The Mongols came to rule much of Asia and Europe during the 13th century, becoming the largest contiguous land empire ever, and second only to the British Empire in total land area. While known by most for their seemingly-wanton killing and destruction (one estimate puts the death toll at 11% of the world's population), the Mongols established an era of peace and global prosperity within the lands they controlled. This Pax Mongolica allowed ideas, people, and goods to flow across Eurasia like never before, and was the first time that places as distant as Konya, Kyiv, Korea, and Kyrgyzstan were unified.
The Mongols are one of several Eurasian nomadic peoples, neither the first nor the last to expand across the steppes and conquer other lands. While the Mongol conquests were among the most destructive in world history, they created a lasting heritage on the Eurasian supercontinent.
13th century conquests
The empire was founded by Genghis Khan (c. 1162 – 1227), born with the name Temüjin. Before him, the Mongols were split into many tribes, often at war with each other. They had been raiding into northern China for centuries and the Chinese had built the Great Wall to keep them out, but China had usually been able to keep the threat to a manageable level with a divide-and-rule strategy.
That all changed when the Great Khan united the tribes into a single nation; even today, Mongols regard him as the founder of their nation. There was some fighting involved, but he united them mainly through diplomacy including promises of shares in the loot from campaigns against non-Mongols. The unified Mongol force first defeated the Western Xia, centered in today's Ningxia, who became Mongol vassals. Then they broke through the Great Wall and conquered much of northern China, taking territory from both the Jin Dynasty (Jurchens, ancestors of the Manchus) in the north and the Song Dynasty (Han Chinese) further south.
Mongol warriors, mainly mounted archers, were superb fighters and extremely mobile, and the Khan was both a tactical genius himself and very good at finding and inspiring excellent subordinates. The Mongols repeatedly won battles despite being badly outnumbered and despite their enemies having fortified positions. The development of the recurve bow, the caracole formation, and the modern stirrup all aided Mongol horsemen. The Khan invaded China with about 100,000 men when the Chinese had well over a million in their armies, but the Mongols won most of the battles and killed about half a million of the enemy.
The Khan's goal was to conquer all of China, both avenging what Mongols saw as centuries of abuse and acquiring enormous wealth. He was well on his way to that when he was distracted by events further west. He had sent envoys to the Persian Empire and the Persians made what was quite likely the greatest blunder in diplomatic history, sending back their heads as a gesture of contempt. Infuriated, the Khan turned his armies west and within a few years conquered most of the Persian Empire, killing close to half its population in the process (c.f. Merv, which was possibly the largest city in the world until Genghis razed the city to the ground).
The Western Xia rebelled against their Mongol overlords by refusing to send troops to aid their conquest of Central Asia. In retaliation, the Mongols razed their cities to the ground and massacred almost the entire population.
Genghis Khan' son Ogedai Khan, completed the conquest of northern China, ending the Jin Dynasty, and invaded Korea. In the west, his forces completed the conquest of the Persian Empire, took large territories in what is now Russia, and pushed as far as Hungary and Poland.
After Ogedai's death in 1241, there was a complicated power struggle; this may have saved Western Europe and other areas since the Mongols were too busy fighting each other to push further west. Möngke Khan emerged from the chaos to rule 1251–1259. He did more consolidation than conquest, but did conquer Yunnan, the Tibetan Empire, and parts of Syria and Iraq.
The next khan was a grandson of Genghis Khan, Kublai Khan; he completed the conquest of China ending the Song Dynasty, moved his capital to what is now Beijing, and became the first emperor of the Yuan Dynasty which ruled China 1279-1368. Marco Polo was in China during his reign and worked as an official of the Empire.
The Khan sent an invasion armada against Japan but a storm, called kami kaze (spirit wind) in Japanese, sank much of the fleet and scattered the rest so the few Mongol troops who made it ashore were quickly defeated. An invasion of Vietnam also went badly. The main Mongol force was mounted archers, highly mobile and close to invincible on any sort of open ground, and in Genghis' day the Mongols had learned how to build siege engines and take cities. Seas and jungles were much more difficult for them.
During World War II the Japanese sent "kamikaze" pilots on suicide missions against American ships, intended to save Japan as the wind had. It did not work.
The Empire divided
From Ogedai's death onwards, the Empire was often in turmoil as various descendants of the Great Khan vied for power. By the time of Kublai's death in 1294, it was split into four great kingdoms — the Yuan Dynasty plus the Golden Horde, Chagatai Khanate and Ilkhanate — as shown on the map to the right. After that, the Chinese Empire shrank considerably and the western khanates split further. In many areas dynasties descended from Mongols, often intermarried with local nobility, ruled for centuries.
Under the Yuan Dynasty, the Chinese Empire was larger than at any other time in history. It included areas such as Mongolia itself (both the modern country of Mongolia and what is now the Chinese province of Inner Mongolia), Xinjiang (the territory of the Mongol allies the Uyghur), Tibet, Korea, and parts of what are now Myanmar, Central Asia and Russia.
The Golden Horde included the parts of Europe the Mongols controlled, such as most of European Russia (sans Novgorod and Vladimir), western Kazakhstan, Ukraine, Belarus/Poland, and Hungary. Pre-Mongol Russia was a divided land much similar to Renaissance Italy with squabbling city-states fighting against each other, but it was out of the Golden Horde that a united Russian Empire emerged.
The Chagatai Khanate centered on Central Asia sans Turkmenistan, including major cities like Samarkand, Kokand, Bukhara, Khiva, Tashkent, and the countries of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Afghanistan.
The Ilkhanate was the westernmost of the four divisions, centered on Persia proper (modern-day Iran, Iraq, Turkmenistan, and Azerbaijan), with Armenia, Anatolia, and Syria as well.
The Berber traveller Ibn Battuta visited all four of the great Mongol kingdoms in the early 1300s.
Tamerlane or Timur the lame (circa 1330 to 1405) was a descendant of Ghengis Khan, and the last of the great Asian nomadic conquerors. His dream was to restore the Mongol Empire to its glory days and he made considerable progress toward that goal; he reunited the remnants of the three western khanates and was en route to attack China when he died. He took cities as far apart as Delhi and Smyrna (on the Mediterranean coast of what is now Turkey), and one of his allies burned Moscow. His capital was Samarkand and his palace there, the Registan, is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a major attraction for travellers on the Silk Road.
Babur (1483-1530) was a great-great-grandson of Tamerlane whose family ruled the Ferghana Valley east of Samarkand. He led an army south along the same route as Tamerlane and founded the Mughal Empire which ruled much of the Indian subcontinent for centuries, until its overthrow by the British in the late 19th century.
From the 16th century — having at long last defeated the Golden Horde and its remnants — the Russian Empire came to be the dominant power in northern Eurasia. However it was not until the 19th century that they were able to control all of Central Asia. In modern-day Russia, the Buryats and the Kalmyks are descendants of the Mongols, speaking languages closely related to Mongolian, and sharing close cultural ties, including the belief in Vajrayana Buddhism.
In China, a peasant uprising led to the establishment of the Ming Dynasty in 1368. Remnants of the Yuan Dynasty fled to Mongolia, where they continued as the Northern Yuan. They were conquered by the Manchus in 1635, and the Mongols were important Manchu allies in the conquest of China which established the Qing Dynasty in 1644.
Mongolia would remain part of the Qing empire until its fall in 1911, when a de facto independent Mongol state would emerge again. The new Republic of China government did not accept Mongolia's claim to independence, but were powerless to do anything due to being tied down with problems in the Han Chinese heartland. Later, China was forced by the Soviet Union to recognise the independence of Outer Mongolia (which became the independent country of Mongolia), while Inner Mongolia has remained a province of China.
- 1 Diaoyu Fortress (钓鱼城, Diaoyucheng), Hechuan, Chongqing Municipality. One of the best preserved of the more 80 mountain fortresses built during the Song Dynasty to resist the Mongol invaders. The fortress successfully repelled over 200 Mongol attacks before it was overrun in 1279. Möngke Khan was killed here in 1259 during the Siege of Diaoyucheng.
- 2 Mausoleum of Genghis Khan (成吉思汗陵; Chéngjísīhànlíng) (in the community of Ejan Horo Banner 55 km south of Dongsheng, Inner Mongolia). Despite the name, this is not Genghis Khan's tomb, but rather a temple dedicated to the worship of Genghis Khan. The actual location of his burial remains a mystery as he was buried in an unmarked grave in a secret location, as per his wishes.
- 3 Shangdu (Xanadu, 上都), Zhenglan Banner, Inner Mongolia (232 km south of Xilinhot). The ruins of Kublai Khan's famed summer capital.
- 4 Yuan Dadu City Wall Ruins Park (元大都城墙遗址公园), Chaoyang District, Beijing. The ruins of the northern city wall of Khanbaliq (Dadu), the winter capital of the Yuan Dynasty.
- 5 Yuan Zhongdu National Archaeological Site Park (元中都国家考古遗址公园), Zhangbei County, Hebei Province (75 km north of Zhangjiakou). The ruins of Zhongdu, capital of the Yuan Dynasty from 1307 to 1357.
- 6 Yuan Zhongdu Museum (元中都博物馆), Zhangbei County, Hebei Province (56 km north of Zhangjiakou). Displays artefacts uncovered at the ruins of Zhongdu.
- 7 Chinggis Khaan Museum, Ulaanbataar.
- 8 National Museum of Mongolia, Ulaanbataar. This is the main museum in the capital and holds the most important artifacts of the Mongolians' rich history dating back several thousand years. These include ethnographic displays of different tribes of Mongolia, petroglyphs and cave drawings, Turkic monuments, weapons, armor, and various displays from the Hun and Mongol Empires, the Chinese rule, Communist era, and the democratic revolution in 1990. There is even a display of self-portraits and personal possessions of Genghis Khan and other great khans of the Mongol Empire. Most displays are in English and Mongolian. This should be a first stop on any visit to the city.
- Karakorum, once the Mongol capital.
- 9 Hangpaduri Hangmong (Anti-Mongolian) Historical Site (제주 항파두리 항몽 유적), Jeju City. A special defence unit of the Goryeo kingdom rebelled against the invading Mongolian army in 1270, and eventually retreated to Jeju Island for a last stand. They held off the Mongolian forces here for 2 years before they were all killed at a fortress built here.
While the Mongols didn't necessarily build any major structures which have survived in Central Asia, some of the places that they destroyed are historical sites in and of themselves.
- 10 Merv (Мерв, Марв, Merw, Margiana). Arguably the largest city in the world at the time of the Mongol conquest, Merv (in modern-day Turkmenistan) was levelled to the ground by the Khan's forces as punishment for "resisting". Contemporary sources claim that between 700,000 and 1.3 million people were slaughtered; Merv never recovered.
The Mongol Empire was never ruled in Mongolian. Instead, regional rulers used whatever language(s) was/were dominant in their regions. Uyghur was used by the ordo (the court, from which we get the word "horde") for official edicts, since the Uyghurs were the first peoples the Mongols absorbed into their own empire that had a literary tradition (the Uyghurs were annexed before most of China). When travelling to areas that were outside the traditional Mongol heartland, you'll have to use local languages or regional/colonial languages (like Chinese, Russian, Persian, or Arabic).
Mongolian was the main language of the Mongol Empire. Today, it is the sole official language in the independent country Mongolia, while in China it is co-official with Mandarin in Inner Mongolia and the ethnic Mongol prefectures and counties of the neighbouring provinces. There are two scripts used to write Mongolian: the Cyrillic alphabet is used in Mongolia, while the traditional Mongol script that had been used since the time of Genghis Khan is used by the ethnic Mongols in China. The traditional Mongol script later served as the inspiration for the Manchu script; these languages are among the few to be written vertically. As of 2020, the Mongolian government has begun converting official documents into the traditional script, a process which is planned to be finished by 2025.