The Mongol Empire

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 that ruled from the islands of Japan all across Asia to Eastern Europe and included China, Russia, Hungary, Iran, the Middle East, Mongolia, and Indochina.

1163: Genghis Khan Born Into The Borjigin Tribe Under The Name Temujin

(See Main Article: Mongol Empire: Who Was Genghis Khan?)


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Genghis Khan was an orphaned child who grew up in one of the world’s most inhospitable climates despised by his tribe and family. He assembled an empire that conquered China, Iran, the Abbasid Caliphate, Russia, and Eastern Europe, and successfully united both ends of the Silk Road.

Who Was Who in the Mongol Empire?

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Genghis Khan

Without Temujin, the man who became Genghis Khan, the Mongol Empire would not have occurred. Genghis Khan was a strong, charismatic, disciplined military genius who gathered all the Mongol and Turkic tribes of Mongolia under his command through political alliances and conquest. He made every man a warrior through constant military training, then he lead this army in an unending war of conquest across the entire land mass of Eurasia from the Pacific Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea. Genghis Khan built the largest empire in the history of the world and did most of that during his lifetime. He had one wife, Borte, but innumerable secondary wives.

Women in Genghis’ Life

Hoelun, Genghis’ mother, Borte, his wife and Sorkhaqtani, wife of Tolui, Genghis’ fourth son, were all strong, intelligent women who grew to have a powerful influence and impact on the Mongol Empire. Hoelun raised the young Temujin to be a strong, successful warrior, teaching him the skills of survival, political alliance and loyalty. Both Hoelun and Borte became two of Genghis’ most trusted advisors. When Ogedai became Great Khan after Genghis’ death, Sorkhaqtani became his most trusted advisor, ruling the Mongol Empire in his stead when Ogedai was at war.


The first son, Jochi, was born soon after Genghis rescued Borte from being kidnapped and probably raped at the hands of the Merkit tribe. Because Jochi’s parentage was uncertain, Genghis did not make him his successor. Jochi became Khan of the Golden Horde.

Chagatai Khan, second son, had an intense sibling rivalry with Jochi and refused to accept Jochi as Genghis’ successor. Chagatai inherited the Chagatai Khangate, which incorporated most of Central Asia.

Ogedai became Great Khan after Genghis died. He warred and ruled following the Yassa, Genghis’ written law. His closest advisor was Sorkhaqtani. Under Ogedai’s rule, the Mongol Empire grew to its greatest extent with the invasions of Europe and Asia.

Tolui, Genghis’ fourth son, inherited the Mongolian homeland. He had had four sons, Mongke, Kublai, Hulegu and Ariq Boke. Most of the Mongol and Ilkhanate emperors were descended from Tolui.

Generals and Advisors

Subutai and Jebe were Genghis Khan’s greatest generals. Both were military geniuses, agile and adept commanders who brought the Mongols many of their most startling conquests. While Subutai was the son of the blacksmith and rose to power because of his brilliance, Jebe started out as Genghis’ enemy. He shot Genghis in 1201 at the Battle of the Thirteen Sides. Jebe came to Genghis as he was recovering from the wound and confessed. Jebe said if Genghis allowed him to live, he’d serve loyally, which he did, becoming the second of Genghis’ best generals.

Another that deserves mention is Yelu Chucai, a Confucian scholar who became a chief advisor to Genghis Khan. Yelu Chucai probably saved millions of lives because he convinced the Mongols to tax conquered peoples rather than slaughter them, thus saving their brains and talents for future Mongol use. He is known for telling the Mongol monarch that empires can be won on horseback, but not ruled on horseback.

Mongol Empire: Arts and Culture

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“Positive Legacies of the Mongolian Empire: International Trade, Religious Tolerance, Career Opportunities, and Horse Milk”

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Mongol Empire art was quite sophisticated. While the Mongols didn’t produce much literature or fine art during the Mongol Empire, they appreciated and cultivated the arts of the sedentary peoples around them. The Mongol Khans became great patrons of the arts, supporting artists and artisans of all kinds. While not artists themselves in the traditional Mongolian culture, once peace was established in the Empire, all the Khans and sub-khans protected and patronized the arts. In fact, the Mongol Empire gave rise to a flourishing of the fine arts, benefiting the literature and decorative and fine arts of all the people they ruled.

Under Genghis Khan, textile workers, architects, stone carvers and jewelers were relocated from the Middle East and Central Asia to Mongolia to create the magnificent works of art desired by the Mongols. Under Ogedai, Genghis’ son and successor, artisans were put to work building and decorating Karakhorum, the Mongols’ capital city. Under Kublai, Genghis’ grandson and Great Khan, the Yuan dynasty of China saw all the arts flourish, from delicate blue porcelain vases to elaborate staged theatrical plays.

During the pax Mongolica, as artists and artisans traveled throughout the Empire, cross cultural influences in the arts took hold. One can see the blue from Afghani lapis luzuli on Chinese porcelains or Persian elements in Golden Horde artifacts. The art motif of the Chinese dragon made its way to European paintings. Thus, while the Mongols didn’t create art, the arts blossomed because of Mongolian cultural protection and patronage.

Mongol Empire Art: Mongolian Music

Of all the arts, the Mongols themselves loved and cultivated music, developing a unique form of singing known as throat singing or khoomi. Khoomi is difficult to explain; it involves using the diaphragm and throat to sing one tone or note and the mouth to sing another one or two. It sounds like one voice singing two or more notes at the same time, both the fundamental base note and a harmonic tone or note on top of that. It is both beautiful and strange with a few notes coming from one voice and a single singer. The bass note emanates from the singer’s throat and the higher, harmonic notes vibrate from the mouth, sometimes sounding like a waterfalls or monks chanting.

A key element of traditional Mongolian music is the Long Song form. Each syllable of each word is drawn out or extended for a long duration. One four-minute song, for example, might only have 10 words, but each syllable of each word is prolonged, with vibrato on the vowels. The long vibrating notes gives these songs a deeply meditative quality that carries over the grand distances of the steppes. Mongolian songs express the singer’s deep feelings for their horses, natural beauty, love of family or the nomadic life. Mongolian herders sing to their herds just as American cowboys sang to theirs.

Long songs may be accompanied by the other key element of Mongolian traditional music, the Morin khuur or horse-head fiddle. These Chinese-derived two-string fiddles have elaborately carved horses’ heads crowning the fiddle. The Morin khuur can sound the deep tones of the cello or it can emulate the neighing of a Mongolian horse. Occasionally a Mongolian flute and other Mongolian string instruments may accompany the Long song or it can be sung a cappella.

The Mongol Empire’s Best Weapon: The Mongolian Horse

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The Mongol army’s battle tactics depended on their sturdy, agile and durable horses. With their Mongol horses and compound bows, the Mongol armies conquered lands from China to Hungary, from northern India to Russia.

The Mongol armies revered their horses and took care of them. Every soldier had four to six horses, and he would switch from riding one to another during a day’s campaign, ensuring that no one horse was ridden to exhaustion. This greatly enhanced the Mongol army’s mobility: they could and did travel great distances, often covering 60 to 100 miles in a day. Because of this unheard of mobility, no other army could match them.

Mongol battle tactics stemmed from the Mongol’s nomadic lifestyle. Mongols spent their lives on horseback, herding and hunting. These skills easily transferred to warfare. The Mongol army trained every day in horsemanship, archery, hand-to-hand combat and in battle formations and drills. Their generals tried to anticipate every possible enemy move, and then trained their soldiers to counteract those moves. All Mongol warriors and their horses received this constant training, making them the best disciplined fighting force in the world.

In contrast, European armies had only a few trained professional warriors, the knights and men-at-arms. The rest were farmers, peasants and blacksmiths who were required to fight by feudal laws, but who received only a day or two of battle training.

Favorite Battle Tactics

The Mongol Army was renowned for using cunning in battle. Besides their solid chain of command, excellent communication and disciplined warriors, Mongols repeatedly put a few innovative battle tactics to good use.

Feigned Retreat

The Mongol’s use of the feigned retreat could take two paths. The first path involved a small force of Mongols charging the enemy, then turning and running, leading the enemy into an ambush. The second was to retreat as if routed, luring the enemy troops into following for days. The Mongols would stay just ahead of the enemy until they found a battlefield they liked. Then the Mongols would turn and begin their next favorite battlefield tactic.


When an enemy followed a feigned Mongol retreat, it was easy for enemy troops to become strung out over a distance. When the Mongols turned to the attack, the light cavalry would swiftly ride down the flanks of the enemy to the rear and encircle them. The Mongols stayed out of reach of the enemy and rained arrows down on them. With the enemy soldiers in disarray, the heavy cavalry would move in for the kill, going in close quarters to attack with lances. Neither of these favorite maneuvers would have been possible without the Mongol’s horses.

What Made the Mongol Army So Successful?

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“The Reasons the Mongolian Army Was Unstoppable”

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How could a force of 100,000 mounted, lightly armored warriors armed with bow and arrows defeat nearly every other army that came against them? Most of the Mongol’s enemies outnumbered them by the hundreds or thousands. How then could the Mongol army continually win against such odds? A combination of training, tactics, discipline, intelligence and constantly adapting new tactics gave the Mongol army its savage edge against the slower, heavier armies of the times. The Mongols lost very few battles, and they usually returned to fight again another day, winning the second time around.

What European and Middle Eastern armies saw as weaknesses were actually strengths in the Mongol army: their much smaller horses were more agile than their heavy counterparts. The light compound bow used by the Mongols had great range and power, the arrows could penetrate plate armor at a close distance.


Mongols began riding at any early age, and hunting as soon as they could hold a bow. Both Mongol horses and people were tough, agile and sturdy with great endurance. The Mongol army continually trained the troops in rotations, formations and diversionary tactics. They trained for as many circumstances as they could think of so they could react fast and sure to any tactic of the enemy.


The Mongol army was primarily mounted archers using a compound bow made of horn, wood and sinew. The bows’ range was unmatched at the time for force and accuracy, and the archers could shoot in any direction, even behind. The archers made possible many of the Mongol’s battlefield tactics, riding to encircle the enemy then raining arrows among them, killing many men and horses from a distance.


Every soldier received a share of whatever booty was taken. Mongol warriors fought under strict discipline, and every man was subject to it, from generals to the lowest soldier. The training regimen, discipline, leadership and superb intelligence made the Mongol army an unconquerable force.

Breakup of Tribal Unity

Genghis wanted his army loyal to him, not to their tribal leaders. He broke up the tribes when he assigned men to various units in the army to ensure their basic loyalty was to their units and to Genghis. Genghis then organized his army by the decimal system in groups of 10, 100, 1000 and 10,000 with leaders at each level. Each unit could fight at the unit level or in combination with all of the other units, generally without constant supervision.

Mobility and Speed

The speed of the Mongol army wasn’t repeated again until the 20th century. Mongol warriors could ride 60 to 100 miles a day, an unheard of speed in those times. Each man had four or five horses that traveled with the army so he could switch to a fresh horse often. Mongol ponies were small but fast, and could live off even the sparsest grasses. Mongol horses had great endurance and could run for miles without tiring.

What Made the Mongol Army So Successful, Part 2

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In previous articles on the Mongol Empire at war, we discussed some of the things that made this army so spectacularly successful: training, archery, discipline, breakup of tribal groups, Mongol horses and mobility and speed. While all those were necessary to the success, there remains a few equally important strategic elements employed by the Mongol Empire’s armies.

Reconnaissance and Intelligence

Genghis Khan innately understood the need for reconnaissance and intelligence in war. The Great Khan and all his successors sent out scouts and spies in advance of any campaign; they required vital information on roads, trade routes, cities, population, terrain and politics of the land or nation. Before invading Eastern Europe, for example, Subutai, the Mongol’s greatest general, had spies implanted deep into European territories 10 years before the actual invasion of Poland and Hungary.

All militaries have used spies as information is vital for any war effort, but the Mongols were masters of the trade. They patiently invited informants and used spies extensively to understand what they were facing before ever deciding on battle.

Siege Warfare

When the Mongol army first encountered a walled city in northern Chinese territory, they quickly realized that their cavalry was useless. They quickly found experts in siege warfare who could build the machines to batter the walls into rubble. The Mongols recruited engineers from among their captives who built the catapults and siege towers necessary to conquer walled cities. From then on, these specialist engineers traveled with the Mongol armies to rebuild siege engines wherever needed. Before sacking a conquered city, the Mongol army would search out any engineers and separate them from the doomed general population.

The Mongol army became expert in siege warfare to the point that walled cities became obsolete; none could successfully resist the Mongols, who used their expert techniques repeatedly. The Mongols would do anything to conquer a city, including diverting rivers and using captives in the front line of battle.

(See Main Article: What Made the Mongol Army So Successful, Part 2)

“The Rise of Genghis- From Temujin to the Great Khan”

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The Mongols were experts at the tactics of terror. Whenever they routed an enemy, they left a few alive to carry tales of the terrible bloodshed inflicted on the population. When a city resisted the Mongols, all of the inhabitants would be killed except a few, who were allowed to run to the next towns. These survivors told of piles of decapitated heads by the gates of destroyed cities and other atrocities. While many thousands died at the hands of the Mongol armies, these terror tactics saved lives as the next city encountered submitted immediately to Mongol demands. Conquered cities had to pay tribute and support the Mongol army, but they remained intact and unmolested.

1271: The Mongol Empire Ends

(See Main Article: Mongol Empire Overview)

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 grew 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.

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