The Rise And Fall Of The Mongol Empire (Part I) – Analysis


The history of people is the history of wars. From the very beginnings of the history of mankind and ancient civilizations (Egypt, China, Mesopotamia) to the current moments already deep in the 21st century, a lot has changed, and one of the few things that has remained the same is warfare. Warfare is usually reduced to military efforts to conquer some territory or valuable resources when politics cannot do it in elegant diplomatic ways. 

Considering human nature, which in principle tends to break through borders, often the rulers of various kingdoms, empires and republics measured their power by the degree of control of vast territories and the huge number of inhabitants there who were their subjects. In addition to territory and population, the rulers also wanted to own precious resources such as gold, silver, silk, porcelain, grain, water, and energy. History often repeats itself, and great conquerors who managed to make their small or medium-sized nations and states at a certain moment the superpowers of their era also repeat themselves again and again. One such prime example for history textbooks is Genghis Khan and the Mongol Empire.

During its existence in the 13th and 14th centuries, the Mongol Empire was the largest land state in human history. Conceived in the distant and secluded Asian steppes, the Mongol state eventually spread far west to Eastern Europe, east to the Sea of Japan, north to Siberia, south to the Indian subcontinent, Indochina and Persia to the Levant. At its height, the empire covered an incredible 33 million square kilometers and had under its rule 100 million inhabitants. It is therefore not surprising that some later great conquerors, such as Adolf Hitler, saw in Mongolia’s most famous leader, Genghis Khan, a role model and a path to follow.


The Mongol Empire was created by the unification of nomadic tribes in Mongolia under the leadership of Genghis Khan, who was declared the ruler of all Mongols (or Tatars) in 1206. The Great Khan, named Temujin, showed the qualities of a charismatic and brave warrior at an early age. When he announced the idea of uniting all the Mongols, many tribes voluntarily went over to his side, and those who did not had only two choices: side or die.

In 1206, Temujin became the leader of a great confederation of Mongols, receiving the popular name Genghis Khan, meaning “Universal Leader”.

Great Yasa

Genghis Khan is remembered for his system of laws called the Great Yasa. In that act, the rights and obligations of every citizen are prescribed. Of course, the punishments are listed so that everyone knows what awaits them if they do not submit to Genghis Khan’s will. Among other things, this code abolished the acquisition of duties according to origin.

What is now called meritocracy was introduced: anyone could hold even the highest state positions if they proved capable. Religious, national or racial affiliation was not important. Yasa enabled the taxation and the obligation of Mongolian adults to participate in hunting during the winter months. Temujin forbade pillaging defeated enemies without permission and instituted a policy of sharing the spoils with his warriors and their families. The sale of women, internal conflicts and hunting during the mating season are prohibited. It supported internal and external trade. Exempted the poor and the clergy from taxation.

Unification of Mongolian tribes

At the beginning of the 13th century, Genghis Khan succeeded in uniting the Mongolian tribes under his leadership, both by grace and by force. From them, he then formed a powerful army with which he attacked two neighboring Chinese empires: Jin and Xia. The more numerous and better armed Chinese were surprised by the Mongol military tactics. Namely, there were no infantry in the Mongol army, and lightly armed horsemen attacked quickly and suddenly, and then, simulating a retreat, lured the enemy into a trap. Meanwhile, the enemy would be bombarded with clouds of deadly arrows all the time.

In addition, Mongol warriors, often changing their fast horses, could travel more than 160 kilometers a day, feeding themselves by looting and drinking the blood of their horses. The Mongolian leader introduced an innovative way of organizing the army and divided it into decimal divisions: arbani (10 soldiers), zuni (100), mingani (1,000), tumeni (10,000). The Imperial Guard, the kešig, was established and divided into day and night members. Commanders had recognizable rank insignia on their chests. With such an army, Genghis Khan destroyed one Chinese army after another.

Conquest of Beijing and China

In 1209, the Uighurs were conquered, and then it was the turn of northern China with Beijing. Genghis Khan decided to go on a campaign with 50,000 soldiers that would last six years. Confident in his own power, the emperor of northern China did not worry too much about the Mongols. There was the Great Wall of China, which had stopped Mongol raids for centuries. But not this time because Genghis Khan solved the problem of the Great Wall by simply bypassing it. That is how he came to the capital of northern China, Beijing, which at that time had about 350,000 inhabitants. Only then did problems arise for the Mongols. At that time, Beijing was one of the most advanced and most brilliant cities in the world, which was surrounded by a wall 60 kilometers long and 12 meters high with 900 guard towers with numerous military personnel. The inhabitants of Peking considered their city therefore impregnable.

This did not sway Genghis Khan, who, faced with this obstacle, decided to prevent the supply of food to the city. With this, he turned Beijing into a prison where thousands of people will soon starve, and cannibalism will even occur. In addition to all this, Chinese engineers who were on Genghis Khan’s staff trained the Mongols how to make siege engines. When the machines were built, the Mongol army attacked.

As the city was defended by a large army, Jinigs-khan knew that the first wave of attackers would receive the strongest blow, and he forced the previously captured enemy soldiers to participate in the first wave of attacks. Technically superior, but starved and exhausted, the Chinese army will eventually give way and the city will fall. On June 1, 1215, the Mongols conquered Peking. The city was destroyed, and the entire population was killed. Genghis Khan ordered the total destruction of the city, and buildings were set on fire, murders and rapes followed. Witnesses who visited Beijing a year after the fall testified that they found whole hills of human bones in the city.

After destroying both Chinese empires, Genghis Khan turned his mighty army westward, dreaming of conquering the entire world. Although they set up their administration in China, the Mongols soon took over Chinese culture and merged with the majority people, so that Genghis Khan’s grandson Kublai Khan founded the new ruling Yuan dynasty. As a permanent consequence of the Mongol invasion, a unified China remained, which was never again divided into separate kingdoms and empires.

Further conquests and death of Genghis Khan

Then the great khan turned to the conquest of the Khorezmian Empire, a powerful Islamic empire that encompassed the territories of many countries in Central Asia. Ortara, Bukhara, and Samarkand fell in sequence. Part of the army, under the leadership of his son Tulaj, conquered Iran, Azerbaijan, Georgia and penetrated through the Caucasus to the Crimea. After defeating the Russian princes at the Kalki River and driving the Polovtsy from the Dnieper, he returned down the Volga to Asia.

When the Tangut uprising broke out (the Tanguts were the rulers of the Hsi Hsia vassal empire in northwestern China), Genghis Khan resumed the campaign, but died during the siege of the capital on August 18, 1227. He was over 60 years old and in failing health. Having promised their ruler that they would keep his death a secret, Khan’s followers killed all the witnesses to the burial. Legend has it that he was buried with 40 horses and 40 virgins, and that a thousand horses covered every trace of his tomb with their hooves. According to other sources, the Mongol ruler was buried in the bed of a river that was diverted from its course, and then allowed to cover his grave with water. Thus, the final resting place of Genghis Khan has remained shrouded in mystery to this day.

Arrival of Ogataj

Genghis Khan’s empire, the area from the Yellow Sea to the Black Sea, came under the rule of his son Ogatai. Genghis Khan bequeathed a regulated Mongolian script, religious tolerance, the Mongolian code (Great Yasa) and developed trade. Ogataj sent troops to subjugate Bashkirs, Bulgarians and other peoples in the Eurasian steppes. In the east, Ogatai troops reestablished control over Manchuria by defeating local Chinese and Tatar troops.

In 1230, the great khan personally led a campaign against the Jin dynasty. General Subutai captured the capital of the Wanyan Emperor Shoux at the Siege of Kaifeng in 1232. The Jin dynasty collapsed in 1234 when the Mongols captured Caizhou. In the same year, three armies under the command of Ogataj’s sons Koču and Koten and General Čagan attacked southern China. With the help of the Song dynasty, the Mongols triumphed. Many Chinese defected to the Mongols to fight against the Jin dynasty.

New Mongol offensives

The second Mongol invasion of the Caucasus began with the expedition of Chormagan against Jalal al-Din Menguberdi, ordered by Ogotaj in 1231. The southern Persian dynasties in Fars and Kerman voluntarily submitted to Mongol rule and agreed to pay them tribute. They set out on Armenia and Georgia in 1236 and completed the conquest three years later. The Mongol military governors were mostly encamped in the Mughan Plain. Seeing the danger from the Mongols, the rulers of Cilicia and Mosul surrendered to the Great Khan. Chormagan divides the Transcaucasian region into three districts. By 1237, most of Persia was subordinated to the Mongol Empire, with the exception of the Abbasid Caliphate, Ismaili strongholds, Afghanistan and Kashmir.

The Mongols began to conquer the North Caucasus in 1237, but they encountered strong resistance from the local population. In the east, there were a series of Mongol invasions of Korea (Goryeo Kingdom) but Ogata’s efforts to annex the Korean peninsula met with little success. Gojong, King of Gorje, surrendered but later rebelled and massacred the Mongol overseers and would then move the seat of his kingdom from Gaeseong to Ganghwa Island. As the empire grew, Ogatai established the capital at Karakorum in western Mongolia

Matija Šerić

Matija Šerić is a geopolitical analyst and journalist from Croatia and writes on foreign policy, history, economy, society, etc.

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