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How the Interaction of the Mongol Empire With the Steppe Nomads and Sedentary Empires Shaped Its Development and Decline


The Mongol tribal organizations remain one of its own kinds in world history. It was the largest connected terrestrial empire enclosing over 33 million square km at its height with an approximated human population of above 100 million[1]. There are several major events that cannot be mentioned without the Mongol tribal organization featuring in. The most important is the interaction of the ancient Mongol government with the nomadic people of the steppe and sedentary empires in East Asia. The Mongolian Empire interacted with foreigners during trade and conquest wars. This paper seeks to examine how the interaction with foreigners shaped the Mongol Empire specifically focusing on the development and fall of the Mongol Empire[2].

The Rise of the Mongol Empire

Genghis Khan founded the Mongol Empire in 1206 BC and quickly expanded to rule over a vast ever built empire by conquering other sedentary empires that were farmers. The empire included the territories from Southeast Asia to as far as central Europe. Genghis Khan began by uniting the warring Mongol-Turkic tribes before embarking on expanding the empire through active conquests[3]. Western Xia (North China) and the Khwarezmid Empire (Iran) were the first territories to fall under the Mongolian Empire after they proved troublesome to the existence of the Genghis Khan’s dominion. Sadly, the Mongolian conquest was not without major historical war casualties and enormous mortality cases; approximately 30 million people died as research claims. After successful acquisition of various territories, the Mongol empire demonstrated a unique character of enhancing cultural associations and unlimited trade among the East, the Middle East, and the West in the 13th and 14th centuries respectively..

The Organization of the Mongol Empire

The Mongol Empire was strategically organized with a strong military setup, a just law, and governance system as well as expansive trade networks. It is through these three organizations that the Mongol empire interacted with the sedentary territories[4]. The interaction has both sides of the coin effect. At first, the interaction led to the building of a strong and unified empire that was easy to rule over. Cultural interaction, religious freedom, and uncensored trade significantly empowered the empire by providing the needed skills, unifying beliefs and essential commodities respectively. The empire thrived out of the artistic, religious and commercial wealth made necessary by the interaction with other territories. However, the fall of the great Mongol Empire can be associated with the rifts created by the influence of different cultural beliefs besides the constant disagreements among the four Khanates after the death of Genghis Khan.

Mongolian Military structure

After the unification of the Mongol and Turkic tribes in 1206, there emerged a simple but effective martial setup. “Genghis adopted the older Turkic decimal system of organizing the lower military ranks into units of ten, building to the largest units of ten thousand.” The smallest army (arban) comprised a crew of ten men, ten arbans constituted of a hundred men termed as a jaghun. Ten jaghun included a thousand soldiers called mingghan and ten mingghan formed a tumen (ten thousand)[5]. The Mongol military tactics were unmatched as compared to other nomads such as the Vikings or the Huns. The Mongol military had a unique ability in the art of the siege made necessary by highly skilled Chinese engineers who built siege weapons and the trebuchet. Therefore, the Mongol military was enriched by the interaction with the Chinese people. It was easy to conquer other empires and rose quickly due to martial supremacy and advanced military machinery made possible by foreigners (Chinese engineers).

The Mongol forces carefully selected highly skilled artisans from the cities they subdued, later on, the artisans significantly contributed to the strength and rise of the Mongol empire through their expertise. It is worth mentioning that before advancing with their conquest wars, the Mongol military had to plan carefully and solicit sensitive information regarding their enemies [6]. This was made possible by interacting with people and spies from the targeted territories. The military intelligence was absolutely necessary for strategizing war advancements.

The Mongol Law and Governance Organization

Genghis came up with a code of law known as Yasa that was meant to bring order, justice and instill discipline among the subjects as well as the army. The laws affirmed that the noble people encountered the same hurdles just like the common man. Therefore, all people were treated fairly by the law, and soldiers were expected to be responsible and accountable for one another [7]. Basically, the Mongol empire thrived because of its high security and discipline system. Many foreigners, including the Europeans were attracted and marveled by the enviable law and governance system. The Yasa allowed the selection of chiefs basing on virtue and religious tolerance. On the other hand, the law prohibited vandalism and theft and pronounced the acts punishable.

The prevailing order and security attracted many foreigners who enriched the empire with their skills, commercial wealth, and military advice. Religious tolerance in the Mongol empire was a motivation to many who visited and set camp to the advantage of the rise and development of the Empire. The just governing system led to the creation of trade routes and widespread postal network throughout the Mongol empire. As a result, many messengers, travelers and merchants from Europe, China, and the Middle East exploited the network to the advantage of the empire[8].

The Organization of Mongol Trade Networks

The Mongols were passionate about their commercial and trade associations with their neighbors as a way of acquiring basic commodities. This explains why the Mongol empire continued to expand its trade networks alongside its conquest expeditions. The Mongol empire expanded its overland commercial activities when it guaranteed protection to all merchants and envoys with comprehensive certification and authorization. During the 13th and 14th centuries, the Mongol empire received hundreds of foreign merchants from Europe who were after gaining entry into China. The most famous of all is Marco Polo who became very resourceful to the empire[9]. Besides his unmatched skills in devising war machines and military counsel, he also engaged in commercial activities that enriched the empire.

The Involvement of Foreigners in the Mongol Governing System

The Mongol empire recognized foreign religions as a way of unifying its new territories. It also gave positions to foreigners to serve in various positions in its government. Just like Chinggis Khan, Kubilai Khan, the grandson of Genghis Khan, established his capital in China and involved many foreigners in his government. Kubilai’s generosity and curiosity saw him surrounded by artisans, wonderful court scholars and office seekers from many foreign lands; however, his favorite allies came from the adjacent Muslim kingdoms[10].

Muslims ranked the second after the Mongols while the Turks and Persians were regarded as administrators and advisor in the Kubilai’s empire. Muslims took the active role in designing and managing the building of Kubilai’s Chinese-like sovereign city besides coming up with efficient tax collecting systems. Additionally, the Muslim doctors managed the imperial hospitals besides enriching the Mongol medicine with their skills and translations. The Persian astronomers helped Kubilai import sophisticated celestial instruments from the Middle East, modified the Chinese calendar besides drafting most precise maps.

The Mongol empire under the leadership of Kubilai Khan developed steadily and remained united for as long as nine decades due to the indispensable contributions of foreigners from different lands. It is worth mentioning that the cross-cultural interaction strengthened the military organization by availing new and effective weapons, accrued wealth through relentless trade as well as diluted enmity between the Mongol empire and the neighboring territories[11].

The Fall of the Mongol Empire

Immediately after the death of Genghis Khan, Ogedei Khan (Genghis’s 3rd son) assumed the mantle but died in 1241 leaving the empire anarchy. The enmity among Genghis’ grandchildren became so rife that ushered in five-year regency by Ogedei’s widow until she passed leadership to her son Guyuk Khan, who was recognized as Great Khan[12]. Unfortunately, Guyuk Khan only ruled for two years and died leading to regency until the reign of Monke Khan (1251-1259) when stability was reestablished[13]. After Monke Khan, his brother, Kublai Khan took over (1260-1294) and was universally recognized as Great Khan. However, Kublai was in constant conflict with his brother Hulagu and Berke (their cousin).

After the death of Kublai, there was no universally recognized Great Khan and the Mongol empire was finally divided. Initially, Genghis Khan divided the Mongol empire into four Khanates but all under one Great Khan. The regency that came after Ogedei led to the emergence of four Khanates that functioned independently but presided over by the Great Khan. The Empire was further weakened when the four Khanates split permanently after Kublai’s death. The four Khanates included Blue and White Horde, II Khanate, the empire of the Great Khan, Mongol homeland, and Chagadai Khanate[14].

The Mongol empire started to collapse from within after Genghis posterity could not come to terms and agree to embrace the idea of having one unifying ruler of all Khans, the Great Khan. The differences created an environment full of mistrust, betrayal, and enmity. Consequently, the divided house of Genghis Khan could not withstand external attacks. On the other hand, the interaction with foreigners also contributed to the decline of the Mongol empire, although in a gradual fashion.

How the interaction with foreigners contributed to the decline of the Mongol empire

The peak interaction with foreigners was perhaps during the reign of Kublai Khan when he involved Muslims, Persians and Chinese in his administration. Although the empire was growing strong due to the diversity of skills and contributions by these foreigners, it was also being scaled down by their latent degrading acts. The Muslim and Chinese functionaries took advantage of the docile nature of the Khan who succeeded Kublai and grew more corrupt[15]. Both Muslims and Chinese were the main financial administrators of the Empire and utilized the chance to enrich themselves by increasing taxes and rising demands on forced labor. Consequently, the afflicted peasants were angered and could no longer survive the burden of extra taxes and hard forced labor; they decided to rise up and overthrow the Mongol empire under the leadership of the scholar-elites. Therefore, the foreigners indirectly managed to turn the subjects against their ruler (the Mongol empire)[16].

The constant interaction with foreigners, especially the Chinese lead to the disappearance of Mongolian cultural beliefs and practices through assimilation. The Empire started losing control by losing its values and adopting foreign characteristics. Furthermore, the acts of piracy and banditry became more rampant during the 1350s. The Mongol forces grew weary and eventually lost control of their vast empire due to relentless raids[17]. Lawlessness in the enormous region under the rule of the Mongol empire led to the collapse of commercial activities; as a result, the empire was hit by a series of famines. The empire was further weakened by local uprisings that covered the large part of its dominion[18]. Additionally, foreigners took advantage of religious tolerance advocated by the Mongol empire and facilitated rebellious activities. For instance, there arose an underground religious sect known as White Lotus Society that claimed to help its followers using magic. The sect spearheaded the peasant resistance that rocked over the entire Mongol Empire leading to its collapse in later years.


The great Mongol empire is recognized for its expansive dominion over many territories at its time. The empire was strategically organized to expand and control vast regions under the able leadership of Khans. The interaction of the nomads from steppe and foreigners from Asia, Middle East, and Europe contributed to the development as well as the decline of the Mongol empire. Chinese engineers enriched the military setup; the Muslims influenced internal affairs such as finance and health, the Turks and the European enriched commercial activities. The Mongol empire was strengthened commercially, socially and armed wise by the contributions of foreigners. However, the interaction of foreigners greatly contributed to the decline of the Mongol empire besides the internal feuds that emerged after the death of Genghis Khan. The Chinese and Muslims became corrupt compromising the financial stability of the Mongol empire besides turning the subjects against their master by imposing heavy taxes and forced labor. The interaction with foreigners also led to lawlessness and religious wars.


May, Timothy. “The Mongol Empire in World History.” World History Connected 5, no. 2 (February 2008).

“Mongol Empire – New World Encyclopedia.” Accessed February 15, 2016.

“Mongols. A History of the Mongols (Monguls).” Accessed February 14, 2016. http://history-

Weatherford, J. McIver. The Secret History of the Mongol Queens : How the Daughters of Genghis Khan Rescued His Empire /. First edition. Crown Publishers, 2010.

[1] “Mongol Empire – New World Encyclopedia.”

[2] May, “The Mongol Empire in World History.”

[3] “Mongol Empire – New World Encyclopedia.”

[4] “Mongol Empire – New World Encyclopedia.”

[5] Ibid.

[6] “Mongols. A History of the Mongols (Monguls).”

[7] Ibid.

[8] May, “The Mongol Empire in World History.”

[9] “Mongol Empire – New World Encyclopedia.”

[10] “Mongols. A History of the Mongols (Monguls).”

[11] Ibid.

[12] “Mongol Empire – New World Encyclopedia.”

[13] Weatherford, The Secret History of the Mongol Queens.

[14] Ibid.

[15] “Mongols. A History of the Mongols (Monguls).”

[16] “Mongol Empire – New World Encyclopedia.”

[17] Weatherford, The Secret History of the Mongol Queens.

[18] “Mongols. A History of the Mongols (Monguls).”


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