Mongolia is a vast land ranging from the dunes of the Gobi to the forests of the Siberian Taiga, from the peaks of the Altai mountains to the grassland flats. In history this land was occupied by many different competing tribes. These tribes were then united under Genghis Khan to become the ‘mongols’. Whilst the vast majority (86%) of modern Mongolians identify themselves as Khalkh Mongols, some of the minority clan groups are still alive and well today whilst others simply disintegrated into history.
The Khamags were one of the big eight tribes of Mongolia. They controlled the area of North Eastern Mongolia during the 12th Century and underwent periods of strength as well as disintegration; most notably when chief of the Khamags, Yesugei was poisoned by Tatar Mongols. However, this act led to the rise of one of the most powerful men in world history ‘Temujin’. Temujin, son of Yesugei tried to claim himself as chief after his father’s death but was discarded by his clan and with his siblings and mother were left to fend for themselves. This period of time was probably the most important, Temujin is famed for having a wise mother and for killing his brother Begten. Later he would rise to control the Khamags and through a series of alliances and wars unite the Mongol tribes under one banner and thus be crowned Chinghis Khaan.
The Oirat are a clan that controlled much of central and northern Mongolia and shared the same culture and language as the North Eastern Khamag Mongols and were at times controlled by the same leader sometimes being of Oirad descent and sometimes Khamag descent. However, upon the gradual collapse of the Mongolian empire the Oirat began to identify itself separately to that of the Khamag Mongols as they started to vie for overall control over Mongolia. Their ambition led them to creating the ‘four oirat’ an alliance of nearby clans wanting to overthrow the descendants of Genghis Khan.
The descendants of the Oirats can be found in Mongolia but also in many other parts of the world most notably in Eastern Europe in the form of the Kalmyks. The Kalmyks themselves descend from the Oirat clan when in 1618, 250,000 Oirat’s migrated into present day Russia. Today they are the only traditionally Buddhist people whose homeland is within Europe.
The Buryats are a people of Northern Mongolia, their homeland centered around the forests of lake Baikal. The Buryats share the same nomadic practices as their clan cousins but have a separate identifiable language. Today the vast majority of Buryat people live in Modern day Russia in the Republic of Buryatia, bordering Mongolia.
According to the Buryat creation myth, there were eleven Buryat tribes that were all descendants of a man and a mysterious but beautiful creature that turns into a swan during day and a woman during the night. After the two married, the man asked her to give him her wings so that she would not turn into a swan anymore. However, it is said that after some time the woman asked for her wings back and flew away never to return.
The Naiman nation are believed to have been a Mongolized Turkic tribe which actually outnumbered the Eastern Khalkh Mongols in the 13th century. Despite this, Temujin (Chinghis Khan) managed to defeat the Naimans in a series of battles. The Naiman Khanlig was defeated and the Naiman nation was incorporated into the Mongol clans.
The Naimans along with the Keraites are known for their Christian heritage and legend tells us how the clan is supposedly descended from the biblical magi; the three wise men who visited Jesus upon his birth. However, as the Mongol empire grew, the Naiman clan was split into parts with many Naiman moving South to China where they converted to Buddhism and many Naiman moving west where they converted to Islam. Their Islamic descendants are part Turko-Mongol part Iranian and are known as the Hazara, with large populations living in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Hazara are a heavily persecuted people who have become known better through the 2003 novel “The Kite Runner”.
The Uriankhai are known as being a forest people who originally resided in central Mongolia and have since been displaced to different areas of Mongolia over time. Modern day Uriankhai practice customs similar to that of Khalkha Mongols, however they were previously known for their isolation, living in birch bark tents and hunting on ski’s in the Taiga forests. The most notable Uriankhai person is Subutei. Subutei was a general and military strategist of the Mongol Empire who conquered 32 nations and won 65 pitched battles as well as famously destroying the armies of Hungary and Poland within two days of each other, by forces over 500 kilometers apart.
The Merkits were during the 12th century one of the largest clans of the Mongol plains. Their decline however began when they kidnapped the wife of the young Temujin. Temujin, aided by his close friend eventually free Borte who shortly after her release gives birth to a boy named Jochi. Chinghis accepted paternity over the boy, however, the question of his true paternity followed him throughout his life. Temujin, would go on to destroy the Merkits and anyone harboring them as the clan disintegrated into history.