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The Mongolian Empire
The Mongol Empire emerged from the unification of nomadic tribes in the Mongolia homeland under the leadership of Genghis Khan, who was proclaimed ruler of all Mongols in 1206. The empire grew rapidly under his rule and then under his descendants, who sent invasions forces in every direction. The vast transcontinental empire connected the east with the west enforcing the Pax Mongolica which encouraged trade, technologies, commodities and ideologies to be disseminated and exchanged across Eurasia.
The Timeless Expanse of the Land is hard to Comprehend
The Rise to Prominence of Genghis Khan:
Painting of Genghis Khan – National Palace Museum in Taipei, Taiwan
Known during his difficult childhood as Temujin, Genghis Khan was the son of a Mongol chieftain. When his young wife Börte was kidnapped by a rival tribe, Temujin united the nomadic, previously ever-rivaling Mongol tribes under his rule through political manipulation and military might. His most powerful allies were his father’s friend, Khereid chieftain Wang Khan Toghoril and Temujin’s childhood friend Jamukha of the Jadran clan. With their help, Temujin defeated the Merkit tribe, rescued his wife Börte and went on to defeat the Naimans and Tatars.
Temujin forbade looting of his enemies without permission and he implemented a policy of sharing spoils with his Mongol warriors and their families instead of giving it all to the aristocrats. He thus held the Khan title. These policies brought him into conflict with his uncles, who were also legitimate heirs to the throne. They regarded Temujin not as leader but merely an insolent usurper. This controversy spread to his generals and other associates and some Mongols who had previously been allies with him broke their allegiance.
War ensued and Temujin with his loyal forces prevailed, destroying all the remaining rival tribes from 1203–1205, bringing them under his sway. In 1206 Temujin was crowned as the Khagan of the Yekhe Mongol Ulus (Great Mongol State) at a Kurultai general assembly council. It was there that he assumed the title of “Genghis Khan” (universal leader) instead of one of the old tribal titles such as Gur Khan or Tayang Khan, marking the start of the Mongol Empire.
Eventually the empire began to split due to wars over succession, as the grandchildren of Genghis Khan disputed whether the royal line should follow from his son, the initial heir Ögedei or one of his other sons such as Tolui, Chagatai or Jochi. The Toluids prevailed after a bloody purge of Ögedeid and Chagataid factions, but disputes continued even among the descendants of Tolui. After Möngke Khan died, rival kurultai councils simultaneously elected different successors, the brothers Ariq Böke and Kublai Khan, who then not only fought each other in the Toluid Civil War, but also dealt with challenges from descendants of other sons of Genghis. Kublai successfully took power, but civil war ensued as Kublai sought unsuccessfully to regain control of the Chagatayid and Ögedeid families.
The Battle of Ain Jalut in 1260 marked the high-water point of the Mongol conquests and was the first time a Mongol advance had ever been beaten back in direct combat on the battlefield. Though the Mongols launched many more invasions into the Levant, briefly occupying it and raiding as far as Gaza after a decisive victory at the Battle of Wadi al-Khazandar in 1299, they withdrew due to various geopolitical factors.
The Battle of Ain Jalut in 1260
The Battle of Wadi al-Khazandar in 1299
The Expansion of The Mongolian Empire from 1206 to 1294 CE
By the time of Kublai’s death in 1294, the Mongol Empire had fractured into four separate khanates or empires, each pursuing its own separate interests and objectives; the Golden Horde khanate in the northwest, the Chagatai Khanate in the middle, the Ilkhanate in the southwest and the Yuan dynasty in the east based in modern-day Beijing. In 1304, the three western khanates briefly accepted the nominal suzerainty of the Yuan dynasty, but it was later overthrown by the Han Chinese Ming dynasty in 1368. The Genghisid rulers of the Yuan retreated to the Mongolia homeland and continued to rule the Northern Yuan dynasty, while the Golden Horde and the Chagatai Khanate lasted in one form or another for some additional centuries after the fall of the Yuan dynasty and the Ilkhanate.
Significant conquests and movements of Genghis Khan and his generals
Mongolian tribes during the Khitan Liao dynasty (907-1125)
Kublai Khan, Genghis Khan’s grandson and founder of the Yuan dynasty
The area around Mongolia, Manchuria and parts of North China had been controlled by the Liao dynasty since the 10th century. In 1125 the Jin dynasty founded by the Jurchens overthrew the Liao dynasty and attempted to gain control over former Liao territory in Mongolia. In the 1130s the Jin dynasty rulers, known as the Golden Kings, successfully resisted the Khamag Mongol confederation, ruled at the time by Khabul Khan, great grandfather of Temujin (Genghis Khan).
The Mongolian plateau was occupied mainly by five powerful tribal confederations (khanlig); the Keraites, the Khamag Mongol, the Naiman, the Mergid and the Tatar. The Jin emperors, following a policy of divide and rule, encouraged disputes among the tribes, especially between the Tatars and Mongols, in order to keep the nomadic tribes distracted by their own battles and thereby away from the Jin. Khabul’s successor was Ambaghai Khan, who was betrayed by the Tatars, handed over to the Jurchen and executed. The Mongols retaliated by raiding the frontier, resulting in a failed Jurchen counter-attack in 1143.
In 1147 the Jin somewhat changed their policy, signing a peace treaty with the Mongols and withdrawing a score of forts. The Mongols then resumed attacks on the Tatars to avenge the death of their late khan, opening a long period of active hostilities. The Jin and Tatar armies defeated the Mongols in 1161.
During the rise of the Mongol Empire in the 13th century, the usually cold parched steppes of central Asia enjoyed their mildest, wettest conditions in more than a millennium. It is thought that as a result, a rapid increase in the number of war horses and other livestock significantly enhanced Mongol military strength.
Genghis Khan ascended the throne in the Yeke Quriltay region near the Onan river, from the Jami’ al-tawarikh
Genghis Khan introduced many innovative ways of organizing his army, dividing it into decimal subsections of arbans (10 people), zuuns (100), Mingghans (1000), and tumens (10,000). The Kheshig, or the Imperial Guard, was founded and divided into day (khorchin torghuds) and night guards (khevtuul). Genghis rewarded those who had been loyal to him and placed them in high positions, placing them as heads of army units and households, even though many of his allies had been from very low-rank clans.
Compared to the units he gave to his loyal companions, those assigned to his own family members were quite few. He proclaimed a new law of the empire, Ikh Zasag or Yassa, and codified everything related to the everyday life and political affairs of the nomads at the time. He forbade the selling of women, theft of other’s properties, fighting between the Mongols, and the hunting of animals during the breeding season.
He appointed his adopted brother Shigi-Khuthugh supreme judge (jarughachi), ordering him to keep records of the empire. In addition to laws regarding family, food and the army, Genghis also decreed religious freedom and supported domestic and international trade. He exempted the poor and the clergy from taxation. Thus, Muslims, Buddhists and Christians from Manchuria, North China, India and Persia joined Genghis long before his foreign conquests. He also encouraged literacy, adopting the Uyghur script, which would form the Uyghur-Mongolian script of the empire and he ordered the Uyghur Tatatunga, who had previously served the khan of Naimans, to instruct his sons.
Mongol invasion of Central Asia:
Genghis quickly came into conflict with the Jin dynasty of the Jurchens and the Western Xia of the Tanguts in northern China. He also had to deal with two other powers, Tibet and Khara Khitai. Towards the west he moved into Central Asia, devastating Transoxiana and eastern Persia, then raiding into Kievan Rus’ (a predecessor state of Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine) and the Caucasus.
Before his death, Genghis Khan divided his empire among his sons and immediate family, making the Mongol Empire the joint property of the entire imperial family who, along with the Mongol aristocracy, constituted the ruling class.
Genghis Khan and the following Yuan Emperors forbade Islamic practices like Halal butchering, forcing Mongol methods of butchering animals on Muslims and other restrictive degrees continued. Muslims had to slaughter sheep in secret. Genghis Khan directly called Muslims and Jews “slaves” and demanded that they follow the Mongol method of eating rather than the halal method. Circumcision was also forbidden. Jews were also affected and forbidden by the Mongols to eat Kosher.
Among all the alien peoples only the Hui-hui say “we do not eat Mongol food”. Cinggis Qa’an replied; “By the aid of heaven we have pacified you; you are our slaves. Yet you do not eat our food or drink. How can this be right?” He thereupon made them eat. “If you slaughter sheep, you will be considered guilty of a crime.” He issued a regulation to that effect. In 1279/1280 under Qubilai all the Muslims say; “if someone else slaughters [the animal] we do not eat”. Because the poor people are upset by this, from now on, Musuluman [Muslim] Huihui and Zhuhu [Jewish] Huihui, no matter who kills the animal will eat it and must cease slaughtering sheep themselves and cease the rite of circumcision.
Genghis Khan arranged for the Chinese Daoist master Qiu Chuji to visit him in Afghanistan and put him in charge of all religious affairs in the Empire.
Reconstruction of a Mongol warrior
The number of troops mustered by the Mongols is the subject of some scholarly debate, but was at least 105,000 in 1206. The Mongol military organization was simple but effective, based on the decimal system. The army was built up from squads of ten men each, arbans (10 people), zuuns (100), Mingghans (1000) and tumens (10,000).
The Mongols were most famous for their horse archers, but troops armed with lances were equally skilled and the Mongols recruited other military talents from the cities they conquered. With experienced Chinese engineers and bombardier corps who were experts in building trebuchets, Xuanfeng catapults and other machines, the Mongols could lay siege to fortified positions, sometimes building machinery on the spot using available local resources.
Mongol General Subutai of the Golden Horde
Forces under the command of the Mongol Empire were trained, organized and equipped for mobility and speed. Mongol soldiers were more lightly armored than many of the armies they faced but were able to make up for it with maneuverability. Each Mongol warrior would usually travel with multiple horses, allowing him to quickly switch to a fresh mount as needed. In addition, soldiers of the Mongol army functioned independently of supply lines, considerably speeding up army movement.
Skillful use of couriers enabled these armies to maintain contact with each other and their leadership. Discipline was inculcated during a nerge (traditional hunt), as reported by Juvayni. These hunts were distinctive from hunts in other cultures where they were the equivalent to small unit actions. Mongol forces would spread out in a line, surround an entire region and then drive all of the game within that area together. The goal was to let none of the animals escape and to slaughter them all.
Another advantage of the Mongols was their ability to traverse large distances, even in unusually cold winters; for instance, frozen rivers led them like highways to large urban centers on their banks. In addition to siege engineering, the Mongols were also adept at river-work, crossing the river Sajó in spring flood conditions with thirty thousand cavalry soldiers in a single night during the battle of Mohi (April 1241) to defeat the Hungarian king Béla IV. Similarly, in the attack against the MuslimKhwarezmshah, a flotilla of barges was used to prevent escape on the river.
Traditionally known for their prowess with ground forces, the Mongols rarely used naval power, with a few exceptions. In the 1260s and 1270s they used seapower while conquering the Song dynasty of China, though their attempts to mount seaborne campaigns against Japan were unsuccessful. Around the Eastern Mediterranean, their campaigns were almost exclusively land-based, with the seas controlled by the Crusader and Mamluk forces.
All military campaigns were preceded by careful planning, reconnaissance and gathering sensitive information relating to enemy territories and forces. The success, organization and mobility of the Mongol armies permitted them to fight on several fronts at once. All adult males up to the age of 60 were eligible for conscription into the army, a source of honor in their tribal warrior tradition.
Law and Governance:
Organization of the Mongol Empire under Genghis Khan
The executed – long and full beard probably means he is not a Mongol – has been thrown off a cliff
The Mongol Empire was governed by a code of law devised by Genghis, called Yassa, meaning “order” or “decree”. A particular canon of this code was that those of rank shared much of the same hardship as the common man. It also imposed severe penalties; e.g. the death penalty was decreed if one mounted soldier following another did not pick up something dropped from the mount in front. Penalties were also decreed for rape and to some extent for murder. Any resistance to Mongol rule was met with massive collective punishment. Cities were destroyed and their inhabitants slaughtered if they defied Mongol orders. On the whole, the tight discipline made the Mongol Empire extremely safe and well-run.
Under Yassa, chiefs and generals were selected based on merit. The empire was governed by a non-democratic, parliamentary-style central assembly, called the Kurultai, in which the Mongol chiefs met with the Great Khan to discuss domestic and foreign policies. Kurultais were also convened for the selection of each new Great Khan. Throughout the empire, trade routes and an extensive postal system (yam) were created. Many merchants, messengers and travelers from China, the Middle East and Europe used the system. Genghis Khan also created a national seal, encouraged the use of a written alphabet in Mongolia and exempted teachers, lawyers and artists from taxes, although taxes were heavy on all other subjects of the empire.
At the same time the Mongols imported Central Asian Muslims to serve as administrators in China, the Mongols also sent Han Chinese and Khitans from China to serve as administrators over the Muslim population in Bukhara in Central Asia, using foreigners to curtail the power of the local peoples of both lands. The Mongols were very tolerant of other religions and never persecuted people on religious grounds. This was associated with their culture and progressive thought. Some historians of the 20th century thought this was a good military strategy; when Genghis was at war with Sultan Muhammad of Khwarezm, other Islamic leaders did not join the fight, as it was seen as a non-holy war between two individuals.
Religion in the Mongol Empire:
Painting of a stylized building, showing Ghazan kneeling and accepting conversion from Buddhism to Islam
At the time of Genghis Khan, virtually every religion had found Mongol converts, from Buddhism to Christianity and Manichaeism to Islam. To avoid strife, Genghis Khan set up an institution that ensured complete religious freedom, though he himself was a tengrist. Under his administration, all religious leaders were exempt from taxation and from public service.
Initially there were few formal places of worship because of the nomadic lifestyle. However, under Ögedei (1186–1241), several building projects were undertaken in the Mongol capital of Karakorum. Along with palaces, Ögedei built houses of worship for the Buddhist, Muslim, Christian and Taoist followers. The dominant religions at that time were Shamanism, Tengrism and Buddhism, although Ögedei’s wife was a Nestorian Christian. Eventually, each of the successor states adopted the dominant religion of the local populations; the Chinese-Mongolian Yuan dynasty in the East (originally the Great Khan’s domain) embraced Buddhism, while the three Western khanates (the Central Asian Chagatai Khanate, the Iranian Ilkhanate and the Eastern European Golden Horde) adopted Islam.
Arts and literature:
The oldest surviving literary work in the Mongolian language is The Secret History of the Mongols, which was written for the royal family some time after Genghis Khan’s death in 1227. It is the most significant native account of Genghis’s life and genealogy, covering his origins and childhood through to the establishment of the Mongol Empire and the reign of his son, Ögedei.
Another classic from the empire is the Jami’ al-tawarikh or “Universal History”. It was commissioned in the early 14th century by the Ilkhan Abaqa Khan as a way of documenting the entire world’s history, to help establish the Mongols’ own cultural legacy. With hundreds of illustrated pages, it was effectively one of the first written histories of the world.
Mongol scribes in the 14th century used a mixture of resin and vegetable pigments as a primitive form of correction fluid; this is arguably its first known usage.
The Mongols also appreciated the visual arts, though their taste in portraiture was strictly focused on portraits of their horses, rather than of people.
The Silk Road – Pax Mongolica:
Tuda Mengu of the Golden Horde
The Mongols had a history of supporting merchants and trade. Genghis Khan had encouraged foreign merchants early in his career, even before uniting the Mongols. Merchants provided him with information about neighboring cultures, served as diplomats and official traders for the Mongols and were essential for many needed goods, since the Mongols produced little of their own.
Mongols sometimes provided capital for merchants and sent them far afield, in an ortoq (merchant partner) arrangement. As the empire grew, any merchants or ambassadors with proper documentation and authorization received protection and sanctuary as they traveled through Mongol realms. Well-traveled and relatively well-maintained roads linked lands from the Mediterranean basin to China, greatly increasing overland trade and resulting in some dramatic stories of those who travelled through what would become known as the Silk Road.
Western explorer Marco Polo traveled east along the Silk Road and the Chinese Mongol monk Rabban Bar Sauma made a comparably epic journey along the route, venturing from his home of Khanbaliq (Beijing) as far as Europe. European missionaries, such as William of Rubruck, also traveled to the Mongol court to convert believers to their cause or went as papal envoys to correspond with Mongol rulers in an attempt to secure a Franco-Mongol alliance. It was rare, however, for anyone to journey the full length of Silk Road. Instead, merchants moved products like a bucket brigade, goods being traded from one middleman to another, moving from China all the way to the West, the goods moving over such long distances reached extravagant prices.
An Islamic gold coin inscribed in the name of Genghis Khan
After Genghis, the merchant partner business continued to flourish under his successors Ögedei and Güyük. Merchants brought clothing, food, information and other provisions to the imperial palaces. In return the Great Khans gave the merchants tax exemptions and allowed them to use the official relay stations of the Mongol Empire. Merchants also served as tax farmers in China, Russia and Iran. If the merchants were attacked by bandits, losses were made up from the imperial treasury.
Policies changed under the Great Khan Möngke. Because of money laundering and overtaxing. He attempted to limit abuses and sent imperial investigators to supervise the ortoq businesses. He decreed all merchants must pay commercial and property taxes and he paid off all drafts drawn by high-ranking Mongol elites from the merchants. This policy continued in the Yuan dynasty.
The fall of the Mongol Empire in the 14th century led to the collapse of the political, cultural and economic unity along the Silk Road. Turkic tribes seized the western end of the route from the Byzantine Empire, sowing the seeds of a Turkic culture that would later crystallize into the Ottoman Empire under the Sunni faith. In the East, the native Chinese overthrew the Yuan dynasty in 1368, launching their own Ming dynasty and pursuing a policy of economic isolationism.
The Secret History Of Genghis Khan
The Encyclopædia Britannica
Article by J.E. Cruithni (the late Jim Melton who generously wrote this for the 1st incarnation of our site). Thank you JE, rest in peace brother.
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