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Internet resources on the Mongol Empire usually dwell on the Mongol conquests of a huge mass of territory. Unfortunately, seldom are the reasons behind the conquests explained. One gets the impression that the Mongols were conquering for the sake of conquering to satisfy their ego of becoming the biggest land conquerors in world history on the Guiness Book of Records. However, this is seldom so because of the huge costs of war.

Given the relatively small population of the Mongols (less than 3m today), even Mongolia itself should be enough. Surely, after conquering significant parts of China, it should be more than enough. Why did the Mongols still want to move on to conquer the other parts of Asia, Russia, Europe? What purpose do these territories serve them? Even if they manage to conquer successfully, it is doubtful if the Mongol population was large enough to spread throughout the conquered territories to rule and preserve their power on a long-term basis.

What reasons drove the Mongols to want to conquer such a huge land territory?

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Guessing undocumented motives for people dead for 800 years is just silly. –  Pieter Geerkens Oct 20 '13 at 6:28
Shouldn't the study of history include explaining the reasons why certain events occur besides reporting what events occurred? –  curious Oct 20 '13 at 6:35
Imagining motives is way beyond what is at all possible on any history site. Why did Hitler kill the Jews? Why did Alexander conquer Persia? Why did Genghis conquer half the known world? Such questions are inherently unknowable, and thus inherently opinion based, and off-topic? –  Pieter Geerkens Oct 20 '13 at 13:17
If the question was asking "what was XXX thinking about when he did YYY?", then that would be impossible to answer. If the question asked about what were the incentives or possible reasons that drove XXX to do YYY, I think that should be answerable. To learn from history, we have to ask why some people did certain things even though there is no way to be certain why they did it, particularly when the actions are puzzling. –  curious Oct 20 '13 at 13:35
It is certainly not true that the motives of historical figures cannot be analyzed. e.g. There is an extensive documentary record of Hitler's thinking about the Jews, and at least some material which sheds light on the internal bureaucratic wrangling which led to the Final Solution. The entire functionalism vs intentionalism debate which has been extremely important in Holocaust studies makes no sense if we assume that motives cannot be analyzed. This is just sandbagging pretending to be skepticism. –  Evan Harper Oct 20 '13 at 14:36

3 Answers 3

up vote 16 down vote accepted

Maybe someone more knowledgeable about the economics of a society like the medieval Mongols might expand on this, but to me it seems that such a civilization could generate much more income by conquering and looting new territory than what they could produce internally. This is also true to the nomadic people in the migration period some centuries earlier: Huns, Goths, etc.

Nomadic people had relatively little agriculture and industry, and a larger warrior to worker ratio than settled civilizations. Settled civilizations had more accumulated wealth which they accumulated over a relatively long period of time. So it is a lot quicker and easier to generate income by conquering their neighbors than by trading with them (what could they offer if they could not produce most of the luxury goods the richer civilizations needed?)

However, when conquering and looting new territory makes up most of your income, once you "exhausted" an area, you have to move on to find new places to conquer. This is why this system cannot be kept up for too long: once you stop, your income will drop and your economy will collapse. (similar effects contributed later, among other factors, to the collapse of the Ottoman Empire)

It is like a vicious cycle: as you grow, the cost of maintaining your empire grows, and you need to conquer new territory to raise your income, and so on. Once you stop, the bubble will burst.

The one and only people of the migration period which managed to build a strong medieval kingdom and survived as a country to this day were the Hungarians, and only after adopting the way of living of other European kingdoms and giving up their nomadic lifestyle. All others vanished as quickly as they have risen.

Note: I know there are differences between the Mongol conquests and the migration period, I used them as yet another example when most of your income comes from conquering new territory.

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+1 "when conquering and looting new territory makes up most of your income, once you "exhausted" and area, you have to move on to find new places to conquer." –  please delete me Oct 21 '13 at 19:25

The Mongols were pastoralists. Livestock herders. As such, their culture naturally thrived on steppe (or grassland) territory. A pastoral nation is not tied to any one place, but rather moves around with its herds to find the best grazing. A militarily dominant pastoralist society will naturally attempt to take over all good grassland territory for itself.

Given that, I think a look at a map of the Eurasian steppe may prove enlightening. The green areas on the map below indicate good pasture land in Asia. Altaic pastoralists like the Mongols and Turks will naturally desire to take over all this territory possible.

enter image description here

Now let's look at a map of the Mongolian empire:

enter image description here

One thing becomes immediately obvious here: All Mongol-controlled territory was within easy reach of the Steppe. The largest incursions off of the steppe, into Persia and China, represented relatively rich settled societies. These places were wealthy enough that the Mongols could simply conquer them and place themselves into the top stratum of society to suck off the proceeds of existing empires.

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+1 for recognizing that the Mongol didn't aim to "settle" or "rule". They were pre-modern pastoralists, with commensurate goals and values. –  Mark C. Wallace Oct 23 '13 at 14:20
Those maps look to be Mercator Projections, which is really unfortunate for your point. Any chance of redrawing hem on an equal area projection? –  Pieter Geerkens Jan 31 at 4:27
@PieterGeerkens - I didn't draw them, and am frankly incapable of drawing a straight line with a straightedge. However, they are both linked from Wikipedia, so if you think they can be improved you are perfectly free to go there and do so. –  T.E.D. Jan 31 at 13:26

One reason that Genghis Khan's Mongols expanded so far as they did was because each success brought with it a new set of enemies.

Genghis Khan began by uniting the five core tribes: his own "Mongols," the Kereits, the Merkits, the Naiman, and the Tatars, accomplishing this by 1206. This earned him the emnity of several groups on the borders of the new "Mongolia," who had been allied with the other tribes. From east to west they were the Jin Dynasty (the Manchus), the western Xia, including the Tanguts and Uighurs, and the Kara-Khitan (modern Kazazhstan). Genghis Khan had to defeat the first two and occupy the Kara-Khitan before his new country could be reasonably safe from invasion.

The last occupation caused him to want to restore the use of the so-called Silk Road, which extended through central Asia, the Middle East, and the Mediterranean. Genghis Khan sent a delegation to negotiate trade terms over this road with the Khwarezemid (greater Persian) Empire, but they interpreted his overtures as a demand for tribute, and executed his envoys, starting a war. Genghis Khan sacked several of their cities, Samarkand, Bokhara, and Urgench, before conquering this empire.

Some of his men elected to return home (to Mongolia), using the longer route around the western shore of the Caspian Sea. That brought them into further conflict with the Cumans (a Turkish people in South Russia), who were allied with the Khwarezemids. While fighting the Cumans near the Volga, the Mongols incurred the wrath of the Kievan Rus. (The Cuman king was the father in law of one of the Ukrainian princes.) So the Kievans began fighting the Mongols, who had offered them peace.

The process stopped when the Mongols ran out of enemies to fight, or to be more exact, when their remaining enemies became less threatening than the internal divisions that wracked the Mongolian empire after the death of Genghis Khan in 1227. But the pattern of Mongol conquest extended for several decades more before this happened.

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References would earn another vote (at least). –  Pieter Geerkens Jan 31 at 4:22
@PieterGeerkens: There is a link to Genghis Khan in the first paragraph that serves as a factual reference for my comments. The interpretations are mine. –  Tom Au Jan 31 at 14:05

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