The Rise of the Mongols and the Mongol Empire

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Learning Objective 2.2B

Explain the process of state-building and decline in Eurasia over time.

Historical Development 1

The Mongols constructed the largest land empire in history.

Historical Development 2

The Mongols constructed the largest land empire in history.

Historical development 3

The Mongol Empire collapsed, and new states rose to power.


Genghis Khan Unites the Mongol Tribes

Under the leadership of Genghis Khan, the armies of the united Mongol tribes swept across Eurasia. Within just a few decades, Genghis Khan and his grandsons created a vast empire that stretched over 5000 miles and spanned from Eastern Europe to the Pacific coast in China. As their empire expanded, the Mongol forces managed to defeat the old power structures (governments) that had dominated Eurasia for hundreds of years. The result was a massive political upheaval in the areas that the Mongols conquered. But Mongol dominance did not last. Within 100 years, the Mongols had lost most of their vast territory outside North and Central Asia.

Genghis Khan’s armies were the best trained, experienced, disciplined, and fast-moving in the world. They also possessed some of the newest warfare technologies, including flaming arrows that exploded and gunpowder projectiles and cannons. The expansion of his armies was rapid. Within just a few decades, much of Eurasia was under his control. 

  • Genghis Khan’s armies first conquered Northern China and the other pastoral nomads of Central Asia before turning his sights on the Middle East. 
  • Following Genghis Khan’s death in 1227, his successors added Western Russia and Southern China to the long list of peoples conquered by the Mongols. 

The Mongols Created the Largest Land Empire in History

The Mongol Empire was the largest land empire in history. This massive empire had two phases of governance: 

  • Phase 1: the empire was centralized and united under the leadership of one great khan.
  • Phase 2: the empire fragmented into pieces called khanates, each ruled over by their own khan.

Phase 1: The United Mongol Empire

Under Genghis Khan and his immediate successor, his third son Ogedei, the Mongol empire stayed united. The Mongols established their capital city in Karakorum in modern Central Mongolia. When Mongol armies conquered a region, Genghis and Ogedei would appoint Mongols to manage the Mongol territories’ political affairs. Mongol governance looked different across different areas. The following were typical features of early Mongol governance. 

  1. Mongols governors controlled the upper levels of government. 
  2. Local officials could be advisors to Mongol leaders or manage regional and local levels of governance.
  3. In some areas, local princes could rule if they swore allegiance and paid tribute to the Mongols. 
  4. The Mongols established no bureaucratic systems of their own. There was no official Mongol state that ruled over the Mongols vast territories. Mongol governors generally utilized the governing methods that were in place before the Mongol conquest.

The Mongols destroyed old Eurasian superpowers

As Mongol hordes conquered territory across Eurasia, they swept away many old ruling powers. Significant political changes included: 

  1. The conquering of non-Mongol Central Asian pastoral peoples 
  2. The destruction of the Seljuk Empire and Abbasid Caliphate in the Middle East 
  3. The conquest of China and the collapse of the Song Dynasty 
  4. The placing of Eastern European kingdoms into a Mongol tribute system

Phase 2: The Fragmented Khanates

The end of the 13th century brought enormous change to the Mongol Empire. The united Mongol force led by a Great Khan fragmented into multiple, more minor, though still significant, political systems known as khanates. These Khanates included: 

  •  the Golden Horde in Northcentral Asia and Eastern Europe,
  •  the Chaghatai in Central Asia,
  •  the Ilkhanate in the Middle East, and 
  •  the Yuan Dynasty in Eastern Asia. 

The khanates were established and governed by the descendants of Genghis Khan. The leaders of the khanates were sovereign (independent leaders) within their territories.

The Yuan dynasty khanate in China

The Mongol defeat of China was a long process, lasting from 1235 to 1279. The Mongol commander Kublai Khan (1215-1294) led the final military campaigns against the Song Dynasty and became the new emperor of the Mongol-ruled Chinese Yuan Dynasty. Kublai moved the Chinese capital from Southern China to the North, modern-day Beijing.

Mongol rule in China was exploitative. China was simply a place from which to extract wealth for the Mongol civilization. 

  • In the new Chinese social hierarchy, Mongols were on top and native Chinese below them and their central Asian nomadic and Muslim allies. 
  • Initially, many landowners supported or remained neutral to Mongol rule in China with promises to keep their lands.
  • Some Confucian scholars believed that Mongol success at defeating the Song dynasty meant Mongols had gained the Mandate Heaven.
  • However, most Chinese resented foreign rule and the second-class status that the Mongol leadership had forced upon them.

Kublai Khan used the law to ensure the Mongols’ privilege and status by creating social distinctions between Mongols and native Chinese. Laws that favored the Mongols included:

Governance in the Yuan khanate

Despite the legal and social distinctions between Mongols and native Chinese, with little experience running an advanced agrarian society, necessity required that Kublai Khan accept many Chinese governing systems and cultural practices.

Governing practices adopted from the Chinese

Practices adopted from the Chinese included: 

  • the use of the Chinese governing bureaucracy and administrative procedures,
  • maintaining Chinese systems of taxation and postal service,
  • giving their Dynasty a Chinese title (the Yuan),
  • moving the Mongol capital from Karakorum in Mongolia to Beijing in China,
  • assigning Mongol ancestors Chinese names, 
  • practicing traditional Confucian rituals, 
  • and the construction of Daoist and Tibetan Buddhist temples.

Popular Mongol policies

To maintain their rule over the Chinese, the Mongols attempted to gain favor with the Chinese population. Mongol rulers 

  • improved infrastructure like roads and canals, 
  • temporarily lowered taxes,
  •  supported (patronized) Chinese scholars and artists,
  •  limited the death penalty,
  •  supported peasant agriculture,
  • and prevented the herding and grazing of Mongol herds on peasants’ farmland.

Despite these positive aspects of their governance, native Chinese generally resented Mongol governance.

The Ilkhanate in the Middle East

The Mongol conquest of the Middle East was violent and bloody and laid waste two both the Seljuk and Abbasid Empires. 

  • During the siege of Baghdad in 1258, Mongol forces killed hundreds of thousands of people. Some estimates place this number near 800,000. No such massive destruction took place during the conquering of Song dynasty China. 
  • With the destruction of Baghdad, the Islamic world’s heart for more than 500 years lay destroyed. For the first time in nearly 700 years, since the first wave of Islamic expansion under Muhammad, the Islamic world had suffered a catastrophic defeat. 
The transformation of the Ilkhanate Mongols

However, the Mongols did not destroy or suppress Islam in the land of its birth. Instead, Mongol rulers adopted Islam as the official religion of their dynasty. In the process, Mongol elites were transformed far more than Mongol rulers in China. 

  • Some members of the Mongol elite learned to read and write the Persian language, which was the language of modern-day Iran, where the Mongols placed their capitals. In comparison, Mongol elites in China made no serious attempts to learn the Chinese language.
  • Some Mongols also abandoned their nomadic lives, settled down, and turned to agriculture; although, many retained their pastoral and nomadic lifestyle.
  •  Others married local people. 
  • When the Ilkhanate rule collapsed in the 1330s, the Mongol ruling class did not flee back into safe Mongol lands. Unlike the Yuan Mongols in China, the Persian Mongols managed to assimilate into Persian society.
Governance in the Ilkhanate

Despite adopting Islam and aspects of Middle Eastern culture, Mongol rule was harsh and destructive. Below are the significant features of the Ilkhanate government.

The Golden Horde khanate in Central Asia (Russia)

Between 1237 and 1240, the Mongols entered Russia with a ferocity that matched or exceeded Persia’s death and devastation. The city of Kyiv was left a burning ruin. Residents were smoked out of their homes and slaughtered. The Mongol victors carted off others into slavery.

The Collapse of the Mongol Khanates

The Mongol Empire collapsed as quickly as it expanded. Within just a few decades, Mongol power rapidly declined. Because several great khans led their independent khanates, the collapse did not happen at once. Instead, different khanates weakened and collapsed within several decades of each other in the 14th century. Only the Golden Horde survived by the start of the 14th century, although in a weakened state.