Diana Stanley is a Museum Employee who recently studied abroad in Europe. She wrote as a Field Reporter while she traveled and explored.
The Mongol Empire was the second largest empire in history. It spanned over 12.5 million square miles at its height or approximately 22% of the world’s ENTIRE land area. That is twice the area of modern day Russia. It united a landscape that today comprises parts of 32 countries. One of the greatest rulers of the Mongols was Kublai Khan.
He was born September 23, 1215, 800 years ago today. Kublai Khan came from a family so large that it is said that statistically one in every two hundred men is related to his grandfather Genghis Khan. Primogeniture (the largest share of inheritance goes to the eldest son) didn’t catch on with the Mongolians. Adding to the problem was the harem the “Great Khan” was obliged to have. The practical implication of having so many heirs with equal claim to the throne around was that when the head of the family died, it became a free for all. The easiest way to take control was to prove oneself to the Golden Horde, preferably with bloody conquests.
Kublai’s father was part of the Tolei faction, which prevailed in securing the throne. He did have three older brothers, including the capable Möngke who became the Great Khan or ruler of the empire. As a young man, Kublai was given control of Hebei, an area that is now a province of upper China. Eventually, he decided to conquer China. He succeeded. Kublai was the first foreigner to ever conquer China. Around this time, Kublai’s oldest brother died and he fought with his younger brother Ariq Böke in an event called the Toluid Civil War. Kublai won, though the effects would be felt by Mongol rulers as the empire became more and more fractured.
Kublai is admired for his accomplishments in both Mongolia and China. He was for the most part religiously tolerant and was himself a Buddhist. He also sponsored several Muslim scholars at his court who achieved significant advances in astronomy, map making, and siege warfare (they invented a new type of trebuchet). He rebuilt the Grand Canal of China and instituted the first fiat money or currency that is worth what the government says it is because they say it does.
Chinese merchants traded all over the Mongol Empire, from Russia to Mesopotamia. There was one trader in China that traveled a long ways to get there. His name was Marco Polo, an Italian merchant who flourished at Kublai’s Chinese court. Polo’s book on his travels marveled at the wealth displayed at Kublai’s court. He called the summer palace the “greatest palace that ever was.”
Kublai also continued to conquer new territories such as Korea and Myanmar. Ironically in spite of all of Kublai’s accomplishments, one of the few things people remember about him is his failure to conquer Japan. Kublai sent two fleets to conquer the island, but both were destroyed in terrible storms. The failure inspired the Japanese idea of kamikaze or “divine wind” that was used by Japanese propagandists during World War II.
Please visit the Museum to learn more about World War II and other time periods in history.