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How did the Mongols create a great land empire?


Performance Objectives

Students will be able to:

  • identify the extent of the Mongol Empire at the end of the 13th century
  • assess the role of horses, military strategy and weapons
  • analyze the impact of their pastoral lifestyle

Teacher Notes

It is important for students to understand that the major achievement of Chinggis Khan was in unifying a widely scattered nomadic people by capitalizing on the strengths of these nomadic people. As a result, he was able to unify his subjects when much of the rest of Asia was divided. Although China's population was approximately 100 million at the time, they were relatively weak and disunited and , therefore, ripe for conquest as were other regions.

These lessons will begin with how the Mongols were able to establish the largest contiguous land empire in world history and then proceed to discuss the enduring significance of the Mongol conquests.


  1. Distribute Handout 1-Map of the Mongol Empire in late 13th Century. Ask students to work with a partner and compare the historical map with a modern map. List the modern names of the countries which were included in the Mongol Empire at the end of the 13th century. Ask class to think about some of the difficulties that an army of nomadic people would face in the creation of this empire which stretched from Korea to eastern Europe. Brainstorm some of the challenges and difficulties involved in conquering this vast land area and record the responses on the chalkboard.

  2. Read Handout 2: Selections from All the Khan's Horses and Handout 3: The Devil's Horsemen
    1. Why did horses play such an important role in the success of the Mongols?
    2. What technological improvements did the Mongols devise to make their armies more effective?
    3. How does the battle of the Kalka River illustrate the Mongol battle tactics?
    4. Describe the weapons carried by the soldiers in the heavy cavalry. What do you think would be the major difficulty for the riders?
    5. One of Chinggis Khan's commands to his soldiers was not to shed the blood of rival princes. From what you have read in this account of the battle, was this a compassionate order or not? Discuss. 3 In Handout 3, James Chambers claims that in the 13th century the Mongol army was the best army in the world. From what you have read in these two readings, discuss the military and cultural factors that contributed to the success of these nomadic people.


Based upon what you have read about the Mongols ,write a brief essay discussing how the harsh environment of the steppes, their tribal beliefs and their pastoral lifestyle all contributed to their success in creating a great empire.

For Further Reseach:

  • Read the following:
    " Big domestic mammals ...revolutionized human society by becoming our main means of land transport until the development of railroads in the 19th century. Before animal domestication, the sole means of transporting goods and people by land was on the backs of humans. Large mammals changed that: for the first time in human history, it became possible to move heavy goods in large quantities, as well as people, rapidly overland for long distances...The most direct contribution of animal domestication to wars of conquest was from Eurasia's horses, whose military role made them the Jeeps and Sherman tanks of ancient warfare on that continent." (Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs and Steel, p.91)

    Do a research project focusing on the military advantages of peoples who used horses. Pay particular attention to their role in the overthrow of the Inca and Aztec Empires.

  • Research other armies of the 13th and 14th centuries and compare the military weapons and technology that were employed in different regions of the world.

  • From A Horse of a Different Chromosome?
    - Oliver A. Ryder

    Although Chinggis Khan's armies probably never numbered more than 200,00 troops, they may have had as many as 800,000 horses. Thirteenth-century sources, including The Secret History of the Mongols, give a tantalizing account of the training of Mongol horses. Captured in the wild and broken-in during the first two years of their lives, the young horses were then allowed to graze for three years. At he age of five they were once again ridden and prepared for combat. The Mongols depended on their horses so much, and gathered so many of them, that John of Plano Carpini, a papal emissary to the Mongol court from 1246 to 1247, noted with amazement that "they have such a number of horses and mates that I do not believe there are so many in all the rest of the world."
    Research the training methods outlined in these 13th century sources (many of which are included in this book), and prepare to report on this topic.

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