The Mongol Empire

Course No. 3158
Professor Craig G. Benjamin, Ph.D.
Grand Valley State University
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Course No. 3158
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What Will You Learn?

  • numbers Trace the origins of the Mongols's distinctive way of life on the arid Eurasian steppe.
  • numbers Explore the celebrated career of Chinggis Khan, who created the Mongol Empire in the early 1200s.
  • numbers Follow the Great Khans who succeeded Chinggis, witnessing how the empire broke into four separate "khanates."
  • numbers Analyze the factors that made Mongol warriors an almost invincible military force.
  • numbers Study the cultures of the civilizations defeated by the Mongols and see how the conquerors were themselves assimilated.

Course Overview

Picture these two scenes: In the first, you look over the wall of your city during the Middle Ages only to see the surrounding countryside choked with armed and mounted warriors, who have seemingly come from nowhere to ravage your ill-fated community. In the second, you have traveled for thousands of miles overland in relative safety, from Europe to an East Asian court that is civilized beyond compare, with foods, fabrics, technologies, and customs that will scarce be believed when you get back home.

These are two sides of the Mongol Empire, the largest, most brutal, and yet one of the most enlightened realms the world has ever known. Award-winning teacher and historian Professor Craig Benjamin brings both sides of this remarkable civilization to life in The Mongol Empire with 24 lectures that recount the storied conquests and achievements of the steppe nomads of Central Asia, who flourished from the 1100s to 1500s.

Even today, the Mongol conquerors are almost as shrouded in mystery as they were for the victims of their sudden raids so many centuries ago. Yet their empire was crucial to the fate of the religions of Islam and Orthodox Christianity and to the civilization of China. Plus, the long period of stability they brought to Central Asia opened the door to dependable commercial and cultural ties between Europe and East Asia. Indeed, many historians believe that the Mongol conquests, as violent as they were, helped usher in the modern world.

A Horde of Great Leaders

In The Mongol Empire, you learn that the internal politics between Mongol tribes could be intricate and bloody, with different relatives and factions fighting for control. However, among all the contenders for power, three great Mongol rulers stand out:

  • Chinggis Khan: Also spelled more familiarly as Genghis Khan, this military genius was almost solely responsible for creating the Mongol Empire in the early 1200s. He claimed a mandate from heaven to rule the world and came closer than anyone in history, ultimately controlling some nine million square miles—four times the size of the Roman Empire at its height.
  • Qubilai Khan: This fabled monarch in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s visionary poem, Kubla Khan, was a real Mongol emperor of China. A grandson of Chinggis Khan, Qubilai spent decades vanquishing China’s Song dynasty and then presiding over a magnificent court, where he hosted the Italian traveler Marco Polo in the 1270s.
  • Timur: Also called Tamerlane due to his lameness, this ferocious warrior was responsible for millions of deaths in his conquests from Anatolia to India in the late 1300s and early 1400s. Timur left a bloodcurdling impression on the Western imagination, memorably in Christopher Marlowe’s 16th-century play, Tamburlaine the Great.

You will also meet an army of lesser known but equally mighty khans, queens, and princes. Among them were Chinggis’s son and immediate heir, Ogedai, who expanded his father’s empire and kept it together thanks to his gift for administration; Toregene, who exercised complete power after the death of her husband, Ogedai; Batu, one of Chinggis’s grandsons, who founded the Golden Horde division of the empire, which extended into Hungary and threatened the heart of Europe; Hulagu, another grandson, who invaded Persia and sacked Baghdad, ending the golden age of Islam; and Babur, related to Chinggis on his mother’s side and Timur on his father’s side, who established the Mughal dynasty in India, which dominated the subcontinent until the British arrived in the 18th century.

The Secret of Mongol Military Success

What made the Mongols so successful against first-class fighters like the Turks, Chinese, Persians, and the armored knights of Europe? Professor Benjamin analyzes the qualities that gave Mongol mounted archers a decisive edge, including:

  • Horsemanship: As pastoral nomads, the Mongols were superb horsemen, whose herding abilities were easily adapted to military-style raids. Moreover, their custom of large-scale hunts during winter lasting many weeks gave them experience in complex operations requiring discipline, coordination, and endurance.
  • Composite Bow: Arrows shot in rapid succession from composite bows were the Mongols’ secret weapon. The bow was a laminate constructed from different types of wood, animal horn, and sinew. It allowed a short bow to store as much energy as a traditional long bow, which was too unwieldy for use while riding.
  • Siegecraft: Unique among nomads such as the Mongols, they acquired the skills of siegecraft so well they were rarely thwarted in their attempts to conquer cities. Their good treatment of captured artisans and craftsmen gave the Mongols access to the expertise needed to build catapults, scaling towers, and other siege engines.

Furthermore, the nature of the Eurasian steppe itself—a nearly unbroken grassland extending for 5,000 miles—gave the Mongols a sparsely populated homeland with ready access to rich civilizations on its periphery: China, India, Persia, Anatolia, and Europe. Few other groups knew how to survive on the arid steppe, whereas, the Mongols could easily disappear at the close of their campaigns only to reemerge months or years later, thousands of miles away, to menace a new target.

Epic Drama and Diverse Cultures

A pioneer in the discipline of “big history,” Professor Benjamin is uniquely qualified to tell the complex story of the Mongol Empire. Big history uses a multidisciplinary approach, and Dr. Benjamin notes that the Mongols can only be truly understood when viewed in their environmental, geopolitical, and cultural contexts. In a wide-ranging exploration of these contexts, he makes a host of observations on topics such as:

  • Pastoralism: A hybrid of foraging and farming, pastoralism permitted humans to colonize the Eurasian steppe, especially after the domestication of the horse about 6,000 years ago. But pastoralism requires a nomadic way of life, constantly driving herds to fresh grasslands. It was this enforced mobility that molded the Mongol identity.
  • The Great Wall: The Chinese had suffered from nomad raids for centuries and had built fortifications to stop them. But the trauma inflicted by the Yuan dynasty, founded by Qubilai Khan, motivated the Chinese to construct “The Great Wall” after China regained power. Extending for thousands of miles, the wall successfully forestalled another Mongol invasion.
  • Religious Tolerance: Devoted to their sky god, Tengri, who had given them permission to conquer the whole world, the Mongols nonetheless tolerated other religions. Some khans even converted to Buddhism, Christianity, or Islam. Given the steady expansion of Islam into Central Asia, the Mongol khanates over time became predominately Muslim.

Professor Benjamin has journeyed extensively throughout the lands covered in this course. He reports on the unique beauty of the Eurasian steppe; the magnificence of the Mongols’ sacred mountains; and the splendor of some of the chief cities in their empire, which still retain relics of Mongol rule. He even offers travel tips to destinations that are well worth an ambitious expedition off the beaten path.

But the most exciting expedition of all is this course: The Mongol Empire offers you incredible drama in diverse cultures, in a remote period, and across fully one-fourth of the Earth’s circumference. As you will see, the epic of the Mongols is one of the most extraordinary stories in the long annals of world history.

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24 lectures
 |  Average 28 minutes each
  • 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. x
  • 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." x
  • 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. x
  • 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." x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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." x
  • 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? x
  • 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." x
  • 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." x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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." x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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." x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x

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Your professor

Craig G. Benjamin

About Your Professor

Craig G. Benjamin, Ph.D.
Grand Valley State University
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....
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The Mongol Empire is rated 4.5 out of 5 by 15.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Exceptional Presentation Dr Craig Benjamin frankly blew me away with his presentation. Not only did he cover the material extremely well, his ability to remember and pronounce the myriad names of the Mongol rulers and the exotic names of the places they conquered was next to exceptional. I actually had some difficulty keeping up with his narrative due to the fact of so many names and places he covered in detail during his course. Frankly, I admit, I was greatly impressed. From the rise of Chinggis Khan, his famous conquests, his sprawling empire to his death and subsequent follow on rulers this course covered in detail a part of the world largely unknown to western audiences. From superb military strategy to gruesome outcomes Dr Benjamin covered it all in detail. Being a retired military officer and history buff, I was totally absorbed in his course from start to finish. All in all a superb course presented by a knowledgeable historian. I strongly recommend the course.
Date published: 2020-10-20
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very interesting about a key factor in history I really enjoyed Prof Benjamin's course and hope he does more for the TC. I knew a fair amount about the Mongols but learned a lot about their rise and their sheer impact on the medieval, early modern, and even modern worlds. There's a lot of detail and it's easy, when listening without the course guidebook at hand, to let the endless names of Chinggis Khan's descendants wash over you, but the while story makes great sense and is profoundly interesting. Prof Benjamin is a very clear and energetic presenter, easy to listen to.
Date published: 2020-10-02
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Good introduction to Mongols, but could be better If you have NOT read or taken a course on the Mongols I would recommend it as an introductory course. If you have previous exposure to the history of the Mongols I do not believe this course is worthwhile. I "argued" with myself about buying it; but, in the end purchased it. It is entertaining and was a good refresher but in the end decided it had limited value for me. But, it probably does have value to those exploring the Mongols for the first time. Like some other courses and books; I recommend you listen to the last two lectures first. That will give you a good idea of where the teacher is taking you. There are some good photos if you have not toured Central Asia and seen some of the architecture in person. A caution for people not familiar with the history of Central Asia. The history of Central Asia is filled with wars. Khans, Emirs, Princes, and usurpers fought constantly with each other. So you will always get a continual recital of one military campaign after another. There are some good insights into the nature of the nomads and their life ways. A agree with a previous reviewer the guide book needs a time line and glossary. However; the guide book (on page 163) provides a web site where an adequate time line can be found. There is a graphic of the family tree of Chinggis Khan shown several times on the video. It would be great if that graphic were provided in the guide book.
Date published: 2020-09-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Instructor is outstanding The narration and photography are amazing. The teacher is clear and concise and illustrates his material well. His love of the region shines through, and definitely makes one wish to see the area for oneself. The breadth of his subject is really mind-boggling.
Date published: 2020-09-12
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Was hoping for more of a cultural history I really wanted to love this course. The subject matter is fascinating and I did learn somethings, but ultimately it was too much a recitation of battles to hold my interest. I made it through the first five lectures on Great Courses Plus before giving up. If you're into political or military history, this course may be just right for you. If you're hoping for a cultural history, this isn't that. I was hoping to hear more stories of the peoples, cultures and context and found the descriptions of which tribe fought which other tribe too dry to hold my interest. There's no real sense of story-telling or digging into the motivations of the intriguing figures described. I just couldn't get into it.
Date published: 2020-09-06
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Mongol Empire-2020 new features/the good and bad As usual content is crisp. Professor also gave a needed prelude to the Mongols also which others do not cover. Like the tabbed popups for new names or concepts that appear on the left side of screen or bottom. Do not like the slimmed down bibliography and the absence of a timeline in the standard study guide. A glossary would be nice also.
Date published: 2020-08-23
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fascinating (but Necessarily Limited) History Considering that the Mongol Empire was the largest contiguous empire in world history, comprising 25% of the world's population, with significant effects upon much more, it is astonishing how little about it (at least in my experience) is taught in typical high school and college history classes. This course is an outstanding opportunity to make up for that lost experience. Professor Benjamin is excellent. His knowledge of the Mongols seems encyclopedic, he is very well-organized with nary a digressive sentence or wasted phrase, and he speaks with enthusiasm as well as clarity in a well-modulated voice which never lost my attention. Having been familiar with only the usual two names, Chinggis (a.k.a. Genghis) and Qubilai (a.k.a. Kublai), and with the basic line that the Mongols came, conquered, and then pretty much withdrew from history, I was dazed by the extraordinary amount that is known about their very complex sagas, and their interactions with so many disparate lands and cultures. I found it fascinating. There is one major drawback to the course, which is not under the professor's control as far as I could tell. Almost all of the information we have, from limited written sources and some archaeological remains, relates to the great men and women, the khans and their nobles, and sometimes their wives or mothers, and the movements and actions of large armies. Very little is presented, and apparently very little is known, regarding the everyday lives of the vast majority of the nomadic Mongol people. This is a classic 'great man' history. Related to this is the huge number of unfamiliar names and places which are mentioned in what seemed like every other sentence. I found this close to overwhelming, and just decided to let them flow by without trying to keep them in mind. I strongly recommend, by the way, that you listen to the final lecture first. It provides an excellent summary which would serve as an equally worthwhile introduction, putting the Mongols' accomplishments - which were by turns admirable and horrendous - into historical perspective. And the many maps, genealogy diagrams, and other visuals make the video a definite preference. So - a superb course, despite the noted limitations. If you have any interest in world history, this would be very worthwhile. Enjoy.
Date published: 2020-08-03
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Solid Course I was surprised by how much of this course I did not know. There were important empires about which I had never heard. There were strong influences and explanations on Western Civilization that I had never heard. Dr. Benjamin emphasizes the military and political developments in the rise, expansion, fracture, and dissolution of the Mongol empire(s). He relates these developments to developments in China, the Middle East (particularly around the time of the Crusades), and Eastern Europe, all of which have multiple courses in The Great Courses library. I wish he had said more about the Mongol interaction with India. Dr. Benjamin is easy to follow although his accent might be difficult for some. I used the video version. Although the audio version would have been acceptable, the maps, charts, and illustrations in the video version are beneficial for those of us who have little background in the Eurasian steppes.
Date published: 2020-07-30
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