Mongolia is a landlocked country in East Asia. Its area is roughly equivalent with the historical territory of Outer Mongolia, which is sometimes used to refer to the current state. It is situated between Russia to the north and China to the south, where it neighbours the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. Mongolia does not share a border with Kazakhstan, although only 37 kilometres (23 mi) separate them.
At around 1,564,116 square kilometres (603,909 sq mi), and with a population of only 3.3 million, Mongolia is the 18th-largest and most sparsely populated sovereign state in the world; it ranks 132nd out 195 nations in population. It is also the world’s second-largest landlocked country, behind Kazakhstan, and the largest landlocked country that does not border a closed sea. Mongolia contains very little arable land, as much of its area is covered by grassy steppe, with mountains to the north and west and the Gobi Desert to the south. Ulaanbaatar, the capital and largest city, is home to about 45% of the country’s population. It is also ranked the coldest capital city alongside Moscow, Ottawa, and Nur-Sultan.
Approximately 30% of the population is nomadic or semi-nomadic; horse culture remains integral. Buddhism is the majority religion, with the nonreligious being the second-largest group. Islam is the second-largest religion, concentrated among ethnic Kazakhs. Most citizens are ethnic Mongols, with roughly 4% of the population being Kazakhs, Tuvans, and other minorities, who are especially concentrated in the west.
What is now Mongolia has been ruled by various nomadic empires, including the Xiongnu, the Xianbei, the Rouran, the First Turkic Khaganate, and others. In 1206, Genghis Khan founded the Mongol Empire, which became the largest contiguous land empire in history. His grandson Kublai Khan conquered China to establish the Yuan dynasty. After the collapse of the Yuan, the Mongols retreated to Mongolia and resumed their earlier pattern of factional conflict, except during the era of Dayan Khan and Tumen Zasagt Khan.
In the 16th century, Tibetan Buddhism spread to Mongolia, being further led by the Manchu-founded Qing dynasty, which absorbed the country in the 17th century. By the early 20th century, almost one-third of the adult male population were Buddhist monks. After the collapse of the Qing dynasty in 1911, Mongolia declared independence, and achieved actual independence from the Republic of China in 1921. Shortly thereafter, the country became a satellite of the Soviet Union, which had aided its independence from China. In 1924, the Mongolian People’s Republic was founded as a socialist state. After the anti-Communist revolutions of 1989, Mongolia conducted its own peaceful democratic revolution in early 1990. This led to a multi-party system, a new constitution of 1992, and transition to a market economy.
Mongolia is a member of the United Nations, Asia Cooperation Dialogue, G77, Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, Non-Aligned Movement and a NATO global partner. It joined the World Trade Organization in 1997 and seeks to expand its participation in regional economic and trade groups.
Prehistory and antiquity
Homo erectus inhabited Mongolia from 850,000 years ago. Modern humans reached Mongolia approximately 40,000 years ago during the Upper Paleolithic. The Khoit Tsenkher Cave in Khovd Province shows lively pink, brown, and red ochre paintings (dated to 20,000 years ago) of mammoths, lynx, bactrian camels, and ostriches, earning it the nickname “the Lascaux of Mongolia”. The venus figurines of Mal’ta (21,000 years ago) testify to the level of Upper Paleolithic art in northern Mongolia; Mal’ta is now part of Russia.
Neolithic agricultural settlements (c. 5500–3500 BC), such as those at Norovlin, Tamsagbulag, Bayanzag, and Rashaan Khad, predated the introduction of horse-riding nomadism, a pivotal event in the history of Mongolia which became the dominant culture. Horse-riding nomadism has been documented by archeological evidence in Mongolia during the Copper and Bronze Age Afanasevo culture (3500–2500 BC); this culture was active to the Khangai Mountains in Central Mongolia. The wheeled vehicles found in the burials of the Afanasevans have been dated to before 2200 BC. Pastoral nomadism and metalworking became more developed with the later Okunev culture (2nd millennium BC), Andronovo culture (2300–1000 BC) and Karasuk culture (1500–300 BC), culminating with the Iron Age Xiongnu Empire in 209 BC. Monuments of the pre-Xiongnu Bronze Age include deer stones, keregsur kurgans, square slab tombs, and rock paintings.
Although cultivation of crops has continued since the Neolithic, agriculture has always remained small in scale compared to pastoral nomadism. Agriculture may have first been introduced from the west or arose independently in the region. The population during the Copper Age has been described as mongoloid in the east of what is now Mongolia, and as europoid in the west. Tocharians (Yuezhi) and Scythians inhabited western Mongolia during the Bronze Age. The mummy of a Scythian warrior, which is believed to be about 2,500 years old, was a 30- to 40-year-old man with blond hair; it was found in the Altai, Mongolia. As equine nomadism was introduced into Mongolia, the political center of the Eurasian Steppe also shifted to Mongolia, where it remained until the 18th century CE. The intrusions of northern pastoralists (e.g. the Guifang, Shanrong, and Donghu) into China during the Shang dynasty (1600–1046 BC) and Zhou dynasty (1046–256 BC) presaged the age of nomadic empires.
The concept of Mongolia as an independent power north of China is expressed in a letter sent by Emperor Wen of Han to Laoshang Chanyu in 162 BC (recorded in the Hanshu):
The Emperor of China respectfully salutes the great Shan Yu (Chanyu) of the Hsiung-nu (Xiongnu)…When my imperial predecessor erected the Great Wall, all the bowmen nations on the north were subject to the Shan Yu; while the residents inside the wall, who wore the cap and sash, were all under our government: and the myriads of the people, by following their occupations, ploughing and weaving, shooting and hunting, were able to provide themselves with food and clothing…Your letter says:–“The two nations being now at peace, and the two princes living in harmony, military operations may cease, the troops may send their horses to graze, and prosperity and happiness prevail from age to age, commencing, a new era of contentment and peace.” That is extremely gratifying to me…Should I, in concert with the Shan Yu, follow this course, complying with the will of heaven, then compassion for the people will be transmitted from age to age, and extended to unending generations, while the universe will be moved with admiration, and the influence will be felt by neighbouring kingdoms inimical to the Chinese or the Hsiung-nu…As the Hsiung-nu live in the northern regions, where the cold piercing atmosphere comes at an early period, I have ordered the proper authorities to transmit yearly to the Shan Yu, a certain amount of grain, gold, silks of the finer and coarser kinds, and other objects. Now peace prevails all over the world; the myriads of the population are living in harmony, and I and the Shan Yu alone are the parents of the people…After the conclusion of the treaty of peace throughout the world, take notice, the Han will not be the first to transgress.
The Göktürks laid siege to Panticapaeum, present-day Kerch, in 576. They were succeeded by the Uyghur Khaganate (745–840) who were defeated by the Kyrgyz. The Mongolic Khitans, descendants of the Xianbei, ruled Mongolia during the Liao Dynasty (907–1125), after which the Khamag Mongol (1125–1206) rose to prominence.
Lines 3–5 of the memorial inscription of Bilge Khagan (684–737) in central Mongolia summarizes the time of the Khagans:
In battles they subdued the nations of all four sides of the world and suppressed them. They made those who had heads bow their heads, and who had knees genuflect them. In the east up to the Kadyrkhan common people, in the west up to the Iron Gate they conquered… These Khagans were wise. These Khagans were great. Their servants were wise and great too. Officials were honest and direct with people. They ruled the nation this way. This way they held sway over them. When they died ambassadors from Bokuli Cholug (Baekje Korea), Tabgach (Tang China), Tibet (Tibetan Empire), Avar (Avar Khaganate), Rome (Byzantine Empire), Kirgiz, Uch-Kurykan, Otuz-Tatars, Khitans, Tatabis came to the funerals. So many people came to mourn over the great Khagans. They were famous Khagans.
Middle Ages to early 20th century
In the chaos of the late 12th century, a chieftain named Temüjin finally succeeded in uniting the Mongol tribes between Manchuria and the Altai Mountains. In 1206, he took the title Genghis Khan, and waged a series of military campaigns – renowned for their brutality and ferocity – sweeping through much of Asia, and forming the Mongol Empire, the largest contiguous land empire in world history. Under his successors it stretched from present-day Poland in the west to Korea in the east, and from parts of Siberia in the north to the Gulf of Oman and Vietnam in the south, covering some 33,000,000 square kilometres (13,000,000 sq mi), (22% of Earth’s total land area) and had a population of over 100 million people (about a quarter of Earth’s total population at the time). The emergence of Pax Mongolica also significantly eased trade and commerce across Asia during its height.
After Genghis Khan’s death, the empire was subdivided into four kingdoms or Khanates. These eventually became quasi-independent after the Toluid Civil War (1260–1264), which broke out in a battle for power following Möngke Khan’s death in 1259. One of the khanates, the “Great Khaanate”, consisting of the Mongol homeland and China, became known as the Yuan dynasty under Kublai Khan, the grandson of Genghis Khan. He set up his capital in present-day Beijing. After more than a century of power, the Yuan was replaced by the Ming dynasty in 1368, and the Mongol court fled to the north. As the Ming armies pursued the Mongols into their homeland, they successfully sacked and destroyed the Mongol capital Karakorum and other cities. Some of these attacks were repelled by the Mongols under Ayushridar and his general Köke Temür.
After the expulsion of the Yuan dynasty rulers from China, the Mongols continued to rule their homeland, known as the Northern Yuan dynasty. The next centuries were marked by violent power struggles among various factions, notably the Genghisids and the non-Genghisid Oirats, as well as by several Chinese invasions (such as the five expeditions led by the Yongle Emperor). In the early 15th century, the Oirads under Esen Tayisi gained the upper hand, and raided China in 1449 in a conflict over Esen’s right to pay tribute, capturing the Ming emperor in the process. When Esen was murdered in 1454, the Borjigids regained power.
In the early 16th century, Dayan Khan and his khatun Mandukhai reunited the entire Mongol nation under the Genghisids. In the mid-16th century, Altan Khan of the Tümed, a grandson of Dayan Khan – but not a hereditary or legitimate Khan – became powerful. He founded Hohhot in 1557. After he met with the Dalai Lama in 1578, he ordered the introduction of Tibetan Buddhism to Mongolia. (It was the second time this had occurred). Abtai Khan of the Khalkha converted to Buddhism and founded the Erdene Zuu monastery in 1585. His grandson Zanabazar became the first Jebtsundamba Khutughtu in 1640. Following the leaders, the entire Mongolian population embraced Buddhism. Each family kept scriptures and Buddha statues on an altar at the north side of their ger (yurt). Mongolian nobles donated land, money and herders to the monasteries. As was typical in states with established religions, the top religious institutions, the monasteries, wielded significant temporal power in addition to spiritual power.
The last Mongol Khan was Ligden Khan in the early 17th century. He came into conflicts with the Manchus over the looting of Chinese cities, and also alienated most Mongol tribes. He died in 1634. By 1636 most Inner Mongolian tribes had submitted to the Manchus, who founded the Qing dynasty. The Khalkha eventually submitted to Qing rule in 1691, thus bringing all of today’s Mongolia under Manchu rule. After several wars, the Dzungars (the western Mongols or Oirats) were virtually annihilated during the Qing conquest of Dzungaria in 1757–58.
Some scholars estimate that about 80% of the 600,000 or more Dzungar were destroyed by a combination of disease and warfare. Outer Mongolia was given relative autonomy, being administered by the hereditary Genghisid khanates of Tusheet Khan, Setsen Khan, Zasagt Khan and Sain Noyon Khan. The Jebtsundamba Khutuktu of Mongolia had immense de facto authority. The Manchu forbade mass Chinese immigration into the area, which allowed the Mongols to keep their culture. The Oirats who migrated to the Volga steppes in Russia became known as Kalmyks.
The main trade route during this period was the Tea Road through Siberia; it had permanent stations located every 25 to 30 kilometres (16 to 19 mi), each of which was staffed by 5–30 chosen families. Urga (present-day Ulaanbaatar) benefited greatly from this overland trade, as it was the only major settlement in Outer Mongolia used as a stopover point by merchants, officials and travelers on the Tea Road.
Until 1911, the Qing dynasty maintained control of Mongolia with a series of alliances and intermarriages, as well as military and economic measures. Ambans, Manchu “high officials”, were installed in Khüree, Uliastai, and Khovd, and the country was divided into numerous feudal and ecclesiastical fiefdoms (which also placed people in power with loyalty to the Qing). Over the course of the 19th century, the feudal lords attached more importance to representation and less importance to the responsibilities towards their subjects. The behaviour of Mongolia’s nobility, together with usurious practices by Chinese traders and the collection of imperial taxes in silver instead of animals, resulted in widespread poverty among the nomads. By 1911 there were 700 large and small monasteries in Outer Mongolia; their 115,000 monks made up 21% of the population. Apart from the Jebtsundamba Khutuktu, there were 13 other reincarnating high lamas, called ‘seal-holding saints’ (tamgatai khutuktu), in Outer Mongolia.
With the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1911, Mongolia under the Bogd Khaan declared independence. But the newly established Republic of China considered Mongolia to be part of its own territory. Yuan Shikai, the President of the Republic of China, considered the new republic to be the successor of the Qing. Bogd Khaan said that both Mongolia and China had been administered by the Manchu during the Qing, and after the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1911, the contract of Mongolian submission to the Manchu had become invalid.
The area controlled by the Bogd Khaan was approximately that of the former Outer Mongolia during the Qing period. In 1919, after the October Revolution in Russia, Chinese troops led by warlord Xu Shuzheng occupied Mongolia. Warfare erupted on the northern border. As a result of the Russian Civil War, the White Russian Lieutenant General Baron Ungern led his troops into Mongolia in October 1920, defeating the Chinese forces in Niislel Khüree (now Ulaanbaatar) in early February 1921 with Mongol support.
To eliminate the threat posed by Ungern, Bolshevik Russia decided to support the establishment of a communist Mongolian government and army. This Mongolian army took the Mongolian part of Kyakhta from Chinese forces on March 18, 1921, and on July 6 Russian and Mongolian troops arrived in Khüree. Mongolia declared its independence again on July 11, 1921. As a result, Mongolia was closely aligned with the Soviet Union over the next seven decades.
Mongolian People’s Republic
In 1924, after the Bogd Khaan died of laryngeal cancer or, as some sources claim, at the hands of Russian spies, the country’s political system was changed. The Mongolian People’s Republic was established. In 1928, Khorloogiin Choibalsan rose to power. The early leaders of the Mongolian People’s Republic (1921–1952) included many with Pan-Mongolists ideals. However, changing global politics and increased Soviet pressure led to the decline of Pan-Mongol aspirations in the period after this.
Khorloogiin Choibalsan instituted collectivization of livestock, began the destruction of the Buddhist monasteries, and carried out Stalinist purges, which resulted in the murders of numerous monks and other leaders. In Mongolia during the 1920s, approximately one-third of the male population were monks. By the beginning of the 20th century, about 750 monasteries were functioning in Mongolia.
In 1930, the Soviet Union stopped Buryat migration to the Mongolian People’s Republic to prevent Mongolian reunification. All leaders of Mongolia who did not fulfill Stalin’s demands to perform Red Terror against Mongolians were executed, including Peljidiin Genden and Anandyn Amar. The Stalinist purges in Mongolia, which began in 1937, killed more than 30,000 people. Choibalsan died suspiciously in the Soviet Union in 1952. Comintern leader Bohumír Šmeral said, “People of Mongolia are not important, the land is important. Mongolian land is larger than England, France and Germany”.
After the Japanese invasion of neighboring Manchuria in 1931, Mongolia was threatened on this front. During the Soviet-Japanese Border War of 1939, the Soviet Union successfully defended Mongolia against Japanese expansionism. Mongolia fought against Japan during the Battles of Khalkhin Gol in 1939 and during the Soviet–Japanese War in August 1945 to liberate Inner Mongolia from Japan and Mengjiang.
The February 1945 Yalta Conference provided for the Soviet Union’s participation in the Pacific War. One of the Soviet conditions for its participation, put forward at Yalta, was that after the war Outer Mongolia would retain its independence. The referendum took place on October 20, 1945, with (according to official numbers) 100% of the electorate voting for independence.
After the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, both countries confirmed their mutual recognition on October 6, 1949. However, the Republic of China used its Security Council veto in 1955, to stop the admission of the Mongolian People’s Republic to the United Nations on the grounds it recognized all of Mongolia —including Outer Mongolia— as part of China. This was the only time the Republic of China ever used its veto. Hence, and because of the repeated threats to veto by the ROC, Mongolia did not join the UN until 1961 when the Soviet Union agreed to lift its veto on the admission of Mauritania (and any other newly independent African state), in return for the admission of Mongolia. Faced with pressure from nearly all the other African countries, the ROC relented under protest. Mongolia and Mauritania were both admitted to the UN on 27 October 1961.
On January 26, 1952, Yumjaagiin Tsedenbal took power in Mongolia after the death of Choibalsan. While Tsedenbal was visiting Moscow in August 1984, his severe illness prompted the parliament to announce his retirement and replace him with Jambyn Batmönkh.
The fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 strongly influenced Mongolian politics and youth. Its people undertook the peaceful Democratic Revolution in January 1990 and the introduction of a multi-party system and a market economy. At the same time, the transformation of the former Marxist-Leninist Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party to the current social democratic Mongolian People’s Party reshaped the country’s political landscape.
A new constitution was introduced in 1992, and the term “People’s Republic” was dropped from the country’s name. The transition to a market economy was often rocky; during the early 1990s the country had to deal with high inflation and food shortages. The first election victories for non-communist parties came in 1993 (presidential elections) and 1996 (parliamentary elections). China has supported Mongolia’s application for membership in to the Asia Cooperation Dialogue (ACD), Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) and granting it observer status in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.
At 1,564,116 km2 (603,909 sq mi), Mongolia is the world’s 18th-largest country (after Iran). It is significantly larger than the next-largest country, Peru. It mostly lies between latitudes 41° and 52°N (a small area is north of 52°), and longitudes 87° and 120°E. As a point of reference the northernmost part of Mongolia is on roughly the same latitude as Berlin (Germany) and Saskatoon (Canada), while the southernmost part is on roughly the same latitude as Rome (Italy) and Chicago (USA). The westernmost part of Mongolia is on roughly the same longitude as Kolkata in India, while the easternmost part is on the same longitude as Qinhuangdao and Hangzhou in China, as well as the western edge of Taiwan. Although Mongolia does not share a border with Kazakhstan, its westernmost point is only 36.76 kilometres (22.84 mi) from Kazakhstan.
The geography of Mongolia is varied, with the Gobi Desert to the south and cold, mountainous regions to the north and west. Much of Mongolia consists of the Mongolian-Manchurian grassland steppe, with forested areas accounting for 11.2% of the total land area, a higher percentage than the Republic of Ireland (10%). The whole of Mongolia is considered to be part of the Mongolian Plateau. The highest point in Mongolia is the Khüiten Peak in the Tavan bogd massif in the far west at 4,374 m (14,350 ft). The basin of the Uvs Lake, shared with Tuva Republic in Russia, is a natural World Heritage Site.