This Mongol Empire overview describes the most important aspects of this vast civilization. One empire, the largest contiguous empire in the history of the world, stemmed from the brilliant efforts and leadership of one man, Genghis Khan. Genghis, his sons and grandsons, created this fast-spreading empire which ruled from the islands of Japan all across Asia to Eastern Europe and included China, Russia, Hungary, Iran, the Middle East, Mongolia and Indochina. From 1206 to 1368, the Mongol Empire spread out from the Mongolian steppes like a wildfire until it gradually dissolved due to its own complexity and size.

Genghis Khan

Born Temujin in the 1160s, his early life was a difficult struggle for survival, which hardened him and made him a supreme survivor and warrior. Genghis’s first efforts were to conquer all the Mongolian tribes, who had never come together as one people before. Genghis’s strengths in making strong alliances and in military tactics soon saw him proclaimed Great Khan in 1206 by all the Mongol and Turkic peoples. From there, the Mongols struck out in every direction, east to Chinese lands and west to the Khwarazmian empire that spanned parts of Central Asia, Iran, Afghanistan and parts of Iraq.

Genghis Khan died of natural causes in 1227 while at war against the Tangut people in Xia (northwestern China). The death of the Great Khan left the leadership role to Genghis’s son Ogedai, who ruled successfully from 1229 to 1241. Ogedai succeeded in expanding the empire even further into Russian territory in the west and into the Jin dynasty territories in China. Ogedai established the Mongolian capital of Karakorum in Mongolia, which became the seat of the empire.

Troubled Successions

Ogedai’s death in 1241 led to succession struggles, a pattern for the empire from then on. Genghis had four sons, Jochi, Chagatai, Ogedai and Tolui. After Ogedai died, his widow wrangled to get her son, Guyuk elected as khan. Guyuk, however, was weak and died after only two years. During the next few years, Sorkhaqtani, Tolui’s widow, worked to keep the empire together until the election of Mongke Khan, Tolui’s son. The empire continued to expand, into Bulgaria, Eastern Europe and Iraq in the west and into Vietnam in the east.

Mongke’s brother Halagu defeated and occupied Baghdad. Kublai, brother of Mongke and Halagu, campaigned in Song, the south China state. In 1260, after the death of Mongke, Kublai and Ariqboke, another brother, both claimed to be Great Khan. A war for succession ensued, which Kublai eventually won in 1264. By this time, the great Mongol Empire was weakening.

End of the Empire

Gradually, the Mongol empire broke up into four remaining empires: the Yuan of China, established by Kublai Khan, the Chaganate of Central Asia, the Ilkhanate of the Middle East and the Golden Horde of Russia. All of these fell in their own time. The Mongol Empire rew to its great extent and dissolved all within 168 years, but its impact on the world was huge. The center could not hold, but the world never forgot Genghis Khan, a minor Mongolian herdsman turned exemplary military commander.