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


The famous Mongolian cavalry

The organization of the Mongol army was the basis of success. This mainly applied to the cavalry. The skill of riding was considered the most important. Therefore, the Mongols taught their children to ride at the same time as they taught them to walk. When ready for war, a warrior would usually have between five and six horses. However, there are recorded cases of some warriors having up to 18 horses.

Special care was taken about the horses. They were fed only grass and water was given once a day. The rule was that horses should not be shod or ridden before the age of three. Saddles were mandatory, and they were such that the rider could turn around in the saddle during the fight and shoot backwards from the bow. Their horses were especially known for their endurance. Some horses could cover a thousand kilometers in nine days. Therefore, it was precisely because of horses that the Mongolian army was self-sustaining. Horses were fed when moving, grazing, even in winter. The Mongols did not bring fodder with them. The Mongolian Maneuver War was a unique logistical phenomenon in military history. (For Part I click here)

Pax Mongolica

It was normal for the Mongols to use all means to impose their will on a defeated opponent. After the eruption of mass terror, the Mongols as victors showed complete tolerance towards different religions and customs. From the moment that the opponent recognized the rule of the Mongols and agreed to pay the imposed obligations, he could keep his way of life.

The mass terror of the Mongols was not an uncontrolled irrational force but was directly at the service of the war effort and stopped the moment the war objective was achieved. The Mongols used mass terror to intimidate the local population so they wouldn’t rise up. Cities and states that would formally recognize the supreme authority of the Mongol khan could in that case be safe and did not have to allocate the usual large resources for frequent wars with their neighbors. Bika is a kind of Pax Mongolica or Pax Tatarica.

Mongol invasions of Europe

The advance into Europe continued with the Mongol invasions of Hungary, Croatia and Poland. In their forays into Europe, the units of the Golden Horde will largely devastate everything they come across.

In his work Historia Salonitan, Split historian Toma Arhiđakon described the Mongols who penetrated into Hungary and Transylvania in 1241 as follows:

“These people are small, but their chests are broad. Their appearance is hideous: a bald and flat face, a blunt nose, and small eyes distant from each other. Their suit is impenetrable, and is composed of compound skin and resembles scales. Their helmets are of leather or of iron. Their weapons are a sheathed saber, a club, a bow and an arrow with an iron or bone blade that is for four fingers longer than ours. On their black and white flags they put a woolen whale on the top. Their horses, which they ride without saddles, are small but strong, accustomed to exertion and hunger; although they are not shod, they also climb the caves like chamois, and after a three-day hard race, they are satisfied with a little rest and food. And the people don’t worry much about their food either, as if they live on cruelty alone; they don’t eat bread, their food is meat, and their drink is horse’s milk and blood. They carry with them a large number of prisoners, especially armed Cumans. They drive them into battle by force and kill them as soon as they see that they are not going blindly into battle. Mongols do not like to go into battle alone. If one of them dies, they immediately bury him in that place, so that his grave is not known from the outside. There is almost no river that they would not swim across with their horses. However, they are transported across large rivers on their bellows or boats. Their tents are made of sackcloth or leather. Although there is a huge number of them, there is still no noise or uproar in their camp, but they walk with difficulty and struggle when they fight.”

When Mongol troops sacked Polish cities, Europeans rallied together to fight. Poles, Czechs, Christian military orders such as the Templars and the Teutonic Knights gathered enough forces to briefly hold off the Mongols at Liegnitz. The Hungarian army, Croatian allies and the Templars were defeated on the banks of the Šajo River on April 11, 1241. After the victory at Leignitz and Muhi, the Mongol army quickly advanced towards Bohemia, Serbia, the Austrian lands and the Holy Roman Empire.

Death of Ogotaj

Before Batu’s troops could advance towards Vienna and northern Albania, news of Ogataj’s death (he died of alcoholism) halted the invasion. As was customary in Mongol military tradition, all princes of the Genghis line were to attend a kurultai (coronation) to choose a successor.

Batu and his troops retreated from Central Europe the following year towards Asia. Most of the Mongol nobility rallied behind Gujuka-khan, the son of Ogatai, but his uncle Batu-khan at the head of the Golden Horde refused the invitation to the kurultai. For more than four years, the great Mongol Empire was without a great khan.

Cruel struggles for power

Finally, in 1246, Batu agreed to the election of Gujuk in an effort to prevent an impending civil war. The election of Gujuk marked the arrival of relative stability that will enable new war operations. While the empire was without a leader, some peoples managed to free themselves from Mongol control. The Persians, for example, refused to recognize Gujuk as the ruler of their lands. Just two years later, Gujuk-kan died of alcoholism or poisoning. Once again, the empire had to choose a successor from among the sons and grandsons of Genghis Khan and reach a consensus on the management of the vast empire.

It took time, but in 1251 Mongo Khan, grandson of Genghis, was crowned. During his reign, the empire did not expand significantly and that was because Mongo was trying to stabilize the empire from within. More of a bureaucrat than his predecessors, Mongo-khan purged many of his relatives and their supporters from power to consolidate his power and reform the tax system. Between 1252 and 1258 he conducted a census. The Mongols continued their expansion into the Middle East as well as attempting to subdue the Song dynasty.

Mongo died in 1259 while the campaign against the Chinese was going on and a new khan was once again sought. While the imperial family debated the successor, Hulegu Khan’s troops were defeated by the Egyptian Mamluks in the Battle of Ayn Jalut. The Mongols would never resume their westward advance while they were in East Asia.

The triumph of Kublai Khan

This time a bloody civil war could not be avoided. Genghis’s grandson, Kublai Khan, was the winner, and he managed to get to the throne. He defeated his nephew Ariqboqe in 1264 in a fierce war. In 1271, Kublai Khan appointed himself the founder of the Yuan Dynasty in China and set out in earnest to finally subdue the Song Dynasty. The last emperor of the Song dynasty surrendered in 1276, marking the Mongol victory over all of China. Korea is also forced to pay tribute to the Yuan after further battles and diplomatic pressure.

Kublai left the western possessions of his empire to the management of his relatives, concentrating his expansion on East Asia. He forced Burma, Annam (North Vietnam), Champa (South Vietnam) and the Sakhalin Peninsula into a vassal relationship with Yuan China. However, his expensive and ambitious invasions of Japan in 1274 and 1281 as well as Java (Indonesia) in 1293 were complete fiascos.

The gradual disintegration of the empire

Kublai Khan died in 1294 and the Yuan Empire passed uncrowned to Temur Khan, Kublai’s grandson. This was another sign that the Mongli were becoming increasingly sinicized. Then the Mongol Empire was divided into four different khanates: the Golden Horde Khanate in the northwest, the Chagatai Khanate in Central Asia, the Ilkhanate in the southwest, and the Yuan Dynasty in China. In the Ilkhanate, the new Mongol leader Ghazan converted to Islam. A war broke out between the Chagatai Khanate in Central Asia and the Yuan-backed Ilkhanate. The ruler of the Golden Horde, Ozbeg (also a Muslim), restarted the Mongol civil wars in 1312, and by the 1330s the Mongol Empire was bursting at the seams.

In 1335, the Mongols lost control of Persia. The plague spread across Central Asia along the Mongol trade routes, wiping out entire cities. Burning Korea was liberated from the Mongols during the 1350s. By 1369, the Golden Horde had lost Belarus and Ukraine in the west. Meanwhile, the Čagataj Khanate disintegrated and local warlords filled the vacuum. Most significantly, the Yuan dynasty lost power in China in 1368 and was overthrown by the Chinese, ethnically Han, Ming dynasty. This marked the end of the empire.

Genghis Khan’s successors would continue to rule Mongolia until 1635, when they were defeated by the Manchus. However, their great empire, the largest land empire in history, fell apart in the 14th century after a long 162 years of existence.

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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