By the end of this section, you will be able to:
- Describe the new civilization Chinggis Khan created for the Mongols
- Analyze the trajectory and motivations of the conquests made under Chinggis, Ogedei, and Mongke Khan
- Explain the actions Ogedei Khan took to bring about Chinggis Khan’s vision for a Eurasian trading empire
- Identify the obstacles the Mongols faced in their efforts to unify and expand their empire
With no remaining rivals to Temujin’s rule over the People of the Felt Walls, nothing stood in the way of his vision of a better world for his followers; Chinggis Khan, or “World Leader,” had truly been born. His vision was twofold. On one hand, Chinggis wanted to end the constant strife and warfare that characterized life on the steppe. Despite being a practitioner of violence and warfare, he also wanted to promote the peaceful acquisition of goods. He spent the rest of his life forcefully promoting those objectives, regardless of whether others desired them, with a bloody ruthlessness that seems at odds with those very same goals.
The Yassa and Mongol Life
To allow bitter feelings to subside after years of struggle, Chinggis waited until 1206 to call a kurultai to consolidate and confirm his rule over all Mongols. A kurultai was a meeting of those loyal to the leader of a seminomadic confederation, convened to confirm acceptance of a major change the leader wanted to make in relations within the group or between the group and others. Attendance signaled acceptance, and not attending meant not just disagreement but possibly withdrawal of loyalty to the leader. Temujin’s kurultai was unprecedented in its scale. The Secret History of the Mongols records that nearly all the million or so People of the Felt Walls attended, setting up encampments that spread for miles. Unlike almost all previous coronations in recorded history, Temujin’s was a highly inclusive event, not just for the elites and population of the capital. A shaman proclaimed him Chinggis Khan and confirmed that Tengri, a god revered by many central Asian peoples, granted him authority and would bless his people with prosperity and good fortune as long as he governed wisely and fairly, an idea similar to the Confucian Mandate of Heaven.
To prevent conflict over succession and maintain the democratic spirit of the kurultai where members had a say in selection, Chinggis Khan decreed that any future great khan, that is, any leader over the entirety of what he began to refer to as the “great Mongol nation” and the superior of all lesser khans, could be chosen only by a kurultai and not familial succession alone. Chinggis Khan now filled the role of clan and tribe leader. He put forth rules known as the yassa to govern relations between households; later, as the empire grew, he ordered the development of a written script for the Mongol language—based on that used by Uyghur tribes from areas north of China and Mongolia—so the yassa and records pertaining to it could be recorded (Figure 14.8).
The yassa made theft and robbery—the objectives of incessant raiding between clans—capital offenses. Enslaving Mongols was outlawed, as were adultery and kidnapping women and selling them for marriage. No one could kill more animals than their household could use, hunting was banned during animals’ mating seasons, and specified butchering methods ensured that maximum use was made of the animal. The yassa favored no religion and prohibited discrimination and favoritism on the basis of religion, perhaps the first law code to do so. Chinggis Khan, who continued to worship Tengri, granted tax and labor service exemptions to all religious leaders and holders of church lands, privileges later extended to those in secular occupations requiring literacy, such as medicine and law.
The family was the center of life for a Mongol woman, yet she had little if any say about how her family was formed. Marriages were arranged, and polygamy was common, although a man was not supposed to have more wives than he could support. Adult males in the household could sleep with any of the women in the household if this did not violate incest taboos, and it is unclear the degree to which a woman’s consent was necessary. Because the yassa defined adultery as occurring only between married people of different households, it codified the potential for sexual assault within households.
Mongol women did have some power, however. They were often left to oversee the household when the men went to herd, hunt, and raid. A widow beyond childbearing years was often considered a household head and took her husband’s place in the clan’s collective decision-making institutions. When Chinggis Khan was away on extended campaigns, his wife Borte was the de facto leader of the civilians of the Mongol Empire, and the wives and mothers of later Mongol rulers could hold significant power over a khanate following this model. Such instances of female leadership were far, far rarer—or entirely unheard of—in most other Afro-Eurasian societies of the same period.
The Conquest Movement of Chinggis Khan
The yassa and the social-military organization put in place by Chinggis Khan removed many sources of strife from the Mongol Empire. But they also prohibited traditional activities, such as raiding other clans, that had led to social mobility. Chinggis Khan believed that without new sources of wealth and glory, people might grow restless and reject the peace he tried to create. His life experience had given him no concept of settled economic development or ways to redirect his people’s energy to that goal. From the time he joined Ong Khan’s attack on the Tatars and saw the luxuries acquired from the Jin and the Song, Chinggis knew settled peoples were a source of wealth ripe for the Mongol Empire to take, and for him as their leader to distribute. In his eyes, conquering these peoples or intimidating them into giving tribute was the next logical step.
As word spread of Chinggis Khan’s coronation, some warriors in the settled kingdoms between the steppe and Song China left to join the Mongol Empire. The Kara-Khitan, assuming resistance would not go well, offered tribute to Chinggis Khan. After a coup in 1210, the new Xi Xia ruler accepted tributary status on terms similar to those of the Kara-Khitan.
The Jin, however, were another matter. In 1210, a new Jin emperor demanded Chinggis Khan submit to him and send tribute, so Chinggis marched his smaller but superior army south to invade (Figure 14.9). A master at exploiting his opponents’ weaknesses, he realized that his linguistic cousins, the Khitan, resented the rule of the Jurchen Jin dynasty, so he portrayed his army as a liberating force for them. With their army swelling with Jin defectors, the Mongols were able to lay siege to Zhongdu, the Jin capital, and eventually seize the starving city. Chinggis Khan ordered the city thoroughly looted, tens of thousands enslaved, and untold numbers of others massacred.
Once the spoils from Zhongdu had been gathered, Chinggis Khan and his army headed back to the steppe, leaving the campaign against the Jin mostly in the hands of his Khitan allies. Forces loyal to Chinggis Khan continued to subdue the Yellow River basin and expanded north into the Jurchen homeland, even venturing to the Korean Peninsula. By 1223, these areas were pacified and providing tribute to the Mongol Empire and its allies who occupied them. Ironically, this vast amount of looted goods forced Chinggis Khan to build the first permanent structures on the steppe, a warehouse complex to hold war booty so it could be preserved and distributed or traded over time.
The Kara-Khitan kingdom caught Chinggis Khan’s attention in 1213 when the son of the Naiman leader he had defeated a decade earlier took control. The Kara-Khitan were already not meeting tribute expectations, and now a once-defeated rival led them. The Mongols quickly triumphed over the Kara-Khitan and absorbed them into the empire. Their conquests were wide, however, and not limited to China and the East. Mongol armies moved westward and likely seemed an unstoppable force to many.
The vast amount of wealth seized from the Jin fundamentally changed the mindset of the Mongol leadership, which demanded ever more goods, food, grazing lands, and raw materials. These new needs prompted Chinggis Khan to seek trading and raiding opportunities farther west. The absorption of the Kara-Khitan into the Mongol Empire had provided a direct border with the Islamic world through Khwarazmia, a realm stretching from Persia through central Asia. Around 1218, Chinggis Khan sent a caravan of a few hundred of his Muslim subjects to the leader of Khwarazmia, Allah al-Din Muhammad, with a letter requesting the establishment of trade relations and a great many valuable goods to show what he could offer.
Before the caravan reached the Khwarazmian ruler, however, his governor of Otrar confiscated the goods and killed the traders. In a grave miscalculation, Allah al-Din Muhammad then killed most of the emissaries Chinggis Khan sent to demand compensation, returning only a couple of them, disfigured. This did not just mean war to Chinggis Khan; it meant a war of revenge of the utmost brutality. This included the decimation of the cities of Herat, Merv, and Nishapur, which for centuries had been three of the most important and prominent cities of the eastern Islamic world. By 1223, Allah al-Din Muhammad had been killed while fleeing Mongol troops on an island in the Caspian Sea. Chinggis Khan divided the Khwarazmian state up to be administered by his sons and generals.
In the present day, the World Trade Organization (WTO) has seen countries from around the world join together with the support of the United Nations to develop and expand trade over long distances. Recognizing that the world is becoming increasingly globalized and that goods are moving across borders and between people more than ever before, the WTO has played a major role in streamlining, regulating, and supporting international commerce since its founding in 1995. But can we view the WTO as a contemporary version of Chinggis Khan’s vision for world trade?
Chinggis Khan’s messages to the ruler of Khwarazmia indicate that he genuinely sought trade, not tribute. In one he notes, “I have no need to covet other dominions. We have an equal interest in fostering trade between our subjects.” In a second letter, after the sultan had responded by sending a trade caravan, Chinggis Khan notes, “Merchants from your country have come among us . . . we have likewise dispatched to your country in their company a group of merchants in order that they may acquire the wondrous wares of those regions; and that henceforth the abscess of evil thoughts may be lanced by the improvement of relations and agreement between us, and the pus of sedition and rebellion removed.”
Both Chinggis Khan’s messages convey that trade promotes peace among countries and people. While the sultan did not see it that way, this idea is now the basis for many actions in international relations, where the concept of liberalism—which contends that the way to a peaceful world is to promote economic growth by barrier-free economic exchange between countries—holds great sway. While the WTO works through collaboration rather than by edict, the logic and intent are the same: allow goods to be exchanged throughout the world with a single set of rules, and people will live in harmony with one another.
- What benefits might Chinggis Khan have seen in supporting a free flow of trade between his empire and the Khwarazmians, even when they fought one another?
- Should we consider the formation of an organization like the WTO an innovation of the twentieth century or an outcome directly connected to the trade networks of the past? Why?
Reconnaissance for launching surprise attacks against Khwarazmia brought the Mongols into unfamiliar territory. To the south, they discovered India’s Delhi Sultanate in one of its rare periods of unity and growth. These Muslims were not part of the Khwarazmian realm, however, so attacking them would have been an unnecessary distraction. Seeking a route to surprise the Khwarazmians from the north, two of Chinggis’s most trusted generals, Jebe and Subutai, had crossed through the Georgian Kingdom, then the lands of the Rus, Slavic ancestors of modern Russians who had ruled the agricultural lands east of Hungary and Poland. They quickly annihilated the Khwarazmian and Rus forces, forcing both groups to become tributaries to Chinggis Khan.
Ogedei Khan’s Great Mongol Nation
Chinggis Khan spent his remaining years reasserting control over his Chinese conquests. The Jin, for example, regained tenuous sovereignty over the areas between Zhongdu and the coast. The Xi Xia refused to send troops to aid the war against the Khwarazmians, an act Chinggis saw as a betrayal. After defeating the Khwarazmians, he invaded the Xi Xia lands to punish them for this disloyalty. He was unable to enjoy the vengeance finally brought upon these uncooperative subjects, however, dying several months before the completion of his conquest, possibly as a result of being thrown from a horse.
As was Mongol custom, Chinggis Khan’s estate was to be divided between his four sons by his primary wife Borte. His estate was a huge chunk of the Eurasian continent with millions of people to rule and a great deal of annual tribute. To preserve this wealth and the harmony the yassa had created for at least the population of the Mongol Empire, Chinggis had insisted that one of his sons be the next great khan. This son was to not only run one-fourth of the empire directly but also command the military, serve as the final court of appeal, and control a central government consisting largely of postal stations for communication and warehouses for spoils and tribute.
At a kurultai of his family and closest advisers years before Chinggis’ death, Ogedei was chosen to be this great khan. That decision was respected, demonstrating just how successful Chinggis had been in uniting the steppe peoples. The division of the empire between Chinggis Khan and Borte’s sons also occurred. Ogedei received the conquered lands of the Xi Xia and Jin. The heirs of the oldest of Chinggis Khan’s sons, Jochi, who had died a few months before his father, were given portions of the Mongol lands in central Asia, the territory of the Rus in modern Russia, and adjacent areas in northwest Eurasia. Led by Chinggis’s oldest grandson, Batu, they became known as the Golden Horde, horde being one of the most common terms used for the tribal organization of the Mongols. The youngest son, Tolui, was granted the Mongol homeland, and the rest went to the second son, Chagatai.
Ogedei’s coronation as khan reflected his reputation as a partier, with weeks of celebrations and feasting that involved virtually the entire nation and carefree depletion of the treasury by distributions of generous gifts to attendees. Tribute collections had fallen off, however, especially once word of Chinggis’s death spread. After Ogedei’s reckless spending, the Mongols were suddenly in financial trouble and unable to satisfy either the population’s growing expectations of living standards or their new leader’s ostentatious ambitions. Ogedei needed a way to quickly find more money.
To intimidate the tributary states, Ogedei attacked and defeated the Jin by 1234. The Jin civilization’s wealth flowed into the Mongol treasury, but it was not enough. More than pursuing a life of conquest, Ogedei wanted to siphon off wealth as tribute through control of Eurasia’s trade routes. To do that, he needed a capital, which he stored near Chinggis Khan’s warehouses in the Mongol heartlands; this was the origin of Karakorum as a city. Funding its construction required yet more tribute, however. In 1235, Ogedei called a kurultai to decide which lands should be conquered to provide it. After much debate, it was decided to attack both Europe and Song China.
The war against the Song was inconclusive. Both sides suffered heavy losses, and peace negotiations began in 1241. The Mongols fared better in the west. They reestablished control over areas they had subdued earlier, conquered Kyiv (Kiev) in 1240, and essentially wiped out most Christian armies east of the Holy Roman Empire, looting major cities such as Krakow and Buda in modern-day Poland and Hungary. As they entered Bohemia in early 1242, word came that Ogedei had died the previous December. To participate in the expected kurultai to replace him, the Mongols abruptly retreated before bringing full destruction to eastern Europe, though leaving devastation in their wake.
While Ogedei’s reign had mixed success, his extravagance and hedonism reflected the lifestyle the Mongol Empire adopted in the decades of unity brought by Chinggis Khan’s yassa. Ogedei instituted practices that allowed fairly effective extraction of resources and imposed stability and order in the lands he and his father had conquered. The details are generally credited to a Khitan mandarin named Yelu Chucai, whom Chinggis Khan first took notice of in 1215 and whom Ogedei tapped to expand the burgeoning system of taxation and recordkeeping for the whole empire. Yelu is credited with convincing Ogedei that “an empire can be conquered from horseback, but it cannot be ruled from horseback,” setting the stage for the bureaucratization of Mongol rule.
Ogedei embraced Yelu’s plans of systematic recurring taxation to replace tribute. He saw his empire as the center of world trade and expanded the infrastructure to support that. Primarily for military communication, Chinggis Khan had established a system of horse relay stations called yam on the long-distance roads throughout his realm. These yam were located at one-day intervals from one another and included rest areas and supply depots. Ogedei expanded the system, extending its use to merchants and diplomats and lavishly rewarding traders who brought items he had never encountered before. This hospitality and his spendthrift ways attracted many merchants.
In addition, Ogedei created the Pax Mongolica, or Mongol Peace, which united a large part of the world through the exchange of goods and the long-distance travel of people and ideas. This was accomplished through a twofold approach: it was facilitated by the peace and justice imposed by Mongols on those who accepted or embraced their rule and was funded by the taxation of all producing people. At the same time, it was assured by clear instances of unabashed brutality against any who would dare resist their spread into new lands. Many recognized that resistance was not worth the risk.
Ogedei had given no thought to succession, however, and almost a decade of infighting occurred after his death, calling forth a great effort to maintain what had already been conquered. A battle between Chinggis Khan’s grandsons Guyuk and Batu seemed imminent when the forty-two-year-old Guyuk mysteriously died.
Chinggis Khan, Mongol National Identity, and the Hu
Although several clans and tribes of the Inner Asian Steppe spoke a common language, it was not until the reign of Chinggis Khan that they became a unified nation. From that point on, except for roughly three generations of Soviet rule in the twentieth century, during which symbols and figures with a strong local nationalist focus were often banned, Chinggis Khan has been inexorably linked to Mongol national identity.
A recent pop culture example is the breakout Mongolian heavy-metal band The Hu. Their 2019 debut album was called Gereg, after the medallions that granted merchants the use of the Mongols’ system of rest and supply areas on the roads. The Hu were the first Mongolian band to have a song lead the Billboard Top 100 list. In the fall of 2019, they finished a twenty-three-city European tour, and for their contributions in spreading Mongol culture globally, the Mongolian government gave them the country’s highest award, the Order of Chinggis Khan. Almost every song on their album harkens back to the days of the Mongol Empire of the thirteenth century.
The second verse of “The Great Chinggis Khaan” (simply an alternative spelling of “khan”) sums up both Chinggis Khan’s vision of the world and the way the Mongolian people view him. Here is the official music video of The Hu song “The Great Chinggis Khaan.” You may want to turn on the closed captioning to read the lyrics in English.
- Why might The Hu have chosen Chinggis Khan as a focus for their first album?
- What aspects of the status of Chinggis Khan in both contemporary Mongolian society and world history more generally do you think explain why this song proved so popular?
The Last Gasp of Mongol Expansion
It took until 1251 for majority support to coalesce around Chinggis Khan’s grandson Mongke. While Mongke successfully expanded Mongol domains, his reign would mark the end of continued conquest while also signaling the end of a united Mongol Empire.
Blending the best elements of Chinggis Khan and Ogedei, Mongke was poised to re-create the greatness of unified Mongol rule. He stabilized the empire, ordering a census to assess not just taxes but also the natural and human resources of his domains. To increase the empire’s wealth and dissipate potential restless energy that might be turned on him, he undertook multidirectional expansion. His brother Hulagu Khan was asked to subdue the Islamic world, while another brother, Kublai Khan, was sent to Song China.
Hulagu was enormously successful; like his grandfather in northern China, he exploited existing conflicts, which included resentment by the minority Shia Muslims against the Sunni caliph. Combining this strategy with the Mongols’ usual offer to spare from destruction those who would acknowledge Mongol rule and submit tribute without struggle, Hulagu was able to gain control of much of the caliph’s lands, especially Shia areas. By late 1257, his forces had surrounded Baghdad, and the city fell in early 1258, its physical defenses undermined. Tens, possibly hundreds, of thousands were massacred, and the caliph himself was killed.
Meanwhile, Kublai was also successful, conquering areas of Tibet and southwestern China. During the campaign, he began to favor Tibetan Buddhism, although not to the point of dismissing or persecuting other faiths. Mongke then moved him to administer the former Jin areas that were conquered by his grandfather, while Mongke himself, seeing the Song’s vulnerability, launched a broader attack against them in 1256. In 1259, as reports reached Mongke that Kublai was establishing a power base in northern China, he ordered Kublai to join him in the war against the Song, probably also wanting to keep close watch over him.
Before Kublai could reach him, however, Mongke died, likely from dysentery. His cousin Ariq Boke, another of Chinggis Khan’s grandsons and the one who had been left to administer the Mongol homeland, declared himself the new khan of the Mongol Empire ahead of a kurultai. Upon hearing this, Kublai, who was returning for the kurultai, also declared himself the new khan. While Kublai would prove a powerful and capable ruler, much had begun to change since the days of Chinggis, and the stage was set for the end of a unified Mongol Empire and a single khan who dominated the entirety of the territories they had conquered. Continued success in conquest had been a major factor in keeping rivals from unnecessarily challenging the rule of the chosen great khan or devolving his power. With this period of expansion over, these rivals were presented with new opportunities to claim more power for themselves, especially with the size and diversity of the empire the Mongols now ruled.
The last kurultai of the Mongol Empire failed and led to the permanent splitting of the realm. Hulagu stood with his brother Kublai. The Golden Horde, now led by Batu’s younger brother Berke, supported Ariq Boke. This left Orghina, sister-in-law to Hulagu and granddaughter of Chinggis Khan, in a position to choose which of her cousins would rule the Mongol Empire. Orghina, acting as regent for her son who was too young to assume a leadership role, chose neutrality, endorsing neither claimant. The fact that she was making this decision, not advising a man who would make the choice, shows the strides women had made under the yassa. Kublai ultimately prevailed, since his bonds with the army conquering China and his resource-rich power base in the northeast left him well situated to repulse Ariq Boke’s attacks. In 1264, Ariq Boke rode to Kublai’s capital and surrendered. He died under house arrest a couple of years later, probably having been poisoned.
Hulagu recognized Kublai as the great khan, calling himself il-khan (lesser khan) and his realm the Il-Khanate. He and his successors pursued their own policies independently, however, and Kublai’s hold on the Chagatai Khanate remained only as strong as the armies he devoted to enforcing it. The Golden Horde was well out of his reach. From this point on, the parts of the once-united Mongol Empire were administered separately and evolved differently (Figure 14.10). Historians refer to them as khanates—the Khanate of the Golden Horde, Il-Khanate, Chagatai Khanate, and the Khanate of the Great Khan—to distinguish them from the prior period of unity.
The struggle for power between Kublai and Ariq Boke also reflected a divide between Mongols willing to live as settled people and those who sought to preserve traditional nomadic ways. Kublai and Hulagu represented Mongols willing to adopt some aspects of settled life. Their successors, especially Kublai’s, embraced the settled lifestyle even more. Ariq Boke embodied the spirit of their traditional nomadic culture, the weaknesses of which had been under attack since Temujin had become Chinggis Khan and had sought to promote harmony and justice in ways traditional Mongol customs and practices did not. While Mongol armies were a formidable force in open battles on broad plains, it was only with the help of settled people and their technologies that they could take down the world’s richest cities and bring their riches to the Mongolian plain and, more importantly, create bureaucratic systems to keep it flowing and distribute it.