The Mongols

Who were the Mongols?

The Mongols were originally a nomadic tribe from the Mongolian plateau. Although the name is older, the Mongols were first unified  as a group by Kabul Khan, Genghis Khan’s great-grandfather. Like other tribes from the same area their lifestyle centered on herding horses, cattle, sheep, camels, and goats. These animals were a source of food, materials and the main method of transport for the Mongols. The Mongols also traded with the wealthy dynasties in China to acquire other goods. Mongol families lived in large round tents called Gers. These were built with collapsible wooden frames that were covered in felt and animal skins. The family was the most important unit in Mongol society although each family would be part of a larger clan with links to a major tribe.

A modern Mongolian Ger (image Mark Fisher)
A modern Mongolian Ger (image Mark Fisher)

When Genghis Khan was born, the Mongols were just one of the many independent tribal groups in the region. Some of the other powerful groups were the Tartars, the Naiman and the Khereits. Raiding and warfare between the groups was common. However, between 1186 and 1206 Genghis Khan conquered the other tribes of the region and created a unified Mongol nation.

This changed the Mongols for ever. Men from every tribal group rose to prominence in the Mongol Empire. The nomadic lifestyle remained, but society was very different. The conquests that created the empire brought the Mongols into contact with a host of new cultures and over time they settled in the areas they conquered and adopted many of the ideas they found there.

What did they do?

Between 1206 and 1279 the Mongols conquered a vast empire that stretched from the Pacific coast of China to Eastern Europe and from Siberia to Vietnam. These conquests started under the leadership of Genghis Khan and were extended by his successors. The Mongol conquests destroyed the reigning dynasties in China and the powerful Muslim states that had dominated Central Asia and the Middle East for hundreds of years.

A map showing the expansion of the Mongol empire in the 13th century
A map showing the expansion of the Mongol empire in the 13th century

On his death Genghis split the empire between his sons with Ogoedei becoming Great Khan, the supreme ruler. This form of government continued with the different branches of the family competing for the throne. In the late 13th Century the empire began to splinter into separate states in the late 13th century. Although the empire was never unified again the successor kingdoms left behind were extremely powerful. Kublai Khan founded the Yuan dynasty, the first foreign dynasty to rule all of China, which lasted until 1368. The Golden Horde in Russia lasted until the end of the 14th century and the Mongol influence over Persia was continued by Timur well into the 15th century.

The Mongol conquests brought huge changes in their wake. The initial invasions were notable for their violence and destruction. The conquests in areas like Persia and Russia were so violent that caused major demographic changes and the destruction of ancient cities. In contrast the stable Mongol administration encouraged a flourishing of global trade and communication never seen before. The ‘Pax Mongolica’ as it is often called opened up links between China, Europe and the Middle East making goods available through a network of trading posts. One unfortunate effect of this new freedom was that better communication encouraged the spread of the Black Death (plague carried by rats) across Europe and Asia. This disease would devastate populations from China to England during the 14th century.

It is fair to say that the modern world would not be the same without the Mongol conquests.


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