The Mongol khanates

5. The Mongol khanates

In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, the Mongols created the largest contiguous empire the world has ever known. In 1206, Temüjin, an orphan and a former slave, united the many feuding clans which occupied the steppes to the north of China and took the title “Genghis Khan.” Once this feat was accomplished he turned to military conquests abroad. The Mongols’ armies were spectacularly successful. Their soldiers, consisting only of cavalry, were fast, highly disciplined and well organized, and they wielded their bows and lances while still on horseback. Since most lands between Europe and Asia was sparsely populated and quite unprotected, the Mongols quickly overran an enormous territory while most of the actual warfare consisted of sieges. Once they had mastered the art of siege warfare, the cities too fell into their hands. But the Mongols fought in the jungles of Southeast Asia too, built a navy and tried to invade both Java and Japan. In 1241 they completely obliterated the European armies that had gathered against them and in 1258 they besieged, sacked and burned Baghdad. At the height of their power, the Mongols controlled an area which stretched from central Europe to the Pacific Ocean. It was a territory about the size of the African continent and considerably larger than North America. Although the Mongols counted only about one million people at the time, the lands they once controlled comprise today a majority of the world’s population.

The Mongols were known as merciless warriors who destroyed the cities they captured, sparing no humans and occasionally killing also their cats and dogs. Yet apart from their military superiority, they had nothing much to impart to the rest of the world. The Mongols made no technological breakthroughs, founded no religions, built no buildings, and they had not even mastered simple techniques such as weaving, pottery or bread-making. Rather, by conquering such a vast territory, and by unifying it under the same administration, they managed to connect parts of the world which previously never had been connected, or not connected as closely and efficiently. The results were profound and revolutionary. Throughout the land they controlled, the Mongols guaranteed the security of travelers and they encouraged trade by reducing taxes and facilitating travel. During the so-called Pax Mongolica, the “Mongol peace,” exchanges along the caravan routes of Central Asia became more intense than ever before. This was when Persian businessmen would go to China on regular visits and when a diplomatic envoy from Mongol khan could visit Paris and take communion with the pope in Rome.

The Mongol Empire lasted only some 150 years. The political structure began to crack already by the middle of the thirteenth century and in the early fourteenth century, it was disintegrating. In 1368, the Mongols lost control over their most prized possession — China. One important reason for the decline and fall of the Mongol empire was the perpetual infighting that took place among Genghis Khan’s descendants. When his grandchildren by the middle of the thirteenth century were ready to take over the realm, the question of succession turned out to be impossible to settle. The outcome was a civil war which turned brothers against each other and eventually resulted in the division of the empire into four separate realms — the Golden Horde in Russia, the Ilkhanate in Persia, the Yuan dynasty in China, and the Chagatai khanate in the traditional heartlands of Mongolia. Although these entities were closely related to each other in various ways, there were also constant conflicts between them. In addition, the Black Death, a contagious disease that spread quickly along the caravan routes, decimated the population and made travel and exchange into deadly activities.As a result, at the end of the fourteenth century, the Mongol Empire was once again a small kingdom confined to the steppes north of China. Its last remnant was conquered by the Manchu armies in 1635. Other vestiges of the Mongols and their descendants lived on, most successfully in the form of the Mughal Empire in India, founded in 1526 by Babur who counted himself as a direct descendant of Genghis Khan.