At its height in 1279, the Mongol Empire was the largest land empire the world has ever seen. Stretching along the Asian coastline all the way to Vietnam and Burma and across the Eurasian continent to Persia, Iraq and up through Turkey and the Caucacus to the Russian and Ukrainian heartland, the empire covered over 33 million square kilometers (12.7 million square miles) and encompassed over 100 million people. This vast empire literally changed the world.

Created on the blood of millions, the Mongol Empire left behind a mixed legacy debated to this day. At home, particularly in the post-Communist period, Genghis Khan is proudly honored and revered as the founder of the Mongol state.

Unlike earlier empires and khanates that came out of the fringes of today’s Mongolia, the Mongol Empire was born in its nomadic heartland – the people who led a traditional lifestyle of hunting, fishing and herding, and who moved their animals with the seasons along with their round, felt, moveable homes, or gers. Scattered and independent, they worshipped Eternal Heaven, or Tengri, and followed the wisdom if the shamans who had their own links into the great unknown. Although organized into family clans and even tribes, they were often at the mercy if more sedentary-minded outsiders who came in built their now-ruined cities and then-influenced by faraway dynamics – moved along always bit players in the greater scheme of things. On their own after the departure of the Khitan in the early 12th century, attempts by the Mongols at creating their own unity inevitably collapsed to tribal rivalries and their fiercely jealous aristocracies.

Genghis Khan was born from one of those failed attempts at Mongol unity. His own great-great grandfather, Habul was khan of the Hamag Tribe in the northeastern Hentii, which was demoted and the family lineage usurped by other aristocrats. The epic story is told in The Secret History of the Mongols – “secret” because it was meant only for the Mongol court. When Habul’s great-grandson and unproclaimed khan, Yesuhei, was poisoned by the Tatars in 1171, his wife and sons were banished from the tribe in the hope they would soon perish out on the steppe on their own. For Yesuhei’s second-born son Temujin, then only nine, this betrayal and rejection kindled a fierce deternimation for survival and power that turned him into a world conqueror.

Early on, Temujin learned the value of loyal friends and forming alliances. He enlisted the help of his father’s anda, or blood brother, Toghrul khan, from the neighbouring Kereit Tribe around today’s Ulaanbaatar to rescue his kidnapped wife Borte from the Merkits further north along the Selenge river. But Temujin’s success aroused the jealousy of his own anda and childhood friend, Jamuha, who also had leadership ambitions. They split, each with his own followers. When Temujin was elected khan of the Borjigin, Jamuha attacked Temujin and defeated him. Several years passed before recovered, re-formed his alliance with the stronger Kereits and, now with a subsidy from the Jin, defeated the Tatars. (For Temujin, this was also sweet revenge for his father’s death.) Overcoming repeated intrigues and double-crosses, Temujin eventually prevailed, first over the Kereits, the Merkits and the Naimans where Januha had sought final refuge. Accourding to tradition, his childhood friend was then wrapped in a carpet and trampled in a carpet and trampled to death by horses, an “honourable death”not to shed any blood on the earth.

By 1206, Temujin  was firmly in control of all tribes and lands between the eastern Khingan and western Altai mountains and from Lake Baikal to the Great Wall. Without any reference to previous tribal or confederation names, he gave this entity the new name of Mongol Uls, for state or people, the official beginning of the nation now called Mongolia. A great gathering or kuriltai of tribal chiefs – believed to have taken place at Hoh nuur Lake– endorsed Temujin as Genghis Khan, the “Ruler of the Sea” or “universal ruler”.

Quite deliberately, Genghis Khan broke away from traditional – and inherently divisive – tribal structures and created a centralised and autocratic state backed by a code of law, the Yasa (also spelt Yassa or Yasaq), its own written language and even a communications system. Most importantly, of course, was his creation of a powerful non-tribal military structure and a tactical doctrine, including using sieges and winter campaigns, that changed the face of warfare and conquered most of the known world. Instead of simply slaughtering or enslaving his conquered foes, Genghis Khan brought them into his own military where they joined mixed units based on the decimal system, units of 10 up to 10.000 or tumen, the size of modern division. (A “horde” was made up of several tumen.)

Using only a small nucleus of Mongols with a clear chain of command , Genghis Khan quickly built up a vast and well-disciplined military machine using horses and engineering units. Highly mobile, well armed and trained, and experts at marksmanship and horsemanship, the units were backed by an intelligence-gathering system, psychological, even bacteriological warfare, and a rapid communications system based on horse relays. Clearly, the world had never seen anything like it before.

Even before launching his first outside military campaigns, Genghis Khan was joined peacefully by tribal groups on the western fringe of Mongolia, such as the Oirads (Oirats), Kyrgyz and Uyghurs (the Kara Khitan would doubtless have joined too had the fleeing Naimans not usurped their power). Although now being converted to Islam, the Uyghurs played an important role in the growth and administration of the empire, including a written language. Religious and racial tolerance and promotion on merit and skills were early trademarks of the Mongol Empire.

With such unity behind him, Genghis Khan began his massive military campaigns, first against the Tangus of the Western Xia to the southwest, where he developed new siege tactics against their fortified cities and forced them into vassalage by 1209. He then pushed southeast over the Gobi Desert and the Great Wall against the more powerful Jin Dynasty, capturing their capital of Yanjing (today’s Beijing) in 1215. The Jin ruler escaped south of the Yellow River to Kaifeng, where he held out for another 20 years. Then Mongol leader then moved west on Kara Khitai in 1218, easily overrunning its capital with only two tumen and executing the fleeing Naiman leader Kuchlug who had usurped the throne.

Then came the campaign that earned Genghis Khan his reputation for bloody ruthlessness. With the defeat of the Kara Khitai, he now overlooked the powerful Khwarezmid Empire encompassing a large part of Central Asia, in what is now Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan and most of Iran. Mostly Turkic and Muslim, the region was an important section of the Silk Road. When Genghis Khan sent some 200 merchant-ambassadors to establish trade links in 1218, the Shah executed them as spies. He did the same when diplomats arrived demanding an apology.

Vowing vengeance, Genghis Khan brought 200.000 troops into Khwarezmia the following year, splitting them into three groups in a massive pincer movement. The city of Otrar was overrun and destroyed after a month-long siege and the city governor famously killed by pouring molten gold into his month. The capital of Samarkand and city of Bukhara were sacked and then destroyed after longer sieges. The physical damage and human casualties were simply horrendous. The only people spared were skilled tradesmen who became slaves of the empire.

While the killing of the Mongol merchants and diplomats may simply have been just a pretext for Genghis Khan’s attack, the clear message to his adversaries after this particularly brutal campaign was that surrender and cooperation, basically vassal status, was a better option. With the defeat of the Khwarezmians in 1220, the Mongols the set off on two massive reconnaissance operations. With a small contingent, Genghis Khan ventured down into Afghanistan and northern India while another 20.000 under General Subetei headed west around the Caspian Sea and then on a devastating swing up through the Caucasus, the Crimea and into the Ukraine, where he defeated the Slavic princes of Kiev at the Battle of Kalka river in 1223. They returned to Mongolia the following year around the northern side of the Caspian Sea. It wasn’t long before they were back.

Genghis Khan returned home to find that his Western Xia vassals, who had refused to join the campaign against the Khwarezmid Empire, were now in alliance with the remnants of the Jin Dynasty and hoping he’d be too weak to respond. In 1226, Genghis Khan retaliated with a massive offensive through Tangut territory, sacking cities and engaging in several set-piece battles against superior forces. The capital of Ningxia on the banks of the Yellow River was totally obliterated-turned into a cemetery, the annals say. When the emperor finally surrendered, Genghis Khan ordered the entire imperial family executed to leave to no heirs. He died shortly afterwards.

Just how Genghis Khan died is still debated. But the likely explanation is that it happened in battle. Mystery, too, surrounds where Genghis Khan was actually buried – it is said there is even a Davinchi Code-like “secret society” that knows exactly where his grave is! The accepted legend is that his body was returned home and buried atop sacred Burkhan Khaldun Mountain in the Hentii in an unmarked grave according to his own tribe’s customs. The site was then trampled over with horses and all who participated executed. A Japanese archaeological team touched off a huge controversy in 2004 when they launched a high-tech effort to find Genghis Khan’s grave and were forced to back down, although they did find traces of an old palace and other graves. Most Mongolians prefer the simple mystery.

Before his death, Genghis Khan appointed this third son Ogodei as his successor, a decision approved by a kuriltai in 1228 at Avarga. With Ogodei as Great Khan, the empire was divided between the founder’s four sons. Oldest son Jochi had died on the long reconnaissance up to the Ukraine and Russia and his son Batu was given that region starting the lineage that became the Golden Horde. Genghis khan’s second son Chagadai took the southwest down into Afghanistan and Persia. Ogodei received China and the rest of Asia. By custom, youngest son Tului inherited the central Mongolian homeland. The same kuriltai also approved  a military offensive against the Turkic Bulghars in the middle Volga region of Russia, a task completed by Batu following year, and also to wrap up the conquest of the Western Xia. After occupying Korea in 1231, Ogodei then resumed the war against china’s Jin Dynasty south of the Yellow River. The Great Khan also began construction of the Mongol Empire’s capital in the Orhon Valley at Karakorum, today’s Harhorin. Forming an alliance with the Southern Song Dynasty, Ogodei send Tului south with a large army, but his younger brother died the following year and his command was taken over by Subetei, who continued the long siege of Kaifeng. Despite strong resistance, including the first recorded use of missile-rockets, in Jin capital fell in 1233. Many Jurchens were driven back to their Manchurian homeland (as the Manchu, they would revive in the mid17th century as China’s last imperial dynasty, the Qing, which lasted until 1911- a period which also included their occupation of Mongolia). Other Jurchens were absorbed into the Mongol military. When the Song attacked the Mongols for not sharing their conquest, Ogodei declared a war against the rest of China that would last another 45 years.

Let us stop here for a moment to consider the sheer audacity of what the Mongols were now doing. Genghis Khan’s chosen successor and son, Ogodei, was committing his nation of barely one million people to an offensive war against the most populous country in the world, China, roughly 100 million people. At the same time, other Mongol-led armies were invading Persia, the Caucasus and the steppes of western Siberia and Russia. Smaller invasions were running elsewhere, such as in Korea and Tibet. At the beginning of the 13th century, the Mongolian state had 44 tumen (that is, 44x10000) of military capable men aged 13 to 60 and their families at its disposal. This represented some 700.000 to one million people, of whom only about 130.000 were constantly ready-to-fight troops. (In comparison, the population of Europe was 30-40 million around the year 1000 and by 1300 was already about 80 million.) So, ethnic Mongols were a minority in their own armies. The remainders were outsiders, such as Turks, Tatars, Tanguts, Jurchens, Chinese, Cumans, Bulghars and other Inner Asian tribes who were recruited or drafted into the highly disciplined tumen structure. The self-confidence of the Mongol leadership, to say nothing of its subsequent success, was truly remarkable.

Of course, on the negative side, the population drain on the Mongolian heartland was devastating- to say nothing of the huge casualties the Mongol armies inflicted on the populations they encountered. Barely 100 years later, there were barely 100.000 people in Mongolia as many troops died on these far-flung operations. Others were assimilated into the local population, adopting new cultures, faith and languages, a fate that ultimately befell even the ruling Mongol elite of this sprawling empire. Another step towards economic and ethnic stagnation in the Mongolian heartland came when Khublai Khan moved the Empire’s capital from Karakorum to Beijing in 1267.

With the defeat of the Jin Dynasty and his eastern flank now secure, Ogodei turned to Europe- a massive operation that would have catastrophic effects on its Medieval peoples and ensure the Mongol’s lasting reputation. Nominally under Batu, actual command was under the ageing but still brilliant General Subetei, the most gifted Mongol military leader after Genghis himself, who had conducted that massive reconnaissance up into southern Russia 15 years before and then defeated the Jin. The long campaign set off in 1236 with some 600.000 men, quickly defeating the Bulghars. Then, operating even in winter, they swept a path of blood and destruction through Russia and the Ukraine, capturing Kiev by late 1240.

The year of 1241 was critical to Europe’s very survival. Pushing farther west in three columns, the Mongols swept through Lithuania and Poland, destroying the Polish army at Cracow in March and then decisively defeating a superior combined force of Europeans at the Battle of Leignitz in April. Meanwhile, another column swept southwards through Transylvania in today’s Romania, across the western steppe and up the Danube into central Hungary where King Bela IV was annihilated at the Battle of the Sajo River, also in April. Gathering their forces, the Mongols spent the summer months recuperating and consolidating the eastern bank of the Danube while planning another winter campaign.

The Mongols crossed over the frozen Danube in December 1241, with scouting parties raiding northern Italy around Venice and Treviso and up the Danube towards Vienna. Suddenly, however, everything stopped. The Mongols’ renowned horse messenger service had brought word of Ogodei’s death back in Karakorum on 11 December. Under the Yasa promulgated by Genghis Khan, all offspring had to return to elect their new khan. The hordes turned east with one last foray through the Balkans and Bulgaria. Advances by Chagadai down into India also halted.

Fortunately for Europe, the kuriltai to replace Ogodei was delayed by 5 years, mostly by Batu’s stalling on the Volga River while he established the Golden Horde at Kipchak, and political maneuverings by other relatives. After a regency by his widow, Teregene, who was herself a Nestorian Christian, their son Kuyuk was selected in a meeting witnessed by papal envoy John de Plano Carpini, who was there to ascertain the Mongols intentions after their devastating attacks on eastern Europe (he also provided the first European eyewitness account from the Mongolian homeland and capital of Karakorum). But Kuyuk was undecided between military campaigns in China and Europe and died after only three years, perhaps poisoned. By now firmly established on the Volga, Batu opted out, giving his support to Mengke, the oldest son of Tului, Genghis Khan’s youngest who’d died in the earlier campaign against the Jin Dynasty in 1233.

Confirmed as Great khan in 1251, Mengke chose to leave Europe for later and made his first priority the long-neglected conquest of China with the Southern Song now stronger than ever. But the succession had badly split the family. Another contentious issue – as in today’s Mongolia –was the power and influence of the Chinese and the Mongol fear of losing their own identity, or becoming “sinicised”. The ever-pragmatic Genghis khan and his sons had always used Han Chinese extensively to administer their far-flung empire, such as Chancellor Yeh-Lu Ch’u-Tsai’s running its treasury and tax system. Chinese also helped run the vast military machine.

In a foretaste of Mongolia’s communist-era purges of the 1930s, Mengke ordered massive executions of his enemies, including Ogodei’s own sons, their mother Toregene and her infamous Muslim advisor Fatima, who’d undermined the Chinese courtiers. Mengke and his brother Kublai took over Ogodei’s realm in East Asia. The writ of Chagadai was now limited to Central Asia’s Oxus River and the Hindu Kush. Brother Hulegu was given the rich and vast lands beyond in the southwest. He would become the first of the Ilkhans (subservient khans) and Mongol rulers of Persia, today’s Iran. Mengke also urged Batu to resume his attacks on Europe. But without sufficient manpower, his forays were limited to the Baltic and the Balkans. Western Europe was finally off the hook.

Mengke resumed the campaign against the Song Dynasty in southern China, appointing Kublai as viceroy in the north. From their now well-fortified and provisioned cities, the Song put up determined resistance. The Mongols staged a massive flanking maneuver through southwestern China when Kublai conquered Namchao in modern Yunnan Province. He then swept across through Tonkin, or northern Vietnam, to the South China Sea, taking Hanoi in 1257. Inside this vast encirclement, the Chinese began to crumble to a series of brilliantly executed campaigns personally directed by Mengke. Then in 1259 – and at a critical time once again – everything changed when the Mongol leader died of dysentery.

When the kuriltai was called to choose Mengke’s successor, Kublai claimed he was too busy fighting in southern China to return. He quickly called his own council in the field to declare himself the new Great khan. His actions confirmed growing suspicions that Kublai was drifting too far from his Mongolian roots and becoming too sinicised. Instead, the mail kuriltai chose his younger and more traditional brother Arik-Buka.  The two-year war between the two brothers that followed this disputed accession effectively ended the unity of the Mongol empire. By 1261, just over 50 years after its creation- and now only into its third generation –the vast empire was falling apart.

While Mengke and Kublai were in China, their brother Hulegu was extending his Persian-based fiefdom up into Mesopotamia. In 1257, after the sultan of the Abbasid Caliphate refused help in crushing the Assassins, a terrorist sect headquartered in the remote Persian mountains near the Caspian Sea, Hulegu moved his forces on ancient and gloriously rich Baghdad- one of Islam’s most important centers of cultures. By now swollen to over 150.000 with reinforcements from the Golden Horde and Chagadai, their 8.000-kilometer (5000-mile) trek from Karakorum had taken three years. The force included 1.000 “families” of skilled Chinese artillerists to conduct sieges, and Hulegu’s deputy was the famous Chinese general Guo Kan. Also included were a large contingent of Christian allies from Georgia and Armenia.

When the sultan in Baghdad refused to surrender, the city was besieged and quickly fell, touching off an orgy of massacre, rape, looting and destruction that some records claim left 800.000 dead. Mosques were turned into Christian churches; with help from local Christian vassals, the horde then swept into Damascus, destroying the Ayyubid Dynasty, and was rapidly moving on the last seat of Islamic power in Cairo when word came of Mengke’s death. Hulegu departed with most of his troops, leaving only a skeleton force behind.

By the time Hulegu returned from the accession of his brother Kublai in 1262, the situation in the Middle East had changed dramatically. Allowed through their territory by European Crusaders who’d decided they feared the Mongols more than the Muslims, the Egyptian Mamluks had inflicted the first-ever military defeat on the Mongol Empire at the Battle of Ain Jalut in Palestine. When Hulegu sought revenge for the loss, he was attacked from the rear by Berke Khan, who’d succeeded Batu as head of the Golden Horde to the northeast. His uncle was now a convert to Islam pledged to protect its holy sites.

Different parts of the Mongol Empire were now at war with each other. Despite repeated attempts, Hulegu was unable to forge an alliance with the Pope, France or England to crush the Mamluks and regain Palestine. The Ilkhan withdrew back to Iran where he focused on expanding trade along the Silk Road and the genteel life, while Turkic viziers ran the country. His successor invaded Palestine and Syria but the Ilkhanate was now under attack from the Chagadai khanate, and its troops returned home. (The Ilkhanate ended in 1335 when the viziers took control.)

Kublai was now the Grand Khan, but the massive Mongol Empire was already falling into pieces, torn apart not only by family quarrels at the top. “Genghis had divided his empire into four parts, not only because he had four sons, but also because the empire was made up of four radically different ethnic, cultural and religious worlds,” explains historian Baabar. So few in numbers and dependent on outsiders for control, the Mongols were assimilating into these respective cultures and would eventually disappear. Berke’s attack on Hulegu was just the start as more quarrels broke our over succeeding generations. Three became Muslim. After 1260, they would have little to do with Mongolia – and their fascinating histories are unfortunately beyond the space available here. Bur from the Great Moguls of India to the Ottoman Empire, even Tsarist Russia itself, the Mongols left behind a lasting legacy, most notably as Baabar explains, “a whole school of a unitary state administration that was to last until the 20th century”. The world certainly had changed forever.

For one last glorious period – as immortalized by Marco Polo – the Mongol Empire endured but far from its nomadic roots on the steppes. Highly educated and hardly averse to the sedentary life, Kublai soon turned his back on the Mongolian heartland and moved his capital out of Karakorum – and a further two-week horse relay away – to Dadu, today’s Beijing. (Dadu, or “great capital”, was also called Khanbalik or Marco Polo’s Cambaluc.) In summer, the capital shifted north of the Great wall to Shangdu – popularized as Xanadu – in today’s Inner Mongolia.

In 1268, Kublai resumed the conquest of China, finally capturing the Song capital of Hangzhou in 1276, and three years late bringing the outlying provinces fully under Mongol control. In 1279, Kublai declared himself the emperor of a now-united China and heralded the start of the Yuan. (“first”) Dynasty, which lasted until 1368. Mongol rulers quickly developed a reputation for opulence and luxury.

Kublai Khan’s rule also marked the zenith of the period that historians call “Pax Mongolia”, a golden age of commerce and cultural exchange between East and West. Certainly, the Mongol wars of conquest were absolutely devastating, with for example 30% of the Song Chinese population, or 29 million people, killed and equally staggering figures from elsewhere. But within remarkably little time, especially where submission came early and without resistance, local economies recovered and prospered.

With roads now safe, trade flourished from one end of the Mongol Empire to the other, giving rise to the oft-repeated line from a Turkic historian that “a young virgin with a tray of gold on her head” could travel unmolested from the Pacific to the Mediterranean. Persian, Arab, Greek and Venetian merchants traded goods along the Silk Road in deals backed by paper money, a Mongol innovation. Another was the passport guaranteeing safe passage. Moveable type used by the Chinese reached European and saw the printing of the Gutenberg Bible in the 14th century. Other ideas in the arts, architecture, shipbuilding navigation, literature, foods and medicine were swapped between East and West. The visits by Marco Polo and other Europeans led to the great period of sea explorations, including the discovery of the New world.

The exchange of religious ideas also flourished – especially in the empire’s early days before the ultimate religious “winter” emerged – and then helped destroy it. Tolerance ruled. Missionaries fro near and far came to Karakorum where the ruler encouraged them into religious debates that sometimes turned to farce. Nestorianism, dismissed as heresy by the early Christian Church, had already made strong inroads when Genghis Khan chose Christian wives for his own sons (the mother of Kublai, Mengke, Hulegu and Arik-Buka was also Christian). Islam, Buddhism and Taoism were also heard in this marketplace; after first destroying mosques in the Khwarezmid Campaign, Genghis Khan had soon reversed his policy to allow religious freedom.

But as the empire expanded, tolerance gave wave to the viciousness of the Baghdad campaign and its aftermath. For a brief moment, Islam was in the defensive but was then fervently embraced by most of Genghis Khan’s descendants. In china and the east, Kublai Khan briefly tolerated Nestorian Christianity and even Roman Catholicism. But eventually, and in return for the mountain kingdom’s accepting vassal status, Kublai embraced Tibetan Buddhism as his empire’s official religion and appointed Phagspa of the Sakya Sect as his “Imperial Preceptor”, or advisor. (This brilliant monk also created a universal script known as the Phagspa Script for the Mongol Empire that was never widely adopted.)

On the military front, Kublai had reached his limits. Thanks to fortuitous typhoons – dubbed kamikaze or “divine wind” – on each occasion, massive invasions of Japan failed in 1274 and 1281 and military campaign down into Burma, Vietnam and Champa later in the decade stalled. More puzzling was an attempt by Kublai to occupy far-off Java in today’s Indonesia even later in his reign in 1293.

But most of his energies went into establishing a strong centralized government for China using traditional institutions, including examinations to choose its civil servants. The Mongols also engaged in massive public works project, such as completing the Grand Canal into Dadu. Artificial lakes, hills and palaces were also built in the new capital – their shapes still evident today. Travel and trade flourished, as did cultural life with the popularization of Drama, music and the written vernacular.

But ultimately the Mongol experiment failed, largely through a heavily discriminatory system against the Chinese and a bias for employing non- Chinese from other parts of the empire, such as Marco Polo. As Kublai Khan’s successors became more sinicised, they also lost further influence back in the Mongolian heartland without gaining anything among the Chinese. Divided by political intrigue and uninterested in governing, with the country torn apart by dissension and banditry, the last Mongol emperor was driven out of China by the incoming Ming Dynasty in 1368.

Resource: Carl Robinson "Mongolia Nomad Empire of Eternal Blue Sky'