The rise and fall of the Mongol Empire – Anne F. Broadbridge
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The rise and fall of the Mongol Empire – Anne F. Broadbridge

It was the largest contiguous land
empire in history— stretching from Korea to Ukraine and
from Siberia to southern China, and was forged on the open plains. In the 12th century CE, before the
Mongol Empire formed, the East Asian steppe was home to
scattered groups of Mongol and Turkic pastoral nomads led by Khans. The people herded sheep, cattle,
yaks and camels. They lived in felt tents and moved between
summer and winter campsites. Nomadic women held significant authority, managing these migrations,
many of the flocks and trade. Meanwhile, men specialized in
mounted warfare. These nomadic groups often
fought each other. That was to change under Temujin, who was
born into an aristocratic Mongol family. Despite losing his father at an early age
and growing up in poverty, he quickly rose to power by forging
strategic alliances with other leaders. Unlike those khans, Temujin promoted
soldiers based on merit and distributed spoils evenly
among them. His most brilliant move was to scatter
the nomads he conquered among his own soldiers so they couldn’t
join together against him. These innovations made him unstoppable, and by 1206, he had united the people
of the felt-walled tents and become Chinggis Khan. The Mongols were shamanists, believing that the spirits of nature
and their ancestors inhabited the world around them. Over all arched the Sky god Tenggeri. Chinggis Khan believed that Tenggeri
wanted him to conquer the entire world in his name. With the nomads of the Mongolian
plain united, this seemed within reach. Anyone who resisted the Mongols was
resisting Tenggeri’s will, and for this insubordination, had to die. Under Chinggis Khan, the Mongols first subdued northern China
and the eastern Islamic lands. After his death in 1227, the Divine Mandate passed to his family,
or the Golden Lineage. In the 1230s, Chinggis Khan’s sons
and daughters conquered the Turks of Central Asia
and the Russian princes, then destroyed two European
armies in 1241. In the 1250s, the Mongols seized Islamic
territory as far as Baghdad, while in the East their grasp reached
southern China by 1279. Life within the Mongol Empire wasn’t just
war, pillage and destruction. Once the Mongols conquered a territory,
they left its internal politics alone and used local administrators to
govern for them. The Mongols let all religions flourish,
as long as the leaders prayed for them. Although they routinely captured artisans,
scholars and engineers, they appreciated what those
specialists could do and forcibly settled them across Asia
to continue their work. The most valuable produce in
the Empire was gold brocade, which took silk from China, gold from
Tibet and weavers from Baghdad. Gold brocade clothed the Mongol rulers,
covered their horses and lined their tents. The Mongols particularly prized gunpowder
technicians from China. With much of Eurasia politically unified,
trade flourished along the Silk Road, helped by an extensive system of horse
messengers and relay posts. Robust trade continued at sea, especially
in blue-and-white porcelain, which combined white pottery from Mongol
China with blue dye from Mongol Iran. But this was not to last. Succession to the Great Khan didn’t
automatically go to the eldest son, but rather allowed brothers, uncles and
cousins to vie for leadership with senior widows acting as
regents for their sons. By the 1260s, Chinggis Khan’s grandsons were in a full-
blown civil war over inheritance and fragmented the realm into
four separate empires. In China, Kublai Khan’s Yuan Dynasty is remembered as a golden age of
science and culture. In Iran, the Ilkhanate inaugurated
the development of new monumental architecture and
Persian miniature painting. In Central Asia, the Chagatai Khanate
brought forth leaders like Timur and his descendant Babur, who founded
the Mughal Empire in India. And in Eastern Europe,
the Golden Horde ruled for years until a trading post named Muscovy grew
into a major world power. Even though the Empire lasted
only a short while, the Mongols left a legacy of world-
domination that remains unmatched today.

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