Published online by Cambridge University Press: 20 November 2020
It was a dark and stormy night when the Mongol fleets anchored off the coast of Japan at Hakata Bay and Imari Bay in 1281. With their fleet arranged as a floating fortress, the Mongols waited for a dawn that never came as a tsunami struck the Mongol fleet, destroying much of the fleet and scattering the remainder. The failure at Japan marked a tipping point for the Mongols. No longer did their armies march inexorably across Eurasia defeating all who opposed them, creating an empire that stretched from the shores of Korea to Bulgaria. Even after the dissolution of the empire in 1260, each of the successor states would be considered a super-power in modern terminology. Yet, the Mongols soon found themselves engaged in desultory civil wars rather than new conquests. How did it reach this point? Considering that the Mongols began their empire as a rather inconsequential power in the steppes of Mongolia, among a half dozen similar groups, another question comes to mind: Why were the Mongols successful in the first place?
Much of the Mongols’ success had to do with the appearance of Temüjin, the man who became Chinggis Khan. Before his appearance on the historical stage, the Mongols were but a minor tribe at a time when the Jin Empire (1125–1234) in northern China and Manchuria defeated an ascending Mon-gol khanate in the 1160s. Temüjin's father, Yesügei died in 1171, poisoned by Tatars, rivals of the Mongols. With the defeat of the Mongols, the Tatars dominated eastern Mongo lia. The Tatars were a powerful confederation bordering the Jin Empire, providing better access to trade and wealth. In the past, confederations like the Tatars rose to regional dominance and sometimes even held sway over all of the Mongolian steppes. Yet, the Tatars were not the only powerful tribe in the Mongolian steppes.
In Central Mongolia, the Kereit held sway. Ruled by Toghril Khan, the Kereit had close ties with the Mongols. Toghril had been anda or blood brother to Yesügei and became the suzerain of Temüjin. The Kereit, however, controlled the Orkhon Valley, which historically conveyed legitimacy to previous steppe empires.