The Mongol Empire: The Largest Contiguous Empire in History

The Mongols, a semi-nomadic ethnicity dedicated to grazing and hunting, have always been considered as the "lords of the steppe". Between the 13th and 15th centuries, the Mongol tribes unified under the authority of a single leader, or Khan, and they managed to conquest the entire Asian continent, including China. At its peak, the Mongol Empire had dominated all Asian commerce, controlling a territory that went from the Great Wall of China to Persia and southern Russia, even threatening countries and regions in Europe, like Poland or Bohemia in the current Czech Republic.

The Mongol Empire at its Peak under Kublai Khan's leadership

It is believed that the Mongol ethnicity was originated in China. As they were a nomadic people, the Mongols were organized in different clans that occupied different territories and grazing routes. Later on, between the 3rd and 8th centuries, some of these clans would have settled, forming sedentary towns and integrating themselves in the Chinese rural society. Groups and clans of Mongol origins can be found in the Chinese regions in the banks of the Amur River, in the northern end, and in the territory of the Great Jiang; the rest of clans, because of their refusal to settle in towns and hamlets, were expelled from China during the 10th and 12th centuries. These groups would arrive at the Aral Sea region, where they continued with their semi-nomadic grazing and hunting traditions, having a special preference to wide and open spaces where they could move "freer", like the landscapes in the steppe.

For their culture and lifestyle, the Mongols were excellent horsemen and formidable warriors, accustomed to constantly fighting to occupy the scarce grassland they needed for their cattle.

These warriors were also very well known because they rode small and strong short-legged horses, capable of resisting long rides on an arid and hard ground. Also, the Mongols dominated the archery; Marco Polo's chronicles (the Venetian merchant from the 13th century who lived during the golden age of the Mongol Empire) tell us that, the horsemen of Genghis Khan shot their arrows with precision and high speed, while they were riding pretty fast against their enemies. The army of these people was organized in hordes or strike groups which ruthlessly blew away hundreds of towns and cities.

In 1206, the Great Khan (Genghis Khan in the Mongol language) Temüjin unified all the Mongol clans spread throughout Europe and Asia into a single force that would initiate a fast and bloody conquest of the entire Asian continent and would lead 73 years later to the arrival of the fearsome horsemen to Beijing. All stories described Genghis Khan as a charismatic leader, who had a clear idea of conquest since the beginning of his campaigns. Besides military leader, he self-proclaimed religious leader, and justice administrator, redacting a code of laws that would rule the entire Empire. Genghis Khan designed a fiscal system through which he wanted to exploit the conquered peoples; the novelty was that the Mongols, having been a nomadic civilization without any administration or bureaucracy, adopted the administrative systems, and even the religious beliefs, in each of the zones that fell under his power. This way, it is not surprising that over the centuries, the different khanates or Mongol provinces in areas like Persia and Asia Minor converted to different religions, such as the Islam, the Confucianism or the Lamaism, the latter one in the case of the Mongols which occupied the Tibet region.

Moreover, as the Venetian merchant, Marco Polo, could see with his own eyes, the Mongol Empire became during its golden age, the guarantor of the Silk Road trade. Genghis Khan and his descendants unified under his power the totality of the military forces which guarded and protected this so important commercial route. For all of this, the persona of Genghis Khan cannot be contemplated only as the one of a simple conqueror, but also as a powerful emperor who was able, in just 20 years, to create an imperial administration which continued after his death. After Genghis Khan's passing in 1227, the Mongol Empire was divided into different khanates or territories ruled by descendants (sons, nephews, and grandsons) of the Great Khan. Not only the Mongol supremacy subsisted, but also increased its territory in China; although the territories were administratively divided, even the eastern and western khanates adopted different languages and beliefs, the imperial system designed by Genghis Khan, and the justice code, maintained the Mongol Empire until the end of the 15th century.

The most notable Genghis Khan's heir was his nephew Kublai Khan, the military leader whom Marco Polo met. He conquered China in 1279, establishing the capital of the Empire in Beijing. Kublai applied strictly the Mongol philosophy, putting the Yuan Chinese Dynasty in power, under Kublai's control. A century later, in 1369, the Mongols had absorbed the Yuan's traditions in such a way that they were mingled with them. The descendants of Kublai Khan were expelled from China, in the same way as their ancestors, by the Ming Dynasty who started governing the country.

The Turkestan khanate, in Asia Minor, fell again under the control of Jaghatai Khan. This ruler conquered the entire current Turkey and later extended his power till Kashmir (region situated between current India and Pakistan). In 1370, the Turkish western part of this region separated, forming a khanate under the authority of the leader Timur, one of the most ruthless and fearsome Mongol leaders after Genghis Khan.

Hulagu Khan, Genghis Khan's grandson, established himself in Persia in 1258 and conquered the regions of Armenia, Mesopotamia, and Georgia. Hulagu converted to Islam in 1295. A century later, what was Hulagu's khanate split into different territories according to the different languages, which were: Mongol, Turkish and Farsi.

The zone of Russia's influence was given to the Mongol ruler Batu Khan, who occupied a large part of the territory which nowadays comprises the countries of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus. Batu Khan managed to cross the Danube river and enter the European continent, arriving to Poland, and even to the Adriatic Sea. This khanate was one of the most fighting ones: it had to confront Russia, which was also seeking for its expansion. The khanate was divided into two groups: The Golden Horde, which was established in the European part of Russia, and the White Horde in the Aral Sea region, the same region where Genghis Khan unified all Mongol clans opening the path to its expansion.

It took 100 years for Russia, from 1380 to 1480, to defeat these Mongol Hordes, by Tsar Ivan III, also known as Ivan the Great.

However, towns and clans of Mongol origins (Kazakhs and Tartars among others) continued to fight against Russian Cossacks along the border of the so-called Golden Horde, which comprised the regions of Crimea, Kazan, and Astrakhan, till the end of the 17th century, when the last khanate fell under control of Afaq Khoja.

Source: Wikipedia

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