5 Important Mongol Leaders: The Khans

Discover how these five Mongol leaders transformed the history of the Mongol Empire.

Aug 6, 2023By Chester Ollivier, BA (Hons) History
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Throughout the history of the Mongol Empire, there were a multitude of fantastic Mongol leaders. In this article, five of the very best Mongol leaders will be examined, ranging from the infamous Genghis Khan, to the last of the Mongol leaders, Timur, better known as Tamerlane.


1. Genghis Khan (c. 1162 – 1227): Mightiest Leader of the Mongols

mongol genghis khan portrait
Genghis Khan, artist unknown, c. 1298, via National Palace Museum


Perhaps the most famous of all Mongol leaders is the first one on our list — Genghis Khan. To this day, his name conjures up images of Mongol warriors, riding on horseback, tearing across the Asian Steppe, expanding westward to Europe. The fierce Mongol hordes were at their largest and most formidable under Genghis Khan, but let’s first look into his early life before he became a Mongol leader.


Gengis was born under the name Temüjin Borjigin around 1162. He was part of a mountain clan that resided in the Khentii Mountains, in northeast Mongolia, just north of Ulaanbaatar. His father was the clan’s chief.


When Temüjin was eight years old, his father was poisoned and died; the new clan leaders (who were likely responsible for the poisoning) banished Genghis, his brothers, half-brothers, and his mother from their clan. During this period, it is reported that Genghis and his family had to forage for food, living on everything from carrion and mice to berries and nuts.


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In 1180, a sudden decrease in temperature on the Steppe brought about a climate crisis — it was too cold for grass to grow, and feed the tribes’ horses. Genghis himself rectified this situation by uniting the warring tribespeople of Mongolia together, to lead them south to the warmer — and perhaps more importantly — agriculturally rich lands of China.


But how did Genghis unite the warring tribespeople and become a key Mongol leader? One theory has been presented by historian Bamber Gascoigne, who argues that Genghis united the Mongolian tribes through a clever combination of trust and terror. Courage and loyalty were rewarded, while cowardice and treachery were punished. For example, anybody who had fought well against his forces but had ultimately been defeated was awarded a promotion in Genghis’ ranks.


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Mongols at war, 14th-century watercolor, via Wikimedia Commons


Perhaps the most famous example of Genghis’ warring tactics being put to the test was in 1209 when he made the decision to defeat the Western Xia in China. Before Genghis had made this decision, however, he first united more tribes and led a formidable force of Mongol warriors — many of whom were some of the finest horsemen in history.


The Mongol horsemen had been trained from a young age, and they were so incredibly disciplined that they could ride their horses at full gallop while standing up in the stirrups and firing their bows with impressive accuracy. These ruthless warriors, combined with a fearless leader like Genghis Khan, enabled the Mongol Empire to expand at a rate that has rarely been matched in history.


Between 1212 and 1213, the Mongol armies swept across northern China, devastating almost 100 cities in the process. Two years later they had taken the Jin capital of Yanjing (modern-day Beijing), which forced the Jin Emperor Xuanzong to flee south for his safety. The Mongols took this as a victory, and claimed northern China as theirs, while Genghis Khan was crowned as the Jin Emperor, and the first Emperor of the Yuan Dynasty.


In 1218-19, Genghis Khan saw an opportunity to trade with the Kwarazmian Empire (the territory of which covered parts of modern-day Iran). However, his trading caravan was attacked by a Khwarazmian governor, so he responded by sending out a huge Mongol force from China. By 1220, the Mongol force had decimated the towns and cities of the Kwarazmian Empire, and the empire itself was no more.


map of khwarazmian mongol empire
Map of the Khwarazmian Empire in 1215, via Wikimedia Commons


To ensure that this never happened again, Genghis split his empire into two parts: Genghis returned east with half of his army (raiding through Afghanistan and India on his way back), while he sent the other half of his army along with two of his most trusted generals (Subutai and Jebe) to raid north along the Caucasus. This move was one that worked out incredibly well for Genghis and the Mongols. In just a year, the area known as Transoxiana — the part of Central Asia which covers modern-day Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, south-west Kazakhstan, and south Kyrgyzstan — had all been incorporated into the Mongol Empire.


After several more skirmishes with the Chinese in the mid 1220s, Genghis’ time was almost up. He died in 1227, after reportedly being castrated by a princess for the treatment of her people, and to prevent him from raping her. He died as a result of the wounds.


Genghis’ legacy is that he was unquestionably one of the greatest Mongol leaders of all time. From his beginnings when he was exiled from his own tribe, to living on mice and carrion to survive, to leading one of the most incredible warring forces of all time and eventually establishing a Chinese dynasty which would last for almost 100 years, he is the most famous and renowned Mongol leader of all time.


2. Batu Khan (c. 1205 – 1255): Leader of the Golden Horde

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Depiction of a young Batu Khan, artist unknown, c. 14th century, via Wikimedia Commons


The next key Mongol leader on this list is Batu Khan. He was born around 1205 in territory which encompasses central Mongolia today. His father was Jochi, a son of Genghis Khan, thus making Batu Khan a grandson of the mighty Genghis.


Following his father’s death in 1227 (just a few months before Genghis’ own death), Genghis assigned Jochi’s sons (including Batu) his estates. Batu Khan was given the Golden Horde, which ruled the majority of lands west of the Volga.


In the 1230s, Ögedei, who was now Great Khan, assigned Batu Khan to conquer western nations. By 1235, Batu Khan had been assigned a force of around 130,000 troops in order to oversee an invasion of Europe. The following year, the army invaded Volga Bulgaria (a former Turkic state), and had completely wiped out any form of resistance from the Alani, Kypchaks and Volga Bulgarians.


sacking of suzdal by batu khan
The Sacking of Suzdal by Batu Khan, 16th-century miniature, via Rutenica.norod.ru


Batu Khan’s reputation as a fearsome war leader like his grandfather had just begun. Giving him the Golden Horde had proved a wise move from the Mongolian perspective. The next year, Batu Khan sent his forces to Yuri II’s court. Yuri was the ruler of the Grand Principality of Vladimir, within Kievan Rus’. After Yuri refused, the Mongol forces ransacked Ryazan. After six days, the city was completely obliterated and never restored to its former glory. Upon hearing the news, Yuri sent a counter force to combat the Mongols, but his force was roundly defeated. The Mongol force then moved onto Vladimir-Suzdal, and after three days the city had been burned to the ground alongside the royal family themselves.


Batu Khan then divided his army into smaller forces, and they went on to sack fourteen more cities in the same year, and the following year he moved closer to Europe. In 1240, the Mongols besieged Kiev, and managed to take two of its nearby principalities (Halych and Volodymyr), which were then incorporated into the Mongol Empire.


During the preparation for the invasion of Europe, Batu Khan sent spies into Poland, Hungary and Austria, and laid out a battle plan. The Mongol force split into three different armies. The first went north, invading and devastating Poland. The second force crossed the Danube, going into Hungary and beyond, and the third crossed the Carpathian Mountains. They swept across the Hungarian plains in the summer, and in spring 1242, they had successfully extended their control into Austria and Dalmatia.


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Page from the Decretals of Pope Gregory IX, artist unknown, c. late 13th century, via Wikimedia Commons


It was around this time that the Mongol forces tested the waters against the Holy Roman Empire’s forces. Both Pope Gregory IX and Frederick II, the Holy Roman Emperor, called for a crusade against the Mongols, but Europe was ravaged by internal political difficulties and plague at the time, so it never went ahead. Around the same time, news came of Ögedei’s death, and while Batu Khan wanted to continue raiding further into Europe, he realized the significance of the situation and headed back to Mongolia.


Batu Khan did not attend the assembly in the end, as he realized that his uncle Güyük Khan had been chosen as the next Great Khan of the Mongol Empire. Batu Khan instead went to solidify his control in the Urals but he really wanted to head back to Europe. Unfortunately, due to the animosity between himself and his uncle, this meant that he could not receive the necessary funding or support that he needed in order to return west.


Batu Khan died in 1255, and the reign of the Golden Horde passed to his son Sartaq briefly. Sartaq decided against another invasion of Europe, and the Mongols never reached as far into Europe again after Batu Khan’s death.


3. Möngke Khan (1209 – 1251): The Reforming Mongol

Möngke Khan, artist unknown, c. 15th century, via Wikimedia Commons


A contemporary of both Genghis Khan and Batu Khan, Möngke Khan was a cousin to Batu and a grandson of Genghis, being the son of Genghis’ fourth son, Tolui. He was born in 1209, and by the time he was 21, he had experienced his first taste of warfare, riding against the Jin Dynasty with his father in 1230. Tolui died in 1232, and Möngke inherited some of his lands, as well as his wife, which was a Mongol tradition.


Möngke engaged in hand-to-hand combat against the Kievan Rus’, and joined Batu Khan’s forces during the Mongol invasion there. In the winter of 1240-41, Möngke was recalled home by his uncle Ögedei, and he left the Golden Horde to follow his uncle’s orders. However, when Ögedei died, and the throne was taken by Güyük, and following his death in 1248, the two contenders for the throne emerged as Batu and Möngke.


Möngke went to meet Batu Khan and the Golden Horde, and Batu Khan acknowledged his support for Möngke to become Great Khan. On July 1st 1251, Möngke was proclaimed Great Khan of the Mongol Empire.


Shortly afterward, a plan to dethrone and kill Möngke emerged, but was intercepted. Möngke’s nephew, Shiremun, came to pay homage to his uncle but had brought an entire army with him. Before an attack could be unleashed, Shiremun was captured, sewn into a sack, and thrown into a river where he drowned — a traditional Mongol punishment. Interestingly, in order to prevent further familial conflicts, and because he was his ally, Möngke shared the western part of his empire with Batu Khan.


golden horde 1389
A map of the Golden Horde, by MapMaster, via Wikimedia Commons


What Möngke was perhaps best known for were his administrative reforms. With regard to religion, he did not suppress any religion unless it directly interfered with the state. He let Christians and Muslims practice their religion, which was the first time that this had been allowed in the Empire.


He also introduced a fairer system of taxation, turning the Empire into a state that was not solely based on conquest and raiding. Because of these reforms, he was able to raise larger armies for campaigns on both sides of his territory, simultaneously.


Möngke made his two younger brothers generals, with their own armies. Hulegu was given control of the western part of the Empire, while Kublai became viceroy of northern China. Both were given an army that was made up of two out of every ten soldiers in the Empire — which was made possible because of Möngke’s financial reforms.


From 1253 onwards, Hulegu expanded his domain into Iran and Iraq, crushing the group known as the Assassins in 1256. Hulegu was also responsible for crushing the Abbasid Caliphate in 1258, based in Iraq, which had been in place since 750 CE. The Mongol forces moved on, and eventually besieged Aleppo in Syria two years later. Thanks to Möngke’s trust in Hulegu, areas of the Middle East were now incorporated into the Mongol Empire.

Unfortunately, just a year later, Möngke died, aged 50. But his legacy as one of the finest Mongol rulers would live on through his younger brother and heir, Kublai Khan.


4. Kublai Khan (1215 – 1294): Founder of the Yuan Dynasty

yuan emperor khublai
Kublai Khan, by Araniko, c. 1294, via National Palace Museum


Kublai Khan was Möngke’s younger brother and another of Genghis Khan’s grandsons. His name is almost as famous as his grandfather’s and he is without doubt one of the most famous Mongol leaders of all time.


Little is known of Kublai’s early life, save that he was a talented hunter (he had reportedly brought down an antelope when he was just nine years old), and that his mother taught him how to read and write Mongolian.


As was mentioned earlier, Kublai was made viceroy of northern China under his brother Möngke’s rule in 1251. In 1252, Möngke had ordered Kublai to conquer Yunnan, a Chinese province. After a year of meticulous planning, Kublai proceeded with the conquest, and by late 1256 he had successfully conquered Yunnan, incorporating it into the Mongol Empire.


This invasion had extended the territory that Kublai controlled too, so he wanted a new capital. In the end, Xanadu was chosen, and he ruled from here. Möngke began to grow suspicious of Kublai’s new territories and sent two of his aides to investigate. The two brothers eventually made peace when, following a debate in Xanadu in 1258, Kublai declared the Daoists losers of the debate and forcefully converted them and their temples to Buddhism.


mongol empire 1279
A map of the Mongol Empire (red) in 1279, via brilliantmaps.com


A year later, Möngke died, and after a great assembly was held, Kublai Khan was named the Great Khan of the Mongol Empire. Kublai’s primary aim and the one which he first announced was that he wanted to unify all of China. And in the end, this worked. In 1271, he established Beijing as his new capital and named his empire the Yuan Dynasty. Ultimately, the Mongol-led Yuan Dynasty (formed by Kublai Khan as the first Yuan Emperor) would rule China until 1368.


Kublai Khan is often credited with some administrative reforms, too; a notable one being the establishment of the Mongol postal service in China. Runners and horse riders were used at stations throughout the country so that messages could be sent across the empire in a matter of days.


A notable character who visited Kublai Khan was the Venetian explorer Marco Polo, who met him in his court in 1275. Kublai Khan was so impressed by the young European that he sent him on several diplomatic missions over the course of the next 16 years before he returned to his native Venice.


However, his reign was not always as smooth as it seemed. He launched two failed sea invasions of Japan in 1274 and 1281. The latter of these invasions was struck by a typhoon, and approximately half of the 140,000 drowned or died in the wreckage off the coast. The Japanese took it as a divine sign.


He also conducted a failed invasion of Java (Indonesia) in 1293. His forces were forced to withdraw because they could not combat the territory, succumbing to the tropical heat, diseases, and terrain.


marco polo mosaic
Marco Polo Moasica, by Salviati, 1867, via National Geographic


Class reforms were also a negative from Kublai Khan’s reign. He constantly placed Mongols at the top of society, over the Central Asians, Northern Chinese and finally at the bottom of the pecking order, the Southern Chinese. The latter two groups were also taxed more heavily, and many of their funds went toward Kublai’s failed military campaigns.


Following the death of his wife and son, Kublai Khan began drinking heavily, and became obese. He developed gout, and died in 1294, at the age of 79. He was buried back home in Mongolia.


5. Timur (Tamerlane) (1336 – 1405): Founder of the Mongol Timurid Empire

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Facial reconstruction of Timur, by Mikhail Mikhaylovich Gerasimov, 20th century, via Wikimedia Commons


For the final Mongol leader on our list, we must jump forward to the fourteenth and early fifteenth century, to look at Timur, who you may know better as Tamerlane. Timur was born about 50 miles south of Samarkand (modern-day Uzbekistan), his father was a lesser chief of the Barlas tribe. When Timur was in his twenties, he was allegedly shot with arrows in his leg while attempting to steal sheep. This injury affected him for the rest of his life, leaving him lame in his right leg — hence his Persian nickname: Timur-i-lang (Timur the Lame).


Nevertheless, he did not let his disability slow him down. Before he was 35, he was already in control of much of the land that formed the heritage of Chagatai. Despite there being limited evidence to prove that he could read or write, he nevertheless was an intelligent man, who spoke two or three languages, and had history books read to him while he ate his meals. He also loved to play chess, and developed a form of the game where twice the number of pieces are used on a board with 110 squares: this is known today as Tamerlane Chess.


When he became Mongol leader, he divided his armies into groups of 10,000, called tumen. Timur’s armies were regarded as highly ferocious, but also multi-ethnic. They consisted of Christians, Muslims, Persians, Georgians, Indians, Tajiks, Turks and Arabs all fighting alongside one another.


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The Yongle Emperor, c. 1400, via Wikimedia Commons


The expansion of the Empire was Timur’s primary aim. For approximately 35 years of his reign, he focussed solely on expansion, leading armies across the Mongolian Steppe, and westwards into the Middle East and Europe. Perhaps his most famous form of expansion was his Persian conquest. Over the course of the 1380s, Timur successfully laid siege to numerous Persian towns and cities, decimating the once-mighty Persian Empire bit by bit.


Timur was also hugely obsessed with keeping control of the Silk Road, the trading route between Europe and China. This was the main cause of the many wars and battles during his reign; as soon as one Empire or territory claimed the Silk Road as theirs, Timur would go to war with them.


In 1395,  an embassy sent from the Chinese Hongwu Emperor reached Timur’s capital at Samarkand and was promptly imprisoned. The Hongwu Emperor, the first Emperor of the Ming Dynasty had been sending out embassies ordering the Mongols to recognize the Chinese as their overlords. On the contrary, Timur had no intentions of bowing to anybody, least of all the Chinese.


In 1402, the Yongle Emperor took over as Ming Emperor and sent another ambassador who was imprisoned. Three years later, the Yongle Emperor sent a Chinese naval force to the west, should China become isolated in that area. In early January 1405, Timur began the journey to China to attack the Ming Dynasty, but due to his ailing health and age, he died on the way there. His body was returned to Samarkand where he was buried.


Timur’s legacy indeed makes him one of the greatest Mongol rulers — not only was he a legendary Mongol ruler, but he also founded the Timurid Empire in Persia, which would last from 1370 until 1507, when it was incorporated into the Mughal Empire.

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By Chester OllivierBA (Hons) HistoryChester is a contributing history writer, with a First Class Honours degree BA (Hons) in History from Northumbria University. He is from the North East of England, and an avid Middlesbrough FC supporter.