|Previous: Gempei Wars|
|Next: Conquests of Timur|
|Place: Asia and Europe|
|Outcome: Creation of the Mongol Empire|
A New LeaderThe Mongol nomads lived on the move; however, this changed in the 12th century when the various tribal groups coalesced around a charismatic leader - the man known to history as Genghis Khan. He brought peace to the warring noads and established a political and military body. He also revelled in his status as a bogeyman: "All cities," he said, "should be razed so that the world may once again become a great steppe in which Mongol mothers shall suckle free and happy children."
A Tide of Terror
Since ancient times a tide of warlike nomadic peoples had drifted westward out of Central Asia to bring terror to the civilizations of the Middle East and Europe. The Huns, headed by the fearsome Attila, had sent a shockwave through the Roman world; the Seljuk Turks had thrown Christendom into confusion; but the Mongols were surely the most terrifying yet - a fact made worse by Genghis Khan's voracious bloodlust.
Mongol InvasionsAlmost extinct in the modern world, the nomadic-pastoralist lifestyle was an unusual one and those people who lived it developed an extraordinarily specialized set of skills. Time after time, in both ancient and medieval history, these aptitudes had translated seamlessly from the open steppes of Central Asia to the field of war. Superlative horsemanship; skills with the bow and arrow and other weapons; all but unimaginable toughness and endurance: the Mongol people were equipped with all of these. For generations, though, they went to war only with one another, tribe against tribe - except when an enterprising warlord fostered a larger warband for an assault on a settled community reasonably close at hand. Thus it was from small beginnings that Genghis Khan and his sons created the biggest land empire ever seen, ranging all the way from the Pacific Ocean to Central Europe.
Order from chaosIn the scattered, ever-mobile tribal communities, the Mongols were not the most promising material for nation-building. Certainly, many of the tribal leaders resented Genghis Khan's rise to prominence. But, but coaxing some and forcing others, by giving a promise here and administering a little pressure there, Genghis Khan slowly fashioned the Mongols into a coherent people. By 1206, when he was about 40 yeras old, Genghis Khan could at last claim to be the Khagan, or "Great Khan", the undisputed ruler of the Mongols.
This freewheeling warrior of the steppe had already shown himself a cunning and calculating politician. Now he revealed his infallible instincts as a politician and administrator. He broke up the old hierarchies in Mongol society, marginalizing the traditional elite. Instead, he gave leadership positions to his most trusted friends - or to promising fighters plucked from the ranks. Having humbled the powerful, he won the gratitude of more vulerable groups by outlawing the sale of wives and by excusing the poorest people of taxes. Genghis Khan divided his warriors up into groups of ten (arbans), a hundred (zuuns), 1,000 (myangans), and 10,000 (tumens) - taking care to cut across tribal lines of loyalty. That way he introduced a degree of regimentation to the anarchic warfare of the steppe. While he had no wish to tame his fighters' ferocity, he took careful steps to control it: rape and plunder without his sanction were strictly barred.
At a gallop
Genghis Khan hardly needed to train his men in archery and close-quarters fighting, however, he ensured that they practiced daily to hone their skills. Maneuvers on horseback were an essential part of herding and hunting life, but there was always scope to iron out imperfections. Rigid regimentation might have been alien to his approach, but discipline was not. Time after time, his horsemen caught out enemy forces when they appeared to break formation and flee in disorder - prompting mad pursuit - only to regriup at an instant's notice, wheel around, and fall upon their helpless enemy. (Western European cavalry forces were to adopt this trick in the centuries that followed.) Many of his warriors were to fight as armored lancers; in fact, Genghis Khan himself developed particular mounted maneuvers for these men, drilling them tirelessly until they became second nature. Mongol soldiers traveled light: most had only layers of seasoned leather, sewn onto a fabric support, by way of armor, although the lancers' wound be stiffened with plates of iron or bone. Agility in the saddle kept the soldiers safe for the most part; their diminutive horses possessed stamina and speed, and were able to travel considerable distances in a relatively short time. So much so that settled peoples who recieved news of Mongol attacks some distance away frequently underestimated just how quickly the brutal invaders would arrive.
A narrow escape
The Mongol army swept like a storm through East Asia, invading Xi Xia, the kingdom in northwestern China, in 1207. The Mongols sacked Beijing in 1215, before heading south into the heartland of the "Middle Kingdom". Moving west, their armies attacked hte cities of the Central Asian Silk Road, and by 1222 they were making a diversion into northern India. The following year they ventured into the southern Russian steppe. By the time their enigmatic leader died in 1227, the empire of the Mongols extended from the Pacific Ocean in the east to the Caspian Sea in the west, and Khan's successors were menacing the Arab countries of the Middle East. The pace of the Mongols' progress was dizzying, yet their military prowess depended on a great deal more than speed. Genghis Khan had never stopped learning - ande never stopped improving his fighting force. Wherever he had gone, along with his other plunder, he had captured talent: weapons-makers, armorers, and above all, engineers. This most nomadic of armies had become supreme in the most static form of warfare: the Mongols were renowned for their skill in siegecraft.
They could fill the deepest moats at speed with sandbags; their giant catapults (feats of engineering that could conveniently be taken apart for transporting on horseback, only to be reassembled quickly when needed) could hurl anything from flaming naptha to putrid animal carcasses over the highest battlements; and they had engines that could shoot dozens of fire-arrows at a time. They also had another weapon: sheer terror. When Samarkand in Uzbekistan fell after a siege in 1220, the Mongol leader had the inhabitants rounded up and led to a plain outside the city walls. The hapless people were then slaughtered and their skulls arranged into a pyramid - a sign of victory and a warning to those who might have been tempted to resist.The conquests continued under Genghis Khan's son, Ogedei. His forces invaded Russia in 1237, leaving a trail of devastation wherever they went. In 1240 Mongol troops sacked the city of Kiev afer a gruesome siege. Ogedei's armies continued westward, separate warbands making exploratory forays into Poland and Hungary. On April 9, 1241, at Liegnitz, in Poland, a small subsidiary unit led by Mongol general Subedei, smashed the Silesian army of Duke Henry II. Just two days later, Subedei's main military force defeated the Hungarians at Mohi: the way to Western Europe, with all its riches, now lay wide open.
Then from the east came the news that Ogedei Khan had died. All the Mongol chiefs were called back for a conclave to elect his successor. By the time his successor, Gyuyuk Khan, was in place, the Mongols were preoccupied with other campaigns in the eastern regions of their realm. Much the same happened later, in 1259, when Hulegu Khan's armies were ravaging the Middle East en route to Egypt: the region was reprieved by the death of his brother, Mongke Khan. Not, however, before Baghdad had been taen, Hulegu's Mongols literally outdoing themselves in wanton cruelty. Anything up to half a million people may have been slaughtered in the bloodletting that followed the Iraqi city's fall, as the world's most beautiful metropolis was razed to the ground.
Only in China, conquered by Genghis Khan's grandson, Kublai Khan, did the nomadic Mongols put down real roots. Kublai Khan wholeheartedly embraced the civilized culture he found there - though his Mongol antecedents showed clearly in his aggressive foreign policy, most notably in his attempts to invade Japan.
In Russia the Mongol empire endured in the shape of the "Golden Horde". This semi-independent arm of the empire lasted into the 16th century and for much of the time - after all all of the carnage of its creation - the Golden Horde enjoyed a great deal of peace and prosperity.
China had a long history of nomadic incursions: the Central Asian Hsiung Nu had made periodic incursions into the "Middle Kingdom" in ancient times. Next had come the Khitan, the Tanguts, and in the 12th century, the Jurchen's Jin empire occupied the north.
The advent of the Jin empire forced the Song dynasty to transfer its capital from northernly Kaifeng to Li'nan (present-day Hangzhou). The armies of this "Southern Song" managed to hold back the Jurchen raiders and so an uneasy equilibrium was maintained.
Genghis Khan's campaign had begun in China, but the northern region had borne the brunt. Not until the time of his grandson Kublai Khan did the Mongols establish a lasting presence further south.
Wars of Kublai KhanKublai Khan had come into contact with Chinese culture as a young man, while working as governor of the Mongols' southern territories. The Jin empire and Xi Xia were regions of China under nomad rule. The young Kublai was an ardent admirer of Chinese civilization and covetous of Chinese wealth and technology, and so was keen to add the "Middle Kingdom" to the Mongol empire. He had been fighting against the Southern Song in China when he got news of his brother Mongke's death in 1259, and he faced a bitter struggle for succession with his younger brother, Ariq Boke. It was not until 1264 wthat Kublai Khan was able to return to his long-term plans. But his courage and determination to carve out a new Chinese empire for himself that may well have been bolstered by this period of feuding.
While Kublai Khan had emerged the victory, he had lost a degree of support in the Mongol heartlands and an oppositional faction had grown up around his nephew, Kaidu. By 1271 he had committed himself tso far to his project that he declared himself Huangdi, or "emperor" - the founder of a new Chinese "Yuan" dynasty.
This new title meant little, in that he did not yet control the majority of the areas to which he was laying clain, but it would have been full of significance for the Han Chinese. By appropriating it, Kublai Khan was sending out a powerful signal that he came, not merely as a conqueror, but as a new emperor. He underlined this by estasblishing his capital on Chinese soil, in Daidu (Beijing). How deep his self-reinvention as a Chinese ruler ran is difficult to know: many of his later reforms may be interpreted as attempts to recast traditional Chinese society along Mongol lines.
Stalemate at XiangyangKublai Khan did not object to waging war on his adoptive country. He began by besieging Xiangyang in 1268, a strategically vital city as it controlled access to the Han River and hence to the Yangtze, and to the fertile plains of central China. Kublai Khan attacked with 100,000 mounted warriors, and he was equipped with trebucets - catapults that could fling rocks across the river into the city. However, the Song defenders had widened the river at the vital point and padded their walls so that the missiles were rendered harmless. Kublai Khan responded by building a fleet of ships to blockade the river. But the Song were able to hold out almost indefinitely.In the end, they held out for six years. The breakthrough came with the advent of counterweighted trebuchets - designed specifically for Kublai Khan. These new catapults could sent 661-lb (300-kg) missiles a distance of 1,640 ft (500 m).
Xiangyang had been the Song dynasty's strongest fortress: once it fell, nothing could stp the Mongols from streaming through the heart of China. By 1276 most of China was in Mongol hands. The Song's last stand came at the naval battle of Yamen in March 1279. Though outnumbered, the Yuan ships succeeded in enclosing the Song fleet in a narrow bay. The confined ships were tied together in a line, so when the Yuan attacked, they were afforded a floating walkway to the central Song flagship.
Kublai Khan's success in conquering China was extraordinary. He contrived a miracle of organization and logistic support, sustained it for the best part of ten years, and managed this over thousands of kilometres in an area that could hardly have been less suited to the traditional tactics of the Mongols.
Ill-prepared venturesSubsequent invasions were rather less successful. In 1274 a seaborne assault of Japan at Hakata Bay on Kyushu was thwarted when a storm destroyed the Mongol fleet. Kublai Khan sent a second invasion fleet in 1281. Again, tradition has it, a typhoon dispersed the attackers' ships; modern experts have suggested that both fleets were too hastily built and inadequately prepared. Some even question whether the "divine winds" were anything more than the usual bad weather.
An invasion of Burma in 1277 fared much better. The country was quickly conquered and reduced to client status. But successive attacks on Vietnam were thwarted. In Korea, however, Kublai Khan used more guile, and lent discreet support to King Wonjong against his rivals: in return, he gained Korea's loyalty as a vassal state.
An Empire in Decline
Kublai Khan showed open-mindedness in his military innovations, and his reforms placed the empire on a stronger footing, encouraging economic innovation and increasing social harmony with the help he gave the poor.
Kublai Khan died in 1294. He was followed by his grandson, Temur - but his succession was as troublesome as Kublai Khan's had been. Later Yuan emperors failed to reign sucessfully over such a vast empire.
Disasters and Downfall
A series of droughts and floods in the 1340s brought the agarian economy to its knees. The government's inability to cope created anger and unrest. The Red Turban Rebellion broke out in the 1350s. Led by Zhu Yuangzhang, these Han Chinese rebels brought down the Yuan dynasty in 1368. Zhu Yuangzhang went on to found the Ming dynasty.