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8.7: The Mongol Era

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    During the 13th Century, the Mongols reunited with the Turkic groups who had been expelled from the Orkhon Steppe over the course of a millennia. The Mongols created the largest empire in history. Perhaps the greatest obstacle was their own divisiveness. Inter-tribal strife was commonplace. But once they united, the Mongols expanded deep into Russia, China, India, and the Middle East.

    8.6.1: A New System for Unity

    It was Temujin (1206 – 1227), later known as Genghis Khan, developed a method of governance and expansion that lasted long after his death. Born into the aristocratic Borjigin Clan, most likely in 1167, Temujin’s success was related to his convictions. Inspired by oral tales of past glory, his personal charisma and sense of fate enabled him to survive a youth of life-threatening privation, eventually bringing the various Mongol tribes together.

    With a keen awareness of his own destiny, Temujin was inspired to achieve greatness. He had a clear vision that God predestined him to function as His temporal ruler on Earth and exhibited a desire to claim universal lordship. Through a series of fights, he eventually subjugated local clans in eastern Mongolia. Then, he expanded his political control of the region through a marriage alliance to Börte Üjin, a member of the Olkhonut Tribe, which maintained friendly relations with Temujin’s Khiyad Tribe. Not long afterward, the Merkit Tribe kidnapped his wife. Temujin heroically rescued her. But she had been held in captivity for eight months and soon gave birth to their first son Juchi, who suffered from an uncertain parentage. Some historians believe that Temujin acquired the notion of conquering all of the Mongols from his liberation of Börte.

    Screenshot (949).png
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Temujin (Genghis Khan) Author: Anonymous Source: Wikimedia Commons License: Public Domain

    Despite his early successes, Temujin remained greatly outnumbered by his opponents and was forced to retreat to the Heights of Baljuna, located in modern day Manchuria. There he convinced his followers to swear an oath of total allegiance to him. For their unwavering loyalty, he promised his supporters a share in his glory upon their victory. By 1204, some Mongol tribes yielded to Temujin, and agreed to recognize him as their leader; thus, paving the way for a period of final unification of the Mongols.

    Temujin endowed his forces with coherency and unity of purpose. He also promoted allies based on merit, rather than by the traditional Mongol method of tribal hierarchy. His opponents, on the other hand, lacked his force of will and entered into a series of squabbles. Temujin took advantage of their internal fights, emerging victorious. In 1206, he was appointed as the first undisputed ruler of the Mongols by the Mongol assembly, or khuriltai. Then, Temujin adopted the name of Genghis Khan, or universal ruler.

    Genghis Khan presided over peoples who had experienced near-constant warfare since 1160. Previously, tribal confederations were loose alliances held together under charismatic khagans and punctuated by tribal warfare. He consolidated all of these diverse tribes and reshaped them into a single “nation,” endowing Mongol society with more cohesiveness, a key element to future expansion. He did this by developing a new political order that deviated from tradition.

    Restructuring Mongol society into new administrative military units, Genghis Khan charged each of his commanders with a tribal unit that was responsible for controlling a particular pasture and fielding soldiers when needed. His system had the added effect of assuaging previous conflicts by assigning members of rival tribes, to work together. By forcing the men from one tribe to stand guard over the pastures of other tribes, he weakened loyalty to ancestral lines and homelands, thereby reinforcing his own leadership.

    Genghis Khan represented the ultimate source of justice in his newly-formed state, consolidating his position and making it more authoritarian. He made the title of khan institutional, not personal, building a new foundation for legitimacy. Previously, tribal leadership rested on charisma. Furthermore, the great khan could not be self-proclaimed but had to be recognized at a khuriltai.

    His law, known as Yassa, originated as decrees delivered during war. Yassa remained secret, which allowed Genghis Khan to adapt it to changing circumstances. For example, he incorporated cultural elements indigenous to Mongol society into the law. He based his code on shamanist principles, and it served as the social and political formula binding all Mongols together. It also strengthened Mongol, rather than clan or tribal identification. It is believed that Genghis Khan himself directed the law, while his stepbrother Shihihutag served as the high judge, and his son Chagatai administered its execution.

    8.6.2: Expansion

    Genghis Khan encouraged Mongol expansion and the conquest of Central Asia. After subduing inter-tribal warfare, he followed tradition and exported the violence of the steppe. He offered incentives to his soldiers; the spoils of victory went to those who followed him into battle. Genghis Khan received ten percent of the loot and divided the remaining ninety percent between his commanders, who, in turn, distributed their portion amongst their retinue. This plunder included the inhabitants of all subjugated lands, which resulted in the dramatic depopulation of conquered territory. The khan's share of artisans and craftsmen were sent back to the itinerant Mongol capital.

    In 1208, Genghis Khan targeted northern China for pillaging, but he quickly encountered considerable difficulties overcoming well-fortified Chinese municipalities. The Chinese had ringed their principle metropolises with moats and connected these major urban centers to several smaller satellite towns via underground tunnels. The Mongols had attempted to starve these cities into submission, but they lacked the military technology necessary to overcome walls forty-feet high and fifty-feet wide. To counter these challenges, they imported the technology necessary to defeat Chinese cities.

    Genghis Khan also compensated for a lack of native talent by incorporating foreign engineers into their army. He utilized Arab, Persian, and Chinese experts to solve the problem of defeating Chinese municipalities. Their knowledge of siege warfare enabled them to construct the siege engines capable of subjugating cities.

    Screenshot (950).png
    Map \(\PageIndex{1}\): Map of Mongol Conquests Under Genghis Khan Author: User “Bkkbrad” Source: Wikimedia Commons License: CC BY-SA 3.0

    Adding these new sedentary peoples to the khan’s army inevitably caused problems. These men hailed from distinctly different cultures and did not interact well with the Mongols. So, Genghis Khan combined the mobility of his forces with the slow, bulky siege engines of the sedentary armies. While he kept his cavalry independent from the foreign engineers, mostly comprised of mercenaries, he blended these two disparate groups on the battlefield to his strategic advantage.

    For the Mongols, building an empire proved much easier than maintaining one. The nomads possessed an inherent need to loot and plunder cities, and Genghis Khan took advantage of this innate desire by remaining on the campaign. But the Mongols had difficulty understanding settled civilization and did not know how to maintain order in that new and different cultural milieu. Although they were able to instill fear in their enemies and easily forced many cities to capitulate, the Mongols co-opted local officials to ensure that taxes and tribute flowed freely back to their capital.

    With his newly-constructed army, Genghis Khan returned to northern China again in 1210 and began a continuous campaign of destruction, primarily directed against the Jin Dynasty (1115 – 1234). This empire was ruled by a Jurchen minority, a Tungusic people from Manchuria who would later call themselves the Manchu. In an early battle, the Jin put their Turkic cavalry up front to confront the Mongol horsemen. The Mongols managed to convince the Jin cavalry to defect to their side. Genghis Khan subsequently advanced on the Jin capital of Zhongdu and entered into a prolonged siege. In November of 1211, the khan withdrew his troops to their winter pastures, only to return again in 1212. Genghis Khan attempted a rash assault of the city. He failed and was wounded in the process. His Mongols had to retreat once again.

    Genghis Khan returned a fourth time in March of 1213, this time with the goal of conquering Korea, Manchuria, and all of northern China. By laying waste to all of northern China, he aimed to annihilate their way of life, turning the region into vast pastureland for his herds. The Mongol leader surrounded Zhongdu and starved the city’s inhabitants into submission. He systematically obliterated everything in order to send a message to the inhabitants that it was futile to resist him. He even considered taking the city, brick by brick, and dumping it into the Yellow River. Fortunately, a captured Chinese bureaucrat intervened and convinced Genghis Khan that it would be better to collect tribute rather than 'sack' the city. In the end, Genghis Khan incorporated northern China into his state and opened the region to trade. This campaign represented the first significant addition of territory to the Mongol Empire.

    (See Chapter 8.4.) As part of their tenacious pursuit of the fugitive Küchlüg, the Mongols had aroused the disdain of Khwarazmshah Ala al-Din Muhammad II, who ruled over a loose confederation of disparate people. He also provoked the wrath of the Mongols. It all began when Genghis Khan sent a trade caravan, and probably some spies dressed as merchants, to the frontier post of Otrar, located along the Syr Darya. The shah believed that the trade mission was a mere deception meant to obscure an eminent invasion. Inalchuq, uncle of Ala al-Din Muhammad and governor of Otrar, convinced the Khwarazmshah to have the entire party executed. An enraged Genghis Khan quickly dispatched an envoy and demanded that the governor of the city be put to death and have his head sent back to Mongolia as proof. The shah executed this emissary too, a rash decision that resulted in brutal massacres and a drastic depopulation of the region.

    Screenshot (951).png
    Map \(\PageIndex{2}\): Map of the Khwarezmian Empire, 1190-1220 CE Author: Arab League Source: Wikimedia Commons License: CC BY-SA 3.0

    Ala al-Din Muhammad fled the area, leaving the citizens of Khwarazmia to defend themselves against the forces of Genghis Khan. A total of five Mongol armies approached the Khwarazm capital of Samarkand from different directions, converging in 1220. The Mongols slew the inhabitants of the city and constructed pyramid-like edifices out of their severed skulls. In 1221, they seized the city of Urgench and dumped it into the Amu Darya, piece by piece, diverting the course of the waterway. And yet, Khwarazmshah Ala al-Din Muhammad still inexplicably escaped capture and runway to the south. Genghis Khan deployed another force of some 30,000 troops under the generals Jebe and Sübedei to track him down and put him to death. The shah eventually sought refuge on an island in Caspian, where he died of pleurisy.

    Meanwhile, Jalal al-Din Manguburti, the son of the Khwarazmshah, assembled an army of resistance. Genghis Khan sent his stepbrother Shihihutug to apprehend Jalal, but he escaped to the Hindu Kush Mountains of Afghanistan. Jalal’s forces managed to defeat the Shihihutugled Mongols on the field of battle at Parwan in the spring of 1221, a rare loss. The Mongols actually respected Jalal for his display of valor and willingness to resist them. Jalal fled to India via the Khyber Pass with his pride intact. The khan headed south himself and defeated Jalal al-Din along the banks of the Indus River. Following their defeat of Jalal, the Mongols descended into India but quickly found the hot and humid climate inhospitable. As such, they decided to return to Mongolia, arriving home by 1225. The Central Asia campaign had started as a punitive expedition; but in the process, had wiped out any type of resistance in the region.

    Screenshot (952).png
    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): Death of Khwarazmshah Ala al-Din Muhammad II | From Jami’ al-tawarikh by Rashid al-Din Hamadani Author: Sayf al-Vâhidî Source: Wikimedia Commons License: Public Domain

    In the interim, Genghis Khan had ordered Jebe and Sübedei to explore and reconnoiter the west. Between 1221 and 1223 the two generals traveled towards Russia. In the course of their journey, they defeated the Georgians, Armenians, princes of Rus, and Kipchak Turkic tribes. Then they abruptly returned home. The purpose was not to annex the territory but to gather intelligence, which proved to be important to their campaign against the princes of Rus between 1236 and 1240. Meanwhile, Genghis Khan had died on an expedition in southern China in 1227. Upon his death, the Mongols participated in a year of mourning, halting expansion.

    Screenshot (953).png
    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\): Jalal al-Din Fords the Indus River While in Flight from the Mongols Author: Banwarí Khúrd and Dharm Dás Source: Wikimedia Commons License: Public Domain

    8.6.3: Succession

    The Mongols were the only steppe tribes whose empire actually expanded upon the death of its founder. In fact, most of the Mongol conquests actually occurred after Genghis Khan's death. He had invented a safe and reliable means of transferring power, constructing a framework for subsequent generations to follow. To maintain political legitimacy and inherit the throne under this new system, one had to trace their ancestry back to Genghis Khan through his wife Börte and her four sons, Juchi, Chagatai, Ögedei, and Tolui. This concept dramatically limited contenders for the khanate, mitigating future competition for succession. Only they possessed the required Genghis-Khanid legitimacy.

    Screenshot (954).png

    Map \(\PageIndex{3}\): Map of the Empires of the Four Patrimonial Ulus Author: User “Gabagool” Source: Wikimedia Commons License: CC BY-SA 3.0

    The khan’s plan bequeathed to his sons parts of the world yet unconquered, so that they had to win these new areas. This stipulation produced an incentive for his sons to cooperate. The four subsequent empires that grew out of these ulus, or states, included

    • the Golden Horde, who were the descendants of Juchi and controlled Russia
    • the Chagatai Khanate, which traced its lineage to Chagatai and governed Central Asia
    • the Yuan Dynasty in China, the progeny of Tolui
    • the Ilkhanate of Persia, inheritors of the House of Hülegü and also the successors of Tolui.
    Screenshot (955).png
    Map \(\PageIndex{4}\): Map of the Khanate of the Golden Horde, 1300 CE Author: User “Gabagool” Source: Wikimedia Commons License: CC BY-SA 3.0

    Prior to his death in 1227, Genghis Khan expressed a desire that his son Ögedei succeed him, instead of Juchi, his eldest. In 1229, a khuriltai confirmed the khan’s wishes. Between 1230 and 1233, Ögedei’s troops defeated the remnants of the Jin dynasty in central China. Then they focused their attention on Russia. In 1236, Ögedei launched his campaign in the dead of winter and used rivers as frozen ice highways. By end of 1237, they had taken the Black Steppe, Vladimir, and Riazan. It was only some fortuitous flooding that prevented the complete destruction of Novgorod.

    The Prince of Novgorod was sufficiently impressed by the Mongol onslaught and voluntarily agreed to pay their tribute. In 1240, te Mongols commenced a devastating attack on the city of Kiev, culminating in a nine-day siege. They ultimately destroyed the city as retribution for its resistance. The Mongols steamrolled the Hungarians soon thereafter and left the region in ruins en route to Vienna. By December of 1241, their forces were approaching the outskirts of the city. No military power in Europe was capable of withstanding a Mongol attack.

    Screenshot (956).png
    Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\): Güyük at the Partyc | From Tarikh-i Jahangushay-i by Juvaini Author: User “Bahatur” Source: Wikimedia Commons License: Public Domain

    Fortunately for the Viennese, Ögedei died that very same month, and a one year period of mourning ensued. The Mongols were summoned home in order to choose the next great khan. What was supposed to be a quick election turned into a five-year ordeal because Batu, son of Juchi and grandson of Genghis Khan, refused to return to Mongolia for the khuriltai. This founder of the Golden Horde believed that he would not be chosen and knew that his relatives could not officially convene a khuriltai without him, thus preventing the body from proclaiming the next great khan. It was Ögedei’s death and Batu’s independence of thought that saved Europe from Mongol conquest.

    Screenshot (957).png
    Figure \(\PageIndex{5}\): Audience with Möngke | From Tarikh-i Jahangushay-i by Juvaini Author: User “Bahatur” Source: Wikimedia Commons License: Public Domain

    The khuriltai finally proclaimed Güyük, eldest son of Ögedei, the next khan in 1246. This was not a legitimate election though because of Batu’s absence. Güyük quickly dispatched an army to punish Batu for meddling in the political process of succession, but Batu had already arranged for his cousin’s assassination in 1248. Güyük’s death led to another period of paralysis. A khuriltai eventually nominated Möngke, Tolui’s oldest son, as the next great khan in 1251. Now Möngke had to deal with the problem that Batu presented. He was willing to allow for Batu’s autonomy so long as he recognized Möngke as the legitimate khan. It was at this point that Batu’s horde become the Golden Horde. He adopted the moniker of “golden” because he was asserting his independence.

    Batu died in 1256, and his younger brother Berke became the first khan of the Golden Horde to accept Islam. This sudden conversion to Islam caused systemic problems in the Mongol Empire. The four lines of Genghis Khan would adopt different faiths, resulting in political and religious divisions. As a Muslim, Berke spurned his Buddhist cousins and established firm links with the Turkic Mamluk Sultanate in Egypt, thus making an alliance based on faith with a power outside of the Mongol Empire.

    Genghis Khan’s empire had exceeded normal steppe expectations. However, his vision of a politically unified empire was never truly realized. A series of civil wars erupted that fractured the Mongol Empire. First came the Toluid Civil War (1260 – 1264), then the Berke-Hülegü War (1262), and finally the Kaidu-Kublai War (1268 – 1301). These three wars had the combined effect of undermining the great khan’s authority, and the empire ended up breaking apart along the lines of the patrimonial ulus. In fact, the successors of Kublai Khan (1260 – 1294), who presided over the Yuan Dynasty in China, could not even convene a khuriltai to appoint a great khan following his death. By 1294, there was no unified Mongol Empire.

    This page titled 8.7: The Mongol Era is shared under a CC BY-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Brian Parkinson (University System of Georgia via GALILEO Open Learning Materials) .

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