Mongol Empire: Rides and Conquests

Mongol Empire: Rides and Conquests

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The Mongolian were one of the most destructive conquering powers the world has ever known. In the 13th century, they arose from the steppes of Asia, terrorizing the peoples of Eurasia, from China to Hungary. And yet, less than a century later, the immense mongolian empire had started to disintegrate into several independent states. By the end of the 15th century, it had almost disappeared from history, leaving behind, after an incredible ride, nothing but ruins and desolation.

Rides in the steppes

The steppes, of vast plains similar to the grasslands of North America, stretch over 5,000 kilometers from the Danube plain, in eastern Europe, to Manchuria, in the east, passing through southern Russia and central Asia . The climate is harsh, marked by extremely cold winters and scorching summers. The steppes were inhabited by tribes of nomadic pastoralists who moved their herds of horses and sheep over great distances in search of rich pastures, and traded with the sedentary peoples established near their borders.

History has regularly seen bands of warriors appear from the steppes to attack people living on the border, such as the huns ofAttila, which terrorized Europe in the fifth century AD. These bands caused general panic and sowed desolation in their path, but their territorial conquests were ephemeral. This phenomenon was due to the fact that the nomadic tribes of the steppes did not have political and administrative structures capable of sustaining their empires. Moreover, their leaders retained their authority only as long as they brought back loot to reward their armies.

Mongolian countryside

The most outstanding steppe warrior of all time was Temudjin, better known as the Genghis Khan. It was in 1206 that this clan chief was proclaimed khan after having succeeded in unifying all the Mongol tribes under his command, and took his name which means "universal chief". A peerless military leader, Genghis created what was arguably the most brilliant cavalry army ever, which he tirelessly led across Central Asia, from northern China to Asia and Iran, then making it bypass the Black Sea to reach the Caspian Sea and southern Russia. He thus conquered a territorial empire surpassing that of Alexander the Great.

When Genghis Khan died, Ogoday (1229-1241), then the grandson of Genghis Khan, Kubilai (1260-1294) succeeded him. Their armies took control of Tibet, Korea, Persia, Iraq, and much of Russia and Hungary. In 1279, after more than a decade of campaigning to conquer Song China, Kubilai khan takes the dynastic name of Yuan. It was the last great Mongol conquest. His campaigns in Southeast Asia did not bring lasting success, his attempts to invade Japan twice failing.

The Mongolian army has committed atrocities during their wars of conquest: more than 200,000 prisoners were massacred during the capture of Baghdad, between 1251. Their tactics of terror cost millions of human lives and inflicted lasting damage on the two most advanced civilizations of the time , that of Islam and that of China. The devastated former Central Asian trading towns never regained their former prosperity. Vast areas of northern China, Persia and Iraq were depopulated, and Russia was left out of the mainstream of European cultural development for nearly two centuries.

Mongolian domination, however, resulted in the multiplication of commercial and cultural contacts between China and the rest of the world. The Mongols were less hostile to European Christians than the Muslims who had previously controlled the trade routes through Central Asia. This allowed European merchants, like Marco Polo, to travel to the East for the first time and bring back Chinese knowledge and technology.

Dismemberment of the Mongol Empire

In 1235 the capital of the Mongol Empire was established at Karakorum, which had been Genghis Khan's favorite camp in Mongolia. But the immense Mongolian territories turned out to be too large to be effectively ruled from one place, so that subordinate khanates were created to administer the Western conquests: the Golden Horde khanate in Russia (thus named apparently because of the color of the tent of the first khan) the Ilkhnate of Persia, the khanate of Djaghatai in the central steppes. Their rulers were supposed to come under the authority of the great khan, but they had all shied away from his direct authority when Kubilai became khan in 1260.

The Mongols did not no outstanding leader after Kubilai, and their power began to decline, the khanates bursting into clans and rival states from the end of the 12th century. The Mongols of the Golden Horde converted to Islam, alienating their Christian Russian subjects. In the East Tibet regained its independence in 1294. China was liberated between 1356 and 1368 by a rebel leader, Zhu Yuanzhang. After taking Beijing, capital of the great khanate since 1266, the latter proclaimed himself the first emperor of the Ming dynasty (1366-1644). The power of the great khanate was then limited to the heart of the eastern steppes, Mongolia. The Mongolian dream of conquering the world was over.

Tamerlane's campaigns

Tamerlan (1361-1405), emir of Samarkand in the khanate of Djagataî, was the last of the Mongol conquerors. Although a Muslim and of Turkish parents, he claimed to be the descendant of Genghis Khan; Nomadic, he spent most of his life campaigning in Central Asia and the Middle East in an attempt to reconstitute the empire of the great khan.

Craftsmen whom he enslaved were taken to Samarkand to cover the city with mosques, which are among the most sumptuous in the Muslim world, but according to folklore he had their towers built with the skulls of his victims. Tamerlane's empire, like that of his predecessors, died out with him. His campaigns left the Muslim world in ruins and dealt a fatal blow to the western khanates.


- By Jean-Paul Roux, History of the Mongol Empire. Editions Fayard, 1993.

- By René Grousset, L'Empire des steppes: Attila, Gengis-Khan, Tamerlan. Payot, 2001.

- De Dominique Farale, From Genghis Khan to Qoubilai Khan: The Great Mongolian Ride. Economica, 2005.

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