The Mongol khanates

Dividing it all up

Once the Mongol princes returned from Europe in 1241, a prolonged struggle ensued over succession which pitted Genghis Khan’s grandchildren against each other and which for a while resulted in an open war among them. During the coming decade, the Mongols were too occupied with this conflict to pay much attention to their empire. It was only with the election of Möngke Khan in 1251 that the foreign conquests resumed. This time around the first targets were the Muslim caliphates in the Middle East. Although Persia had been conquered already by Genghis Khan himself, the Abbasid Caliphate in Baghdad had not been subject to sustained attacks. It was Hülegü, Möngke’s brother, who was in command of these armies. He began by dispatching envoys to Baghdad with a list of grievances and demands. In November 1257, after the caliph had refused to provide him with the answers he wanted, Hülegü attacked Baghdad was besieged and, once gunpowder had been used to undermine the city walls, it surrendered. The looting lasted for a full seventeen days. In the confusion, the attackers set fire to the city. The destruction of Baghdad, 1258, is remembered to this day as the event which put an end to what the Arabs remembers as their “golden age.”

Their presence in the Middle East put the Mongols in contact with the Mamluks in Cairo. The Mamluks were slaves in the service of the sultans and they were soldiers who in several respects resembled the Mongols themselves. Many of them were descendants of nomadic tribes and they too were highly trained and disciplined. In September 1260, at Ain Jalut, in what today is Israel, the Mongols were defeated. Although they had lost battles before, the Mongols would always come back to avenge their losses and exact a terrible punishment on their enemies. Yet after Ain Jalut, this did not happen and the Mongols never made it to Cairo. This victory, and the way Cairo was spared while Baghdad was looted, decisively transferred power within the Muslim world to the Mamluks. From the fourteenth century onward it was Cairo that was the center of Muslim civilization. After the defeat at Ain Jalut, it was clear that the enormous Mongol Empire had found its westernmost frontiers. This in itself was a problem, however, since the success of the Mongol armies depended on constant expansion. There were now no more spoils of war to distribute.

Their presence in the Middle East also put the Mongols in contact with the Faranj, the “Franks,” known in Europe as “the Crusaders.” To the Europeans, the Mongols seemed at first to be heaven-sent. Any enemy of the Muslims, they argued, must be a friend of ours. According to one interpretation common at the time, the Mongol forces were those of Prester John, a legendary Christian ruler who was said to have founded a mighty kingdom somewhere in the Far East. Even once they realized their mistake, however, the Crusaders remained keen to form an alliance with the Mongols. Several diplomatic missions were dispatched both by the Mongols and the Europeans. Yet although Hülegü’s armies invaded Syria several times, they never coordinated their attacks with the Crusaders in a meaningful fashion. In the end, not only the Mongols but also the Faranj were defeated by the Mamluks.

Soon enough the Mongol armies who had conquered and sacked Baghdad came to think of themselves as a separate political entity, and their leader, Hülegü, to think of himself not as a general or a governor working for the Great Khan in Mongolia, but as a khan with a khanate of his own. This realm made up of Persia and big chunks of Central Asia and the Middle East came to be known as the “Ilkhanate,” or “subordinate khanate.” Much as the Arabs who had conquered these lands before them, the Ilkhanate khans and their courts came to be heavily influenced by the local, essentially Persian, culture. That is, in a radical transformation of their own ways of life, the Mongols got off their horses and settled down in cities. They also adopted Islam as the official religion of the state and the khans became great supporters of scholarship and the arts. The most celebrated example is the astronomical observatory at Maragheh which in addition to astronomers had mathematicians, philosophers and medical doctors in residence. Yet, and much as in the case of the Golden Horde in Russia, the Ilkhanate began to fall apart already in the first half of the fourteenth century, and eventually, it was broken up into a number of small successor states. The most famous successor was the state which Timur, or Tamerlane, in the fourteenth century turned into a vast, if short-lived, empire.

The only neighbors which the Mongols had not yet successfully attacked were the Chinese. This is surprising given both how relatively close China was to the Mongol heartlands and how singularly wealthy the country was. Although already Genghis Khan successfully had occupied the nomadic buffer states which were located between the Mongols and the Chinese, he made no sustained attacks in Chinese history. It was only once Möngke was elected khagan in 1251 that China came back into focus. China at this time was ruled by the Song dynasty, 960-1279. The Song is one of the most celebrated dynasties of China. Militarily, however, they were weak and the Jurchen had already forced them to relocate their capital to the southern city of Hangzhou. Although this move constituted an embarrassment, the Song continued to thrive economically, and they still controlled some 60 percent of China’s population. Hangzhou, amazed visitors reported, had no fewer than 12,000 bridges across the canals of the city and the most beautiful women in the world.

Möngke Khan had picked his brother Kublai to be in charge of the invasion of China, but Kublai had no aptitude for war and besides he was too fat to ride a horse. He moved only reluctantly against the Chinese, complemented by the generals whom Möngke himself had dispatched to support him. The strategy was to attack the Song court in a diversionary pattern, starting with an invasion of Sichuan to the west and Yunnan to the southwest. If the Mongols gained control of these areas, went the plan, they could attack the Song from all sides at once. Yet the death of Möngke Khan in 1259, and the subsequent struggle over succession meant that China once again became a less important concern. Although the wars eventually resumed, it took another twelve years before Kublai Khan could declare himself emperor of China, and another ten years after that before he decisively had defeated the last pockets of Song resistance. Eventually, the last Song emperor, an eight-year-old boy, committed suicide together with his prime minister and 800 members of his family. From 1279 on it was Kublai Khan who held the Mandate of Heaven as the leader of a new dynasty, the Yuan.

While the attacks on China were taking place, the Mongols successfully invaded the Korean peninsula where the kings agreed to pay regular tributes. Kublai Khan also tried to invade Japan. He assembled an army of some 100,000 men for the purpose, but the ships which they constructed were not quite seaworthy and besides the invaders were unlucky with the weather. The first invasion in 1274 had to be aborted and the second invasion in 1281 failed miserably. Japan, as a result, was never occupied. Cut off from China by the presence of the Mongols, Japan had to depend on its own resources. Kublai Khan also tried to invade Java, in today’s Indonesia, and his armies conducted campaigns in Vietnam, Thailand, and Burma. But the weather in Southeast Asia was hot and humid, the expeditions were hampered by disease, and in any case, the tropical terrain and the thick jungles were not suitable for soldiers on horseback.

Kublai Khan’s favorite wife died in 1281; his favorite son and chosen successor died in 1285. After that, he grew increasingly despondent and withdrew from the daily business of government. He fell ill in 1293 and died in 1294. The last years of the Yuan dynasty were characterized by famines and distress among ordinary people. The reigns of the later emperors were short and marked by intrigues and rivalries. Uninterested in administration, they were separated both from the army and from people at large. The Yuan dynasty was eventually defeated by the Ming, a native Chinese dynasty, which replaced them in 1368. The Mongols retreated to Mongolia, forming what is known as the “Northern Yuan dynasty,” but they never rescinded their claims to the Chinese throne. They ruled Mongolia until 1635 when they were deposed by the Manchus, descendants of the Jurchen tribes which Genghis Khan had defeated so easily four hundred years earlier.

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