The Mongol Horde: An Unstoppable Force

The Mongol Horde: An Unstoppable Force

The Mongol Horde enjoyed a fearsome reputation as an undefeated fighting force. They conquered China, terrorized Eastern Europe, sacked Baghdad, and tried to take on the Mamluks in Egypt.


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Geography, Human Geography, Social Studies, Ancient Civilizations, World History


Mongol Taking of Baghdad

Among the conquests of the Mongol Horde in the 13th century was the taking of Baghdad. The siege of the city of in 1258 C.E. is shown here.

Photo of the print taken from the Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département des Manuscrits, Division orientale, Supplément persan 1113, fol. 180v-181.
Among the conquests of the Mongol Horde in the 13th century was the taking of Baghdad. The siege of the city of in 1258 C.E. is shown here.
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The Mongol Horde was known for being a largely undefeated fighting force. They conquered China, terrorized Eastern Europe, sacked Baghdad, and attacked the Mamluks in Egypt.

The name Mongol Horde sounds like a giant swarming army that destroyed armies though sheer numbers. But the Mongol word "horde" really means something like military camp or headquarters. The Mongols did win battles because of their superior horse riding. They also won them with special compound bows that were made of several pieces of wood, animal horn, and tendons glued together. These bows could shoot farther than most other bows.

The Mongols were also very skilled at surrounding cities and laying siege to them. During sieges, the Mongols used technology they got from the Chinese, such as gunpowder bombs, canons, and catapults.

Mongol Conquest of China

The Great Wall of China was built to keep northern forces from raiding China. However, in the 13th century, the wall provided little defense against the armies of Mongol invaders.

The Mongol invasion of China started in 1211, when Genghis Khan's forces took on the northern Chinese Jin Empire. Mongols took advantage of the fractured state of China. At this time, China was divided into the Song Empire in the south and the Jin Empire in the north. Genghis Khan allied his forces with defectors from the Jin state in order to overtake their army. The Jin state was absorbed into the Mongol Empire under Ogodei Khan in 1234.

After a period of peace, the grandson of Genghis Khan, Kublai Khan, began a second invasion of the Chinese region. Mongol forces besieged the Song's important fortress city of Xianyang for five years before eventually conquering it and moving on. The last Song emperor was a young boy. He, his mother, and the imperial court fled the Mongol forces. In 1279, with Mongol invaders closing in, a loyal minister carrying the eight-year-old emperor jumped into the ocean, and both drowned. The boy's demise marked the complete takeover of China by Mongol rulers. Kublai Khan went on to become the first emperor of the Yuan Dynasty. It lasted until 1368. It was the first dynasty in China's history not ruled by the Chinese. Under the rule of Kublai Khan, the Mongol Empire became the largest contiguous empire ever seen.

Mongols Go West

Conquering China was a major victory. However, it was just the beginning for the Mongols. In the 1230s, they began eyeing territory in eastern Europe. Batu, another grandson of Genghis Khan, expanded Mongol rule to modern-day western Russia, Ukraine, all the way to the Carpathian Mountains. In the east, Batu extended Mongol territory to Siberia. The Mongol army burned and sacked the city of Kiev in Ukraine in 1240. Forces marched toward Hungary and Poland, defeating the Hungarian and Polish armies and causing the Hungarian king to flee.

However, by 1242, the Mongol forces turned back without overtaking Hungary. The reasons for this retreat are largely unknown. Scholars have a few ideas. Some have suggested that the death of the Great Khan Ogodei may have compelled the army to return to Mongolia. They returned in order to choose a new ruler. However, some researchers have proposed a new theory. It is based on a study of climate data for that region. Unusual cold and snow may have helped the Mongols cross the frozen Danube River in the winter. However, the spring weather was not so forgiving. That particular spring was unusually wet. Wet and muddy conditions would have limited where their horses could graze. If these researchers are correct, it may have been the well-being of Mongols' horses—and not their emperor—that compelled them to retreat from Eastern Europe.

This western part of the Mongol Empire established by Batu was known as the Golden Horde. It is unclear how this part of the empire received this name. One possible theory is that it was named after the yellow tents employed by the Mongol army. Batu settled his capital near the Volga River at Sarai Batu. He and his descendants ruled over the Russian and eastern European territory. They eventually succumbed to dynastic squabbles. The remnants of the Golden Horde in Crimea were defeated by the Ottomans in 1502.

The Sack of Baghdad

Mongol forces sacked Baghdad, the jewel of the Abbasid Caliphate, in 1258. Under the direction of Hulegu Khan, still another grandson of Genghis Khan, the Mongols defeated Muslim forces in modern-day Iran, Iraq, and Syria. Hulegu came to control all of Iran. He founded the Il-khan Dynasty. (Il-khan means subordinate khan in Persian.)

The sack of Baghdad began in 1258 when Hulegu sent a letter to the caliph of Baghdad demanding control of the city. He threatened to destroy everything should he not receive it. The caliph, Mustasim, did not take Hulegu's threat seriously and did little to defend the city.

The Mongols pillaged and sacked Baghdad on a disastrous scale. The Mongols threw books from the libraries of Baghdad into the Tigris River.

Mongol Defeat at Ain Jalut

The war between the Mongols and the Turkish Mamluks marked a rare moment for the famously unstoppable Mongols. The Mamluks were an enslaved army loyal to the various Islamic state rulers. While they technically were enslaved, Mamluks could hold high status in Islamic society. At some points in history, members of the Mamluks were even installed as sultans over Egypt and Syria. As a fighting force, the Mamluks were well-equipped, elite warriors. Much like the Mongols, the Mamluks were especially skilled horsemen. They rode Arabian horses, which are much larger than the short, sturdy breeds used by the Mongols. Mamluks spent their whole lives in intensive training for all manors of combat: horseback archery as well as close-quarter combat with swords, lances, and clubs.

The Mongols, under Hulegu, marched on Egypt after they conquered Syria in 1260, and, like with the sack of Baghdad, Hulegu sent a threatening letter to the Mamluk Sultan Qutuz before sending an army. However, Hulegu's brother, Mongke, who was Great Khan at the time, had died and Hulegu had to return to Mongolia to decide the succession. He left an army of 20,000 under his general, Ketbugha.

At Ain Jalut in Gaza, the Mamluks took advantage of Hulegu's absence and marched on this smaller Mongol army. Mamluks employed ambush tactics and made use of hand cannons to frighten the Mongol horses. While the Mongols and the Mamluks both suffered significant losses, the Mamluks managed to kill almost the entire Mongol Horde, including General Ketbugha. This defeat forced the Mongols back to Iran and solidified the western Mongol border. The battle of Ain Jalut is significant for being the Mongols' first significant defeat.

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Tyson Brown, National Geographic Society
National Geographic Society
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Gina Borgia, National Geographic Society
Jeanna Sullivan, National Geographic Society
Program Specialists
Sarah Appleton, National Geographic Society, National Geographic Society
Margot Willis, National Geographic Society
Clint Parks
Last Updated

June 2, 2022

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