Terror on the Steppe: 12 Terrifying Nomadic Leaders of Eurasia

Terror on the Steppe: 12 Terrifying Nomadic Leaders of Eurasia

Khalid Elhassan - August 16, 2017

Mongols, Huns, Tatars and Turks: some of the nomadic inhabitants of the Eurasian Steppe who, for millennia, terrorized the civilized lands on their periphery with frequent raids, or, when unified under powerful warlords, devastating invasions that could extinguish empires. Steppe nomads had strategic mobility that allowed them to raid settled lands at will, departing with their booty before the locals could mobilize a response, and to choose when, where, and whether to fight the forces sent by the civilized lands to bring them to heel.

Strategic mobility was complemented by three tactical advantages. First, their horses gave them battlefield mobility, making it difficult to force them to fight to the death. If things weren’t going well, the nomads could retreat, living to fight another day.

Second, their preferred weapon, the recurved bow, led to tactical mismatches that afforded a standoff distance from which to kill in relative safety. They could thus attrit less mobile armies with arrows until they were weakened and demoralized, before swooping in to finish them off.

Third, an upbringing in the harsh Steppe, with much of their lives spent on horseback, created a deep pool of hardy warriors. In the settled lands, only a minority could be mobilized as fighters because the majority were needed in the fields and workshops. The Steppe nomads had no fields and little manufacture, while their food source, their animal flocks and herds, could be tended to by children and women. That left nearly the entire adult male population of fighting age available as warriors.

Terror on the Steppe: 12 Terrifying Nomadic Leaders of Eurasia
Attila and his Huns invading Italy. Wikimedia

The one saving grace was the difficulty of bringing together the fractious nomads in sufficiently large numbers to overwhelm their civilized neighbors. While small-scale raids on settled lands were a near constant, leaders of Genghis Khan’s or Attila’s caliber, who could realize the Steppe’s full and horrific potential, were few and far in between.

Terror on the Steppe: 12 Terrifying Nomadic Leaders of Eurasia
Neck piece from 4th century BC Scythian royal burial site. Wikimedia


King Idanthyrsus was a 6th century Scythian, a nomadic Iranian speaking tribal confederacy that inhabited the Steppe between the Carpathians and central China, controlled an overland trade network that connected the Greeks, Chinese, Persians, and Indians, and created the first of the Steppe empires that terrified the adjacent settled lands for millennia. Starting in the 7th century BC, the Scythian began raiding into the Middle East, and their first major disruptive role was a leading part in 612 BC in the destruction of the Assyrian Empire, forever extinguishing a nation that had existed for over a millennium and had dominated the Middle East for centuries.

In 513 BC, Darius I of Persia sought to end Scythian raids on his empire by conquering the Scythians. Assembling a huge army, he launched an invasion along the western Black Sea coast, and into today’s southern Ukraine and Russia. The Scythians simply retreated into the vastness of the Steppe, taking their families and herds with them. Avoiding the decisive pitched battle Darius sought, Idanthyrsus laid waste the countryside, blocking wells and destroying pastures, while attriting the invaders with skirmishes and hit and run attacks.

A frustrated Darius challenged Idanthyrsus to stop fleeing and either fight or admit his weakness and submit, recognizing the Persians as his lords. The Scythian’s response, as recorded by Herodotus, highlights the difficulty in bringing turbulent nomads to heel by forcing them to fight if they did not want to: “This is my way, O Persian. I have never fled in fear from any man and I do not flee from you now … We have neither cities nor cultivated land for which we might be willing to fight with you, fearing that they might be taken or ravaged … As for lords, I recognize only my ancestors Zeus and Hestia … As to you calling yourself my lord, I tell thee to ‘Go weep’“.

Darius had to give up and turn back, his invasion amounting to little more than an expensive and fruitless demonstration. Scythians were still raiding the Persian Empire centuries later until its destruction by Alexander the Great and continued to raid the former Persian lands for centuries beyond that.

Terror on the Steppe: 12 Terrifying Nomadic Leaders of Eurasia
Xiongnu Empire, circa 200 BC. Wikimedia

Modu Chanyu

Modu Chanyu (234 – 174 BC), a formidable Steppe warrior and chieftain who was in the habit of turning his defeated enemies’ skulls into cups from which he drank blood, unified the nomadic tribes of the eastern Steppe and founded the Xiongnu Empire. Spanning the eastern Steppe from Central Asia to Manchuria, the Xiongnu menaced the Chinese to their south for centuries, forging a complex relationship that alternated between trade and raid, marriage treaties and tribute and war.

In 200 BC, the Chinese emperor Gaozu, founder of the Han dynasty, attempted to bring the Xiongnu to heel but fared even worse than the Persian Darius had with the Scythians. Modu Chanyu led the Chinese invaders on a merry chase through the Steppe, while harrying their supply lines and keeping them on constant edge with frequent skirmishes. When the Chinese were exhausted, Modu ambushed and trapped them in a disadvantageous locale, cut off from resupply and reinforcement.

Surrounded, the Chinese emperor bought his life with an appeasement treaty known as the Heqin, that recognized Modu and the Xiongnu Empire as equals, defined The Great Wall as the mutual border, sent the Xiongnu leaders Chinese princesses as brides, and sought to buy them off with regular tribute payments, face-savingly referred to as “gifts”.

After Gaozu’s death, Modu sent a rude and mocking marriage proposal to his widow, the dowager empress, in 194 BC. Incensed, the empress and court were all for declaring war, with generals urging the extermination of the Xiongnu, until calmer voices reminded everybody of Modu’s victory just a few years earlier, and that the Xiongnu army was more powerful than the Chinese. Reconsidering, the empress wrote back, humbly declining, and sent a gift of imperial carriages and horses.

So badly had Modu beaten the Han emperor, and so memorable was the defeat, that Chinese attempts at a military solution were abandoned, and the Heqin system of buying off the nomads with princesses and tributes became the bedrock of Chinese diplomacy for centuries. The appeasement continued even after the Xiongnu Empire collapsed and the Xiongnu disappeared from the annals of history. Chinese princesses and Chinese “gifts” continued to be sent regularly to Steppe chieftains for over a thousand years, with the last recorded instance of Heqin occurring in 883 AD.

Terror on the Steppe: 12 Terrifying Nomadic Leaders of Eurasia
Bust of Attila the Hun at Kincsem Lovaspark, Hungary. Panoramio

Attila the Hun

Attila (406 – 453) ruled a multi-tribal empire dominated by the Huns, that spanned Eastern and Central Europe. During his reign, 434 – 453, he earned the moniker “The Scourge of God”, as he terrified the civilized world, invaded Persia, terrorized the Eastern and Western Roman Empires, plundered the Balkans, extorted vast sums of gold from Constantinople, invaded Gaul and was beaten back, recoiled, then struck into Italy the following year, before drinking himself to death on his wedding night.

He was born in the Hungarian Steppe in 406 into the Hun royal family and inherited the crown jointly with his brother Bleda in 434. The brothers were challenged early on, but crushed the opposition. When their surviving enemies fled to the Roman Empire, the brothers invaded and forced the Romans to surrender the fugitives and agree to an annual tribute of 230 kilograms of gold. Attila and Bleda then turned their attention to the Persian Empire, which they invaded and plundered for years before they were beaten, at which point they returned their attention to Europe.

Crossing the Danube in 440, the brothers plundered the Balkans and destroyed two Roman armies. The Roman emperor admitted defeat, and the brothers extorted from him a new treaty that paid 2000 gold kilograms upfront, plus an annual tribute of 700 gold kgs. Soon thereafter, Attila consolidated power by murdering his brother and becoming sole ruler. In 447, Attila returned to the Balkans, which he ravaged until he reached the walls of Constantinople, before recoiling.

In 450, the Western Roman Emperor’s sister sought to escape a betrothal by begging Attila’s help and sent him her engagement ring. He interpreted that as a marriage proposal, accepted, and asked for half of the Western Roman Empire as dowry. When the Romans balked, Attila invaded, visiting his customary devastation, before he was finally stopped at Chalons in 451.

The following year, he invaded Italy, sacking and burning as he advanced down the peninsula before he was persuaded by the Pope to withdraw. He planned to attack Constantinople again in 453, but his rampage finally ended that year, when he drank himself into a stupor while celebrating his wedding to a new wife, suffered a nosebleed, and choked to death on his own blood.

Also Read: Ten Things You Did Not Know About Attila The Hun.

Terror on the Steppe: 12 Terrifying Nomadic Leaders of Eurasia
Genghis Khan statue, Mongolian Parliament, Ulan Bator, Mongolia. ABC News

Genghis Khan

The greatest happiness is to scatter your enemy and drive him before you. To see his cities reduced to ashes. To see those who love him shrouded and in tears, and to gather to your bosom his wives and daughters” – Genghis Khan.

Temujin, later Genghis Khan (1162 – 1227), must have gathered to his bosom many conquered enemies’ wives and daughters: a 2003 genetic study revealed that 1 in 200 of the world’s population is descended from him – about 38 million people. He founded the Mongol Empire, the world’s largest contiguous empire, and was likely the most terrifying figure to emerge from the Steppe. His conquests were frequently accompanied by huge massacres, even genocide. The estimated 40 million deaths toll of the Mongol conquests initiated by him, viewed as a percentage of global population, would be equivalent to 278 million deaths if adjusted for the 20th century.

When Temujin was nine, his father, a minor Mongol chieftain, was poisoned. Rivals in the tribe then expelled the widow and her family to fend for themselves on the harsh Steppe. Temujin endured extreme poverty and want alongside his family for years, during which he killed one of his brothers for refusing to share a rodent. Growing up hard, Temujin grew into a hard man.

And a charismatic one. By the time he was a young man, he had amassed a small and devoted following, which he parlayed into bringing the Mongol tribes under his sway, one after another. He erased intra-tribal distinctions by exterminating each tribe’s nobility and combined the commoners into a unified entity henceforth known as the Mongols, united by their personal allegiance to Temujin.

Having united the Mongols, he took on the formidable rival Tatar tribe, defeated them, and executed all males taller than a wagon’s axle. By 1206, Temujin had destroyed all Steppe rivals, and the formerly squabbling tribes had been united into a Mongol nation. So a grand assembly was held that year, where he revealed a vision, endorsed by shamans, in which the heavens had ordained that he rule all under the sky, and the Mongols proclaimed him “Genghis Khan“, meaning Universal Ruler.

Genghis organized the Mongols for war. He was a good judge of men and an excellent talent spotter, and his system was a meritocracy where the talented could rise, regardless of origins. He imposed strict discipline in a military structure based on decimals, from squads of 10, to companies of 100, to minghans of 1000, and tumans of 10,000. Then he set out to conquer the world, beginning with China, which was fragmented at the time into various dynasties. He started with the Western Xia, and reduced them to vassalage, before turning to the more powerful Jin in 1211, capturing and sacking their capital in 1215 after a victory in which hundreds of thousands of Jin troops were massacred.

That forced the Jin emperor to abandon the northern half of his empire. Genghis, who found himself ruling a domain that included tens of millions of Chinese peasants, at first planned to simply kill them all and transform the land into pasturage suitable for Mongol herds, until taxation was explained to him, and he was persuaded that many live peasants translate into a steady stream of income and wealth.

Genghis interrupted his campaign against the Jin after a city governor in the powerful Khwarezmian Empire to the west executed Mongol envoys sent by Genghis to its emir. The emir’s refusal to surrender the offending governor was one of history’s direst errors. Genghis launched a brilliant invasion of Khwarezim in 1218 that overwhelmed the empire and extinguished it by 1221, while its fleeing emir was relentlessly chased across his domain to his death, abandoned and exhausted, on a small Caspian island as his pursuers closed in. It was in this war that the Mongols gained their reputation for savagery. Millions of Khwarzmians died, as Genghis ordered the massacre of entire cities that offered the least resistance, and sent thousands of captives ahead of his armies as human shields.

By the time Genghis was done, Khwarezm had been reduced from a thriving and wealthy empire to an impoverished and depopulated wasteland. At the grand mosque in the once-thriving but now smoldering city of Bukhara, Genghis told the survivors that he was the Flail of God, and that: “If you had not committed great sins, God would not have sent a punishment like me upon you“.

Genghis died in 1227, after falling from his horse while campaigning in western China.

Terror on the Steppe: 12 Terrifying Nomadic Leaders of Eurasia
Mongols battling Kievan Rus. Ancient Origins


They are the Four Dogs of Temujin. They have foreheads of brass, their jaws are like scissors, their tongues like piercing awls, their heads are iron, their whipping tails swords . . . In the day of battle, they devour enemy flesh. Behold, they are now unleashed, and they slobber at the mouth with glee. These four dogs are Jebe, and Kublai, Jelme, and Subotai.” — The Secret History of the Mongols

Jebe, born Zurgudai (d. 1225), was one of Genghis Khan’s leading generals, who started his military career in his enemies’ ranks. During a battle in 1201, Zurgudai shot Genghis in the neck with an arrow. After winning the battle, a wounded Genghis asked his captives who had shot him. Zurgudai confessed, and Genghis, impressed by his honesty and courage, took him in his service and named him “Jebe”, meaning arrow – the name by which he is known to history.

Jebe quickly rose through the ranks, and within a few years had become one of Genghis’ most capable generals, entrusted with independent commands such as the assignment to defeat Kuchlug, one of Genghis’ last remaining Steppe enemies, and the subjugation of his Kara Khitai state. Jebe accomplished the mission in quick order, capping off the conquest by beheading Kuchlug. He then rejoined Genghis and took part in the conquest of the Khwarezmian Empire.

Once Khwarezm was subdued, Genghis gave Jebe and Subutai permission to lead a great cavalry raid westward through northern Persia, then up through the Caucasus, around the Caspian Sea, before turning east to return to Mongolia. Jebe’s masterpiece occurred during that raid, at the Battle of Kalka River in 1222, when he and Subutai conducted a feigned retreat before a numerically superior army of Kievan Rus and Cumans, luring them into following him for nine days, before turning on the pursuers and slaughtering them nearly to a man.

That raid set the stage for a Mongol return fifteen years later, this time in a full-force invasion that conquered Kievan Rus and overran Eastern Europe. Jebe, however, died in 1225, soon after his return from that raid, and did not live to harvest what he had planted or seen the fruits of his work.

Terror on the Steppe: 12 Terrifying Nomadic Leaders of Eurasia
Subutai and Jebe after defeating the Rus at Battle of Kalka River. Our Russia


Subutai (1175 – 1248), known as “Bagatur” (The Valiant), was the Mongols’ most brilliant and successful general, and the main military strategist of both Genghis Khan and his successor, Ogedei. Hailing from a humble background, he rose through the ranks, and eventually directed over 20 campaigns, conquered or overran 32 nations, and won 65 battles. He holds the distinction of having conquered more territory than any other commander in history.

Subutai left home at age 14 to join the Mongol army. Genghis Khan liked him and appointed him his door attendant, and it from that close proximity to the Khan, Subutai learned the basics of strategy and the Mongol art of war. In his first assignment, he convinced an enemy garrison that he was a deserter from the Mongol army, won their confidence and lulled them into letting down their guard, then signaled the Mongols to attack. Deception would be a hallmark of his military success, as he would exhibit, on a larger scale, in 1211 when he secured a major victory for Genghis over the Jin by a timely appearance to surprise the enemy with a flank attack, after convincing them that he was hundreds of miles away.

He also led the Mongol vanguard in the conquest of Khwarezm, chased its emir to his death, and after that campaign, led a reconnaissance in force on a circular route around the Caspian to the north en route back to Mongolia, while Genghis returned via a circular southern route that would brush against India.

Subutai’s route led through the Caucasus, where he twice defeated the Georgians, then subjugated the Cumans. That brought him into conflict with the Cumans’ Rus allies, so he and Jebe led them a merry chase for days in a feigned retreat, before destroying them at the Battle of Kalka River. They then returned to the east, where Subutai conducted successful campaigns against the Chinese for the next decade, before returning to the west and subjugating the Rus in late 1230.

After reducing the Rus to vassalage, Subutai invaded Eastern Europe in 1241, overseeing the operations of Mongol armies separated by hundreds of miles, and bringing them to victory over their respective opponents, in Poland and Hungary, within one day of each other. Subutai was in command of the Mongols at the second victory, the Battle of Mohi, which destroyed the Hungarian army and left Central Europe open. Subutai was drawing plans to advance along the Danube to Vienna, then subjugate the Holy Roman Empire, when news arrived of Khan Ogedei’s death.

Although he wanted to press on into Europe, politics necessitated the return of Subutai and his forces to Mongolia to participate in the selection of a new Khan. Subutai never returned, and spent his final years campaigning against the Song Dynasty in southern China – and thus Europe was spared the Mongol yoke that Russia would endure for centuries.

Terror on the Steppe: 12 Terrifying Nomadic Leaders of Eurasia
Statue of Muqali in Chinggis Square, Ulan Bator, Mongolia. Wikimedia


Muqali (1170 – 1223) was born into a clan of hereditary serfs, whom Genghis Khan freed after conquering their tribe and absorbing it into his nascent Mongol nation. From his humble origins, Muqali rose to become one of Genghis’ main generals and played a leading role in defeating the Jin Dynasty and conquering northern China.

Muqali had a major part in the Battle of Yehuling in 1211, a multi-staged months long campaign that pitted 80,000 Mongol invaders against a combined defensive force of 950,000 guarding mountain passes and fortifications along a 300 km frontier. It culminated in a decisive victory over the Jin, with over half the defenders killed, followed by the Jin emperor’s assassination by one of his generals, and paved the way for the dynasty’s demise and the Mongols’ conquest of northern China. During the battle, Muqali distinguished himself and cemented his place in Genghis’ favor by successfully leading a cavalry charge over mountainous terrain to seize a vital pass.

When war broke out with the Khwarezmian Empire in 1218, Genghis took most of the Mongols as he headed west to conquer Khwarezm. He named Muqali his viceroy in China, gave him a royal title, showered him with more lavish praise and gifts than he had given any of his other generals, and left him behind with 20,000 men to keep the Jin in check until Genghis’ return.

In the Khan’s absence, Muqali exceeded expectations, and not only held off the Jin whose armies still numbered in the hundreds of thousands but went on the offensive against an enemy that outnumbered him by more than 10:1. He repeatedly wrong-footed the Jin and kept them off balance by feints, rapidity of action and aggressiveness, and attacks from unexpected directions. By the time Genghis returned in 1222, Muqali had conquered most of northern China. He died of illness the following year, while besieging a Jin fortress.

Terror on the Steppe: 12 Terrifying Nomadic Leaders of Eurasia
Statue of Ogedei. Wikimedia


Ogedei (1185 – 1241) was Genghis Khan’s third son and unexpected successor. His two older brothers, Jochi and Chagatai, were ahead of him in the line of succession but had developed a bitter enmity. Jochi claimed the right to inherit as eldest, but Chagatai countered that Jochi, whose parentage was questionable because their mother had been kidnapped by an enemy of Genghis in the year before Jochi’s birth, was a bastard, making Chagatai the eldest trueborn son. When it became clear that the empire would descend into civil war if either inherited, Ogedei was selected as a compromise heir.

Realizing that he was not Genghis’ military equal, Ogedei was open to wise counsel and, relying on capable subordinates, greatly expanded the frontiers of the Mongol Empire to its greatest southward and westward extents. From his capital in Mongolia, he directed simultaneous campaigns on multiple fronts separated by thousands of miles, relying on field generals acting independently within their theaters, but subject to Ogedei’s orders, relayed via a swift horse relay courier network.

In the east, the Mongols continued the campaign against the Jin, in alliance with the Song Dynasty in southern China. Ogedei commanded in person until 1232, then returned to Mongolia, entrusting to subordinates the final mopping-up operations, which terminated with the extinguishment of the Jin Dynasty in 1234. The Mongols then fell out with their Song allies, and a new campaign began against southern China. Simultaneously, Ogedei’s Mongols invaded the Korean Peninsula and asserted Mongol suzerainty.

In the south, Ogedei’s armies invaded India, marching into the Indus Valley and on to the Delhi Sultanate, occupying parts of today’s Pakistan and Punjab. Simultaneously, another Mongol army marched into and subdued Kashmir.

In the west, Ogedei’s armies marched out of the recently conquered Khwarezm to subdue the remainder of today’s Central Asia, overrunning Khorasan, Afghanistan, Persia, and reaching Mesopotamia. From there, they turned northward and conquered Armenia, Georgia, and the Caucasus region then continued to reduce Russia to centuries of vassalage. Afterward, they penetrated into Eastern Europe, capturing Poland, Bulgaria, Hungary, and reaching the Adriatic Sea. The Mongol forces in Europe under Subutai were drawing plans to continue the advance into Italy and Central Europe, when news arrived of Ogedei’s death, which necessitated a halt to the campaign and a return to Mongolia for the selection of a new Khan.

Terror on the Steppe: 12 Terrifying Nomadic Leaders of Eurasia
Batu Khan. Encyclopedia Britannica

Batu Khan

Batu (1207 – 1255) was a grandson of Genghis who accompanied and, as a member of the Mongol royal family, was in nominal command of, Subatai’s campaign that conquered Russia and penetrated Europe to the Adriatic Sea and the walls of Vienna. He went on to found the Golden Horde – an independent Mongol state on the western Steppe that dominated Russia and the Caucasus for two and a half centuries, and that included at its peak most of Eastern Europe, with a territory extending from the Danube to Siberia.

Batu’s father, Jochi, had been entrusted by Genghis Khan to administer the Mongolian Empire’s west, comprised during Genghis’ days of Central Asia and Siberia. After Jochi’s death in 1227, the task fell to Batu. In 1237, with Subutai as his military commander, Batu initiated the Mongol conquest of Russia, which was completed by 1241. The Mongols then launched a multi-pronged invasion of Eastern Europe, with one army in Poland defeating a coalition of Germans and Poles, while another Mongol army defeated a larger Hungarian force hundreds of miles to the south.

Batu and Subutai then crossed the Carpathians and concentrated in Hungary for a campaign against Central and Western Europe, when news arrived of the Great Khan Ogedei’s death. Subutai wanted to continue, but Batu had ambitions of becoming the next Great Khan and, as a member of the royal family, outranked Subutai. He insisted that all return to Mongolia to participate in the selection of the new Mongol ruler, and thus, in 1242, with all of Europe within their reach and at their mercy, the Mongols decamped from Hungary and rode back to Mongolia.

Batu failed in his bid to get selected the next Great Khan and returned to administer his own domain from his new capital, Sarai, on the Volga. In 1251, the Great Khan in Mongolia recognized the independence and complete autonomy of Batu’s domain, which was known thereafter as the Golden Horde. It lasted into the 16th century before breaking up, with the last fragment surviving until 1847.

Terror on the Steppe: 12 Terrifying Nomadic Leaders of Eurasia
Hulagu, founder of the Ilkhanate. Military Wiki


Hulagu (1217 – 1265) was a grandson of Genghis Khan and younger brother of the Grand Khans Mongke and Kublai, who expanded the Mongol domain into Western Asia with a savagery that remains in the region’s memory to this day. He destroyed Baghdad and extinguished the Abbasid Caliphate, conquered Syria, menaced Egypt and the surviving Crusader states, and while destroying medieval Persian culture, founded the Ilkhanate in Persia, a precursor of modern Iran.

In 1251, Hulagu was recognized by his brother Mongke as ruler of the Ilkhanate in Persia and tasked to extend Mongol power into the Islamic world. As a preliminary, Hulagu attacked and exterminated the Assassins cult, a militant Islamic sect that had terrorized the Middle East for generations. He then turned to the Abbasid Caliphate, and when the Caliph refused to submit, Hulagu invaded and besieged him in Baghdad, captured the city in 1258 and destroyed it along with all its treasures, such as the Grand Library of Baghdad, and massacred between 200,000 to a million inhabitants. To avoid a Mongol taboo against spilling royal blood, the captured Caliph was executed by being rolled into a carpet, which was then trampled by Mongols riding over it. That ended the Abbasids and the Islamic institution of the Caliphate.

Hulagu then conquered Syria, bringing to an end the Ayubbid dynasty founded by Saladin. He then set his eyes on Egypt, but on the eve of the invasion, he received word that his brother Mongke had died. As a potential successor, Hulagu returned to Mongolia, and in his absence, the Mongols he left behind under a trusted subordinate were wiped out by the Egyptian Mamluks at the Battle of Ain Jalut in 1260 – the first major defeat of a Mongol army, and one that broke the spell of Mongol invincibility.

Hulagu was not selected to succeed his brother as Great Khan, so he returned west to avenge the defeat at Ain Jalut, but ended up warring with a cousin, Batu Khan’s brother Berke, who had succeeded to the leadership of the Golden Horde, converted to Islam, and was enraged by Hulagu’s rampage in the Muslim world. The war with Berke was Hulagu’s main focus for the remainder of his life, until his death in 1265.

Terror on the Steppe: 12 Terrifying Nomadic Leaders of Eurasia
Kublai Khan statue in Ulan Bator, Mongolia. Popular Science

Kublai Khan

Kublai Khan (1215 – 1294) was a grandson of Genghis Khan and brother of the Great Khan, Mongke, whom he succeeded in 1260. He conquered the Song Dynasty of southern China and founded the Yuan Dynasty, thus reuniting China for the first time in centuries. He was the nominal overlord of all other Mongol domains, from the Pacific to the Carpathians, but his writ and attention were focused on the territory he personally ruled in China and its periphery, which was wealthier and more populous than all the remaining Mongol khanates put together.

Kublai heeded the advice that “one can conquer an empire on horseback, but cannot rule it on horseback“. After conquering the Song in a campaign that he largely led in person, he spent the bulk of his remaining years in governance rather than military affairs. He ordered expansions along the periphery of his domain that met with mixed success or ended in disaster such as two attempted invasions of Japan that were wrecked by typhoons, but domestic politics and governance interested him more than war.

His reign and founding of the Yuan Dynasty marked the transition that successful nomadic conquerors eventually underwent, eschewing the roughneck ways of the Steppe as they came to appreciate the benefits of settled life, and getting absorbed into the civilization which they had conquered. Kublai encountered fierce resistance from Mongol traditionalists who preferred the old ways and their felt tents to the courtly life in Chinese palaces, but he prevailed in the end.

Kublai’s conquest of the Song Dynasty reunified China after centuries of fragmentation, and the borders of the Yuan Dynasty, encompassing Manchuria, Tibet, and Mongolia, established the broad outline of Chinese territorial suzerainty that survives to this day.

Terror on the Steppe: 12 Terrifying Nomadic Leaders of Eurasia
Forensic facial reconstruction based on Tamerlane’s exhumed skull. Facts and Legend


Tamerlane (1336 – 1405) was the last of the great Eurasian Steppe conquerors to terrify the civilized world through widespread devastation and butchery. He is chiefly remembered for his savagery, and his wide-ranging rampage, from India to Russia and the Mediterranean and points in between, is estimated to have killed about 17 million people, amounting to 5 percent of the world’s population at the time.

Tamerlane, a Muslim Turko-Mongol who claimed descent from Genghis Khan, was born in the Chagatai Khanate, ruled by Genghis’ descendants, in today’s Uzbekistan. His rise began in 1360 when he led Turkic tribesmen on behalf of the Chagatai Khan, but following the Khan’s murder, a struggle for power ensued, at the end of which Tamerlane emerged as the power behind a throne occupied by a figurehead Chagatai 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.

He 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 would-be opponents.

His most impressive victory came at the expense of the Ottoman Turks, a rising power in their own right, as exuberantly confident in their prowess as was Tamerlane. For years, insulting letters were exchanged between Tamerlane and the Ottoman Sultan, Bayezid, until Tamerlane finally showed up and defeated him in 1402, took him captive, and humiliated him by keeping him in a cage at court, while Bayazid’s favorite wife was made to serve Tamerlane and his courtiers, naked.

Terror on the Steppe: 12 Terrifying Nomadic Leaders of Eurasia
Tamerlane gloating over the captured Ottoman Sultan, Bayezid. Wikimedia

His decades-long rampage 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.