6. The Mongol Empire Reached Its Zenith Under Genghis’ Grandson, Kublai Khan
Genghis Khan’s grandson Kublai Khan (1215 – 1294) completed the conquest of China, and founded the Yuan Dynasty, which unified China under a single ruler for the first time in centuries. By then, the Mongol conquests had been divided amongst Genghis’ descendants into separate khanates, all of which owed allegiance to Kublai Khan. His writ thus extended across history’s greatest contiguous land empire, stretching from the Pacific in the east to the Carpathian Mountains in the west.
5. The Fragmentation and Collapse of Genghis’ Empire
Although the various Mongol khanates owed nominal allegiance to Kublai Khan, they increasingly acted as independent entities, and took to warring amongst themselves. Kublai Khan, who was more focused on ruling his own realm in China – which was wealthier than all the other Mongol khanates put together – did little to interfere. He had come to appreciate the benefits of civilization, and decided to leave his roughneck relatives to deal with each other in their roughneck ways, so long as they did so far away.
By historical standards, Genghis Khan’s empire did not last long. Within two generations of his death, his descendants had fallen amongst themselves, and fragmented the great conqueror’s realm into rival khanates. By 1368, the greatest of those khanates, the Yuan Dynasty of China, had fallen, and Genghis’ empire had largely vanished. However, the world was due to experience a final great violent spasm from the Steppe, when Tamerlane (1336 – 1405), claiming descent from Genghis, sought to revive his empire. His rampage was, if anything, even bloodier than the Great Khan’s.
Tamerlane, a Muslim Turko-Mongol, was born in today’s Uzbekistan. His rise began in 1360, when he led Turkic tribesmen on behalf of the region’s ruling Khan. However, the Khan was murdered, triggering a power struggle. It ended with Tamerlane as the power behind a throne occupied by a figurehead puppet, through whom Tamerlane ruled. While his claimed descent from Genghis is dubious, Tamerlane justified his conquests as a restoration of the Mongol Empire and re-imposition of legitimate Mongol rule over lands seized by usurpers.
Tamerlane then spent 35 years earning a reputation for savagery, while bringing fire and sword to the lands between the Indus and the Volga, the Himalayas and the Mediterranean. Among the cities he left depopulated and in ruins were Damascus and Aleppo in Syria; Baghdad in Iraq; Sarai, capital of the Golden Horde, and Ryazan, both in Russia; India’s Delhi, outside whose walls he massacred over 100,000 captives; and Isfahan in Iran, where he massacred 200,000. Tamerlane was also in the habit of piling up pyramids of severed heads, cementing live prisoners into the walls of captured cities, and erecting towers of his victims’ skulls as object lessons and to terrorize and edify.
Tamerlane is estimated to have killed about 17 million people, amounting to 5 percent of the world’s population at the time. Extrapolated to current global population of 7.7 billion, Tamerlane’s rampage would be the equivalent of killing 385 million people today. His decades-long warpath finally came to an end in 1405 as he was preparing to invade China, but he took ill while encamped, and died before launching the campaign. He would prove to be history’s last major Steppe conqueror.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading