Mongol (1206 – 1368)

The Mongols started life as a nomadic people in Central Asia, before rising to power in the 13th century, and creating the largest land empire in human history.

Who were the Mongols?

The Mongols started life as a nomadic people in Central Asia, before rising to power in the 13th century, and creating the largest land empire in human history. At the height of their power, their territory stretched from China all the way to Eastern Europe.

The Mongol Empire was known for brutal warfare, and that is how they are often remembered today. Their warriors were so respected and feared that enemy cities would often surrender before the fighting even began.

But there was more to these people than warfare. They also brought peace and stability to the areas they conquered, and encouraged long-distance trade between Asia and Europe. There is no denying the fact they were fierce and violent, but the Mongols had a gentler side to them too.

The origins of the Mongols

For the vast majority of the medieval period, the Mongol people were just a collection of small, disparate tribes, who lived nomadically on the grasslands of the Asian steppe. 

They herded goats and horses, camels and yaks, and moved their herds from plain to plain in search of suitable pastures. They slept in circular tents, sometimes known as yurts, and wore baggy trousers and cone-shaped hats.

Their religion was a combination of traditional animism and ancestor worship. They believed that natural phenomena, like storms and mountains, were home to powerful spirits. Overall, there was little to suggest that these tribes were capable of building an empire, but this changed at the beginning of the 13th century, with the rise of Genghis Khan.

Genghis Khan

At some point in the middle of the 12th century – the exact date is subject to debate – a child was born to a Mongol chieftain. This child’s name was Temüjin, and he changed the course of history.

As an adult, Temüjin set out to unite the other Mongol tribes, using a combination of diplomacy and warfare. By 1206, he had achieved it, and at a ceremony on the banks of the Onon River, he formally named himself Genghis Khan. This honorary title meant ‘universal leader’.

His united tribes were stronger together than they ever were apart. Together, they began to expand outwards, rapidly conquering parts of Central Asia and China. With Genghis Khan at the head of the Mongols, these nomadic herders were a devastating military force.

Devastating warfare

The Mongols rarely outnumbered their enemies, but they still found ways to overwhelm them. One of their most effective tactics was the use of fast horses, which let them move quickly over vast distances and launch surprise attacks on their foes.

They also used arrow storms – barrages of arrows shot from horseback – that caused panic among enemy troops. Some historians think that the Mongols also had gunpowder weapons, which they adopted after conquering parts of China, but this theory has never been proven.

In many places, the Mongols slaughtered civilians, and burned entire cities to the ground. Mass migrations often took place, as people began to flee their homes before the Mongols even arrived.

Life after Genghis

In 1227 CE, Genghis Khan was struck down by an unknown disease. This was a blow to the growing Mongol Empire, but they managed to carry on without him.

By this point, their territory stretched from China and Korea, through Iran and Russia, all the way to the edges of Europe. A decision was made to divide all this land into four khanates, each with a different ruler – the empire was too large for a single leader to manage.

The most famous of these rulers was Kublai Khan, who ruled the Chinese portion of the empire. He displaced the Song Dynasty, and founded the Yuan Dynasty in its place, with himself as Chinese Emperor. He went on to adopt many Chinese customs, and is generally remembered as an excellent Chinese ruler.

Pax Mongolica

Kublai Khan was not the only Mongol with a reputation for being a capable, peacetime ruler. In general, the Mongols were skilled administrators, who managed to turn their conquered lands into a strong, stable empire.

From about 1279, until the empire’s end, was a period known as Pax Mongolica, or ‘Mongol peace’. During this time, many Mongols adopted Islam or Buddhism, and started to settle into sedentary lifestyles, just like the people they had conquered. 

Meanwhile, trade flourished between Asia and Europe along the Silk Road, which the Mongols maintained and protected. It was often said that a maiden with a nugget of gold on her head could wander from one end of the empire to the other without worrying about coming to harm.

The decline of the Mongols

The empire began to decline in the late 14th century, mainly because of the Black Death. The Mongol Empire had connected hundreds of isolated communities in Europe and Asia – and now, those connections helped the disease to spread.

Infected fleas would travel on the backs of horses and camels, and in the hair of traveling merchants. The effects of this were truly devastating. The Black Death is estimated to have killed one third of China’s population, and up to half of Europe.

In this period of devastating population collapse, the stability of the empire shattered. Rebel groups rose up around the empire, and overthrew their Mongol leaders. In China, Ming rebels seized control, and founded a new dynasty. By 1368, the Mongol Empire had completely faded away.

The legacy of the Mongols

The most obvious legacy of the Mongol Empire was the death toll. They were one of the most destructive forces in human history, with an estimated 80 million people killed during their conquests. That does not take into account the Black Death, which killed an additional 100 million people.

But their other legacy was one of long-distance communication and trade. They united Europe and Asia along a peaceful Silk Road, and helped people at both ends of the Eurasian continent to interact more easily than ever.

In other words, the Mongol Empire laid the foundations for the modern period. In the centuries following the collapse of their empire, the world became more connected. Trade routes flourished between every continent, as brand new empires, like the Ottomans and the British, rose in the place of those who came before.

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