They might not be as well known as the Spartans or the Romans, but the Mongols were warriors to be truly feared.  They built an empire of immense size that lasted four-hundred and thirty-two years. Their way of fighting was from the saddle of small ponies with the bow and spear.

The Reign of Genghis Khan

Genghis Khan.

It was because of Emperor Genghis Khan that the Mongols became known. He established the Mongol Empire in the 13th century, and it became the largest land empire ever, covering 9 million square miles.

After being declared the sole ruler of the Mongols, a loose confederation of tribes Genghis Khan did not waste time and proceeded with his plans of expansion and conquest from Poland to Egypt. They also raided Georgia, Armenia, and most parts of Caucasia.

He also brought the Eurasian trade route called the Silk Road under a unified political environment. This made trading between the West, Middle East, and Asia possible. He also introduced the Mongolian script and wrote the first Mongolian code of law. Genghis Khan was undoubtedly a brilliant leader, at least from the Mongol’s perspective, and those who benefited from his actions.

The Mongols Lived In The Saddle

Before we talk about the ruthless Mongolian warriors, we must first understand that the Mongols, in general, loved their horses and treated them like gold, as they played a huge role in their everyday lives. In fact, they had this saying that went like, “A Mongol without a horse is like a bird without the wings.”

Genghis Khan & Jebe. KoizumiBSCC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

According to the book written by Morris Rossabi titled “All the Khan’s Horses“:

Genghis Khan and his descendants could not have conquered and ruled the largest land empire in world history without their diminutive but extremely hardy steeds. In some respects, these Mongolian ponies resembled what is now known as Przewalski’s horse. Mongols held these horses in the highest regard and accorded them great spiritual significance. For example, before setting forth on military expeditions, commanders would scatter mare’s milk on the earth to ensure victory. In shamanic rituals, horses were sacrificed to provide “transport” to heaven.

In warfare, “Horses could, without much exaggeration, be referred to as the intercontinental ballistic missiles of the thirteenth century.”

They would also protect these horses, as they would their own lives. Before combat, the horsemen would cover the horses’ heads with leather coverings while they protected the horses’ bodies with armor. The combat effectiveness of a Mongol without his horse was reduced to perhaps twenty-five percent and he was as good as dead.

During times of desperation when food was scarce, horsemen would slit the horses’ veins and drink their blood either by mixing it with water or with horse milk. The slit would not be enough to kill the horse, but their blood would provide Mongols with enough calories to keep them going. The mares’ milk was also often fermented and turned into kumiss, a widely-consumed alcoholic drink.

Their ponies were also essential to the vast encircling hunts the Mongols engaged in.  Whole armies would form two columns and march from the left and right to form a great circle many miles in circumference. At a given signal, they would march inward towards the center killing every living thing inside the circle with arrows, clubs, and spears.  The slaughter could go on for days until another signal was raised to end it.  An opening in the circle was left for the escape of pregnant and young animals, it was also a crime to kill swans or to disturb the eggs of nesting birds.

Mongolian Warriors and Their Tricks

The Mongol Empire’s success would not have been possible without the fierce Mongol Warriors. They were ruthless and great tacticians with many tricks up their sleeves. One was that they would tie tree branches onto their horses to drag them on the ground. This was to create more dust and noise that would trick the enemy into thinking that there were more of them. At night, they would build five bonfires to make the shadow of their horse appear larger. They were also skilled archers, as they mastered shooting while riding horses, even backward.

Mongol light cavalryman.

There was one time in 1223 when the Mongol warriors reached the north of the Black Sea and were attacked by what’s said to be around 80,000-men of the combined armies of the Rus(Russians)against their 20,000 Mongols. The Mongols were aware that a head-on battle  would be like suicide, so they used their most common trick— they pretended to retreat and did so for more than a week, making sure that their enemies would chase them. They stopped running once they reached the Kalka River and waited in ambush for the Rus to cross the river, with their archers in front.

The Russian leader, who had been trying to close with the Mongols for days hurried accross the river thinking he had caught up to their rear guard and could force a fight. With the river now at his back he ordered an attacks. His men charged towards the rear guard seemingly attempting to hold their ground and just as he reached them, he was attacked on both flanks from the woods by Mongol archers on horseback.  His tired army almost immediately broke and attempted to recross the river in a headlone retreat, they were ridden down and slaughtered, only one man in ten surviving.

The Mongols were not mindless killers, but took a pragmatic approach to their mass murder, if a town surrendered without a fight and paid tribute it might only be looted but left intact and now under Mongol rule, but if they resisted, they could expect to see much of the population killed or sold into slavery.  There was one act of defiance though that would provoke the most furious retibution from the Mongols, the death of one of their generals or a member of the Khan’s family.  When this occurred there was no mercy or quarter given, the entire population, men, women and children would be decapitated and their heads piled in a pyramid as big as a building. Even dogs and cats would be killed.  The city or town would then be utterly destroyed down to the last standing structure and burned.  The devasatation would be so great that some regions would not recover for generations.

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Any rebellion against Mongol rule would also result in mass extermination of the entire population, the Mongol believed that ruthlessly putting down a revolt in this manner would keep everybody else in line, and it seemed to work given the empire spanned more than four centuries.

If there’s one thing that we learned from the Mongols, it’s that Genghis Khan’s statement was true:

“It is easy to conquer the world from the back of a horse.”