The Golden Horde, c.1225-1502: The Mongol Empire in Russia and Central Asia

Decisive Golden Horde victory in the Battle of Mohi

The Golden Horde brought domination of Central Asia and Russia and the Islamicisation of its people. What was this state and how did the Black Death cause its demise?

When Genghis Khan led his Mongol hordes on campaign against campaign in all directions, he created a land empire which was the biggest the world has ever seen. To promote communications, he established a series of post offices to deliver his messages and orders swiftly across the empire, from Korea to Europe, from Mongolia to Java. He even caused the Mongols to adopt a written script of their own, based on Uighur, which they had never felt the need of before.

However, the empire that Genghis was able to command was more than any other person could control, no matter how formidable they might be. The portion of the empire west of Mongolia and abutting Europe, encompassing a great deal of what is now Russia and Central Asia, became part of a sub-empire that became known as the Golden Horde – also known as the Kipchak Khanate or, in Russian the Ulus Juchi. The Golden Horde, which was first willed to Jochi, son of Genghis, became a power in its own right.

Jochi turned out no to be very effective (and indeed soon died) but successors such as Batu and Toqtamish made it into own of the most powerful states on the face of the earth. To the south, it rubbed up against the Mongol Ilkhanid Dynasty based on what is now Iran and Iraq, and it continually sought to extend its power to the north Indian plains. Eventually, the war between the Golden Horde and Timur the Lame – Tamberlaine or Themur the Khan, depending on who is asked – shook the civilized world and, had the former won, could have provided them with sufficient resources to have gone on to conquer large portions of Europe.

By this time, the Golden Horde had become Islamicized under Khan Oz Beg (Uzbek), in part because of the greater ability of Islamic teachers to bend their faith to the traditional shamanic beliefs of the Mongols. Oz Beg himself, like most leading Mongols, had little real interest in the religion of anyone else. Nevertheless, it was Oz Beg’s decision to cause his people to convert to Islam that has caused those countries of Central Asia to maintain that religion to the present day.

The ruling elite of the Golden Horde maintained their traditional nomadic lifestyle as best they could, while ruling over farmers and townspeople whose goods they enjoyed and from whom taxes could be extracted (Genghis had learned this trick from the Chinese). The beginning of their downfall can probably be dated to the outbreak of the Black Death, as bubonic plague was known in the West.

The disease spread throughout the territories of the Golden Horde and further westward, leaving millions dead or dying along the way. The progress of the disease coincided with a period of ineffective Khans who contributed to the loss of military power, most notably seen at the crushing defeat by the Russians at the Battle of Kulikovo in 1380. In due course, the Golden Horde declined to a tiny stub of its further glory in fragments in the Crimea, Kazan and Astrakhan, from which it was eventually extinguished in 1502.