Mongol Empire, a vast Eurasian empire of the 13th and 14th centuries. It was founded by Genghis Khan (1162?–1227), a Mongol chieftain who became a mighty conqueror. At its height (about 1290) the Mongol Empire covered most of Asia and part of Europe. China, Turkestan, Persia, and Russia were under Mongol rule.
The Mongol warriors were both Mongol- and Turkic-speaking nomadic horsemen from the region of Mongolia. In western Asia and Europe they were called Tatars, after one of the Turkic groups. They created terror in the lands they conquered by the savagery of their slaughter and destruction. The Mongol armies had no strong political organization and eventually broke up into warring kingdoms. Some Mongol khans (rulers) became assimilated with the conquered; others maintained their identity but gradually lost their power.
The main contribution of the Mongol conquest was to bring the civilizations of Europe, the Near East, and China into closer contact. Once they had become more civilized, Mongol rulers built well-guarded highways to stimulate trade from all over the known world. In Europe, the use of gunpowder and coal, and the development of printing, may have been inspired by the descriptions of Marco Polo and other travelers of what they saw in China.
Genghis Khan, a minor tribal chieftain in what is now Mongolia, united Mongol and neighboring Turkic tribes by 1206. In 1211 the Mongol armies invaded northern China. A Central Asian expedition was begun in 1219. Northern Persia and the cities of Samarkand and Bukhara were soon captured. In 1223 Russia was raided to the Dnieper River, but the army returned east.
Genghis Khan and his generals learned much about warfare in China. The hardiness and speed of Mongol mounted warriors were used to full advantage. Far from being “hordes,” these armies were well trained and strictly disciplined. Lightly armed horsemen in front protected the rear, from where arrows and javelins were fired. The Mongols charged only when they had disorganized the enemy. In addition, the Mongol armies had effective branches of supply, artillery, and intelligence. When the Mongols captured a city, they took technicians and craftsmen captive and massacred everyone else.
On the death of Genghis Khan in 1227, his son Ogadai became great (chief) khan. Northern China was conquered in 1234, and a campaign against southern China was begun. Ogadai's brother Jagatai ruled in Turkestan. Their nephew Batu invaded and conquered Russia during 1236–40 and crossed into Hungary and Poland in 1241. At Ogadai's death that year, conquest in Europe halted. Batu's domain became known as the Empire of the Golden Horde (from the color of his tent).
Mangu, another nephew of Ogadai, became great khan in 1251 and sent his brother Hulagu to subdue Persia, ruled by Muslim Turks. Hulagu conquered and destroyed Baghdad in 1258 and killed the caliph. A side effect of this expedition was the driving of the Ottoman Turks into Asia Minor (Turkey), from where they eventually destroyed the Byzantine Empire. A Mongol advance into Syria and Palestine was stopped by the Mamelukes of Egypt in 1260.
Mangu was succeeded in 1259 by his brother Kublai Khan, who completed the conquest of China in 1279 and began the Yüan, or Mongol, dynasty there. The Mongols, originally shamanists, became Lamaists, but adopted a tolerant policy toward all religions. Chinese continued to serve as officials, except in the higher civil positions and in the army. Nevertheless, resentment of foreign rule led to an uprising in which the Mongols were overthrown in 1368.
In Persia, Hulagu, although nominally subject to Kublai Khan, was actually an independent ruler. He began the II-khan dynasty. The greatest of the II-khan rulers was Ghazan Khan, who upon accession to the throne in 1295 adopted Islam, the faith of his Persian subjects. He partially restored Persia to the level of prosperity it had had before the Mongol conquest. In 1335, the empire divided permanently into fragments.
In the 14th century Jagatai's domain was split in two. Russia remained part of the Mongol Empire, under the successors of Batu Khan. Russian princes were compelled to pay tribute to them. Mongol rule isolated Russia from the rest of Europe.
Tamerlane, or Timur (1336?–1405), a Tatar chieftain of Turkestan, began unifying the western fragments of the empire. He overran Persia and extended his rule into Asia Minor and India, but at his death most of the conquered lands quickly freed themselves. Remnants of the empire survived until 1480, when Ivan III of Moscow expelled his Mongol overlords.