World History 1 225 - 14.2.3 Ogedei Khan’s Great Mongol Nation

Chinggis Khan spent his remaining years reasserting control over his Chinese conquests. The Jin, for example, regained tenuous sovereignty over the areas between Zhongdu and the coast. The Xi Xia refused to send troops to aid the war against the Khwarazmians, an act Chinggis saw as a betrayal. After defeating the Khwarazmians, he invaded the Xi Xia lands to punish them for this disloyalty. He was unable to enjoy the vengeance finally brought upon these uncooperative subjects, however, dying several months before the completion of his conquest, possibly as a result of being thrown from a horse.

As was Mongol custom, Chinggis Khan’s estate was to be divided between his four sons by his primary wife Borte. His estate was a huge chunk of the Eurasian continent with millions of people to rule and a great deal of annual tribute. To preserve this wealth and the harmony the yassa had created for at least the population of the Mongol Empire, Chinggis had insisted that one of his sons be the next great khan. This son was to not only run one-fourth of the empire directly but also command the military, serve as the final court of appeal, and control a central government consisting largely of postal stations for communication and warehouses for spoils and tribute.

Link to Learning

This web page has a simplified chart of Chinggis Khan’s male line of descent through his grandchildren, many of whom are referenced in this chapter. The site uses a different method of transliteration, so some names appear differently (for instance, Qubilai = Kublai and Cayatai = Chagatai). The German text reads “Mongol Grand Khans. The wife of Ogedei, Torgene, led the state from 1241 to 1246; Oyul Gaimis, the wife of Guyuk, was regent from 1248 to 1251.”

At a kurultai of his family and closest advisers years before Chinggis’ death, Ogedei was chosen to be this great khan. That decision was respected, demonstrating just how successful Chinggis had been in uniting the steppe peoples. The division of the empire between Chinggis Khan and Borte’s sons also occurred. Ogedei received the conquered lands of the Xi Xia and Jin. The heirs of the oldest of Chinggis Khan’s sons, Jochi, who had died a few months before his father, were given portions of the Mongol lands in central Asia, the territory of the Rus in modern Russia, and adjacent areas in northwest Eurasia. Led by Chinggis’s oldest grandson, Batu, they became known as the Golden Horde, horde being one of the most common terms used for the tribal organization of the Mongols. The youngest son, Tolui, was granted the Mongol homeland, and the rest went to the second son, Chagatai.

Ogedei’s coronation as khan reflected his reputation as a partier, with weeks of celebrations and feasting that involved virtually the entire nation and carefree depletion of the treasury by distributions of generous gifts to attendees. Tribute collections had fallen off, however, especially once word of Chinggis’s death spread. After Ogedei’s reckless spending, the Mongols were suddenly in financial trouble and unable to satisfy either the population’s growing expectations of living standards or their new leader’s ostentatious ambitions. Ogedei needed a way to quickly find more money.

To intimidate the tributary states, Ogedei attacked and defeated the Jin by 1234. The Jin civilization’s wealth flowed into the Mongol treasury, but it was not enough. More than pursuing a life of conquest, Ogedei wanted to siphon off wealth as tribute through control of Eurasia’s trade routes. To do that, he needed a capital, which he stored near Chinggis Khan’s warehouses in the Mongol heartlands; this was the origin of Karakorum as a city. Funding its construction required yet more tribute, however. In 1235, Ogedei called a kurultai to decide which lands should be conquered to provide it. After much debate, it was decided to attack both Europe and Song China.

The war against the Song was inconclusive. Both sides suffered heavy losses, and peace negotiations began in 1241. The Mongols fared better in the west. They reestablished control over areas they had subdued earlier, conquered Kyiv (Kiev) in 1240, and essentially wiped out most Christian armies east of the Holy Roman Empire, looting major cities such as Krakow and Buda in modern-day Poland and Hungary. As they entered Bohemia in early 1242, word came that Ogedei had died the previous December. To participate in the expected kurultai to replace him, the Mongols abruptly retreated before bringing full destruction to eastern Europe, though leaving devastation in their wake.

While Ogedei’s reign had mixed success, his extravagance and hedonism reflected the lifestyle the Mongol Empire adopted in the decades of unity brought by Chinggis Khan’s yassa. Ogedei instituted practices that allowed fairly effective extraction of resources and imposed stability and order in the lands he and his father had conquered. The details are generally credited to a Khitan mandarin named Yelu Chucai, whom Chinggis Khan first took notice of in 1215 and whom Ogedei tapped to expand the burgeoning system of taxation and recordkeeping for the whole empire. Yelu is credited with convincing Ogedei that “an empire can be conquered from horseback, but it cannot be ruled from horseback,” setting the stage for the bureaucratization of Mongol rule.

Ogedei embraced Yelu’s plans of systematic recurring taxation to replace tribute. He saw his empire as the center of world trade and expanded the infrastructure to support that. Primarily for military communication, Chinggis Khan had established a system of horse relay stations called yam on the long-distance roads throughout his realm. These yam were located at one-day intervals from one another and included rest areas and supply depots. Ogedei expanded the system, extending its use to merchants and diplomats and lavishly rewarding traders who brought items he had never encountered before. This hospitality and his spendthrift ways attracted many merchants.

In addition, Ogedei created the Pax Mongolica, or Mongol Peace, which united a large part of the world through the exchange of goods and the long-distance travel of people and ideas. This was accomplished through a twofold approach: it was facilitated by the peace and justice imposed by Mongols on those who accepted or embraced their rule and was funded by the taxation of all producing people. At the same time, it was assured by clear instances of unabashed brutality against any who would dare resist their spread into new lands. Many recognized that resistance was not worth the risk.

Ogedei had given no thought to succession, however, and almost a decade of infighting occurred after his death, calling forth a great effort to maintain what had already been conquered. A battle between Chinggis Khan’s grandsons Guyuk and Batu seemed imminent when the forty-two-year-old Guyuk mysteriously died.

The Past Meets the Present

Chinggis Khan, Mongol National Identity, and the Hu

Although several clans and tribes of the Inner Asian Steppe spoke a common language, it was not until the reign of Chinggis Khan that they became a unified nation. From that point on, except for roughly three generations of Soviet rule in the twentieth century, during which symbols and figures with a strong local nationalist focus were often banned, Chinggis Khan has been inexorably linked to Mongol national identity.

A recent pop culture example is the breakout Mongolian heavy-metal band The Hu. Their 2019 debut album was called Gereg, after the medallions that granted merchants the use of the Mongols’ system of rest and supply areas on the roads. The Hu were the first Mongolian band to have a song lead the Billboard Top 100 list. In the fall of 2019, they finished a twenty-three-city European tour, and for their contributions in spreading Mongol culture globally, the Mongolian government gave them the country’s highest award, the Order of Chinggis Khan. Almost every song on their album harkens back to the days of the Mongol Empire of the thirteenth century.

The second verse of “The Great Chinggis Khaan” (simply an alternative spelling of “khan”) sums up both Chinggis Khan’s vision of the world and the way the Mongolian people view him. Here is the official music video of The Hu song “The Great Chinggis Khaan.” You may want to turn on the closed captioning to read the lyrics in English.

  • Why might The Hu have chosen Chinggis Khan as a focus for their first album?
  • What aspects of the status of Chinggis Khan in both contemporary Mongolian society and world history more generally do you think explain why this song proved so popular?

The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 1: to 1500 textbook by Openstax