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Ages of Conquest: a Kings and Generals Podcast

Feb 17, 2020

I’m your host David and welcome to Ages of Conquest: a Kings and Generals Podcast.  This is the Mongol conquests. Before we get into all that material you’re expecting for any good series on the Mongols- the conquests, the smoking ruins and the towers of skulls, we must discuss Chinggis Khan’s long and troubled rise to power. But before we can do that, it will help the humble listener immensely if we take the time to introduce what was going on, and who was who, in 12th century Mongolia. In the previous episode we introduced some aspects of Mongolian culture in this period as groundwork: now we will introduce the various tribes who played a role in the rise of the Mongol Empire. 


    Our episode on introducing thirteenth century China provides some important context on the general overview of Mongolian-Chinese relations, and details on the power vacuum following the fall of China’s Tang Dynasty in 907 that I won’t repeat at length here. In short though, parts of northern China and Mongolia came under the rule of the Liao Dynasty, ruled by the nomadic Khitans, a people related to the Mongols, beginning in the 900s. Their rule included garrisons and forts stationed throughout Mongolia,  and mainly kept things in order for about two centuries, dealing with sporadic uprisings and resistance. One of the final military victories of the Liao Dynasty was the suppression of an uprising by the Tatar tribes at the beginning of the 1100s. 


Just over two decades later though, the Liao Dynasty disintegrated under the onslaught of the Jurchen, a Tungusic semi-nomadic people from Manchuria and ancestors of the Manchu. Their newly declared Jin Dynasty seized control of Manchuria, took control of all of China north of the Huai River from the Song Dynasty, and vassalized the Tangut Xi Xia in northwestern China: but, they did not make an attempt to control Mongolia as the Liao had done. With the Khitan garrisons moving west with the general Yelu Dashi to found the Qara-Khitai empire, Mongolia was basically left in a power vacuum, and the local tribes now rose into their own. 


    When we describe the Mongol tribes in the 12th century, we are discussing a large, rather disparate group of clans and tribes, some of whom were speakers of Mongolic languages, some were speakers of Turkic languages, and some were in a sort of milieu, described by historians as Turko-Mongols, tribes perhaps ethnically Turkish but speakers of Mongolian, and vice-versa. By convention, we use ‘Mongol tribes,’ to refer to the various nomadic groups north of China but south of the Siberian forests. However, in this period ‘Mongol’ referred to just a rather distinct and smaller grouping in the northeast, in the region of the Onon and Kerulen Rivers, the tribe to which the young Chinggis Khan belonged. 


If we were to place a clock face over the whole of Mongolia, they would be situated at about 2 o’clock. The other tribes of the region, who we will be meeting shortly as we go around this clock, such as the Merkit, Kereyit, Tatars and Naiman, did not consider themselves Mongol, and indeed, evidence suggests they would have been rather insulted by it. A recent argument by historian Stephen Pow suggest that ‘Tatar,’ may have been the general endonym used by the steppe tribes. The Liao and Jin Dynasties generally referred to them all as ‘zubu.’ Either way, Mongol was, in the 1100s, a very limited term, and in the following discussion, will refer to the specific tribe and its subclans.


    The history of the Mongol tribe before the 12th century is not an easy one to trace, and the mentions prior to this period are often controversial. The most commonly agreed upon, (though not a universal agreement, mind you) is that the Mongols’ ancestors were the Meng-wu, mentioned in histories of the Tang Dynasty as a minor branch of the larger Shih-wei ethnic grouping, a grouping which were vassals of the Gokturk Khaganates until their final collapse in the 740s. At this time, they lived in the area south of the Amur river, which is today the border between Russia and Chinese Manchuria, and would have been semi-nomadic, relying on hunting, fishing, agriculture and raising pigs as much as pastoralism. For a refresher on nomadic pastoralism, check out this seasons 2nd episode, on Mongolian nomadism. During the 900s, the Meng-wu moved west to the Arghun River, on the edge of modern Mongolia,  becoming subjects of their linguistic cousins, the Khitan Liao Dynasty. They gradually continued west and south, and were likely in the region of the Onon-Kerulen Rivers by the 11th century, by then relying on full pastoralism, as pigs and agriculture are unsuited for the steppe. 


    In the Mongols’ own legendary accounts, preserved in the 13th century Secret History of the Mongols, their people originate from the union of the blue-grey wolf and the fallow deer, Borte Chino and Gua Moral. The entire ancestry from the wolf and deer down to Chinggis Khan is recorded in the Secret History, and we won’t bog you down with it here. A particularly interesting conception occurs at one point, where a ray of light, also translated as yellow man, enters the tent of one of Chinggis’ ancestors, Alan Qo’a and impregnates her, a sort of divine conception. At this section in the Secret History, the most famous Mongolian parable first appears. Alan Qo’a, to prevent her sons from fighting each other, gives them each an arrow, and asks them to break it, which they do easily. Then, tying five arrows together in a bundle, asks them to break it, which they are unable to do. The message was clear: divided and alone, they are easily broken, but united they are unbreakable. It is a famous passage for the Mongols, and for good reason, as its lesson was applicable again and again. 


    The first of Chinggis Khan’s ancestors commonly agreed to exist was Khaidu, who in the Secret History of the Mongols is a great-great-great-grandson of Alan Qo’a, a figure who brought his branch of the Mongols, the Kiyat Borjigon, to some prominence over the other Mongol branches.  Khaidu’s great-grandson Khabul, with the fall of the Liao in 1125 creating a power vacuum in Mongolia, was able to organize what seems to have been a sort of military confederation, called by modern authors the Khamag Mongol Khanate, and at the time was known as something like Monggyol ulus, or Mongol state. 


Little is known about this early Mongol state, or what sort of suzerainty its Khans exercised. What we do have takes the form of anecdotes. For Khabul, the Jin Dynasty took note of his rise to power, and invited him to the imperial court, intending to make him a vassal. At a feast at the imperial court, Khabul became incredibly drunk, went over and pulled on the Jin Emperor’s beard! The Jin Emperor allowed Khabul to leave with his life, but changed his mind and sent officials to kill him- Khabul ambushed them instead. The Jin Dynastic sources do not, unfortunately, provide direct corroboration for the above events, making it unclear if they were the stuff of legend, though they do remark on the Mongols being a nuisance along the frontier in this period. 


    Khabul was succeeded as Khamag Khan not by any of his sons, but by his cousin Ambaghai, a Mongol of the Taychiud line. Ambaghai, shortly into his reign, was captured by the Tatar tribes of eastern Mongolia, who on our clock of Mongolia, would be located between 2 and 3 o’clock. Turkic tribes, speaking most likely Mongol, the Tatars in this period were  in three main divisions, an unruly control of much of eastern Mongolia. Even though Ambaghai had been en route to organize a marriage alliance with them, the Jin Dynasty had gotten to the Tatars first, the Tatars acting as the Jin Dynasty’s ‘men on the ground,’ disrupting local politics to keep the tribes from unifying. The Tatars handed Ambaghai over to the Jin, who nailed him to a wooden donkey. His dying breaths were allegedly urging the Mongols to avenge him- 

    “Until the nails of your five fingers

    Are ground down,

    Until your ten fingers are worn away,

    Strive to avenge me!”

So began the decades long rivalry between the Mongols and the Tatars, with the Jin Dynasty as the puppet master behind them. 


    Khabul’s son Qutula (Ku-tu-la) succeeded Ambaghai, and though he was famous among the Mongols for immense physical strength and an appetite to match, over a series of thirteen battles he was unable to defeat the Tatars, and was killed in about 1160, heralding the collapse of the  Khamag Mongol confederation. It must be stressed that the Khamag Mongol was much more of a military alliance than a state in the form of the later Mongol Empire. Though it held influence in the steppe, it did not hold domination over the whole of Mongolia, but simply among those branches of the Mongol tribe- Borjigon (Bor-ji-gon), Taychiud (Tay-chi-ood) and the like, in northeastern Mongolia. To quote Volume 6 of the Cambridge History of China, “none of the available evidence even hints at the emergence at this time of any kind of administrative machinery or lines of authority independent of and in competition with the traditional kinship structure. The experience and memory of this brief unity may have contributed to the consolidation of the Mongolian nation, but it bequeathed nothing in the way of institutional foundations on which the later empire of the Great Mongols could build. The preliminary work would have to be done anew.” 


Over the course of these battles, one of Khabul Khan’s grandchildren, Yesugei, captured a Tatar chief, Temujin-Uge. Upon his return to his own encampment, Yesugei found that one of his wives, Hoelun, had given birth to a boy clutching a blood clot in his fist the size of a knucklebone. The Tatar chief was sacrificed, and the boy was given his name- Temujin, the future Chinggis Khan. But you’ll have to wait until the next episode for more on his story.


    With this brief history of the Khamag Mongol, we should quickly note  the other clans of the Mongol tribe in this period. The two main to know are the Kiyat Borjigon and the Taychiud. The Kiyat Borjigon are the clan to which Khabul, Qutula, Yesugei and Chinggis Khan belonged. Of the Taychiud lineage, Ambaghai was the most notable leader. The switching of the Khamag leadership between these two lineages sowed the seeds for future divisions- Ambaghai’s family held a grudge when the title of Khan when back to the Borjigon, and this was one of the factors which lead to the famous abandoning of Yesugei’s family, which we will explore next episode. Other clans of the Mongols included the Jadaran, to which Temujin’s blood brother Jamukha belonged, the Jurkin, and the Uriyangqat (Uri-yang-kat), to which the famous Subutai belonged. Subutai’s Uriyangqat are not to be confused with the very similar sounding Uriyangkhai, a northern tribe famous for reindeer herding. 


    Continuing clockwise on our clock, if the Mongols were 2 o’clock, the Tatars between 2 and 3 o’clock, then at 3 o’clock we would have the Onggirad, a less warlike grouping which in this period was famous for the beauty of its women. Chinggis Khan’s mother Hoelun, his wife Borte, and numerous wives for the rest of his descendants, came from this tribe or its subgroupings. At 5 o’clock we have the Onggut, close to the border of China proper. The Onggut were what the Jin Dynasty called their juyin, the tribes who made up their border guards. The Onggut were among those whose duty was to man the border defences the Jin erected, particularly in the final years of the 12th century- this included forts and an extensive earthen wall and ditch along the frontier. The Onggut were given a chance to join a coalition against Chinggis Khan, but chose to warn him instead, and their ruler was granted a daughter of the Khan in marriage, and soon submitted to him proper. Contrary to the description that Chinggis Khan simply ‘went around the Great Wall of China,’ we might find it more accurate to describe it as being opened to him by those appointed to man it!


    At 6 o’clock is the noted Gobi desert, a sparsely populated expanse of gravel and low scrub brush. It was a formidable, but not unpassable, barrier, especially if an army chose to travel during the milder times of year. Connecting to the Alashan desert and the great western loop of the Yellow River, known as the Ordos loop, it served as the divider between the steppe and the Tangut Xi Xia Kingdom. 


From 6 o’clock, if one was to move towards the centre of our clock face, they would encounter one of the most powerful tribes of 12th century Mongolia, the Kereyit. Centered on the Black Forest of the Tuul River, the Kereyit may have originated as a branch of the Tatars, asserting their independence in the final years of the Liao Dynasty, emerging as a distinct political body in about 1100. Though the Kereyit were likely of Turkic origin, the sources indicate close contact with the Mongols and little trouble conversing between them, suggesting they were bilingual or spoke Mongolian. Much closer to the main trade routes and China proper, the Kereyit were considerably wealthier than their northern cousins, their population was higher, and, perhaps surprisingly, they were Christians, or at least their ruling class were. 


Specifically, they were Nestorian, or Church of the East, a sect which had gradually made its way east after being deemed heretical at the Third Ecumenical Council of Ephesus in 431. Several names associated with the Kereit, such as Marqus and Qurjaqus (Kur-jak-us), were Mongolized forms of Marcus and Cyricaus (syr-i-cus). Indeed, Marqus-Buyruq Khan was the Khanate’s founder in about 1100, and Qurjaqus-Buyruq (kur-jak-us booy-ruk) Khan was his descendant and the father of the Khanate’s final ruler, the famous Toghrul-Ong Khan. When Qurjaqus died around the mid 12th-century, his.. potent manhood, shall we say, left him the issue of numerous children, 40 by one account. Toghrul was able to seize control only after killing a number of his brothers, with the military assistance of the Mongol Yesugei, the father of Temujin. Yesugei and Toghrul swore oaths to be blood-brothers, anda, a relationship which would bring Temujin to seek Toghrul’s assistance in due time. 


At 7 o’clock, to the west of the Tangut and far side of the Gobi, we meet the Uighurs. A mainly sedentary Turkic people, we mentioned them in our episode on North China as an empire based in Mongolia until their defeat in 840 by the Kirghiz. After that, a large number of Uighurs migrated south, into the Gansu corridor and the oases of the Tarim Basin, Turfan Depression and into the Dzunghar Basin, in what is now Xinjiang in China, the far northwest of the country where it meets with Kazakhstan, Mongolia and Russia. 


The Gansu Uighurs were conquered by the Tangut Kingdom, but the remainder, in their realm sometimes called ‘Uighuristan,’ retained their independence. Qara-Qocho, or in Chinese, Gaochang, in the Turfan Depression, was their major city. During the days of their empire, they had practiced Manicheism, but in their new homeland largely converted to the Buddhism of the locals in the following centuries, or Christianity in lesser numbers. With the establishment of the Qara-Khitai Empire to their west in the 1130s and 40s, by Khitans fleeing the fall of the Liao Dynasty, the Uighurs became their vassals, though they kept a great deal of autonomy and were an important link in the regional trade routes. Uighurs were able to often find employment as merchants or skilled advisers to the Khanates to their north, a role which would only increase when their script became adopted for the Mongolian language with Chinggis Khan’s expanding empire.


Continuing north from the Uighurs, we head to roughly 9 o’clock, where we end up in western Mongolia on the slopes of the Altai Mountains, in the territory of the Naiman. Meaning ‘eight’ in Mongolian, for the number of tribes or lineages making up this turkic Khanate, the Naiman in the 12th century were the most powerful union within Mongolia, nomadic yet relatively centralized, with a distinct ruling dynasty and literacy, making use of the Uighur script and a strong military. A number of the Naiman elite were Nestorian Christians, like the Kereyit, but shamanistic practices are observed multiple times in the sources. Their main competition was with the Kereyit, but were also involved with Central Asia- for several decades they were vassals of the Qara-Khitai. The Naiman maintained their unity until the mid 1190s, with the death of their Khan Inancha-Bilge, when the Khanate was split between his sons, Tayang and Buyruq, weakening it in the face of Mongol aggression. Despite their power, we know very little about the Naiman. Their name, Naiman, is what the Mongols called them. We don’t even know what they called themselves.


With the Naiman at 9 o’clock, we have a selection of smaller tribes on the borders of, or within, the great Siberian forest which take us to 12 o’clock. At 10 o’clock, around Khovsgol Lake, were the Oirat, in this period a relatively minor tribe, but the seed of a later union, the Four Oirat, which would dominate Mongolia in the fifteenth century, from which the Dzunghars and the Kalmyks would spring.  At 11 to 12 o’clock, on the lower Selenge River to the south of Lake Baikal, a massive body of water in Russia which is the deepest lake in the world, we find the Merkit. Speaking likely a Mongolic language, they were a fragmented collection of tribes, of little danger to the Naiman or Kereyit, but could pose a threat when the Mongols were disunified. 


On the edge of the steppe, the Merkit practiced a mix of pastoralism, hunting, fishing and even it seems, agriculture. The Merkit would have a long antagonism with the Mongols, dating at least to the late 1150s when Chinggis Khan’s father Yesugei stole Hoelun, Chinggis’ mother, from her Merkit husband. This left a long suffering grudge which led to the capture of Chinggis’ own wife Borte by the Merkit, a captivity which resulted in the birth of Jochi, a child whose uncertain paternity would have major consequences for the Mongol Empire. One chief of the Merkit, Toqto’a Beki, would be a particular thorn in Chinggis Khan’s side, and after his death, his sons fled to the Qipchaq (chip-chak) in the far western steppe, bringing the Mongols eventually into Russia.


Aside from the Merkit, there are the smaller tribes of the Siberian forests the Mongols collectively dubbed the hoi-yin irgen, meaning ‘forest peoples.’ This included the aforementioned Oirat, the Kirghiz in the Yenisei valley, controlling one of the most northerly grain producing regions, and the Qori Tumed to the east of Lake Baikal, among others. All of these mentioned come under the authority of the Mongol Empire, but how far north Mongol control went is unclear. Lake Baikal is often seen as a rough estimate for the northern extent of Mongol rule, but there is suggestion their trade networks extended far among the peoples of what is now Yakutia, the Russian far east. 


    This has been a very brief introduction to the various peoples inhabiting the Mongolian steppe, or were in close proximity to it. This is not exhaustive: we didn’t mention every single clan and sub clan and lineage among the Mongols, nor did we go into Manchuria, or discuss in much detail the lands and tribes of the Qara-Khitai. Ideally, this should give you, dear listener, a fine basis for understanding the tribes and politics at play for our next discussion: the birth of Temujin, and his rise to become Chinggis Khan, the conqueror of the World. That’s coming soon, 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!