Under Genghis Khan, Mongol raids into northern China turned into a full-scale campaign in 1211. Meanwhile, Mongol forces marched westward, besieging the Kara Khitai cities of Balasaghun and Kashgar. When a Mongol envoy to the Khwarazm Empire was slaughtered in Otrar, the Mongols sacked the major cities of the Islamic empire. In 1219, Genghis Khan chose his third son Ogedei as his successor.
The Mongols were a mix of Mongolian and Turkic-speaking tribes who united under the leadership of Temujin in the early 13th century. From their homeland in modern-day Mongolia, the fierce Mongol warriors then swept across Asia and Europe, creating the largest land empire in history.
Chosen as the Mongol leader at a tribal meeting in 1206, Temujin took the name Genghis Khan (meaning universal ruler) and united all the tribes under his leadership. In command of a formidable army of warriors on horseback, Genghis Khan organized his army and embarked on a conquest that lasted more than 20 years and resulted in the majority of Asia falling under his rule.
In 1211, Mongol armies invaded northern China, raiding and sacking many Chinese cities. In a long and hard-fought battle, the Mongols took the Chinese capital, Zhongdu, and forced the Jin emperor to flee south.
In 1218, Genghis Khan defeated the Kara Khitai Empire in central Asia after besieging the capital Balasaghun.
He then redirected his army against the Islamic world and overwhelmed the lands of the Khwarazm Shah, wreaking great destruction upon the cities of Bukhara and Samarkand. The Mongol army's expertise at traversing long distances and fighting on horseback, combined with its brutal reputation, struck terror into most adversaries. Although Genghis Khan died in 1227, while on a campaign in China, the empire continued to grow under his son Ogedei, who eliminated the Jin Empire in China in 1234 and also fought campaigns in Russia and eastern Europe. The expansion of the empire slowed after Ogedei died in 1241 and ended in 1260 following the Mongols' first major defeat by the army of the Mamluk Sultanate (1250-1517) at Ain Jalut in Palestine. Soon afterward, the empire fragmented, with separate khans ruling China, Persia, central Asia, and the Russian Principalities.
A century later, a last Mongol resurgence took place under Timur — ruler of a Mongol principality in Transoxiana (a remnant of the Chagatai Khanate). He briefly conquered a vast territory across central Asia but was unable to consolidate the empire.
In 1383, Timur—the Mongol ruler of Transoxiana—set out on a mission to restore the great empire of Genghis Khan. After 30 years, he ruled a realm that stretched from Syria to northern India. However, Timur’s failure to set up an effective administration caused his empire to crumble soon after his death in 1405.
A series of Great Khans overcame China in stages. Genghis Khan conquered the non-Chinese powers occupying northern China—the Western Xia and the Jurchen people who had founded the Jin Dynasty. Genghis’s grandson Monke Khan then took the Dali Kingdom (which later became the Yunnan province of Yuan China). Finally, Monke’s successor Kublai Khan overthrew the entirety of Song China, becoming the first non-native emperor of all China.
Kublai Khan proclaimed that 1272 was the first year of the Yuan Dynasty, with newly built Khanbaliq, or Dadu (modern-day Beijing) its capital. After construction was completed in 1293, Dadu featured a grand palace and huge fortress walls around its perimeter. Meanwhile, Kublai retained links with the Mongolian heartland by making Shangdu the empire’s summer capital.
The Yuan Empire opened China to the outside world, resulting in the realm engaging in more extensive foreign trade than ever before. While the move saw a resurgence of the Silk Road (see pp.102103), technological advances in shipbuilding and navigation led to the opening of new sea-lanes to Southeast Asia. The city of Guangzhou became the most important trade port during the Yuan era.
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