The Mongol Empire existed during the 13th and 14th centuries. Originating in Mongolia, the Mongol Empire eventually stretched from Eastern Europe and parts of Central Europe to the Sea of Japan, extending northwards into Siberia; eastwards and southwards into the Indian subcontinent, Mainland Southeast Asia and the Iranian Plateau; and westwards as far as the Levant and the Carpathian Mountains. It was the largest contiguous land empire in history.
The area around Mongolia, Manchuria, and parts of North China had been controlled by the Liao dynasty since the 10th century. In 1125, the Jin dynasty founded by the Jurchens overthrew the Liao dynasty and attempted to gain control over former Liao territory in Mongolia. In the 1130s the Jin dynasty rulers, known as the Golden Kings, successfully resisted the Khamag Mongol confederation, ruled at the time by Khabul Khan, great-grandfather of Genghis Khan.
Genghis Khan was a son of a Mongol chieftain. As a young man he rose very rapidly by working with Toghrul Khan of the Kerait, the most powerful Mongol leader at the time.
Genghis Khan introduced many innovative ways of organizing his army. Genghis quickly came into conflict with the Jin dynasty of the Jurchens and the Western Xia of the Tanguts in northern China.
Genghis Khan died on 18 August 1227, by which time the Mongol Empire ruled from the Pacific Ocean to the Caspian Sea, an empire twice the size of the Roman Empire or the Muslim Caliphate at their height. Genghis named his third son, the charismatic Ögedei, as his heir.
In an offensive action against the Song dynasty, Mongol armies captured Siyang-yang, the Yangtze and Sichuan, but did not secure their control over the conquered areas. The Song generals were able to recapture Siyang-yang from the Mongols in 1239. After the sudden death of Ögedei’s son Kochu in Chinese territory the Mongols withdrew from southern China.
Batu Khan, another grandson of Genghis Khan, overran the territories of the Bulgars, the Alans, the Kypchaks, Bashkirs, Mordvins, Chuvash, and other nations of the southern Russian steppe.
The advance into Europe continued with Mongol invasions of Poland and Hungary.
Following the Great Khan Ögedei’s death in 1241, and before the next kurultai, Ögedei’s widow Töregene took over the empire. She persecuted her husband’s Khitan and Muslim officials and gave high positions to her own allies. She built palaces, cathedrals, and social structures on an imperial scale, supporting religion and education.
When Möngke’s mother Sorghaghtani and their cousin Berke organized a second kurultai on 1 July 1251, the assembled throng proclaimed Möngke great khan of the Mongol Empire. This marked a major shift in the leadership of the empire, transferring power from the descendants of Genghis’s son Ögedei to the descendants of Genghis’s son Tolui.
Möngke was a serious man who followed the laws of his ancestors and avoided alcoholism. He was tolerant of outside religions and artistic styles, leading to the building of foreign merchants’ quarters, Buddhist monasteries, mosques, and Christian churches in the Mongol capital. As construction projects continued, Karakorum was adorned with Chinese, European, and Persian architecture. One famous example was a large silver tree with cleverly designed pipes that dispensed various drinks. The tree, topped by a triumphant angel, was crafted by Guillaume Boucher, a Parisian goldsmith.
After stabilizing the empire’s finances, Möngke once again sought to expand its borders.
The center of the Islamic Empire at the time was Baghdad, which had held power for 500 years but was suffering internal divisions. When its caliph al-Mustasim refused to submit to the Mongols, Baghdad was besieged and captured by the Mongols in 1258 and subjected to a merciless sack, an event considered as one of the most catastrophic events in the history of Islam, and sometimes compared to the rupture of the Kaaba. With the destruction of the Abbasid Caliphate, Hulagu had an open route to Syria and moved against the other Muslim powers in the region.
In the southern part of the empire, Möngke Khan himself led his army did not complete the conquest of China. Military operations were generally successful, but prolonged, so the forces did not withdraw to the north as was customary when the weather turned hot. Disease ravaged the Mongol forces with bloody epidemics, and Möngke died there on 11 August 1259. This event began a new chapter in the history of the Mongols.
Möngke’s brother Hulagu broke off his successful military advance into Syria, withdrawing the bulk of his forces to Mughan and leaving only a small contingent under his general Kitbuqa. The opposing forces in the region, the Christian Crusaders and Muslim Mamluks, both recognizing that the Mongols were the greater threat, took advantage of the weakened state of the Mongol army and engaged in an unusual passive truce with each other.
In a separate part of the empire, Kublai Khan, another brother of Hulagu and Möngke, heard of the great khan’s death at the Huai River in China. Rather than returning to the capital, he continued his advance into the Wuchang area of China, near the Yangtze River. Their younger brother Ariqboke took advantage of the absence of Hulagu and Kublai, and used his position at the capital to win the title of great khan for himself, with representatives of all the family branches proclaiming him as the leader at the kurultai in Karakorum.
Battles ensued between the armies of Kublai and those of his brother Ariqboke, which included forces still loyal to Möngke’s previous administration.
In the south, after the fall of Xiangyang in 1273, the Mongols sought the final conquest of the Song dynasty in South China. In 1271, Kublai renamed the new Mongol regime in China as the Yuan dynasty and sought to sinicize his image as Emperor of China to win the control of the Chinese people. Kublai moved his headquarters to Dadu, the genesis for what later became the modern city of Beijing. His establishment of a capital there was a controversial move to many Mongols who accused him of being too closely tied to Chinese culture.
Major changes occurred in the Mongol Empire in the late 1200s. Kublai Khan, after having conquered all of China and established the Yuan dynasty, died in 1294. He was succeeded by his grandson Temür Khan, who continued Kublai’s policies. At the same time the Toluid Civil War, along with the Berke–Hulagu war and the subsequent Kaidu–Kublai war, greatly weakened the authority of the great khan over the entirety of the Mongol Empire and the empire fractured into autonomous khanates, the Yuan dynasty and the three western khanates: the Golden Horde, the Chagatai Khanate and the Ilkhanate. Only the Ilkhanate remained loyal to the Yuan court but endured its own power struggle, in part because of a dispute with the growing Islamic factions within the southwestern part of the empire.
Civil war erupted in the Yuan dynasty in 1328–29. After the death of Yesün Temür in 1328, Tugh Temür became the new leader in Dadu, while Yesün Temür’s son Ragibagh succeeded to the throne in Shangdu, leading to the civil war known as the War of the Two Capitals.
As the power of the Mongols declined, chaos erupted throughout the empire as non-Mongol leaders expanded their own influence. The Golden Horde lost all of its western dominions (including modern Belarus and Ukraine) to Poland and Lithuania between 1342 and 1369.
Increasingly isolated from their subjects, the Mongols quickly lost most of China to the rebellious Ming forces and in 1368 fled to their heartland in Mongolia. After the overthrow of the Yuan dynasty the Golden Horde lost touch with Mongolia and China.
The Mongol Empire — at its height the largest contiguous empire in history — had a lasting impact, unifying large regions. Some of these (such as eastern and western Russia and the western parts of China) remain unified today.
edited by staff