The Mongol Empire was the largest contiguous land empire in history. This empire existed in the 13th and 14th century. The Mongol Empire originated in the steppes of Central Asia and stretched from Eastern Europe and parts of Central Europe to the Sea of Japan, extending northwards into Siberia, eastwards and southwards into the Indian subcontinent, Indo-china and the Iranian Plateau, and westwards up to the Levant and the Carpathian Mountains.
Social and Political Background
The Mongols were a diverse body of people. Some of the Mongols were pastoralists while others were hunter gatherers. The pastoralists tended horses, sheep and, to a lesser extent, cattle, goats and camels. They lived in the steppes of Central Asia in the area of the modern state of Mongolia. The hunter-gatherers resided to the north of the pastoralists in the Siberian forests. The Mongols lived in tents (gers) and travelled with their herds from their winter to summer pasture lands.
Family Ties: The Mongol people were bound by ethnic and linguistic ties. But the scarcity of resources meant their society was divided into patrilineal lineages. The richer families were larger and possessed more animals and pasture lands. Hence, the richer families were more influential in local politics. Periodic natural calamities often forced them to forage further afield which resulted in conflicts over pasture lands and predatory raids in search of livestock. Groups of families would occasionally ally around richer and more powerful lineages; for offensive and defensive purposes. But such confederacies were generally short-lived.
Trade with Neighbors: The scant resources of the steppe lands drove Mongols and other Central Asian nomads to trade and barter with their sedentary (peasants) neighbours in China. But commerce was not without tensions, because the two groups usually applied military pressure to enhance profit. Such military conflicts were more debilitating to settled communities; as such conflicts disturbed agriculture and plundered cities. On the other hand, the nomads could retreat away from the zone of conflict with minimal losses. Continuous threat of nomad invasion was what propelled China to build the ‘Great Wall of China’.
Genghis Khan was born around 1162 near the Onon river in the north of modern Mongolia. His original name was Temujin. He was the son of Yesugei who was the chieftain of the Kiyat which was a group of families related to the Borjigid clan. Temujin’s father was murdered at an early age. His mother, Oelun-eke raised him and his step-brothers in great hardship. Eventually, Temujin was captured and enslaved. His wife, Borte, was kidnapped soon after their marriage. He had to fight to recover his wife. Temujin managed to make important friends during those years of hardship.
- His first ally was Boghurchu who remained a trusted friend.
- Jamuqa, his blood brother (anda) was another friend who later turned into an adversary.
- Temujin also restored old alliances with the ruler of Kereyits, Tughril/Ong Khan who was his father’s old blood-brother. Through the 1180s and 1190s, Temujin remained an ally of Ong Khan and used the alliance to defeat Jamuqa.
- After defeating Jamuqa, he made the move against other tribes: the powerful Tatars (his father’s assassins), the Kereyits and Ong Khan himself in 1203.
- The final defeat of the Naiman people and the powerful Jamuqa in 1206, made him the dominant personality in the politics of the steppe lands.
- Temujin’s powerful position was recognized at an assembly of Mongol chieftains (quiriltai). In that assembly, he was proclaimed the ‘Great Khan of the Mongols with the title Genghis Khan.