The year is 1162. Europe and the Middle East are in a lull between the 2nd and 3rd Crusade. China has just transitioned into it’s Southern Song Dynasty after another military conquered the northern part of China. And in Mongolia, a boy named Temujin is born. Let’s talk about the Mongols.
At this time there was really no such thing as the Mongols. They were a variety of separate tribes and clans that warred with each other. When Temujin was only 10 his father was poisoned by a rival tribe. His mother and her six children, seen as a burden, was abandoned by the tribe. Temujin’s older half brother was now the head of the household but he was not providing for the family, so Temujin did what any pre-teen boy would do. He killed him.
Temujin eventually married a woman named Borte and had four sons and an unknown amount of daughters – this fact is so crazy to me. Like, daughters were so insignificant that they didn’t even keep track of them? Anyway. He slowly gained a reputation as a great warrior, once rescuing Borte after she was kidnapped by an enemy tribe, and he began creating alliances between various tribes.
the rise of Genghis Khan
Temujin was able to unite the Mongols by doing a few things different: he promoted within his military based on merit instead of family or elite status. He also organized his troops into units of 10 and he intentionally mixed up people from various tribes to try to break down barriers between the different groups. He still let his army loot, but he made them wait until a complete victory was won.
All of this made Temujin’s warriors highly effective and by 1205 he had vanquished all of his rivals and united Mongolia under his rule. It’s at this point that he becomes known as the “Great or Universal Ruler” or Genghis Khan. (Note: It’s actually supposed to be Chinggis Khan – but that sounds weird so I’m just going to stick with Genghis.)
OK, I think it’s time for a quick conversation about how heavily George R.R. Martin plagiarized history when he wrote Game of Thrones. The Citadel? Where Samwell Tarly geeks out and is also the janitor, I think? Yeah that’s the House of Wisdom I mentioned earlier in Baghdad. And the Dothraki are 100% the Mongols.
new military tactics
The Mongols revolutionized warfare. They brought no supply trains with them – just what they could carry on their horses – which made them incredibly fast and mobile. Leaders would send spies and scouts to assess their enemy – for example, they sent spies into Europe for 10 years before they attempt to conquer it.
Genghis Khan developed new tactics like the false retreat – he would have his troops turn and run as if they were fleeing, then when the enemy pursued them they would lure them into an area where a larger army was waiting. And obviously they used psychological and biological warfare. Genghis Khan would have each warrior light extra campfires at night so that the opposing side believed they had 5-10 times more troops than they really had.
They were skilled at siege tactics. They would divert rivers away from cities and encircle them and wait until they starved or surrendered. They would pillage the surrounding villages, killing many, taking some as prisoners to fill the front line, and allowing some to survive to tell the story to other cities who might decide to just surrender up front to avoid this fate.
They were skilled at archery and could shoot with accuracy while riding on horseback. He had his soldiers tie tree branches or leaves behind the horses so that they would drag as they rode, kicking up a cloud of dust behind them which made his advancing troops look far bigger and more terrifying.
And, obviously, they used biological warfare. Dead bodies would be catapulted into cities and many diseases were spread this way. It’s not fair to blame the Black Death entirely on the Mongols, but we can blame it 99% on the Mongols. Between them flinging plague-ridden bodies into towns across Eurasia, and then later reuniting and encouraging intercontinental trade and exchange, they basically caused the Black Death.
Genghis khan’s death
So Genghis Khan unites Mongolia, does a bunch of conquering, and ends up controlling the largest contiguous (meaning his land was all connected) empire in human history. When he was 65 he died in combat but his remains have never been found. Supposedly, when he died a guard of soldiers buried him, killing anyone they encountered along the way. According to the story, after they buried Genghis Khan, they killed themselves so that his tomb would always be a secret.
According to Marco Polo, the Mongols didn’t know where he was buried even just a few decades after he died so this story sort of holds up. Either way, Genghis Khan was clearly a humble man. He didn’t allow anyone to build statues of him or paint his picture when he was alive. But today in Mongolia he is still revered as the founder of their nation. Just in 2006, the Mongolian Parliament revised their national anthem to include his name.
Genghis Khan’s empire was the largest connected empire. Not just at that point in time. Ever. His empire includes north Korea, northern China all the way to the Caspian Sea. And his children are going to expand the empire to include Russia, the Middle East, Tibet, and all of China. They make it into eastern Europe and almost conquered Vienna, Austria but they somewhat suddenly stopped and turned back. Why?
Mongol failure in Vienna
The typical story is that the Great Khan Ogedai (Genghis’s son) had died while binge drinking on a hunting trip (King Robert Baratheon much?). The princes of the blood – everyone related to the Great Khan – would have to return to the homeland to elect a new leader. Now Ogedai definitely died, but there’s a lot of evidence that they had already turned back from Europe at that point.
The most probable answer is climate change – according to weather data preserved in tree rings, the local weather turned cold and rainy, making the land into a damp marsh. These conditions were not ideal for the Mongol army that relied on their speed and horses, so they might have turned back to avoid a loss.
Either way, this is where the Mongol advance stops. Thanks cold front! Also, the Mongols had really bad luck when it came to weather – they also tried to conquer Japan twice and were stopped by a typhoon. Twice. I like to imagine a bunch of Mongol warriors sitting around the horse milk water cooler saying things like, “Crazy weather we’re having, right?”
The Mongol Empire slowly falls apart a few generations after Genghis Khan. After it gets divided up amongst his sons they begin to fight with each other for land. The most famous of these future rulers is Genghis Khan’s grandson, Kublai Khan. We know a lot about him and his court because he was visited for years by Marco Polo, a young Italian traveler who wandered Eurasia writing about his experiences. He was like those people on Instagram who somehow make a living traveling and taking pictures of themselves in cool places? Where’s that job posting on Indeed?
Kublai Khan conquered China and established the Yuan Dynasty in China. He maintained a lot of Chinese cultural practices, like Confucianism, but he just put the Mongols on top. He loved Chinese culture and invited religious representatives from all over the world to come visit him. This made another Khan – the one who inherited Mongolia – angry, believing that Kublai Khan was not honoring Genghis Khan’s culture.
They fought a war during which the daughter of the Mongolian Khan distinguished herself as a fierce warrior. Her name was Khutulun and she supposedly refuse to marry anyone who couldn’t beat her in a wrestling match. She was also her father’s most trusted advisor and he tried to name her as his successor but it was refused by her male relatives. I totally picture Khutulun as Khaleesi from Game of Thrones which is highly inaccurate, but now that I’ve made the connection in my head I can’t stop it.
the mongol legacy
Now, I feel very passionately about this. The Mongols get a bad rep. Sure, they were terrifying and used brutal tactics. Like, yeah, Genghis Khan executed a governor in modern-day Iran by having molten silver poured into his eyes and throat, but that guy had his trade caravan, and eventually ambassador, murdered.
And yeah, they conquered nearly a quarter of the earth’s surface and led to the death of almost 40 million people, but by eliminating vegetation and human influence on so much of that land, it’s said that he scrubbed 700 million tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, leading some historians to call him the greatest eco-warrior of all time.
OK so some of those are a stretch but there are other legacies of the Mongols that are entirely positive. After Genghis Khan conquered the land he instituted a Pax Mongolica or Mongol Peace. He reunited the Silk Road and encouraged trade and exchange across Eurasia, collecting taxes and tribute to fund his new empire. It was said that the Silk Road under the Mongols was so safe that travelers could walk the entire length of it unprotected and not be robbed. Being known for your brutality has its upsides, I guess.
There is a book by Jack Weatherford called Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World that I highly recommend. He contends that the Mongol conquest jumpstarted the modern age, especially in Europe. And it’s true that the Mongol conquests to some extent wiped the medieval slate clean, fostered trade and exchange (so all those cool inventions from China could make it to Europe), and then also provided a common enemy that united previously scattered societies into new civilizations.
In Russia for example, before the Mongol conquest, there was just a collection of various princes. But over the 100 year Mongol occupation they unite together to force them out. The first czar, Ivan III (he’s Ivan the Great, not Ivan the Terrible) is proclaimed after he refuses to pay tribute to the Mongols anymore.
The last reason why the Mongols get a bad rap is because almost all of what we know about them is written by outsiders. The Mongols did not have their own written language which automatically makes them uncivilized in most historian’s book. They were too busy conquering to sit down and write their history. So most of the primary source accounts from the time period are written by people who were subjugated, conquered, or at least just generally terrified of the Mongols.
There is a book called The Secret History of the Mongols that was written by the Mongols (after they adopted the Chinese script) after Genghis Khan’s death. It went missing for a long time and was thought to be a myth until it’s rediscovery in the early 20th century. This has allowed us to gain a better perspective on their rule but the stereotype of the brutal barbarian still remains.