The nomads of central Asia during the 13th and 14th centuries returned to center stage in world history. The Mongols ended or interrupted the great postclassical empires while extending the world network of that era. Led by Chinggis Khan and his successors, they brought central Asia, China, Persia, Tibet, Iraq, Asia Minor, and southern Russia under their control. The resulting states dominated most of Asia for one and a half centuries. The Mongol success was the most formidable nomadic challenge to the global dominance of the sedentary, civilized core civilizations since the first centuries c.e. The Mongols often are portrayed as barbarian, destructive conquerors, but their victories brought much more than death and destruction. Peoples lived in peace in the Mongol territories and enjoyed religious toleration and a unified law code. The Mongol conquests expanded the world network in formation since the classical age.
The Mongol Empire of Chinggis Khan. The Mongols were nomadic herders of goats and sheep who lived off and traded the products of their animals. Boys and girls learned to ride as soon as they could walk. The basic unit of social organization, the tribe, was divided into kin-related clans. Great confederations were organized temporarily for defensive and offensive operations. Males held dominant leadership positions; women held considerable influence within the family. Leaders were elected by free males. They gained their positions through courage and diplomatic skills and maintained authority as long as they were successful.
The Making of a Great Warrior: The Early Career of Chinggis Khan. Mongolian peoples had held power in central Asia for brief periods of time. They established kingdoms in north China in the 4th and 10th centuries c.e. Kabul Khan in the 12th century defeated a Qin army, but Mongol organization declined after his death. His grandson, Chinggis Khan, originally named Temujin, was a member of one of the clans disputing Mongol leadership at the end of the 12th century. After surviving defeat and capture, Temujin gained strength among the Mongols through alliances with more powerful groups. After defeating his rivals, he was elected supreme ruler (khagan) of all Mongol tribes in 1206.
Building the Mongol War Machine. Mongol males were trained from youth to ride, hunt, and fight. Their skillfully used short bows, fired from horseback, were devastating weapons. The speed and mobility of Mongol armies, when joined to the discipline brought by Chinggis Khan, made them the world’s best military. The armies, divided into 10,000-strong fighting units (tumens), included both heavy and light cavalry. Harsh discipline, enforced through a formal code, brought punishments and rewards for meritorious conduct. A separate messenger force made possible effective communication between units. Another unit, employing spies, secured accurate information for campaigns. New weapons, including gunpowder and cannons, were used.
Conquest: The Mongol Empire under Chinggis Khan. In 1207, Chinggis Khan set forth to conquer the known world. The Mongols defeated and forced the northwestern China Tangut kingdom of Xi-Xia to become a vassal. They next attacked the Qin Empire established by the Jurchens. In these first campaigns, the Mongols developed new tactics for capturing fortified urban centers. Cities that resisted were sacked; their inhabitants were killed or made slaves. Submission would avert this fate; tribute brought deliverance.
First Assault on the Islamic World: Conquest in China. After success against the Chinese, the Mongols moved westward, first defeating the Mongolian-speaking Kara Khitai state, and then the empire of the Turkic Muhammad Shah II, ruler of Khwarazm. The victory over Khwarazm brought many Turkic horsemen into Chinggis Khan’s army. The Mongol leader spent the rest of his life fighting in China. The Xi-Xia kingdom and the Qin Empire were destroyed. At the death of Chinggis Khan in 1227, the Mongols ruled an empire stretching from Persia to the North China Sea.
Life under the Mongol Imperium. The Mongols were both fearsome warriors and astute, tolerant rulers. Chinggis Khan, although illiterate, was open to new ideas and wanted to create a peaceful empire. He established a new capital in the steppes at Karakorum to which he drew talented individuals from all conquered regions. Chinggis followed shamanistic Mongol beliefs but tolerated all religions. He used the knowledge of Muslim and Chinese bureaucrats to build an administrative structure for the empire. A script was devised for the Mongolian language, and a legal code enforced by special police helped to end old quarrels. The Mongol conquests brought peace to much of Asia. In urban centers, artisans and scholars freely worked. Commerce flourished along secure trade routes.
The Death of Chinggis Khan and the Division of the Empire. Chinggis died in 1227 while extending Mongol rule in China. The vast territories of the Mongols were divided among three sons and a grandson. His third son, Ogedei, a talented diplomat, was chosen as grand khan. He presided over further Mongol conquests for nearly a decade.
The Mongol Drive to the West. The armies of the Golden Horde, named after the tent of the khans, were ready to move westward. By the 13th century, Kiev was in decline, and Russia was divided into many petty kingdoms, which were unable to unite before the Mongols, called Tartars by the Russian people. Batu, Chinggis Khan’s grandson, invaded in 1236 and defeated Russian armies one by one. Resisting cities were razed. Kiev was taken and ravaged in 1240, but Novgorod was spared when its ruler submitted peacefully.
Russia in Bondage. The Russians became vassals of the khan of the Golden Horde for two and one-half centuries. Russian princes paid tribute. Peasants had to meet demands from both their own princes and the Mongols. Many sought protection by becoming serfs. The decision inaugurated a major change in rural social structure: serfdom endured until the mid-19th century. Some cities, especially Moscow, benefited from the increased commercial possibilities brought by Mongol rule. It grew at the expense of nearby towns and profited as tribute collector for the khans. Moscow was made the seat of the Russian Orthodox church. When the power of the Golden Horde declined, Moscow led Russian resistance to the Mongols. The Golden Horde was defeated at Kulikova in 1380. Later attacks by Timur on the Golden Horde finished breaking the Mongol hold on Russia. The Mongol occupation was formative, influencing Russia’s military and political organization. Most significantly, the Mongols isolated Russia from developments in western European civilization.
Mongol Incursions and the Retreat from Europe. Christian western Europe initially had been pleased by Mongol successes against Islam. The attitude changed when the Mongols moved westward; they invaded Hungary in 1240 and raided widely in central and southeastern Europe. Europe escaped more serious invasion when the death of Ogedei, plus the resulting succession struggle, forced Batu to withdraw. Probably satisfied with their rich conquests in Asia and the Middle East, the Mongols did not return to Europe.
The Mongol Assault on the Islamic Heartlands. Hulegu, a grandson of Chinggis Khan and ruler of the Ilkhan division of the Mongol empire, moved westward against Mesopotamia and north Africa. With the fall of the Abbasid dynasty, Islam had lost its central authority. Baghdad was seized and destroyed in 1258, along with the devastation of many other major cities. The Mongol advance was halted in 1260 by the Mamluks of Egypt, led by Baibars. Hulegu, faced with other threats to his rule, including the conversion of the khan of the Golden Horde to Islam, did not resume the campaign.
The Mongol Interlude in Chinese History. The Mongol advance into China resumed after Ogedei’s election. Kubilai Khan, another grandson of Chinggis Khan, during the mid-13th century led the Mongols against the Song. In 1271, Kubilai’s dynasty became the Yuan. As his conquests continued, Kubilai attempted to preserve the distinction between Mongols and Chinese. Chinese were forbidden from learning the Mongol script, and intermarriage was prohibited. Mongol religious ceremonies and customs were retained. Kubilai refused to reestablish exams for the civil service. Despite the measures protecting Mongol culture, Kubilai was fascinated by Chinese civilization. He introduced much from their culture into his court; the capital at Tatu (Beijing) was in Chinese style. A new social structure emerged in China. The Mongols were at the top; their nomadic and Islamic allies were directly below them. Both groups dominated the highest levels of the administration. Beneath them came first the north Chinese and then ethnic Chinese and peoples of the south.
Gender Roles and the Convergence of Mongol and Chinese Culture. Mongol women remained aloof from Confucian Chinese culture. They refused to adopt footbinding, and retained rights to property and control in the household and freedom of movement. Some Mongol women hunted and went to war. Chabi, wife of Kubilai, was an especially influential woman.
Mongol Tolerance and Foreign Cultural Influence. The openness of Mongol rulers to outside ideas and their patronage drew scholars, artists, artisans, and office-seekers from many regions. Muslim lands provided some of the most favored arrivals; they were included in the social order just below the Mongols. They brought much new knowledge into the Chinese world. Kubilai was interested in all religions; Buddhists, Nestorian and Latin Christians, Daoists, and Muslims were all present at court. He welcomed foreign visitors. The most famous was the Venetian Marco Polo.
Social Policies and Scholar-Gentry Resistance. The ethnic Chinese, the vast majority of Kubilai’s subjects, were never reconciled to Mongol rule. The scholar-gentry regarded Mongols as uncouth barbarians with policies endangering Chinese traditions. The refusal to reinstate the examination system was especially resented. The Mongols also bolstered the position of artisans and merchants who previously not had received high status. Both prospered as the Mongols improved transportation and expanded the supply of paper money. The Mongols developed a substantial navy that helped conquest and increased commerce. Urban life flourished. Mongol patronage stimulated popular entertainments, especially musical drama, and awarded higher status to formerly despised actors and actresses. Kubilai’s policies initially favored the peasantry. Their land was protected from Mongol cavalrymen turning it into pasture, and famine relief measures were introduced. Tax and labor burdens were reduced. A revolutionary change was formulated—but not enacted—for establishing elementary education at the village level.
The Fall of the House of Yuan. By the time of Kubilai’s death, the Yuan dynasty was weakening. Song loyalists in the south revolted. Mongol expeditions of 1274 and 1280 against Japan failed. Other Mongol forces were defeated in Vietnam and Java. Kubilai’s successors lacked talent, and the Yuan administration became corrupt. The suffering peasantry were called upon by the scholar-gentry to drive out the “barbarians.” By the 1350s, the dynasty was too weak to control all of China. Famines stimulated local risings. Secret societies dedicated to the overthrow of the dynasty formed. Rival rebels fought each other. Many Mongols returned to central Asia. Finally, a peasant leader, Ju Yuanzhang, triumphed and founded the Ming dynasty.
Aftershock: The Brief Ride of Timur. When the peoples of Eurasia began to recover from the effects of Mongol expansion, a new leader, the Turk Timur-i Lang, known to the West as Tamerlane, brought new expansion. Timur, a highly cultured individual from a noble, landowning clan, in the 1360s moved from his base at Samarkand to conquests in Persia, the Fertile Crescent, India, and southern Russia. Timur is remembered for the barbaric destruction of conquered lands. His rule did not increase commercial expansion, cross-cultural exchanges, or internal peace, as earlier Mongol empires had. After his 1405 death, Timur’s empire fell apart. The last great challenge of the steppe nomads to Eurasian civilizations had ended.