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Decline of Mongol Empire

Decline of Mongol Empire

The Mongol Empire was the largest land-based empire in world history. By the mid-13th century, the Mongols seemed poised to conquer all of Eurasia. Achieving victories in every cardinal direction, scholars as far as England began describing the Mongols as inhuman beasts sent to deliver God's vengeance upon Europe. The world seemed to hold its breath, counting the days until the infamous Mongol invasions finally reached their doorstep. But the empire withered as it conquered, its successes slowly decaying the fabric of the Mongol people. Failed invasions, infighting, and a certain well-known Medieval plague all contributed to the decline of the Mongol Empire.

Fall Of Mongol Empire Timeline

Hint: If you're intimidated by the plethora of new names in the timeline below, read on! The article will thoroughly describe the decline of the Mongol Empire. For a more thorough understanding of the Mongol Empire's decline, it is recommended that you first check out some of our other articles about the Mongol Empire, including "The Mongol Empire," "Genghis Khan," and "Mongol Assimilation."

The following timeline provides a brief progression of events related to the fall of the Mongol Empire:

  • 1227 CE: Genghis Khan died after falling from his horse, leaving his sons to inherit his empire.

  • 1229 - 1241: Ogedei Khan ruled as Khagan Emperor of the Mongol Empire.

  • 1251 - 1259: Mongke Khan ruled as Khagan Emperor of the Mongol Empire.

  • 1260 - 1264: The Toluid Civil War between Kublai Khan and Ariq Böke.

  • 1260: The Battle of Ain Jalut between the Mamluks and the Ilkhanate, ending in Mongol defeat.

  • 1262: Berke-Hulagu War between the Golden Horde and the Ilkhanate.

  • 1274: Kublai Khan ordered the first Yuan Dynasty invasion of Japan, ending in defeat.

  • 1281: Kublai Khan ordered the second Yuan Dynasty invasion of Japan, also ending in defeat.

  • 1290's: Chagatai Khanate failed to invade India.

  • 1294: Kublai Khan died

  • 1340's and 1350's: The Black Death swept through Eurasia, crippling the Mongol Empire.

  • 1368: The Yuan Dynasty in China is defeated by the rising Ming Dynasty.

Reasons For Decline of Mongol Empire

The map below displays the four descendant khanates of the Mongol Empire in 1335, just a handful of years before the Black Death swept through Eurasia (more on that later). Following the death of Genghis Khan, the four primary partitions of the Mongol Empire became known as:

  • The Golden Horde

  • The Ilkhanate

  • The Chagatai Khanate

  • The Yuan Dynasty

At its greatest territorial extent, the Mongol Empire stretched from the shores of China to Indonesia, to Eastern Europe and the Black Sea. The Mongol Empire was huge; naturally, this would play an inevitable role in the empire's decline.

Decline of the Mongol Empire Map Study SmarterFig 1: Map representing the territorial extent of the Mongol Empire in 1335.

While historians are still hard at work studying the Mongol Empire and the somewhat mysterious nature of its decline, they have a pretty good idea as to how the empire fell. Large contributing factors to the decline of the Mongol Empire include the halt of Mongol expansion, infighting, assimilation, and the Black Death. While many Mongolian political entities persisted into the Early Modern Era (a Golden Horde khanate even lasted until 1783, when it was annexed by Catherine the Great), the second half of the 13th century and 14th century tell the story that is the fall of the Mongol Empire.

How Empires Rise and Fall:

We might have dates, names, general periods of historical trends, and patterns of continuity or change, but history is often messy. It is surprisingly difficult to define a single moment as the creation of the empire, and equally difficult to mark an empire's end. Some historians use the destruction of capitals or defeats in key battles to define the end of an empire, or perhaps the start of another.

The Mongol Empire's fall was no different. Temujin (aka Genghis) Khan's ascension to Great Khan in 1206 is a convenient start date for the beginning of his empire, but the vast extent of the Mongol Empire by the turn of the 13th century meant that a single burning of a capital or battle would not explain its end. Instead, a multitude of interwoven factors ranging from infighting, natural calamities, foreign invasion, disease, and famine can help explain the fall of the Mongol Empire, as with many other empires.

It becomes even harder to define a fall when certain aspects of an empire survive long after its "fall". For example, the Byzantine Empire lasted until 1453, but its people and rulers still considered themselves to be the Roman Empire. Similarly, certain Mongolian Khanates lasted well after the 14th century, while general Mongol influence in lands such as Russia and India lasted even longer.

The Half of Mongol Expansion

The lifeblood of the Mongol Empire was in its successful conquering. Genghis Khan recognized this, and thusly almost continually found new enemies for his empire to fight. From China to the Middle East, the Mongols invaded, won great victories, and looted the newly conquered lands. From then on, their subjects would pay tribute to their Mongol leaders, in exchange for religious tolerance, protection, and their lives. But without conquest, the Mongols grew stagnant. Worse than a lack of conquest, Mongolian defeats during the second half of the 13th century revealed to the world that even the infamous Mongol warriors could be defeated in battle.

Decline of the Mongol Empire Japan Study SmarterFig 2: Two Japanese Samurai stand victorious over fallen Mongol Warriors, while the Mongol fleet is ravaged by the "Kamikaze" in the background.

Starting with Genghis Khan and ending with the fall of the Mongol Empire, the Mongols never successfully invaded India. Even at its height in the 13th century, the focused might of the Chagatai Khanate could not conquer India. The hot and humid weather of India was a large factor, causing Mongol warriors to fall ill and their bows to become less effective. In 1274 and 1281, Kublai Khan of the Chinese Yuan Dynasty ordered two full scale amphibious invasions of Japan, but mighty storms, now call the "Kamikaze" or "Divine Wind", ravaged both Mongol fleets. Without successful expansion, the Mongols were forced to turn inwards.

Kamikaze:

Translated from Japanese as "Divine Wind", referring to the storms that crushed both Mongol fleets during the 13th century Mongol Invasions of Japan.

Infighting within the Mongol Empire

Ever since the death of Genghis Khan, power struggles existed between his sons and grandsons for ultimate power over the Mongol Empire. The first debate for succession peacefully resulted in the ascension of Ogedei Khan, Genghis's third son with Borte, as Khagan Emperor. Ogedei was a drunkard and indulged in the full wealth of the empire, creating a wonderful but extremely expensive capital called Karakorum. After his death, the succession was even more tense. Political infighting, championed by Tolui Khan's wife Sorghaghtani Beki, led to the ascension of Mongke Khan as emperor until his death in 1260.

A Historical Trend of Imperial Leadership:

Across many different empires and exemplary in the story of the Mongol Empire, the inheritors of an empire are almost always weaker than the founders of an empire. Typically, in the establishment of Medieval empires, a rather strong-willed individual makes a claim for power and flourishes in his success. And yet all too commonly, the first rulers' family fights over their grave, influenced by luxury and politics.

Such was the case with Ogedei Khan, an emperor who had very little in common with his father Genghis Khan. Genghis was a strategic and administrative genius, rallying hundreds of thousands beneath his banner and organizing the structure of a massive empire. Ogedei spent much of his time in the capital of Karakorum drinking and partying. Similarly, Kublai Khan's descendants in China dramatically failed to emulate any of his success in the region, leading to the eventual fall of the Yuan Dynasty.

Mongke Khan would be the last true Khagan Emperor of a unified Mongol Empire. Immediately after his death, his brothers Kublai Khan and Ariq Böke began fighting for the throne. Kublai Khan won the contest, but his brother Hulegu and Berke Khan barely recognized him as the true ruler of the Mongol Empire. In fact, Hulagu Khan of the Ilkhanate and Berke Khan of the Golden Horde were too busy fighting each other in the west. Mongol infighting, division, and political tension lasted until the fall of the last minor khanates centuries later.

Mongol Empire Assimilation and Decline

Other than infighting, the inwards-focused Mongols searched for new ways to solidify their reigns during tumultuous times. In many cases, this meant intermarriage and the adoption of local religions and customs, if only at face value. Three of the four major khanates (Golden Horde, Ilkhanate, and Chagatai Khanate) officially converted to Islam to satisfy their dominantly Islamic populations.

I have heard that one can conquer the empire on horseback, but one cannot govern it on horseback.

-Kublai Khan1

With time, historians believe this increased trend of Mongol Assimilation led to the widespread abandonment of what made the Mongols initially successful. No longer focused on horse archery and nomadic steppe culture, but rather the administration of settled peoples, the Mongols became less effective in battle. New military forces soon became triumphant over the Mongols, further leading to the halt of Mongolian expansionism and the decline of the Mongol Empire.

The Black Death and the Decline of the Mongol Empire

During the mid-14th century, a highly contagious and fatal plague spread all throughout Eurasia. Historians posit that the deadly plague killed anywhere from 100 million to 200 million people between China and England, devastating every state, kingdom, and empire in its path. The Mongol Empire has a dark connection with the plague called the Black Death.

Decline of the Mongol Empire Black Death Study SmarterFig 3: Art depicting the burial of victims of the Black Plague from Medieval France.

Historians believe that the Mongol Empire's globalized qualities (the revitalized Silk Road, vast sea trade routes, interconnectedness, and open borders) contributed to the spread of the disease. Indeed, before the fall of the Mongol Empire, it had connections with just about every corner of Eurasia. Despite settling and assimilating in new territories rather than fighting, the Mongols matured to spreading their influence through peaceful alliances and trade. The increased interconnectedness as a result of this trend ravaged the population of the Mongol Empire, destabilizing Mongol power in every khanate.

Mamluks

Another significant example of the halt of Mongol expansionism can be found in the Islamic Middle East. After Hulagu Khan destroyed the Abbasid Caliphate's capital during the 1258 Siege of Baghdad, he continued to press into the Middle East under Mongke Khan's orders. On the shores of the Levant, the Mongols faced their greatest foes yet: the Mamluks.

Decline of the Mongol Empire Mamluks Study SmarterFig 4: Art depicting a horseback Mamluk warrior.

Ironically, the Mongols had been partially responsible for the creation of the Mamluks. When conquering the Caucuses decades before, Mongol warlords sold captured Caucasian peoples as slaves to state of the Islamic world, who in turn established the slave-warrior caste of Mamluks. The Mamluks therefore already had experience with the Mongols, and they knew what to expect. In the fateful Battle of Ain Jalut in 1260, the gathered Mamluks of the Mamluk Sultanate defeated the Mongols in battle.

Decline of the Mongols in China

The Yuan Dynasty of Mongolian China was at one point the strongest of the khanates, a true empire in its own right. Kublai Khan managed to overthrow the Song Dynasty in the region and succeeded in the difficult task of convincing the Chinese people to accept Mongol rulers. Chinese culture, economy, and society flourished, for a time. After Kublai's death, his successors forsake his social reforms and political ideals, instead turning against the Chinese people and towards lives of debauchery. After decades of strife and the destruction of the Black Plague, even the mightiest of the Mongol khanates declined into relative obscurity.

Decline of Mongol Empire - Key takeaways

  • The decline of the Mongol Empire was largely due to the halt of their expansionism, infighting, assimilation, and the Black Death, among other factors.
  • The Mongol Empire began splitting almost immediately after Genghis Khan's death. Few of Genghis Khan's descendants were as successful as he was in conquering and administering empires.
  • The Mongol Empire did not vanish suddenly, its decline happened over many decades, if not centuries, as its rulers halted their expansionist ways and settled into administrative positions.
  • The Black Death was the last major blow to the Mongol Empire, destabilizing its hold across Eurasia.

References

  1. https://www.azquotes.com/author/50435-Kublai_Khan

Frequently Asked Questions about Decline of Mongol Empire

The decline of the Mongol Empire was largely due to the halt of their expansionism, infighting, assimilation, and the Black Death, among other factors. 

The Mongol Empire started to decline as early as the death of Genghis Khan, but it was the late 13th to late 14th century period that saw the decline of the Mongol Empire. 

The Mongol Empire did not vanish suddenly, its decline happened over many decades, if not centuries, as its rulers halted their expansionist ways and settled into administrative positions. 

The Mongol Empire began splitting almost immediately after Genghis Khan's death. Few of Genghis Khan's descendants were as successful as he was in conquering and administering empires.

Final Decline of Mongol Empire Quiz

Question

Which of the following was NOT a major khanate derived from the once unified Mongol Empire? 

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Answer

The Mamluk Sultanate 

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Question

Define Kamikaze. 

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Answer

Translated from Japanese as "Divine Wind", referring to the storms that crushed both Mongol fleets during the 13th century Mongol Invasions of Japan. 

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Question

How did infighting play a role in the decline of the Mongol Empire? 

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Answer

Civil Wars and political disputes weakened the empire and strengthened its state of division. 

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Question

How did halt of expansionism play a role in the decline of the Mongol Empire? 

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Answer

The Mongol's thrived in continued conquest; without it, they could no longer loot, inspire fear, or continue to sharpen their martial prowess. 

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Question

How did assimilation play a role in the decline of the Mongol Empire? 

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Answer

The Mongols who began to settle sought to solidify their reigns through intermarriage and the adoption of local customs. This led to a gradual abandonment of the Mongol nomadic lifestyle that had made them so successful in the first place. 

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Question

How did the Black Death play a role in the decline of the Mongol Empire? 

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Answer

The Black Death ravaged populations across Eurasia, destabilizing the influence of the khanates. Simultaneously, the globalized state of the khanates contributed to the plague's spread. 

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Question

True or False: Ogedei Khan established the expensive capital of Karakorum for the Mongol Empire. 

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Answer

True 

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Question

Were the Mongols successful in invading Northern India? 

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Answer

No. The hot weather spread illnesses among the Mongols and made their bows less effective, besides the successful Indian defenses. 

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Question

Were the Mongols successful in invading Japan? 

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Answer

No. Terrible storms at sea, called the Kamikaze, ravaged the Mongol fleets and rendered their invasions ineffective. 

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Question

When Kublai Khan ascended to Khagan Emperor after defeating his brother Ariq Böke, his brother Hulagu and Berke Khan were occupied with ____. 

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Answer

The Hulagu-Berke War between the Ilkhanate and Golden Horde. 

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