The Mongol khanates

How to conquer the world

The key to the military success of the Mongols was their extraordinary army which consisted entirely of cavalry — soldiers mounted on the backs of fast Mongolian horses. Although all men up to the age of seventy were conscripted, the army comprised no more than 100,000 men. Often they were divided into several armies that operated independently of each other. What they lacked in numbers, they made up for in terms of speed and mobility. For one thing, they had no supply train. Instead, the soldiers carried strips of dried meat and curd with them in their saddlebags which they could eat while on the move. All soldiers had access to several horses which they switched between. The horses would graze on the land which they covered and they could be milked or tapped for blood to drink or eaten by the soldiers. Dead soldiers would simply be left to decompose where they fell or be picked at by wild animals, in accordance with Mongol custom. In addition, the Mongols had no slow-moving engineering corps. Instead, the engineers built what they needed — bridges or assault weapons for attacking city walls — with the help of whatever material they found on the spot. Moreover, the Mongol armies were used to fighting in wintertime when most other armies took time off. And their horsemanship was, of course, second to none. Each Mongol warrior had been on horseback since he was a toddler and could fire off arrows while in full gallop towards an enemy. Their bows were so tightly strung that it took two men to do it.

Compared with the armies of agricultural empires, the Mongols used entirely different battlefield tactics. They fought sneakily, with no regard for chivalric conduct or fair play. A favorite ruse was to feign defeat and beat a retreat. As the enemies came in pursuit of them, they would be ambushed and picked off one by one. Another ruse was to make an assault at night and make fires which made the Mongol army look far larger than it really was. They would then proceed to attack from all directions at once. Battlefield tactics such as these required discipline and a high level of coordination. These skills were initially honed during the hunts, known as nerge. The Mongol chieftains would organize hunting parties, comprising thousands of participants, which encircled herds of deer and other prey, driving the animals before them as they gradually tightened the circle. As each man quickly learned, any failure of discipline and coordination allowed the prey to escape. On the battlefield these lessons were adapted to military use by commanders who relied on torches, whistling arrows and flags to direct their troops. The chief aim of the Mongol generals was to strike terror in their enemies. To loot a city in a spectacular manner was not only a way of getting one’s hands on treasure but also, and above all, a way of sending a message to the people in the next town that all resistance was futile. By striking terror in their enemies, their will to resist was broken. However, in relation to the cities that surrendered peacefully the message was equally clear: as long as you behave yourselves, and faithfully pay a 10 percent tax, your assets will be safe and your inhabitants protected.

After Genghis Khan’s death in 1227, his sons and grandsons continued these wars. In 1235, his son Ögedei, who replaced him, called in a kurultai to decide on the future direction of the conquests. After some debate, it was decided to make a move on Russia and Europe. Subutai, the leading general, was the one who first discovered Europe in the 1220s. When the new campaign began in 1236, he set his sight on the Volga River, inhabited by the Bulgars, and this was where a three-year-long campaign began. The Mongols quickly discovered that the various Russian city-states were divided among themselves and that they were only weakly defended. In accordance with their custom, they began by dispatching diplomatic envoys, asking the Russians to submit willingly. Only a few cities took up the offer, however, and those who did not were promptly attacked. Ryazan, 200 kilometers southeast of Moscow, was first in line. From here the Mongols moved on to Kiev, the main city in Russia at the time, which was captured in December 1240. In the end, only a few towns, such as Novgorod and Pskov in the north, survived the onslaught. One long-term consequence was that Kiev lost influence throughout Russia and that Moscow gained in prominence. The prince of Muscovy, who sided with the Mongols, acted as an intermediary between the foreign invaders and the various Russian leaders.

Now the Mongol armies suddenly found themselves on the doorstep of Europe. In the spring of 1241, in a two-pronged attack, they simultaneously moved into Poland in the north and Hungary in the south. The Europeans were completely taken by surprise, but eventually, a combined army of Czech, Polish and German knights was assembled. Two battles ensued — at Legnica in Poland on April 9, 1241, and at Mohi, Hungary, two days later. On both occasions, the European armies were completely routed. The Mongols continued swiftly across eastern Europe and into the lands of the Holy Roman Empire; meanwhile, the scouts who preceded them came right up to the city walls of Vienna. This, however, was when news reached them from Mongolia that Ögedei Khan had died and that a kurultai was to be assembled to elect a new leader. Since Ögedei’s brothers all recently had died too — either in battle or under some distinctly suspicious circumstances — it was clear that the title of khagan this time would be given to one of Genghis Khan’s grandchildren. Since several of the potential candidates for the job were engaged in the European wars, they had to return home to fight for the position. Despite the brilliantly executed campaign and their decisive victories, the Mongols never invaded Europe.

Yet the Mongols stayed on in Russia. Here they maintained a presence in the new capital they built for themselves on the Volga, named Sarai. This was where various Russian princes showed up to pledge allegiance to the Mongols and to receive a jarlig, a tablet which identified them as legitimate rulers recognized by the Great Khan himself. In the latter part of the thirteenth century, this Russian part of the Mongol Empire, known as “the Golden Horde,” came increasingly to assert its independence. As a result, it came into conflict not only with external enemies but also with other parts of the Mongol lands. But it would take until 1480 before the Russian princes finally assembled a united army that was strong enough to defeat them. Even then, however, instead of simply disappearing, the Golden Horde broke up into smaller units which took up their places among the other Russian city-states. In 1556, Sarai was conquered and burned, but the successor states lived on. One particularly successful successor was the khanate on the Crimea peninsula which was annexed by the Russian state only in 1783. The last descendant of Genghis Khan to rule a country was Alim Khan, the Emir of Bukhara, who was overthrown by the Red Army of the Soviet Union in 1920.

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