An Introductory Overview of the Mongols

Map of the Mongol Empire in 1294

Map of the Mongol Empire in 1294

Please note that this is not meant to be a biography of any one person but a brief overview of the dynasty to show the impact that the Mongols had for many centuries. More in depth posts will follow going into more detail of specific people and events.

It all started in unassuming grasslands on the high plateau of Mongolia east of the Altai Mountains. Various Turkic and Mongol-Tungusic tribes roamed these steppes- herding animals such as sheep, goats, horses, yaks, oxen and camels; trading and raiding their more sedentary neighbors. The had no permanent cities as their primary shelter was a circular felt covered dwelling called the “ger” or “yurt”. These tents could be raised and dismantled in only 30-60 minutes, making life easier for the nomadic life of the tribes. Because of their dependence on flocks, the tribes traveled based on climate conditions that were best for their animals. Life on the steppes were harsh, and it toughened them into fierce warriors. Any hunting for the tribe was done from horseback and because of this, their skill with the bow was unparalleled.

Most new conquerors come in waves, and gradually become a force to be reckoned with. Not the Mongols. In the short space of 80 years, they exploded out of the steppes and established an empire that encompassed all from the Pacific Ocean to the Danube River. They conquered more territory in 25 years then the Romans did in 400, and at the height of their empire controlled 11 million contiguous square miles. The start of this expansion can be pinpointed to the early 13th century and the leadership of one man- Genghis Khan. Rising from a position of weakness to conquering the clans to become leader of “all the dwellers in felt tents”, Genghis Khan was then free to turn his people’s energies outward. In 1215, his armies rolled into northern China and conquered Beijing. In 1218, he began the ambitious expedition against the Kwarazm-Shah Empire. Under his command, the generals sacked Samarkand and Bukhara in 1220 and by 1223 they swept into southern Russia through the Crimea.

Some of the innovations that set the stage for the Mongol conquests were Genghis Khan’s practice of promoting based on merit not family position. So the best strategist and leader of men got to be general not Bob’s father’s nephew’s cousin’s roommate. He also promoted from the lower classes of the conquered clans. Bravery was rewarded and only cowardice and treachery were punished. The Mongols also used had outpost riders, called the Yam, which could carry messages quickly over long distances. They also had pigeons trained for this purpose as well. They were also extremely versatile. Until moving west, they had never seen castles. However, they quickly became adept at siege warfare. They are even the progenitors of biological warfare as they catapulted plague ridden bodies over the walls at the siege of Kaffa. They also are thought to have introduced gunpowder to the West from China.

Their biggest weapon, however, was psychological. A besieged town had two choices- surrender or to fight. If they fight, then once the Mongol’s take the city the inhabitants are paraded outside the walls and publically beheaded. If they surrender, after enough plunder is given up to make the soldiers happy they are basically left alone. Which would you choose? Once a city had fallen to the Mongols, there were advantages. The Mongols had a policy surprising religious tolerance. They were a shamanic religion, which was tied to the land from which they came. Because of this, they did not try to convert the conquered people to it. They could live and prosper as Christians, Buddhists or whatever they wished. The Mongols also reinvigorated the Silk Road trade as it was an important tax base for the empire. Because this trade was so important, the Mongols made sure the roads were safe. No losing precious income to a bunch of highwaymen. It was said a man could walk safely through the Mongol Empire with a gold plate on his head without fear of being robbed. This became known as the Pax Mongolia. Along with goods, ideas, people and cuisine. For example, rice became a staple in Persian food because it was introduced to the area by the Mongols.

After Genghis Khan died, his children and grandchildren took over the empire expanded it further into China and took Baghdad. They were only stopped by the Mamluks at the Battle of Ain Jalut to keep them from conquering North Africa. As great as they were at conquering, they fell down on administration. There was no single political unit, and so the empire split into four khanates- the Yuan Dynasty, the Ilkhanate, the Chagatai Khanate and the Golden Horde. Each of these played important parts in the development of the nations which are in those areas now. We will be going into more depth on each of these areas in future posts.


Sources available on request