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Mongol Empire

Mongol horsemen attack Chinese soldiers.Mongol horsemen attack Chinese soldiers. Under the leadership of Genghis Khan (1162/7–1227), the Mongols became an organized army that nobody could resist. In 1211 they defeated the Jin Empire of northern China. Then Genghis turned against the Muslim powers of Central Asia and the Middle East. His armies surged across Russia into Europe. The conquest of China was completed by Genghis’s grandson, Kublai Khan (1215–1294). In the 14th century, another Mongol leader, Tamerlane (1336–1405), repeated Genghis’s conquests. He was a brilliant warrior but a poor governor. His empire collapsed at his death.

A traditional Mongol yurtA traditional Mongol yurt

The Mongols

The Mongols were a nomadic (wandering) people who lived on the steppe grasslands of Central Asia, from the Ural Mountains to the Gobi Desert. They moved from place to place with their herds of sheep, goats and cattle and they were skilful and daring on horseback. The Mongol peoples lived in tents made from felt, called yurts. Besides providing good protection from the weather, yurts were easy to take down and put up again.

Genghis Khan (1162/7–1227)Genghis Khan (1162/7–1227)

Genghis Khan

The Mongols were fierce warriors, and members of one tribe often raided another tribe to accumulate wealth and prestige. In 1206, a Mongol leader named Temüjin rose to power and brought all the Mongol tribes under his control. Temüjin became known as Genghis Khan, which meant "Ruler of All".

Genghis Khan was born in either 1162 or 1167. His early life was one of poverty, existing on roots, nuts and berries. We know about his life from the Mongol chronicle, known in English as the Secret History of the Mongols, which was written in about 1240. He was the first leader to bring the Mongols together as one nation, and to organize the Mongol armies in large-scale and successful campaigns.

Early conquests

The Mongols were expert horsemen.The Mongols were expert horsemen.Under Genghis's rule the Mongols attacked northern China as well as the lands that lay to the west. The Mongol armies rampaged across Russia and came within reach of Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul, in Turkey). Everywhere they went, the Mongols inspired terror, as they looted, destroyed and slaughtered without mercy.

A Mongol archer prepares to fire an arrow. A Mongol archer prepares to fire an arrow.

Mongol warriors

The Mongols were expert riders and archers. They often took their enemies by surprise with the speed of their fierce attacks. Early in an attack, Mongol riders fired arrows at their enemies while galloping at top speed. When the enemy was at closer range, they used heavier, armour-piercing arrows. Every archer carried a bow and two quivers, containing about 30 arrows in total. Their short bows were specially designed to fire arrows with great power and accuracy.

Any cities that tried to defend themselves against the Mongol onslaught were burnt down. Mongol warriors also had giant catapults for attacking walled cities.

Kublai Khan (1215–1294)Kublai Khan (1215–1294)

Kublai Khan

When Genghis Khan died in China in 1227, the Mongol Empire passed to his three sons. One, Ögödei, dominated the rest and continued his father’s campaigns in Europe. Ögödei died in 1241 and, after much feuding, a grandson of Genghis Khan, Kublai Khan, eventually achieved power in 1264. He was determined to conquer all of China, and he finally succeeded in 1279.

Kublai Khan was a tolerant ruler. He permitted the existence of various religions in China, including Buddhism, Islam and Christianity. He organized food stores for times of famine, and he improved the road system so that trade could increase. He also tried to extend Mongol power to Japan, but his fleets were defeated in 1274 and 1281.

The Golden Horde

In 1223, Mongols attacked Russia, nearly reaching the capital city of Kiev. In further attacks in 1237 the Mongols sacked the city and devastated much of the land. Russia became part of the Mongol Empire, included in a region known as the Golden Horde. The Mongols forced their subject peoples to pay heavy taxes and in 1328 they began to entrust the task of collecting these taxes to the Prince of Moscow, Ivan I. The extent of the Mongol Empire in 1279The extent of the Mongol Empire in 1279The Mongols’ control over the Golden Horde grew weaker in the 1300s. In 1380 an army led by Prince Dmitri of Moscow defeated the Mongols at Kulikovo, near the River Don. A century later (in 1480), under the rule of Ivan III, Mongol power in Russia finally came to
an end.

A late 16th-century illustration of Tamerlane A late 16th-century illustration of Tamerlane


After the death of Kublai Khan in 1294, his mighty empire began to decline. By 1368 the Chinese had overthrown their Mongol rulers. However, in the Central Asian city of Samarkand (in modern-day Uzbekistan), a descendant of Genghis Khan named Tamerlane (also known as Timur the Lame) seized the throne in 1369.

Tamerlane extended his power southwards and westwards, creating an empire that reached from Turkey in the west to the borders of China in the east. He invaded India in 1398, sacking Delhi and killing most of its inhabitants. Nevertheless, after his death in 1405, Tamerlane’s empire quickly fell apart. In 1526 one of Tamerlane’s descendants became the first Great Mughal, ruler of the Mughal Empire in India.

Consultant: Philip Parker

The Mongol Empire of the 13th century covered up to 22% of the world’s land area and contained around 25% of its population.

Every Mongol soldier travelled with three or four horses, which he rode in rotation so as not to tire them.

Whenever the Mongols conquered a city, they let a few terrified survivors go free to spread the word of the Mongols’ awesome strength.

During the reign of Kublai Khan, a message could be carried 200 km (125 miles) in a single day thanks to a highly efficient postal system involving relay riders.

The Mongol bow was made of layers of boiled horn, sinew and wood, making it extra-strong. It could fire an arrow a distance of 250 m (800 ft).

It is estimated that Tamerlane’s military campaigns caused the deaths of 17 million people—then around 5% of the world's population.

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