The Conquerors of Asia: Who Were the Mongols?

Léonie Chao-Fong

5 mins

15 Jan 2020

A nomadic people who lived in yurts and herded sheep, goats, horses, camels and yaks on the vast grassland of the Asian steppe, the Mongols became the most feared warriors of the 13th century.

Under the formidable Genghis Khan, the Mongol Empire (1206-1368) expanded to become the second largest kingdom of all time.

After uniting the Mongol tribes into a single horde under his command, the Great Khan descended on cities and civilisations, unleashing widespread terror and wiping out millions.

By the time of his death in 1227, the Mongol Empire extended from the Volga River to the Pacific Ocean.

The founding of the Mongol Empire

The Mongol Empire was founded by Genghis Khan (c. 1162-1227), the first Mongol leader to realise that, if united, the Mongols could master the world.

14th century portrait of Genghis Khan (Credit: National Palace Museum in Taipei).

Over the course of a decade, Genghis gained control of his small band of Mongols and waged a war of conquest against the other steppe tribes.

Instead of conquering them one by one, he reasoned it would be easier to make an example of some so others would more easily submit. Rumours of his brutality spread, and neighbouring tribes soon fell into line.

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Using a ruthless mixture of diplomacy, warfare and terror, he unified them all under his leadership.

In 1206, a grand meeting of all the tribal leaders declared him the Great Khan – or ‘Universal Ruler’ of the Mongols.

The Mongol army

War was a natural state for the Mongols. The Mongol nomadic tribes were highly mobile by nature, trained from early childhood to ride horses and shoot bows, and used to a tough life. These qualities made them excellent warriors.

Made up of expert horsemen and archers, the Mongol army was devastatingly effective – fast, light and highly coordinated. Under Genghis Khan, they became a technologically advanced force who were amply rewarded for their loyalty with war booty.

Reconstruction of a Mongol warrior (Credit: William Cho / CC).

The Mongol army were able to endure long and complex campaigns, cover vast amounts of territory in a short space of time, and survive on a minimum of supplies.

The overwhelming success of their expeditions was also due in part to their use of propaganda to spread fear.

A 13th century Mongol text described:

[They] have foreheads of brass, their jaws are like scissors, their tongues like piercing awls, their heads are iron, their whipping tails swords.

Before attacking the Mongols would often ask for voluntary surrender and offered peace. If the place accepted, the population would be spared.

If they were met with resistance, the Mongol army would usually commit wholesale slaughter or enslavement. Only those with special skills or abilities considered useful would be spared.

14th century illustration of a Mongol execution (Credit: Staatsbibliothek Berlin/Schacht).

Decapitated women, children and animals were displayed. A Franciscan monk reported that during a siege of a Chinese city, a Mongol army ran out of food and ate one out of ten of its own soldiers.

Expansion and conquest

Once he had united the steppe tribes and officially become the Universal Ruler, Genghis turned his attentions to the powerful Jin state (1115-1234) and Tangut state of Xi Xia (1038-1227) in northern China.

Historian Frank McLynn described the 1215 Mongol sacking of the Jin capital of Yanjing, present-day Beijing, as

one of the most seismic and traumatic events in Chinese history.

The speed of the Mongol cavalry and its terror tactics meant targets were helpless to stop his relentless progress across eastern Asia.

Genghis then turned to western Asia, waging war against the Khwarezm Empire in present-day Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan and Iran in 1219.

Despite being outnumbered, the Mongol horde swept through one Khwarezm city after another. Cities were destroyed; civilians massacred.

Skilled workers were usually saved, while aristocrats and resisting soldiers were slaughtered. Unskilled workers were often used as human shields for the army’s next assault.

14th century illustration of Mongol warriors pursuing enemies (Credit: Staatsbibliothek Berlin/Schacht).

By 1222, Genghis Khan had conquered more than twice as much land as any other person in history. The Muslims of the regions had a new name for him – the ‘Accursed of God’.

When he died in 1227 during a military campaign against the Chinese kingdom of Xi Xia, Genghis had left a formidable empire stretching from the Caspian Sea to the Sea of Japan – some 13,500,000 km squared.

After Genghis Khan

Genghis Khan had decreed that his empire was to be divided amongst his four sons – Jochi, Chagatai, Tolui and Ogedei – with each ruling a khanate.

Ogedei (c. 1186-1241) became the new Great Khan and ruler of all the Mongols.

The Mongol Empire continued to grow under Genghis’ successors, who were also prolific conquerors. At its peak in 1279, it covered 16% of the world – becoming the second largest empire the world has ever seen.

13th century painting of Kublai Khan, founder of the Yuan dynasty in China (Credit: Araniko / Artdaily).

The most powerful khanate was the Mongol Yuan dynasty in China (1271-1368), established by Genghis Khan’s grandson Kublai Khan (1260–1294).

The empire broke apart in the 14th century, when the four khanates all succumbed to destructive dynastic disputes and the armies of their rivals.

By becoming part of the sedentary societies they had previously conquered, the Mongols lost not only their cultural identity but also their military prowess.

The legacy of the Mongols

The Mongols’ greatest legacy on world culture was to make the first serious connections between the East and West. Previously the Chinese and Europeans had viewed each other’s lands as a semi-mythical place of monsters.

The vast Mongol Empire stretched across one-fifth of the globe, across which the Silk Routes paved the way for communication, trade and knowledge.

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As missionaries, merchants and travellers like Marco Polo (1254-1324) freely crossed to Asia, contact increased and ideas and religions were spread. Gunpowder, paper, printing, and the compass were introduced to Europe.

Genghis Khan was also known to have granted religious freedom to his subjects, abolished torture, established universal law and created the first international postal system.

It has been estimated that a total of around 40 million deaths can be attributed to Genghis Khan’s wars. However the exact number is unknown – partly because the Mongols themselves deliberately propagated their vicious image.