Ancient history

The Mongol Empire

The Mongol Empire has been one of the most destructive forces the entire world has ever known. They appeared in the 13th century from the Asian plains terrorizing the peoples of Eurasia, from China to Hungary. However, less than a century later the Mongol Empire began to disintegrate into independent states (Khanates) , which by the end of the 15th century had disappeared.

The steppes stretch for more than 5,000 km from the Danube Plain in eastern Europe, through southern Russia and central Asia, to Manchuria. Its climate is extreme, with very cold winters and dry summers. The plains were inhabited by tribes of nomadic herders who traveled long distances with their herds of horses, sheep and cattle and traded with the towns that settled around their limits.

Over time, bands of warriors—such as Attila, whose raids struck terror in Europe in the 5th century AD—rose from the steppes, attacking peoples living near their borders. Although they caused great terror, their territorial empires did not last long, since they lacked political structures that unified their empires; their leaders were only effective to the extent that they obtained spoils to pay their armies.

The Mongol Campaigns

The greatest steppe warrior of all time was Temujin, better known as Genghis Khan. He adopted this title, which means "universal ruler", in 1206, after uniting all the Mongol tribes under his power. Genghis Khan, brilliant war chief, created the best cavalry army known. To stay in power he had to keep his warriors constantly occupied, when the flow of spoils of war was interrupted, they abandoned him without remorse. So he kept his army active through constant incursions and campaigns that took him from northern China, across central Asia, to India and Iran, and around the Black Sea to southern Russia, conquering a much larger empire. longer than that of Alexander the Great.

No army could oppose the Mongols' combat tactics. They were magnificent horsemen who could gallop out of harm's way in moments and shoot their arrows while riding. One of his favorite tactics was to fake a retreat and lie in wait. They obtained the best results in the open field of the steppe.

Genghis Khan was succeeded as grand khan by his son Ogodei (reigned 1229-41) and his grandsons Kuyuk (reigned 1246-48), Mongke (reigned 1251-59), and Kublai Khan (reigned 1260- 94). His armies conquered Tibet, Korea, Persia, Iraq, and much of Russia and Hungary. In 1279, after more than a decade of campaigning, Kublai Khan conquered China from the Sung, taking the dynastic title of Yuan. It was the last great Mongol conquest, as the campaigns in Southeast Asia brought no new successes and the attempt to invade Japan failed twice.

In their wars of conquest, the Mongols committed horrible atrocities:for example, when they conquered Baghdad in 1251, they killed more than 200,000 prisoners. His tactic of terror cost millions of lives and caused permanent damage to the two most advanced civilizations of the time, the Islamic and the Chinese. The devastated ancient trading cities of central Asia never managed to regain their former prosperity. Vast regions of northern China, Persia, and Iraq were left depopulated, and Russia was isolated for nearly two centuries from European cultural development.

However, one of the results of Mongol rule was increased trade and cultural contacts between China and the rest of the world. The Mongols were less hostile to Christian Europeans than the Muslims, which allowed traders like Marco Polo to travel to the East for the first time.

Disintegration of the Mongol Empire

In 1235, the capital of the Mongol Empire was established at Karakorum, a Mongolian countryside that had been a favorite of Genghis Khan. But as their extensive territories were too vast to be governed effectively from a single place, subordinate khanates were created to govern the western conquests:the khanate of the Golden Horde (from the color of its first khan's tent) in Russia; the Khanate II in Persia; and the Chagatai Khanate in the central steppes. Their chiefs were supposed to be subject to the authority of the great khan, but by 1260, when Kublai rose to the dignity of khan, all of them had ceased to be under his direct rule. After Kublai, the Mongols had no outstanding rulers. As their power began to wane, even nominal control of the western khanates slipped out of their hands, disintegrating into rival clans and states. The Mongols of the Golden Horde converted to Islam, which alienated them from their Christian Russian subjects. In the East, Tibet regained its independence in 1294. China was liberated between 1356 and 1368 by a rebel leader of peasant origin known as Zhu Yuanz-hang, Hongwu or Hung-wu. After taking Beijing, which had been the capital of the Great Khanate since 1266, he proclaimed himself the first emperor of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). The power of the Grand Khanate was restricted to the Mongolic heartland of the eastern steppes.

The Campaigns of Tamerlane

Tamerlane (reigned 1361-1405), Emir of Samarkand in the Chagatai Khanate and a notoriously brutal warlord, was the last Mongol conqueror. Although he was a Turkic-speaking Muslim, he claimed that he was descended from Genghis Khan and was a nomad who spent most of his life campaigning in Central Asia and the Middle East. Many enslaved artisans were driven to Samarkand to enrich it with several of the best mosques in the Islamic world, although, according to legend, Tamerlane built towers with the skulls of his victims. Tamerlane's empire, like those of his predecessors, died with him. His campaigns left the Islamic world in ruins and severely weakened the western khanates.