The Mongol Empire rapidly expanded throughout Asia and Europe in the 13th century, creating the largest contiguous land empire in history. But why did this colossal empire fall?
After Genghis Khan’s death in 1227, the Mongol Empire was divided into khanates between his four sons, with Ögedei being the new Great Khan to rule over them. This unity lasted until 1259 when Möngke Khan died without naming a successor, leading to civil war and the empire eventually fracturing.
To find out more about the dramatic fall of one of the greatest empires in history, read on.
The Rise of the Mongol Empire
The start of the Mongol Empire is typically given as 1206 when Genghis Khan was named Great Khan of the Mongol tribes and had united them after a long period of conflict. Famed for their horse-riding and archery prowess, the Mongols’ tactics allowed for rapid expansion that would soon sweep into much of Central Asia and China.
Believing they were on a divine mission to conquer the world, the spread of the Mongols was as rapid as it was violent and by Genghis Khan’s death in 1227, the Mongol Empire spread throughout a great deal of Asia and showed no signs of stopping. The destruction was legendary, with civilizations like the Xi Xia and Khwārezm all but disappearing.
It is estimated that between 1211 and 1337 in East Asia alone, the Mongol conquests had killed 18.4 million people.
After Genghis Khan’s death in 1227, a general assembly of Mongol nobles elected a new Great Khan and chose his son Ögedei for the role. The empire was divided into four administrative units called khanates, with the Khanate of the Golden Horde in Eastern Europe, the Ilkhanate in the area around Persia, the Chagatai Khanate in Central Asia, and the Khanate of the Great Khan in much of East Asia.
The period of Ögedei’s rule between 1227 and 1241 was generally marked by stability and continuing expansion, conquering the Jin Empire in China in 1234 and expanding as far west as Hungary.
The Fall of the Mongol Empire
Ögedei died suddenly in 1241, leading to an end to Mongol expansion in Europe and a period of some disunity. His wife Töregene served as regent until Ögedei’s son Güyük was old enough to become Great Khan, with disputes between the Mongol tribes over inheritance threatening to lead to civil war, before Güyük suddenly died in 1248.
Möngke Khan succeeded him, with the Mongolian council electing to move the title out of Ögedei’s house and leading to further disunity among the Mongols.
He practiced religious tolerance and with the help of his brothers Hülegü and Kublai, he pursued a policy of further expansion. The Mongols conquered Baghdad in 1258, reached the Mediterranean in 1259, and faced a defeat by the Mamluks in 1260, marking the first time the Mongols would lose a battle and not avenge it, as well as an end to their westward expansion through Egypt.
Meanwhile, Kublai embarked on further campaigns to completely conquer China, with Möngke Khan being killed in Sichuan in 1259. With no heir announced, many competed for the title, including Kublai and his brother Ariq Böke, leading to the Toluid Civil War, while the Ilkhanate and the Golden Horde also fought for supremacy.
This would mark a turning point in the Mongol Empire, with Kublai Khan winning victory in 1264 but exposing the conflicts that would now influence the future of the empire. The empire was fractured, and as Kublai Khan conquered the rest of China, he saw himself as a Chinese emperor and established the Yuan dynasty in accordance with Chinese customs.
By the time of his death in 1294, the khanates were essentially operating as independent empires that were facing their own issues, with dynastic and border disputes typically leading to conflicts within all of them.
The Ilkhanate in Persia collapsed in 1335 due to dynastic issues and the constant threat of conflict with the Mamluk Sultanate, which had previously proved its ability to fight off the Mongols. The Chagatai Khanate eventually collapsed in 1363, although it continued to exist in one way or another until 1687.
The Golden Horde in the western Eurasian steppe lasted until 1480, having splintered into separate khanates before being conquered by the Grand Duchy of Moscow. Once again marked by dynastic disputes, the Yuan dynasty was conquered by the Ming dynasty in 1368.
In summary, the Mongol Empire ended mainly due to dynastic disputes and fracturing, facing administrative issues as well as improved opponents. It is also possible that many of their customs for inheritance were effective in nomadic societies, but not in the sedentary states they had conquered.