THE Mongol Empire (1206-1368 CE) eventually dominated Asia from the Black Sea to the Korean peninsula following the initial conquests of its founder Genghis Khan (aka Chinggis, r. 1206-1227 CE), the first Great Khan or ‘universal ruler’ of the Mongol peoples. Genghis forged the empire by uniting the nomadic tribes of the Asian steppe and creating a devastatingly effective army based on fast, light, and highly coordinated cavalry. Expert horsemen and archers, the Mongols proved unstoppable, defeating armies in Iran, Russia, Eastern Europe, China, and many other places.
The descendants of Genghis each ruled a part of the empire – the four khanates – the most powerful of which was the Mongol Yuan Dynasty in China (1271-1368 CE), established by Kublai Khan (r. 1260-1279 CE). Eventually, the Mongols became part of the sedentary societies they had so easily overwhelmed and many converted from traditional shamanism to Tibetan Buddhism or Islam. This was a general symptom of the Mongols not only losing part of their cultural identity but also, too, their famed military prowess, as the four khanates all succumbed to damaging dynastic disputes and the armies of their rivals.
Although not famed for creating any lasting architectural wonders or political institutions, the Mongols did make the significant contribution to world culture of finally connecting the eastern and western worlds via expanded trade routes, diplomatic embassies and the movement of missionaries and travellers from Eurasia to the Far East.
GENGHIS Khan (aka Chinggis Khan, c. 1162/67-1227 CE) was the founder of the Mongol Empire (1206-1368 CE) which he would rule from 1206 until his death in 1227 CE. Born Temujin, he acquired the title of Genghis Khan, likely meaning ‘universal ruler’, and, after unifying the Mongol tribes, he attacked the Xi Xia and Jin states and then Song China. In the other direction, his fast-moving armies invaded Persia, Afghanistan, and even Russia.
Utterly ruthless with his enemies, countless innocents were slaughtered in his campaigns of terror – millions according to medieval chroniclers. Genghis Khan was, though, an able administrator who introduced writing to the Mongols, created their first law code, promoted trade and permitted all religions to be freely practised anywhere in the Mongol world. In this way, Genghis Khan built the foundations of an empire which would, under his successors, ultimately control one-fifth of the globe.
After Genghis Khan’s death, his united Mongol Empire quickly fragmented. One of the four main successors to the united Mongol Empire was the Khanate of the Golden Horde to the northwest. Its land today covers much of central and eastern Russia, as well as the south to the Caucasus Mountains and the Black Sea.
Also known as the Kipchak Khanate, and the Ulus of Jochi, it was given to Jochi, the eldest son of Genghis Khan. Unfortunately Jochi died several months before his father. So Jochi’s son, Batu Khan, got inherited the territory. Under the new khan, the Golden Horde khanate expanded into Europe, subjugating the Russian principalities as they swept eastwards.
The Golden Horde khanate flourished until the middle of the 1300s, after which it began to decline. And it really fell apart after the invasion by Timur in 1396. By 1400, the Golden Horde fragmented into a number of smaller khanates, three of the most important being the Khanates of Crimea, Astrakhan, and Kazan.
Dating to the 1300s CE, the unusual tomb has eight sides and a pyramid-shaped roof. (Quick trick: don’t count the top bricks on the roof, but the walls below them.)
Seven of the walls have beautiful, still-colorful murals (the eighth has the door). They depict a husband and wife and some daily life scenes, including musicians playing songs, tea being prepared, and horses and camels led by a man wearing Mongol-style clothes. At the time, China was under the Yuan Dynasty, a Mongolian dynasty descended from Kublai Khan.
In 1287 CE, China’s great Mongol emperor Kublai Khan received word that his navy had been crushed in Vietnam. Nearly 400 of the emperor’s prized ships, part of a massive invasion force, had become trapped in the Bach Dang River, where Vietnamese soldiers set them afire with flaming arrows and burning bamboo rafts. But how did the Vienamese leader, Tran Hung Dao, do it?
According to texts from the period, Vietnamese forces cut down hundreds of trees, sharpened their ends, and placed them in a “stakeyard” across the Bach Dang River. Then, small Vietnamese ships lured Kublai Khan’s fleet into the area just before the tides turned. As the water ebbed, long lines of stakes emerged several feet out of the water, barricading the river and preventing escape.
Today archaeologists are mapping the surviving remnants of the stakeyard.
At least some of the stakeyard lies in local rice paddies, whose mud helps preserve the wooden stakes.
They archaeologists also found that stakes weren’t the only barriers – the Vietnamese forces cleverly used existing islands and other natural obstacles in their barrier.
The tomb are called “the pyramids of China” by locals. But anyone who has seen pictures of ancient Egypt’s pyramids would be underwhelmed. About 30 kilometers (18.5 miles) to the west of the modern city of Yinchuan, lies the enormous burial complex of the Western Xia dynasty. The burial complex is quite large, with the tombs taking up 40 square kilometers, or 25 square miles. The sheer size of the complex is a testament to the power of its long-ago empire.
The Western Xia dynasty existed from the 1000s to the 1200s, before it was annihilated by the up-and-coming conqueror, Genghis Khan, because the Western Xia refused to aid him in their conquest of Khwarezm (on the far left of the map). Genghis Khan systematically destroyed Western Xia cities, slaughtering its population, destroying all its written records, and its architecture and cultural artifacts as well. He did his job well: until the 1900s, historians were unaware that Western Xia had existed! When put into context, the imperial tombs become impressive simply for surviving.
When first built, the tombs were more impressive. They were surrounded by two layers of walls, with watchtowers, pavilions, and halls for sacrifices. The mounds themselves had five or seven stories, each story covered with colorful glazed tiles. But the buildings are unrecognizable now. And with the tiles lost to time, the tombs’ inner earth is exposed to the elements. The last survivors of an empire wiped from the map, slowly fading over the centuries, until they, too, are gone.
In 1186 in Persia, the poet Anwari foretold a great cataclysm would come on a night when several planets would align. On the predicted night, the weather is exceedingly calm. Anwari is widely ridiculed. However, that day is when Ögedei Khan, son and heir of Genghis Khan, was born. Ögedei oversaw the conquest of Anwari’s homeland of Iran.