The Mongols Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Numerous steppe nomad empires existed in Eurasia throughout the medieval period.

Political Considerations

Numerous steppe Steppe nomads;Mongolsnomad empires existed in Eurasia throughout the medieval period. Prior to 1200 the Mongols had been merely one of many tribes in the steppes of Mongolia. Mongolia had long been a training ground for the horse archers that formed the cores of steppe nomad armies. Between 600 and 1206 c.e. several empires rose in Mongolia. The first was the early Turkic T’u-chüeh T’u-chüeh Empire[Tuchueh]Empire of the early 600’s. The UighursUighurs, who formed an empire from 744 to 840, were driven south by the Kirghiz EmpireKirghiz of the Yenisei River, who held Mongolia until 920, when theKhitan EmpireKhitans established an empire over part of Mongolia and northern China that lasted until 1125.MongolsMongols

Most of the information concerning these empires indicates that their armies consisted primarily not of infantry but of horse Archers and archery;Mongolsarchers who relied on mobility and barrages of arrows to defeat their enemies, rather than on the shock tactics of European cavalry. Indeed, the most difficult battles for the nomads usually were those fought against other armies of horse archers, and not those fought against their sedentary opponents in China, central Asia, Europe, or Iran. Despite the long existence of these armies, it was not until the establishment of the Khitan Empire, also known as the Liao Liao DynastyDynasty (907-1125) of China, in southern Mongolia and northern China, that a true standardized military organization took cohesive form. After the fall of the Liao, the nomads of Mongolia still maintained their military predominance, yet not until the ascendance of Genghis Khan (who lived from between 1155 and 1162 to 1227) did they become the premier military power of the medieval period.

Genghis Genghis KhanGenghis Khan (Mongol king)Khan drew upon the military formations of the Khitans and the Jürcheds[Jurcheds]Jürcheds (1115-1234), a Manchurian people who defeated the Khitans, as well as nomadic traditions and technology from the lands he conquered, to create an army that surpassed contemporary foes not only in fighting ability but also in strategy, tactics, and organization. The innovations he introduced continued throughout the Mongol Empire and were adopted by later leaders such as the Turkish conqueror Tamerlane (1336-1405), whose talents for military and administrative leadership allowed him to become the first central Asian leader to overthrow the Mongols. Although modifications of Mongol formations and equipment continued throughout the period following the Mongol Empire, it was not until the late fifteenth century that sedentary armies could match the achievements of the steppe nomads.

Military Achievement

The Mongols’ military achievements were impressive: The Mongols built, through mobility, superior discipline, and advanced strategies, the largest contiguous land empire of its time. Although the empire remained unified for roughly only seventy years after the death of Genghis Khan, its heritage was maintained by his successors, who included his grandson, Kublai Kublai KhanKublai Khan (Mongol king)Khan (1215-1294), and later successors such as Tamerlane.

Perhaps the most difficult achievement for Genghis Khan was the unification of the tribes of Mongolia. Once these tribes were united, Genghis Khan forged them into an army of unprecedented size and force. Although tribal confederations had appeared throughout history, none of them possessed the martial potency, discipline, and organization of the Mongols. Furthermore, the Mongols quickly learned to adapt those military methods of their opponents that they deemed effective, particularly siege warfare and the mobilization of resources.

The Mongol Empire at its height stretched from the Pacific Ocean to the Carpathian Mountains. Its armies ranged even farther, invading Vietnam and reaching the Adriatic Sea in Europe. In the early 1220’sJebeJebe (Mongol general)Jebe (fl. 1200-1230) and SabutaiSabutai (Mongol general)Sabutai (c. 1172-1245), two of Genghis Khan’s top commanders, led roughly twenty thousand men into modern Iran, across the Caucasus Mountains into the Russian steppe, and back to Kazakhstan without the benefit of modern communication systems or even maps. This feat is even more impressive considering that the troops fought numerous battles along the way without reinforcements. The organization of the Mongol military allowed the empire to wage offensive wars on several fronts, from China to the Middle East. Although the empire gradually expanded over decades across Asia, individual invasions were rapid and fierce.

Successors such as TamerlaneTamerlane (Turkic leader)Tamerlane carried on the Mongol tradition. His campaigns consisted of continuous marching, from India into Siberia and the Middle East. Tamerlane was victorious over many of the top commanders of the late medieval era, including the Ottoman sultan Bayezid IBayezid I (Ottoman sultan)[Bayezid 01]Bayezid (c. 1360-1403), who struck fear into Europe, as well as ToqtamishToqtamish (Mongol leader)Toqtamish (fl. c. 1380-1390), who had reunified the Golden Golden HordeGolden Horde (Mongol tribe)Horde, a tribe of Mongols that sacked and burned Moscow in 1382.

Weapons, Uniforms, and Armor

The Armor;MongolUniforms;Mongolaverage Mongol soldier’s primary weapon was a composite Bows and arrows;Mongolbow. This multilayered bow was small enough to be used on horseback but possessed a range equal to, if not better than, that of the English longbow. Each Mongol warrior carried two or three such bows, often in a quiver attached to the saddle of his horse. For ammunition, each soldier carried approximately sixty arrows in multiple quivers, also often attached to the saddle. The arrows were divided into three categories. The first included arrows that could pierce the heavy armor of European knights when fired from the 80- to 160-pound draw of the Mongol bow. Arrows in the second class were lighter and had a greater range but little penetrating power. Arrows in the third group were signal, or whistling, arrows, which were used to communicate within armies as well as to frighten enemies. The Mongols possessed a variety of other arrowheads for specialized purposes.

The Mongols also carried other weapons, such as sabers and axes, and often short lances, more often used for flying banners than in battle. However, these Lances;Mongollances also possessed a hook forged into the blade, which enabled the Mongols to ensnare and then to pull more heavily armored foes off their mounts.

The single most important weapon or piece of equipment used by the Mongols and other steppe nomads was the Horses and horse riding;Mongolshorse. The Mongol horse was small, roughly the size of a pony, yet durable, with incredible stamina. Each warrior possessed a string of horses, ranging from three to six, although some records report higher figures. The large number of horses allowed the warrior to remain mounted for the entire campaign; if one horse was killed, he had a replacement. More important, this arrangement allowed the Mongols to maintain their superior mobility: As one horse tired, a warrior could switch to another.

For the most part, Mongol warriors were unencumbered by heavy armor. They wore little armor, apart from hardened leather, or leather reinforced with lamellar plates, considerably lighter than even the finest chain mail. Chain Chain mail;Mongolmail was worn occasionally, but because the art of Mongol warfare depended on mobility, the extra weight of the mail was considered a hindrance. Heavy cavalry units armored their horses with lamellar Armor;horsescuirasses, which covered the horses’ upper bodies. In the Il-Khanate (Persia)[Il Khanate]Il-Khanate of Persia, a Mongol dynasty that ruled in Iran (1256-1353), the Mongols switched from a light cavalry to a heavier force that naturally required more armor.

The Mongol Empire in 1260

Although the Mongols did not have a specific uniform, they did cut their hair in a certain manner to identify themselves. Even those conscripted from the conquered would receive the Mongol coif, which consisted of a tonsure similar to that of a monk, with only a tuft of hair remaining in front and two braids trailing from the back.

Military Organization

The Mongols drew upon the Khitan military system to base the organization of their armies on the decimal system. The largest unit was the Tumen (Mongol military unit)tumen, a division of ten thousand men. Contained within each tumen were tenMinggan (Mongol military unit)minggans, or one-thousand-man units. These in turn were divided into ten Jaghun (Mongol military unit) jaghuns, or one-hundred-man units. The jaghun was the basic tactical unit. The smallest unit consisted of ten men and was known as the Arban (Mongol military unit) arban.

During larger campaigns, the Mongols often instituted a Tamna (Mongol military unit)tamna force, in which a certain number of men from every unit, approximately two out of ten, were mustered to form an army. Once the campaign ended, these troops were allowed to return to their units. The conquered were also included in conscription, but they were usually required to serve in foreign lands, in order to prevent rebellion. The most common method of preventing mutiny at a critical moment was simply to divide the new recruits into existing units. This arrangement prevented the new recruits from forming a cohesive and potentially disrupting force, and it helped to maintain the unit integrity of existing formations. Tamerlane, like Genghis Khan, divided members of recalcitrant tribes among various units in order to prevent mutiny.

Doctrine, Strategy, and Tactics

When the Mongols engaged an opponent’s field army, they used a wide array of tactics to achieve victory. One such tactic, usually the opening one, was a barrage of arrows from a distance. Although this opening volley often inflicted little harm, it allowed the Mongols to see how the enemy would react. To remain in a position under constant fire probably became frustrating, especially for elite units. For massed infantry, often haphazardly armored, it became precarious.

From the Jürcheds, the Mongols adopted a troop composition of roughly 60 percent light Cavalry;Mongolcavalry and 40 percent medium-to-heavy cavalry. Army formations essentially consisted of five lines. The first three lines were light cavalry, and the last two were heavy cavalry. During battle the light cavalry released numerous barrages of arrows upon their opponents before retiring to regroup behind the heavy cavalry. After the opponent had become sufficiently disorganized, or after the Mongol commander decided to deliver the final blow, the heavy cavalry would trot forward in silence, accompanied only by the pounding of drums. Just before contact, the riders would release a terrific, collective scream, intended to frighten their opponents.

The key element in battle remained the Mongol barrage, or “storm,” of arrows, after which the Mongols would base their ensuing actions on their observations of their enemy. They would opt either for an enveloping maneuver or for a continued arrow barrage, at a closer, more destructive range. Another tactic was the Mangutai (Mongol suicidal attack)mangutai, or the so-called Suicide;Mongol suicide attack. In this maneuver a select group of Mongols would harass the enemy lines, showering them with arrows at close range until the enemy finally broke ranks and charged. The Mongols would then flee, still firing their arrows by turning backward in their saddles, a technique known as the Parthian Parthian shot shot, perfected and made famous by Parthian warriors of ancient Persia. After the pursuing forces became strung out and disorganized, the majority of Mongol forces would then charge. Often these forces had been waiting in Ambushes;Mongol ambush along the flanks, or were in fact the mangutai troops, who had mounted fresh horses. The pursuing forces would be unable to withstand the cohesive force of the Mongol charge. This maneuver–the feigned Feigned rout maneuver rout–was an old steppe trick, one that the Mongols raised to perfection. In the encircling maneuver the Mongols often left a gap between their lines. Eventually, the encircled foe would detect the gap and attempt to escape through it, inevitably leading to a rout, during which the Mongols would pursue and cut down the fleeing soldiers.

The Mongols conducted the majority of their battles at a distance. They possessed a great advantage in the power of their bows and believed in the principle of massed firepower, coordinating their fire arcs through the use of banners, torches, and whistling arrows. Much like that of modern directed artillery fire, the effect of massed Mongol firepower could be devastating.

Mongol use of massed firepower also applied to Siege warfare;Mongolsieges. At Aleppo, Siege of (1400)Aleppo in 1400, the Mongols arranged twenty catapults against one gate. The Mongol use of massed firepower–decades before the English use of massed longbow archers–reduced enemy armies, and with catapults and ballistae, demolished city defenses.

Other Mongol tactics included psychological Psychological warfare;Mongolmaneuvers. The Mongols often lighted more campfires than normal to make their camps appear to be larger than they were. At times they also mounted dummies on their spare horses, so that their armies would appear from a distance to be larger than they were. Tamerlane contributed the trick of tying branches to the tails of his horses, so that enormous clouds of dust could be seen from a distance, deceiving his enemies. Merchants who served as spies spread rumors far in advance of the army. Furthermore, Mongols treated with leniency cities that surrendered, whereas they crushed mercilessly those that opposed or rebelled.

Mongol warriors harass their enemies in battle.

(Library of Congress)

In terms of strategy, the Mongols had a set method of invasion that varied only slightly from campaign to campaign. The Mongol army invaded in several, usually three, columns: a center force and two flanking corps. The flanking units, in some instances, went into neighboring territories before a rendezvous with the center army, as in the Mongol invasion of Hungary;Mongol invasion (1241)Hungary in 1241. Armies sent into Poland distracted the Poles, the Teutonic Teutonic KnightsKnights, and the Bohemians from joining the Hungarians. A screen of scouts and outriders constantly relayed information back to the column. Their preplanned schedule and use of scouts allowed the Mongols to march divided, but to fight united. Furthermore, because their forces marched in considerably smaller concentrations, the Mongols were not impeded by columns stretching for miles. They used their mobility to spread terror on many fronts at the same time; their opponents were rarely prepared to concentrate their forces against them.

The Mongols’ use of many-pronged invasions also fit in with their preferred method of engaging the enemy. The Mongols preferred to deal with all field armies before moving deep into enemy territory. Because the enemy usually sought to meet the Mongols before they destroyed an entire province, reaching this goal was rarely difficult. Furthermore, the Mongols’ use of columns and a screen of scouts enabled the gathering of Intelligence gathering;Mongol methodsintelligence that usually allowed the Mongols to unite their forces before the enemy was cognizant of all the different invading forces, thus better concealing their troop strengths. This arrangement also meant that an embattled force could receive reinforcements or, in the advent of defeat, could be avenged.

By concentrating on the dispersion and movement of field armies, the Mongols delayed assault on enemy strongholds. Of course, the Mongols took smaller or more easily surprised fortresses as they encountered them. The destruction of the field armies also allowed the Mongols to pasture their horses and other livestock without the threat of raids. One of the best examples occurred during Genghis Khan’s Khwārizm Khwārizm campaign (Genghis Khan, c. 1220)[Khwarizm]campaign (c. 1220). The Mongols took the surrounding smaller cities and fortresses before capturing the principal city of Samarqand (Uzbekistan)Samarqand, in modern Uzbekistan. This strategy had two effects. First, it cut off the principal city from communications with other cities that might provide aid. Second, refugees from these smaller cities fled to Samarqand, the last stronghold. The sight of this streaming horde of refugees, as well as their reports, reduced the morale of the inhabitants and garrison of the principal city and also strained its resources. Food and water reserves were taxed by the sudden influx of refugees. Soon, what once had seemed a formidable undertaking became an easy task.

After conquering the surrounding territory, the Mongols were free to lay siege to the principal city without interference of a field army. Smaller forts and cities could not harry the Mongols, who either foraged or pursued other missions during the siege. Most important, the many Mongol columns and raiding forces had prevented the main city from effectively assisting its smaller neighbors without leaving itself open to attack. Finally, the capture of the outer strongholds and towns provided the Mongols more siege experience as well as raw materials in the form of labor either to man the siege engines or to act as human shields for the Mongols.

The Mongols also strove to destroy any hopes their opponents had to rally by harrying enemy leaders until they dropped. Genghis Khan first did this during his unification of Mongolia. In his first few encounters, the enemy leaders had escaped, which continually haunted him. After this lesson, the Mongols habitually hunted down opposing leaders. In Khwārizm Sultan ՙAlā al-Din Muḥammad, ՙAlā al-DinMuḥammad, ՙAlā al-Din[Muhammad, Al al Din]Muḥammad (r. 1200-1220) died alone on an island in the Caspian Sea after being hounded by Jebe and Sabutai. Mongol units relentlessly pursued Jalāl ad-Dīn Mingburnu (r. 1220-1231), Muḥammad’s son. Béla Béla IVBéla IV (king of Hungary)[Bela 04]IV (1206-1270), king of Hungary, barely escaped the Mongols, led by Batu Batu KhanBatu Khan (Mongol king)Khan (died 1255), in 1241, as his boat pushed off of the Dalmatian coast into the Adriatic Sea.

Constantly on the move to avoid the Mongol forces, an enemy leader was unable to serve as a rallying point for his armies, who were also required to keep moving in order to find him. In many reports, the enemy leaders were only a few steps ahead of the Mongols. This strategy also allowed the Mongols opportunities to acquire new intelligence on other lands, because fleeing leaders ran in the opposite direction of the Mongols. The pursuing Mongol forces could then wreak havoc in new territories. Local powers would keep their forces at home, instead of sending them to help their overlords. In many instances the Mongols would defeat local armies they encountered along the way while avoiding the strongholds, another example of the Mongol method of destroying field armies before laying siege. The most important aspect of these pursuit columns was their capacity for destruction and intimidation, which created a buffer between the currently occupied territories and those that recently had been subdued. Thus, the main army could finish its mission of subjugation while the surrounding environs were devastated and rendered harmless.

Medieval Sources

Medieval sources of information about the Mongol military are fairly rich, due to the fact that the Mongols covered a large territory. Most accounts were written by the conquered, or by individuals hostile to the Mongols. The one surviving Mongol source, The Secret History of the Mongols (c. 1240), is extremely important for the study of the Mongol military. It is the primary source for the unification of Mongolia under Genghis Khan, revealing his initial defeats and the lessons he learned from them. It also describes the organization and tactics of the Mongol army. Finally, this work also provides the best description of the KeshikKeshik (Mongol bodyguard) keshik, or the bodyguard of Khan. The keshik also served as a training school for officers.

The Jāmi ‘at-tawārīkh by Persian physician, historian, and politician Rashīd Rashīd ad-DīnRashīd ad-Dīn[Rashid ad Din] ad-Dīn (1247-1318), and the Tārikh-i jehān-gushā (1252-1256; A History of the World Conqueror, 1958) by ՙAṭā Malek Joveynī, ՙAṭā MalekJoveynī, ՙAṭā Malek[Joveyni, Ata Malek] Joveynī, also known as ՙAṭā Malek Juwaynī, are among the most important Muslim sources. Both authors were members of the civil government under the Mongols, and their works reveal much about Mongol conquests, organization, and strategies. Rashīd ad-Dīn’s work also is the source of Maḥmūd Ghāzān’s (1271-1304) reforms for the Il-Khanate’s military. In addition, numerous Arab authors and later ones from the Mamluk period (1250-1517) discuss the Mongol invasions, as well as more minute details of strategy and tactics. Arab author Ibn Ibn al-athīrIbn al-athīr[Ibn al Athir] al-Athīr (1160-1233), a historian and scholar of Mosul and Baghdad, wrote al-Kāmil fī at-tārīkh, whose title means “the complete history.”

Among European sources, the travel accounts of French Franciscan friar and traveler Willem van Willem van RuysbroeckWillem van RuysbroeckRuysbroeck (c. 1215-c. 1295) and missionary Giovanni da Pian del Carpini, Giovanni da Pian delCarpini, Giovanni da Pian delCarpini (c. 1180-1252) stand out. Both individuals traveled to the court of the Khans, a few years apart. Their accounts contain much anecdotal and incidental information and vary greatly in tone. Shortly after the Mongol invasion of Hungary Pope Innocent Innocent IVInnocent IV (pope)[Innocent 04]IV in 1246 sent del Carpini to the Mongols in an effort to determine the Mongols’ intentions for the rest of Europe. Thus, del Carpini’s account is that of a diplomat and a spy who is very concerned with the future of Christendom. Del Carpini notes the weapons and composition of the Mongols’ armor and provides a lengthy treatise on how the Europeans should combat the Mongols. Had Europe heeded del Carpini’s words, its military systems would have more closely resembled those of the Mongols. Del Carpini clearly recognized the inadequacies of the unruly masses of European knights and men-at-arms against the disciplined Mongol forces.

The vast majority of the Chinese sources have yet to be translated into English, although some have been translated into French, German, and Russian. The primary chronicle is the Yuan Shih (1370), originally composed in ten volumes by Song Song LianSong Lian Lian and Wang Wang WeiWang Wei Wei, and revised and rewritten in 1934 by Ke Shaobin in 257 volumes as Xin Yuanshi. It contains not only the history of the conquests and the military in general, but also biographies of most of the commanders throughout the Mongol Empire.Mongols

Books and Articles
  • Biran, Michal. Qaidu and the Rise of the Independent Mongol State in Central Asia. Surrey, England: Curzon, 1997.
  • Gabriel, Richard A. Subotai the Valiant: Genghis Khan’s Greatest General. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2004.
  • Hildinger, Erik. Warriors of the Steppe: A Military History of Central Asia, 500 B.C. to 1700 A.D. New York: Sarpedon, 1997. Reprint. Cambridge, Mass.: Da Capo Press, 2001.
  • Hull, Mary. The Mongol Empire. San Diego, Calif.: Lucent Books, 1998.
  • Jackson, Peter. The Mongols and the West, 1221-1410. New York: Pearson Longman, 2005.
  • Kennedy, Hugh. Mongols, Huns, and Vikings: Nomads at War. London: Cassell, 2002.
  • Manz, Beatrice Forbes. The Rise and Rule of Tamerlane. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1989.
  • Martin, H. D. The Rise of Chingis Khan and His Conquest of North China. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1950.
  • May, Timothy. The Mongol Art of War: Chinggis Khan and the Mongol Military System. Barnsley, England: Pen and Sword Military, 2007.
  • Morgan, David. The Mongols. 2d ed. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2007.
  • Prawdin, Michael. The Mongol Empire: Its Rise and Legacy. London: Allen and Unwin, 1940. Reprint. New Brunswick, N.J. AldineTransaction, 2006.
  • Saunders, J. J. The History of the Mongol Conquests. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1971. Reprint. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001.
  • Turnbull, Stephen. Genghis Khan and the Mongol Conquests, 1190-1400. New York: Routledge, 2004.
  • _______. Mongol Warrior, 1200-1350. Illustrated by Wayne Reynolds. Botley, Oxford, England: Osprey, 2003.
Films and Other Media
  • Genghis Khan: To the Ends of the Earth and Sea. Feature film. Funimation Productions, 2007.
  • Mongol: The Rise of Genghis Khan. Feature film. New Line Cinema, 2008.
  • The Storm from the East. Documentary. Films for the Humanities and Sciences, 1994.

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Nomadic Warriors of the Steppe

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