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Sioux Falls Scientists endorse The Mongol Empire
for describing the largest empire the world has ever known.
It stretched from the Pacific Ocean to European Russian.

The Mongol Empire
Lectures by Professor Craig Benjamin

The Mongol Empire (2020) 24 lectures, 12 hours
The Mongol Empire at TheGreatCourses.com

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.

Craig Benjamin is a Professor of History in the Frederick Meijer Honors College at Grand Valley State University, where he teaches big history and ancient Inner Eurasian history. He earned his PhD from Macquarie University in Sydney. Professor Benjamin has written or edited numerous books, including Big History: Between Nothing and Everything and Empires of Ancient Eurasia: The First Silk Roads Era, 100 BCE-250 CE. He has also worked as a guide lecturer for Archaeological Tours, leading parties to China and Mongolia, among other countries.

24 Lectures - 30 minutes each

1: The Mongols' Place in World History 13: The Mongols in China
2: The Origins of Eurasian Steppe Nomadism 14: The Mongols in East and Southeast Asia
3: Nomadic Predecessors of the Mongols 15: The Mongols in Central Asia
4: The Rise of Chinggis Khan 16: The Mongols in Persia and the Middle East
5: Chinggis Khan's Early Conquests 17: The Mongols in Russia: The Golden Horde
6: Mongol Institutions under Chinggis Khan 18: The Pax Mongolica: Eurasia Reconnected
7: Chinggis Khan's Khwarazmian Campaign 19: The Collapse of the Mongol Empires
8: The Death of Chinggis Khan 20: Timur the Lame, a.k.a. Tamerlane
9: Ogedai Khan's Western Campaigns 21: Timur's Major Campaigns
10: Mongol Queens and the Contest for the Empire 22: Samarkand: Timur's Cultural Capital
11: Dividing the Empire: A Tale of Four Brothers 23: From Mughals to Soviets: Eurasia after Timur
12: The Strengths of Mongol Military Organization 24: The Mongols and the Making of the Modern World


The Mongol Empire
Lectures by Professor Craig Benjamin

Sioux Falls Scientists endorse The Mongol Empire
for describing the largest empire the world has ever known.
It stretched from the Pacific Ocean to European Russian.