Mongol Conquests of the 13th Century

Mongol Conquests of the 13th Century


a series of large-scale wars and campaigns organized by the Mongol feudal lords in order to seize booty and enslave and plunder the peoples of Asia and Eastern Europe. The Mongol feudal lords created a military organization and drew the majority of the Mongol people into wars of conquest. The most important part of the army was a large, highly mobile cavalry of nomadic herdsmen, although the Mongol feudal lords also used conquered nations’ armies and military technology, such as siege weapons. With its centralized command, strict discipline, and well-armed men, the Mongol army had a fighting capacity superior to that of the feudal armies in neighboring countries. The Mongol conquests were facilitated by dissension and treachery within the ruling circles of many countries of Asia and Eastern Europe.

The conquests began after the formation of an early feudal Mongol state by Genghis Khan, who ruled from 1206 to 1227, and continued with brief interruptions until the end of the 13th century. Between 1207 and 1211 the Mongols conquered various peoples of Siberia and eastern Turkestan—the Buriats, Yakuts, Oirats, Kirghiz, and Uighurs—and launched a number of campaigns against the Tangut kingdom of Hsi-Hsia, which was destroyed by 1227. In 1211 the Mongols attacked the Jurchen kingdom of Chin in northern China, destroying some 90 towns and taking Peking in 1215. By 1217 they had conquered all the territory north of the Yellow River, and in 1218 Mongol domination was extended over the Semirech’e region.

In 1219 a Mongol army of more than 150,000 men commanded by Genghis Khan invaded Middle Asia. Sultan Muhammad of Khwarazm (Khorezm) dispersed his forces in fortified cities, which facilitated the conquest of his empire. The Mongols took Otrar, Khodzhent, Urgench, and a number of other towns, and Bukhara and Samarkand surrendered without a battle. Muhammad fled and died shortly after on an island in the Caspian Sea. The seizure of Khwarazm in 1221 completed the con-quest of Middle Asia, and military operations spread to the territory of present-day Afghanistan, where Muhammad’s son, Jalal al-Din, continued the struggle. Genghis Khan pursued Jalal al-Din to the Indus River and defeated him there on Nov. 24, 1221.

By 1225 the bulk of the Mongol forces had returned to Mongolia, leaving an army of 30,000 under the Mongol generals Jebe and Subutai to continue operations in the west. The army entered Transcaucasia through northern Iran, devastating parts of Georgia and Azerbaijan. It continued along the shores of the Caspian into the country of the Alani (1222) and after defeating them, entered the steppe inhabited by the Polovtsy. In a battle on the Kalka River on May 31, 1223, the Mongols defeated a joint force of Russians and Polovtsy, pursuing it to the Dnieper River. The Mongols then withdrew to the middle Volga region, where they were defeated by the Volga Bulgars and returned to Mongolia in 1224. The entire expedition may be regarded as an extensive reconnaissance raid of the Mongol cavalry in preparation for the future campaign in the west.

After the kuriltai (general assembly) of 1229, at which Ogadai was elected great khan, the conquests proceeded in two directions. In the east the conquest of northern China was completed between 1231 and 1234, and Korea was attacked in 1231–32. After a series of large-scale campaigns in 1236, 1254, 1255, and 1259, most of Korea was conquered by 1273. In 1229, Subutai reached the laik River with 30,000 men, and together with the army of Batu, ruler of Jochi’s ulus (dominion), he succeeded in expelling the Saksins and Polovtsy from the steppe north of the Caspian Sea. In 1232 the Mongol army attempted, without success, to invade Bulgaria on the Volga, and the Bashkirs also continued to resist the invaders. The offensive in the west, undertaken by the ulus of Jochi alone, was unsuccessful.

At the kuriltai of 1235, it was decided to send military forces from the other ulus of the empire “to help and support Batu.” A combined Mongol force of 150,000 men, commanded by 14 khans, descendants of Genghis Khan, again attacked the Volga Bulgars in the autumn of 1236, this time defeating them. During the spring and summer of 1237, the Mongols continued their attacks on the Alani, the Polovtsy, and other peoples living along the middle Volga, and that autumn they assembled in the vicinity of present-day Voronezh for a campaign against northeast Rus’. In early winter, Batu attacked the Riazan’ Principality, defeating the forces of the local princes and taking the city of Riazan’ on December 21, after a six-day siege. The heroism of the defenders of Riazan’ is extolled in the tale about Evpatii Kolovrat.

The forces of the prince of Vladimir, which had attempted to detain Batu at the border of the Vladimir Principality, were annihilated near Kolomna in January 1238. The Mongols destroyed Kolomna and Moscow and besieged Vladimir on February 4. The grand prince of Vladimir, lurii Vsevolodovich, retreated “with a small group of fighting men” beyond the Volga to the Sit’, a tributary of the Mologa, where he began to gather a new army. A Mongol detachment destroyed Suzdal’ on February 5, and Vladimir was taken on February 7, after fierce fighting. Batu then divided his forces into several large detachments, which followed the main rivers to the northeast, the north, and the northwest, capturing 14 Russian cities in February 1238—Rostov, Uglich, Yaroslavl, Kostroma, Kashin, Ksniatin, Gorodets, Galich-Merskii, Pereiaslavl’-Zalesskii, Iur’-ev, Dmitrov, Volok-Lamskii, Tver’, and Torzhok.

On March 4, the forces of the Mongol general Burundai surrounded and annihilated the army of the grand prince on the Sit’; Prince Iurii Vsevolodovich was killed during the battle. The Mongols devastated the entire area between the Oka and Volga rivers, and a small detachment of Mongol cavalry pushed northward but turned back 100 km from Novgorod. As they withdrew to the steppe, the Mongols swept through a large area in small detachments, once again laying waste to Russian lands. The city of Kozel’sk put up a stubborn resistance, and the Mongols besieged it for seven weeks, incurring heavy losses.

From the summer of 1238 to the autumn of 1240 the Mongol forces fought incessant wars in the southern steppe with the Polovtsy and Alani, and they launched campaigns in the Crimea, in the region inhabited by the Mordvinians (where an insurrection had broken out against the Mongols), and against PereiaslavP-Iuzhnyi and Chernigov (1239). The campaign against southern Rus’ began in the fall of 1240, and Kiev fell at the end of December, after many days of siege. Mongol detachments captured and sacked Vladimir-Volynskii, Galich, and other cities, but Danilov, Kremenets, and Kholm withstood the onslaught. In the spring of 1241 the Mongol forces, although considerably weakened by the heroic resistance of the Russian people and other peoples of Eastern Europe, advanced westward.

Batu’s main forces invaded Hungary through passes in the Carpathians and defeated the 60,000-man army of King Béla IV at a battle on the Sajo River on Apr. 11, 1241. Pest, the capital of Hungary, was sacked, and large areas were devastated. Another Mongol detachment invaded Poland and defeated the combined forces of Polish and German knights at Legnica. Polish, Moravian, and Slovak territory was plundered. Several Mongol detachments reached eastern Bohemia but were repelled by King Václav I. In late 1241, all the Mongol forces were concentrated in Hungary, where the population continued its struggle against the invaders. Batu did not succeed in securing the Hungarian steppes as a springboard for further campaigns in the west, and he moved his forces through Austria and Croatia to the Adriatic Sea. In the fall of 1242, after unsuccessful sieges of the fortresses along the Adriatic, Batu began withdrawing his forces through Bosnia, Serbia, and Bulgaria. The Mongol attack on Central Europe had ended.

In Asia Minor and the Near East the Mongol conquests were not yet completed. After the conquest of Transcaucasia in 1236, the Mongols destroyed the Sultanate of Rum. In 1256, Hulagu conquered Iran and Mesopotamia, and Baghdad, the capital of the Arab caliphate, fell in 1258. The Mongols entered Syria and were preparing to invade Egypt when they were defeated by the Egyptian sultan in 1260. The defeat marked the end of the Mongols’ advance in the west.

Mongol campaigns were launched in east and southeast Asia in the second half of the 13th century. The Mongols conquered the Tali state (1252–53) and Tibet (1253), which surrounded the Southern Sung empire. Mongol forces moved into southern China from various directions in 1258, but Khan Mangu’s unexpected death in 1259 delayed the conquest of the Southern Sung empire. Southern China was conquered by Kublai Khan between 1267 and 1279. The Mongol feudal lords attempted to conquer Japan in 1281 with a fleet of 1,000 ships bearing 100,000 men, but the fleet was destroyed by a typhoon. Their expansion into southeast Asia was also unsuccessful, despite their use of the Chinese army and navy. Mongol-Chinese forces occupied Burma after a series of campaigns (two in 1277 and one in 1282 and in 1287), but they were expelled in 1291. The Mongol-Chinese army and navy repeatedly attacked Vietnam (1257, 1258, 1284, 1285, 1287–88), but were unable to defeat the Vietnamese people. The state of Champa in southeast Indochina also retained its independence. The attempt to conquer Java also failed despite the involvement of large military forces (1,000 ships and 70,000 men).

The Mongol conquests ended with a campaign against Burma in 1300. After this campaign, the Mongol feudal aristocracy ceased to engage in military operations and began to systematically exploit the conquered countries using Chinese administrative methods and Chinese administrators.

The Mongol conquests were a calamity for the peoples of Asia and Eastern Europe. They were accompanied by wholesale slaughter, the devastation of large areas, the razing of cities, and the decline of farming, particularly in irrigated areas. The conquests long retarded the socioeconomic and cultural development of the countries that had been incorporated into the Mongol feudal empire.


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