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Ages of Conquest: a Kings and Generals Podcast

Feb 3, 2020

In the smoke filled air, the cries of men and women reach towards Eternal Blue Heaven as horsemen ride over ruined city walls. The men of fighting age are forced together, their weapons and armour abandoned or taken, to be shortly executed en masse. A tower of their skulls be all that remains of their resistance The women, holding close crying children and infants, are led away, chattel for their new masters. Those craftsmen and artisans of skills -engineers, masons, woodworkers, and smiths of metal- are deemed to be useful to their new master in the east, and will be carried off for his service. Over the 13th century, from the islands off Korea to the plains of Hungary, from the forests of Siberia to the rugged borderlands of India, variations of this scene are enacted again and again, in the pursuit of nothing less than the domination of everything under Heaven by one family. I’m your host David and welcome to Ages of Conquest: a Kings and Generals Podcast.  This is the Mongol conquests.


    In Bukhara, in early 1220, as the formidable Khwarezmian (Khwa-rez-mian)  Empire buckles under their onslaught, the man who has caused this horrific explosion of violence stands before a crowd of the city’s notables and wealthy. Once proud and haughty, now they are held humble before this horseman from the steppe. “O peoples,” he tells them through his translator, “know that you have committed great sins and that the great ones among you have committed these sins. If you ask me what proof I have of these words, I say it is because I am the punishment of God. Had you not committed great sins, God would not have sent a punishment like me upon you.” As the translator finished the statement, the shocked murmurs and hurried glances of the crowd would surely have pleased him - Genghis Khan, the World Conqueror, who had driven this proud people before him like  hunters do their prey. 


    The 13th century Mongol Conquests today are often presented in apocalyptic imagery, a carry over from many of the medieval sources, for whom the only explanation for the speed and thoroughness of these conquests could only be that they were a punishment sent by God, surely heralding the end of times. These connotations are difficult to dissociate, and indeed, one might ask why we should look deeper, when these conquests resulted in an estimated 30-40 million deaths, unimaginable suffering, rape and cruelty. Genghis Khan’s name, to many in the west, Iran and China, brings to mind the stock image of the blood thirsty barbarian, who raped his way to over 200 million modern descendants! 


Yet, in Mongolia today, he is not a national shame, but rather considered the heroic, legendary founder of their country, the unifier of the Mongols who led them to an unprecedented age of greatness. He is a lawgiver, the ideal steppe chieftain. Stern and vengeful to his enemies, but generous to his followers, a protector bringing peace and ending the age of intercine steppe warfare. For centuries, descent from Genghis Khan was perhaps the single most important source of legitimacy for dynasties and states across Asia. Even those monarchs not of the altan urugh - the Golden Lineage- often maintained a puppet Khan descended from him, or married a daughter of distant descent. For many of the Turkic peoples across the steppe today, Genghis takes  the form of a great folk hero, and individual clans, tribes and peoples will feature some legend wherein a famous ancestor of theirs was granted their rights to that territory by Genghis himself, or was held as a loyal general by him. 


    How do we reconcile these differing interpretations? As with so much of history, the truth lies in the middle. That is what we will discuss over the course of this podcast series. Not a dramatized, apocalyptic presentation, but neither a glowing heroic description, we will instead in detail go through the Mongol conquests, beginning with the origins of the empire and following through its expansion, administration, collapse and legacy, and address along the way popular misconceptions. To begin this, then perhaps we should first take a note of the name of the great Khan himself. Rather than the ‘Genghis,’ of modern English, we should instead use the more accurate rendition of his name in Mongolian: Chinggis Khan. Not meaning ‘universal emperor,’ it instead is something like ‘fierce, stern ruler,’ and neither was it his birth name. 


Chinggis Khan was born in about 1162, as Temujin, son of the minor chieftain Yesugei. Greatness did not come to him easily. When he was about 9 years old, his father was poisoned by a rival tribe, and Temujin and his family were soon abandoned by their own people. Only slowly did he gain power, suffering numerous setbacks, captures, and military defeats, forced to crawl and scratch for every inch. It was only in 1206, when he was over 40 years of age, that he finally unified the tribes of Mongolia, was elected Great Khan and took the title of Chinggis Khan. Even then, there is no evidence suggesting world domination was a goal he set himself to at this point: the initial attacks on China, beginning with an invasion of the Tangut Xi Xia in 1209 ,and an invasion of the Jurchen ruled Jin Dynasty in 1211, were intended for plunder and the punishing old enemies rather than establishing a vast empire. 


Only in the final years of his life, as Mongol armies obliterated the Khwarezmian ((Khwa-rez-mian)) Empire in modern Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Iran, does it seem the Mongols started to envisage themselves not just as rulers of the steppe and north China, but of much, much more. To paraphrase the Historian David Morgan, the Mongols came to believe it was their destiny to rule the world when they found out that they were in fact, doing so. 


    The empire Chinggis Khan founded was the largest contiguous land empire in history, coming to incorporate most of the Eurasian continent by the end of the thirteenth century. Contrary to some statements you may seen online by those reminding you of the size of the British Empire that this was an ‘empire of empty space,’ the Mongols took control of all of the Chinese mainland, the trade cities of the famed Silk Routes in Central Asia, with Persia, Iraq, the Caucasus, eastern Anatolia and the cities of what is now Russia and Ukraine. That Mongol armies never landed in England and France is perhaps why to many in the west they remain but a foggy topic, the might of Genghis Khan glossed over in favour of Julius Caesar and Alexander the Great for most English speakers. 


Yet the Great Khan’s lifetime and legacy was a defining period for most of Eurasia, an immense period of transformation. Few powers of the 12th and early 13th century survived the Mongol onslaughts, and those that did were often significantly impacted by them. Neither were these impacts solely military: the expansion of trans-continental trade, spread of ideas and movements of peoples resulted in major economic changes, and Europe learned in detail of the wealth of China and the far east; population losses from the conquests and the Mongol civil wars, and finally the Black Death, as well as huge migrations of people across Asia, changed the population figures and distribution across the continent; Islam, from its low point with the destruction of Baghdad by Mongol armies in 1258, spread across Central Asia in the wake of the Mongols; and the states which succeeded the Mongol Empire now bore much different political and cultural outlooks, with a slew of Turko-Mongolian empires rising and falling ruled by Chinggisids or those who married into the family, most famously the great conqueror Temur; the likes of the Ming Dynasty in China, which after a brief flirtation with its famous trade fleets, became a Dynasty famously insular, closing itself off to outsiders and with a near-paralyzing phobia of the Mongols: it is this dynasty which built the Great Wall of China as we know it today. All of these various aspects and more, we will explore over the course of this series.


For purposes of this series, we define the Mongol Empire as the single, unified state ruled by the Great Khans from 1206-1259. Upon the death of Chinggis Khan’s grandson, the Great Khan Mongke in 1259, civil war tore apart the empire into regional Khanates: the Yuan Dynasty in China, ruled by the heirs of the famous Kublai Khan, who maintained the title of Great Khan; the Ilkhanate in Persia, the Caucasus and Iraq, ruled by the descendants of Kublai’s brother Hulegu (Hoo-le-goo), the conqueror of Baghdad; the Golden Horde in Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan, ruled by the sons of Chinggis Khan’s ill-fated eldest child, Jochi; and the Chagatai Khanate in the geographic expanse between them, where the line of Chinggis’ second son Chagatai would rule in some form for centuries. 


These were not the only Khanates of the period: an Ogedaid (O-ge-dai-id) Khanate would emerge in the late thirteenth century under the rule of Qaidu (Kai-doo) Khan, and would dominate the Chagatai khanate for some time; the rambunctious Neguderis (Neg-ood-er-is) in modern Afghanistan would be a thorn in the side of the Ilkhans and rulers of India; and one may even suggest the constituent Khanates of the Golden horde like the White Horde, held their own true independence. And this is not even discussing the further fragmentations and reunifications over the following centuries!


As one can gather from this brief description, this can be a complicated period and certainly overwhelming if we dive in unprepared. This series will hopefully serve to ease the uninitiated into it: we will begin with an introduction to nomadism in Mongolia, the tribes of that region and the local powers of North China, before detailing the rise of Chinggis Khan and his conquests. From there we will follow a history of the empire and the succeeding Great Khans of the 13th century: first Ogedai Khan, who would send Mongol armies to conquer the western steppe, Russia and into eastern Europe before his unexpected death in late 1241; then the regency of his wife Torogene, the brief reign of their son Guyuk and regency of his widow Oghul Qaimish (og-hool kwai-mish); and then the significant Toluid Revolution in 1250, when Mongke (mong-ke), the eldest son of Ogedai’s brother Tolui (to-lu-ee), took power. Mongke’s reign saw the major consolidation and expansion of the empire, sending his brother Hulegu into the Middle East while he and his brother Kublai took up arms against the Song Dynasty of Southern China. Mongke’s death in 1259 brought an end to Mongol unity, and the following years saw the outbreak of war between the various newly emerging Khanates.  Following that, we will cover the history of these Khanates, and their own successor states, and will note when appropriate historiography, sources and other related matters.


With this brief outline complete, let us note some important themes and trends to keep an eye out for during our sojourn into Mongol history. Perhaps the most notable and reoccuring being the notion that ‘conquering the world from horseback is easy: ruling from it is hard,’ to paraphrase a supposed quote of Chinggis Khan. That is, in military matters the Mongols proved themselves to be well-versed professionals, but actually garrisoning, managing and governing an empire thousands of kilometres in scale is a rather different matter entirely. At the start of the 13th century, the Mongols lived as nomads without walled cities, without written languages and without the complex administrative features necessary to manage huge populations. These were all skills the Mongols had to acquire, on a vast scale dealing with added problems of diverse populations speaking hundreds of unrelated languages in territories where the pre-existing government apparatus had generally been annihilated in initial Mongol assaults.  The difficulties of this, and the surprising successes, is a matter we will explore.


Closely related to that is what we might call the conflict between steppe and sedentary culture. That is, whether the Mongols should maintain their traditional ways, the nomadism and herding of Chinggis Khan and his fore-fathers, as well as adhering to the laws he laid out for them, known as the yassa. In this case, the wealth of the sedentarized, agricultural world should be utilized mainly for the further expansion of the empire, and was there for the Mongols’ exploitation.  It was believed that the sedentary world would soften them, and force them to lose their military edge. In contrast, there were many who instead wished to adopt aspects of these urbanized societies and sedentary cultures, most notably in Persia and China where ancient traditions captured their attention. In these cases, the view was not to exploit these resources for expansion, but focus the empire onto these territories. 


In the Yuan Dynasty based in Mongolia and China, this is most keenly visible. There, the heirs of Kublai Khan quite literally went to war over this matter. The conflict was whether the leadership should live in Mongolia, using China proper as a sort-of supermarket, its resources there for the Mongols to use against their enemies outside the dynasty. The other party believed that China should be the empire, where the Mongols should make their capital and should adopt Chinese traditions as it suited them, particularly to serve the Mandate of Heaven, as Chinese monarchs justified their rule. In the Yuan Dynasty, it may be said the sedentary party won their civil wars, but by the time the Mongol rulers were expelled from China in 1368, they were too Mongol for the Chinese, but too Chinese for the Mongols who had remained in their homeland. The Ilkhans of Persia found themselves struggling between the conflict of the yassa of Chinggis Khan and the shariah of Islam; the Chagatai Khanate literally broke into western and eastern halves over this matter; and though the Golden Horde’s rulers had the most success avoiding the perils of sedentery soceity, they still needed to build cities for their trade.


Another matter we’ll examine is the Turkification of the western Khanates. From early on, Turkic tribes formed an integral part of the Mongol armies, and as they moved west, ‘true Mongols,’ those actually from Mongolia, made up only a small percentage of some of these armies, well represented in leadership positions but forcing various Turkic peoples, especially Kipchak-Cumans, into their services. In the Golden Horde the role of these Turks is easily noted, but they took on significant roles even in Yuan China, and in the Ilkhanate and Chagatai realm this intermixing occurred as well. In fact, the role of non-Mongols in both the Mongol army and administration is something to keep an eye out for in general: without the skills, knowledge and manpower of Uighurs, Khitans, Turks and Chinese, it is difficult to see the Mongols expanding beyond China, let alone across Eurasia. 


Indeed, the empire was ‘Mongol’ in the sense of its primary leadership and army core: the vast majority of its population and even armies however were non-Mongol. By the time Chinggis Khan rode west against the Khwarezmian (Khwa-rez-mian) Empire in 1219, there were more Chinese fighting for the Mongols in China, than there were Mongols fighting there! This is very much the key to how a population of about one million Mongols was able to dominate Eurasia for a century. 


All history is based from the historical sources which have survived to the present day. At times, you may hear people on the internet state that ‘we know nothing of the Mongol Empire! They wrote nothing down!’ or something like that. This is quite far from the truth: in fact, this a period particularly rich in historical sources. Authors from China to Japan to Java to India to the Islamic world and Christendom all describe their dealings with the Mongols. Often, we have sources written decades apart, in different languages on the far sides of Eurasia presenting their own garbled versions of the same events, each now bolstered with a greater understanding of the world at large. 


The first battle fought in Europe to be described in a Chinese source was the famous encounter between Subutai, Batu and the armies of Hungary at Mohi in 1241. European travellers to the Mongol Empire, such as William of Rubruck, John de Plano Carpini and the famous Marco Polo describe in exquisite detail their experiences with the Mongols, describing their histories, appearances, empire and military tactics. There are wonderful extensive histories written in Persian, that of ‘Ata-Malik Juvaini (ju-vai-ni) with his History of the World Conqueror, to the mammoth universal history of the Ilkhanid vizier Rashid al-Din Hamadani, in his Compendium of Chronicles, which not only provides a history of the Mongols, but makes an attempt to provide a history of the Turks, the Islamic World, China and the Franks as well! Juzjani, a refugee from the Khwarezmian (Khwa-rez-mian) Empire, shares with us all the awful rumours he heard of the Mongols during his asylum in Delhi; al-Nasawi, the secretary of the valiant Khwarezmian (Khwa-rez-mian) Prince Jalal al-Din Mingburnu (ming-bur-new), provides a fantastic account of that prince’s resistance against the Mongols; ibn al-Athir, writing in Mosul in the 1220s, shows us the horror of hearing reports of the Mongol devastation of the Khwarezmian (Khwa-rez-mian) Empire trickled down to him. 


In the east, we have numerous Chinese accounts, notably the hastily compiled Yuan-shih, a general dynastic history of the Yuan Dynasty put together in the early years of the succeeding Ming Dynasty. And of course, no source is as famous, or infamous, as the great wild card, the Secret History of the Mongols, an epic chronicle written sometime after Chinggis Khan’s death to record his unification of the Mongols and his words. The oldest history written in the Mongolian language, it is an invaluable chance to look at how a nomadic state viewed its own history before being ‘tainted by sedentary cultures. 


This is of course, only a brief survey, as it doesn’t even mentions the accounts of Arabic, Armenian, Georgian, Rus’, Byzantine, Korean or later authors. The idea though, is to present that we have a rich variety of sources for this period, from both within the empire, written on imperial order, or from outside the empire and written by its enemies, all over the course of the 13th century.The great difficulty for any historian of the Mongol Empire is that there are so many sources in so many languages. To read them all, in their original languages and original scripts, is a task beyond any individual mortal. Yet, in recent years, and especially with the advent of the internet, translations are far more accessible, and now we can discuss in detail numerous aspects of the empire undreamable decades ago. 


This won’t be an endless description of battles, instead something which will show that this was no apocalyptic swarm of demons but rather events undertaken by, and against, other humans. Not just bloodshed, but a period of increased cultural contacts and learning, trade and exploration, yet also of prejudice, violence and human greed. So truthfully then, something demonstrating all the colours of the human experience. A complicated and complex yet incredibly fascinating and unique period in human history, we hope this series can spark not just your own interest in the Mongol Empire, but increase your appreciation in other historical topics as well, seeing them all with the same ribbon of complexity. 


We hope that you have enjoyed this introduction to our series about the Mongol Empire. We at Kings and Generals will be bringing you the next episode introducing Mongolian nomadism and steppe society, so be sure to hit subscribe to the Kings and Generals podcast and to continue helping us bring you more outstanding content, please visit our patreon at Thank you for listening, I am your host David and we will catch you on the next one