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The Mongols to Timurids

Having united a series of nomadic tribes as the Mongol Confederation, Temujin was acknowledged by a council of Mongol chiefs in 1206 as their leader, and would henceforth be known as Genghis Khan. He set about creating an empire which would become the largest contiguous land empire in the history of the world, vastly larger than those of either Rome or Alexander the Great. Famous for their horse archers, but also skilled in the arts of siege warfare, the Mongol troops were highly disciplined and mobile, wearing relatively little armour.

Around AD 1130 the Karakhanids were displaced by the Khitans, a Buddhist people driven out of Mongolia and northern China. The Central Asian state set up by the Khitans, known as the Karakitay empire, stretched from Xinjiang to Transoxiana, but in the early 13th century it became prey to rising powers at both extremities. To the west, based in Khorezm, south of the Aral Sea, was the Khorezmshah empire, which took Transoxiana in 1210. To the east was Chinggis Khan, who sent an army to crush the Karakitay in 1218.

Heading westwards, while still engaged in campaigns in China, Genghis Khan defeated what remained of the Kara-Khitay Dynasty, but appeared to be uncertain about how to deal with the Khorezmshahs, considering them as a possible trading partner. The decision was made for him by the Governor of Otrar's seizure of a Mongol caravan and subsequent execution of its 450 members, an act which brought on the Khorezmshahs their annihilation at the hands of the Mongols between 1219 and 1221. The biggest-ever Mongol army (200,000 or so) sacked the Khorezmian cities of Otrar, Bukhara and Samarkand, then swept on towards Europe and the Middle East. All of Kazakhstan, like the rest of Central Asia, became part of the Mongol empire.

The leader of the Khorezmshahs, Mohammed II, eased the Mongols' task by dividing up his forces between several cities, in part because he feared an internal coup. Mohammed II fled from the disaster befalling his empire: the Mongols eventually tracked him down, reportedly hiding on an island in the Caspian.

On Genghis Khan's death in 1227, an assembly of Mongol chiefs ratified the choice of his third son, Ogedei, as his successor. But the control of the empire was parcelled out between Genghis Khan's sons. Thus, for example, his youngest son Tolui received the homeland areas of northern Mongolia. His second son Chagatai was allocated lands in present-day southeastern Kazakhstan, stretching southwards to encompass much of central Asia, known as the Chagatai Khanate. The most distant lands, to the west, should have gone to his eldest son, Jochi. But he was already dead, and so these areas, which would become known as the Golden Horde, were further divided between two of Jochi's sons, Orda and Batu. To Orda, the elder, went the eastern part of this area, running between Lake Balkhash and the Volga. Known as the White Horde, its capital became the town of Syganak, in present-day Kyzylorda Region. To Batu went the lands stretching west of the Ural River, the Blue Horde, with its capital at Sarai (present-day Russian Saratov) on the lower Volga. Batu continued the Mongols' drive westwards, conquering the Kipchak lands west of the Volga and reaching into central Europe, a drive curtailed eventually by power disputes following Ogedei's death.

While the Mongols have a rather barbarous reputation in the West, and their destruction of many of the cities of the Khorezmshahs and others who resisted them was certainly brutal, their rule was also marked by tolerance towards other religions (Genghis Khan was a shamanist) and a positive attitude towards overland trade. With one power, the Mongols, controlling the Silk Routes, these flourished during their rule.

Although the agriculture and the infrastructure of sedentary society in the region of Kazakhstan had been devastated by Genghis's invasion, with the establishment of Pax mongolica, the trade routes across the continent were restored, and caravans could once more travel through without being bothered by tribal feuds and attacks. From the notes of travellers such as Marco Polo and others who ventured into the region at the time, it can be concluded that tolerance prevailed. Thus, the Great Khan was in frequent communication with Christendom, and Christian belief spread among Asian courts. The Mongol world empire at this stage was a true amalgam of cultures.

While still alive, Genghis Khan divided his entire territory among his sons. The territory of present-day Kazakhstan was split into three parts: The major slice, the immensely vast steppe between the Irtysh, the northern boundary of Semirechye and the lower Volga, was allocated to his eldest son Juchi, after whose premature death the region was to be governed by his son Batu, whose expansive campaigns extending to the Crimea have been amply recorded. Chaghadai obtained the south and southeast of Kazakhstan as well as eastern Turkestan.' Ogedei, the youngest of the sons, inherited the northeastern part of Semirechye, western Mongolia and the upstream Irtysh basin. Infighting and divisions, raids and conquests among their heirs, however, were soon to be the order of the day.

In the west, the lands of the Golden Horde gradually became increasingly Turkic in character. Under Uzbeg Khan in the early 14th century, Islam was adopted as the state religion. It faced a number of setbacks, not least the Black Death, but in 1378 Tokhtamysh, a descendant of Orda and ruler of the White Horde, also managed to secure control of the Blue Horde, briefly re-establishing the Golden Horde as a dominant force, and invading Lithuania and Poland. But Tokhtamysh was defeated by his one-time ally, a Muslim native of present-day Uzbekistan named Timur, who claimed descent from Genghis Khan and is better known in the west as Tamerlane.

Becoming the ruler of Samarkand, Timur embarked on an empire-building mission that encompassed the Chagatai Khanate and far beyond, earning a reputation for brutality to equal that of the Mongols of Genghis Khan. Timur is, however, also responsible for Kazakhstan's most beautiful building, the Mausoleum of Khodja Ahmed Yassaui in Turkestan. Following his death in 1405, Timurid rule continued under his son Shah Rukh, who ruled from Herat. But within a few years of the latter's death, the Timurid Empire had crumbled.