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Central Asia had long been the home of various nomadic tribes based on the practice of animal herding and horses. Humans had inhabited the region ever since the prehistoric period. The land lends itself to breed a people who were used to harsh living conditions, mobility and war — elements that make for an ideal military force.
In pre-Mongol times, various Turkic and Mongol-Tungusic tribes inhabited the steppes of Mongolia. These various ethnic groups alternatively ruled each other during this time, one group would gain power and subdue the others until another group formed to topple the previously superior power. One of the first politically organised groups were the Xiongnü (the Chinese name for a tribe called the Hunnu) who had for a time been dominant in the region. They posed a constant threat to ancient China, and led the Chinese to build greater and greater walls and garrisons along its northern border, coalescing into the Great Wall which stretched over 5,000 miles across its northern border at the onset of the Early Modern Era. In fact, one of the splinter groups from this nation that had moved north and westward would eventually arrive at the gates of the Roman Empire in the 4th century, to be known to the western world as the Huns, thus it is no coincidence that some of the most successful conquerors and invaders came from this region of the world.
Those who instead migrated southwest towards the Middle East were for a long time held back by mountains and the Persian empires, settling in the region just outside of the Persian Empire known as Transoxania to establish the Göktürk Empire, which lasted lasted for two centuries until it feel apart by the 9th century. The empire was for a time even strong enough to exact tribute from the Chinese. However, the Chinese under the Sui dynasty would succeed in dividing the Göktürk into two parts, and manipulate them into fighting with each another. The Eastern Göktürk would even become subjects of Tang China, being forced to become a tributary state, but they would eventually threw off Chinese domination and instead seized some of China's northern territories in 720. The two parts of the Göktürk Empire also briefly re-established friendly relations, before falling apart when rival princes vied for control. An alliance of rebel tribes led by the Uyghurs, took the opportunity to reassert their independence, destroying any hope of unity under Gokturk rule. The alliance itself broke apart after its work was done. The Uyghurs would be dominant in the region for the next three centuries.
Rise of the Mongols
Around 1130, the Mongols came to fore. Originally descended from the Xianbei, one of the Wuhu, or the "Five Hu" of the Mongolian steppes, they would go on to defeat their neighboring tribesmen and even forced the Jin Empire (in Northern China) to pay them tribute. This first Mongol Kingdom was a short-lived one, however, lasting a mere 30 years before being defeated by the Tartars. Infighting prevented any reconsolidation of the tribes until the emergence of Temujin, son of Yesugei, one of the descendents of the khans (clan chiefs) of the former Kingdom. Yesugei was poisoned by Tartar chiefs and died, leaving a young Temujin to be raised alone by his mother, and his immediate family. Temujin had a harsh life growing up trying to eke out a living in the harsh Mongolian steppes, but also had many harrowing adventures. When he was 16, his family was attacked by the Merkits (his mother was incidentally a Merkit) who kidnapped Temujin's wife. With help from others, Temujin continued to follow up this victory as impetus to take control all of the other Mongol clans. He then defeated of the Tartars in 1196, before turning on to the Kereyids, his former ally in 1203, and then the rest of the steppe tribes the following year.
With all the steppe tribes now under his control, Temujin held a great assembly on the banks of the Onon river in 1206, and assumed the title Genghis Khan. Genghis Khan possessed not only a keen sense of his own destiny, but had many qualities to back up his ambitions: strategic and tactical brilliance in warfare; political astuteness; and superb organisational abilities. He also had a keen sense of the importance of trade, as it was often the only way to survive in the bleak steppe lands, especially being raised as he was when his family was abandoned by their clansmen. Sweeping reforms were imposed upon this new Mongol society, with promotion was based on merit, and not by birthright, which was the custom in many cultures in the world at the time.
The Mongol army was also comprised entirely of cavalry at this time, and thus was capable of sweeping manoeuvres. Islamic sources written a century or two after Genghis Khan state that the Mongols placed emphasis on cavalry archery — out of every ten men, six would be trained as cavalry archers and the rest as light cavalry and heavy lancers. The most notable tactic used by the Mongols was the feigned retreat that would lure an opposing force into pursuit. The Mongol army would encircle the strung out army and pepper them with arrows, shot from composite bows that had a range of 350 yards, until the former pursuers were destroyed.
The Mongols Ride Forth
The year after his ascension to leadership, Genghis Khan turned his attention on the riches of the "civilised" states ruling China. First was the Xixia Kingdom in northwest China. His main goal was to gain favourable trade terms with Xixia which dominated trade along their section of the Silk Road. The Xixia had no choice but to submit to his authority, and so entered a tributary state relationship with the Mongols, their Uyghur script adapted to the Mongol language, which hitherto had no written form before. In 1211, the Mongols turned on the Jin at their capital, Shangdu (present-day Beijing). Shangdu fell after four years of siege; however by then the Jin had fled south to Kaifeng. Nevertheless, the Mongols now controlled northern China up to the Yellow River. In the long war, Genghis Khan realised the shortcomings of the Mongol army, and that was the lack of artillery. So it was during this time, that he incorporated siege warfare into the Mongol arsenal by pressing Chinese siege engineers into his service during war with the Jin.
Fall of the Khwarazmids
By 1218 Genghis Khan was ready to resume his conquests, but by then he had lost interest in China and instead turned his attention towards the west. He sent a general named Chepe to conquer the Kara-Khitai Empire, as a stepping stone toward Persia. The previous year, a band of Mongol merchants were murdered in a Khwarazmid city. Genghis sent an envoy to the Khwarazmid Shah to clear up the matter, who then put the Mongol envoy to death. Using the envoy's death as a pretext and with the Kara Khitai Empire under Mongol control, Genghis mounted what would be his largest military operation in 1219. Passing over extremely difficult mountainous terrain in the Himalayas, the Mongols would defeat the Khwarizmids in a series of battles, but with the Shah escaping each time. To put and end to this, Genghis Khan assigned his general Subedei and Chepe with a force of 20,000 men to find and kill the Shah. The Mongol marauders would level any cities they came across and massacred the population, and so the Khwarazmid Empire was literally wiped from existence, and within half a year of his escape, the former Shah died of leprosy, exhausted and in rags. However, Subedei and Chepe would go further. The Mongol detachment would turn north, making raids around the Caspian Sea, annexing Kartvelia and Armenia as Mongol client-states.
Once the Kwarazm campaign was completed, Genghis Khan decided wisely to return home to take care of the administrative tasks of his empire. The Xixia was again refusing to pay tribute, meriting a punitive expedition. However, shortly after the Xixia campaign, Genghis Khan passed away at the age of 60 while on a hunting expedition in 1227. He had left for his sons an empire three times the size of both the Roman and Macedonian empires combined, but his descendents would soon extend it even further.
The Horde Rides West
Genghis Khan was one of the few leaders to be lucky enough to leave his regime in good hands when he died. His son, Ogedei succeeded him as Khaghan, or "Khan of Khans". The territories conquered through Genghis Khan's leadership were divided into four regions for each of his sons, but were politically united and under the Khaghan, now living at the newly built city of Karakoram. Ogedei himself would pacify the remaining resistance left over from the Khwarazmids, and would destroy Jin once and for all in 1234. With all North Asia subjugated, Europe was next. The Mongols first defeated the Bulgars around the Volga River in 1236, then turned on the Russian principalities (it was said that the jealous Venetians encouraged the Mongols as the Russians were trade competitors in the Black Sea). Only Pskov and Novgorod remained intact, the rest having been destroyed and their citizens decimated. The Kynaz, or Prince, of Novgorod wisely took this opportunity to make a pact with the Mongols. This new land the Mongols took was dubbed "Altan Ordu", or the Golden Horde ("horde" meaning a camp in Mongol), and would remain in the hands of Mongols until the battle of Kulikovo Pole. The Mongols did not stop but pressed on. Using the excuse that Cuman refugees in Hungary were Mongol subjects, they declared war on the Hungarians, eventually reaching far north into Austria and Poland, before Ogedei's death forced the individual commanders back home. Next was the politically fractured Abbasid Caliphate, and the Mongols under Hulagu razed Baghdad and slaughtering all Muslims therein in 1258. Their reign of terror was cut short only by the battle of Ain Jalut in the summer of 1260, supposedly the first time firearms were used by a Muslim power in battle.
While the Mongols were remembered as bloodthirsty savages whose mere name would inspire dread (and the Mongols did work hard to cultivate this image themselves), it would be wrong to say that they were wholly uncouth savages who lived for nothing but plunder. Indeed, cities which submitted to the Mongols were often surprised that the Mongols settled for less tax than was expected by the citizens, now fearful for their lives, families and goods. Furthermore, the next two khans after Ogedei - Guyuk and Mongke - were both capable men who worked to maintain the empire. Because the Mongols now had control of the Silk Road and also dispossessed the Muslims, they controlled the trade routes between east and west. It would have been safe to say that in those days that all roads led to Karakoram, rather than to Rome: Mongol society became far more complex, cultured and cosmopolitan, even with Muslims, Jews and Christians living in one single great empire at peace with one another. The reports of missionaries such as the Burgundian William of Rubruck even stated that European emigres from as far as France had found their way to Mongolia, working as craftsmen at Karakoram while Saxon miners had found employment in the highlands of Dzungaria in present-day Xinjiang province, China.
But, as Genghis Khan had predicted on his deathbed, all this wealth created decadence, which would eventually result in the downfall of all that he had worked hard for.
Kublai Khan and the Division of the Mongolian Empire
It took only 32 years after Genghis Khan breathed his last for trouble to appear. In 1259, Kublai Khan would succeed his brother Mongke (who himself succeeded Guyuk after a brief interregnum of three years), but his ascension was contested by his brother and it would take five years before Kublai was able to settle the matter. Kublai's interest was in China. He would also resume the conquests begun by Mongke of the Song dynasty of southern China. Kublai, this time combined with a naval force eventually drove the fledgling Song emperor to present-day Hong Kong after the battle of Yamen. The Yuan dynasty was established in China, and Kublai moved his capital to Beijing. Next, Kublai sent an envoy to Japan to demand tribute, however he would be rebuffed. In response, he sent a force of 150 ships in 1274 but was beaten back by the Japanese when a typhoon swamped his fleet after the initial clash. A much larger force was sent in 1281, with similar results. The Mongols also mounted expeditions to conquer Southeast Asia, but these expeditions' outcomes were only marginally more successful than what had transpired in Japan, due to the climate and the hostility of the natives. A Javanese prince, Raden Vijaya, tricked a Mongol expedition into helping him launch a coup d'étât against the ruling Singhasari monarchy before turning on them. The survivors were forced to flee Java for China, while Raden Vijaya went on to establish the Majapahit Empire in 1293.
Despite these military defeats, the Mongol empire was at its zenith, with an empire that reach from the Pacific to the Danube river in Europe, and trade flourished throughout the Mongol Empire. It was during Kublai's reign that the famous merchant adventurer Marco Polo arrived to China, observing and documenting the wonders of China that would enthrall Europe for centuries and lead to the Age of Discovery. Kublai, however, preferred to concentrate on China, and he never paid attention to the unity of the Mongol Empire. His successors did not even bother to stake their claim for the title of Khagan, and chose to be rulers of China.
After Kublai's death in 1294, the Mongol Empire broke up into independent Khanates: The Golden Horde in Russia, the Ilkhanate in Persia, and the Chaghatai empire which stretched from Afghanistan to Tibet. Of these, the Golden Horde was the longest-living, ruling over Russia until 1480, while Mongol power would last in China until 1368, when a mendicant monk, Zhu Yuanzhang, led a rebellion and established the Ming dynasty. The Ilkhanate would continue to prosper under Abu Said, but upon his death the Mongol Khanate collapsed until Tamerlane, who while being Muslim and only part Mongol tried to reunify the Mongol Empire. He had managed to conquer the remnants of the Ilkhanate along with the Chaghatai khanate, but he died in 1405 without fully realising his ultimate goal of reunification. After his death, China would eventually annex the Eastern parts of the Chaghatai khanate as well as Mongolia under the Qing dynasty in 1696.
- One Dead Angel, Rise of Nations: Mongols — A Guide, Rise of Nations Heaven