The Mongol Empire In 5 Facts & 5 Minutes

The largest empire in the world by size. At its peak, the Mongol Empire, covered %16 of the earth’s lands. It comprised of a quarter of the world population at the time. The borders of this empire stretched from Korean peninsula to Eastern Europe and from Siberia to the plains of India. In the 86 years between Genghis Khan’s coronation and Kublai Khan’s death, the Mongols conquered more lands than Rome did in 400 years.

1-It all started with a boy surviving an enemy attack

Early Life of Temujin (Genghis)

The foundations of the Mongol Empire date back to the last quarter of the 12th century, when a young boy named Temujin survived an attack from a neighboring enemy tribe.

This young Mongol boy was born to a royal family. He had a tragic life, with his father getting poisoned and his wife kidnapped by rival Mongol-Turkic tribes. Despite being born into a relatively wealthy family, Temujin suffered from poverty and chaos in his childhood.

Genghis Khan /

From Temujin To Genghis Khan

Temujin was a decisive and strong character. He rose as a strong figure among the tribes who lived in the vast steppe lands of Central Asia. He believed in the power of forging strong alliances with the Turkic-speaking and Mongol tribes of Central Asia.

Temujin fought his childhood friend, Jamukha, for the leadership of the Mongol tribes and won. Jamukha was an elitist, he believed that only Mongols of royal blood should rule. Whereas, Temujin valued talent regardless of background. In 1206, at Blue Lake in Mongolia, Temujin got the title of Genghis Khan and the great Mongol Era started.

Blue Lake, Mongolia /

2-The World Belonged to the Mongols already and they just had to conquer it

The Divine Right to Conquer The World

The Mongols believed that the Great Sky God Tengri, gave them the divine right to conquer the world. This perspective was a motivation for the Mongols and they conquered vast lands in unimaginable quickness.

Defying Mongols meant defying the will of the great Tengri. It was a simple logic-those who opposed the Mongols faced inhumane deaths and those who obeyed the Mongols lived peacefully within the borders of the empire, usually kept being governed by their own statesmen.

Mongol Army Structure

The devastatingly effective Mongol army structure was based on fast, light, and highly coordinated cavalry. The Mongols organized their military system very well. Each soldier had 3 horses, one to ride, and two to acquire meat, milk and use as backup. The Mongols divided their troops into groups of 10, 100, 1000 and 10,000.

The fierce horsemen and horseback archers were unstoppable. They conquered lands as far as eastern Europe and defeated almost any army that dared to resist them. Even in the cases in which the Mongols were outnumbered by the enemies, their advanced military structure helped them wipe out their rivals.

Mongols defeated an army of 80,000 heavily armored Russians and Kipchak Turks with only 25,000 soldiers.

The Mongol Expansion Starts

With Genghis Khan uniting the clans of Central Asia, Mongols looked out for expansion to achieve the Tengri’s will. First, armies of Genghis Khan eliminated the possible threats from the Jin State and the Tangut Kingdom in Northern-China. Subsequently, Genghis Khan sacked a few cities ruled by the Song dynasty in Southern-China and annihilated the Khitans in Northern-Korea.

Wiping Out The Khwarezm Empire

Now that they secured the East, the Mongols turned their attention to the West. Back then, the Khwarezm Empire ruled the western Mongol frontier. At first, Genghis Khan sent trade parties and merchants to the Khwarezm city of Otrar to initiate trade. The ruler of Otrar, making the biggest mistake of his life, beheaded members of the trade party. In the following months, the Khwarezm empire was wiped out from the earth’s surface and the Mongol expansion towards the West had commenced. After witnessing the fate of Khwarezm Empire, the small kingdoms in the rest of Persia smartly surrendered to the Mongols.

Ruins of Otrar, modern day Kazakhstan /

After Genghis’s Death

When Genghis Khan died in 1227, the empire’s borders had stretched from the Pacific to the Caspian Sea. The Mongol lands were twice the size of the Roman Empire at its peak. In hopes of preventing conflict and a possible civil war between his family members, Genghis, divided the empire between his 4 sons Jochi, Chagatai, Tolui and Ogedei, appointing Ogedei as the Great Khan. In that system, each Khanete would be semi-independent and the Great Khan was the absolute leader.

Map of the Mongol Empire and 4 Mongol Khanetes /

After Genghis Khan’s death, his successors subjugated the central Asian Turks. Subsequently, they conquered Kievan’ Rus, the largest Russian stronghold at the time and more than a dozen Russian princedoms. Moreover, Mongol armies marched to Europe and invaded Poland and Hungary leaving tens of thousands of dead and razed settlements behind them.

In the subsequent years, Islamic lands such as Baghdad and almost all of Anatolia were conquered and the last Abbasid caliph was killed. Mongol armies marched all the way down to Egypt.

Invasion of Baghdad /

Expansion and Conquests During Kublai Khan’s Reign

Later in 1270s, during the reign of Kublai Khan, the Mongols seized southern China after winning a long-lasting war with the Song Dynasty. In 1274 and 1281, Mongols launched two campaigns to invade Japan by assembling the largest navy history had ever seen. This fleet, consisting of more than 4000 ships and 150,000 men, would not be outnumbered until 1944, when the Allies launched the Normandy attack against the Axis forces. Strong typhoons wiped out the Mongol navy twice before they made it to mainland Japan. The term kamikaze (divine wind in Japanese) derives from this very event. After the staggering defeat in Japan, Kublai sent his armies to southeast Asia and suffered more defeats there. Kublai Khan’s death started the fall of the Mongol Empire as it gradually weakened.

Depiction of the Mongol campaign to Japan /

3-The Mongol legacy was not just violence, war and plunder. Science, art and economy flourished within the empire.

Asia Became A Huge Global Village

Putting aside all the bloodbath caused by Mongols, in a united Asia under the Mongol power, the Silk Road flourished. Science, art and ideas spread to various corners of the vast continent. Thus, this athmosphere strengthened the communication and interaction between Far Asia and Europe. Merchants and traders were encouraged to trade through the Silk Road and they were all under the Great Khan’s protection.

The Khans valued science and art so much that only artisans, engineers and artists were spared during campaigns. Subsequently, they would be moved to various Mongol cities and be given great opportunities to carry on their work within the borders of the empire. The golden age of art and science was during Kublai Khan’s reign. He made the Mongol Empire a truly global and an multicultural power. In addition to Mongol lands, China, ruled by Kublai Khan, had one of the brightest eras of science of culture in her whole history.

Kublai Khan /

Kublai’s Tolerance Towards Differences Caused Some Disturbance

The presence of different cultures and religions, increase in Chinese teachings in Mongol courts and tolerance towards non-Mongols caused considerable disturbance among some of Kublai Khan’s subjects. He was considered to have forgotten his true nomadic roots and accused of being too sympathetic with the Chinese. The criticism Kublai Khan received may be accurate to some extent, since he did not put Mongol language on the banknotes he printed after conquering southern China. 

Banknotes printed by Kublai Khan /

This topic is open to discussion. However, it’s likely that if Kublai was not very open towards differences and did not allow the presence of different religions and the Chinese culture, the Mongol empire would not have become such a unique mixture of cultures, religions, ideas, teachings and people.

4-Mongols valued talent regardless of one’s ethnicity and religion and the Khans were adept at hiring people who were smarter than them

Loyalty Was Everything

Contrary to the image they created of themselves, the Mongols were quite tolerant towards different religions, ethnicities and people of various backgrounds as long as their subjects accepted Mongolian superiority.

The Mongol Khans could be fierce, blood-hungry warlords in the field, as well as classy elites who aspired to surround themselves with limitless knowledge in their courts. Mosques, churches of different Christian sects and Buddhist temples abounded in the Mongol capital.

Loyalty and Talent Over Royal Blood

Going back to the foundation of the Mongol Empire, Genghis Khan’s ideal on ruling his subjects was based on rewaring those who had been loyal to him and the Khanete. Loyal people were put high positions, as generals, ministers and regents, regardless of their social class and ethnicity. Talent, skill and being loyal was given vital importance in Mongol Empire.

Marco Polo

The 13th century Venetian merchant, Marco Polo, was among the outsiders who’s intelligence impressed Kublai Khan and he served the Mongol sovereignty. He traveled the prosperous Silk Road and served Kublai Khan as a foreign emissary for 24 years. Polo, having traveled to China and the rest of the lands within the empire, such as Central Asia, India, Burma, Vietnam and such, wrote the earliest travel journals, detailing chronicles of his trips about these lands. His works were a great inspiration to Colombus and many other future explorers.

Depiction of Marco Polo /

Non-Mongol Servants Didn’t Always Prove To Be Useful

So, what the Mongols did was to abolish boundaries and open borders which induced human interaction, a mixing of cultures and a spread of idea. However, not all non-Mongols who were under Kublai’s service had a great reputation. Ahmad, a Muslim from Qara Khitai, was Kublai Khan’s minister of finance and later, prime minister, and was known to have acquired great wealth through corruption. Despite the fact that he established an advanced tax system, Ahmad was gruesomely punished by the Khan, who ordered his body to be served to dogs and his bones to be smashed by horses trembling over him.

Depiction of Ahmad, who was played by Mahesh Jadu in Marco Polo Tv Series /

5-Fall of the Mongols

With Kublai Khan’s Death, The Golden Age Of The Empire Ended

Despite some prominent Mongol figures emerging after Kublai Khan’s death, such as Timurid, who restored the Mongol rule in western Euroasia, and Babur, who founded the Mughal Empire in India (the word Mughal means Mongol in Persian), the Mongol’s were gradually driven back to their native lands, the great steppes of Asia. Leading nomadic lives, the Mongols did not leave many structures for our common historical heritage, however in 86 years, they certainly altered and contributed greatly to the course of history.