What was the biggest empire in the world? Was it the Roman Empire? Perhaps it was Alexander the Great’s Macedonian Empire? Maybe it was the British Empire?
While the British did indeed have a particularly large empire, the title of the largest connected land empire still goes to the Mongol Empire.
Try to imagine this: an empire stretching all the way from Korea to Ukraine, from the forests of Siberia to the coasts of southern China.
That’s how large it was! And all the more surprising is where it all started.
Prior to the foundation of the Mongol Empire, the region that is modern-day Mongolia was inhabited by roaming Mongol and Turkic nomads, each led by a Khan.
They were a pastoral people, moving around in their yurt tents and herding livestock of sheep, cattle, yaks and camels.
Interestingly enough, women were regarded as important members of this nomadic society, responsible for migration management and livestock care.
While the women handled home affairs, the men honed their martial skills, being talented archers and horsemen.
Often, these nomadic groups clashed, but eventually, they were all united under the rule of a single ruler named Temujin.
Losing his father to an assassination at an early age and growing up poor, Temujin gained the support of other prominent figures and rose up the ranks quickly.
He grew popular with his soldiers by promoting them meritocratically and distributing loot equally.
Whenever he subjugated a new nomadic group, he integrated them throughout his armies so that they could not gather to rebel against him.
By 1206, he was proclaimed Genghis Khan, the Universal Ruler. With the power of the Mongols consolidated, he set out to leave his mark on history.
Northern China, then under the rule of the Jin, was first to fall. He then headed west into Central Asia, where he waged a genocidal war against the Khwarizmian Empire.
He had initially attempted to establish friendly relations with the Shah of Khwarizmia, but after several Mongol diplomats were mistreated and later, murdered, Genghis launched an all-out assault.
1.7 million citizens of Khwarizmia were killed during the conflict, and whole cities were massacred as a warning to those who dared stand in the path of the Mongols.
Genghis could not conquer death however, and passed away in 1227.
His unmarked tomb has yet to be found, with legends telling of how the funeral goers were killed to keep the tomb’s location a secret.
His offspring and descendants would pick up Genghis’ bloodied mantle and continue to expand the borders of the Mongol Empire.
In the 1230s and 1240s, Central Asia was under Mongol control, the Russian princes were beaten into submission and two European armies, nearly annihilated.
The Muslim world was horrified in the 1250s when the Mongols rampaged through the Middle East and devastated the intellectual and commercial centre of Baghdad.
In the East, southern China under the rule of the Song Dynasty was conquered.
Only a few kingdoms were able to resist the Mongols, with Vietnam repeatedly repelling Mongol invasions, and a Majapahit prince manipulating the Mongols to secure his position before double-crossing them.
Famously, the Mongol invasions of Japan were wrecked by a combination of both Japanese resistance and bad weather.
While the foundation of the Mongol Empire was bloody, life in the empire was actually decent.
After the conquest, the Mongols left their new subjects to govern themselves and hired locals as administrators.
Being shamanistic, the Mongols allowed religious freedom, provided that religious leaders supported them.
Frequently, after capturing cities, the Mongols would single out and spare engineers, artisans and scholars from the subsequent massacre, knowing their talents could prove useful.
These lucky survivors were relocated throughout Asia and ordered to work for the Mongols.
The Mongol Empire began to produce a symbol of luxury, valuable gold brocade, made from Chinese silk Tibetan gold with the skills of Baghdadi weavers.
Chinese gunpowder technicians were made to design weapons for the Mongols and to help in sieges.
With Eurasia united under Mongol rule, the Silk Road prospered with a functioning post system and a collection of safe places for traders to stay.
The seaborne porcelain trade grew, with Chinese pottery being decorated with Iranian blue dye.
However, even the largest of empires wasn’t immortal, and it didn’t take long for Genghis’ descendants to fight among themselves for control of the empire.
The Empire split into four different realms, with Kublai Khan establishing the Yuan Dynasty in China and Hulagu Khan founding the Ilkhanate in modern-day Iran.
The Chagatai Khanate controlled Central Asia and it was from this region that future conquerors, Timur the Lame and Babur emerged.
Eastern Europe remained under the rule of the Golden Horde for years, before the Russian city of Muscovy, the future Moscow, would overthrow them.
While the Mongol Empire stayed united for a short time, the legacy that they left throughout the world in so many different countries can still be felt today.