1. The rise of the Khan! Part 1 - Timujin in the Making

Understanding the success of the Mongols as a people - especially under the leadership of Timujin (Genghis Khan) - requires understanding the broader heritage and context out of which these nomadic people emerged. Historians have never underestimated the importance of understanding the geographical and sociological factors that helped forge the Mongol as a empire nation. In what follows, you will study and explore some of these factors in detail.

Genghis Khan - Sculpture

Guiding Questions

  • What were the geographical conditions (physical landscape and climate) of the Mongolian steppes and why is this important for understanding Genghis Khan?

  • What was the nature of the nomadic tribes in the Mongolian Steppes and how did that contribute to the Mongol success? 

  • What was Mongol society like before the rise of Genghis Khan?

1. What were the geographical conditions (physical landscape and climate) of the Mongolian steppes and why is this important for understanding Genghis Khan?

Mongol empire from 1206-1294

Map of the Mongolian Empire

The Mongolian plateau is located in central Asia. At present, the region is north of China and south of Russia. The area is approximately at an elevation of between 4,000 and 6,000 feet from sea level (around 1,200 meters). A vast belt of flat and treeless grassland called steppes mostly cover the expanse of the high tableland. Land is made fertile by the penetration of the rivers that flow from the plains and the scattered hills and mountains along the plateau tower into the open blue skies.

There are two main expanses of the steppe. The western steppe (see map below) runs from Central Asia to Eastern Europe. The eastern steppe, covers the area of present-day Mongolia and is home to the Mongols. Very little rain falls on the steppe, but the dry, windswept plain supports short, hardy grasses. Seasonal temperature changes can be dramatic. Temperatures in Mongolia, for example, range from –57°F in winter to 96°F in the summer. Rainfall is more plentiful and the climate milder in the west of the region than in the east. This perhaps explains the movements of people historically tended to be toward the west and the south.

South of the steppes is the vast Gobi Desert which covers more than approximately 500,000 square miles (1.3 million square kilometers) extending beyond southern Mongolia into northern China. The Gobi is one of the driest land regions on earth and in some years, it receives no rain at all. The Gobi is also known as a "cold" desert because winter temperatures can drop as low as -40°F and high temperatures can soar as far as 100°F (38°C). North of the steppes is Siberia - a daunting borderland with dense forests and long winters which make traveling extremely treacherous.

The significance of the steppes to neighboring civilizations at the time included: 

  1. It served as a land trade route connecting the East (China) and the West (central Asia, Middle East and Europe).

  2. It served as a defense against external invaders who found the terrain and physical geography daunting to traverse.

  3. It was home to nomadic peoples who would frequently sweep down on their neighbors to plunder, loot, and conquer.

Task One
ATL: Thinking skills

Ecological Perspectives

Complete the task on the attached PDF which focuses on pastoral nomadism.

Fletcher: Pastoral Nomadism

Task Two

ATL: Thinking skills

Mongolian Customs

Watch the documentary on the Mongolian people and their preserved customs and habits and take notes on the geography and the lifestyle (duration: 54:02 mins). 


2. What was the nature of the nomadic tribes in the Mongolian Steppes and how did that contribute to the Mongol success? 

Yurts on the Mongolian steppe.

A nomad is a generally considered a person with no settled home, i.e. someone who moves from place to place as a way of obtaining food, finding pasture for livestock, or otherwise making a living. Mongolian nomadic peoples during the 11th and 12th centuries were largely pastoralists—that is, they herded domesticated livestock (mostly sheep). They were constantly on the move, searching for good pasture across the steppes to feed their livestock. They were not aimless wanderers. Rather, they followed a familiar seasonal pattern and returned on a regular basis to the same campsites and normally avoided depleting pastures beyond their ability to recover. This form of semi-migration could last them up to several months. The livestock would also determine the pattern of their movement. In this way, they maintained a one of the oldest and steady subsistence method.

Keeping claim to land that was not semi-permanently occupied was difficult. Skirmishes frequently arose among nomadic groups over grassland and water rights. Asian nomads practically lived on horseback as they followed their huge herds over the steppe. They depended on their livestock for food, clothing, and housing - especially wooly animals. Their diet consisted of lamb and mutton as well as mare’s milk (called airag) which they also churned into butter and cheese. They wore clothing made of skins and wool and pressed it in order to make durable and portable felt tents called yurts. Sheep skin was made into rugs and warm clothing and leather was used to make armour, saddles and sacks. Sheep bone was carved into arrow-tips and other weapons.

Steppe nomads traveled together in kinship groups called clans. These groups are based on kinship and marriage ties or on formal agreements of cooperation. A council of adult males makes most of the decisions, though some of the tribes have chiefs.The members of each clan claimed to be descended from a common ancestor. Different clans sometimes came together when they needed a large force to attack a common enemy or raid their settled neighbors.

The differing ways of life of both nomadic and settled peoples resulted in constant and inevitable interaction between them. Often, they engaged in peaceful trade for mutual interest. The nomads for example would exchanged horses for basic domestic items they lacked and needed, such as grain, metal and cloth. Nomads were accustomed to scarcity and hardship due to the physical geography of the region. However, they did pride themselves on their toughness and hardened attitudes. Not unsurprisingly, they were sometimes tempted by the rich land and relative wealth of townsfolk and took what they wanted by brutal force. As a result, settled peoples lived in constant fear of regular raids.

Throughout history, nomadic peoples of the region, rode out of the steppe to invade border towns and villages. When a state or empire was strong and organized, it could protect its frontier. If the state or empire became divided and weak, the nomads could increase their attacks and gain more plunder. Occasionally, a powerful nomadic group was able to conquer a whole empire and become its rulers. Over generations, these nomadic rulers often became part of the civilization they conquered.


[Mongols on horseback / from Caters News Agencies]

Herds of horses was essential to Mongol life. They were extremely important for not only clan or group unity and strength, but daily living. Mongolian horses were small (sometimes called ponies) but tough and enduring. They required no hooves with natural foot strength and could withstand the harsh, volatile and dramatic weather fluctuations of the steppes. In the winter, they can even dig through snow to get to the grass underneath. 

The horses were vital for transport. They allowed the Mongols to move swiftly across the steppes and cover great distances in a short amount of time. This mode of travel also enabled effective communication, trade and even war. It also enabled nomads to unpack swiftly and move on to their next location

Task One

ATL: Thinking skills

Why, according to this source, were horses so significant for the Mongols?

Horses were the Mongol’s most treasured asset. The herders and hunters of Mongolia spent their lives in a saddle. From childhood they were taught to hunt from horseback. This outdoor life gave the Mongols independence and mobility. Traditional hunting expeditions, called the nerge, also provided military training. By riding in a vast circular formation, the Mongol horsemen gradually forced wild game such as deer and boars into a corral, or enclosure. The hunt required great teamwork, skill and endurance. Mongol warriors were known to ride for days without rest, surviving on dried milk curd and the blood drawn from an incision into the veins on their horse’s neck. The life that the Mongol nomads knew from birth created powerful warriors.

History Alive 8, p.223

For a glimpse on the importance of the horsemanship skills in the life of the Mongolians see the video from the BBC documentary clip "Born in the Saddle" in Human Planet:

Yaks were also important to the Mongols providing them with meat, milk and transport. They can survive extreme temperatures, live on rocky slopes and flat plains. They can also forage through snow for fodder, which is essential in a country where snow covers the ground for almost half the year.

Mongols lived in Yurts.  A traditional Mongolian yurt or ger was easily collapsed and transported allowing for needed mobility to new pastures and grazing areas. It was the major dwelling for nomads in the steppes. The conical shape of the yurt allowed rain to run off and provided resistance against strong Mongolian winds. Sections of the exterior and interior wooden (and bamboo) frame were secured with strips of rope to form a cylinder shape over which felt was stretched for insulation. Roof poles supported the outer covering.

 Mongols cook beside their finely decorated tents in this illustration from Jami' al-Tawarikh,

Rashid al-Din Hamadani / courtesy of wikipedia]


A Chinese artist impression of the essential features of a Mongol yurt to illustrate the story of a Chinese woman who married a nomad; c. 13th/14th century. (Image © The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Art Resource, NY)].

Task Two

ATL: Thinking skills

According to the source below, what were the advantages for the Mongols of living in yurts rather than permanent dwellings?

To make their settlements portable, the Mongols lived in tents called yurts rather than in houses. The yurts, about twelve to fifteen feet in diameter, were constructed of light wooden frames covered by layers of wool felt, greased to make them waterproof. Yurts were round, since this shape held up better against the strong winds that blew across the treeless grasslands. They could be dismantled and loaded onto pack animals or carts in a short time. The floor of a yurt was covered first with dried grass or straw, then with felt, skins, or rugs. In the center, directly under the smoke hole, was the hearth. The master’s bed was on the north. Goat horns attached to the frame of the yurt were used as hooks to hang joints of meat, cooking utensils, bows, quivers of arrows, and the like. A group of families traveling together would set up their yurts in a circle open to the south and draw up their wagons in a circle around the yurts for protection.

 McKay World, ch.12, p.335

Task Three

ATL: Thinking skills

Image result for herodotus

Herodotus on Yurts: Complete the attached task which is based on a source from Herodotus

    Herodotus source on Yurts

    Task Four

    ATL: Thinking skills

    Watch the documentary on the Mongolian nomadic spring migration and note down any relevant points you think are important (duration: 5:01 mins):

    Task Five

    ATL: Research and Communication skills

    You are a young Geographer who has been hired by a local government initiative for students learning about the Mongolians steppes. You are part of a team of archeologists and sociologists to survey the physical landscape of Mongolia as well as the behaviour and lifestyle of its inhabitants. You will be required to complete a short field report of the key features of the region you have researched from its physical description to its climate zones as well as the pattern of daily life lived by the inhabitants. What will you include in your report and why?

    (max words 150).


    PDF ATL Activity Mongolian Steppes Field Report

    Task Six

    ATL: Thinking skills

    Read the source extract from The Book of Ser Marco Polo and answer the following two questions:


    Caracoron is a city of some three miles inmcompass. [It is surrounded by a strong earthen rampart, for stone is scarce there. And beside it there is a great citadel wherein is a fine palace in which the Governor resides.] ‘Tis the first city that the Tartars possessed after they issued from their own country. And now I will tell you all about how they first acquired dominion and spread over the world.

    Originally the Tartars dwelt in the north on the borders of Chorcha. Their country was one of great plains; and there were no towns or villages in it, but excellent pasture-lands, with great rivers and many sheets of water; in fact it was a very fine and extensive region. But there was no sovereign in the land. They did, however, pay tax and tribute to a great prince who was called in their tongue Unc Can, the same that we call Prester John, him in fact about whose great dominion all the world talks. The tribute he had of them was one beast out of every ten, and also a tithe of all their other gear.

    Now it came to pass that the Tartars multiplied exceedingly. And when Prester John saw how great a people they had become, he began to fear that he should have trouble from them. So he made a scheme to distribute them over sundry countries, and sent one of his Barons to carry this out. When the Tartars became a ware of this they took it much amiss, and with one consent they left their country and went off across a desert to a distant region towards the north, where Prester John could not get at them to annoy them. Thus they revolted from his authority and paid him tribute no longer. And so things continued for a time.

 Venetian Concerning
 East, (Volume
1, translated and 
 Yule (London: John


    1. Outline one value of this source for historians understanding the Mongols?

    2. Explain one limitation of this source for understanding Mongol history.

    Source Questions on Ser Marco Polo

    3. What was Mongol society like before the rise of Genghis Khan?

    Task One

    ATL: Thinking skills

    Read through the information below on Mongol society. Create a mind map or other infographic to show the key features of Mongol society. Make sure you include the position of women, the role of men, kinship, organization.

    • The Mongols lived in small clans.

    • Different groups of clans were bonded together by marriage and blood relationships to constitute a Mongol tribe.

    • A chieftain, or khan, governed a tribe. 

    • The khan was not born necessarily to rule or become inter-tribal leader, but kept the position of power through constantly proving personal strength and protecting the life of the tribe.

    • Within Mongol clan groups, the people belonged to a particular social class which determined everything, from what they were given to eat at a banquet to how they were armed and dressed when they went into battle.

    • Thus, Mongol society was highly structured and tiered.

    For the stratification of Mongol society, read Bold’s Mongolian Nomadic Society: A Reconstruction of the 'Medieval' History of Mongolia, Oxon: Routledge, 2013, ch.4, pp.109-118.


    Historical research is beginning to reveal more and more that Mongol women had power, influence and considerable freedom because they managed daily life in the camp. Their tasks mainly included:

    • herding and milking all the owned livestock.

    • making cheese, yogurt and butter.

    • packing the yurt when moving to new pastures.

    • making felt by soaking and beating sheep fleece for winter insulation of the yurt.

    • rearing the children, cooking and sewing animal skins into warm winter clothing.

    [adapted from History Alive 8, p.22].

    Marriage ties too were very important to Mongol tribal organisation. Marriages were arranged through discussions with clan leaders or elders and were regarded as an important step into adulthood. Men were permitted to have many wives and so polygamy was a social norm in Mongol nomadic society. Once married, however, a woman was responsible for her own yurt. The location of the yurt, in relation to the man’s yurt, indicated seniority amongst the women. The first married wife would place her yurt to the east of her husband’s and subsequent wives placed their yurts to the west. If the husband died, it was expected that the youngest son or brother would take care of the widow. Married women had particular status in Mongol society and were identified by elaborate headdresses.

    [adapted from History Alive 8, p.222].

    Although men were regarded as the natural leaders in Mongol society, Mongol women held a strong social position as well. Women were seen to possess wisdom, so it was common for men to have older wives to advise and guide them. It was considered unmanly if a husband did not listen to his wife. Also, it was not unknown for women to receive military training, and at times fight beside men in battle. Mongol women could also be shamans. This means they too could have great influence in their clan.

    [Oxford Big Ideas Humanities 8, p.430]

    Kinship underlay most social relationships among the Mongols in medieval times. Normally, as mentioned above, each family occupied a yurt under the supervision of the woman, and groups of families camping together were usually related along the male line (e.g. brothers, uncles, nephews, and so on).More distant patrilineal relatives were also recognized as members of the same clan and could call on each other for aid and assistance - such as in inter-tribal skirmishes or conflicts. However, a taboo was that people from the same clan could not marry each other, so men had to marry wives from other clans.

    When a woman’s husband died, she would be inherited by another male in the family, such as her husband’s brother or his son by another woman. Tribes were groups of clans, often distantly related. Both clans and tribes had chiefs who would make decisions on where to graze and when to retaliate against another tribe that had stolen animals or people.

    Women were sometimes abducted for brides.

    When tribes stole men from each other, they normally made them into slaves and slaves were forced to do much of the heavy work and physical labour. They would not necessarily remain slaves their entire lives, however, as their original tribes might be able to recapture them or make exchanges for them, or their masters might free them.

    [adapted from McKay World, ch.12, p.336].

    On Mongol food, see Lane, Dalily Life in the Mongol Empire, ch.8, pp.167-181.

    In this  article on Mongol society, it has this observation on Mongol women and their influence on political affairs:

    A good illustration of this, and of the power of women to influence Mongol history and culture was Sorkhaqtani, wife of Genghis’s son Tolui. Sorkhaqtani had been an advisor to another of Genghis’ sons, Ogodai, when he was khan. When Tolui died, she became the head of her household of sons, including Mongke, Kublai, Hulagu and Ariq Boke, who all became khans in their time. She insisted they all become educated and learned in the languages they would need to know as leaders of an empire. After Ogodai’s death, Sorkhaqtani kept the empire together by diplomatic means while Guyuk was khan. After his death, her son Mongke became Great Khan. Sorkhaqtani’s work for the empire included opening trade, instituting intellectual exchanges throughout the empire, emphasizing freedom of religion and advising that conquered people should not be dangerously exploited."

    Tului with queen Sorgaqtani; Rashid al-Din, Jami' al-Tawarikh.

    On Sorgaqtani, see Lane, Daily Life in the Mongol Empire, London-Westport: Greenwood Press, 2006, pp.239-243.

    Leading families combined resources and solidified intergroup alliances through arranged marriages and other acts, a process that helped generate political federations. Marriages were arranged in childhood—in Temüjin’s case, at the age of eight—and children thus became pawns of diplomacy. Women from prestigious families could wield power in negotiation and management, though they ran the risk of assassination or execution just like men.

     Chapter 12 - Mongol Eurasia and Its Aftermath 1200-1500 of The Earth and its Global History, p.342

    Task Two

    ATL: Thinking skills

    In Historia Mongalorum Quos Nos Tartaros Appellamus, Giovanni da Pian del Carpini, who visited the Mongols between 1245 and 1247 at Pope Innocent IV’s command had this to say about Mongol girls:

    Girls and women ride and gallop as skillfully as men. We even saw them carrying quivers and bows, and the women can ride horses for as long as the men; they have shorter stirrups, handle horses very well, and mind all the property. The Tartar (commonly used term for Mongols) women make everything: skin clothes, shoes, leggings, and everything made of leather. They drive carts and repair them, they load camels, and are quick and vigorous in all their tasks. They all wear trousers, and some of them shoot just like men.

      (ca 1185 – August 1, 1252)

    According to this source, what was the role of women in Mongol society?

     Task Two

    ATL: Thinking skills


    Examine the following miniature:

    [Chinese envoy to Genghis Khan. The background depiction is barren denoting a desolate and infertile Mongol northern landscape. (The Granger Collection, New York)].


    1. What is the message in the source above?

    2. What can you infer about Genghis Khan from the source? Explain your answer.

    For part 2, Make sure of the following:

    • You read up on the early life of Genghis Khan (when he was known as Timujin - a small outline has been given below).

    • You are broadly familiar with life in imperial china before the Mongols under the Song (Sung) dynasty (be familiar with the urban set up as well as the social system).

    • You understand Song contributions and success like inventions (e.g. block-printing, gunpowder).

    • The collapse of the Song dynasty due to dynastic rivalry in the north (e.g. the Khitans).

    • The Abbasid Caliphate and how it was waning as a political power and by the time Genghis Khan was emperor, it was on the verge of collapse. 

    There is no need to have in-depth knowledge of these points but general familiarity and awareness in order to make wider connections is important.

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