World History 1 226 - 14.2.4 The Last Gasp of Mongol Expansion

It took until 1251 for majority support to coalesce around Chinggis Khan’s grandson Mongke. While Mongke successfully expanded Mongol domains, his reign would mark the end of continued conquest while also signaling the end of a united Mongol Empire.

Blending the best elements of Chinggis Khan and Ogedei, Mongke was poised to re-create the greatness of unified Mongol rule. He stabilized the empire, ordering a census to assess not just taxes but also the natural and human resources of his domains. To increase the empire’s wealth and dissipate potential restless energy that might be turned on him, he undertook multidirectional expansion. His brother Hulagu Khan was asked to subdue the Islamic world, while another brother, Kublai Khan, was sent to Song China.

Hulagu was enormously successful; like his grandfather in northern China, he exploited existing conflicts, which included resentment by the minority Shia Muslims against the Sunni caliph. Combining this strategy with the Mongols’ usual offer to spare from destruction those who would acknowledge Mongol rule and submit tribute without struggle, Hulagu was able to gain control of much of the caliph’s lands, especially Shia areas. By late 1257, his forces had surrounded Baghdad, and the city fell in early 1258, its physical defenses undermined. Tens, possibly hundreds, of thousands were massacred, and the caliph himself was killed.

Meanwhile, Kublai was also successful, conquering areas of Tibet and southwestern China. During the campaign, he began to favor Tibetan Buddhism, although not to the point of dismissing or persecuting other faiths. Mongke then moved him to administer the former Jin areas that were conquered by his grandfather, while Mongke himself, seeing the Song’s vulnerability, launched a broader attack against them in 1256. In 1259, as reports reached Mongke that Kublai was establishing a power base in northern China, he ordered Kublai to join him in the war against the Song, probably also wanting to keep close watch over him.

Before Kublai could reach him, however, Mongke died, likely from dysentery. His cousin Ariq Boke, another of Chinggis Khan’s grandsons and the one who had been left to administer the Mongol homeland, declared himself the new khan of the Mongol Empire ahead of a kurultai. Upon hearing this, Kublai, who was returning for the kurultai, also declared himself the new khan. While Kublai would prove a powerful and capable ruler, much had begun to change since the days of Chinggis, and the stage was set for the end of a unified Mongol Empire and a single khan who dominated the entirety of the territories they had conquered. Continued success in conquest had been a major factor in keeping rivals from unnecessarily challenging the rule of the chosen great khan or devolving his power. With this period of expansion over, these rivals were presented with new opportunities to claim more power for themselves, especially with the size and diversity of the empire the Mongols now ruled.

The last kurultai of the Mongol Empire failed and led to the permanent splitting of the realm. Hulagu stood with his brother Kublai. The Golden Horde, now led by Batu’s younger brother Berke, supported Ariq Boke. This left Orghina, sister-in-law to Hulagu and granddaughter of Chinggis Khan, in a position to choose which of her cousins would rule the Mongol Empire. Orghina, acting as regent for her son who was too young to assume a leadership role, chose neutrality, endorsing neither claimant. The fact that she was making this decision, not advising a man who would make the choice, shows the strides women had made under the yassa. Kublai ultimately prevailed, since his bonds with the army conquering China and his resource-rich power base in the northeast left him well situated to repulse Ariq Boke’s attacks. In 1264, Ariq Boke rode to Kublai’s capital and surrendered. He died under house arrest a couple of years later, probably having been poisoned.

Hulagu recognized Kublai as the great khan, calling himself il-khan (lesser khan) and his realm the Il-Khanate. He and his successors pursued their own policies independently, however, and Kublai’s hold on the Chagatai Khanate remained only as strong as the armies he devoted to enforcing it. The Golden Horde was well out of his reach. From this point on, the parts of the once-united Mongol Empire were administered separately and evolved differently (Figure 14.10). Historians refer to them as khanates—the Khanate of the Golden Horde, Il-Khanate, Chagatai Khanate, and the Khanate of the Great Khan—to distinguish them from the prior period of unity.

A map of the world is shown, land highlighted in white and water in blue. In the northwest, the Mediterranean Sea, the Aegean Sea, the Black Sea, the Dardanelles, the Sea of Marmara, and the Bosporus are labelled. In the west, the Red Sea, the Dead Sea, the Persian Gulf (Arabian Gulf) the Gulf of Oman, and the Gulf of Aden are labelled. In the south, the Arabian Sea, the Laccadive Sea, the Indian Ocean, the Bay of Bengal, the Andaman Sea, the Gulf of Thailand, the South China Sea, the Sulu Sea, and the Celebes Sea are labelled. In the east, the Pacific Ocean, the Taiwan Strait, the East China Sea, the Yellow Sea and the Sea of Japan (East Sea) are labelled. In the northeast, the Sea of Okhotsk is labelled. The north area of the land is labelled “Russia” and the southeast is labelled “China.” An area from the Pacific Ocean in the east, north to Russia, south to the South China Sea and east to north of the Bay of Bengal is highlighted blue and labelled “Khanate of the Great Khan.” West of that is a small area highlighted dark pink and labelled “Chagatai Khanate.” Northwest of that is an area highlighted green labelled “Khanate of the Golden Horde.” South of this is an orange area that extends south to the Arabian Sea and west to the Black Sea labelled Il-Khanate.
Figure 14.10 This map shows the areas ruled by the four Mongol khanates after the death of Kublai Khan in 1294. For all intents and purposes, these were separate sovereign states. Hulagu’s Il-Khanate was the only one to recognize Kublai as great khan. (attribution: Copyright Rice University, OpenStax, under CC BY 4.0 license)

The struggle for power between Kublai and Ariq Boke also reflected a divide between Mongols willing to live as settled people and those who sought to preserve traditional nomadic ways. Kublai and Hulagu represented Mongols willing to adopt some aspects of settled life. Their successors, especially Kublai’s, embraced the settled lifestyle even more. Ariq Boke embodied the spirit of their traditional nomadic culture, the weaknesses of which had been under attack since Temujin had become Chinggis Khan and had sought to promote harmony and justice in ways traditional Mongol customs and practices did not. While Mongol armies were a formidable force in open battles on broad plains, it was only with the help of settled people and their technologies that they could take down the world’s richest cities and bring their riches to the Mongolian plain and, more importantly, create bureaucratic systems to keep it flowing and distribute it.

This lesson has no exercises.

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