to fill moats, built ramparts and operate siege
machines – how many of them would get killed
was of little importance, they were conquered
and enslaved people who had been lucky to not
be slaughtered right away when the Mongols
took their city.
They would surround the besieged city with a
wooden palisade, which gave them protection
against the missiles from the city and against a
possible relieving army from the rear.
The palisade also prevented messengers from
leaving the city and new provisions from being
brought in.
Rumors about the vast numbers of the
Mongol army were spread to instill fear.
They put whistles on their arrows to terrorize
their enemy, especially the horses.
They often used poison-tipped arrows (often with
snake venom), which killed quickly and painfully.
In 1209 Chinggis Khan besieged a fortress in
China. He built a dyke to flood the fortress, but his
engineers flooded his own camp instead. The
fortress surrendered anyway, because they
figured that eventually the Mongols would get it
right and by then would be very, very angry …
In the Central Asian kingdom of Khwarizm, the
king offended the Great Khan by killing and
mutilating Mongol envoys and merchants.
Chinggis Khan responded by utterly destroying
virtually every city in Khwarizm, and their
soldiers were passed out in lots to Mongol troops
for execution, while women and skilled
craftsmen were enslaved.
Unskilled civilians were used as human shields for
attacks on the next city or were used as human
fill in the moats surrounding those cities.
In 1220, after the siege of Bukhara
(Uzbekistan), they poured molten gold down
the throat of the Governor.
Apparently he had killed Mongol merchants for
their money, (under the pretext of spying).
The Mongols apparently thought, if he wants
our gold, he shall have it...
During the siege of Bukhara, legend has it
that Chinggis Khan announced inside the
mosque, "I am the punishment of God. If you
had not committed great sins, he would not
have sent a punishment like me."
In 1221 at the city of Merv (Persia), they
slaughtered 700,000 people. Only the useful,
like engineers, doctors, artisans, were spared
and enslaved. Not even dogs were left alive.
The reason… revenge for the death of
Toguchar, a son-in-law of Chinggis Khan, who
was killed during the siege.
After the Battle of Kalka River in 1223 against
the Russian principalities, they promised to
let the Kiev detachment go for a ransom.
The men from Kiev agreed, but were
captured instead. Most were slaughtered, the
rest enslaved.
This was revenge for the killing of Mongol
ambassador in Kiev.
In 1237, the city of Ryazan (Russia) was
conquered after a siege of five days.
Before the citizens were slaughtered (by
impaling and flaying), they were forced to
watch how the Mongols raped all young
women, including nuns.
The Mongols assessed the extent of their
victories by cutting off an ear from each dead
enemy. After the battle of Liegnitz, Poland in
1241, they collected nine large sacks of ears
and sent them back to the great Khan as
proof of the victory.
In 1258 they conquered Baghdad (the Abbasids).
They locked up the Caliph in a tower with all his
gold and silver to punish him, because he had
refused to spend his personal wealth on the
defense of the city.
That insulted the professionalism of the Mongol
commanders, who never would have held back
anything to achieve victory.
The destruction of Baghdad by Hulegu in
Baghdad was looted for seven days during
which the Caliph starved to death amongst
his riches.
They then slaughtered about 800,000 people
in Baghdad.
After that, Damascus surrendered
immediately when the first Mongol patrol
was in sight of the city.
In Russia and in Europe the Mongols were
known as the “Tatars” or “Tartars” which
comes from the Latin Tartarus = Hell.
At first they were seen as heavenly
punishment for the sins of the people.
Then they just became known as “demons
from Hell.”
In 1239, the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick II,
received a message from Khan Batu in which he
demanded the surrender of the Holy Roman
Empire and offered Frederick a position in the
Mongol hierarchy.
Frederick II responded by attacking the Pope
because it was rumored that the Pope actually
encouraged the Mongols to attack his enemy,
Frederick II.
In 1241, when the Mongols invaded Hungary,
the Hungarian nobility would only fight if the
King rewarded them with greater powers and
more privileges.
They finally agreed to ride with the King to
meet the Mongols, but their quarreling and
bickering went on.
The result…the Battle of Mohi ended with
65,000 Hungarians dead.
On the same day as
the Battle of Mohi in
Hungary, the Battle of
Liegnitz (Poland) was
fought – 25,000 Polish
troops, Teutonic
Knights and Knights
Templar were killed by
the Mongols.
When the Mongols marched towards Cracow in
Poland, a trumpeter sounded the alarm from the
highest tower in the city and continued through
the storming of the city, until a Mongol arrow
struck him down.
 To this day, every 24th of March, a trumpeter
from the Cracow fire department sounds the
alarm call from the cathedral tower; he ends it
abruptly at the exact time, when the original
trumpeter was struck down by the Mongol arrow.
Yet the two strongest powers in Europe, The
Holy Roman Emperor (Frederick II) and the
Pope continued their war against each other
despite of the invasion of Hungary, the battle
of Liegnitz (Poland) and the threat to Western
The way to the heart of Western Europe was
wide open, and nobody was there to stop the
Mongol onslaught.
Europe was saved, not by its knights, but only
by the death of the Great Khan Ogodei
(Chinggis’ son) in 1242.
As per tradition, all Mongol commanders
were called back to the Mongol capital of
Karakorum to elect a new Khan and they took
their armies with them.
Several modern scholars believe they can
explain Mongol savagery…
 “Extremely conscious of their small numbers
and fearful of rebellion, Chinggis often chose
to annihilate a region’s entire population if it
appeared too troublesome to govern.”
But not everything the Mongols did was brutal
or savage (and some historians argue that they
were no more brutal than several other
conquerors in history).
For example, writing became an important tool
for Chinggis Khan's empire.
The Mongols were illiterate until Chinggis
Khan's reign, when he commanded a Naiman
captive (part of today’s Kazakhstan) to explain
their written language to him.
A Mongol writing stone:
A Mongol script (from the
Naiman script that was based
on the Uighur language) was
With a newly established
writing system, the Mongols
were able to record a set of
laws, the Yasa, that Chinggis
Khan had declared.
The Yasa recorded the Mongol's cultural beliefs,
rules of conduct, and a system of punishment,
laying the foundation for Chinggis Khan's
A court was then established to enforce the Yasa
By law, the following were forbidden:
 To cut the throat of an animal killed for food; instead, the
belly should be slit open and the heart pulled out.
Urinating in running water
Washing in running water
Adultery (death penalty)
Cattle theft (death penalty)
As a merchant, bankruptcy for the third time (death)
Spying (death penalty)
Desertion (death penalty)
Theft (death penalty)
Scribes in Karakorum translated official decrees
into the various languages of the empire, such as
Persian, Uighur, Chinese, and Tibetian.
Chinggis Khan also established a messenger
system, a medieval pony express, known as the
Outposts were established about a day’s ride
apart from each other where horses and riders
waited to relay messages through the empire,
greatly speeding up communications.
Not only were there rapid communications within
the empire, these outposts fostered trade
because merchants could follow these postal
roads in safety.
The Silk Roads—that off and on for centuries
linked Europe, Africa, and the Far East in trade
and cultural exchange—had been under the
control of various local powers, became unsafe
during times of conflict, and therefore, fell out
of use.
Under Mongol protection, the Silk Roads
flourished, and during the Pax Mongolica under
Chinggis Khan's successors, people commonly
traveled the full length of the Silk Roads, greatly
increasing cultural exchange.
In this atmosphere, Europeans like Marco Polo
traveled to the East and returned with tales of
the Mongol empire.
Polo claimed the Mongols maintained 10,000
outposts along with 200,000 horses available
to authorized users.
Interested in commerce, Mongol rulers often
offered 10% or more above a merchant’s
asking price and allowed them free use of the
relay stations for transporting their goods.
Unfortunately, the Silk Roads also allowed
diseases to spread.
The bubonic plague traveled from somewhere
in the Himalayas to Yunnan and Burma
eastward to China and westward to Europe
along the roads and sea lanes of the Mongol
Cities were ideal hosts for rats, and outbreaks
of the plague occurred from time to time.
However, the massive outbreak of the bubonic
plague in Europe was indirectly caused by the
deliberate actions of a Mongol military
maneuver (and the first known account of
biological warfare).
Under Janibeg Khan, the last Khan of the
Golden Horde, the Mongols were fighting
against the city of Caffa, located on the Black
Sea in Crimea, when they witnessed an
outbreak of the plague.
Just before fleeing the disease, the Mongol
commander catapulted plague-ridden corpses
over the walls of the city.
The disease was carried to European ports by
boat and eventually became the Black Death
that decimated medieval Europe.
In administering conquered regions, Mongols
held the highest decision-making posts, but
Chinese and Muslim officials held many
advisory and lower-level positions in China
and Persia.
In religious matters, the Mongols welcomed
and supported many religious traditions—
Buddhist, Christian, Muslim, Daoist—as long
as they didn’t become the focus of political
Their policy of religious toleration allowed
Muslims to seek converts among Mongol troops
and gave Christians much more freedom than
they enjoyed under Muslim rule.
One of Chinggis’ grandsons (Mongke) arranged
a debate among representatives of several
faiths and concluded “Just as God gave us
different fingers to the hand, so has He given
different ways to men.”
The Mongol moment in world history
represented an enormous cultural encounter
between nomadic pastoralists and the settled
civilizations of Eurasia.
Differences among these civilizations—
Confucian China, Muslim Persia, Christian
Russia—ensured considerable diversity as this
encounter unfolded across thousands of
China: Long the primary target of nomadic steppedwelling peoples looking for agrarian wealth, China
proved the most difficult and extended of the
Mongol’s many conquests, lasting nearly 70 years
The invasion began in northern China, which had
been ruled for several centuries by various
dynasties of nomadic origin, and was characterized
by massive destruction and plunder.
Southern China, under control of the native
Song dynasty was different, for the Mongols
were far less violent and more concerned
with accommodating the local population.
Landowners were guaranteed their estates in
exchange for their support or at least their
By whatever methods, the outcome was the
unification of a divided China, a treasured
ideal among the educated Chinese.
The achievement persuaded many of them
that the Mongols had indeed been granted
the Mandate of Heaven, and despite their
foreign origins, they were legitimate rulers.
Having acquired China,
one consideration of
the Great Khan Ogodei
(in the 1230’s) was to
exterminate everyone
in northern China and
turn the country into
pastureland for
Mongol herds.
That suggestion was rejected in favor of
extracting as much wealth as possible from
the country’s culturally advanced civilization.
This meant accommodating and absorbing
some Chinese culture and ways of governing
since the Mongols had no experience with the
operation of a complex agrarian society.
That accommodation took on many forms: the
Mongols made use of Chinese administrative
practices, techniques of taxation, and their
postal system.
They gave themselves a Chinese dynastic title,
the Yuan, meaning “Great beginnings.”
They transferred their capital from Karakorum
(Mongolia) to what is now Beijing, building a
wholly new capital city known as Khanbalik
(“the city of the Khan”).
The Mongols had rooted themselves solidly
on the soil of the world’s most sophisticated
civilization, well removed from their
homeland on the steppes.
Khubilai Khan, a grandson of Ghinggis and
China’s Mongol ruler from 1271-1294, even
ordered a set of Chinese-style ancestral
tablets to honor his ancestors and
posthumously gave them Chinese names.
Many of Khubilai’s policies
evoked the values of a
benevolent Chinese
emperor as he improved
roads, built canals, lowered
some taxes, patronized
scholars and artists, limited
the death penalty and
torture, and prohibited
Mongols from grazing their
animals on peasants’
When Marco Polo
arrived in China in
1275, the splendor
and wealth of the
overwhelmed him.
He described Khubilai
Khan as “the mightiest
man, whether in respect
of subjects or of
territory or of treasure,
who is in the world
today or who ever has
been, from Adam our
first parent down to the
present moment.”
The Mongols used traditional Confucian
rituals, supported the building of some Daoist
temples, and were attracted to the Tibetan
form of Buddhism, all of which gave them
increased political support.
Despite these accommodations, Mongol rule
was still harsh, exploitative, and foreign.
Marco Polo observed the hostility between
the Mongols and their Chinese subjects:
“The Cathayans (Chinese) detest the Grand
Khan’s rule because he set over them
governors who were Tartars (Mongols), or still
more frequently Saracens (Muslims), and
these they would not endure, for they were
treated by them just like slaves.”
The Mongols did not become Chinese, nor did
they accommodate every aspect of Chinese
Deep inside their capital they established the
Forbidden-City, where the royal family and
court could continue to experience
something of steppe life.
Animals roamed freely in large open areas,
planted with steppe grass.
Many of the Mongol elite preferred to live, eat,
sleep, and give birth in their traditional felt tents
(yurts) which sprung up everywhere.
In administering the country, the Mongols
largely ignored the traditional Chinese
examination system and relied heavily on
foreigners, particularly Muslims from Central
Asia and the Middle East.
Few Mongols learned Chinese, and Mongol
law discriminated against the Chinese,
reserving for them the most severe
In social life, Mongol law forbade intermarriage
and prohibited Chinese scholars from learning
the Mongol script.
Mongol women never adopted footbinding and
scandalized the Chinese by mixing freely with
men at official gatherings and riding to the hunt
with their husbands.
Plus, the Mongols honored and supported
merchants and artisans far more than Confucian
bureaucrats had been inclined to do.
However you look at Mongol rule in China (as
the Yuan dynasty), it was brief, lasting little
more than a century.
By the mid-fourteenth century, intense
factionalism among the Mongols, rapidly
rising prices, epidemics of the plague, and
growing peasant rebellions combined to
force the Mongols out of China.
By 1368, rebel forces had triumphed, and
thousands of Mongols returned to their
homeland in the steppes.
For several centuries thereafter, they remained
a periodic threat to China, but during the Ming
dynasty that followed, the memory of their
often brutal and alien rule stimulated a
renewed commitment to Confucian values and
practices and an effort to wipe out all traces of
the Mongol’s impact.
Persia: The second great civilization
conquered by the Mongols was that of an
Islamic Persia.
 There the Mongol takeover was far more
abrupt than the extended process of
conquest in China.
 The first invasion (1219-1221) was led by
Chinggis Khan himself, followed thirty years
later by a second assault (1251-1258) led by
his grandson Hulegu (brother of Khubilai).
Hulegu became the first il-khan (subordinate khan)
of Persia.
More destructive than the conquest of Song
dynasty China, the Mongol offensive against
Persia and Iraq had no precedent in its history,
even though Persia had been repeatedly
attacked, from the invasions of Alexander the
Great to that of the Arabs.
The most recent incursion was from Turkic
peoples, but they had been Muslims (recently
converted), small in number, and only wanting
acceptance within the Islamic world.
The Mongols were infidels in Muslim eyes,
and their stunning victories were a profound
shock to people accustomed to seeing history
as the progressive expansion of Islamic rule.
Mongol victories brought ferocity and
slaughter that simply had no parallel in the
Persian experience.
The sacking of
Baghdad in 1258,
which put an end to
the Abbasid caliphate,
was accompanied by
the massacre of more
than 200,000 people,
according to Hulegu
Beyond this human catastrophe was the
damage to Persian and Iraqi agriculture and
their peasant farmers.
Heavy taxes, sometimes collected 20-30 times
a year and often under torture or whipping,
pushed large numbers of peasants off their
The nomadic Mongols, with their immense
herds of sheep and goats, turned much
agricultural land into pasture and sometimes
into desert.
Some sectors of the Persian economy fared
pretty well…wine production increased
because the Mongols were fond of alcohol,
and the Persian silk industry benefited from
close contact with a Mongol-ruled China.
In general, Mongol rule in Persia represented
“disaster on a grand and unparalleled scale.”
The Mongols in Persia were themselves
transformed far more than their counterparts in
They made extensive use of the sophisticated
Persian bureaucracy, leaving the greater part of
government operations in Persian hands.
During the reign of Ghazan (1295-1304), the
Mongols made efforts to repair the damage
caused by earlier policies of ruthless
Ghazan had cities
rebuilt and
agricultural areas
More importantly,
many Mongols
followed Ghazan’s
lead (in 1295) and
converted to Islam.
No such widespread conversion to the culture
of the conquered happened in China or in
Christian Russia.
Members of the court and Mongol elites
learned at least some Persian, unlike most of
their counterparts in China.
A number of Mongols also became farmers,
abandoning their nomadic ways, and marrying
local women.
When the Mongol dynasty of Hulegu’s
descendents collapsed in the 1330’s for
lack of a suitable heir, the Mongols were
not driven out of Persia, as they would be
in China.
 Rather they simply disappeared, through
assimilation into Persian society.
 From the Persian point of view, the
barbarians had been civilized.
Russia: When the Mongol military machine
rolled over Russia between 1237 and 1240, it
encountered a relatively new civilization
located on the far eastern fringe of
Whatever political unity the Kievan Rus had
enjoyed was now gone, and various
independent princes were unable to unite
even in the face of the Mongol onslaught.
Even though the Kievan Rus had
interacted extensively with nomadic
people of the steppes north of the Black
Sea, nothing had prepared them for the
 The devastation wrought by the Mongol
assault matched or exceeded anything
experienced by the Persians or the
City after city fell
to Mongol forces,
which were now
armed with
catapults and
battering rams
adopted from
Chinese or
Muslim sources.
The slaughter was described by Russian
chroniclers, “They likewise killed the
Prince and Princess, and men, and
women, and children, monks, nuns, and
priests, some by fire, some by the sword,
and violated nuns, priests’ wives, good
women and girls in the presence of their
mothers and sisters.”
From the survivors and the cities that
surrendered early, skilled craftsmen
were deported to other Mongol lands or
sold into slavery.
 Several Russian crafts were so depleted
of their workers/artisans that it took
centuries before they recovered.
Even though the ferocity of initial
conquest was similar to that of Persia or
China, Russia’s incorporation into the
Mongol Empire was very different.
 To the Mongols, it was the Kipchak
Khanate, named after the Kipchak Turkicspeaking people north of the Black and
Caspian seas, among whom the Mongols
had settled.
To the Russians, it was the “Khanate of the
Golden Horde.”
 The Mongols conquered Russia, but they
didn’t occupy it as they had in China or Persia.
 Since the Mongols didn’t set up any
garrisoned cities or permanently stationed
administrators or Mongol settlements, the
Russian experience with Mongol rule was
quite different.
From the Mongol point of view, Russia had
little to offer.
 Its society and economy were not nearly as
developed as China’s or Persia’s and it
wasn’t located on any major international
trade routes.
 It simply wasn’t worth the expense of
occupying since they could easily dominate
and exploit Russia from the steppes.
And the Mongols
certainly exploited the
Russian princes
(appointed by the
khan) had to send
substantial amounts of
tribute to the Mongol
capital at Sarai
(located on the lower
Volga River).
Mongol taxes were a heavy burden and
occasional border raids sent thousands of
Russian peasants into slavery.
But the Mongol impact was very
uneven…some Russian princes benefited
considerably under the Mongols because
they could manipulate their role as tax
collectors to grow wealthy.
The Russian Orthodox Church also flourished
under the Mongol policy of religious
toleration, and it was exempted from most
Nobles who participated in Mongol raids got
a share of the loot.
Some cities, like Kiev, resisted the Mongols
and were devastated while others
collaborated and were left undamaged.
Moscow in particular emerged as the primary
collector of tribute for the Mongols, and its
princes parlayed that position into a leading
role as the nucleus of a renewed Russian state
when Mongol domination receded in the
fifteenth century.
Since the Mongols didn’t practice direct rule,
they were less influenced by or assimilated
into Russian culture than their counterparts in
China or Persia.
The Mongols in China turned themselves into
a Chinese dynasty, with the khan as a Chinese
Some learned calligraphy, and a few came to
appreciate Chinese poetry.
In Persia, the Mongols had converted to Islam,
with many settling down as farmers.
Not so in Russia where “the Mongols of the
Golden Horde were still spending their days in the
saddle and their nights in tents.”
Even though they remained culturally separate
from Russia, eventually the Mongols assimilated
to the culture and Islamic faith of the Kipchak
people of the steppes, and in the process, lost
their identity and became Kipchaks.
Despite their domination from a
distance, many historians believe
their impact was greater on Russia
than on China or Persia.
 Russian princes, who were more or
less left alone if they paid their
tribute, adopted Mongol styles of
clothing, weaponry, diplomatic
rituals, court practices, taxation
system, and military conscription.
Several Russian historians, trying to explain
their country’s economic backwardness and
political autocracy in modern times, have
held the Mongols responsible for both
conditions…but most Western historians
believe this to be an oversimplification and
exaggeration of reality.
Divisions among the Mongols and the
growing strength of some Russian noble
families (centered in Moscow) enabled the
Russians to break the Mongol’s hold by the
end of the fifteenth century (by 1480).
With the earlier demise of Mongol rule in
China and Persia, and now Russia, the
Mongols retreated from their brief, but
spectacular incursion into the civilization of
outer Eurasia.
Nonetheless, they
continued to periodically
threaten these
civilizations for several
centuries, until their
homelands were absorbed
into the expanding
Russian and Chinese
 The Mongol moment in
world history was over.

The Mongols - Hempfield Area School District / Overview