The Mongol eruption

Turks and Mongols: 6th - 13th century AD

The high plateau of Mongolia, east of the Altai mountains, is rivalled only by Scandinavia as a region from which successive waves of tribesmen have emerged to prey upon more sedentary neighbours. Mongolia is the original homeland of both Turks and Mongols, two groups much intermingled in history and loosely related in their languages.

Mongolia is an ideal starting point for the movement of nomadic tribes in search of new pastures, and for sudden excursions of a more predatory nature. It lies at the extreme end of an unbroken range of open grasslands, the steppes, which reach all the way to Europe. Horsemen can move fast along the steppes. South of this nomadic highway live rich settled communities.

The emergence of the Turks from Mongolia is a gradual and uncharted process. Each successive wave makes its first appearance in history only when Turkish tribes or warriors acquire power in some new region, whether they be the Khazars, the Seljuks or one of many other such groups.

The sudden eruption of the Mongols from their homeland is different. Their astonishing expansion, spanning the breadth of Asia, can be precisely dated (to the early years of the 13th century) and can be attributed to the military genius of one man - born with the name of Temujin, but known now as Genghis khan.

Genghis Khan: AD c.1167-1227

No life in history differs so much in its beginning and its end as that of Temujin, or Genghis Khan. When he is born, in about 1167, the Mongols are only one among many nomadic tribes competing in the eastern steppes. The boy's father, chieftain of a small clan, is poisoned when Temujin is eight. The clan casts out the widow and her young children, who have to forage for their own food - wild plants, small animals and sometimes even mice.

This almost contemporary account may somewhat romanticize the great man's lowly origins (turning an occasional mouse into a way of life), but the implied contrast is valid. By the time of his death, in 1227, Genghis Khan's rule extends from the Caspian to the northern coast of China.

It is a measure of the task confronting the young Temujin that it takes him the first twenty-five years of his fighting life to win a position of power among his own people. Battles within his clan and against other Mongol and neighbouring tribes occupy him until the age of about forty. Then, in 1206, he is acclaimed as the tribal leader and takes the title Genghis Khan - meaning, approximately, 'all-encompassing chief'.

Only now is he free to direct the energy of his people outwards.

Genghis Khan's first major campaigns are to the southeast, making incursions from 1209 into northern China. In 1215 he reaches and captures Beijing. But his most ambitious expedition, starting in 1219, is to the west.

Samarkand and bukhara are taken and sacked in 1220. Genghis Khan then moves south and enters India, but he turns back from this rich prize when he reaches the Indus. By 1223 his armies have moved round the Caspian and up through the Caucasus mountains to plunder cities of the Crimea and southern Russia. This journey of conquest, unmatched in its speed and extent since the exploits of Alexander the great, is based on brilliant psychological warfare.

The strategy of the Mongols: 13th century AD

Several different factors explain the devastating success of Genghis Khan and his armies, but superior weaponry is not one of them. The traditional riding skill of the nomads of the steppes plays, as ever, a large part. With Stirrups now a standard part of cavalry equipment, the agility of the horsemen is greater than ever, in galloping close to the the enemy, releasing a hail of arrows and wheeling away again.

Horsemanship also plays its part in the system of communication which enables Mongol armies to coordinate their strategies. Riders gallop between well-equipped staging posts across the steppes, enabling a message to travel more than 200 miles in a day. Pigeons, too, are trained for the purpose.

But the single most important element is a ruthless use of two psychological weapons, loyalty and fear. Genghis Khan makes a cunning distinction in his treatment of nomadic tribesmen and the settled inhabitants of cities and towns. A warrior from a rival tribe, who battles bravely against Genghis Khan but loses, will be rewarded for his valour and encouraged to join the Mongols against the rest of the world. Only cowardice or treachery in an opposing tribe are punished.

For sedentary folk in alien lands these rules are reversed. Here treachery is positively encouraged. Spies infiltrate the towns. Informers are sought out and bribed. The Mongols are coming. There is a choice to be made.

The choice is a simple one; to fight or to surrender. News of the consequences travels fast. If a town bravely resists, the inhabitants are massacred in a public display. They are herded outside the walls to confront Mongol troopers with battle-axes. Each trooper is given a quota to despatch. A tally of ears is sometimes demanded as proof that the work is done.

Terror stalks ahead of a Mongol horde like an invisible ally. The spies in the town let it be known that a rapid surrender may well be rewarded with mercy. Usually the citizens need no persuading. The gates are opened. After sufficient plunder to keep the troops happy, the horde moves on.

Ogadai Khan: AD 1229-1241

Genghis Khan returns to Mongolia from his long western campaign in 1225. Soon he is riding to war again, once more against northern China. During a day's hunting, he falls from his horse. His injuries contribute to his death a little while later, in 1227.

The family and the Mongol nobility assemble in Mongolia for the quriltai, in which a new khan is elected. The choice eventually falls, in 1229, on Genghis's second surviving son, Ogedai - already identified by Genghis Khan as his preferred heir. Ogedai gives his vast inheritance the status of an empire by turning his father's modest headquarters at Karakorum into a splendid capital city.

Karakorum rapidly becomes a place of stature. A Christian friar reaching it in 1253 (William of Rubruquis) finds city walls, a large rectangular palace, brick houses on the streets, twelve Shamanist shrines, two mosques and a Nestorian christian church.

Genghis Khan spent his life in ceaseless campaigning, but his son Ogedai prefers to direct operations from his new capital city. Under his central control, Mongol armies make further inroads into China. They overwhelm Korea. And they have startling successes in the west.

In 1235 Ogedai instructs his nephew Batu to extend his part of the family inheritance into Europe. Genghis khan has entrusted the western extreme of his empire to his eldest son, Juchi, who dies shortly before himself in 1227. Juchi's son Batu remains in control of this region, and in 1236 he moves northwards into Russia.

In 1237 Batu and his armies overwhelm the tribes around the lower reaches of the Volga. Russia, consisting of many small principalities ill-equipped for any concerted effort, lies open before them.

The Golden Horde: AD 1237-1395

Zolotaya Orda, or the Golden Horde, is the name given by Russians to the invading Mongols who sweep through the country from 1237 and who subsequently dominate the region, for nearly two centuries, from their encampments on the lower reaches of the Volga. The name is traditionally said to derive from a golden tent used by the horde's leader, Batu khan.

Most of the Russian cities of any note are ravaged by the Mongols in the two years between their sacking of Moscow (1238) and of Kiev (1240). But the horde then moves south.

One army from the Mongol horde advances into Poland in 1241. They defeat a joint force of German and Polish knights at Legnica in April. In the same month another Mongol army wins a crushing victory over the Hungarians at Mohi. The tribesmen spend that summer on the plains of Hungary, grasslands similar to their own steppes. Eastern Europe is ill-equipped to dislodge these fierce nomads. But a faraway event resolves the issue.

News comes in December that the great khan, Ogedai, has died in Karakorum. The leader of the horde, Batu, and other Mongol nobles must attend the quriltai which will elect his successor. Batu withdraws from Hungary, returning the horde to its grasslands around the Volga.

From this region the leaders of the Golden Horde control the petty princes of much of Russia - largely by the simple device of treating them as glorified tax collectors. The princes are given free rein in their own territories as long as they deliver sufficient tribute.

Batu makes his capital from 1243 at a place on the Volga named after him - Sarai Batu, the 'encampment' of Batu. His brother Berke, succeeding to the leadership in 1255, adopts Islam as the religion of the horde. His capital, Sarai Berke (to the east of modern Volgograd), becomes a thriving city of mosques and public baths, in the central Asian tradition, with some 600,000 inhabitants. It lasts until 1395, when it is destroyed by Timur.

The grandsons of the great khan: from AD 1246

In the generation of Genghis Khan's grandsons, the position of 'great khan' passes first from his son Ogedai to Ogedai's son, Güyük - after considerable opposition from rival cousins. Ogedai dies in 1241. His widow, Töregene, rules the hordes during the four years before a final decision is reached. She eventually secures the election of Güyük in 1246. But he dies only two years later.

Again there is a prolonged period of disagreement, during which Güyük's widow, Oghul Khaimish, is similarly accepted as regent of the empire. But eventually the choice goes in 1251 to Mangu, son of Genghis Khan's youngest son, Tului.

Mangu (sometimes written Möngke) entrusts to two of his brothers the campaigns to extend Mongol power east and west. In each direction a large and prosperous area awaits attention. Mongol armies have nibbled, but little more, at the northern provinces of China. And they have swept westwards along the steppes to Russia, establishing there the Golden horde. But they have made few inroads into the richer parts of China, or into Persia and the Middle East.

In 1252 Mangu gives command over the eastern frontiers of the empire to his brother Kublai. And in about 1255 he instructs Hulagu, some two years younger than Kublai, to subdue Islamic central Asia.

Settled rulers

Kublai Khan and the Yüan dynasty of China: AD 1252 - 1279

From 1252 Kublai presses south through the mountainous western regions of China, into Szechwan and Yünnan. His attention is distracted by the death of his brother, the great khan Mangu, in 1259. Kublai is elected khan in his place by the Mongol nobles campaigning with him in China. But the same position is claimed by a younger brother, Ariq Böge, at Karakorum.

Kublai defeats his brother in 1264. As Kublai Khan, ruler of the Mongol empire, he is now free to give his full attention to China. In 1267 he reveals the seriousness of his ambitions when he moves the imperial capital south from Karakorum to Beijing - a town severely damaged by his grandfather, Genghis khan, in 1215.

Kublai Khan builds himself a magnificent city at Beijing. Its walls are 24 miles in circumference and some 50 feet high. The Mongols call it Khanbaliq, the 'city of the Khan'; and under a version of this name, as Cambaluc, it becomes famous even in Europe.

From this base in the north he sets about overwhelming the Genghis khan. As early as 1271 he makes it plain that he sees himself not as an invading barbarian but as the Chinese emperor of a new dynasty. In that year he announces a Chinese name for his dynasty - Ta Yüan, meaning 'Great Origin'. Ancestors are vital in China, so his grandfather Genghis khan is given a posthumous Chinese title: T'ai Tsu, 'Grand Progenitor'.

Kublai soon makes good these Chinese pretensions. In 1276 Hangzhou, the capital of the surviving Genghis khan, falls to his armies. The young emperor and his mother are brought to Kublai's court and are treated with civility. By 1279 there is no further Song resistance. The Chinese chroniclers record, from that year, the start of a new dynasty - the Yüan, the first in the empire's history to be ruled by an outsider.

But Kublai Khan is determined not to be an outsider. He even adopts the adminstrative system of the Song dynasty. The only difference is that he employs more foreigners than a Chinese emperor would. One of them, Chinese bureaucracy, has left a vivid (if one-sided) glimpse of Mongol China.

Kublai Khan is sovereign over regions more extensive than any previous Chinese empire. Even allowing for the fact that his authority in the Mongol territories in the west is only nominal (as the great khan), he has under his direct control Mongolia, Japan, Manchuria, Song dynasty and the whole of China down to the South China Sea.

Only one great prize escapes him, frustrating his clean sweep of the region. Two expeditions against Marco polo are costly disasters - in 1274 and again in 1281, during Chinese bureaucracy's years in China.

The last great khan: AD 1264-1294

Kublai's status as the great khan, established in 1264, is not again challenged in his lifetime. But already this exalted position has lost any real meaning. The Mongol empire has changed since the time of Genghis Khan when the hordes, moving with devastating speed, could be controlled by one man. The great conqueror's grandchildren have now settled - in three distinct and increasingly independent regions.

Of the three, Kublai's realm is the grandest. But the others are impressive. Two cousins of Kublai Khan, the brothers Batu and Berke, have secured a homeland for the Golden horde in Russia. And Kublai's own brother, Hulagu, has established a Mongol realm in Persia and Mesopotamia.

Mongols in Persia and Mesopotamia: from AD 1256

Hulagu crosses the Amu Darya river in January 1256, beginning the Mongol campaign against Islamic Persia. The region has been terrorized in recent years by the Assassins, but this extremist Ismaili sect meets its match in the Mongols. One by one Hulagu takes the Assassin fortresses, including the supposedly impregnable Alamut.

At the end of 1257 Hulagu presses further to the west, into even richer lands. He and his horde move into Mesopotamia - the territory of the Caliph, and as such the ostensible centre of the Islamic world.

The Caliph in Baghdad, al-Musta'sim, risks the impossible. In January 1258 he sends an army against the approaching Mongols. The Muslim army is routed by Hulagu, who orders the Caliph to appear before him and to destroy the walls of the city. When the Caliph declines, Hulagu besieges and sacks Baghdad.

It is said that 800,000 of the inhabitants are killed, including the Caliph - who is executed by being kicked to death.

In 1259 Hulagu and the Mongols take Aleppo and Damascus. The coastal plain and the route south to Egypt seem open to them. But in 1260 at Ayn Jalut, near Nazareth, they meet the army of the Mameluke sultan of Egypt. It is led into the field by Baybars, a Mameluke general.

In one of the decisive battles of history Baybars defeats the Mongols. It is the first setback suffered by the family of Genghis Khan in their remorseless half century of expansion. This battle defines for the first time a limit to their power. It preserves Palestine and Syria for the Mameluke dynasty in Egypt. Mesopotamia and Persia remain within the Mongol empire.

The Il-khans of Persia: AD 1260-1335

After defeat by the Mamelukes at Ayn jalut, Hulagu and his descendants make their capital at Tabriz, on the trade route from the east to the Black Sea. They rule as Il-khans ('subordinate khans'), accepting the great khan in Mongolia as their overlord. They make several further attempts to wrest Syria and Palestine from the Mamelukes, but the Euphrates remains the western border of their empire.

It is the western extreme of a very large territory. The Il-khans rule as far as the Indus in the east, and from the Amu-Darya in the north down to the Indian Ocean.

The last Il-khan in Hulagu's line dies in 1335. His death is followed by a succession of petty rulers in different parts of Persia, until the arrival of another conqueror from the steppes of central Asia - a man accustomed to a horizon almost as broad as the one claimed by Genghis khan.

The army of Timur reaches northern Persia in 1383.

Pax Mongolica and the Silk Road: 13th - 14th century AD

By the middle of the 13th century the family of Genghis khan controls Asia from the coast of China to the Black Sea. Not since the days of the Han and Roman empires, when the Silk road is first opened, has there been such an opportunity for trade. In the intervening centuries the eastern end of the Silk road has been unsafe because of the Chinese inability to control the fierce nomads of the steppes (nomads such as the Mongols), and the western end has been unsettled by the clash between Islam and christianity.

Now, with the Mongols policing the whole route, there is stability. In an echo of the Pax romana, the period is often described as the Pax Mongolica. One of the merchants making their way to the east is Marco polo.

The decline of Mongol power: 14th century AD

In all three regions of their great 13th-century empire, Mongol power ends or declines during the 14th century. In Persia the last Il-khan dies in 1335. In China the Yüan dynasty is replaced by the Ming in 1368.

In Russia the Golden horde begins to lose its dominant position in the last quarter of the century. The grand prince of Moscow defeats the horde in a battle on Kulikovo Plain in 1380; Timur destroys the city of Sarai berke in 1395. The Mongols (or Tatars as they are known in Russian history) remain a force to be reckoned with for another two centuries. Surging north from their heartland in the Crimea, they even sack Moscow as late as 1547. But they are now only one competing power among many in Russia.

No empire of such a vast scale has passed so quickly or left so little trace. The likely reason is that the Mongols, conquerors of unparallelled skill, are in all other respects more primitive than the people they overwhelm. They are illiterate in the time of Genghis khan (the Mongolian alphabet is borrowed from a Turkish group later in the 13th century) and their religion is a primitive one, Shamanism.

As a result Mongols in different regions tend to lose their identity, adopting the customs which they find in each conquered territory (the Mongols in china present themselves, for example, as a Chinese dynasty), and taking their pick from well-established and more sophisticated religions.

In China the Mongols incline to Buddhism, having already a strong link with Tibet. In western Asia, where their conquests bring them to the border territories between the Caliphate, the Latin kingdom of Jerusalem and the Byzantine empire, they find themselves at the interface between Islam and Christianity.

Both sides have hopes of enlisting the powerful Mongols as allies. Berke, the ruler of the Golden horde, is the first to adopt Islam - shortly after 1255. He is therefore appalled when his nephew Hulagu, who has a Nestorian Christian wife, destroys Baghdad and kills the caliph in 1258.

By the end of the 13th century most of the Mongols in Persia and central Asia have accepted Islam, the religion which has prevailed in the region for the past 600 years. But it is not only religious influences which dilute the impact of the Mongols.

The regions of western Asia conquered by the Mongols are those in which they have been preceded by their own distant cousins, the Turks. Settling down to rule, the Mongols need administrators. The Turks are already in place, ready and available. Mongol and Turkish become intertwined, with the older culture tending to prevail. Nowhere is this more evident than in central Asia.


Timur and the Chagatai Turks: 14th century AD

The regions north and south of the Hindu Kush, approximating to modern Uzbekistan and Afghanistan, form an indeterminate part of the empire of Genghis khan. They are inherited by descendants of his son Chagatai, but the district is fought over by many rival cousins. Here, more than anywhere in the Mongol empire, the Turkish influence is all-pervasive. By the end of the 14th century even the fiercely competitive petty princes of the region are vague as to whether they are Mongols or Turks - a fact reflected in their contradictory name. They are known as Chagatai Turks.

The greatest of them is born near Samarkand in 1336. His name is Timur, but he is more familiar in the west as Tamerlane.

Timur is known in his local variety of Turkish as Timur i Leng, meaning Timur the Lame. It is this phrase which has been transliterated in European accounts as Tamerlane (also spelt Tamburlaine).

Timur sees himself as restoring the great Genghis khan. Like Genghis khan, two centuries earlier, he spends the first half of his life establishing control over local rivals. He is almost fifty when he begins, in 1383, an astonishing two decades of far-flung military campaigns. During them he reconquers, single-handed, the western half of the Genghis khan.

Timur's conquests: AD 1383 - 1405

Timur begins his campaign with the capture in 1383 of Herat, a city on the border of Afghanistan and Iran which will later, under his own descendants, become a great centre of Persian culture. In the next two years he subdues the whole of eastern Persia.

By 1394 he has extended his rule throughout Persia and Mesopotamia and up between the Black Sea and Caspian into Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia. In 1396 he storms into Russia and occupies Moscow for a year.

Timur's rule is brutal. In Persia frequent uprisings are put down with a severity similar to that of Genghis khan. Populations of entire cities are massacred, and Timur develops an effective new form of memento mori. The skulls of the dead form the masonry for towers, firmly cemented together to stand as cautionary tales.

In 1398 Timur outdoes one of Genghis khan's expeditions. He invades India, but unlike his predecessor he does not stop at the Indus. He marches on to Delhi and devastates the city. He then spends several months collecting treasure, which he carries home on 120 elephants.

Home is Samarkand, the city closest to his birthplace. Timur is busy turning it into a great centre of Muslim architecture and art. Together with the Indian elephants come the best craftsmen of Delhi, who will be set to work in Samarkand - where they join, in 1399, a community of skilled captives from previous expeditions.

The conqueror himself, now in his mid-sixties, has more practical business to attend to. Before the end of 1399 he marches west, to restore order in his outlying provinces.

Home is Samarkand, the city closest to his birthplace. Timur is busy turning it into a great centre of Muslim architecture and art. Together with the Indian elephants come the best craftsmen of Delhi, who will be set to work in Samarkand - where they join, in 1399, a community of skilled captives from previous expeditions.

This is connoisseurship of an unusually violent kind, but it is a genuine passion. Inherited by Timur's descendants, in less rapacious form, it results in a great Timurid tradition in the visual arts.

The conqueror's declining years: AD 1401-1405

In 1401, in Syria, Timur defeats a Mameluke army from Egypt. He then takes and destroys Damascus, despatching a new consignment of talented craftsmen back to Samarkand. Later in the same year Baghdad is stormed and sacked, and 20,000 of its population massacred. In 1402 the aged warrior advances into Anatolia. He defeats an army of Ottoman turks near Ankara, capturing their sultan, Bayazid I (who dies in Timur's care). He then moves on west, as far as the Aegean, to take Izmir from the Knights of Rhodes.

By 1404 he is back in Samarkand. But even now, two years short of seventy, he is not ready to settle. He has set his sights on an even more ambitious project.

Late in 1404 Timur rides east to invade China. He gets no further than Chimkent before he falls ill, in January 1405, and dies.

Though he has reconquered much of the western Mongol empire, it is the example of Samarkand which most influences his descendants (known as the Timurids). His domed mausoleum, the Gur Amir, decorated with blue ceramic tiles, begins the tradition of Muslim buildings developed at Herat and Isfahan. A century later, an inherited interest in art brings superb results at the court of a family descended from both Timur and Genghis Khan - the Moghul emperors of India, whose name perpetuates the memory of the Mongol dynasty.

Late in 1404 Timur sets out to invade China. He gets no further than Chimkent before he falls ill, in January 1405, and dies.

The China thus saved from Timur's unwelcome attention is now firmly back under the control of a Chinese dynasty - the Ming. The successors of Kublai khan have withdrawn to Mongolia.

The Mongol withdrawal

Home in Mongolia: from the 14th century AD

When the Yüan dynasty is overthrown in China, the great khan flees north - with his entourage and Mongol army - to the homeland of his people in the steppes. For a while warfare continues between the Mongols and the new Ming dynasty (a Ming army destroys the Mongol capital at Karakorum in 1380), but gradually the Mongols lapse into a more ancient habit of life on the steppes - armed hostilities between tribal groups, interpersed with occasional raids on the Chinese borders.

Excluded from China, the Mongols form close alliances with two other neighbours of the great empire - the Tibetans and the Manchus.

A link with the Dalai lamas, from the 15th century, brings a strong revival of Buddhism among the Mongol tribes - and somewhat weakens their traditional passion for permanent warfare.

In the 16th century the Manchus, eastern neighbours of the Mongols, become increasingly powerful and aggressive. After some early attempts at resisting them, some of the southern Mongol tribes begin to submit - becoming accepted as Manchu vassals, with a considerable amount of intermarriage between the noble families of the two groups.

These Mongols become part of China again after 1644, when the Manchus invade the Ming empire and form their own Qing dynasty. The tribes of southern Mongolia are incorporated in the empire as the province of Inner Mongolia.

The more remote Mongol tribes, further north, are conquered by the Qing emperor half a century later, in 1691. Their region too is brought within the Chinese empire, but it remains separate - as Outer Mongolia.

This 17th-century division between Inner and Outer Mongolia proves a lasting one. Inner Mongolia becomes increasingly integrated with China, with much immigration of ethnic Chinese. When the Manchu dynasty falls, in 1912, Inner Mongolia stays in the republic of China.

By contrast Outer Mongolia remains largely free of Chinese interference or immigration. In 1912, with Russian help, the Outer Mongolians acquire semi-autonomy as a buffer state between Russia and China. Squeezed between two great powers, their progress is difficult. But they acquire full independence in 1946 as the state of Mongolia, or the Mongolian People's Republic.
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