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The Story of the Mongols

Updated on April 2, 2013

The Mongols


The earliest records of the Mongols came in the 8th century. The name apparently came from the Shiwei Tribe in China during the Tang Dynasty. They lived on the Eurasian steppes, as nomadic tribes. They were originally a pastoral culture, following herds of cattle, horses and sheep.

They often had to survive brutal weather conditions. The Mongols were broken up into dozens of small tribes, all of who frequently fought each other over petty disputes. But as much as they disliked each other, they had a worse enemy.

They started to become a warrior culture when they came into conflict with the Tatars. The two groups fought constantly over territory, food, cattle and practically everything else. As the decades and centuries went on, each improved its military prowess, hoping to win the endless war against their rivals.

In 1166, a boy named Temujin was born. His father Yesukhei was a minor Mongol warlord and ruler of his tribe. His wife’s name was Hoelun. Temujin’s father was killed by a group of Tartars who poisoned him during a meal.

Hoelun claimed the title of tribal ruler for young Temujin but clan rivals refuse her claim. Hoelun, Temujin and his brothers were exiled. For several years they had to live off the land, as hunter/gatherers. Hoelun brought Temujin up to believe that he was destined to regain the rule of his tribe and that he must avenge his father against the Tartars. Temujin grew up determined to do so. He was ambitious and ruthless from an early age. He killed one of his brothers in a fight over some food when he was a teenager.

In his 20’s his mother brought him to the powerful ruler of a different Mongol tribe because her late husband had once arranged a marriage between Temujin and the chief’s daughter Borte. The marriage contract was honored and Temujin became an important member of this new tribe.

He fought and killed many Tartar, in his father’s name. He became a respected warrior among his people. When his wife’s father died, he became the Tribal Ruler. He remembered his mother’s prediction that he had a great destiny and vowed that he’d unite all the tribes, starting with the tribe of his birth.

His birth tribe learned that the boy they exiled was now a mighty tribal chief and feared he would seek revenge. They responded by kidnapping his wife and holding her hostage. The tactic backfired. Temujin rescued his wife and brutally killed those who took his wife and exiled his family. He became leader of his old tribe.

Temujin drove the Tartars out of Mongol territory and became a hero to all the tribes. At age forty, he was awarded the title “Khan” which means Universal Ruler. He took the new name Genghis. It was 1206 and Genghis Khan had successfully united the tribes and created the Mongol Empire on the Steppes. They called the area Mongolia.

They were unchallenged in the steppes but that wasn’t enough. Genghis Khan wanted more. He planned to expand his Mongol Empire. He created a training program for his Mongol warriors. They were exceptional horseman and archers.

Using his well-trained troops and his own clever military tactics, Khan conquered Xia and set his sight on the Jin dynasty who ruled Manchuria. He attacked very successfully and pushed the Jin back, conquering the northern half of Manchuria.

But the big prize was China. To be the real power in the region, he had to conquer the Chinese. The invasion of China began in 1211. In his first foray, he successfully defeated the Chinese and made advances into their territory. By 1215, he’d conquered their capital, which is the site of present day Beijing. He may have successfully overthrown China if not for a badly timed rebellion.

A rival Chieftain Jamulca led an attempted a coup while Genghis Khan was in China. Khan had to abandon China and return to defeat Jamulca. He spent several months hunting down and punishing all those involved in the plot.

Before making another attempt to take China, he felt he needed to expand his power base and increase his wealth, so he turned his attention elsewhere, defeating several other countries. By 1218, his empire reached as far as Uzbekistan. He also increased his wealth in a less violent way by participating in trade. He took the spoils of his victories and traded them over the famous Silk Road.

In 1219, Sultan Mohamed of Samarqand insulted Genghis Khan by killing his envoy and stealing his tribute. So Khan attacked Samarqand. He destroyed everything in his path. He struck from opposing directions, feigned retreat and then struck again. He completely confused his foes. His final move was to cross a supposedly uncrossable desert and attack from behind, conquering Samarqand in 10 days. It was called “the Back Door maneuver”.

He continued on to Asia. In Feb. 1220 he attacked the Zharazmian Empire in Iraq. After that, he overran Georgia. He made it all the way to the Caspian Sea where he battled and defeated the Persians.

In 1227 he was ready to go after China again. But by now Khan was old (He was in his 60’s which was old for the time) and weary from years of battle. During the months he traveled back to China he started to feel ill. He died before he could reach his goal.

After his death, the Empire was divided into four parts. Each was ruled by a son of Genghis who declared himself the new Khan. His oldest son Ogedei ruled the largest section and made inroads further into Europe.

By 1258, another son, Batu, had conquered part of Russia with his “Golden Hoard”. The brothers all eventually died. The Mongols still held much of Genghis’ old Empire, including part of China, although they’d lost Persia which had switched to Islam and ousted Ogedei.

By 1260, the grandson of Genghis Khan, Kublai, was the first to unite the four factions since Genghis died. He declared himself Kublai Khan and vowed to outdo his illustrious grandfather. He succeeded, conquering many new lands, including China (which the Mongols ruled for decades but eventually lot.)

In the late 1270’s, he had the ambitious plan to conquer Japan. Since Japan is an island, invading it would require a navy, which the Mongols never had before. So Kublai built one.

By 1281, Kublai’s Mongol Empire had over 4,000 ships and so the invasion of Japan began. Somehow, the Japanese had gotten wind of the incoming invasion and were ready to defend their shores. A vast army comprised of thousands of the best of the Japanese Samurai stood on the beachhead, daring anyone to try passing them.

The large Mongol fleet arrived. They came ashore a few at a time on little boats. This gave the Samurai an advantage. The Samurai met the boats and hacked up the Mongols as they waded ashore. The battle was very one-sided and the Mongols were being hacked up. So the Mongols called a retreat and pulled back to their ships, in order to discuss a new strategy.

The Mongols feared that the Japanese would attack their ships at night so they sailed back further into the ocean, far from the shore. And then the storm came!

The massive storm of 1281 was a devastating assault by Mother Nature. The Mongol weren’t experienced sailors and their boats weren’t as seaworthy as they should have been. The Mongols couldn’t go ashore because the Samurai were still waiting on the shore. They had nowhere to go and the ships weren’t sufficient to withstand the storm.

The whole Mongol fleet was lost at sea. 4,500 ships vanished from history, becoming known as the Lost Fleet of Kublai Khan.

With the best of the Mongols dead, the Mongols found it hard to hold the land they had won and so were forced to relinquish much of the Mongol empire. They found themselves on the defensive. Kublai Khan, who had imagined conquering the world, died in shame and frustration because of a storm.

The Mongol Empire almost crumbled over the next 80 years, fading to a shadow of its former self. There were still strong pockets of Mongol influence but overall they were no longer seen as a vast Empire.

It made a comeback in the mid 14th century with the help of a man named Timor.

Timor was a clever young Mongol warrior who claimed familial relation to the great Genghis. He was never able to prove it but he was smart enough to marry a female descendent of Genghis which gave credence to his claim.

Timor fought alongside one of the Mongol Khan’s and made a name for himself in battle. He got injured and would spend most of his life walking with a limp. He became known as Timor the Lame or “Tamerlane”. He was also the master chess champion of the Eastern world, which made him an expert in plotting strategy and outthinking opponents.

He allied himself with a respected Mongol warrior named Kurgan, who made a claim to be the rightful next Khan. With Timor to advise him, (Timor was his “Amir” or chief advisor) Kurgan seemed unbeatable. Kurgan was murdered by the other Khans who feared his growing power and influence. Timor became the temporary leader of Kurgan’s tribe in his place.

When an actual descendant of Genghis Khan—Tughlugh--tried uniting the Mongols by force, Timor was sent to face him, since Timor also claimed to be of Genghis blood. Timor managed to defeat the attacker and was rewarded by becoming permanent leader of his tribe. He became very popular among the Mongols in general.

In 1375, Timon had a clever plan to unite the Mongols under his leadership. He volunteered himself as Amir for the entire Mongol people. The genius of the move was that he never asked to be the Khan and so wasn’t officially their leader. But he was the liaison between all the Mongols and the chief advisor to every leader. He was pulling the strings of every Mongol tribe without alienating any of them by declaring leadership.

With the clever Timon as the unofficial leader, the Mongol started to expand again. They re-conquered Samarqand. Timon began his Indian campaign in 1398. He crossed the Hindu mountains and ravaged Northern India. When he met stern resistance in Delhi, he came up with the idea of using psychological warfare. He cut off the heads of his enemies and piled them up for the Indians to see. The tactic worked and he scared the Indians into submitting.

In 1400 he conquered both Armenia and Georgia. In 1401, he sacked Baghdad.

In 1404, the Mongols under Tamerlane had an empire as big as Genghis Khan once did. Timon convinced the Khans that it was time to go after China and reclaim it for the Mongols. They agreed. Unfortunately, the aging Timor had to travel far in a bitterly cold winter and got sick. He never recovered and soon died.

Without a strong leader, the Mongols found they were spread too thin with no way to unite their efforts. Revolts happened and they started to lose all the ground they’d gained back under Timon. Again they were retreating and on the defensive. The Khans started fighting each other to take land from their rival Khans. There were many casualties.

The Empire splintered into fragments and couldn’t withstand the many enemies who were seeking vengeance. When the last Khans died no one took their place. The remnants of the Mongols dwindled back to little warring tribes. They were either wiped out by enemies or sought refuge in other cultures where they were assimilated and absorbed. By the 15th Century, the Mongol Empire ended with a whimper, not a bang.


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