Mongol Empire: Origin, Location, Characteristics, Culture, Economy

The Mongol Empire was the largest of the empires made up of continuous territories and the second largest in history. Its creator was Genghis Khan, who in 1206 managed to unify the different Mongolian tribes and began a process of territorial expansion starting from a region that mostly coincides with present-day Mongolia and areas of Siberia.

This nomadic people managed to dominate a territory that reached more than 30 million square kilometers. At the time of greatest extension it came to include regions as important as China, Persia, Mesopotamia , Russia and part of eastern Europe.

After the death of Genghis Khan, the imperial territory was divided between his children, although all under the sovereignty of a unique leader, the Great Khan. Although it still continued to expand its dominions, some signs of decadence began to appear that would cause it to crumble in 1368.

In their military campaigns, the Mongols combined the use of terror to subdue their enemies with tolerance for those who did not resist. They also gave great importance to trade and took advantage of the fact that some of the most important commercial routes in the world passed through their lands.

Origin and history

The Mongols, thanks to the creation of their empire, were one of the few nomadic peoples who managed to control large areas of territory. In addition, in their advance they defeated countries as important as China.

Peoples of the steppes

The Huns or Xiongnu were, in the 3rd century BC. C., the first inhabitants of the steppes. After this town, which spread to Europe, the region was inhabited by the Juan-Juan, who were soon replaced by ethnic Turks.

Although these peoples were mostly nomadic, their leaders settled in large headquarters with enough space to raise horses destined for war. The use of agriculture grew over time.


In the records made during the stage in which China was ruled by the Tango dynasty, the Mongolian term appears to name some tribes. However, that name was not mentioned again until the 11th century, when the Kidan ruled northern China, an area that encompassed present-day Mongolia.

The Mongols were related to the Turkic tribes. They were a nomadic people, who formed a kind of confederation. There were frequent clashes with other confederations, such as the Tartars, the Merkites or the Naimanos.

Its original habitat appears to have been the plains southeast of Lake Baikal. They were a people dedicated mainly to herding and were grouped into tribes that, in their nomadism, transported the tents in which they lived.

This town stood out for their skills as horsemen and in the use of the bow. Their warrior power , based on mobility and speed, allowed them to face any enemy. Thanks to that, they founded some states, such as the kingdom of Yen in the fourth century or that of Kithan in the 10th century. In most cases, these states lasted only a few years.

Genghis Khan

Genghis Khan, whose real name was Temujin, was born in April 1162 into the powerful Borjigin clan. His grandfather, for example, had been Qabul, a nobleman who had attacked the borders of the Chinese empire.

Temujin was elected khan (sovereign) by an assembly of Mongolian tribes in 1196. He soon succeeded in subduing all the Mongolian and Turkish tribes located around Lake Baikal and, in 1206, he was elected khagan (supreme sovereign of all communities). It was then that he adopted the nickname Genghis Khan, which means universal sovereign.

The leader organized his State on two pillars: the army, divided into three types of forces; and the yasa , a compendium of laws that sought to unite the institutions.

Military conquests

Under the command of Genghis Khan, the Mongols began an intense campaign of conquests. Thus, in 1209 they defeated the Tungus kingdom and later conquered northern China until they reached Peking in 1215.

In 1218, Genghis Khan peacefully succeeded in having the kara-kitai surrender to him, and four years later he conquered northern Iran. Likewise, they also defeated the Cumans and the Russians in southern Russia.

This great territorial expansion was achieved by combining violence with the peoples who presented resistance, with truly terrifying episodes, with tolerance towards those who surrendered.

Death of Genghis Khan

When Genghis Khan died in 1227, his empire stretched from the Caspian Sea to Manchuria. This territory was divided among his sons, all under the sovereignty of the Great Khan.

Genghis Khan’s death did not stop the Mongols’ desire for conquest. His successor, Ogodei, seized control of Persia, defeated the Xia, and started a war against the Song dynasty of southern China. That confrontation led to China being unified under the hand of the Mongols in 1279.

In the late 1230s, the Mongols invaded Russia. This campaign concluded with the death of almost the military of the local population and with the vassalage of their principalities.

The Mongols also reached Europe. In 1241, they defeated the Germans and Poles at the Battle of Liegnitz, as well as the Hungarians at Mohi. However, when it seemed that they could continue their expansion to the rest of the continent, they decided to return to Mongolia to choose a new Great Khan.

The grandson of Genghis Khan, Hulagu, he conquered the Abbasid caliphate in 1256 with its capital in Baghdad. Later, he led his army towards Egypt. However, as had happened in Hungary, he had to return to the death of the Great Khan Möngke to choose a new sovereign.

Kublai Khan

The new Great Khan was Kublai, Möngke’s brother. The empire was divided into several smaller khanates.

Kublai Khan continued the war against the Song dynasty until he dominated all of China and established the capital in present-day Beijing. From there he sent expeditions against Indonesia, Japan and Indochina. It was the period of greatest prosperity of the Mongol Empire, thanks to the imposed internal order, its tolerance and the so-called Pax Mongolica .


However, the process of disintegration of the empire had already begun. The khanates were becoming more independent until, in 1260, the Mongol Empire had become a federation of khanates.

That federation was theoretically under the sovereignty of the Great Khan, but internal confrontations were more and more frequent.


At first, the Mongols were settled in the vicinity of Lake Baikal. The first territory they controlled almost entirely coincides with present-day Mongolia and southern Siberia.

From the mandate of Genghis Khan, the empire was expanding its territories until conquering all China, part of the Islamic empire and Russia. This, plus other subsequent conquests, make it the second most extensive in history and the largest of those made up of continuous territories.

Maximum extension

Since Temujin (Genghis Khan) unified all the Mongol tribes in 1206 and created the empire, its territorial expansion was continuous. During his rule, his territory was expanded to reach the Caspian Sea.

Later, during the reign of Mangu Kan (1251-1259), the empire reached its maximum extension: about 30 million square kilometers and reached more than 110 million inhabitants, then 15% of the world’s population.

Among the territories that were part of the Mongol Empire were China, Persia, Eastern Europe, Russia, and Mesopotamia.

Characteristics of the Mongol Empire

The warrior character of this town allowed its territorial advance to be very fast. However, once each territory was controlled, he showed tolerance in aspects such as trade, religion or the exchange of ideas.

Political organization

Historians usually divide the method of government of the Mongols into two stages: their origin and the mandate of Genghis Khan, the first, and the period after his death, the second.

Genghis Khan established a system of government based on the aristocracy. Thus, a minority chose the supreme head of the empire following a hereditary order. The chosen one assumed the title of Great Khan and expected obedience and loyalty from all his subjects.

After the death of Genghis Khan, the empire opted for a meritocratic system. Both political positions and titles were given taking into account the attitudes shown in battle and aspects such as loyalty or courage.

Each of the tribes or later territories, were ruled by a Khan, most of the times relatives of Tamarijn. All of them had to obey the Great Khan, although the internal confrontations grew with the passing of the years.

Social organization

The society of the Mongol Empire was marked by its nomadic origin, something that determined aspects such as its diet or its type of housing. With its territorial expansion, it also gathered influences from other cultures, such as China.

Their most important economic activities were also related to nomadism. The Mongols were mainly engaged in herding, hunting and trade.

War was a fundamental part of Mongol life. From a very young age, everyone received military training, especially horsemen and archers, the strong point of his army.

The Yassa

Genghis Khan promulgated a code of laws, the Yassa , in which he brought together Mongolian traditions and their ideas about how it should be governed. This legislation included, for example, the equality of all individuals, provided they were nomads, as well as of different religions. This implied that the sedentary peoples were discriminated against.

The Yassa also included aspects such as the legalization of torture or that doctors did not have to pay taxes.

This code was written on rolls of paper that were stored together in volumes. Only the Khan and his closest advisers could read the Yassa, although its rules were known to all.

On the other hand, Genghis Khan also developed a postal system that covered his entire territory in order to send orders and reports. Finally, the leader tried to put an end to the possible differences between the different ethnic groups and tribes. For this, he used his respected figure, which had to be obeyed by all his subjects regardless of their origin or wealth.


Within the great Mongol Empire, many different religions coexisted, with a fairly widespread freedom of worship. Traditionally, Mongols were shamanic animists, although some tribes had adopted Christianity.

Genghis Khan showed great interest in the religions that coexisted on the Silk Road, since he believed that by studying them it was possible to find the secret of immortality. The ruler promulgated freedom of worship and freed priests from the obligation to pay taxes.

Later, in the third generation of rulers, Tantric Buddhism began to become the predominant religion among the Mongols. For their part, some kans adopted Islam.

Military skills

Its great mobility and innovative strategies made the Mongolian army the most powerful in the world during the 12th and 11th centuries. Thanks to this, this nomadic people was able to conquer huge territories despite the numerical disadvantage they suffered in many battles.

When they conquered a town, the Mongols spared the lives of the peasants and artisans so that they could continue working for them. In addition, they protected the ambassadors and merchants who traveled through the conquered lands, something that allowed the creation of an extensive and safe trade route.

Pax Mongolica

The supremacy of the Mongols fostered a cultural mix never seen before. This period is called Pax Mongolica , given the security provided to conquered societies, merchants and thinkers.

This Pax Mongolica spread for almost a century in much of Asi. Marco Polo’s travels were a good example of that freedom and security of movement.


Tolerance towards religions and thoughts also caused the Mongols to leave an important cultural legacy.

The aforementioned Marco Polo described in his writings the prosperity of the kingdom of Kubilai Khan. Another famous traveler, Ibn Battuta, also offered his insight into the flourishing cities of the Golden Horde in 1330.


Although they were not characterized by great architectural works, the Mongols have left their stamp on some of the mosques that were built in their time.


Although they cannot be considered as architectural works, the traditional dwellings of the Mongols, called yurts, were (and still are) part of their national identity.

These are felt tents that the Mongols carried with them on their journeys as a nomadic people.

Secret history of the Mongols

The Secret History of the Mongols is a period work that tells how Genghis Khan came to power. It is the first literary example in the Mongolian language, although its dating is not known for sure.

This book offers a great deal of unverifiable information, as well as lots of fantastic parts. Despite doubts as to the veracity of the events reported, it is the only Mongolian source on the creation of its empire.

Before Chinggis Khan came to power, their language had no written representation. This ruler ordered that an alphabet be adopted from the Uyghurs in order to write. According to experts, The Secret History of the Mongols could be compiled at that time.

The only known data about its dating is that it was written in a year of the rat according to the Chinese horoscope. This has led some historians to point to the year 1228 as the most likely time the work was completed. A later addition, dealing with the rise to the throne of Ogodei Khan, may date from 1240.


The main economic activity of the Mongols was hunting, aimed at obtaining food and furs to cover themselves in a rather cold climate. Herding was another of the bases of its economy.

To the above we must add the manufacture of weapons, as well as the exchange of goods. This last activity grew as his empire did.


The Mongols attached great importance to trade with neighboring peoples. As they were conquering new territories, their policy of commercial opening grew.

Thanks to Pax Mongolica, commercial activity intensified. The routes were very safe and ran from the Mediterranean to China. Maritime trade, on the other hand, was almost non-existent.

At first, the Mongols used barter in their commercial activities. Later, they adopted paper money as a method of payment, something they were already doing in China, thereby benefiting their empire more economically.

During the second half of the Mongol Empire, trade grew even more. Indian, Arab, Persian and European merchants brought their products to Mongolian cities. Among the most valued items were precious stones, spices, horses and rugs.

End of the Mongol Empire

Beginning in 1260, the Mongol Empire began its process of decline. One of the reasons was internal disputes over leadership. Its definitive end took place in 1368, after suffering several military defeats.

Reasons for the decline

In addition to the problems caused by internal disputes in search of power, the decline of the empire was influenced by other factors.

Tribal organization had a disruptive effect, since once Genghis Khan died, loyalty went more to one’s tribe than to the Great Khan.

Another factor was the division that occurred between the nomadic Mongols and those who were opting for a sedentary lifestyle. The latter affirmed that it was better to adapt to the customs of the conquered peoples, while the former were committed to maintaining their unalterable culture and lifestyle.

On the other hand, the Mongol Empire was divided into four major regions. This weakened their military capabilities, as well as their political unity. The first of these sectors included Mongolia, China, Korea and Tibet.

The second dominated Central Thus, while the third controlled Western Asia. Finally, the fourth region, known as the Golden Horde, encompassed Russia and had frequent clashes with the West Asian region motivated by control of the trade routes and pastoral areas of Azerbaijan.

Heirs of the empire

When the empire disintegrated as a political unit, several of the khanates maintained their presence. Thus, the Golden Horde or Kanato of Quipcap, imposed on the Russian principalities. In its expansion, it became a threat to Byzantium.

This khanate became Islamized over time and allied with the Mamluks. Already in the 15th century, after several military defeats, it split into three different regions. The Crimean one survived until the end of the 18th century.

On the other hand, the Islamized Turk Tamerlane proclaimed himself a descendant of Genghis Khan in 1360. After unifying the Turkic and Mongolian tribes of central Asia, Tamerlane violently conquered Persia, Asia Minor, and northern India. Upon his death in 1405, his empire, whose capital was Samarkand, rapidly disintegrated.


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