These edited notes were taken from a lecture by Morris Rossabi, presented as part of the lecture series in conjunction with Mongolia: The Legacy of Chinggis Khan, an exhibition at the Denver Art Museum.
How were the Mongols able to establish the largest contiguous land empire in world history?
The Mongol Empire stretched from Korea and the Pacific all the way over to Georgia, Armenia, and Hungry. How were the Mongols able to establish such an empire with a population of 200,000 when China alone had a population of 100 million? The Mongols united at a time when disunity prevailed throughout Asia. As Chinggis Khan started his invasions, China was disunited, fragmented, and relatively weak. Similarly Central Asia was fragmented into a series of khanates and city states. In the Middle East, the Abbasid dynasty that ruled from Baghdad for five centuries was also declining. Southern Russia was a series of city states. There was no central government controlling the area. In a sense the Mongols were successful because there was a power vacuum in most of these regions.
The Mongols had other advantages. The Mongols had a powerful military force based on the horse. They had the mobility to initiate full scale attacks, invasions, and hit and run raids. If they met a formidable enemy, they could retreat quickly. Another factor that led to their success was that the Mongols never had any intention of creating an empire. Each one of Chinggis Khan's discrete attacks was based on specific circumstances such as trade disputes or the treatment of Mongols or Mongol merchants. One of his first campaigns was directed at Yanjing (modern Beijing) in northern China. It was one of his greatest successes. In 1215 he laid siege to Yanjing, the capital of the Jin Dynasty, and succeeded in taking it. But instead of capitalizing on that victory to control northern China, when he got what he wanted, he simply went back to Mongolia. He barreled through Central Asia in a period of five or six years because of a dispute over trade. When he had conquered the whole territory, instead of going further west, he returned to Mongolia. Chinggis Khan did not have any vision of becoming a world khan.
What was the significance of the Mongol Conquest in world history?
The Mongols brought the East and West together. For the first time the Europeans were in touch with East Asia. Not just Marco Polo but many Genoese and Venetian merchants as well as Persian astronomers and doctors came to Chna. In fact, four Persian hospitals were started in Beijing in the 13th century. The exchange of textiles and artisans influenced the art and culture of all Asia. The tremendous flow of ideas, of products, of people that occurred in the 13th and 14th centuries is the most important contribution the Mongols made.