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With their hearts set on conquering vast swathes of land—from icy mountains to windblown steppes—the Mongols are an equestrian culture with deadly ambitions.

In the 13th century, under the leadership of Genghis Khan, the Mongols began their conquest of the known world. It would only take a few decades for them to build one of the largest empires in history.

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Most likely born some time around 1162 and named Temujin, he would go on to conquer all the peoples of Mongolia before receiving the title of universal Great Khan, or Genghis Khan in 1206. This exceptional military leader took his army to conquer Asia in 1207 before seizing control of southern Siberia, northern China, Iran, and then Russia. After his death in 1227, his descendants continued the expansion by annexing Iran and Afghanistan. In Europe, they conquered the remaining parts of Russia, seized Bulgaria and Hungary, and set fire to Cracow, before finally being stopped in their tracks at the Battle of Legnica in 1241. In the Middle East, they conquered Iraq in 1258. They plundered Baghdad, burned its library to the ground, and executed its caliph. In the East, Korea would also fall. In 1279, Genghis Khan’s grandson Kubilaï seized control of Song China to establish the Yuan dynasty, though he failed to conquer Japan. The Empire was now immense, stretching from the far corners of Asia all the way to Europe, a situation that forced it to be broken up into khanates that became rivals. However, all these spaces would enjoy “pax mongolica,” a stable period which permitted a profitable flow of trade and ideas between East and West for nearly two centuries.

Did you know?

The Mongol Empire reached its peak at the end of the 13th century, stretching from the edge of the Mediterranean to the Pacific. At almost 33 million square kilometers it was five times bigger than the Roman Empire, making it the largest contiguous land empire in history.