World History Unit 1, Lesson 2: Genghis Khan and the Mongol Empire
The Mongol Empire of the 13th and 14th centuries was the largest contiguous land empire in history and the second largest empire by landmass, second only to the British Empire. Originating in Mongolia in East Asia, the Mongol Empire eventually stretched from Eastern Europe and parts of Central Europe to the Sea of Japan, extending northward into parts of the Arctic; eastward and southward into the Indian subcontinent, Mainland Southeast Asia and the Iranian Plateau; and westward as far as the Levant, Carpathian Mountains and to the borders of Northern Europe.
The Mongol Empire emerged from the unification of several nomadic tribes in the Mongol homeland under the leadership of Genghis Khan (c. 1162–1227), whom a council proclaimed as the ruler of all Mongols in 1206. The empire grew rapidly under his rule and that of his descendants, who sent out invading armies in every direction. The vast transcontinental empire connected the East with the West, the Pacific to the Mediterranean, in an enforced Pax Mongolica, allowing the dissemination and exchange of trade, technologies, commodities and ideologies across Eurasia.
Genghis Khan (c. 1158 – August 18, 1227), born Temüjin, was the founder and first Great Khan (Emperor) of the Mongol Empire, which became the largest contiguous empire in history after his death. He came to power by uniting many of the nomadic tribes of Northeast Asia.
After founding the Empire and being proclaimed Genghis Khan (an honorary title possibly derived from the Turkic “tengiz” — sea, meaning “the oceanic, universal ruler”), he launched the Mongol invasions that conquered most of Eurasia, reaching as far west as Poland in Europe and the Levant in the Middle East. Campaigns initiated in his lifetime include those against the Qara Khitai, Khwarezmia, and the Western Xia and Jin dynasties, and raids into Medieval Georgia, the Kievan Rus’, and Volga Bulgaria.
Contemporary and modern sources describe Genghis Khan’s conquests as wholesale destruction on an unprecedented scale, causing great demographic changes and a drastic decline of population as a result of mass exterminations and famine. A conservative estimate amounts to about four million civilians (whereas other figures range from forty to sixty million) who lost their lives as a consequence of Genghis Khan’s military campaigns.
In contrast, buddhist Uyghurs of the Kingdom of Qocho, who willingly left the Qara Khitai empire to become Mongol vassals, viewed him as a liberator. Genghis Khan was also portrayed positively by early Renaissance sources due to the incredible spread of culture, science and technological ideas by the Mongol Empire.
By the end of his life, the Mongol Empire occupied a substantial portion of Central Asia and China. Due to his exceptional military successes, Genghis Khan is often considered to be one of the greatest conquerors of all time.
Before Genghis Khan died, he assigned Ögedei Khan as his successor. Later his grandsons split his empire into khanates. Genghis Khan died in 1227 after defeating the Western Xia and, by request, his body was buried in an unknown location somewhere in Mongolia.
His descendants extended the Mongol Empire across most of Eurasia by conquering or creating vassal states in all of modern-day China, Korea, the Caucasus, Central Asia, and substantial portions of Eastern Europe and Southwest Asia. Many of these invasions repeated the earlier large-scale slaughters of local populations. As a result, Genghis Khan and his empire have a fearsome reputation in local histories.
Beyond his military accomplishments, Genghis Khan also advanced the Mongol Empire in other ways. He decreed the adoption of the Uyghur script as the Mongol Empire’s writing system. He also practiced meritocracy and encouraged religious tolerance in the Mongol Empire, unifying the nomadic tribes of Northeast Asia.
Present-day Mongolians regard him as the founding father of Mongolia. He is also credited with bringing the Silk Road under one cohesive political environment. This brought relatively easy communication and trade between Northeast Asia, Muslim Southwest Asia, and Christian Europe, expanding the cultural horizons of all three areas.
End of the Mongol Empire
The empire began to split due to wars over succession, as the grandchildren of Genghis Khan disputed whether the royal line should follow from his son and initial heir Ögedei or from one of his other sons, such as Tolui, Chagatai, or Jochi. The Toluids prevailed after a bloody purge of Ögedeid and Chagatayid factions, but disputes continued among the descendants of Tolui. A key reason for the split was the dispute over whether the Mongol Empire would become a sedentary, cosmopolitan empire, or would stay true to the Mongol nomadic and steppe-based lifestyle.
After Möngke Khan died (1259), rival kurultai councils simultaneously elected different successors, the brothers Ariq Böke and Kublai Khan, who fought each other in the Toluid Civil War (1260–1264) and also dealt with challenges from the descendants of other sons of Genghis. Kublai successfully took power, but civil war ensued as he sought unsuccessfully to regain control of the Chagatayid and Ögedeid families.
During the reigns of Genghis and Ögedei, the Mongols suffered the occasional defeat when a less skilled general received the command. The Siberian Tumeds defeated the Mongol forces under Borokhula around 1215–1217; Jalal al-Din defeated Shigi-Qutugu at the Battle of Parwan in 1221; and the Jin generals Heda and Pu’a defeated Dolqolqu in 1230. In each case, the Mongols returned shortly after with a much larger army led by one of their best generals, and were invariably victorious.
The Battle of Ain Jalut in Galilee in 1260 marked the first time that the Mongols would not return to immediately avenge a defeat, due to a combination of the death of Möngke Khan in 1259, the Toluid Civil War between Ariq Böke and Kublai Khan, and Berke Khan of the Golden Horde attacking Hulagu Khan in Persia. Although the Mongols launched many more invasions of the Levant, briefly occupying it and raiding as far as Gaza after a decisive victory at the Battle of Wadi al-Khaznadar in 1299, they withdrew due to various geopolitical factors.
By the time of Kublai’s death in 1294, the Mongol Empire had fractured into four separate khanates or empires, each pursuing its own interests and objectives: the Golden Horde khanate in the northwest, the Chagatai Khanate in Central Asia, the Ilkhanate in the southwest, and the Yuan dynasty in the east, based in modern-day Beijing.
In 1304, the three western khanates briefly accepted the nominal suzerainty of the Yuan dynasty, but in 1368 the Han Chinese Ming dynasty took over the Mongol capital. The Genghisid rulers of the Yuan retreated to the Mongolian homeland and continued to rule there as the Northern Yuan dynasty. The Ilkhanate disintegrated in the period 1335–1353. The Golden Horde had broken into competing khanates by the end of the 15th century and was defeated and thrown out of Russia in 1480 by the Grand Duchy of Moscow while the Chagatai Khanate lasted in one form or another until 1687.
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Unit 2: The Age of Exploration
Unit 3: Revolutions Around The World
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