1: The Mongols’ Place in World History
Starting with eyewitness accounts of the arrival of fierce Mongol armies at unsuspecting cities across Eurasia, Professor Benjamin launches his survey of the rise and decline of the Mongol Empire, the largest the world has ever known. After outlining the content of the course, he sketches the history of civilizations destined to be controlled by the Mongols—from China to Persia to Eastern Europe.
2: The Origins of Eurasian Steppe Nomadism
Use a “big history” perspective to understand the origin of militarized nomadism in the pastoral culture that developed on the grasslands of Eurasia beginning 7,000 years ago. Consider the paradox of nomadic empires that rarely build cities, yet still interact with the great civilizations on the periphery of the Eurasian steppe. Focus on the importance of the horse and composite bow to nomadic military power.
3: Nomadic Predecessors of the Mongols
In this lecture, set the stage for the leader who founded the Mongol Empire in the early 13th century, Chinggis Khan (also spelled Genghis Khan). See how previous Mongolian-centered steppe empires established a template that was perfected by Chinggis. Trace these precursors to Turkic rulers in the 7th and 8th centuries, and to the Xiongnu steppe empire a thousand years earlier.
4: The Rise of Chinggis Khan
Drawing on The Secret History of the Mongols, written soon after Chinggis Khan’s death in 1227, chart the rise of the obscure son of a minor Mongol chief to earn the title “Strong” or “Universal Ruler”: Chinggis Khan. His martial daring and hairbreadth escapes have all the drama of a Hollywood epic. There is even a beautiful and formidable love interest, Borte, who Chinggis chose as his wife.
5: Chinggis Khan’s Early Conquests
Having consolidated his power over the Mongol tribes, Chinggis Khan had to decide what to do next with his unbeatable army, and how to prevent it from dissolving into division and chaos. Review the geopolitical situation in inner Eurasia at this time. Then follow Chinggis’s forces on their first campaigns outside of Mongolia. Their number-one target was the Jin dynasty in China, longtime antagonists of the nomads.
6: Mongol Institutions under Chinggis Khan
Spotlight three innovations introduced by Chinggis Khan to unify and modernize the Mongol state: his reorganization of Mongol society; his taxation reforms; and his creation of a new law code, the Great Yasa, which included injunctions designed to protect horses, water, and wild animals. The code also specified seemingly minor breaches of decorum that were punishable by death.
7: Chinggis Khan’s Khwarazmian Campaign
Take off on the brutal campaign called by one historian a “masterpiece of Mongol warfare at all levels.” This was Chinggis Khan’s military operations in the early 1220s against Shah Muhammad, ruler of the Khwarazmian Empire, located in the regions of modern-day Iran and Central Asia. Incited by the shah’s murder of his traders and emissaries, Chinggis led a vengeful invasion of death and destruction.
8: The Death of Chinggis Khan
Ever restless, Chinggis Khan withdrew from his western conquests to start a new campaign thousands of miles away in northwestern China. Learn about the hunting accident that reportedly led to his death in 1227, the mystery surrounding his burial place, and his chosen successor among his sons. Then weigh the legacy of Chinggis Khan. Was he a civilizing force or an agent of unparalleled disaster?
9: Ogedai Khan’s Western Campaigns
Chinggis Khan’s third son and successor, Ogedai, wasted no time striving to fulfill his father’s dying order: “Life is short. I could not conquer all the world. You will have to do it!” The new khan took up unfinished business against the Jin dynasty in China and sent a force to subdue lands in Eastern Europe, defeating the cream of European knighthood. Discover what stopped his onslaught.
10: Mongol Queens and the Contest for the Empire
Delve into the administration and politics of the Mongol Empire during the 10-year hiatus from expansion that followed the death of Ogedai in 1241. Learn about the Mongols’ remarkably swift “pony express,” and spotlight two influential queens, Toregene and Sorkaktani, who managed the empire and paved the way for their favored candidates for Great Khan: Guyuk and his successor, Mongke.
11: Dividing the Empire: A Tale of Four Brothers
Relive the exploits of four sons of Tolui, the youngest heir of Chinggis Khan. Among other adventures, Mongke Khan led the attack on China’s Song dynasty in concert with his brother Qubilai, eventually to become the legendary Qubilai Khan. Meanwhile, Hulagu Khan engineered the brilliant siege of Baghdad, while the youngest brother, Ariq Boke, attempted to usurp the khanate, sparking a civil war.
12: The Strengths of Mongol Military Organization
Survey the armament, tactics, and organization of the Mongol military machine. Far from being a mob of fanatical mounted warriors, the Mongols were superbly trained and disciplined. Consider the close connection between their traditional hunting practices on the steppe and the skills needed to outsmart and defeat another army. Few fighting forces in history have been as consistently effective.
13: The Mongols in China
Follow Qubilai Khan’s conquest, unification, and leadership of China, which was the world’s most technologically advanced state at the time. In order to overcome China’s formidable defenses, Qubilai had to adopt new tactics, including ships and catapult heavy artillery. During Qubilai’s reign as the first head of the Yuan dynasty, he hosted and employed an exotic visitor from the West: Marco Polo.
14: The Mongols in East and Southeast Asia
Driven by the Mongols’ sacred mission to conquer the world, Qubilai Khan twice mounted invasions of Japan. Both times he was defeated by the samurai warrior ethic, with a generous assist from catastrophic typhoons. Termed kamikaze—or “divine winds”—these storms were afterwards seen as heavenly protectors by the Japanese. Also, learn how Qubilai had mixed success subduing states in Southeast Asia.
15: The Mongols in Central Asia
After the Mongol Empire broke apart, descendants of Chinggis Khan’s middle sons Chagatai and Ogedei ruled large parts of Central Asia. Investigate the internecine, familial strife that plagued this region, exacerbated by conflicts with the Mongol rulers of China, Persia, and Russia. Despite the political chaos, the economy functioned relatively well, with Silk Road commerce flourishing.
16: The Mongols in Persia and the Middle East
Using the contemporary chronicle of Rashid al-Din as a guide, turn to the history of Mongol rule in Persia and the Middle East. An important element of the story is the clash of religions in a region that was becoming increasingly Muslim. A good example is the Mongol ruler of Persia, Oljeitu, who was raised as a Christian, converted to Buddhism, later to Sunni Islam, and then to Shi’a Islam.
17: The Mongols in Russia: The Golden Horde
Travel to the Golden Horde, the farthest west of the khanates established after the death of Mongke Khan in the mid-13th century. Named by Russian chroniclers, the Golden Horde was a fertile arena for civil war and eventually played a pivotal role in the rise of Moscow and the Russian state. Hear about a notorious incident of germ warfare instigated by the Mongols, involving bubonic plague.
18: The Pax Mongolica: Eurasia Reconnected
Follow in the footsteps of a succession of travelers who gave Europeans their first glimpse of the extraordinary cultural diversity of Asia during a period of stability called Pax Mongolica. Marco Polo is the most famous of these medieval globetrotters. Evaluate the veracity of his account, and hear about lesser known merchants, envoys, missionaries, and adventurers who also made the arduous trip.
19: The Collapse of the Mongol Empires
Chart the disintegration of the Mongol Empire, observing its rapid collapse in the Persian Ilkhanate in 1335 and Yuan China in 1368. Also, analyze the much more gradual break-up of the Chagatayid khanate and the Golden Horde, as the Mongols splintered into smaller, more autonomous units. Finally, focus on some of the long-lived successor states to the Mongols, such as the Ming dynasty in China.
20: Timur the Lame, a.k.a. Tamerlane
Launch into the career of the last of the great Mongol rulers, Timur, the reputed “Scourge of God”—also known as Tamerlane from his lameness due to a war wound. War was the lifeblood of this minor Turco-Mongol noble, who rose to found the Timurid Empire. Cover his early exploits and his campaign against Toqtamish, khan of the Golden Horde. Also learn about Moscow’s miraculous escape from Timur.
21: Timur’s Major Campaigns
Ride with Timur on his major expeditions that brought him infamy throughout Eurasia and made European monarchs shudder with fear. Cover two invasions of Persia and the destruction of Baghdad; an incursion into India and the sacking of Delhi; a military operation into Anatolia, where he defeated the army of Ottoman sultan, Bayezid I; and his final planned assault on the Ming dynasty in China.
22: Samarkand: Timur’s Cultural Capital
Take a break from conquests to explore Timur’s fabled capital, Samarkand, located in present-day Uzbekistan. Already rich in history, the city was reborn under Timur, financed by booty and built by artisans captured during his campaigns. Investigate Timur’s mausoleum and the effort of Soviet-era archaeologists to reconstruct his appearance, which some argue provoked an ancient curse.
23: From Mughals to Soviets: Eurasia after Timur
Track the fortunes of several of Timur’s descendants, who attempted to govern the remnants of his vast empire. Among them was his grandson, Ulugh Beg, a matchless astronomer, scholar, and patron of civilization, but unfortunately an indifferent ruler. Also consider the history of Inner Eurasia over a period of more than six centuries, from the early 15th century to the end of the 20th century.
24: The Mongols and the Making of the Modern World
Close the course by assessing the heritage of the Mongols from a variety of perspectives—as conquerors, unifiers, social and political revolutionaries, as promoters of religious tolerance, protectors of commerce, and even as facilitators of the spread of plague across Eurasia, but also as disseminators of crucial technologies that undoubtedly played a role in the making of the modern world.
These big ideas of Eastern civilization emerged thousands of years ago, but they endured and shaped the long history of these regions all the way to the present.
About Craig G. Benjamin
Dr. Craig G. Benjamin is Associate Professor of History in the Frederik Meijer Honors College at Grand Valley State University (GVSU), where he teaches East Asian civilization, big history, ancient Central Asian history, and historiography. He earned his undergraduate education at The Australian National University in Canberra and Macquarie University in Sydney, and his Ph.D. in Ancient History from Macquarie University. Professor Benjamin has received several awards for teaching, including the 2012 Faculty of Distinction Award from Omicron Delta Kappa Society (a national leadership honor society) and the 2009 Student Award for Faculty Excellence from the GVSU Student Senate. He is the author of numerous articles and books, including The Yuezhi: Origin, Migration and the Conquest of Northern Bactria and Readings in the Historiography of World History. He is coauthor (with David Christian and Cynthia Stokes Brown) of Big History: Between Nothing and Everything. Professor Benjamin is an officer of the World History Association and the International Big History Association. He is also a consultant for The College Board and a member of the SAT World History Subject Committee and the Advanced Placement World History Development Committee.