What Motivated the Mongol Conquests of Genghis Khan?

Genghis Khan
Originally Temujin. Mongol conqueror, became leader of his tribe, defeated other clans and was proclaimed Genghis Khan (Universal Ruler) of Mongol chieftains, 1206, made his capital at Karakorum.

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Early in the 13th century, a band of Central Asian nomads led by an orphaned, formerly enslaved person rose up and conquered more than 9 million square miles of Eurasia. Genghis Khan led his Mongol hordes out of the steppe to create the largest contiguous empire the world has ever seen. What sparked this sudden fit of conquest? Three main factors drove the creation of the Mongol Empire.

The Jin Dynasty

The first factor was Jin Dynasty interference in steppe battles and politics. The Great Jin (1115–1234) were of nomadic descent themselves, being ethnic Jurchen (Manchu), but their empire quickly became to a degree "Sinicized"—the rulers adopted Chinese Han-style politics to secure their own positions of power but also adjusted parts of the Han system to suit their needs. The Jjin Dynasty realm covered northeastern China, Manchuria, and up into Siberia.

The Jin played their tributary tribes such as the Mongols and Tatars against one another to divide and rule them. The Jin initially supported the weaker Mongols against the Tatars, but when the Mongols began to grow stronger, the Jin switched sides in 1161. Nonetheless, Jin support had given the Mongols the boost they needed to organize and arm their warriors. 

When Genghis Khan began his rise to power, the Jin were intimidated by the Mongols' might and agreed to reform their alliance. Genghis had a personal score to settle with the Tatars, who had poisoned his father. Together, the Mongols and Jin crushed the Tatars in 1196, and the Mongols absorbed them. The Mongols later attacked and brought down the Jin Dynasty in 1234.

The Need for Spoils of War

The second factor in Genghis Khan's success and that of his descendants was the need for spoils. As nomads, the Mongols had a relatively spare material culture—but they enjoyed the products of settled society, such as silk cloth, fine jewelry, etc. To retain the loyalty of his ever-growing army, as the Mongols conquered and absorbed neighboring nomadic armies, Genghis Khan and his sons had to continue to sack cities. His followers were rewarded for their valor with luxury goods, horses, and enslaved people seized from the cities they conquered.

The two factors above would likely have motivated the Mongols to establish a large, local empire in the eastern steppe, like many others before and after their time.

Shah Ala ad-Din Muhammad

However, a quirk of history and personality produced the third factor, which led the Mongols to invade lands from Russia and Poland to Syria and Iraq. The personality in question was that of Shah Ala ad-Din Muhammad, ruler of the Khwarezmid Empire in what is now Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan.

Genghis Khan sought a peace and trade agreement with the Khwarezmid shah; his message read:

"I am master of the lands of the rising sun, while you rule those of the setting sun. Let us conclude a treaty of friendship and peace."

Shah Muhammad accepted this treaty, but when a Mongol trade caravan arrived in the Khwarezmian city of Otrar in 1219, the Mongol traders were massacred, and their goods were stolen.

Alarmed and angry, Genghis Khan sent three diplomats to Shah Muhammad to demand restitution for the caravan and its drivers. Shah Muhammad responded by cutting off the Mongol diplomats' heads—a grave breach of Mongol law—and sending them back to the Great Khan. As it happened, this was one of the worst ideas in history. By 1221, Genghis and his Mongol armies had killed Shah Muhammad, chased his son into exile in India, and utterly destroyed the once-mighty Khwarezmid Empire. 

Genghis Khan's Sons

Genghis Khan's four sons feuded during the campaign, leading their father to send them in different directions once the Khwarezmids were conquered. Jochi went north and founded the Golden Horde that would rule Russia. Tolui turned south and sacked Baghdad, the seat of the Abbasid Caliphate. Genghis Khan appointed his third son, Ogodei, as his successor, and ruler of the Mongol homelands. Chagatai was left to rule over Central Asia, consolidating the Mongol victory over Khwarezmid lands.

Thus, the Mongol Empire arose as a result of two typical factors in steppe politics—Chinese imperial interference and the need for plunder—plus one quirky personal factor. Had Shah Muhammad's manners been better, the western world might never have learned to tremble at the name of Genghis Khan.

Sources and Further Reading

  • Aigle, Denise. "The Mongol Empire between Myth and Reality: Studies in Anthropological History." Leiden: Brill, 2014. 
  • Amitai, Reuven and David Orrin Morgan. "The Mongol Empire and its Legacy." Leiden: Brill, 1998. 
  • Pederson, Neil, et al. "Pluvials, Droughts, the Mongol Empire, and Modern Mongolia." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 111.12 (2014): 4375–79. Print.
  • Prawdin, Michael. "The Mongol Empire: Its Rise and Legacy." London: Routledge, 2017. 
  • Schneider, Julia. "The Jin Revisited: New Assessment of Jurchen Emperors." Journal of Song-Yuan Studies.41 (2011): 343–404. Print.
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Szczepanski, Kallie. "What Motivated the Mongol Conquests of Genghis Khan?" ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/what-sparked-the-mongol-conquests-195623. Szczepanski, Kallie. (2023, April 5). What Motivated the Mongol Conquests of Genghis Khan? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-sparked-the-mongol-conquests-195623 Szczepanski, Kallie. "What Motivated the Mongol Conquests of Genghis Khan?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-sparked-the-mongol-conquests-195623 (accessed June 1, 2023).