Asian Nomads Who Forged an Empire

Fear and confusion gripped Russia. Like locusts, hordes of mounted warriors from the east swept across the steppes slaying, plundering, and annihilating any army that opposed them. The only part of Russia that escaped was the principality of Novgorod. From there a bewildered chronicler wrote of this as an invasion by “unknown tribes” with a strange language.

THE invaders were the Mongols, a people who hailed from the grassland plateau of what is today Mongolia, in central and northeast Asia. Their lightning conquests, beginning in the early 13th century C.E., changed the face of Asia and of half of Europe. In just 25 years, the Mongols subjugated the inhabitants of more territories than the Romans had conquered in four centuries. At the apex of their power, they ruled from Korea to Hungary and from Siberia to India​—the largest contiguous land empire in recorded history!

Besides shedding light on the history of Asia and Europe, the annals of the relatively short-lived Mongol Empire underscore many Biblical teachings about human nature and man’s dominion over his fellow man. These truths include the following: Human glory is vain and fleeting. (Psalm 62:9; 144:4) “Man has dominated man to his injury.” (Ecclesiastes 8:9) And as symbolized in the Bible, powerful political kingdoms have behaved like wild beasts in aggressively seeking dominance over other nations. *

Who Were the Mongols?

The Mongols were tribal nomads and skilled horsemen who subsisted on herding, trading, and hunting. Unlike most other peoples​—of whom only a small percentage were trained and equipped for warfare—​virtually every Mongol male with a horse and a bow was a tough and ferocious warrior. And each tribe was steadfastly loyal to its leader, called a khan.

After 20 years of fighting, one khan, Temüjin (c. 1162-1227), united some 27 Mongol tribes under his leadership. Later, Muslims of Turkic origin called Tatars fought alongside the Mongols. In fact, when the Mongol juggernaut rode west, terrified Europeans called the invaders Tartars. * In 1206, when Temüjin was a little over 40 years of age, the Mongols made him Genghis Khan​—a title that may mean “strong ruler” or “universal  ruler.” He was also known as the Great Khan.

Genghis Khan’s hordes of mounted archers attacked with speed and fury, often on multiple fronts stretching thousands of miles. Militarily, “he was the equal of Alexander the Great or Napoleon I,” says Encarta Encyclopedia. Persian historian Juzjani, a contemporary of Genghis Khan, described him as “possessed of great energy, discernment, genius and understanding.” He also labeled him “a butcher.”

Beyond Mongolia

Northern China was occupied by the Manchu, who called their dynasty Jin, or “Golden.” To reach Manchu territories, the Mongols crossed the forbidding Gobi Desert​—no great obstacle for nomads who, if necessary, could survive on the milk and blood of horses. Although Genghis Khan extended his rule into China and Manchuria, the fighting dragged on for some 20 years. From among the Chinese, he recruited scholars, artisans, and traders, as well as engineers who could build siege engines, catapults, and gunpowder bombs.

After securing control over the Silk Road trade routes toward lands farther west, Genghis Khan sought a trading partnership with the neighboring Turkic Sultan Muhammad. The sultan ruled a vast empire that covered today’s Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and most of Iran.

In 1218 a Mongol delegation, ostensibly interested in trade, arrived at the sultan’s frontier. But the local governor executed them, triggering events that led to the first Mongol invasion of a Muslim land. For the next three years, the Mongols, said to be more numerous than ants, systematically pillaged and burned cities and fields and slaughtered Sultan Muhammad’s people en masse, except for those who had skills the Mongols desired.

Mongol forces, estimated to number about 20,000, then rode through Azerbaijan and Georgia to the steppes north of Caucasia, defeating every army they met, including a Russian force of 80,000. In a ride of some 8,000 miles [13,000 km], the Mongols circled the Caspian Sea in what some consider to be one of the greatest cavalry exploits in history. Their string of conquests set a precedent for the future invasion of Eastern Europe by later Mongol rulers.

Genghis Khan’s Successors

Ögödei, the third of Genghis Khan’s four sons by his principal wife, was made the next Great Khan. Ögödei reasserted control over  the conquered lands, received tribute from vassal rulers, and completed the conquest of the Jin dynasty in northern China.

In order to maintain both the empire and the lavish lifestyle to which the Mongols had become accustomed, Ögödei eventually decided to go to war again​—but against lands not yet plundered. He launched attacks on two fronts​—against European lands to the west and against the Sung dynasty in southern China. The European campaign was a success, but the other was not. Despite some gains, the Mongols failed to conquer the main territory of the Sung.

The Western Campaign

In 1236, an estimated 150,000 warriors rode west toward Europe. First they targeted the regions along the Volga River; then they attacked Russian city-states, reducing Kiev to ashes. The Mongols promised to spare the cities if the people gave them one tenth of everything. But the Russians preferred to fight. Using catapults, the Mongols pelted the enemy with rocks, burning naphtha, and saltpeter. When city walls were breached, the invaders poured in, inflicting such slaughter that, as one historian wrote, “No eye remained open to weep for the dead.”

Mongol forces ravaged Poland and Hungary, coming close to the border of what is now Germany. Western Europe braced itself for attack, but it never came. In December 1241, Ögödei Khan died, apparently in a drunken stupor. So the Mongol commanders hastened home to their capital, Karakorum, 4,000 miles [6,000 km] away, to elect a new ruler.

Ögödei’s son, Güyük, became his successor. One who witnessed Güyük’s enthronement was an Italian friar who made the 15-month journey through Mongol-controlled territory to deliver a letter from Pope Innocent IV. The pope sought assurance that Europe was safe from new invasions, and he urged the Mongols to accept Christianity. Güyük made no promises. Instead, he told the pope to come with a delegation of kings to pay homage to the Khan!

Another Assault on Two Fronts

The next Great Khan was Mongke, enthroned in 1251. He and his brother Kublai launched assaults on the Sung dynasty in southern China, while another force headed west. The latter laid waste to Baghdad and made Damascus surrender. The so-called Christians who had been crusading against the Muslims gloated, and the “Christians” who lived in Baghdad looted and killed their Muslim neighbors.

 At that decisive moment​—when the Mongols seemed poised to crush the Muslim world—​history repeated itself. News arrived that Mongke had died. Once again, the invaders turned for home, this time leaving just 10,000 men to maintain the frontier. Soon thereafter, this inadequate force was annihilated by an army from Egypt.

The assault into southern China against the wealthy Sung dynasty was victorious. In fact, Kublai Khan proclaimed himself founder of a new Chinese dynasty, naming it Yuan. The site of his new capital is today known as Beijing. After defeating the remaining Sung holdouts in the late 1270’s, Kublai ruled over a China that was united for the first time since the fall of the Tang dynasty in 907.

Fragmentation and Collapse

At about the turn of the 14th century, the mighty Mongol Empire began to crumble. The reasons are many. For one thing, power struggles among Genghis Khan’s descendants split the empire into a number of khanates. Also, Mongols became assimilated into some of the civilizations they had conquered. In China, power struggles weakened the authority of Kublai’s descendants. In 1368 the Chinese, weary of inept rule, corruption, and heavy taxes, overthrew their Yuan masters, forcing them back to Mongolia.

Like a savage storm, the Mongol tempest came swiftly, remained briefly, and then left. Still, it made its mark on the history of Europe and Asia, including the unification of Mongolia and of China. Indeed, modern-day Mongolians hail the first great khan, Genghis Khan, as the father of their nation.


^ par. 4 Note the references to both beasts and political rulership, or government, in the following Bible passages: Daniel 7:6, 12, 17, 23; 8:20-22; Revelation 16:10; 17:3, 9-12.

^ par. 7 Europeans thought that the Tatars were devils from “Tartarus.” (2 Peter 2:4) Thus, they called the invaders Tartars.

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From Conquest to Commerce

During its heyday the Yuan dynasty, founded by Kublai Khan, fostered trade and travel, leading to what has been termed “the greatest expansion of commerce in Eurasian history.” This was the era of the great Venetian traveler Marco Polo (1254-1324). * Traveling overland or by ship, Arabian, Persian, Indian, and European traders took with them horses, carpets, gems, and spices, which they exchanged for ceramics, lacquerware, and silk.

In 1492, Christopher Columbus, with a copy of Marco Polo’s travels in hand, sailed westward from Europe, hoping to reestablish trading contact with the Mongol court. He was, however, unaware that the empire had ceased to exist more than a century earlier! Its fall had caused a collapse of communications, and the Muslims barred use of the land route from Europe to the East.


^ par. 33 For an account of Marco Polo’s journey to China, see the June 8, 2004, issue of Awake!

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Known for Their Religious Tolerance

Although they were animists, the ancient Mongols tolerated other beliefs. The book The Devil’s Horsemen explains that when Westerners entered the Mongol capital, Karakorum, they were amazed not only at its wealth but also at its religious freedom​—churches, mosques, and temples stood side by side.

Nominal Christianity came to the Mongols by means of the Nestorians, who had broken away from the Byzantine, or Eastern, Church. The Nestorians made many converts among the Turkic clans of Asia, whom the Mongols encountered. Some female converts even married into the Mongol royal family.

Present-day Mongols hold a variety of religious beliefs. The approximate portion of the population professing indigenous beliefs is 30 percent; Lamaist (Tibetan) Buddhism, 23 percent; and Islam, 5 percent. The remainder, for the most part, are nonreligious.

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Extent of Mongol Influence




Volga River


Caspian Sea







Gobi Desert






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Horse drove, Mongolia

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Genghis Khan

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Bildarchiv Preussischer Kulturbesitz/​Art Resource, NY

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Scenic: © Bruno Morandi/​age fotostock; Genghis Khan: © The Stapleton Collection/​The Bridgeman Art Library