The Mongols Conquer an Empire, Opening Trade and Communication between East and West


The Middle Ages in Europe and the Middle East were marked by three invasions of Central Asian nomads: the Huns, the Turks, and finally the Mongols. The latter would conquer the largest empire of all and exert an enormous influence on history, paving the way for the Age of Exploration. Other than the Crusades, in fact, no single series of events had as much to do with Europe"s reawakening from centuries of confusion following the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the fifth century a.d. The Mongols" impact is all the more impressive in light of the fact that they had no cities, no written language, and indeed no real history of any kind until they were united under one of the most dynamic leaders in all of history, Genghis Khan.

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Central Asia is a loosely defined region, a vast landlocked area bounded on the north by Siberia; on the east by China"s densely populated eastern half; on the south by the Indian subcontinent and Iran; and on the west by the Caspian Sea and Ural Mountains. Within this great expanse, wider than the United States and almost as broad from north to south, is an ocean of grasslands and (in Mongolia and western China) deserts. It is not suitable for crops, only for herds, thus encouraging a nomadic way of life.

The existence of "barbarians" beyond its northern and western borders was a central factor in premodern Chinese history, spurring the Chinese to unite under their first emperor, Ch"in Shih-huang-ti (259-210 b.c.), in 221 b.c. Protection against the nomadic Hsiung-Nu, in fact, served as the basis for the building of the Great Wall, begun under his reign, and though the wall never fully kept out the nomads, it at least discouraged many among them.

A great number of Hsiung-Nu, in fact, began slowly making their way westward, looking for better grazing lands. By a.d. 372, they had reached the Volga River, where they became known by a different name: Huns. Crossing the Volga, they displaced the Ostrogoths, setting in motion a long domino-like chain of events that ultimately led to the destruction of the Western Roman Empire in 476.

In the wake of the Huns came various groups of Turkic-speaking Central Asian tribes: first the Avars, who introduced the horse stirrup to the West; then the Khazars, Bulgars, and by the tenth century the Oghuz Turks. From the latter came the Ghaznavids, who invaded what is now Afghanistan; and the Seljuks, who became the first Turks to conquer parts of the country that today bears their name. At that time, the land now known as Turkey was an integral part of the Byzantine Empire, and had been culturally linked with Greece since ancient times. Thus when the Seljuks defeated the Byzantines at the Battle of Manzikert in Armenia in 1071, it was a crippling blow to Byzantium, an event regarded as the beginning of the end of the Byzantine Empire.

In the late eleventh century, tensions between Christian Europe and the Muslim Seljuks would help to spawn a series of "holy wars" called the Crusades (1095-1291). The latter, for all their barbaric cruelty—and despite their failure as a military enterprise—awakened the West from its isolation and exposed Westerners to the advanced civilizations of the Muslim and Byzantine worlds. Before the Crusades had played themselves out, a second great awakening would come with the arrival of a third and final group of invaders from Central Asia: the Mongols.


Unlike the Huns or Turks, the Mongols did not begin their conquests primarily in reaction to attacks by outside forces; rather, they were welded into a mighty fighting force by a single man, a chieftain named Temujin. History, however, knows him better as Genghis Khan. The latter title, meaning "ruler of all men," was bestowed on him in 1206, after he became the first Mongol leader to unite all of that nation"s tribes. Before long, the new Mongol khan received a visit from an official of China"s Sung Dynasty, demanding an oath of loyalty. Genghis"s response was to sweep into China in 1211 at the head of his army, a group of extraordinarily skilled and well-organized horsemen. By 1215 Genghis had conquered a city he called Khanbalik, which is today the Chinese capital of Beijing.

The westward thrust of Genghis"s campaigns began in 1216, when he invaded the realms of adefiant Turkic khan in southwestern Asia. Another Mongol force, led by his son Juchi, moved deep into Russia in 1223. However, in 1226 Genghis himself turned back toward China to deal with a revolt. He died on the way, and in the aftermath Juchi relented from his attack on Russia, returning to the Mongol capital at Karakorum to participate in choosing a successor.

It was a pattern that would be repeated throughout the short but highly eventful period of Mongol conquests: just when they had the momentum on their side, they pulled back from the attack to spend months upon months in bickering over who should take leadership. In this case, nearly three years passed before Genghis"s sons agreed that the youngest, Ogodai (r. 1229-41), should rule. Ogodai, however, lacked his father"s vision as well as his ruthlessness, and though the Mongol realms would grow considerably in the years that followed, the driving force behind their expansion was gone.

In 1235 Ogodai sent Juchi"s son Batu Khan to resume the attack on Russia with a combined force of Mongols and Tatars, another Central Asian nation that had once been the Mongols" rivals. By 1240 they had sacked Moscow and Kiev, and in the following year they devastated Poland and neighboring Silesia. They poured into Hungary, and by July 1241 were prepared to take Vienna. Then suddenly they were gone: Batu had received word that Ogodai was dead, and like Juchi before him, he hastened back to Karakorum to participate in choosing a successor.

The question of what would have happened if Batu had kept going is one of history"s great "what ifs." As it was, the Mongol-Tatar force quickly turned from invaders to lazy administrators more intent on receiving tribute than on expanding their realms. In Russia they became known as the Golden Horde because of their wealth, and because their word for their tents, yurtu, sounded like horde. Mongol rule in Russia was not extraordinarily harsh, and the conquerors interfered little with the affairs of the locals, but they did expect huge payments of tribute, and more important, they kept Russia isolated from the changes taking place in Europe by that time. This in turn greatly influenced Russia"s turn toward political authoritarianism combined with technological and economic backwardness.

Five years passed before the choosing of a new khan, Ogodai"s son Kuyuk, in 1246, and when they finally renewed their efforts in the west, the Mongols shifted their focus from Europe to the Middle East. This, combined with the fact that Kuyuk had taken an interest in Nestorian Christianity, led to European rumors associating him with Prester John, a fabled Christian king in the East.

When Kuyuk died in 1248, it took the Mongols three more years to choose his cousin Mangu (r. 1251-59). The latter sent Hulagu (c. 1217-1265), yet another cousin, into Persia and Mesopotamia, where he destroyed the Assassins in 1256 before sweeping into Baghdad and killing the last Abbasid caliph in 1258. Upon Mangu"s death, Hulagu gave himself the title Ilkhan, and thenceforth all of southwestern Asia would be a separate khanate under his rule. Soon he invaded Syria, which inspired more European hope that the Mongols would defeat the principal Muslim threat, the Turkish Mamluks. But in a battle at Goliath Spring in Nazareth on September 3, 1260, it was the Mamluks who defeated the Mongols. This brought an end to Mongol conquests in the west.

Though historians often refer to the Mongol realms as though they were a single empire, in the period after Genghis"s death these actually became four separate khanates: the Golden Horde in Russia; the realm of the Il-Khan in Southwest Asia; the Chagatai khanate in the western portion of Central Asia; and the realm of the Great Khan in Mongolia and China. As for China, though the Mongols had been making inroads there since Genghis"s first thrust in the early thirteenth century, the conquest was completed by his grandson, the only successor who possessed anything approaching the leadership skills of Genghis: Kublai Khan (1215-1294).

Kublai, who became Great Khan in 1260, finally defeated the last Chinese forces in 1279. He had by then established the Yüan Dynasty (1264-1368), the first foreign ruling house to control China—and one of the shorter dynasties in Chinese history. Among the reasons for this lack of longevity was Chinese contempt for the Mongols, a serious problem given the fact that the less civilized Mongols depended on the Chinese to run the country for them.

It is interesting to note that whereas the Chinese were accustomed to looking down on all outsiders, the Mongols were some of the most open-minded people of the Middle Ages. Precisely because they lacked a sophisticated culture, they admired those of the peoples they ruled, and there were many of these: under the forceful Kublai, lands from Korea to Tibet to Vietnam bowed to the military power of the Mongols. Kublai did not annex these countries, but madethem vassals, and the unity of the Mongol realm facilitated travel through areas formerly dominated by bandits and competing warlords.

This in turn made possible a degree of communication and trade between East and West that had not existed since the glory days of Rome. Among the first Westerners to travel eastward were the Polo brothers, Niccolò and Maffeo, who in 1271 brought with them a 17-year-old boy destined to become one of the most celebrated travelers of all time: Niccolò"s son Marco (1254-1324).

Marco"s writings about his experiences in the Orient became the most famous of their kind, but soon other Westerners were journeying to the East, bringing back with them such new ideas as gunpowder, paper money, the compass, kites, and even playing cards. From the Mongol realms, in turn, came a journeyer to the West: Rabban Bar Sauma (c. 1220-1294), a Turkish Nestorian monk who traveled to Europe and met Pope Nicholas IV (r. 1288-92), with whom he joined in an unsuccessful attempt to raise another crusade against the Muslims.

The Mongol period also saw a flowering in the arts of China, an unintended result of Chinese contempt for their rulers. Rather than serve the "barbarians," many talented Chinese opted to become artists and educators rather than civil servants. Of course the Mongols were most eager to absorb the refined culture of China, and this produced yet another unintended effect: in becoming more sophisticated, they lost the brutal toughness that had aided them in their conquests, and so become vulnerable to overthrow.

A series of failed invasions, both against Japan and Java, hastened the decline of Mongol power even under Kublai, and none of his successes proved to be anything like his equal as a leader. Furthermore, the Mongols lacked the sheer numbers to truly dominate China: not only were the Chinese older and wiser, in terms of their civilization, they were also more numerous. In 1368 a rebel named Chu Yüan-chang seized control of Khanbalik, and established China"s last native-ruled dynasty, the Ming (1368-1644).

The Mongols had one last moment of glory under Timur Lenk (1336-1405), or "Timur the Lame," who became known to Europeans as Tamerlane. Though he was not related to Genghis Khan, Tamerlane saw himself as a successor to the great conqueror, and set out to build an empire of his own, conquering much of southwestern Asia. Tamerlane would be remembered for his cruelty as a conqueror, and for his establishment of Samarkand, in what is now Uzbekistan, as a great cultural center. In 1526 his descendant Babur (1483-1530) established the Mogul dynasty, which would rule India until the eighteenth century.

Even by the era of Tamerlane, however, the time of the Mongols" greatest importance to world history was long past. Their impact, however, spread across time and space. To cite a significant example, the Mongols" opening of trade routes can in part be blamed for the spread of the plague or Black Death. An epidemic that started in Asia, the plague soon moved westward, carried by rats on merchant ships, to kill a third of Europe"s population in the years 1347-51.

Much more significant than the plague, however, was the fact that the Mongols opened Europeans to the idea of international travel, trade, and exploration. As Mongol power waned at the end of the fourteenth century, Europeans found themselves confronted by hostile Muslim rulers who blocked the eastward routes. Thus arose a need to find a sea route to Asia, and a new era in exploration was born. Central among the figures who brought about this era was Portugal"s Prince Henry the Navigator (1394-1460), who had grown up reading Polo"s work. So, too, had Christopher Columbus (1451-1506), who in 1492 set out to reach the East by sailing west—and instead discovered the New World.


Further Reading


The Editors of Time-Life Books. The Mongol Conquests: Time Frame A.D. 1200-1300. Alexandria, Virginia: Time-Life Books, 1989.

Grosset, René. The Empire of the Steppes: A History of Central Asia. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1970.

Howorth, Henry H. History of the Mongols. New York: B. Franklin, 1965.

National Geographic Society (U.S.) Cartographic Division. Mongol Khans and Their Legacy. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society, 1996.

Prawdin, Michael and Michael Charol. The Mongol Empire: Its Rise and Legacy. New York: Macmillan, 1940.

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Internet Sites

Oestmoen, Per Inge. "The Realm of the Mongols."