• Khitai (or Khitans or Kitans or Liao): They originated in Manchuria. They started out near the upstream end of the Liao River; hence one of their alternate names. Their homeland was a mix of grassy plains suitable for grazing their herds and forest-covered hills full of wild game. Their religion was of the typical primitive tribal pagan sort, based on shamanism and ancestor worship.

The Khitai suffered a defeat at the hands of the Gök Turks during the second half of the 500s AD. They were beaten by the Eastern Khanate Gök Turks led by Mo-ch’o in 696-697 AD. They fought an inconclusive war with the Chinese in 734-735 AD and repelled a Chinese invasion in 751 AD. They defeated the Kirghiz Turks in 924 AD. They conquered a proto-Korean kingdom in the northern part of Korea and an adjacent slice of Manchuria in 926 AD. Taking advantage of Chinese civil wars, they attempted to invade China but were repulsed. They invaded China again in 936 AD and helped put a Sha-t’o Turk on the Chinese throne. They continued to take sides militarily in Chinese dynastic disputes. Having helped to establish one Sha-t’o chieftain on the Chinese throne, they shortly thereafter deposed the last Sha-t’o emperor of China in 946 AD. After the Chinese reorganized themselves under the Northern Sung Dynasty, they made war on the Khitai with mixed results. The Khitai and Chinese made peace in 1004 or1005 AD. In so doing, the Chinese acknowledged Khitai rule over parts of northern China. Another war between the Khitai and the Chinese broke out in 1042, the result of which was an increase in the already substantial tribute payments the Chinese were making to the Khitai. The Khitai were repulsed in their attempts to invade Korea and the realm of the Karakhanid Turks about 1014 and 1017 respectively. They were also repulsed in their attack on the Tanguts in 1044.

Once the Khitai had established themselves as a dynasty ruling over northern China, they developed writing for their language. The Khitai ruling elite gradually embraced Buddhism.

The Khitai were conquered by their rebellious Jurchen vassals in 1114-1125. The Chinese supported the Jurchen in overthrowing the Khitai but soon came to regret doing so because the Jurchen became more threatening than the Khitai had been.

    • Karakhitai (or Karakitai or Qarakhitai or Kara-Khitans): They were Buddhists who were hostile toward Moslems but friendly to Christians living within their realm. They were Khitai refugees from the Jurchen . While most Khitai stayed on in northern China as frequently rebellious subjects of the Jurchen, the Karakhitai migrated west. One group of Karakhitai was repulsed by one group of Karakhanids in 1128. But another group of Karakhitai conquered another group of Karakhanids. In 1137, the Buddhist Karakhitai defeated still another group of Moslem Karakhanids who were vassals of the Moslem Seljuk Sultanate of Merv . Next, in 1141, the Karakhitai defeated the Seljuks of Merv. They established a little empire east of the Aral Sea on what had been the northern part of the Seljuk Sultanate of Merv. Also in 1141, they invaded Khwarizm and forced the Moslem Khwarizms to accept vassal status. But the Khwarizms and Karakhanids successfully revolted in 1207-1210, achieving their independence. With the loss of their Khwarizm and Karakhanid territories, the Karakhitai Empire was reduced in size to its core area around Lake Balkhash. While the Karakhitai were under the leadership of a renegade Naiman Mongol tribal chieftain named Kushluk , they were conquered by Genghis Khan and his Mongols in 1218.
  • Jurchen (or Jurchets or Jurchid or Golden Tartars): They were a forest people rather than a steppe people. Notwithstanding the fact that they came from the woods, they were effective horse archers. Their religion was based on shamanism. They were located north of the Khitai . They were thus on the far side of the Khitai from the Chinese point of view. They were much-abused vassals of the Khitai. They rebelled against the Khitai and conquered them, 1114-1125 AD. The Chinese supported the Jurchen in overthrowing the Khitai but soon came to regret doing so because the Jurchen became more threatening than the Khitai had been. The Jurchen violently turned on their Chinese benefactors. They demanded the same tribute from the Chinese as the Chinese had paid to the Khitai. Starting in 1126, they invaded and conquered large parts of northern China beyond what the Khitai had held. They made a peace treaty with the Chinese Sung Dynasty in 1142 by which the Sung accepted Jurchen rule over northern China while the Sung retained control of southern China. Despite this treaty, intermittent war between the Jurchen and China continued. The Jurchen became a formal ruling dynasty, called the “Kin,” over northern China. Like the Khitai before them, they developed the ability to write their own language after they became a settled, civilized dynasty ruling over northern China. They were the victims of a damaging but transient and inconclusive invasion by Genghis Khan and his Mongols in 1211-1215. In 1231-1234, they were conquered by an alliance of the Mongols of Ogedei Khan, son of Genghis Khan, to their north and the Sung to their south. The surviving Jurchen reestablished themselves in their homeland in the forests of Manchuria. Their descendants became the Manchus .

NOTE: The Tibetan tribe of the Tanguts migrated to northwestern China and had an independent state called Hsia-Hsia there during the same time as the Khitai and Jurchen ruled northern China. The native Chinese Southern Sung Dynasty ruled the southern half of China during this time. The Tangut Hsia-Hsia were conquered by the Mongols of Genghis Khan in 1226-1227.

  • Oirats (or Uirats): They lived west of the south end of Lake Baikal.
  • Merkits: They lived southeast of Lake Baikal. Early in the first decade of the 1200s, they were crushingly defeated by a young and rising Mongol warlord named Temujin, who was later called Genghis Khan . The few survivors were incorporated into his all-Mongol tribal confederation.
  • Keraits (or Kerayits): The consensus of experts is that they were a Turkic people who had become Mongolized. They lived south of Lake Baikal, that is, just to the south of the Oirats and Merkits . Apparently, they converted to the Nestorian variety of Christianity around 1000 AD. They may have been the basis of the popular medieval European fables about a great Christian king in the Far East named Prester John. It is safe to assume that traditional steppe nomad shamanism still played a strong role in their religious life. Early in the first decade of the 1200s, they were defeated by a young and rising Mongol warlord named Temujin, who was later called Genghis Khan and incorporated into his all-Mongol tribal confederation.
  • Jalayir (or Jalair): They lived east of the Merkits . They eventually formed the Jalayrid dynasty that took over most of the Mongol Ilkhanate in 1330 as the Ilkhanate fragmented.
  • Naimans: They lived at the western end of what in now Mongolia. A number of them seem to have been Nestorian Christians. In the early 1200s, their leader was a man named Kushluk. He was an early personal rival of Genghis Khan . The Naimans were the last Mongol tribe to resist being incorporated into Genghis’s unified greater Mongolian state. In 1208, Genghis conquered the Naimans. Kushluk fled to the lands of the Karakhitai . Kushluk married the daughter of the ruler of the Karakhitai and then treacherously seized the throne of the Karakhitai.
  • “Mongols Proper”: They lived southeast of the Jalayir and northwest of the Turkic Tatars . Putting it another way, they lived northwest of Manchuria between the Kerulen and Onon Rivers. Their religion centered on the worship of Tengri, god of the great blue sky. These were Genghis Khan’s people. There came Genghis Khan (1167?-1227) and then Ogedei Khan (12??-1241), Kublai Khan (1215-1294), Hulagu (1217?-1265), Tamerlane (1336-1405), and other warlords of various stature. The always-victorious Mongol generals Subadai and Jebe served Genghis brilliantly. Subadai lived long enough to provide equally brilliant service to Genghis’s son and successor, Ogedei. (Subadai’s reward was to have a character in the “Conan the Barbarian” modern pulp fiction saga named after him.)

Readers are warned that there are multiple English spelling variations for all Mongol names.

Genghis’s actual name was “Temujin.” He took the title of “Genghis Khan,” which translates as “Universal Leader,” upon his assumption of leadership over the unified Mongol tribes.

Temujin survived a brutal childhood of poverty and violence. His father was a minor chief of a minor Mongol clan. When Temujin was nine years old, his father was treacherously murdered by poison by the rival Tatar tribe . Little Temujin’s claim to his father’s chieftainship was summarily rejected by his clan. Temujin, his mother, and his brothers were harshly kicked out of the clan and forced to live in the primitive survival mode in the wilderness. One day, Temujin and his brother Qasar murdered their half-brother Begter after Begter stole a fish and a bird Temujin had caught. It is worth speculating that Temujin’s real motive in murdering Begter was to eliminate a potential future rival for political power. Presumably when Temujin was an adolescent, he was taken prisoner by his former clan and sentenced to death but he escaped. As a young man, Temujin performed feats such as stealing back from robbers his family’s horses which the robbers had stolen. In the same vein, he rescued his beloved young wife, Börte, from a rival tribe which had kidnapped her. The list of his youthful adventures goes on.

Upon reaching young adulthood, Temujin gradually and assiduously built up his power base within his own and among local tribes. He astutely mixed diplomacy and war to bring the various Mongol tribes into line. He inflicted military defeats on the Keraits and Merkits before incorporating them into his all-Mongol tribal confederation. There were particularly few Merkits left alive to be incorporated. Temujin made damaging but inconclusive attacks on the Naimans who continued to resist him for a time. He attacked the non-Mongol Turkic Tatars, who were the murderers of his father, a number of times until he comprehensively wiped them out in 1202. Eventually, he was acclaimed “Genghis Khan” (“Universal Ruler”) of a unified greater Mongolian state by his Mongol kinsmen in 1206. He began the incredible torrent of conquest that was continued by his son, Ogedei. The Mongols brutally conquered everybody between Korea, Germany, Egypt, and India during the years 1206-1259.

Mongols Proper - 1
Mongols Proper - 1
Mongols Proper - 2
Mongols Proper - 2 (Battle of Kalka River)
Mongols Proper - 3
Mongols Proper - 3 (Siege of Kiev)

The complete list of victorious Mongol battles, sieges, and subsequent massacres of conquered peoples is a bit numbing. Only a general outline will be presented here. The Naimans were the last Mongol tribe to resist being incorporated into Genghis’s unified greater Mongolian state. Their leader was a man named Kushluk. In 1208, Genghis conquered the Naimans at the Battle of the Irtysh River. Kushluk fled to the realm of the Karakhitai where he found refuge. Kushluk married the daughter of the ruler of the Karakhitai and then treacherously seized the Karakhitai throne. After finally unifying all the Mongol people under his rule, Genghis overran northern China in 1211-1215, capturing and sacking the city of Beijing. (The Mongol Jurchen dynasty was ruling northern China at the time. A subsequent invasion of northern China by Genghis’s son Ogedei in 1231-1234 was required to finish the job on the Jurchen.) Meanwhile, Kushluk had been gathering Naiman warriors to him where he was in the realm of the Karakhitai. In 1218, Genghis turned his forces west and conquered the Karakhitai. The Karakhitai, who resented Kushluk, welcomed Genghis’s troops as liberators. After conquering the Karakhitai, Genghis had Kushluk executed. Also in 1218, there was an indecisive border skirmish between a force of Mongols and a unit of soldiers of the Empire of Khwarizm Shah . General war did not break out, however. Instead, Genghis sent ambassadors and merchants on a mission to the Khwarizms with a peace proposal. The governor of the Khwarizm city of Otrar executed the delegation as spies. When Genghis sent a second delegation directly to the ruler of Khwarizms, Shah Muhammad, to demand compensation, Shah Muhammad endorsed what his governor had done and executed the second delegation. Naturally, war between the Mongols and the Khwarizms ensued. Genghis erased the Empire of Khwarizm Shah from the map in a military campaign in 1219-1221 that culminated at the Battle of the Indus River. The populations of several Khwarizm cities were massacred or enslaved according to Mongol needs. Next, one small Mongol army led by Subadai and Jebe advanced far to the west in what today would be called a “reconnaissance in force.” This army defeated the Georgians of the Caucasus. Shortly thereafter, the Russians repeated the Khwarizm mistake of killing Mongol ambassadors. Subadai and Jebe then annihilated a joint army of Russians and Kipchak Turks at the Battle of the Kalka River in 1223. This Mongol expeditionary army then returned home. Genghis’s last campaign was the conquest of the Tangut Hsia-Hsia in 1226-1227. Genghis died peacefully in 1227 and was succeeded by his son Ogedei. The story is that Genghis died several days after receiving serious internal injuries in a fall from his horse while big game hunting. Ogedei’s first significant move was to invade Korea in 1231. Subsequent invasions of Korea in 1235 and 1254 were required to overcome tough resistance there. The Mongols allied themselves with the Sung Dynasty of southern China in order to complete the conquest of the Jurchen in northern China in 1231-1234. Then the Mongols refocused on the West. Ogadai, who remained at home, sent a large army—which was nominally led by a Mongol prince named Batu but which was really led by Subadai—to invade Europe. These Mongols overran northwestern Russia, to include a little settlement called Moscow, in 1237-1238, massacring the population as they went. They stormed and sacked the beautiful city of Kiev in the Ukraine in 1240. Having reduced the Russian people to abject servitude, they next invaded central Europe. One Mongol army crushed a joint German-Polish army—that included the famous Teutonic Knights—at the Battle of Liegnitz on April 9, 1241. Two days later, and hundreds of miles away, a second Mongol army meted out the same ruinous fate to a Hungarian army at the Battle of Mohi, also known as the Battle of the Savo River. The Mongols were approaching the outskirts of Vienna and Venice when word arrived from back home in Mongolia that Ogedei Khan had died. By Mongol law, the leaders of the Mongol army in Europe were required to return home to help elect the new khan. This is what they reluctantly did, thereby saving Western Europe from a horrible fate by pure chance. Subsequently, the Mongols went on to overrun Mesopotamia and take the city of Damascus by 1259. There was nothing to prevent the Mongols from invading Egypt when the reigning khan at that time, named Mongke, died. Again, Mongol aggression paused while the leadership convened in Mongolia to elect a new khan. It was during this pause that the Mamluk Turks defeated a small Mongol force at the Battle of Ain Jalut in Palestine in 1260. (The European Christian Crusaders in the Middle East briefly allied themselves with the Mongols.) With Ain Jalut, the great outward explosion of Mongol expansion directed to the west and southwest ceased.

The Mongol Empire was the most gigantic empire the world has known. It stretched an astonishing five thousand miles from east to west and fifteen-hundred miles from north to south—and the Mongols, a small tribe from the middle of east Asia, took it all in fifty-three years when the fastest mode of transportation was a horse!

They also killed an estimated eighteen million to forty million people in the process.

On the positive side, the absolute hegemony the Mongols established put an end to the centuries of inter-tribal warfare that had kept the steppes awash in blood. Where Mongol authority extended, so did peace. The Mongols were brutal in their conquest but benevolent in their rule. Under them, commerce and the arts flourished as never before. It was truthfully said that a virgin carrying a sack of gold could travel from one end of the Mongol realm to the other without being molested.

But in analyzing historical events, there is always an on-the-other-hand to consider. We can only speculate whether the modern Arab Middle East would be a better place than it is were it not for the catastrophic damage the Mongols wreaked on Arab culture in the 13th Century. Before the coming of the Mongols, the city of Baghdad, built on the banks of the Tigris River, was one of the most beautiful, brilliant, cosmopolitan, culturally advanced cities in the world. In 1258 the Mongols captured Baghdad, massacred the populace, and obliterated its physical presence. The story is told that the Tigris River turned black from the ink of the thousands of learned books the Mongols chucked into the waters. We can only speculate whether modern Russia would be a better place than it is were it not for how several generations of Russians lived as servile underlings to the Mongols.

The brutal, violent, frankly terrifying childhood of Genghis Khan, which he survived by becoming incredibly hard, followed by his early rise to power, is glorified in the blockbuster epic movie Mongol: The Rise of Genghis Khan, released in 2007. A powerful work of cinematic art, this movie was nominated for an Academy Award in the Best Foreign Language Film category. Sequels to this movie are still in the discussion stage as of this writing. Watching this film provides the viewer with a fine impression of the Eurasian horse nomad natural environment and way of life.

The great single Mongol Empire eventually fragmented and re-fragmented into khanates that made ceaseless war on each other. The first episode of fragmentation, in 1260, created the Khanate of the Golden Horde (in what is now Russia), the Ilkhanate (under Hulagu, one of Genghis’ several grandsons, in present-day Iraq and Iran), the Jagatai Khanate (in the very heart of Asia), and Kublai Khan’s realm in northern China. In 1330, the Jalayrid Dynasty—which came from the Mongol Jalayir tribe —took over most of the fragmenting Ilkhanate. By 1393, most everything that had belonged to the Ilkhanate and the Jalayrids was taken over by Tamerlane . By the late 1400s, pieces of the Khanate of the Golden Horde had broken off to form the Khanates of Kazan, Astrakhan, and The Crimea, all of which eventually fell to the Russians. Today’s Islamic Crimean Tartars, descendants of the Mongol Khanate of Crimea, were important players in the Crimean crisis of 2014.

In 1260, Kublai Khan, another grandson of Genghis, founded the Mongol Yuan Dynasty that conquered and then ruled over all China—including the south— from 1279 until overthrown by the native Chinese Mings in 1368. The Japanese—with the help of severe storms—repulsed two Yuan Mongol seaborne invasions of Japan in 1274 and 1281 respectively. These storms at sea were seen as miracles by the Japanese who called them “divine wind” (“kamikaze”), the name they gave to their suicide airplane pilots late in World War II.

The Jagatai Khanate attained its greatest power under Tamerlane (Timur the Lame, 1336-1405). For most of his long life, he walked with a limp due to an arrow wound to the leg he received in battle early in his warlord career. He was Moslem. By the time of Tamerlane, the Mongols in his part of southwestern Asia had become Moslem and were ethnically Turcified. Europeans called them “Tartars.” He made ceaseless, and successful, war on all the states around him, many of which were either Turkic or Mongol themselves. From his starting point in the very middle of central Asia, he conquered Iran and Mesopotamia, making them permanent parts of his empire, by 1393. He inflicted devastating—but transient—defeats on the kindred Mongol Golden Horde to the north in 1391 and on the Mamluk and Ottoman Turks to the west in 1400 and 1402 respectively. His soldiers stormed, sacked, and massacred the populations of the cities of Delhi in India, Aleppo in Syria, and Baghdad in Mesopotamia in 1398, 1400, and 1401 respectively. (The sack of Aleppo followed Tamerlane’s victory over the Mamluks outside the city.) Tamerlane died of natural causes at the age of seventy while en route to invade China. Today, he is mostly famous for the huge pyramids he built from the tens of thousands of skulls of his massacred enemies. The loot seized by his armies from his enemies enriched his fabulous capital city of Samarkand in present-day Uzbekistan.

Today, Tamerlane’s opulent tomb in Samarkand draws tourists from around the world as does the enormous, recently erected, equestrian statue of him in the modern Uzbek capital city of Tashkent.

Tamerlane’s heirs, known as the “Timurids,” had trouble holding on to what their illustrious ancestor had taken. First the Black Sheep Turks and then the White Sheep Turks took over the Timurid holdings in first Mesopotamia and then Iran during the mid-to-late 1400s. The last Timurids were overthrown in their central Asian core region by the Uzbek Turks in the late 1400s.

One of Tamerlane’s descendants, Babur, conquered northern India and started the Mughul Dynasty there in 1526. The Mughul Dynasty survived in India until the establishment of the British Raj in 1857.

In the 1550s, the first man to claim the title “Czar Of All The Russias,” Ivan the Terrible, began the great, final counterattack of settled civilization against the nomads. Using a new weapons technology called “gunpowder cannons,” he broke the Khanates of Kazan and Astrakhan. This was the beginning of a process that reached its culmination four hundred years later when Mongolia was reduced to being a satellite of the Soviet Union.

Tamerlane - Wounded
Tamerlane - Wounded
Tamerlanes - Troops
Tamerlanes - Troops
  • Manchus: They arose in Manchuria. They were descended from the Jurchen . As the Chinese Ming Dynasty collapsed in 1644 AD, the Manchus swept into China, took over the country, and established their own ruling dynasty which became known as the “Ch’ing.” As rulers of China, they made frequent war on the horse nomad tribes that were still on the steppe. Taking advantage of gunpowder weapons technology and modern military organization, they subjugated the nomadic Oirat Mongol Dzungar (or Junghar) tribe starting in the late 17th Century and continuing into the 18th Century. The Manchus fell in 1912 in the convulsions that led to present-day China.