Investigative Question

How did the Mongol Empire destroy states and increase the interconnection of Afroeurasia?

The attacks and domination of the Mongol Empire had a huge negative effect on states, empires, and many people of Eurasia, but it also greatly extended trade, travel, and exchange between Afroeurasian societies. The teacher introduces the question How did the Mongol Empire destroy states and increase the interconnection of Afroeurasia? In the late twelfth century, nomadic warriors from the steppe and deserts north of China, the Mongol tribes (and other Central Asian nomadic tribes), were united by a charismatic leader, Chinggis (Genghis) Khan, who led them to conquests across Eurasia. At its height, the Mongol Empire was the largest land empire in world history. Even though their numbers were small, Mongols were fierce and highly mobile fighters who terrified the people they conquered. Students examine maps of the Mongol Empire and conquests and compare these with the Sites of Encounter in the Medieval World interactive map, which has physical, religious, political, and other maps of Afroeurasia. After Chinggis Khans death, the Mongol Empire split up into four khanates. Chinggis grandson, Hulagu Khan, was ruler of the Il-Khanate. Since the Muslim states were divided, individually they were no match for the Mongol warriors. Hulagu conquered Persia, Syria, and part of Anatolia and destroyed the Abbasid Caliphates capital of Baghdad. Although some feared that the Mongols would destroy the Muslim world, the Egyptian Mamluk Sultanate fought the Mongol army and stopped its advance. Mongols in the Khanate of the Golden Horde overran Russia and attacked Poland and Eastern Europe. The Khanate of the Great Khan went to another grandson, Kubilai Khan, who took over China from the Song Dynasty. Kubilai established the Yuan Dynasty and kept many Chinese customs, but he replaced Confucian scholar-officials with foreign administrators. The Mongols conquered states in Southeast Asia and tried twice to invade Japan in the late thirteenth century, but they failed both times. The domination of the Mongols did not last long; by 100 years after the conquest, three of the four Mongol khanates had fallen from power.

Although the Mongols killed many people and destroyed many cities after a conquest, the Mongols tolerated all religions and protected and promoted trade across Eurasia. Under their protection, the land trade route from China to the Mediterranean re-opened and trade boomed. The Mongols also moved people around throughout their empire, using, for example, Persian and Arab administrators in China, and facilitating the journey of Marco Polo (and many other less-famous people) from Venice to China. The increase in interaction also spread Chinese technologies and ideas into the Muslim and Christian worlds. To understand both the negative and positive effects of the Mongol conquest and empire, student groups do a gallery walk with visuals of a Mongol passport, hunting scroll, gold textile, and a Persian tile with Chinese motifs, and an excerpt from Marco Polo describing the Mongol postal service. Students cite evidence from each primary source on a source analysis template to answer the question How did the Mongol Empire increase the interconnection of Afroeurasia?

This source set addresses the investigative question How did the Mongol Empire destroy states and increase the interconnection of Afroeurasia? The teacher will present primary sources about the central paradox of the Mongol Empire: violent conquest and the promotion of international trade and cultural exchange. Students analyze why the Mongols under Chinggis Khan and his successors were such a formidable military force and how the Mongols' perspectives on government and trade led to the creation of the Pax Mongolica (the Mongol Peace) and increased interconnection across Afroeurasia. They also compare artistic representations of Mongols from China, the Mughal Empire, and Europe and assess how those representations reflect the cultures that produced them as well as influences from other cultures. The movement of people within the Mongol Empire facilitated the transfer of artistic motifs from one culture to another.

Rather than recounting Mongol conquests, this set focuses on the factors that enabled the conquest and shaped the empire. Before beginning this set, students should be exposed to the basic narrative of the conquest. The teacher can help students to understand the routes and extent of Mongol conquests by tracing them on the map of Afroeurasia. Have students locate the site where each of the sources was produced as they work through the sources.

The first factor that enabled the Mongols to conquer such a vast empire was their military ability. The Mongols were just one ethnic group among many other nomadic peoples who lived on the Eurasian steppe and Central Asia. Organized in clans, they were pastoral nomads and masters of equine warfare (Source 1. ) They fought continuously between clans, between ethnic groups, and in raids on settled agricultural lands. Different nomadic groups had menaced China, the Roman Empire, Persia, and other lands for centuries. Steppe warriors had a huge advantage in warfare because they were mobile and fought more often than soldiers from settled states and empires. However, the steppe nomads were divided and so could be overwhelmed by the large number of soldiers and the organization of states. The second factor was Chinggis (also spelled as Genghis) Khan, born Temüjin (Source 2). With charisma, a brilliant military strategy, and empire-building ambition, he first united the Mongol clans, then defeated the Turkic ethnic groups (such as Uighurs) and other steppe nomads in Central Asia, and incorporated these nomadic warriors into the Mongol forces (called the "Horde" by their enemies. ) To the nomads' fighting abilities Chinggis Khan added discipline, organization, and ruthlessness to hold the army together. The force of his personality and the success of the initial campaigns were enough to hold the Mongols together under members of his family after Chinggis died. They continued his conquests, and the Mongol Empire was divided into four main khanates, with the Khanate of the Great Khan (also known as the Yuan Dynasty) as the central and most important.

The third factor that gave the Mongols such power was their use of psychological warfare tactics, including terror and deception. They would suddenly withdraw in the middle of a battle, luring the enemy into a trap. They killed anyone who resisted them and slaughtered all inhabitants of a town in order to send a message to others. Then when they approached the next city, they would offer the enemy a choice to surrender and pay tribute or have their city destroyed. On their Russian campaigns from 1237 to 1242, the Mongols set about conquering Kievan Rus by destroying one city after another and slaying the local population, forcing all the Russian principalities to submit. The only major cities that avoided destruction were Novgorod and Pskov, which preemptively surrendered. The Mongolian troops went on to attack Poland and Hungary (Source 4). The result was the creation of the largest land empire in world history, at a terrible cost in human lives — perhaps as many as 40 million people.

Once the conquest was complete, the Mongols had to govern the lands they had conquered. Many of those lands, such as the Abbasid Caliphate, Persia, and China, had extensive bureaucratic systems of government that were much more sophisticated than Mongol hierarchical military government. Mongols maintained most of the government systems that already existed, but they modified some crucial elements to align with their nomadic lifestyle, priorities, and experience. Because there were far fewer Mongols than subjects and the Mongols wanted to avoid betrayal, they used conquered administrators, but sent them to other lands (Source 3. ) Nomadic people were used to traveling long distances and acting as traders as well as raiders, and the Mongols established peace and promoted trade and cultural exchange within their empire. The result was the reopening, protecting, and expanding of land trade routes throughout the center of Afroeurasia. For swift communication, the Mongol rulers established the relay station system called yum, described by the Venetian traveler Marco Polo, who served Kublai Khan for 17 years (Source 6. ) The Mongols issued passports called paizi that guaranteed the safety of tax-paying merchants (Source 7). The Mongols were also religiously tolerant, which allowed the spread of religious ideas and dialogue among Islam, Christianity, and Buddhism throughout the empire. Cultural ideas and technologies also traveled among the Mongolian, Chinese, Persian, Central Asian, Indian, and Islamic cultures, as can be seen in the incorporation of new elements and motifs in art, creating a synthesis with the local traditions (Sources 5 and 8). The central paradox of the Mongol Empire — violent conquest and fostering of trade and interconnection — came from the same root: the lifestyle, priorities, and experience of steppe nomads, reshaped by the genius of Chingghis Khan.

Literacy Strategy for John of Plano Carpini, History of the Mongols (Source 1)

California English Language Development Standards Grade 7

Part 1, B. Interpretive

5. Listen actively to spoken English in a range of social and academic contexts.

6. Read closely literary and informational texts and view multimedia to determine how meaning is conveyed explicitly and implicitly through language.

Part II: Learning about How English Works

A. Structuring Cohesive Texts

2. Understand cohesion.

C. Connecting and Condensing Ideas

6. Connect ideas: Combine clauses in a few basic ways to make connection between and join ideas (creating compound sentences using and, but, so; creating compound sentences using because).

Teacher Background: The passage that follows was excerpted from a longer description of the Mongols by John of Plano Carpini, a European Franciscan friar, in the 1240s. The passage is confusing because of its dense description, with long, complex sentences and frequently changing reference devices that obscure whom the author is talking about. To help students understand John of Plano Carpini's description, and more importantly to figure out how it helps us analyze the Mongols, the text has been broken into several sections with directions to help students' comprehension, followed by questions to support their understanding.


  1. Start by explaining the role of John of Plano Carpini, who had been sent as an emissary of the Roman Christian pope to visit and report back on the Mongols. John is reporting what he finds remarkable and what is likely different from what he is used to seeing in Europe. So everything he says must be understood through that perspective.

  2. Go over the terminology that John uses to describe the group. He uses the term Tartars, although we now use Mongols.

  3. To the whole class, introduce the two major language features that will help students unpack the passages.

    a. The author writes in very long sentences, but he uses punctuation features to help break these up: semicolons and commas + conjunctions (, and or , but. ) Explain that these punctuation features help to separate independent clauses — clauses that could stand on their own, as they have both subjects and predicates and can be understood as complete ideas. As students read the passages, emphasize that they should follow the directions and draw slashes where these punctuation features appear, in order to break up the long sentences. Then have them read each clause one at a time, with pauses in between, so that they will comprehend the complete idea in each clause. Help students identify the subject and verb in the first few clauses. This can help students in the future when they get lost by helping them break down compound sentences into parts for meaning. Alternatively, you can rewrite each clause as a separate line.

    b. The author uses a lot of pronouns to reference prior subjects. In most cases the pronouns refer to the Tartars/Mongols as a group. If students do not read closely, they might not notice when the references change. Explain that students can fill in the space after the pronoun with the term to which the pronoun refers in order to detect when the pronoun references change and better understand the passage.

  4. As a whole class, read the background and conduct a first read of the source together, so that students get the gist of the passage. If students have questions, record them and see if they can be answered after completing an examination in more depth.

  5. Do section 1 together as a whole class: read the background, directions, the first passage, and the questions. Model how to break the sentences apart and fill in the pronoun references. Then discuss the answers to the questions.

  6. Make sure students understand the directions for sections 2 and 3. Then have them complete these sections in pairs or individually, while monitoring their work and answering questions.

  7. After students complete each section, direct them to use their new understanding as evidence toward answering overall questions, including the original investigative question How did the Mongol Empire destroy states and increase the interconnection of Afroeurasia?


7.8 Mongol Empire Student Handout

7.8 Mongol Empire Teacher Key

  • The Library of Congress. The Library of Congress’ Primary Source Analysis Tool supports an inquiry model of instruction by asking students to first observe, then reflect, then question. Their customizable tool includes specific prompts for student interrogation of books and other printed materials, maps, oral recordings, photographs and paintings, and many other types of primary sources.

  • The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). NARA has developed a vast collection of document analysis worksheets, ready for classroom use. Their website offers teachers a wide collection of customizable tools – appropriate for working with photographs, maps, written documents, and more. NARA has also customized their tools to meet the needs of young learners, and intermediate or secondary students.