Mongol cavalry shooting arrows on horseback; colourful painting.
Mongol cavalry

The Mongol Empire

In the 13th century, Eurasia’s zones of civilisation became linked by a single state: the Mongol Empire.

You can see the expansion of the Mongol Empire from 1206–1294 in this animation here.

Map of the expansion of Mongol Empire

Expansion of Mongol Empire under Gengis Khan © Bkkbrad/Wikimedia Commons

The Mongols originated in Central Asia. They were a pastoral nomadic people, moving across the steppes of Central Asia with their herds of horses. As nomads, they had certain tactical advantages. In particular, they could carry out hit and run attacks against targets of opportunity before fading back into the steppes to avoid retribution. In this, pastoral nomads like the Mongols held a tactical advantage over settled populations that they enjoyed until the development of rapid fire rifles in the nineteenth century. But the Mongols also became highly adept at using compound bows—made of a composite of wood, bone and leather—from horseback, making their attacks particularly devastating. They also took full advantage of the skills of peoples whose lands they occupied, for example adopting military technology from China.

Genghis Khan

The empire had its origin when Genghis Khan united Several Mongol tribes in 1206. (Genghis became the Great Khan; Khan being a title similar to king or chief).

Colour portrait of Genghis Khan (ca 1206-1227)

Genghis Khan (ca 1206-1227) © National Palace Museum, Taiwan

Under Genghis and his son Ögedei Khan, the Mongols swept across North and Central Asia, as well as into Persia in 1219-1221 and then onto the Middle East and Anatolia. They occupied China in a series of campaigns through the thirteenth century, ending in 1279.

Map of the conquest of China by the Mongols

The Mongol Empire’s conquest of China © SY/Wikimedia Commons

Europe was also not untouched. The Mongols controlled what is now European Russia between 1237 and 1480. They also launched attacks on Poland, Hungary and Bohemia (in the modern day Czech Republic) in 1241. Only the death of the Great Khan, Genghis’ son Ögedei in December 1241, and a preference for richer pickings in China, saved Europe from a full invasion.

European knights fighting Mongol Cavalry

European knights (right) fighting Mongol Cavalry (left) at the Battle of Legnica/Legnitz, Poland (1241) © J Paul Getty Museum

Opening trade routes

The pastoral nomadic lifestyle produces many animal-related products, particularly leather, meat, wool, milk and cheese, but it’s not a self-sufficient economy. Pastoral nomadism depends on trade with—or tribute from—settler societies in order to secure products like grains and other foodstuffs that cannot be produced by pastoral nomadism. The Mongols were not a producer empire. Rather, they were an extraction empire, taxing the Silk Road trade routes linking the Chinese, Indian, Middle Eastern and European economic zones.

However, as well as taxing these routes, the Mongols made the silk road much safer. Until this period, merchants didn’t make whole journey from Europe to Asia as there was no guarantee that the states along the road would protect foreign merchants from distant lands. Rather, merchants just travelled small sections of the Silk Road, exchanging goods with merchants at either end of their section of travel. Goods changed hands many times on their way from, say, China to Europe. Now, however, there was a single state controlling the entire silk route for the first time, and it was possible for Europeans to travel the full length—all the way to China. Most famously, the Venetian merchant Marco Polo travelled through Asia for 24 years from 1271–1295, even visiting the court of Genghis’ grandson Kublai Khan in China. He was the first such voyager from Europe to Asia to leave a detailed written account.

A map of Marco Polo travels

Map of Marco Polo’s travels (1271–1295) © SY/Wikimedia Commons

From the death of Kublai Khan in 1295, the Mongol Empire divided into a series of smaller Khanates.

Never was so much of Eurasia to be united under a single state. Even so, goods continued to make the long, slow journey along the Silk Road. However, not only goods made the long journey across Central Asia. As we shall see, so did the Bubonic Plague, sweeping across Eurasia in the 1340s. The Plague, known as the Black Death, killed between a third and a half of all Europeans—and transformed medieval Europe.


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European Empires: An Introduction

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