The Mongol Empire Civil War: Causes and Events of The Toluid War

Posted by Julian Wymanton on Thursday, February 22, 2024

The Mongol Empire was the largest contiguous land empire in history, spanning from Eastern Europe to the Sea of Japan at its height in the 13th century. However, this mighty empire did not last long after the death of its founder Genghis Khan in 1227. A bloody civil war between rival factions of the royal family broke out soon after, leading to the division of the empire into several smaller khanates.

Background on the Rise of the Mongol Empire

Before diving into the civil war, it is helpful to understand the background on the meteoric rise of the Mongol Empire. During the early 13th century, Genghis Khan united the nomadic tribes of Northeast Asia into a powerful fighting force. He used innovative cavalry and siege warfare tactics to conquer territories across China, Central Asia, the Middle East, and Eastern Europe.

By Genghis Khan’s death in 1227, the Mongol Empire stretched over 9 million square miles, making it the largest contiguous land empire ever. The empire connected and facilitated trade routes across Eurasia, called the Silk Road system. It brought economic prosperity while allowing innovations, ideas, and culture to spread between Eastern and Western civilizations. Mongol Warrior

Causes of the Civil War

However, this prosperity did not last long after Genghis Khan died with no clear succession plan. This power vacuum at the head of a vast empire that lacked established governance procedures was unstable. Over the next few decades, individual Mongol leaders acted increasingly autonomous, and divisions emerged that eventually erupted into civil war. Here are some of the main causes that historians point to:

Unclear Line of Succession

Genghis Khan believed that only those with proven military leadership should rule the Mongol Empire. So he did not establish a clear lineage-based line of succession before his death. Instead, he passed leadership down to a trusted military general that lacked royal blood, not one of his sons. This set up conflict with his sons and brothers that believed they were the rightful heir to the throne.

Competing Factions and Infighting

The unclear line of succession allowed several Mongol factions and family lineages to compete for dominance - the lines of Genghis Khan’s sons Jochi, Chagatai, and Ogedai. Their rivalries and political intrigue led to shifting alliances and betrayals that destabilized unity. Regional Mongol leaders also started struggling for more independence and power in the confusion. Mongol Empire Map

Division of Territory

Genghis Khan had assigned territories of the empire to his sons and grandsons to govern during his lifetime. After his death, these assignments meant the empire was already informally divided into personal factions, making it easy for full division and civil war to break out. The Golden Horde controlled modern-day Russia and Southwest Asia, the Ilkhanate got Persia and the Middle East, the Chagatai Khanate got Central Asia, and Yuan China controlled East Asia.

The Civil War (1260-1264)

In the late 1250s, the tensions between rival Mongol factions escalated rapidly into open warfare for control of the empire. Here is an overview of the major events and battles that constituted the four-year Mongol civil war:

Outbreak of Violence

The first violence broke out in 1259 between two descendants of Genghis Khan - Mongke and Ariq Boke. They were cousins that violently disagreed over direct lineage importance for succession rights. Their personal armies fought a battle near the Mongol capital of Karakorum in 1260, with Mongke Khan emerging victorious. However, both cousins died soon after, preventing consolidation of power.

Hulegu Withdraws Forces

Ilkhanate Khan Hulegu was a key ally helping Mongke Khan before Mongke died unexpectedly. So in 1261, Hulegu withdrew the bulk of his forces from Persia tosecure his own region, severely hampering Mongke Khan’s lineage. This allowed Ariq Boke’s supporters to gain momentum in Mongolia.

Ariq Boke Briefly Takes Power

Ariq Boke was installed as Great Khan by his supporters in the Mongol heartland in 1262. However, Kublai Khan, the younger brother of Mongke, challenged Ariq Boke’s claim to leadership. He believed that all Genghisid descendants had equal right to election as Great Khan by a Khurultai council of Mongols.

Kublai Khan Emerges Victorious

Finally, in 1264, Kublai Khan’s forces definitively defeated Ariq Boke after four years of civil war. Over 200,000 Mongol warriors fought in this climactic battle on the Mongolian Plateau. Ariq Boke surrendered but was still later executed on Kublai Khan’s orders, ending the war. To strengthen his legitimacy, Kublai held a Kurultai to formally elect him as the Mongols’ new Great Khan.

Mongol Warrior

Aftermath and Decline

After the civil war, the unified Mongol Empire split permanently into four main khanates: The Golden Horde controlling Eastern Europe/Siberia, the Ilkhanate in the Middle East, the Chagatai Khanate in Central Asia, and the Yuan Dynasty in East Asia. Kublai Khan’s descendants ruled over the Yuan Dynasty lands in China for about a century, though the other khanates fell earlier.

Here are some key effects in the aftermath of the conflict:

  • The Mongol Empire lost its aura of inevitability and decline set in across regions, hastened by subsequent power struggles and invasions by neighboring powers like the Ming Dynasty or the Muslim Mamluks.
  • With efforts focused inward rather than expanding outward via conquests, Mongol military dominance faded in most regions.
  • Trade and commerce were disrupted for decades over much of Eurasia due to the civil war’s violence and uncertain political leadership.
  • The Silk Road system decayed and closed by the mid-14th century as Mongol control crumbled away.
  • In China, Kublai Khan’s descendants in the Yuan Dynasty adopted more traditional Chinese imperial bureaucracy and culture. This Sinified version differed greatly from the expansionary Mongol Empire built by Genghis Khan and his sons.

So in conclusion, the bloody four-year Mongol civil war that started in 1260 ultimately caused the swift fragmentation and decline of their enormous Eurasian empire built just decades earlier under the leadership of Genghis Khan. It marked the transition away from unified Mongol rule toward four distinct smaller khanates and the gradual fading of centralized Mongol power in most regions by the mid-14th century. Poor planning for succession by Genghis Khan set up this conflict between rival Mongol factions that accelerated the empire’s disintegration only about fifty years after its peak extent.

Frequently Asked Questions

Who were the main factions in the Mongol Empire civil war?

The main factions were the lineages of Genghis Khan’s sons, including Ogedai, Jochi, and Chagatai, as well as other powerful descendants like Mongke Khan, Ariq Boke, Hulegu, and eventually Kublai Khan. Their competing lineages fought for succession and territorial control.

When did the civil war take place and how long did it last?

The Mongol civil war lasted around 4 years, from 1260-1264 AD. It began with an outbreak of violence between cousins Mongke Khan and Ariq Boke in 1260. The climax was when Kublai Khan defeated Ariq Boke in 1264 to take control of a now permanently fractured Mongol Empire.

How did the civil war lead to the division of the Mongol Empire?

The empire was already divided along factional lines before the war, but afterwards it split formally and permanently along those divisions. So the unified empire that once stretched from China to Eastern Europe dissolved into four main splintered khanates – the Golden Horde, Ilkhanate, Chagatai Khanate, and Yuan Dynasty.

What were the long-term impacts of the civil war on the Mongols?

It permanently halted Mongol expansion, began accelerated decline across Eurasia, disrupted trade networks for decades, closed off the Silk Road system by the 14th century, and marked the transition from unified empire to competing splinter states ruled by Genghisid warlords across the former dominion.

Could the civil war have been prevented with better succession planning?

Yes, historians widely believe clearer succession planning by Genghis Khan, instead of passing control to a non-royal general, could have prevented power struggles between his sons that broke down unity. So the seeds of factionalism and civil war stemmed from that original succession decision.


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