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The Rise of the Mongol Empire: New Glimpse into 13th-Century Asia

A New Power Emerges on the Asian Steppes

In the vast expanse of the 13th-century Asian grasslands, a new force emerged that would light up the Eurasian continent: the Mongol Empire. Under the leadership of Genghis Khan, a figure renowned for his exceptional military prowess and unwavering resolve, disparate tribes were unified under a single banner.

The Mongols: A Force Unlike Any Other

History is replete with tales of uncivilized tribes, living in harsh conditions and surviving on the bare minimum. These narratives often speak of barbarians, who, under a charismatic leader, burst onto the scene like thunder amidst dark clouds. They cut through empires, leaving so-called civilized nations in their wake, plundered and humbled. From the Huns of the East to the Vikings of the West, each name in history is associated with brutal conquests and deep-rooted sorrow.

However, the Mongol Empire stood apart, with its vast territories and unparalleled military victories. Their dominance, marked by the sounds of iron hooves and arrows, echoed across continents for centuries, subduing nations far and wide.

historic interactions among mongol kings
Historic interactions among mongol kings

The First Universal Empire

What makes the Mongol Empire unique is not just its vast lands or military achievements. It was the first empire in history to embrace a truly universal approach. Religions like Islam, Buddhism, Christianity, and Confucianism were treated equally, albeit in the shadow of equal-opportunity persecution. The heart of the empire was a melting pot of various ethnicities, mostly comprising conquered people turned into servants. In governance, the Mongols were unusually lenient, with a lax approach to censorship that allowed the raw truths of their conquests to be recorded and passed down. This openness illustrated the possibility of a world united under a single rule, marking the Mongol rise and conquest as a pivotal moment in world history.

The Multifaceted Nature of Mongol History

The vast expanse of the Mongol territory and its diverse population allowed for a unique historical perspective. By examining sources from different languages and cultural backgrounds, biases and inaccuracies could be balanced. This multi-faceted approach to history, piecing together narratives like a puzzle, offers a joy in historical study that is seldom found in other dynastic histories. This exploration into Mongol history led to the discovery of works like those of the Iranian historian Juzjani, which blended a plethora of rhetorical techniques familiar to the Chinese, fostering a sense of shared intellectual heritage.

The Legacy That Echoes: “The World Is Yours and Ours”

The starting point of this remarkable story is set in the year 1218, on the eve of Genghis Khan’s first Western expedition. This moment marks not just the rise of a powerful leader but the emergence of an empire that would leave an indelible mark on the world, a legacy that declares, “The world is yours and ours, but ultimately, it is yours.”

This narrative of the Mongol Empire is not just a tale of conquest and domination; it’s a story of cultural amalgamation, military innovation, and an empire that shaped the course of world history.

The Khwarezm Incident: A Prelude to Mongol Conquest

The Complex Tapestry of Central Asia Before the Mongol Expansion

Before the Mongols swept across the known world, Central Asia and the Uyghur regions were a mosaic of competing powers. Among them was the proud Sultan Muhammad of Khwarezm. Khwarezm, located along the lower Amu Darya and south of the Aral Sea, was long dominated by Turkic people and nominally under the Seljuk Empire, a Persianized Turkic dynasty. In 1157, the death of Seljuk Sultan Sanjar without an heir created a power vacuum in Eastern Iran, eventually filled by Khwarezm.

By 1200, Sultan Muhammad, undoubtedly a formidable leader, unified vast regions including Khorasan, Transoxiana, and Afghanistan, forming what’s known as the Khwarezm Empire.

The Fertile Lands of the Khwarezm Empire in 1215

In 1215, the Khwarezm Empire’s territories included the fertile lands between the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers, home to renowned Central Asian cities like Jend, Bukhara, and Samarkand.

The Underlying Crises of a Flourishing Empire

Despite its prosperity, the Khwarezm Empire harboured numerous internal crises. Sultan Muhammad’s rule, particularly in newly annexed regions like Transoxiana, was primarily sustained through his reputation as a conqueror of infidels, leading to an unstable foundation for his rule. His relations with the Islamic world’s leader, the Caliph of Baghdad, were strained due to the Caliph’s refusal to recognize Muhammad’s status as Sultan and to incorporate Baghdad into Khwarezm’s domain.

This rift within the Islamic world left it vulnerable to the impending Mongol invasion. Muhammad’s rule was unstable, but he had not yet encountered the fearsome Mongol Empire. Positioned between these two powers were the Qara Khitai, or Western Liao.

Qara Khitai: The Western Liao Dynasty

History enthusiasts may know that the Khitans, founders of the Liao Dynasty in China, established the Western Liao or Qara Khitai after being driven out by the Jurchens. The Western Liao blended Khitan, Turkic, and Han cultures, with its rulers known as Gurkhans, a Turkic term meaning ‘khan of khans’. This title has deep historical roots, with notable users including Xerxes I of Persia. At its zenith, Western Liao controlled a vast region from the Syr Darya to the Tarim Basin.

Under Gurkhan Yelü Zhilugu, Prince Küchlüg of the Naiman tribe sought refuge at the Western Liao court to escape Genghis Khan. Küchlüg, not content with just sanctuary, plotted to seize power, eventually capturing Yelü Zhilugu and taking over most of the Western Liao territory.

This prelude to the Mongol conquest showcases the intricate political landscape of Central Asia before Genghis Khan’s expansion, setting the stage for one of history’s greatest empires. The region’s complex interplay of cultures, religions, and political ambitions laid the groundwork for the seismic shifts that were to come with the rise of the Mongol Empire.

The Western Liao Empire in 1160: A Prelude to Mongol Conquest

The Geopolitical Landscape of Western Liao

In 1160, the Western Liao Empire, a significant power in its time, bordered the Western Xia to the east, reached the Amu Darya to the west, and neighbored the Kingdom of Guge in Tibet to the south. The legacy of Western Liao is such that even today, many countries still refer to China as “Khitan,” a testament to its historical influence.

The Stage is Set: Key Players and the Onset of Conflict

The major players of the era had taken the stage, setting the scene for the initial clash between the Mongols and the Khwarezmians in 1216. Genghis Khan sent his generals, Subutai and his son-in-law Toguchar, to pursue remnants of the Merkit tribe, enemies who had previously abducted Genghis Khan’s first wife, Börte. Although she was rescued, she was pregnant, leading to speculation about the paternity of Genghis Khan’s first son, Jochi.

Subutai pursued the Merkits to the northern regions of the Khwarezm Empire. Sultan Muhammad, driven by greed, sought to annihilate both the Merkits and the pursuing Mongol army. However, when he arrived, Subutai had already decisively defeated the Merkits, leaving only corpses behind.

The Inciting Incident: The Otrar Massacre of 1218

The spark that led to the Mongol’s western campaign is widely believed to be the Otrar incident of 1218. Initially, three Khwarezmian merchants, carrying textiles worth a significant amount, traveled to Mongolia intending to sell them at exorbitant prices. When Genghis Khan himself inquired about the price, one merchant’s outrageous demand was seen as an insult. Genghis Khan detained the merchants and their goods, eventually releasing them but keeping the merchandise as he misunderstood the gifts as a tribute from Sultan Muhammad. This misunderstanding laid the groundwork for future conflicts.

The Tragic Turn of Events and the Outbreak of War

In 1218, Genghis Khan sent a 450-strong trade caravan to Khwarezm, but the caravan was detained by the governor of Otrar, Inalchuq. Misinterpreting their purpose as espionage, Inalchuq arrested the merchants, an act that would lead to disastrous consequences. Despite the sultan’s indecisiveness, Inalchuq executed the merchants, igniting Genghis Khan’s wrath and setting the stage for inevitable war.

The Fate of Western Liao and Its Downfall

Meanwhile, the Western Liao, weakened under the rule of usurper Küchlüg, was struggling. Küchlüg’s relocation of the capital to Kashgar and his oppressive religious policies against Muslims led to widespread resentment. In 1218, when Jebe, a general of Genghis Khan, invaded to eliminate Küchlüg, local populations welcomed the Mongols as liberators. Küchlüg’s eventual death at the hands of hunters marked the end of Western Liao’s reign in Central Asia, replaced by the expanding Mongol Empire.

The Western Liao and the events leading to the Mongol conquest illustrate a complex tapestry of political, cultural, and religious dynamics in early 13th-century Asia. It sets the stage for understanding the rise of the Mongol Empire and its impact on the course of world history.

The Mongol Westward Campaign: The Road to Khwarezm

The Kurultai of 1219: A Historic Gathering

In early 1219, Genghis Khan convened the Kurultai, a grand assembly signifying a meeting or gathering. Here, nobles and chieftains from across the Mongol Empire gathered to enjoy festivities and discuss state affairs. This event, critical in both the Mongol and later Yuan Dynasty eras, is a precursor to today’s Mongolian parliament, the Great Khural.

Genghis Khan’s Case Against Sultan Muhammad

During the Kurultai, Genghis Khan laid out Sultan Muhammad of Khwarezm’s transgressions, including the massacre of a Mongol trade caravan, sheltering criminals, attacking Mongol general Subutai, and opportunistically seizing cities in Transoxiana during Western Liao’s downfall. The Kurultai unanimously decided to embark on a campaign against Khwarezm, and by summer, a well-trained, battle-hardened Mongol army of 100,000 was ready to march.

The Mongol All-Star Line-Up

This campaign saw Genghis Khan’s four sons – Jochi, Chagatai, Ögedei, and Tolui – along with his bravest generals, Subutai and Jebe, join forces. This formidable lineup, crucial in the upcoming battles, would be frequently mentioned throughout the campaign.

The Mongol Army’s Strategic Expansion

As the Mongol army marched, it absorbed reinforcements from vassal states in the Western Regions, including the Kara-Khitan and Turkic Khans. By autumn, Genghis Khan’s forces arrived at Otrar, where the governor, Inalchuq, realized the enormity of the Mongol threat.

Sultan Muhammad’s Defensive Strategy

Sultan Muhammad, given ample time to prepare, opted for a defensive strategy. Despite Khwarezm’s military strength and resources, he chose to split his forces among various cities, avoiding confrontation with the Mongols. This decision, based on his understanding of nomadic warfare, would prove to be a critical miscalculation.

The Transformation of Mongol Warfare

Unbeknownst to the Sultan, the Mongols had evolved from their experiences in wars against the Western Xia and Jin dynasties. They had mastered various war tactics and were no longer just a nomadic horde. The Sultan’s underestimation of the Mongols’ siege capabilities marked the beginning of Khwarezm’s downfall.

The Siege of Otrar and Beyond

After besieging Otrar, Genghis Khan divided his forces: his second and third sons continued the siege, while Jochi moved north along the Syr Darya, and General Alaqai headed south. Genghis Khan himself led the main force across the Syr Darya towards Bukhara. Capturing Bukhara, strategically located between the old capital of Jend and the new capital of Samarkand, aimed to isolate Samarkand’s defences.

This campaign marked a significant chapter in Mongol history, showcasing their strategic prowess and military might. The Mongols’ approach, blending traditional nomadic tactics with advanced siege techniques, set the stage for their dominance in Eurasia and reshaped the geopolitical landscape of the time.

The Fall of Bukhara and the Mongol Campaign in Transoxiana

Genghis Khan’s Conquest Map

In early 1220, Genghis Khan and his youngest son Tolui embarked on a campaign towards Transoxiana. The military strategy map, with city names and their fall dates, highlights the Mongol’s methodical approach in this region.

The Fate of Bukhara in AD 1220

Reaching Bukhara in February 1220, Genghis Khan encountered a city with a garrison of 20,000. Attempting a dawn breakout, the garrison was annihilated by the Mongols. The religious and elite, losing military protection, opened the gates in surrender. Genghis Khan’s entry into Bukhara was marked by a controversial act of desecration at the Great Mosque and harsh words for the city’s leaders, as described in “The History of the World Conqueror.”

Siege Tactics and Aftermath

After capturing the city, Genghis Khan imposed a thorough search for treasure. The remaining forces in the citadel faced a brutal siege, with civilians coerced into frontline assault, leading to massive casualties. The city’s fortifications were destroyed, and the adult male population was conscripted into the Mongol army. The once-thriving academic and cultural hub was reduced to ruins within a month.

The Mongol Campaign Progress

Simultaneously, other Mongol contingents achieved their objectives. Jochi’s northern army faced little resistance until reaching the city of Khiva. In the south, the siege of Khojend by Alaqai was marked by fierce resistance from the defender Temur Melik, who later turned to guerrilla tactics.

The Siege of Otrar and Inalchuq’s Fate

At Otrar, Inalchuq, the instigator of the conflict, resisted fiercely but eventually succumbed to the Mongols. Genghis Khan ordered a symbolic punishment by pouring molten silver into his eyes.

The Fall of Samarkand

In March 1220, multiple Mongol armies converged on Samarkand, the last bastion of Sultan Muhammad. Despite the sultan’s despair and retreat, the city’s garrison, bolstered by war elephants and reinforced defences, prepared for a siege. However, Samarkand fell in just seven days.

The Siege of Samarkand

The siege began with an initial setback for the Mongols, but they quickly adapted their strategy. Using captives as human shields and neutralizing the war elephants, the Mongols breached the city’s defences. The citadel’s fall marked a massacre of the military and the enslavement of artisans and skilled workers.

The Aftermath and Genghis Khan’s Strategy

Following Samarkand’s fall, Genghis Khan divided his forces for further conquests in Afghanistan and the surrounding regions. The prolonged siege of Khiva and the complete subjugation of the Transoxiana region epitomized the Mongol campaign’s efficiency and ruthlessness.

This chapter in history not only showcases the Mongol’s military might and strategy but also reflects the tragic consequences of war, where cities like Bukhara, once beacons of culture and learning, were reduced to ashes and despair. The Mongol conquest reshaped the political and cultural landscape of Eurasia, leaving a lasting impact on world history.

Jalal ad-Din’s Resistance Against the Mongols

The Aftermath of Bukhara and Genghis Khan’s Next Move

After a brief respite, Genghis Khan followed the trail of his generals Subutai and Jebe, who were pursuing Sultan Muhammad. Crossing the Amu Darya at Termez, the Mongol army advanced towards Balkh. Though the city’s residents were open to surrender, the resistance stirred by Prince Jalal ad-Din in Afghanistan led Genghis Khan to suspect their loyalty, resulting in the city’s destruction.

Jalal ad-Din: A Figure of Determination and Vision

Contrary to his father, Sultan Muhammad, Prince Jalal ad-Din was a man of firm will and grand ambitions. After parting ways with his fleeing father, Jalal ad-Din gathered a formidable army in Ghazni, Afghanistan. He transformed this region into a hub of resistance against the Mongols, rallying heroes and nobles under his banner. His goal was to shatter the myth of Mongol invincibility and rekindle the fighting spirit of the Muslims. A significant victory came when his forces ambushed a Mongol vanguard at Parwan, north of Kabul, annihilating 7,000 Mongol troops – a rare triumph in the Mongol campaign.

Genghis Khan’s Wrath and the Siege of Balkh

News of this defeat enraged Genghis Khan, who criticized his generals for their failure. After capturing Taraz, he pressed southward, spreading devastation in his wake. Another setback occurred when his grandson, Mutugen, was killed during the siege of Bamyan, leading to a vengeful rampage by the Mongols in the area.

The Legendary Bamyan Buddhas

The Bamyan Buddhas, once symbols of the region’s Buddhist heritage, were long targeted by Muslims and eventually destroyed by the Taliban in 2001. Their destruction, over 1500 years after their creation, marked another tragic chapter in the cycle of religious and cultural conflicts.

Jalal ad-Din’s Final Stand and Escape

The Mongols reached Ghazni, Jalal ad-Din’s stronghold, only to find it abandoned. Jalal ad-Din had already fled eastward towards India. Genghis Khan pursued him hastily, crossing the Khyber Pass to reach Peshawar. In November of that year, Jalal ad-Din’s forces, cornered at the Indus River, fought fiercely but were ultimately overwhelmed. In a dramatic turn, Jalal ad-Din leaped into the river, disappearing into its depths.

Genghis Khan’s Strategic Shift and Return to Mongolia

Following these events, Genghis Khan turned his attention to consolidating his conquests. He first ordered the destruction of Ghazni and other rebellious cities. Despite his harsh treatment of the conquered territories, Genghis Khan held no particular animosity towards Islam. His actions were more about creating buffer zones and transforming agricultural lands into pastures, aligning with the nomadic lifestyle of the Mongols.

In 1222, Genghis Khan met the Taoist monk Qiu Chuji in Afghanistan, inquiring about the secret to eternal life. Soon after, he learned of a rebellion in the Western Xia, prompting his return to Mongolia. He initially planned an ambitious journey through India and over the Himalayas back to Mongolia. However, finding no passage through India, the army returned to Samarkand for winter and eventually made its way back to Mongolia by 1225.


The stories of Tolui’s campaign in Khorasan and the pursuit of Sultan Muhammad by Subutai and Jebe will be explored in future articles. These historical accounts highlight the strategic depth and relentless nature of the Mongol conquests under Genghis Khan, reshaping the political landscape of Eurasia and leaving a lasting impact on world history.

About the author

The Tibetan Travel website's creator, hailing from Lhasa, is a cultural enthusiast. They promote responsible tourism, connecting the world to Tibet's beauty and heritage. Awards recognize their contribution.

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