Mongolia is a rugged and beautiful land of grassy prairies, mountains, and deserts, located between China and
Siberia. Today it is a relatively poor country and is the most sparsely-inhabited country in the world (meaning
not many people in its large land area). But about 800 years ago the Mongol people ruled over the largest land
empire ever in history. It stretched from Hungary in the west to Korea in the east, and from Russia in the north
to Iraq in the south. Genghis Khan (a title meaning “Universal Monarch”) was the fierce military leader of the
Mongols. His original name was Temujin. When Genghis Khan died in 1227, the Mongol Empire was twice the size of
the Roman Empire. His descendants continued to send out armies in every direction and expand the size of the
empire. Later, the empire began to split as Genghis Khan’s grandchildren argued over who should be in charge. His
grandson Kublai Khan conquered China in 1271. Below you can see a map of the greatest extent of the Mongol Empire, and a portrait of Genghis Khan.
Click on an image below for more information about that topic.
Mongols were nomadic people, meaning they did not settle in one place for long, but traveled around. And so,
they became expert horsemen. Horses were used in transportation and in warfare. Sheep, goats, camel, and cattle
were also vital to their lives. Along with horses, these animals were sometimes called “The Five Treasures.”
Genghis Khan and the Mongols were skilled at killing and warfare. Sometimes the local people in the conquered
areas were slaughtered. It is said that in one place, Nishapur (modern Iran), they killed nearly 2 million
people at the request of Genghis Khan’s daughter. The military tactics and strategies of the Mongols were so
clever and advanced that even generals in World War 2 studied their battle plans. In the picture you see the
Mongols conquering Baghdad in 1258.
Since they were nomadic, they tended to mostly eat meat and dairy products, rather than growing crops. Horse
milk, oily rice pudding, mutton, and cheese were common in their diet. The soldiers carried powdered yak milk
and dried milk, and sometimes even drank blood from their own horses if they were desperate for food. In the
picture you see buuz, which are dumplings filled with meat.
Being nomadic, the Mongols would travel with special lightweight tents called yurts (or gers). The walls and
roof were made of branches and covered with felt. A yurt could be packed up and made ready to go in about an
hour. That’s a yurt in the picture.
Shagai is a game played with deer bones that still is played in Mongolia today. There is often a lot of singing
and cheering to go along with it, and it’s a community event, with people stopping to watch and sing. A popular
sport in Mongolia is wrestling. The wrestlers always wrestle with their chests exposed. Legend has it that this
is because once a woman pretended to be a man and beat the men at wrestling. Maybe they want to make sure that
doesn’t happen again? You can see a picture of traditional wrestling in today’s Mongolia.
Map: Ali Zifan [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)];
Horse: Al Jazeera English [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)];
Wrestling: Photo: Marcin Konsek / Wikimedia Commons;
Food: Mizu_Basyo [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)];