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Kublai Khan and the Yüan dynasty of China: 1252-79

From 1252 Kublai presses south through the mountainous western regions of China, into Szechwan and Yünnan. His attention is distracted by the death of his brother, the great khan Mangu, in 1259. Kublai is elected khan in his place by the Mongol nobles campaigning with him in China. But the same position is claimed by a younger brother, Ariq Böge, at Karakorum.

Kublai defeats his brother in 1264. As Kublai Khan, ruler of the Mongol empire, he is now free to give his full attention to China. In 1267 he reveals the seriousness of his ambitions when he moves the imperial capital south from Karakorum to Beijing - a town severely damaged by his grandfather, Genghis Khan, in 1215.

Kublai Khan builds himself a magnificent city at Beijing. Its walls are 24 miles in circumference and some 50 feet high. The Mongols call it Khanbaliq, the 'city of the Khan'; and under a version of this name, as Cambaluc, it becomes famous even in Europe.

From this base in the north he sets about overwhelming the Song dynasty. As early as 1271 he makes it plain that he sees himself not as an invading barbarian but as the Chinese emperor of a new dynasty. In that year he announces a Chinese name for his dynasty - Ta Yüan, meaning 'Great Origin'. Ancestors are vital in China, so his grandfather Genghis Khan is given a posthumous Chinese title: T'ai Tsu, 'Grand Progenitor'.

Kublai soon makes good these Chinese pretensions. In 1276 Hangzhou, the capital of the surviving Song dynasty, falls to his armies. The young emperor and his mother are brought to Kublai's court and are treated with civility. By 1279 there is no further Song resistance. The Chinese chroniclers record, from that year, the start of a new dynasty - the Yüan, the first in the empire's history to be ruled by an outsider.

But Kublai Khan is determined not to be an outsider. He even adopts the adminstrative system of the Chinese bureaucracy. The only difference is that he employs more foreigners than a Chinese emperor would. One of them, Marco Polo, has left a vivid (if one-sided) glimpse of Mongol China.

Kublai Khan is sovereign over regions more extensive than any previous Chinese empire. Even allowing for the fact that his authority in the Mongol territories in the west is only nominal (as the great khan), he has under his direct control Mongolia, Tibet, Manchuria, Korea and the whole of China down to the South China Sea.

Only one great prize escapes him, frustrating his clean sweep of the region. Two expeditions against Japan are costly disasters - in 1274 and again in 1281, during Marco Polo's years in China.

The last great khan: 1264-1294

Kublai's status as the great khan, established in 1264, is not again challenged in his lifetime. But already this exalted position has lost any real meaning. The Mongol empire has changed since the time of Genghis Khan when the hordes, moving with devastating speed, could be controlled by one man. The great conqueror's grandchildren have now settled - in three distinct and increasingly independent regions.

Of the three, Kublai's realm is the grandest. But the others are impressive. Two cousins of Kublai Khan, the brothers Batu and Berke, have secured a homeland for the Golden Horde in Russia. And Kublai's own brother, Hulagu, has established a Mongol realm in Persia and Mesopotamia.

Mongols in Persia and Mesopotamia: from1256

Hulagu crosses the Amu Darya river in January 1256, beginning the Mongol campaign against Islamic Persia. The region has been terrorized in recent years by the Assassins, but this extremist Ismaili sect meets its match in the Mongols. One by one Hulagu takes the Assassin fortresses, including the supposedly impregnable Alamut.

At the end of 1257 Hulagu presses further to the west, into even richer lands. He and his horde move into Mesopotamia - the territory of the caliph, and as such the ostensible centre of the Islamic world.

The caliph in Baghdad, al-Musta'sim, risks the impossible. In January 1258 he sends an army against the approaching Mongols. The Muslim army is routed by Hulagu, who orders the caliph to appear before him and to destroy the walls of the city. When the caliph declines, Hulagu besieges and sacks Baghdad.

It is said that 800,000 of the inhabitants are killed, including the caliph - who is executed by being kicked to death.

In 1259 Hulagu and the Mongols take Aleppo and Damascus. The coastal plain and the route south to Egypt seem open to them. But in 1260 at Ayn Jalut, near Nazareth, they meet the army of the Mameluke sultan of Egypt. It is led into the field by Baybars, a Mameluke general.

In one of the decisive battles of history Baybars defeats the Mongols. It is the first setback suffered by the family of Genghis Khan in their remorseless half century of expansion. This battle defines for the first time a limit to their power. It preserves Palestine and Syria for the Mameluke dynasty in Egypt. Mesopotamia and Persia remain within the Mongol empire.

The Il-khans of Persia: 1260-1335

After defeat by the Mamelukes at Ayn Jalut, Hulagu and his descendants make their capital at Tabriz, on the trade route from the east to the Black Sea. They rule as Il-khans ('subordinate khans'), accepting the great khan in Mongolia as their overlord. They make several further attempts to wrest Syria and Palestine from the Mamelukes, but the Euphrates remains the western border of their empire.

It is the western extreme of a very large territory. The Il-khans rule as far as the Indus in the east, and from the Amu-Darya in the north down to the Indian Ocean.

The last Il-khan in Hulagu's line dies in 1335. His death is followed by a succession of petty rulers in different parts of Persia, until the arrival of another conqueror from the steppes of central Asia - a man accustomed to a horizon almost as broad as the one claimed by Genghis Khan.

The army of Timur reaches northern Persia in 1383.

The Pax Mongolica and the Silk Road: 13th - 14th c.

By the middle of the 13th century the family of Genghis Khan controls Asia from the coast of China to the Black Sea. Not since the days of the Han and Roman empires, when the Silk Road is first opened, has there been such an opportunity for trade. In the intervening centuries the eastern end of the Silk Road has been unsafe because of the Chinese inability to control the fierce nomads of the steppes (nomads such as the Mongols), and the western end has been unsettled by the clash between Islam and Christianity.

Now, with the Mongols policing the whole route, there is stability. In an echo of the Pax Romana, the period is often described as the Pax Mongolica. One of the merchants making their way to the east is Marco Polo.

The decline of Mongol power: 14th century

In all three regions of their great 13th-century empire, Mongol power ends or declines during the 14th century. In Persia the last Il-Khan dies in 1335. In China the Yüan dynasty is replaced by the Ming in 1368.

In Russia the Golden Horde begins to lose its dominant position in the last quarter of the century. The grand prince of Moscow defeats the horde in a battle on Kulikovo Plain in 1380; Timur destroys the city of Sarai Berke in 1395. The Mongols (or Tatars as they are known in Russian history) remain a force to be reckoned with for another two centuries. Surging north from their heartland in the Crimea, they even sack Moscow as late as 1547. But they are now only one competing power among many in Russia.

No empire of such a vast scale has passed so quickly or left so little trace. The likely reason is that the Mongols, conquerors of unparallelled skill, are in all other respects more primitive than the people they overwhelm. They are illiterate in the time of Genghis Khan (the Mongolian alphabet is borrowed from a Turkish group later in the 13th century) and their religion is a primitive one, shamanism.

As a result Mongols in different regions tend to lose their identity, adopting the customs which they find in each conquered territory (the Mongols in China present themselves, for example, as a Chinese dynasty), and taking their pick from well-established and more sophisticated religions.

In China the Mongols incline to Buddhism, having already a strong link with Tibet. In western Asia, where their conquests bring them to the border territories between the caliphate, the Latin kingdom of Jerusalem and the Byzantine empire, they find themselves at the interface between Islam and Christianity.

Both sides have hopes of enlisting the powerful Mongols as allies. Berke, the ruler of the Golden Horde, is the first to adopt Islam - shortly after 1255. He is therefore appalled when his nephew Hulagu, who has a Nestorian Christian wife, destroys Baghdad and kills the caliph in 1258.

By the end of the 13th century most of the Mongols in Persia and central Asia have accepted Islam, the religion which has prevailed in the region for the past 600 years. But it is not only religious influences which dilute the impact of the Mongols.

The regions of western Asia conquered by the Mongols are those in which they have been preceded by their own distant cousins, the Turks. Settling down to rule, the Mongols need administrators. The Turks are already in place, ready and available. Mongol and Turkish become intertwined, with the older culture tending to prevail. Nowhere is this more evident than in central Asia.

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