During the thirteenth century the Mongols created the greatest empire in the world, which at its peak extended from the borders of Poland to the East Sea/Sea of Japan and from the Siberian forests to the Persian Gulf. Like so many of the other steppe empires, it originated in the grasslands and mountain pastures of Mongolia or Western Manchuria. The Mongols initially followed the pattern of earlier nomadic confederations such as the Xiongnu, who had engaged in mutually beneficial exchange with their sedentary neighbors, the Han, and controlled the trade of the silk routes. Unlike the Xiongnu, however, the Mongols would conquer most of the major sedentary centers producing the goods traded across Eurasia. The result was a mixed blessing. Some areas never recovered from the shock of invasion, while others flourished. As travel by Europeans such as Marco Polo all the way across Asia attests, for a time one can speak of a Mongol Peace on the trade routes, even if its benefits were far from uniform. The Mongol Empire was created by Chingis Khan. He was given the title of "Universal Emperor" when he unified the Mongol tribes in 1206. He spent the next years campaigning against the Qin rulers of north China. In 1219-1220 he marched west, destroying the kingdom of Khwarezm, in response to the murder of a trade mission he had sent. As in other examples, here we can see the importance of trade to the Mongols. Their burials in the thirteenth and fourteenth century attest to the taste they had acquired for the luxury items of urban centers and the cultural fusion that was the long-term legacy of the historic nomadic-sedentary interaction. Following Chingis' death, the Mongol capital was located at Karakorum on the Orhon River in Mongolia, not far from where the nomadic Uighurs' ninth century capital. A fascinating description of Mongol life and that modest but international town can be found in a contemporary account from the 1350s by the Franciscan monk William of Rubruck. Of particular interest is his evidence concerning the openness of the Mongols to various faiths, including Nestorian Christianity.
By 1260 when Chingis' grandson Qubilai (Khubilai) became khan, the empire had expanded to encompass much of Eastern Europe (the region known as the "Golden Horde") and much of the Middle East (the Ilkhanid state). The central area of the empire was ruled by the descendants of Chingis' son, Chagatai. Qubilai would spend nearly the first two decades of his reign subduing China, which he finally accomplished in 1271; the period of Mongol rule is known by the dynasty name Yuan. He would also try unsuccessfully to conquer Japan and all of Southeast Asia. This eastern focus for his efforts, symbolized by his moving the capital to Beijing in the 1260s, coincides with the loosening of the ties holding the empire together. By the end of the 13th century, its several parts were independent of each other, and were even beginning to compete for control of the trade routes.
By the 1330s, the Ilkhanid state disintegrated and the Chagatayids were in disarray. The Yuan dynasty in China collapsed in 1368, and the last of the Mongol states, the Golden Horde, would largely be destroyed by the next creator of a great inner Asian empire, Tamerlane. Yet for somewhat more than a century, the Mongols had presided over what was arguably the peak period of the overland Silk Road trade.