While not known as a major player on the global political stage, once upon a time, Mongolia was the largest contiguous land empire in the world. The Mongols originated their empire in the steppes of central Asia when Genghis Khan unified the nomadic clans of Mongolia and led a years-long campaign of conquest in the 13th century. At its prime, the borders of Genghis’ empire stretched from Central Europe and Siberia to the eastern Chinese coast and Arabia. Here are eight facts about the Mongols, their culture and their conquests:
- Kublai Khan ordered two campaigns to invade Japan in 1274 and 1281. The campaigns were ultimately unsuccessful, however, as the Mongol fleet met with a powerful typhoon during both campaigns, which wiped out between 60 and 90 percent of their forces. This massive upset became an important event in Japanese history and suggested that despite the strength of the empire, Mongol conquest had its limits. The intervention of nature during these battles became known as kamikaze, or “divine wind”, a concept that the Japanese turned to once again in WWII.
- Scholar and writer of The Secret History of Mongol Queens, Jack Weatherford says that as Genghis Khan built his empire, he solidified Mongol Empire control over conquered territories by securing strategic marriages for his daughters. For example, his daughter Alaqai married into the Onggud tribe while Al-Atun married a prince of the Uighurs. Upon marriage, Genghis made sure his daughters became their husbands’ principal wives.
- Medieval Mongol Empire warfare relied mostly on mounted archers. Mongolian cavalry favored the Mongol recurve bow when riding into battle. This type of bow has limbs that curve away from the archer, allowing the bow to lend more potential energy and speed to the arrow. Being smaller than other bows, the Mongol recurve bow was also a less-cumbersome weapon for a soldier on horseback. Scholar Jeanine Davis-Kimball also points out that horseback riding and archery were martial arts that could be easily learned by both men and women, making Mongol society a bit more egalitarian.
- The Battle of Xiangyang in 1273 was a key victory for Kublai Khan’s Yuan Mongols, one that gave the Mongols, even more access to the Southern Song heartland. The Song eventually surrendered to Kublai Khan’s Mongol forces in 1276, and the incorporation of the Chinese into the empire resulted in some sinicization of Mongol culture, meaning that the Mongols adopted some Chinese customs and values such as the reinstation of the Civil Service Examination.
- After Kublai Khan conquered the Song Dynasty and declared the beginning of the Yuan Dynasty, he moved the capital of his empire from the Karakorum in Central Asia to Khanbaliq, the site of present-day Beijing.
- In 1231, Genghis’ son Ogodei ordered a campaign of conquest on the Korean Peninsula, which was then known as the Kingdom of Goryeo. The campaigns continued until 1270 when the king of Goryeo signed a peace treaty with the Mongols and Korea became a Mongol vassal state.
- Genghis’ grandson, Hulagu became the Great Khan in the kurultai of 1256. As Great Khan, Hulagu ordered a series of campaigns in the Middle East. Under his rule, the Mongols captured Baghdad in 1258, and the Abbassid Caliphate became a part of the growing Mongol Empire.
- The Mongols, along with other nomadic central Asian cultures of the time, practiced sky burials or the practice of leaving the bodies of their dead out in the open to be exposed to the elements and eaten by carrion birds. The ritual is a part of a branch of Buddhism practiced by the Mongols known as Vajrayana. According to Vajrayana Buddhism, death is simply a transmigration of the spirit, therefore corpses are merely empty vessels that ought to be disposed of in a generous way, such as decomposition or as food for birds. The custom is still practiced today in parts of Mongolia and Tibet.
These are just a handful of fascinating facts about the Mongol Empire, but the story of the Mongol people didn’t end with the fall of the empire. Today, Mongolia is a fast-growing economic frontier full of sprawling steppes and desert, rich with minerals. They’ve since abandoned their military campaigns of conquest and transitioned to democracy and a market economy. Though Mongolia is not known as the most outspoken state today, one wonders when and how Genghis’ people will next stun the world.
– Mary Grace Costa