I’m your host David and welcome to Ages of Conquest: a Kings and Generals Podcast. This is the Mongol conquests. Before we get into all that material you’re expecting for any good series on the Mongols- the conquests, the smoking ruins and the towers of skulls, we must discuss Chinggis Khan’s long and troubled rise to power. But before we can do that, it will help the humble listener immensely if we take the time to introduce what was going on, and who was who, in 12th century Mongolia. In the previous episode we introduced some aspects of Mongolian culture in this period as groundwork: now we will introduce the various tribes who played a role in the rise of the Mongol Empire.
Our episode on introducing thirteenth century China provides some important context on the general overview of Mongolian-Chinese relations, and details on the power vacuum following the fall of China’s Tang Dynasty in 907 that I won’t repeat at length here. In short though, parts of northern China and Mongolia came under the rule of the Liao Dynasty, ruled by the nomadic Khitans, a people related to the Mongols, beginning in the 900s. Their rule included garrisons and forts stationed throughout Mongolia, and mainly kept things in order for about two centuries, dealing with sporadic uprisings and resistance. One of the final military victories of the Liao Dynasty was the suppression of an uprising by the Tatar tribes at the beginning of the 1100s.
Just over two decades later though, the Liao Dynasty disintegrated under the onslaught of the Jurchen, a Tungusic semi-nomadic people from Manchuria and ancestors of the Manchu. Their newly declared Jin Dynasty seized control of Manchuria, took control of all of China north of the Huai River from the Song Dynasty, and vassalized the Tangut Xi Xia in northwestern China: but, they did not make an attempt to control Mongolia as the Liao had done. With the Khitan garrisons moving west with the general Yelu Dashi to found the Qara-Khitai empire, Mongolia was basically left in a power vacuum, and the local tribes now rose into their own.
When we describe the Mongol tribes in the 12th century, we are discussing a large, rather disparate group of clans and tribes, some of whom were speakers of Mongolic languages, some were speakers of Turkic languages, and some were in a sort of milieu, described by historians as Turko-Mongols, tribes perhaps ethnically Turkish but speakers of Mongolian, and vice-versa. By convention, we use ‘Mongol tribes,’ to refer to the various nomadic groups north of China but south of the Siberian forests. However, in this period ‘Mongol’ referred to just a rather distinct and smaller grouping in the northeast, in the region of the Onon and Kerulen Rivers, the tribe to which the young Chinggis Khan belonged.
If we were to place a clock face over the whole of Mongolia, they would be situated at about 2 o’clock. The other tribes of the region, who we will be meeting shortly as we go around this clock, such as the Merkit, Kereyit, Tatars and Naiman, did not consider themselves Mongol, and indeed, evidence suggests they would have been rather insulted by it. A recent argument by historian Stephen Pow suggest that ‘Tatar,’ may have been the general endonym used by the steppe tribes. The Liao and Jin Dynasties generally referred to them all as ‘zubu.’ Either way, Mongol was, in the 1100s, a very limited term, and in the following discussion, will refer to the specific tribe and its subclans.
The history of the Mongol tribe before the 12th century is not an easy one to trace, and the mentions prior to this period are often controversial. The most commonly agreed upon, (though not a universal agreement, mind you) is that the Mongols’ ancestors were the Meng-wu, mentioned in histories of the Tang Dynasty as a minor branch of the larger Shih-wei ethnic grouping, a grouping which were vassals of the Gokturk Khaganates until their final collapse in the 740s. At this time, they lived in the area south of the Amur river, which is today the border between Russia and Chinese Manchuria, and would have been semi-nomadic, relying on hunting, fishing, agriculture and raising pigs as much as pastoralism. For a refresher on nomadic pastoralism, check out this seasons 2nd episode, on Mongolian nomadism. During the 900s, the Meng-wu moved west to the Arghun River, on the edge of modern Mongolia, becoming subjects of their linguistic cousins, the Khitan Liao Dynasty. They gradually continued west and south, and were likely in the region of the Onon-Kerulen Rivers by the 11th century, by then relying on full pastoralism, as pigs and agriculture are unsuited for the steppe.
In the Mongols’ own legendary accounts, preserved in the 13th century Secret History of the Mongols, their people originate from the union of the blue-grey wolf and the fallow deer, Borte Chino and Gua Moral. The entire ancestry from the wolf and deer down to Chinggis Khan is recorded in the Secret History, and we won’t bog you down with it here. A particularly interesting conception occurs at one point, where a ray of light, also translated as yellow man, enters the tent of one of Chinggis’ ancestors, Alan Qo’a and impregnates her, a sort of divine conception. At this section in the Secret History, the most famous Mongolian parable first appears. Alan Qo’a, to prevent her sons from fighting each other, gives them each an arrow, and asks them to break it, which they do easily. Then, tying five arrows together in a bundle, asks them to break it, which they are unable to do. The message was clear: divided and alone, they are easily broken, but united they are unbreakable. It is a famous passage for the Mongols, and for good reason, as its lesson was applicable again and again.
The first of Chinggis Khan’s ancestors commonly agreed to exist was Khaidu, who in the Secret History of the Mongols is a great-great-great-grandson of Alan Qo’a, a figure who brought his branch of the Mongols, the Kiyat Borjigon, to some prominence over the other Mongol branches. Khaidu’s great-grandson Khabul, with the fall of the Liao in 1125 creating a power vacuum in Mongolia, was able to organize what seems to have been a sort of military confederation, called by modern authors the Khamag Mongol Khanate, and at the time was known as something like Monggyol ulus, or Mongol state.
Little is known about this early Mongol state, or what sort of suzerainty its Khans exercised. What we do have takes the form of anecdotes. For Khabul, the Jin Dynasty took note of his rise to power, and invited him to the imperial court, intending to make him a vassal. At a feast at the imperial court, Khabul became incredibly drunk, went over and pulled on the Jin Emperor’s beard! The Jin Emperor allowed Khabul to leave with his life, but changed his mind and sent officials to kill him- Khabul ambushed them instead. The Jin Dynastic sources do not, unfortunately, provide direct corroboration for the above events, making it unclear if they were the stuff of legend, though they do remark on the Mongols being a nuisance along the frontier in this period.
Khabul was succeeded as Khamag Khan not by any of his sons, but by his cousin Ambaghai, a Mongol of the Taychiud line. Ambaghai, shortly into his reign, was captured by the Tatar tribes of eastern Mongolia, who on our clock of Mongolia, would be located between 2 and 3 o’clock. Turkic tribes, speaking most likely Mongol, the Tatars in this period were in three main divisions, an unruly control of much of eastern Mongolia. Even though Ambaghai had been en route to organize a marriage alliance with them, the Jin Dynasty had gotten to the Tatars first, the Tatars acting as the Jin Dynasty’s ‘men on the ground,’ disrupting local politics to keep the tribes from unifying. The Tatars handed Ambaghai over to the Jin, who nailed him to a wooden donkey. His dying breaths were allegedly urging the Mongols to avenge him-
“Until the nails of your five fingers
Are ground down,
Until your ten fingers are worn away,
Strive to avenge me!”
So began the decades long rivalry between the Mongols and the Tatars, with the Jin Dynasty as the puppet master behind them.
Khabul’s son Qutula (Ku-tu-la) succeeded Ambaghai, and though he was famous among the Mongols for immense physical strength and an appetite to match, over a series of thirteen battles he was unable to defeat the Tatars, and was killed in about 1160, heralding the collapse of the Khamag Mongol confederation. It must be stressed that the Khamag Mongol was much more of a military alliance than a state in the form of the later Mongol Empire. Though it held influence in the steppe, it did not hold domination over the whole of Mongolia, but simply among those branches of the Mongol tribe- Borjigon (Bor-ji-gon), Taychiud (Tay-chi-ood) and the like, in northeastern Mongolia. To quote Volume 6 of the Cambridge History of China, “none of the available evidence even hints at the emergence at this time of any kind of administrative machinery or lines of authority independent of and in competition with the traditional kinship structure. The experience and memory of this brief unity may have contributed to the consolidation of the Mongolian nation, but it bequeathed nothing in the way of institutional foundations on which the later empire of the Great Mongols could build. The preliminary work would have to be done anew.”
Over the course of these battles, one of Khabul Khan’s grandchildren, Yesugei, captured a Tatar chief, Temujin-Uge. Upon his return to his own encampment, Yesugei found that one of his wives, Hoelun, had given birth to a boy clutching a blood clot in his fist the size of a knucklebone. The Tatar chief was sacrificed, and the boy was given his name- Temujin, the future Chinggis Khan. But you’ll have to wait until the next episode for more on his story.
With this brief history of the Khamag Mongol, we should quickly note the other clans of the Mongol tribe in this period. The two main to know are the Kiyat Borjigon and the Taychiud. The Kiyat Borjigon are the clan to which Khabul, Qutula, Yesugei and Chinggis Khan belonged. Of the Taychiud lineage, Ambaghai was the most notable leader. The switching of the Khamag leadership between these two lineages sowed the seeds for future divisions- Ambaghai’s family held a grudge when the title of Khan when back to the Borjigon, and this was one of the factors which lead to the famous abandoning of Yesugei’s family, which we will explore next episode. Other clans of the Mongols included the Jadaran, to which Temujin’s blood brother Jamukha belonged, the Jurkin, and the Uriyangqat (Uri-yang-kat), to which the famous Subutai belonged. Subutai’s Uriyangqat are not to be confused with the very similar sounding Uriyangkhai, a northern tribe famous for reindeer herding.
Continuing clockwise on our clock, if the Mongols were 2 o’clock, the Tatars between 2 and 3 o’clock, then at 3 o’clock we would have the Onggirad, a less warlike grouping which in this period was famous for the beauty of its women. Chinggis Khan’s mother Hoelun, his wife Borte, and numerous wives for the rest of his descendants, came from this tribe or its subgroupings. At 5 o’clock we have the Onggut, close to the border of China proper. The Onggut were what the Jin Dynasty called their juyin, the tribes who made up their border guards. The Onggut were among those whose duty was to man the border defences the Jin erected, particularly in the final years of the 12th century- this included forts and an extensive earthen wall and ditch along the frontier. The Onggut were given a chance to join a coalition against Chinggis Khan, but chose to warn him instead, and their ruler was granted a daughter of the Khan in marriage, and soon submitted to him proper. Contrary to the description that Chinggis Khan simply ‘went around the Great Wall of China,’ we might find it more accurate to describe it as being opened to him by those appointed to man it!
At 6 o’clock is the noted Gobi desert, a sparsely populated expanse of gravel and low scrub brush. It was a formidable, but not unpassable, barrier, especially if an army chose to travel during the milder times of year. Connecting to the Alashan desert and the great western loop of the Yellow River, known as the Ordos loop, it served as the divider between the steppe and the Tangut Xi Xia Kingdom.
From 6 o’clock, if one was to move towards the centre of our clock face, they would encounter one of the most powerful tribes of 12th century Mongolia, the Kereyit. Centered on the Black Forest of the Tuul River, the Kereyit may have originated as a branch of the Tatars, asserting their independence in the final years of the Liao Dynasty, emerging as a distinct political body in about 1100. Though the Kereyit were likely of Turkic origin, the sources indicate close contact with the Mongols and little trouble conversing between them, suggesting they were bilingual or spoke Mongolian. Much closer to the main trade routes and China proper, the Kereyit were considerably wealthier than their northern cousins, their population was higher, and, perhaps surprisingly, they were Christians, or at least their ruling class were.
Specifically, they were Nestorian, or Church of the East, a sect which had gradually made its way east after being deemed heretical at the Third Ecumenical Council of Ephesus in 431. Several names associated with the Kereit, such as Marqus and Qurjaqus (Kur-jak-us), were Mongolized forms of Marcus and Cyricaus (syr-i-cus). Indeed, Marqus-Buyruq Khan was the Khanate’s founder in about 1100, and Qurjaqus-Buyruq (kur-jak-us booy-ruk) Khan was his descendant and the father of the Khanate’s final ruler, the famous Toghrul-Ong Khan. When Qurjaqus died around the mid 12th-century, his.. potent manhood, shall we say, left him the issue of numerous children, 40 by one account. Toghrul was able to seize control only after killing a number of his brothers, with the military assistance of the Mongol Yesugei, the father of Temujin. Yesugei and Toghrul swore oaths to be blood-brothers, anda, a relationship which would bring Temujin to seek Toghrul’s assistance in due time.
At 7 o’clock, to the west of the Tangut and far side of the Gobi, we meet the Uighurs. A mainly sedentary Turkic people, we mentioned them in our episode on North China as an empire based in Mongolia until their defeat in 840 by the Kirghiz. After that, a large number of Uighurs migrated south, into the Gansu corridor and the oases of the Tarim Basin, Turfan Depression and into the Dzunghar Basin, in what is now Xinjiang in China, the far northwest of the country where it meets with Kazakhstan, Mongolia and Russia.
The Gansu Uighurs were conquered by the Tangut Kingdom, but the remainder, in their realm sometimes called ‘Uighuristan,’ retained their independence. Qara-Qocho, or in Chinese, Gaochang, in the Turfan Depression, was their major city. During the days of their empire, they had practiced Manicheism, but in their new homeland largely converted to the Buddhism of the locals in the following centuries, or Christianity in lesser numbers. With the establishment of the Qara-Khitai Empire to their west in the 1130s and 40s, by Khitans fleeing the fall of the Liao Dynasty, the Uighurs became their vassals, though they kept a great deal of autonomy and were an important link in the regional trade routes. Uighurs were able to often find employment as merchants or skilled advisers to the Khanates to their north, a role which would only increase when their script became adopted for the Mongolian language with Chinggis Khan’s expanding empire.
Continuing north from the Uighurs, we head to roughly 9 o’clock, where we end up in western Mongolia on the slopes of the Altai Mountains, in the territory of the Naiman. Meaning ‘eight’ in Mongolian, for the number of tribes or lineages making up this turkic Khanate, the Naiman in the 12th century were the most powerful union within Mongolia, nomadic yet relatively centralized, with a distinct ruling dynasty and literacy, making use of the Uighur script and a strong military. A number of the Naiman elite were Nestorian Christians, like the Kereyit, but shamanistic practices are observed multiple times in the sources. Their main competition was with the Kereyit, but were also involved with Central Asia- for several decades they were vassals of the Qara-Khitai. The Naiman maintained their unity until the mid 1190s, with the death of their Khan Inancha-Bilge, when the Khanate was split between his sons, Tayang and Buyruq, weakening it in the face of Mongol aggression. Despite their power, we know very little about the Naiman. Their name, Naiman, is what the Mongols called them. We don’t even know what they called themselves.
With the Naiman at 9 o’clock, we have a selection of smaller tribes on the borders of, or within, the great Siberian forest which take us to 12 o’clock. At 10 o’clock, around Khovsgol Lake, were the Oirat, in this period a relatively minor tribe, but the seed of a later union, the Four Oirat, which would dominate Mongolia in the fifteenth century, from which the Dzunghars and the Kalmyks would spring. At 11 to 12 o’clock, on the lower Selenge River to the south of Lake Baikal, a massive body of water in Russia which is the deepest lake in the world, we find the Merkit. Speaking likely a Mongolic language, they were a fragmented collection of tribes, of little danger to the Naiman or Kereyit, but could pose a threat when the Mongols were disunified.
On the edge of the steppe, the Merkit practiced a mix of pastoralism, hunting, fishing and even it seems, agriculture. The Merkit would have a long antagonism with the Mongols, dating at least to the late 1150s when Chinggis Khan’s father Yesugei stole Hoelun, Chinggis’ mother, from her Merkit husband. This left a long suffering grudge which led to the capture of Chinggis’ own wife Borte by the Merkit, a captivity which resulted in the birth of Jochi, a child whose uncertain paternity would have major consequences for the Mongol Empire. One chief of the Merkit, Toqto’a Beki, would be a particular thorn in Chinggis Khan’s side, and after his death, his sons fled to the Qipchaq (chip-chak) in the far western steppe, bringing the Mongols eventually into Russia.
Aside from the Merkit, there are the smaller tribes of the Siberian forests the Mongols collectively dubbed the hoi-yin irgen, meaning ‘forest peoples.’ This included the aforementioned Oirat, the Kirghiz in the Yenisei valley, controlling one of the most northerly grain producing regions, and the Qori Tumed to the east of Lake Baikal, among others. All of these mentioned come under the authority of the Mongol Empire, but how far north Mongol control went is unclear. Lake Baikal is often seen as a rough estimate for the northern extent of Mongol rule, but there is suggestion their trade networks extended far among the peoples of what is now Yakutia, the Russian far east.
This has been a very brief introduction to the various peoples inhabiting the Mongolian steppe, or were in close proximity to it. This is not exhaustive: we didn’t mention every single clan and sub clan and lineage among the Mongols, nor did we go into Manchuria, or discuss in much detail the lands and tribes of the Qara-Khitai. Ideally, this should give you, dear listener, a fine basis for understanding the tribes and politics at play for our next discussion: the birth of Temujin, and his rise to become Chinggis Khan, the conqueror of the World. That’s coming soon, so be sure to hit subscribe to the Kings and Generals podcast and to continue helping us bring you more outstanding content, please visit our patreon at www.patreon.com/kingsandgenerals. Thank you for listening, I am your host David and we will catch you on the next one!
Contrary to some popular internet opinions, the Mongol Empire was not an unprecedented, utterly unique presence on the stage of world history. It was neither the first or the last nomadic empire, though it was certainly the greatest. This depiction of the Mongol Empire as a total historical aberration is due, perhaps, to a lack of context. When one learns of the Mongols through hyperbole and dramatized retellings of the rise of Chinggis Khan, it neighbours portrayed only long enough to explain their destruction, it is easy to feel you’re learning about perhaps the only nomadic empire to really conquer anything, instead of just raiding. In this episode, we will provide first a very brief history of Mongolia based nomadic empires- not encyclopedic, but enough to give you an idea of what the precedent here was. Then, we will explain the first of what is known in Chinese history as the ‘conquest dynasties,’ the Khitan Liao Dynasty, the Tangut Xi Xia Dynasty, and the Jurchen Jin Dynasty, who laid the groundwork for the Asia Chinggis Khan would emerge into. With that background, it will make puts the events of the conquest of China into greater context for you, our dear listener, so that the significance of particular events should perhaps take greater event. Now, prepare yourself as we take a speedy 1,000 year journey through Mongolian and northern Chinese history.
In broad strokes, we must first note that the Empire founded by Chinggis Khan in 1206 was not the first empire ever based in Mongolia. For that honour we must go back over 1400 years to the Xiongnu Empire, a tribal confederation founded around 209 BCE, perhaps a reaction to the unification of China under their first imperial dynasty, the Qin Dynasty. The well known Terracotta warriors come from the magnificent tomb of the first emperor, Qin Shi Huangdi, to place this into a well known context. The Xiongnu’s military might put the Qin’s successors, the famed Han Dynasty into what was essentially a vassal relationship, forcing them to send tribute for decades. Before the rise of the Mongols, the Xiongnu were the archetypal nomadic threat to the Chinese, who struggled to find ways to successfully resist their pressure. One effort was to ‘civilize’ the Xiongnu by sending them Chinese brides and goods, to force the Xiongnu to become dependent on them. It proved expensive and unsuccessful, and with the Xiongnu based still in Mongolia, they could maintain the divide between their society and the Chinese. The Han saw more success militarily, building border walls, expanding towards Central Asia to cut off the Xiongnu from their client kingdoms on whom they depended for revenues and forming alliances with various tribes along the Xiongnu’s border- although military operations into Mongolia proper were difficult and costly for the Chinese. What finally allowed the Han to overcome the Xiongnu was the end of their long unity. Unlike effectively every other nomadic confederation to follow them, the Xiongnu maintained a remarkable degree of unity from 209 until 60 BCE. The civil war which broke out over the Xiongnu ruler’s succession was the true end of their confederation. Various claimants sought support from the Chinese, increasing Chinese influence, weakening the central authority of the Xiongnu ruler, encouraging their enemies and ultimately, resulting in the fragmentation of the confederation and rise of other powers in Mongolia.
Now, you may ask, why did we have all that preamble for events literally over a millennium before Chinggis Khan? The reason is because of trends which will be apparent in this, and future episodes:The significance of Chinese goods and tribute, as something desired by the nomads, and a tool to be used by Chinese with the intention of ‘corrupting,’ or from the Chinese point of view, ‘civilizing’ the nomads, forcing them to lose their military edge in favour of the finer things. The great military potential of the nomads, and the difficulty the various Chinese dynasties had operating militarily directly in the vast Mongolian steppe, where the nomads could easily escape on horseback or surround them And nomadic unity: when they organized, the various nomadic powers were an incredibly potent weapon. But when they fragmented, invariably due to a succession crisis, their infighting was horrific, and old micro-tribal loyalties would assert themselves over the macro-tribal confederation. Wise Chinese dynasties would play these tribes off on-another, providing goods, resources or even military support to a certain leader, keeping the nomads at each other’s throats and preventing them from unifying and directing their fearsome energy to the south.
The Xiongnu was among the most stable and longest lasting tribal union in Mongolia’s history. Among these successors included the Xianbei confederation, founded in the late first century CE, then the Rouran, the first to use the title of Khan, then the Gokturk Khaganaes, and the Uighur Khaganate, which collapsed in 840 CE. All rose to power in what is now modern Mongolia, forming mighty empires which spanned huge territory and threatened the Chinese Dynasties. The Gokturks, in particular, saw their influence stretch even to Crimea, and proved highly influential to Turkic peoples who emerged in the following centuries.
One thing we have not noted as of yet, is the make up of these empires. Were they Mongols? Proto-Mongolic? Turks? Irish? Well, prior to the Gokturks, known also as the Turkic Khaganates, who were unequivocally turkic tribes speaking turkic languages, the make up of these confederations is a messy, messy thing. Many a long academic paper has been written arguing for Mongolic, Altaic, Tungusic, Turkic, and many more, for the identity of these various earlier empires. These were all ethnically quite diverse, various tribes united by charismatic leadership or by one tribes military might. This is part of why these states suffered such violent fragmentations: once that leadership stopped being charismatic enough, generally associated with the death of a major monarch and conflict for the throne between his sons or brothers, then those old tribal ties would reassert themselves. These were not nation-states, but better thought of as military alliances. The constituent peoples who made up the empire could have all been nomads, but speaking totally unrelated languages, lacking a common identity beyond “we’re not sedentary or Chinese.”
The Uighur Khaganate, a Turkic empire, was destroyed in 840 under the assault of the Yenisei Kirghiz, who did not establish their own empire. Many Uighur moved south, to Gansu and Turfan in what is now modern China. With the fall of the Uighurs, and at a similar time the Tibetan Kingdom, China’s mighty Tang Dynasty, the most powerful Dynasty since the Han and the latest to unify the country, had lost its main rivals of the last century, and had no major nomadic threat on its border. However, the Tang Dynasty was well past its prime and collapsed in 907, creating a power vacuum across the whole of China. While China went through its favourite process of small kingdoms fighting their way back to unity, in the north a people speaking a Mongolic-language had unified, and were to proclaim their own kingdom, the first of the conquest dynasties.
Oh yes, you guessed it: the Khitans!
A nomadic group from southern Manchuria, culturally and linguistically close to the Mongols, under their chief Abaoji they declared their own empire after the final collapse of the Tang in the early 900s. Now, this was not a confederation/military alliance in the likes of the Xiongnu, where the ruler’s actual authority outside of military direction was limited, but a true, structured state, one which took on the outward trappings of a Chinese dynasty. In fact, among other things, they took their own dynastic name in the style of other Chinese Dynasties, Abaoji choosing Liao, from a river in their territory in southern Manchuria. The Khitan Liao empire incorporated much of Mongolia, Manchuria, and the very north of China, with what is now modern Beijing made their southern capital, a part of China known to their contemporaries as the 16 prefectures. The Khitans practiced a style of government which would be picked up by their nomadic successors, known as the dual administration system, to accommodate the nomadic tribesmen and vast sedentary Chinese population within their empire. Under this system, the nomadic tribes who made up the military core, command and the elite, were governed according to their own tribal customs, while the Chinese were separately administered under their own laws, its bureaucracy there based off the Tang model.
In Mongolia, the Khitan presence was not extensive, but it was notable especially in the east. Military forts and garrisons were established across the steppe, such as Bars-Hot, which were also centres of trade and provided valuable, reliable smiths. Essentially, they kept the peace, offering a stability to the region, though details on this aspect come as much from archaeology as they do the textual record: what happened on the steppe between nomads was not often of interest to Chinese writers. It does not seem to have been a level of control like that of the Manchu occupation centuries later.
Khitan rule in northern China lasted two centuries, and their name became the basis for Kitai or Cathay, the name by which China is known in a number of languages. Their rule was not uncontested: the most notable conflict was with the Song Dynasty which emerged in the south, swallowing up the petty kingdoms south of the Yellow River in the decades following the collapse of the Tang. The Song will be a dynasty we will revisit later in this series, but for now know this: while the northern conquest dynasties were ruled by nomadic or semi-nomadic peoples over a Chinese population, the Song were ruled by Chinese and considered themselves the heirs of Tang, though deliberately weakened the power of their military, to their later chagrin. The Song sought to bring the aforementioned 16 prefectures back under Chinese rule, and to this end fought a series of inconclusive wars with the Liao. The Song proved unable to wrest control from the Liao, while the Khitans were unable to push deep into Song territory, though they had a notable expedition to the Song capital of Kaifeng, culminating in the Treaty of Chanyuan in 1005, finalizing the border and the Song providing large amounts of silver and silk annually to appease the Liao. This was an often uneasy peace, one punctuated by raids and expeditions. The Song, for their part, cultivated extensive forests along their border with the Liao, an effort to hampher the cavalry which was so important to the Khitans.
The other notable relationship which emerged in this period, was with the Tangut Kingdom, known also as the Xi Xia Dynasty. The Tangut ancestors were a Tibetan people who had moved into the Gansu corridor, a sparse desert region of oasis cities, the great Ordos loop of the western Yellow River and the fertile valley known today as Ningxia. Slowly granted rights by the Tang Emperors, like many others they asserted their independence with the fall of the Tang, first as Kings, then in 1038 declaring their own empire, taking the dynastic name of Xi Xia, though they knew themselves as the State of White and High. The Tangut Kingdom was a peculiar little state: Buddhism was strong there, with Chinese Confucianism finding little ground. It was a diverse though small population of approximately three million, with Tangut rulers, about half the general population Han Chinese, and the remainder various Turkic or Tibetan peoples, a strong nomadic and agricultural element. They created their own script, visually similar to Chinese but distinct: likewise, their government had Chinese trappings but internally unique, and did not use the dual administration system of the Liao. Unfortunately due to the Mongols, little information on their internal structure survives to us. They had a strong, cavalry based military, though they lacked the great offensive potential of their neighbours in the steppes or the Khitans. Generally seen as trade oriented, especially in the 12th century they turned their attention to the silk routes in the west as much as they did the east, and had influence towards the Tarim Basin. A favoured destination for leaders in the Mongolian steppe seeking refuge, their relationship with the Khitan was amicable and had marriage relations with them: while with the Song Dynasty it often took the form of raids, urging the Khitans to join them in attack. Visually, the Tangut had a rather unique hair style which bears brief mention: known as a tufa, the head was shaved except for the bangs and temples, framing the forehead.Trust me when I say it is incredibly ugly, but it does make it easy to identify them in surviving artworks.
Though their rule was long, the Liao rulers after Abaoji were not his equals. Much like their successor conquest dynasties, the Khitan struggled between adopting Chinese customs and maintaining their nomadic heritage. One place this was manifested was the succession, something to take note of for future discussion. The Liao Emperor, often influenced by his wives,often wanted t a designated heir, as per the Chinese style. Yet the Khitan elite wanted to maintain the nomadic preference for electing who they saw as the most suitable ruler, a choice which could be from the emperor’s sons or brothers. In this case, most suitable often meant whoever had developed the greatest military reputation or contacts, or who this elite thought could be most malleable. These disputes could manifest into assassination, and neither the Liao nor the Mongols would ever find a suitable solution to this problem at the imperial level. The later Liao Emperors struggled to deal with the rebellions along their borders, such as the Tatars in Mongolia, and in Manchuria, the Bo-hai peoples of the former Bo-hai kingdom in the far east, and the Jurchen tribes in the north, and the ones to usurp the Khitans.
The Jurchen tribes were the ancestors of the Manchu, and a semi-nomadic Tungusic people, nomadizing only a part of the year and inhabiting a large swath of territory from northeastern Manchuria towards the Yalu River. The Liao court classified them into three broad groups, based on proximity to China: the ‘civilized’ Jurchen, the closest, around the Liao River who were under firm control and generally assimilated to Chinese culture. North of them were the ‘obedient’ Jurchen, under regular contact and, well, obedient. Beyond them were the largest group, the ‘wild’ Jurchen, of the middle valley of the Sungari and the eastern mountains of Heilongjiang. They were vassals of the Liao, but the court held little direct power there. Originally split between numerous small tribes and clans in spread out villages, over the eleventh century the wild Jurchen were gradually unified by the Wan-yen clan, who gained recognition and titles from the Liao. Though the Liao court held little direct control over the wild Jurchen, they could still pose a threat if they turned their might to them, and the Jurchen rankled over the perceived abuses of the Khitan border guards, a sentiment worked up by the ambitious Wan-yen chief, Aguda.
The ultimate fall of the Liao Dynasty rose from a well known incident. It was the custom of the Liao Emperor to go on seasonal hunting and fishing trips into Manchuria, during which the tribes and chiefs of the region would come and pay homage to the Liao Emperor. As a gesture of submission, each chief would stand up and dance before him. During this ceremony in winter 1112, when it came time for Aguda to dance before the emperor, he refused. Annoyed, the Liao Emperor asked him again. Again, Aguda refused. On the third time, Aguda still refused. Incensed, the Liao Emperor wanted to execute Aguda for his insolence, but was talked out of it by his chancellor, allegedly saying something along the lines of ‘what harm could he do?’
In 1113, Aguda was elected chief of the Wild Jurchen; in autumn 1114, he began raiding the Liao frontier. That winter, he crushed Liao armies sent against him, and several border prefectures surrendered to him. By the start of 1115, Aguda had declared himself emperor of a new Jin Dynasty. What followed was the shockingly quick collapse of the Liao. A campaign by the Liao Emperor against Aguda was undermined when his court appointed his uncle as emperor in his absence. The Bo-hai in the east rebelled, killed their Khitan viceroy and submitted to the Jurchen. In 1118, Aguda crossed the Liao River, and the next year the Song Dynasty opened contact with the Jin, hoping to use this as a chance to regain those lost prefectures.
After a round of failed negotiations between Jin and Liao, war resumed in 1120. The supreme capital of the Liao Dynasty fell almost immediately, the imperial tombs sacked. By 1122, the Liao Emperor fled to inner Mongolia while his empire was swallowed by the Jurchen armies, their heavy cavalry rolling over all in their path. The Tangut attempted to aid the Khitans, but their army was swiftly defeated and forced to offer tribute. The Song, their armies initially distracted by war with the Tangut and an internal revolt, were finally able to attack the Liao, though embarrassingly were repulsed. This would not be the last time the Song would ally against their current enemy with a dangerous nomadic group from the north.
The final Liao emperor was soon joined by the able general Yelu Dashi, a distant relation who brought with him the empress and a number of Khitan troops. Yelu Dashi however, quickly became disillusioned with the Liao Emperor’s incompetence and abandoned him, gathering up the Khitan garrisons of Mongolia and moving west to Central Asia. There, he founded the Qara-Khitai Empire, a state we will revisit in the future. By doing so, the garrison outposts in Mongolia were abandoned, and there was no reason at this time for the Jin to expand their presence into the steppe, leaving Mongolia in a power vacuum. The Liao Emperor was finally captured in 1125 by the Jin, and spent his final years humiliated and imprisoned. Thus ended the Liao Dynasty.
Aguda did not live to see this great success, dying in 1123 a few months after concluding the alliance treaty with the Song. The Song still hoped to gain those prefectures back, but their poor military performance, and the overwhelming might of the Jin armies, radically changed the balance of power as the Liao state disintegrated. The relationship was tense, and by the end of 1125 the Jin under Aguda’s brother attacked the Song. Once more, Jin success was shocking. By 1127, the Song capital of Kaifeng had fallen, the emperor captured and the dynasty was reeling. Jin advance forces were even able to cross the Yangtze River. Yet it seems the speed and scale of their conquest was too rapid, and they struggled to hold onto the vast territory they now controlled. Local militias sprang up to resist the Jurchen, and Song forces rallied under the command of the talented Yue Fei, who pushed the Jin back over the 1130s, culminating in a peace treaty in 1142 which set the Huai River as their border. The older Song-Liao treaty was used as a basis, and the Song had to deliver 250,000 bales of silk and bolts and silver yearly, and the Jin Emperor was to be regarded as the ‘elder brother’ of the Song emperor, now based in Hangzhou in the south. Though the war would flare up again between the two, the treaty of 1142 effectively set the borders of China until the Mongol conquests.
For the Song Dynasty, this was a grand humiliation, the total loss of northern China to the invaders. 1127 is the end of what is known as the ‘Northern Song Dynasty,’ its salvaged successor the ‘Southern Song,’ which found trade and economics more to their skill than military aspects. The Jin Dynasty, at its height in the 12th century, was perhaps the single greatest military on earth. The Jurchen state had a number of problems however. Perhaps four million Jurchens now ruled over fifty million northern Chinese. Many of the Khitans of the Liao had not left with Yelu Dashi, but remained in northern China. The Jin borders were distant, their territory vast: garrisoning the entire kingdom with just Jurchen troops was impossible. Khitans and Chinese were incorporated in large numbers into the army, but excluded from promotion in both the military and government. The Khitans, still skilled horsemen, did not forget or forgive the loss of their dynasty, and rebelled periodically. The long reign of Emperor Shizong, from 1161-1189 was a golden age for Jin rule, but saw a growing sinicization of the Jurchen rulers, separating them from their kinsmen remaining in Manchuria. Under Shizong’s successors, corruption became endemic and was compounded by intense natural disasters, particularly devastating flooding of the Yellow River in the early 1190s. Like the Liao, the Jin ruled through a dual administrative structure, and maintained the Liao practice of having five capitals, one of which was at the site of modern Beijing. Prohibitions were made preventing Jurchen from wearing Chinese clothes or to learn Chinese and vice versa, in an effort to preserve Jurchen culture, and Chinese were even forbidden from calling the Jurchen ‘barbarians.’ Unique Jurchen scripts were developed, and Jurchen bards were to play the old songs in the emperor’s presence. These efforts could not halt the steady flow of assimilation, however, and only in the Manchurian homeland, removed from the Chinese culture altogether, were any Jurchens able to resist sinicization
This was China as the Mongols would find it in the thirteenth century: the Jurchen ruled Jin Dynasty in the north, a massive military power but spread thin over its vast borders, its rulers adopting Chinese customs, important sections of its military and population, especially the Khitans, feeling alienated and disrupted by natural disasters. Conflict would be renewed with the Song Dynasty in the south in 1206, the heirs of the Tang Dynasty who still dreamt of bringing the north back under Chinese control, but though their economic might in the Asian trade routes was significant, militarily they were not the equals of the conquest dynasties. In the northwest, the Tangut ruled Xi Xia dynasty bordered the Mongolian steppe, a small but sturdy state which was the vassals of the Jin, but had no great love for the Jurchen. A fractured China, ready to descend into warfare with the correct spark. That sparks name would be Chinggis Khan.
We hope that you have enjoyed this introduction to 13th century, a basis for our explanation on the upcoming Mongol conquests, so be sure to hit subscribe to the Kings and Generals podcast and to continue helping us bring you more outstanding content, please visit our patreon at www.patreon.com/kingsandgenerals. Thank you for listening, I am your host David and we will catch you on the next one!
Nomadism! It is a term closely associated with the Mongols and other inner Asian peoples of the vast Eurasian steppe-lands. Yet what does it entail, specifically? How did it influence Mongolian culture, religion and warfare? We are going to explain this all in detail, hopefully providing you a solid foundation for our forthcoming discussions on the Mongol Empire. I’m your host David and welcome to Ages of Conquest: a Kings and Generals Podcast. This is the Mongol conquests.
Let us begin with a description from a Chinese writer on peoples from Mongolia, which provides an apt generalization: “The animals they raise consist mainly of horses, cows, and sheep, but include such rare beasts as camels, asses, mules, and the wild horses known as taotu and tuoji. They move about in search of water and pasture and have no walled cities or fixed dwellings, nor do they engage in any kind of agriculture. Their lands, however, are divided into regions under the control of various leaders. They have no writing, and even promises and agreements are only verbal. The little boys start out by learning to ride sheep and shoot birds and rats with a bow and arrow, and when they get a little older they shoot foxes and hares, which are used for food. Thus all the young men are able to use a bow and act as armed cavalry in time of war. It is their custom to herd their flocks in times of peace and make their living by hunting, but in periods of crisis they take up arms and go off on plundering and marauding expeditions. This seems to be their inborn nature. For long-range weapons they use bows and arrows, and swords and spears at close range. If the battle is going well for them they will advance, but if not, they will retreat, for they do not consider it a disgrace to run away. Their only concern is self-advantage, and they know nothing of propriety or righteousness.
From the chiefs of the tribe on down, everyone eats the meat of the domestic animals and wears clothes of hide or wraps made of felt or fur. The young men eat the richest and best food, while the old get what is left over, since the tribe honours those who are young and strong and despises the weak and aged. On the death of his father, a son will marry his stepmother, and when brothers die, the remaining brothers will take the widows for their own wives. They have no polite names but only personal names, and they observe no taboos in the use of personal names.”
Now here’s the thing: that is not a description from the 13th century, but rather, the second century BCE! This is a very famous passage from the Chinese ‘grand historian,’ Sima Qian, a writer from the early Han Dynasty, describing not the Mongols, but the Xiongnu. And everything he says in this excerpt is just as applicable to the Mongols of the 13th century CE as it is to the Xiongnu a thousand years before them, from the animal lists, little boys learning to shoot, everyone acting as armed cavalry to the sons marrying their widowed stepmothers. Pastoral nomadism, which is where people with no fixed abode undergo seasonal or regular migrations with their various herds for fresh pasture, has long been the staple form of subsistence in Mongolia. Even today, about 40% of modern Mongolians still live in this fashion.
With irregular rainfall in arid summers and long, harsh winters, agriculture has never been extensively practiced in the country, though never totally unknown. Mongolia today is about the size of western Europe: the south of the country towards the low mountain range which divides China proper from the steppe is more arid, made up mostly of the Gobi desert, a mix of sand, scrub brush and gravel. To the east, the Greater Khingan Range separates the Mongol inhabited steppe from Manchuria, and in the west the Altai range serves as the natural barrier splitting the Mongol steppe from the western Eurasian steppe. The north of Mongolia edges onto the forests of eastern Siberia, with the deepest lake in the world Lake Baikal, a rough border between the Mongols and what they called the hoi-yin irgen, the forest people. Between these barriers was a territory of vast grassland, rolling hills and low mountains, rivers and lakes. It is a land greatly suited to pastoral nomadism. It is Mongolia.
Living out of their felt tents, known in Mongolian as gers or in Turkish as yurts, Mongolian families generally herded a collection of animals known as the ‘five snouts:’ sheep, goats, oxen, camels and the most prestigious, the horse. The ratios of these animals would depend on the region and the conditions, such as those living on or closer to the Gobi desert using greater numbers of camel than those in the far north of the country. Generally, sheep and goats were kept in the greatest numbers, with an ideal herd size being about one thousand head. The sheep provided mutton and the felt so necessary for constructing their gers. Goats provide milk, meat and soft cashmere, while also requiring less water than sheep, making them more desirable in more arid regions. Yet both had to be carefully managed, as they graze grass very close to the ground while the sharp hooves of the goats can damage pastures. Overgrazing had to be carefully avoided, and indeed in modern Mongolia, the expansion of the cashmere industry and resulting growth in goat herds, has led to an increase in desertification in the country.
Oxen and bactrian camels were used in smaller numbers, more for hauling than for meat, the camel in particular being too expensive, too useful and their gestation too long at 12 to 14 months for routine slaughtering. The milk from the oxen was utilized, and in more recent centuries oxen have been cross bred with yaks, especially for herders in higher elevations. Horses were exempt from hauling carts and the like: this was the job of the herds of oxen, and dozens could be yoked together to haul the great mobile gers mounted on the backs of carts. The camels could carry loads of 400 pounds or 181 kilos, and pull loads exceeding 900 pounds or 408 kilos. Their famed suitability for dry, arid climate made them a particularly valuable tool for those herders of the Gobi regions, and coats of camel hair were considered a fine gift.
But of course, we would be remiss for discussing Mongolian nomadism without mentioning the horse. The Mongol horse today is considered to have changed little since the thirteenth century: a short, sturdy animal, sure footed, with great endurance and physical strength, this is an animal aptly suited to the climate of Mongolia, where large Arab stock breeds even in modern times struggle to survive the often harsh winters. Often inaccurately called ponies, being rarely taller than fourteen hands, or 56 inches at the shoulder, this is a resilient, intelligent animal which was and still is the pride of any herder.
In a country with few roads even today, the horse is the most reliable tool for crossing the steppe. Aside from transportation, they were the tools which facilitated herding, giving a Mongol herdsman a high vantage point to look over his herd, move among them or chase after separated flocks. In winter, the horses pawed through the snow, allowing access to the winter grazing to keep the other livestock alive. A Mongol would ideally not rely on a single horse, but dozens, for long journeys using remounts rather than tire out an individual mare or gelding, which were preferred over stallions, kept only for reproduction or protecting herds.
As noted by Sima Qian, Mongols learned to ride early on. In fact, before they could even walk, they were tied to their saddles, building up the requisite balance and endurance for long hours on horseback. This is part of what made them such excellent horse archers: by the time they came of age, they had long developed the ability to maintain themselves in the saddle as if the horse’s legs were their own. While most of these animals provided milk for dairy products, it was mare’s milk which held the highest honour, which when fermented became airag, or the Turkish kumiss. A drink of low alcohol level, it was a delicacy and something which one could drink considerable amounts of. Even a few foreign travelers to the Mongol Empire, such as the Franciscan William of Rubruck, developed quite a taste for it. It was considered a manly thing to drink copious amounts of airag, vomit, and continue drinking more. Something which was fine for the low alcohol content of airag, but would become more of an issue when the Mongols were introduced to the stronger alcohols of the sedentary world, and applied this same practice.
In modern Mongolia, a herder is considered to be in poverty if he has a herd of less than one hundred animals, seen as a minimum amount needed for eating and replenishing stock after the hard winter. Mongols and other steppe peoples generally did not provide fodder for the animals, at least extensively, relying instead on year round grazing. In the cold winters of Mongolia, this winter grazing can be difficult, and if a dzud event occurs, when periods of freezing and thawing and dropping temperatures leave the grass hidden below layers of ice, thousands upon thousands of animals can die: for that reason, herders could be responsible for hundreds or even thousands of animals.
Pasture had to be carefully managed: pastoral nomadism is not the ‘aimless wandering’ it can sometimes be presented as, but careful, indeed even strategic, movement of animals to ensure the appropriate pasturage is maintained, not just for that season, but the upcoming winter and also future years. As we’ve mentioned, goats and sheep can crop the grass too close to the root and damage it, while the urine from animals concentrated in an area too long will poison the grass. Winter pastures, where the location is in the shade of mountains, hills and treelines as the only protection against the winter winds had to be left alone during the rest of the year. Different animals require different amounts of water, which can mean different sections of the herd must be fed over vast distances to accomodate what local water sources are nearby, while striving to avoid too much animal manure and urine polluting that water. Flash floods in Mongolia can also be an issue in the spring time, where low country provides no protection for rapidly rising waters: herds and gers too close can be swept away suddenly. On top of all of this, they must also recognize the grazing rights to territory owned by other families, clans and tribes: grazing in someone else's land, and ruining it for them, could lead to retaliatory raids.
To successfully do all of this, the Mongols gained exceptional experience in logistics, moving these herds without constant loss of life. The herders themselves grew strong, forced to endure hardship after hardship and lean times. The Mongols were noted by more than a few authors of the period as being able to live off of scraps, drinking blood from the veins of their mares or their milk, and when an animal dropped dead, devouring every possible part they could, ensuring nothing went to waste. This was a hard life, but it meant that when on campaign, the Mongols could endure that which few other armies could, and allowed them to move over areas which would have been impassable for others, such as the Gobi, Alashan and Kyzylkum deserts. They were not reliant on baggage trains, as much as they were on baggage herds.
Men and women were expected to be able to do the same work, though there were general divisions in labour. It was necessary that both groups understood how to do the work of the other, especially should one die, or the men be absent while at war, or extra help was needed with particular jobs. To paraphrase historian Timothy May, aside from warfare, the men focused on maintaining the herds and taking them out to pastures, while women gathered local foods, cleaned and processed food and animals products and maintained the campsites and gers. During the imperial periods, the women and families would take on more significant roles, now responsible for producing and maintaining much of the armaments the men took to war with them.
Men could take multiple wives provided they had the means to support them. Marriages were arranged and socially, women had fewer restrictions on them than their counterparts in China, Europe and the Islamic world, something often noted to the chagrin of writers from those same regions, though we should be careful not to view this as a precursor to modern notions of gender equality. Women learned how to shoot an arrow from horseback because it was a necessary part of survival, though the cases of female warriors are of some controversy.
Chinggis Khan himself had a number of women take major roles in his life as advisers, such as his mother Hoelun (ho-e-lun) and chief wife Borte (bort-ee), and for most of the 1240s the Mongol empire was ruled by the widows of Ogedai Khan, and then of his son Guyuk, though no woman ever made the claim to hold the imperial title herself. As mentioned in Sima Qian’s description, sons and brothers could marry their widowed stepmothers or sisters-in-law, known as levirate marriage. This is something which confused many a medieval author, who were forced to refer to a woman as an individual’s wife and mother, as was the case of the Naiman queen Gurbesu and her son-in-law and husband, Tayang Khan! Generally, this helped prevent widows and their young children from becoming abandoned, while also maintaining the political ties this marriage may have established in the first place.
In a land of such open space, where one can quite literally see their enemy coming from many kilometres away, it is perhaps no surprise that the bow is such a favoured weapon, both a tool for hunting as a supplement to what meat their herds provided, and as a tool for war. The famed Mongol bow is a composite recurve design. A bow like an English longbow is made from a single strip of wood, a self-bow; whereas a composite bow was made of layers of different materials, generally a wooden core, with sinew on the back and horn on its belly, held together with natural glues. A recurve bow has the ears or siyah, the ends of the bow, curve back away from the archer and putting the whole thing under much greater tension.
The result was a weapon of marvelous strength, shooting an arrow with far greater energy compared to a self bow of similar poundage. At 130-140 cm long, or 51-55 inches, it was a relatively short bow, making it excellent for use on horseback. Constructing these bows was a long and difficult process, and the final quality would vary depending on the skill of the maker. Arrows were approximately 75-82 cm in length, or 29-32 inches long, the shafts of bamboo, reeds or willow wood with birch nocks. Mongols drew their bows with their thumbs instead of the forefingers, allowing a cleaner draw facilitated by a thumb ring. Unlike European archers, the arrow was nocked on the far side of the bow, placing the string between the archer and his arrow. Arrowheads varied widely, depending on the target, and were made of bone, horn or iron. A well known favourite was the ‘whistling arrows,’ arrows with the horn head hollowed out so that, as it traveled through the air, it produced a distinct whistling noise, serving to signal other units and frighten enemies.
Mongol children, both boys and girls, learned to shoot from horseback at a very young age. To be a truly proficient horse archer in battle, it is a skill which must be learned from childhood and ingrained to the culture, and this was very much the case for the Mongols. It takes a lifetime of skill to build the muscles necessary to shoot arrows for hours if needed, especially while maintaining the balance to ride a horse at the same time. Numerous medieval authors remark on the accuracy and power of Mongol archers: one Armenian historian of the period, Grigor Aknertsi, went as far as to call them the Nation of Archers! The distance the arrows could go is a matter of some debate, caused by some confusion between maximum distance and maximum effective combat range, which could be significantly less. There is a stone inscription in Mongolia, commemorating an occasion in about 1224, when Chinggis Khan’s nephew Yisungge supposedly sent an arrow roughly 520-535 metres, or 569-585 yards, or over 1700 feet! For that, we must note first that this may be a case of some exaggeration, like a fisherman increasing the size of the fish he caught with each retelling: the noted historian Igor de Rachewiltz suggested the inscription was erected in the 1240s, when Yisungge held more political power, and could have ‘politely suggested’ the increase of an impressive shot to even greater lengths.
As well, for such long ranges, these were not heavier war arrows being used, but lighter ‘flight arrows,’ designed to go great distances, but would not have as much punch when they landed. Actual range for combat has been suggested to be about 150 meters, about 164 yards, though some authors have suggested as low as 30 meters, or just under 100 feet, would be the preferred range, a ‘sweet spot,’ as it were, between distance while maintaining penetrative power. To penetrate armour, heavier arrows are needed, but heavier arrows cannot fly as far while maintaining their energy, whereas those long distance arrows will lack the weight to go through armour at range.
It is often said that their animals provided everything the Mongols needed, with even their dung utilized as fuel for fires, known as argal. However, they were not able to gain quite everything they needed from this. While metal forging was undertaken in limited amounts, and blacksmiths were not totally unknown, it was rare, and they would have to rely on trading or raiding to the south to acquire at least the raw materials for this process. Therefore, due to the costs and difficulties involved, things like swords would be very uncommon, instead preferring weapons which used less metal to make and had other uses as tools, like spears, knives and axes. A pot for boiling water and meat had far more utility for the average Mongol than a sword ever would. This interest in material items, such as silks, spices, porcelain and even replenishing livestock herds depleted by war, would be an important component of initial Mongol interests to China and the sedentary world, and we will make further notes on that later.
While there was interest in the goods of the Chinese, there was much less interest in their lifestyle or civilization. The settled, agricultural life, and hiding behind city walls, made the Mongols think their enemies weak and unable to suffer hardship; there are more than a few examples of Mongols making statements along the lines of ‘where can you go to escape us, hiding in your city walls?’ In the Secret History of the Mongols, when Chinggis Khan suffers a fall from horseback while campaigning against the Tangut, a general remarks that they should withdraw and return after the Khan had healed, saying:
“The Tang’ut people
are ones who have towns with pounded-earth walls,
are ones who live in permanent camps.
They won’t leave, carrying off their towns with
Culturally, the Mongol tribes shared little with their Chinese neighbours, aside from the obvious differences of nomadic versus settled. The Mongols had no written language, and the languages spoken in Mongolia in the 12th century, Mongolian and Turkic, are completely unrelated to Chinese. In religion, they were very distinct. Whereas the Chinese had ancestor worship, Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism and various sects and combinations thereof, things were rather different in the steppe. Some tribes to the south and west like the Kereyit and Naiman were in fact Nestorian Christians, though ones who still made use of shamans. Named for Nestorius, the Patriarch of Constantinople from 428 to 431, the Church of the East as it is also known were deemed heretics by the Third Ecumenical Council of Ephesus in 431. The adherents had fled to the Sassanid Empire, before being pushed out of there into Central Asia, ultimately coming to contact with the Naiman and Kereyit perhaps around the 10th century. Some Mongolian names were garbled forms of Chirstian names, such as Solomon becoming Shiremun, the name of a grandson of Great Khan Ogedai.
Outside of the Kereyit and Naiman, most of the tribes would have been shamanist-animists. It was the job of the shaman to act as a healer and mediator between the physical world and the spirit world, interacting with the gods and spirits who inhabited it, or those spirits who had become stuck in the physical world. The most well known of these gods was the sky, heaven, known as Tengri, and Etugen-eke, the earth-mother. The exact nature of Tengri, often called koko mongke Tenggeri, or Eternal Blue Heaven, before the imperial period is not well understood. See, there seems to have been an unintentional anthropomorphization of Tengri, into something a bit more in line of the personal God of the Abrahamic religions. This may not have been by the Mongols themselves, but by Christian and Muslim authors who merely saw Tengri as another name for God or Allah and indeed, there are many cases where Tengri is used as a translation for these terms.
As the Mongol Empire gradually transformed into a continent spanning geopolitical entity, Tengri transformed to accommodate this: almost every letter sent by the Mongol imperial court opens with ‘by the Will of Eternal Blue Heaven.’ But before the unification of the Mongols, Tengri’s exact nature may have been much less personal. One did not convene with Tengri, at best thanking him for a storm passing by their encampment. Neither was his wrath the sole thing to fear: fire, rivers, mountains all had spirits, and it was the duty of the Mongols and their shamans not to offend them. Knives could not be pushed into a fire; dirty things and humans could not be washed in running water. The spirit world was not like the Christian Heaven were everything was better and an eternal paradise. A person’s status did not change upon death. People of noble blood had more powerful spirits, and while alive that person’s soul was believed to be inside the blood. Therefore, spilling the blood, especially of nobility or royalty, on the earth outside of battle was not only dishonourable, but a great danger, offending the earth and their spirit could now become stuck to that location. This affected even the Mongolian method of animal slaughter, which sought to spill as little blood as possible, instead knocking the animal unconscious, turning it over and pinching, cutting or crushing the aorta, depending on the animal. This had the advantage of also preserving all of the blood, a useful ingredient for sustaining a hungry herder and his family.
When Chinggis Khan formed his law code, the yassa, many of its promulgations were the enforcement of these taboos, designed to maintain heaven’s fortune for the Mongols. Violating these restrictions could bring natural disaster: thunderstorms and lightning in particular were dreaded, and seen as the wrath of heaven. Mongolia’s geographic position, an inland continental climate of high elevation, helps make these storms particularly severe. And when a man on horseback can literally be the highest thing around for hundreds of kilometres, essentially the only lightning rod, you can understand why it could be such a concern for them.
For the Mongols, life was difficult, and the afterlife would not be any better. Without a strong political authority to maintain order, people would turn quickly to raiding, capturing and stealing women and herds. These turned into rivalries which were slow to be forgotten, leading to retaliatory raids which only brought further retaliation, cementing long grudges. Orphaned children could become burdens upon the small family groups, and as a young boy named Temujin learned in about 1170, they and their hungry siblings could be abandoned. Yet this hard life made the Mongols into hardy warriors, skilled archers and superb horsemen: if a general could come along to mold them into an army, then they could truly be a weapon to be feared.
We hope that you have enjoyed this introduction to Mongolian nomadism: we hope it has given you some insight into the life of these herders, and perhaps some of the cultural factors which influenced Chinggis Khan. In our next episode, will introduce the tribes and politics of twelfth and thirteenth century Mongolia and North China, the political world Chinggis Khan entered into, so be sure to hit subscribe to the Kings and Generals podcast and to continue helping us bring you more outstanding content, please visit our patreon at www.patreon.com/kingsandgenerals. Thank you for listening, I am your host David and we will catch you on the next one!
In the smoke filled air, the cries of men and women reach towards Eternal Blue Heaven as horsemen ride over ruined city walls. The men of fighting age are forced together, their weapons and armour abandoned or taken, to be shortly executed en masse. A tower of their skulls be all that remains of their resistance The women, holding close crying children and infants, are led away, chattel for their new masters. Those craftsmen and artisans of skills -engineers, masons, woodworkers, and smiths of metal- are deemed to be useful to their new master in the east, and will be carried off for his service. Over the 13th century, from the islands off Korea to the plains of Hungary, from the forests of Siberia to the rugged borderlands of India, variations of this scene are enacted again and again, in the pursuit of nothing less than the domination of everything under Heaven by one family. I’m your host David and welcome to Ages of Conquest: a Kings and Generals Podcast. This is the Mongol conquests.
In Bukhara, in early 1220, as the formidable Khwarezmian (Khwa-rez-mian) Empire buckles under their onslaught, the man who has caused this horrific explosion of violence stands before a crowd of the city’s notables and wealthy. Once proud and haughty, now they are held humble before this horseman from the steppe. “O peoples,” he tells them through his translator, “know that you have committed great sins and that the great ones among you have committed these sins. If you ask me what proof I have of these words, I say it is because I am the punishment of God. Had you not committed great sins, God would not have sent a punishment like me upon you.” As the translator finished the statement, the shocked murmurs and hurried glances of the crowd would surely have pleased him - Genghis Khan, the World Conqueror, who had driven this proud people before him like hunters do their prey.
The 13th century Mongol Conquests today are often presented in apocalyptic imagery, a carry over from many of the medieval sources, for whom the only explanation for the speed and thoroughness of these conquests could only be that they were a punishment sent by God, surely heralding the end of times. These connotations are difficult to dissociate, and indeed, one might ask why we should look deeper, when these conquests resulted in an estimated 30-40 million deaths, unimaginable suffering, rape and cruelty. Genghis Khan’s name, to many in the west, Iran and China, brings to mind the stock image of the blood thirsty barbarian, who raped his way to over 200 million modern descendants!
Yet, in Mongolia today, he is not a national shame, but rather considered the heroic, legendary founder of their country, the unifier of the Mongols who led them to an unprecedented age of greatness. He is a lawgiver, the ideal steppe chieftain. Stern and vengeful to his enemies, but generous to his followers, a protector bringing peace and ending the age of intercine steppe warfare. For centuries, descent from Genghis Khan was perhaps the single most important source of legitimacy for dynasties and states across Asia. Even those monarchs not of the altan urugh - the Golden Lineage- often maintained a puppet Khan descended from him, or married a daughter of distant descent. For many of the Turkic peoples across the steppe today, Genghis takes the form of a great folk hero, and individual clans, tribes and peoples will feature some legend wherein a famous ancestor of theirs was granted their rights to that territory by Genghis himself, or was held as a loyal general by him.
How do we reconcile these differing interpretations? As with so much of history, the truth lies in the middle. That is what we will discuss over the course of this podcast series. Not a dramatized, apocalyptic presentation, but neither a glowing heroic description, we will instead in detail go through the Mongol conquests, beginning with the origins of the empire and following through its expansion, administration, collapse and legacy, and address along the way popular misconceptions. To begin this, then perhaps we should first take a note of the name of the great Khan himself. Rather than the ‘Genghis,’ of modern English, we should instead use the more accurate rendition of his name in Mongolian: Chinggis Khan. Not meaning ‘universal emperor,’ it instead is something like ‘fierce, stern ruler,’ and neither was it his birth name.
Chinggis Khan was born in about 1162, as Temujin, son of the minor chieftain Yesugei. Greatness did not come to him easily. When he was about 9 years old, his father was poisoned by a rival tribe, and Temujin and his family were soon abandoned by their own people. Only slowly did he gain power, suffering numerous setbacks, captures, and military defeats, forced to crawl and scratch for every inch. It was only in 1206, when he was over 40 years of age, that he finally unified the tribes of Mongolia, was elected Great Khan and took the title of Chinggis Khan. Even then, there is no evidence suggesting world domination was a goal he set himself to at this point: the initial attacks on China, beginning with an invasion of the Tangut Xi Xia in 1209 ,and an invasion of the Jurchen ruled Jin Dynasty in 1211, were intended for plunder and the punishing old enemies rather than establishing a vast empire.
Only in the final years of his life, as Mongol armies obliterated the Khwarezmian ((Khwa-rez-mian)) Empire in modern Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Iran, does it seem the Mongols started to envisage themselves not just as rulers of the steppe and north China, but of much, much more. To paraphrase the Historian David Morgan, the Mongols came to believe it was their destiny to rule the world when they found out that they were in fact, doing so.
The empire Chinggis Khan founded was the largest contiguous land empire in history, coming to incorporate most of the Eurasian continent by the end of the thirteenth century. Contrary to some statements you may seen online by those reminding you of the size of the British Empire that this was an ‘empire of empty space,’ the Mongols took control of all of the Chinese mainland, the trade cities of the famed Silk Routes in Central Asia, with Persia, Iraq, the Caucasus, eastern Anatolia and the cities of what is now Russia and Ukraine. That Mongol armies never landed in England and France is perhaps why to many in the west they remain but a foggy topic, the might of Genghis Khan glossed over in favour of Julius Caesar and Alexander the Great for most English speakers.
Yet the Great Khan’s lifetime and legacy was a defining period for most of Eurasia, an immense period of transformation. Few powers of the 12th and early 13th century survived the Mongol onslaughts, and those that did were often significantly impacted by them. Neither were these impacts solely military: the expansion of trans-continental trade, spread of ideas and movements of peoples resulted in major economic changes, and Europe learned in detail of the wealth of China and the far east; population losses from the conquests and the Mongol civil wars, and finally the Black Death, as well as huge migrations of people across Asia, changed the population figures and distribution across the continent; Islam, from its low point with the destruction of Baghdad by Mongol armies in 1258, spread across Central Asia in the wake of the Mongols; and the states which succeeded the Mongol Empire now bore much different political and cultural outlooks, with a slew of Turko-Mongolian empires rising and falling ruled by Chinggisids or those who married into the family, most famously the great conqueror Temur; the likes of the Ming Dynasty in China, which after a brief flirtation with its famous trade fleets, became a Dynasty famously insular, closing itself off to outsiders and with a near-paralyzing phobia of the Mongols: it is this dynasty which built the Great Wall of China as we know it today. All of these various aspects and more, we will explore over the course of this series.
For purposes of this series, we define the Mongol Empire as the single, unified state ruled by the Great Khans from 1206-1259. Upon the death of Chinggis Khan’s grandson, the Great Khan Mongke in 1259, civil war tore apart the empire into regional Khanates: the Yuan Dynasty in China, ruled by the heirs of the famous Kublai Khan, who maintained the title of Great Khan; the Ilkhanate in Persia, the Caucasus and Iraq, ruled by the descendants of Kublai’s brother Hulegu (Hoo-le-goo), the conqueror of Baghdad; the Golden Horde in Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan, ruled by the sons of Chinggis Khan’s ill-fated eldest child, Jochi; and the Chagatai Khanate in the geographic expanse between them, where the line of Chinggis’ second son Chagatai would rule in some form for centuries.
These were not the only Khanates of the period: an Ogedaid (O-ge-dai-id) Khanate would emerge in the late thirteenth century under the rule of Qaidu (Kai-doo) Khan, and would dominate the Chagatai khanate for some time; the rambunctious Neguderis (Neg-ood-er-is) in modern Afghanistan would be a thorn in the side of the Ilkhans and rulers of India; and one may even suggest the constituent Khanates of the Golden horde like the White Horde, held their own true independence. And this is not even discussing the further fragmentations and reunifications over the following centuries!
As one can gather from this brief description, this can be a complicated period and certainly overwhelming if we dive in unprepared. This series will hopefully serve to ease the uninitiated into it: we will begin with an introduction to nomadism in Mongolia, the tribes of that region and the local powers of North China, before detailing the rise of Chinggis Khan and his conquests. From there we will follow a history of the empire and the succeeding Great Khans of the 13th century: first Ogedai Khan, who would send Mongol armies to conquer the western steppe, Russia and into eastern Europe before his unexpected death in late 1241; then the regency of his wife Torogene, the brief reign of their son Guyuk and regency of his widow Oghul Qaimish (og-hool kwai-mish); and then the significant Toluid Revolution in 1250, when Mongke (mong-ke), the eldest son of Ogedai’s brother Tolui (to-lu-ee), took power. Mongke’s reign saw the major consolidation and expansion of the empire, sending his brother Hulegu into the Middle East while he and his brother Kublai took up arms against the Song Dynasty of Southern China. Mongke’s death in 1259 brought an end to Mongol unity, and the following years saw the outbreak of war between the various newly emerging Khanates. Following that, we will cover the history of these Khanates, and their own successor states, and will note when appropriate historiography, sources and other related matters.
With this brief outline complete, let us note some important themes and trends to keep an eye out for during our sojourn into Mongol history. Perhaps the most notable and reoccuring being the notion that ‘conquering the world from horseback is easy: ruling from it is hard,’ to paraphrase a supposed quote of Chinggis Khan. That is, in military matters the Mongols proved themselves to be well-versed professionals, but actually garrisoning, managing and governing an empire thousands of kilometres in scale is a rather different matter entirely. At the start of the 13th century, the Mongols lived as nomads without walled cities, without written languages and without the complex administrative features necessary to manage huge populations. These were all skills the Mongols had to acquire, on a vast scale dealing with added problems of diverse populations speaking hundreds of unrelated languages in territories where the pre-existing government apparatus had generally been annihilated in initial Mongol assaults. The difficulties of this, and the surprising successes, is a matter we will explore.
Closely related to that is what we might call the conflict between steppe and sedentary culture. That is, whether the Mongols should maintain their traditional ways, the nomadism and herding of Chinggis Khan and his fore-fathers, as well as adhering to the laws he laid out for them, known as the yassa. In this case, the wealth of the sedentarized, agricultural world should be utilized mainly for the further expansion of the empire, and was there for the Mongols’ exploitation. It was believed that the sedentary world would soften them, and force them to lose their military edge. In contrast, there were many who instead wished to adopt aspects of these urbanized societies and sedentary cultures, most notably in Persia and China where ancient traditions captured their attention. In these cases, the view was not to exploit these resources for expansion, but focus the empire onto these territories.
In the Yuan Dynasty based in Mongolia and China, this is most keenly visible. There, the heirs of Kublai Khan quite literally went to war over this matter. The conflict was whether the leadership should live in Mongolia, using China proper as a sort-of supermarket, its resources there for the Mongols to use against their enemies outside the dynasty. The other party believed that China should be the empire, where the Mongols should make their capital and should adopt Chinese traditions as it suited them, particularly to serve the Mandate of Heaven, as Chinese monarchs justified their rule. In the Yuan Dynasty, it may be said the sedentary party won their civil wars, but by the time the Mongol rulers were expelled from China in 1368, they were too Mongol for the Chinese, but too Chinese for the Mongols who had remained in their homeland. The Ilkhans of Persia found themselves struggling between the conflict of the yassa of Chinggis Khan and the shariah of Islam; the Chagatai Khanate literally broke into western and eastern halves over this matter; and though the Golden Horde’s rulers had the most success avoiding the perils of sedentery soceity, they still needed to build cities for their trade.
Another matter we’ll examine is the Turkification of the western Khanates. From early on, Turkic tribes formed an integral part of the Mongol armies, and as they moved west, ‘true Mongols,’ those actually from Mongolia, made up only a small percentage of some of these armies, well represented in leadership positions but forcing various Turkic peoples, especially Kipchak-Cumans, into their services. In the Golden Horde the role of these Turks is easily noted, but they took on significant roles even in Yuan China, and in the Ilkhanate and Chagatai realm this intermixing occurred as well. In fact, the role of non-Mongols in both the Mongol army and administration is something to keep an eye out for in general: without the skills, knowledge and manpower of Uighurs, Khitans, Turks and Chinese, it is difficult to see the Mongols expanding beyond China, let alone across Eurasia.
Indeed, the empire was ‘Mongol’ in the sense of its primary leadership and army core: the vast majority of its population and even armies however were non-Mongol. By the time Chinggis Khan rode west against the Khwarezmian (Khwa-rez-mian) Empire in 1219, there were more Chinese fighting for the Mongols in China, than there were Mongols fighting there! This is very much the key to how a population of about one million Mongols was able to dominate Eurasia for a century.
All history is based from the historical sources which have survived to the present day. At times, you may hear people on the internet state that ‘we know nothing of the Mongol Empire! They wrote nothing down!’ or something like that. This is quite far from the truth: in fact, this a period particularly rich in historical sources. Authors from China to Japan to Java to India to the Islamic world and Christendom all describe their dealings with the Mongols. Often, we have sources written decades apart, in different languages on the far sides of Eurasia presenting their own garbled versions of the same events, each now bolstered with a greater understanding of the world at large.
The first battle fought in Europe to be described in a Chinese source was the famous encounter between Subutai, Batu and the armies of Hungary at Mohi in 1241. European travellers to the Mongol Empire, such as William of Rubruck, John de Plano Carpini and the famous Marco Polo describe in exquisite detail their experiences with the Mongols, describing their histories, appearances, empire and military tactics. There are wonderful extensive histories written in Persian, that of ‘Ata-Malik Juvaini (ju-vai-ni) with his History of the World Conqueror, to the mammoth universal history of the Ilkhanid vizier Rashid al-Din Hamadani, in his Compendium of Chronicles, which not only provides a history of the Mongols, but makes an attempt to provide a history of the Turks, the Islamic World, China and the Franks as well! Juzjani, a refugee from the Khwarezmian (Khwa-rez-mian) Empire, shares with us all the awful rumours he heard of the Mongols during his asylum in Delhi; al-Nasawi, the secretary of the valiant Khwarezmian (Khwa-rez-mian) Prince Jalal al-Din Mingburnu (ming-bur-new), provides a fantastic account of that prince’s resistance against the Mongols; ibn al-Athir, writing in Mosul in the 1220s, shows us the horror of hearing reports of the Mongol devastation of the Khwarezmian (Khwa-rez-mian) Empire trickled down to him.
In the east, we have numerous Chinese accounts, notably the hastily compiled Yuan-shih, a general dynastic history of the Yuan Dynasty put together in the early years of the succeeding Ming Dynasty. And of course, no source is as famous, or infamous, as the great wild card, the Secret History of the Mongols, an epic chronicle written sometime after Chinggis Khan’s death to record his unification of the Mongols and his words. The oldest history written in the Mongolian language, it is an invaluable chance to look at how a nomadic state viewed its own history before being ‘tainted by sedentary cultures.
This is of course, only a brief survey, as it doesn’t even mentions the accounts of Arabic, Armenian, Georgian, Rus’, Byzantine, Korean or later authors. The idea though, is to present that we have a rich variety of sources for this period, from both within the empire, written on imperial order, or from outside the empire and written by its enemies, all over the course of the 13th century.The great difficulty for any historian of the Mongol Empire is that there are so many sources in so many languages. To read them all, in their original languages and original scripts, is a task beyond any individual mortal. Yet, in recent years, and especially with the advent of the internet, translations are far more accessible, and now we can discuss in detail numerous aspects of the empire undreamable decades ago.
This won’t be an endless description of battles, instead something which will show that this was no apocalyptic swarm of demons but rather events undertaken by, and against, other humans. Not just bloodshed, but a period of increased cultural contacts and learning, trade and exploration, yet also of prejudice, violence and human greed. So truthfully then, something demonstrating all the colours of the human experience. A complicated and complex yet incredibly fascinating and unique period in human history, we hope this series can spark not just your own interest in the Mongol Empire, but increase your appreciation in other historical topics as well, seeing them all with the same ribbon of complexity.
We hope that you have enjoyed this introduction to our series about the Mongol Empire. We at Kings and Generals will be bringing you the next episode introducing Mongolian nomadism and steppe society, so be sure to hit subscribe to the Kings and Generals podcast and to continue helping us bring you more outstanding content, please visit our patreon at www.patreon.com/kingsandgenerals. Thank you for listening, I am your host David and we will catch you on the next one