The Mongols were far from the only nomadic peoples to interact with Europe, even in the thirteenth century. Of these, the Cumans are perhaps the most well-known and have left us a considerable legacy in the archaeological record. Today, our series researcher Jack Wilson talks with Dr. Michal Holeščák regarding the archaeological presence of the Cumans and Mongols in 12th and 13th century Eastern Europe. Michal Holeščák is an archaeologist dealing with the material culture of late nomadic peoples, namely the Mongols and Cumans, from Mongolia to the westernmost fringes of the Great Eurasian Steppe in Hungary.
The Mongols were far from the only nomadic peoples to interact with Europe, even in the thirteenth century. Of these, the Cumans are perhaps the most well-known and have left us a considerable legacy in the archaeological record. Today, our series researcher Jack Wilson talks with Dr. Michal Holeščák regarding the archaeological presence of the Cumans and Mongols in 12th and 13th century Eastern Europe. Michal Holeščák is an archaeologist dealing with the material culture of late nomadic peoples, namely the Mongols and Cumans, from Mongolia to the westernmost fringes of the Great Eurasian Steppe in Hungary.
Around 40 episodes ago, we discussed Chinggis Khan fighting for control of the Mongolian steppe. Now, some 90 years later in our chronology, we will discuss his grandson sending Mongol armies across the sea to lands beyond Chinggis’ imagination. While Japan, Vietnam and Burma were all subjects of invasions towards the end of Kublai Khan’s life, all of these were regions relatively close to Yuan China, directly bordering its subject territories. Our discussion today focuses on a much less obvious target: the island of Java in modern Indonesia. The expedition against Java was one of the last military campaigns ordered by Kublai in his long life, and like many of these later invasions, cost the Yuan heavily in men and resources for little gain. I’m your host David, and this is Kings and Generals: Ages of Conquest.
In the 13th century, Eastern Java and parts of the neighbouring islands of Sumatra and Borneo came under the influence of the Kingdom of Tumapel, named for the city of the same name on the island of Java- or atleast it was the same name until the reign of King Jaya Wisnuhardhana, who changed it to Singhasari. You’ll find this state therefore referred either as the Kingdom of Tumapel, or Singahsari.The Tumapel kings were not absolute rulers, with much of their kingdom made up of loosely controlled vassal kings and chiefs. Rather, their significance for our purposes came from their place on a lucrative position along the maritime trade routes going through Indonesia and across the southern coastline of the Eurasian landmass. By the 12th century, the island of Java was one of China’s chief suppliers of pepper and safflower dye, along with Bali. The island exported rice, and held trade contacts from China to India. In turn, they imported gold, silver, lacquerware, iron goods and ceramics from China. The southeast Asian sea trade was a valuable market which had been expanding considerably since the ninth century- and one which now attracted the attention of a man hungry for conquest and with less and less patience for, well, patience.
By the 1280s, Kublai Khan had completed his conquest of China proper, but good, overwhelming victories were frustraingly eluding him in Central Asia, Japan, Vietnam and Myanmar, and as he advanced in years, the knowledge that he was failing to bring the world under Mongol authority must have weighed heavily on him. Now in his seventies, with his poor health, depression, deaths of his friends and family, increasing removal from affairs of state and awareness of his own impending mortality, Kublai must have been desperate for victories to console his aching spirit. In addition, the economic aspects must not be overlooked -though they were not separate, from Kublai’s point of view, but merely a component of universal rule. Kublai’s Yuan dynasty, while obviously influenced by China’s Confucian norms and traditions, felt no need to bind themselves to it, and kept for instance, the Mongolian practicality regarding merchants. Rather than treat them as inherently lower class, they were invited and rewarded, and trade as a whole encouraged. This took a notable form on the recent completion of the conquest of the southern Chinese coastline. Soon after the imposition of Mongol rule at the end of the 1270s, a new Bureau of Maritime Trade was established as the major port of Quanzhou. The Bureau not only oversaw and taxed the trade in and out of Quanzhou, but sought to actively encourage it as well as the settlement of foreign traders there. Contacts were made across the region- the Southeast Asian coastline of course, but also the Phillipines, Indonesia including Java and Sumatra and to India and Iran’s southern coastline. We, have for instance, south Indian style Hindu temples with Tamil transcriptions in Quanzhou from this period, and knowledge of a significant Muslim population and resettled Persian. To the Islamic world Quanzhou was known as Zayton, by which Marco Polo recorded the name. The Yuan Dynasty had a keen interest in trade, and sought to extend their control over it throughout the region- at the same time extending the Mongols’ heavenly Mandate to rule the whole of the world.
On these considerations, Kublai Khan increased diplomatic missions across the seas of southern Asia, from Malabar to Sri Lanka, ordering the monarchs and peoples across the sea to submit to the Great Khan, as per the wish of Eternal Blue Heaven- something it should be noted, many of these states did do. In fact, for the privilege of trading with China, most regional states already undertook a sort of yearly tribute to whichever Chinese dynasty ruled the requisite ports they wanted access to. The Chinese dynasties were generally content to accept the trade and maintain the image of themselves as the Sons of Heavens, the centre of the world in name even if it wasn’t quite so in practice, and the Son of Heaven did not exercise actual authority in these states. The Mongols, as many a state in eastern Asia rudely learned, generally did not share the same view; to be a vassal to the Great Khan was a complete submission, which required making your resources and peoples available to the Khan’s desires, measured through censuses to catalogue them and make the necessary demands. When Kublai sent his diplomatic missions over the seas, they often were sent to not just reaffirm or increase the tribute, but increase the extent to which these overseas monarchs needed to comply to the will of the house of Chinggis Khan.
One such mission, led by one Meng Qi, arrived in the court of the king of Tumapel, Kertanagara, sometime in the 1280s. Kertanagara had been the King of Tumapel since the 1260s, and had shown himself a haughty individual and firm convert to Tantric Buddhism. Since his ascension he had expanded his kingdom, over the 1270s subduring parts of eastern Sumatra and by the 1280s, most of the island of Java itslf. By all accounts, Kertanagara was quite keen to solidify his control of the local trade and spice routes, and very, very keen on not having to share it with the distant ruler of China. In the various sources, after feeling insulted by the envoy Meng Qi or his demands, Kertanagara’s either insulted him, branded his face with a hot iron, cut his nose off or outright killed him. In either case, he had committed a grievous insult on an envoy of the Great Khan, which you may remember, was not something the Mongols took lightly.
Kertanagara’s calculation was likely a simple one. He did not want to increase the share of tribute sent to China for the privilege of trading. However, in order to maintain that wealth he very much needed to keep trading with China, and it's unclear to what extent trade may have been disrupted during the long war between the Mongols and the late Song Dynasty. It was a reasonable assumption that the island of Java was well outside the range of an actual attack from China, leaving him physically secure from a Chinese repercussion. Once tensions had cooled, Kertanagara could send an apology mission and resume trade, without having provided a greater portion of it to China.
These were reasonable assumptions, but rather incorrect, as they relied on an assumption of reasonable retaliation by the opposing party. By the later 1280s, the deaths of Kublai’s closest confidant, his wife Chabi, chosen heir Jingim and his most important advisers, as well as alcoholism and depression had clouded his judgement, and he was quite beyond being reasonable. Kublai’s earliest campaigns against the Dali Kingdom and Song Dynasty were marked by thorough preparation and intelligence gathering, taking advantage of weaknesses within the enemy to bring the final victory. Now isolated and depressed, surrendered by yes-men who lacked the ability to stand up to him and desperate for victory after the continuous news of defeat across his frontiers, Kublai had come to rely on throwing manpower at a problem, hoping now tactical successes would automatically lead to strategic victories. Kublai’s knowledge of Java must have been minimal, but he was well past the point of caring. The ruler of a puny island somewhere in the sea had no right to insult the Master of the World. And so, Kublai ordered an attack upon the island of Java and Kingdom of Tumapel, to bring its king Kertanagara to heel and resume the tribute payments.
Briefly, we can comment on the rather different version of events which appears in the Javanese sources. In the medieval Javanese and Balinese sources, the incident with Meng Qi the envoy is unmentioned. Instead, Kublai was a friend of the minister Madura Wiraraja, who requested Kublai come provide military assistance to the royal family of Tumapel. In this verison, the throne was usurped by Jayakatwang, whom we shall meet shortly, and Kublai’s forces quite respectfully came, defeated the usurper, placed the rightful heir, Kertanagara’s son-in-law Raden Vijaya, on the throne and took in exchange only a beautiful princess for Kublai to marry. Generally speaking, most reconstructions rely on the Chinese sources instead, though the Javanese sources are interesting for how they justify and depict the Yuan presence.
Regardless of the cause, an invasion fleet and army were prepared in 1292. 20,000 men, mainly from southern China, were mobilizied aboard 1,000 vessels. The army was led by the former Song commander Gao Xing, the navy by the Uighur Yiqmis, and all were under the overall command of the Mongol Shi Bi. Having learned from the disastrous naval assaults on Japan and Dai Viet, onboard they had a year’s supply of grain and 40,000 ounces of silver to purchase more supplies. The commanders met with Kublai himself before their departure: the Khan told Shi Bi to leave naval matters to Yiqmis’ expertise, and that they must proclaim on their arrival they were not an invasion force, but merely there to punish Kertanagara for harming a Yuan envoy. Whether Kublai was serious, or hoping this ruse would allow his forces to snatch victory, we cannot say. Departing in winter 1292-93, they made a short stopover in Champa, now paying tribute and at peace with the Mongols. There, officers were dispatched on diplomatic missions to Lamuri, Samudra, Perlak and Mulayu in Sumatra, seeking tribute and submission. By March 1293 the fleet was off the coast of Java, and preparing to make landfall. It was decided to send a diplomatic force ahead of the main fleet, as by now the Yuan commanders were under no pretensions their army was inherently invincible, particularly as it had only a minor Mongolian component. It was hoped that by diplomacy, and with a good threat of violence, they would convince Kertanagara to submit and avoid having to make landfall in an foreign country with little gathered intelligence. If there was no progress on the diplomatic front in a week, the fleet was to follow up as a show of force.
The diplomatic mission found no success, for matters had changed considerably in Java by the time of their arrival. The haughty king of Tumapel, Kertanagara, was dead. He had been killed by his vassal, Jayakatong of Gelang, based in Kediri. Kertanagara’s son-in-law, Raden Vijaya, based in Majapahit, was resisting him, and the Yuan fleet had arrived in the midst of a civil war. A week after the envoys were sent, the armada landed at Tuban, where part of the army under Gao Xing and Yiqmis disembarked and began to march to Pachekan. The rest of the army was to follow aboard the ships under the command of Tuqudege, sailing through the Straits of Madura to meet the land force in March. At Pachekan, Jayakatong’s navy blocked the Brantas River, but made no move against the Yuan. There, the Yuan commanders landed and set up a banquet, inviting the Javanese to come over and discuss terms. No response was made by the Javanese, and after a while the Yuan fleet and army advanced. Jayakatong’s navy retreated before them and after garrisoning Pachekan, the Yuan forces made their way inland along the Brantas.
As they moved inland, they were greeted by envoys of Raden Vijaya, begging Yuan help: the young prince had only a small force, and Jayakatong’s army was now on its way to attack Vijaya’s base at Majapahit. In exchange, Vijaya would submit happily to the Great Khan. Seeing that this could be the key to gaining the submission of Java by supporting Vijaya, Yiqmis ordered Gao Xing to take a part of the army and intercept Jayakatong, while Yiqmis took the rest of the force to reinforce Majapahit. Jayakatong managed to evade Gao Xing, reaching Majapahit. There, Yiqmis had already assembled his forces to meet the tired forces of Jayakatong. Standing off for the night, when Gao Xing arrived the next day with the rest of the Yuan troops, together they drove off Jayakatong’s army. Raden Vijaya once again promised his total submission to the Great Khan if the Yuan forces helped him secure Java against Jayakatong, and after providing them maps, a week later they set off for Jayakatong’s capital of Kediri.
The Yuan moved in three columns: the fleet on the Brantas River under Tuqudege, with Gao Xing and Yiqmis taking their forces up either bank, while behind them traveled a large force from Majapahit under Raden Vijaya. The army made good time, and only a few days later had reached Kediri, where Jayakatong had a large army prepared for them. The next day, from the morning until early afternoon, Jayakatong’s force advanced three times, and three times they were repulsed with heavy losses by the arms of the Yuan Dynasty and Majapahit. By the end of the day, Jayakatong’s army broke, fleeing across the river or into Kediri itself, where Jayakatong too retreated. The Yuan immediately assaulted the city, and by nightfall Jayakatong had come forward to surrender.
For the next week, the Yuan were the masters of Java. Raden Vijaya’s promised submission now had to come: for this, he desired to return to Majapahit with a small, unarmed Yuan escort to properly witness his formal submission. While that force departed for Majapahit, Shi Bi sent most of the army back to Pachekan, while he stayed in Kediri with a small force, thinking he had handily conquered Java for his Khan.
Unfortunately for Shi Bi, he was not so lucky. Once he saw that the Yuan troops had let their guard down, at the end of the day Raden Vijaya killed the Yuan escorts who followed him back to Majapahit, rallied his armies and urged the people of Java to repel the foreign invaders. Only narrowly did Shi Bi escape the trap for him at Kediri. He fought his way back to Pachekan, losing in one account up to 3,000 men. Back aboard the ships the commanders argued over whether to counter attack Raden, or to retreat, ultimately choosing the latter. Not knowing the country, outnumbered and unlikely to find local support, realistically they choose the best option to secure the lives of the rest of their men.
While they did bring back some trophies, maps of Java, population registers, spices, gold, silver, rhino horn and prisoners, this did little to offset the costs of the campaign. Not as disastrous as the invasions of Japan or Vietnam, the Yuan had been unable to turn a tactically well executed campaign into a strategic victory, and paid for it with a humiliating retreat. Kublai was furious, punishing Shi Bi, Yiqmis and Gao Xing, stripping them of a third of their property and rewarding them with 50 blows from the rod. Once Kublai Khan died in early 1294, there was no stomach to avenge that defeat, or those others suffered in Southeast Asia. By contrast, Raden Vijaya was able to found a new empire based in Majapahit, which would come to dominate much of modern Indonesia and Malaysia and was perhaps the most powerful empire to ever be based in the region, a Golden Age founded in large part due to Mongol assistance. By the end of the 1290s, after Kublai’s death, Vijaya sent missions to the Yuan Dynasty to resume the valuable trade contacts. Despite their reputation for destruction across much of Eurasia, in the Javanese chronicle there is but a single reference to the Mongols destroying towns and sending people running in flight- perhaps due to the mainly Chinese origin of the army. Consider how the memory of the invasion was that of Kublai coming to assist his friends in exchange for a beautiful princess; to excuse, perhaps, their attack on their erstwhile allies or Kertanagara’s murder of the envoy, always a heinous act, the Yuan troops turned into a helpful, legitimizing force, in a way. A rather different view than their forces earned in many other places.
The Java campaign marked the end of the Yuan Dynasty’s overseas expansion, capping off Kublai’s life with one last failed campaign. The campaigns of the 1280s and 90s served as stark reminders for Kublai’s successors, whose attention would mostly turn inwards with rare exceptions. The huge costs of all these campaigns served to burden the Yuan economy, filling its offices with corruption and mismanagement that would never be shed. Further, these campaigns did little to endear the recently taken former Song territories, who provided much of the manpower for these invasions, to their new masters, laying seeds for later troubles for the Yuan, to be discussed in future episode, so be sure to subscribe to the Kings and Generals Podcast for more. If you’d like to help us keep bringing you great content, please consider supporting us on patreon at www.patreon.com/kingsandgenerals. This episode was researched and written by our series historian, Jack Wilson. I’m your host David, and we’ll catch you on the next one.
On a thickly humid day, flanked by dense forest of a deep green, rows of archers astride skittish horses struggle to control their mounts. Their local allies, armed with bows and tightly clutched spears, have their eyes focusing on a mass of men surging forward towards them. Infront comes a vanguard of the beast terrifying the Mongol horses; elephants, adorned in gold, armour and broacde, their tusks spiked and decorated, tall towers on their backs housing archers and spear throwers. The Mongol commander is afraid but refuses to show it; it would do no good to show fear before the men and the vassal troops. As calm as he can, he orders the cavalry to retreat to the treeline and dismount; they would stand before the oncoming host of the King of Pagan, modern Myanmar onfoot, armed with nothing but their bows and the will of Eternal Blue Heaven. I’m your host David, and this is Kings and Generals: Ages of Conquest.
Of all the foreign ventures ordered by Kublai Khan in his later years, it was the invasions of Burma, or rather,, Myanmar, which are among the most poorly known in the west. While not as overtly disastrous as the more famous campaigns against Japan or Vietnam, which we have previously covered, the fighting in Myanmar still showcased the limits of the Mongol military, where tactical victories could not always translate into strategic success.
By the 13th Century, the Kingdom of Pagan [pronounced somewhere between Bagan, Pakam, Pokam] had dominated Myanmar since the mid 9th century. Considered a golden age, from its strategic position on the Irrawadday River, the city of Pagan was the capital of a multi-ethnic, multi-religious and multi-linguistic kingdom straddling both upper and lower Myanmar. Military conquests backed by expanding infrastructure, irrigation and administrative systems laid the groundwork for a stable and regionally dominating empire. Population growth and infrastructure led to the increased development of Lower Myanmar, coupled with the expansion of arable lands to support it. To legitimize themselves, the Kings of Pagans patronized Thereavdic Buddhism and built monumental architecture to celebrate themselves. Huge donations of arable land to the Buddhist monasteries gradually put more and more of the kingdom’s wealth and resources in the hands of the monks; by the thirteenth century, the Pagan kings found themselves in a more and more desperate economic situation, struggling to reclaim lands from the entrenched powers but continually needing to build monuments to legitimize themselves and maintain Buddhist support for their power. Skillful kings like Kalancacsa, reigning 1084-1111 were able to balance all the elements of the Pagan kingdom, its various ethnic groups and traditions and the Buddhist clergy, but the kings of the thirteenth century lacked this ability- particularly Narathihapade, who took the throne in 1254. By then, long held tensions were bubbling beneath the surface, and the once un-developed Lower Myanmar was becoming a major population and political centre that the king in Pagan struggled to control.
And with so many kingdoms of the thirteenth century, this crockpot of troubles was aggravated by the addition of an extremely potent ingredient; the Mongol Empire.
Pagan, separated from China and the Song Dynasty by the Kingdom of Dali in Yunnan and Dai Viet in Northern Vietnam, had escaped the attention of the Mongols during their first forays into these kingdoms in the 1250s, as we have covered in previous episodes. With the initial submission of these regions in that decade, the Mongol Empire now shared a border uncomfortably close to Pagan’s northeastern-most outposts. It was in 1271 that the Great Khan Kublai’s first envoys reached the Kingdom of Pagan, requesting the submission of its monarch, King Narathihapade, as well as the necessary trade and tribute demanded upon all subjects of the Mongol Emperor. History has not been kind to Narathihpate, often presented as a vain and greedy ruler. Usually, you’ll be pointed to this incrisiption he place on the Mingalar Zedi Pagoda in 1274, “King Narathiha Pati, supreme commander of 36 million soldiers and who is the consumer of 300 dishes of curry daily, enshrined fifty-one gold and silver figurines of kings, queens, nobles and maids of honour, and over these a solid silver image of Lord Buddha Gautama one cubic high, on Thursday the Full Moon of Kason of the year 636.”
Of course, Narathihapade did not command 36 million soldiers, though his ability to consume curry in prodigious amounts is outside the realm of our discussion today. This is however an example of the earlier mentioned needed for Narathihapade and the Burmese kings to legitimize themselves through large monuments and inscriptions. His kingdom facing an economic problem undermining the very power of its monarchy and his own ancestry and position on shaky ground, Narathihapade had to shore up his position with boasts and monuments, wasting valuable resources but lacking options. The political system he inherited demanded he put on a show of nearly supernatural power regardless of the reality- a problem hardly unique to the Pagan kingdom, mind you- but one which contributed to the spurning of Kublai’s envoys. The next year Narathihapade followed this up by attacking one of Kublai’s vassal tribes in Yunnan, the Jin Chi, who Marco Polo calls the Cardanan, meaning ‘gold teeth.’ In 1273, Narathihapade completed his trifecta of antagonizing the single most powerful man on earth by killing Kublai’s envoys sent to demand recomponense. By doing so, Narathihapade ensured Kublai, in order to maintain the requisite show of supernatural power and invincibility around the Chinggisid monarchy, would need to react with miltiary force. Kublai’s miltiary response was delayed by the final push against the Song Dynasty and the first invasion of Japan in 1274. Troops could not be deployed to the frontier with Myanmar for some time, and perhaps in recognition of, Narathihapade struck first.
The King of Pagan sent an army into Yunnan in early 1277, though this was probably more of a raid than a full scale invasion. The local Mongol garrison was relatively small, as low as 700 or as many as 12,000, depending on the source. Under their commander, a fellow named Qutuq, the garrison was enlarged by rallying a number of local Achang and Jin Chi tribesmen. It should be noted in general when we discuss the conflicts with the Mongol-Yuan troops and regional powers in this period, we are mainly talking about forces like this: a small Turkic and Mongolian core around a commander, sometimes a Mongolian, sometimes a Central Asian Muslim or Turk, and the majority of the forces between locally raised troops or perhaps even southern Chinese. The reasons for this were manifest. Firstly, truly Mongolian troops were rarely assigned for garrison duty, being at their greatest use on actual campaign or protecting Kublai’s steppe frontiers. The climate, generally hot and humid, was extremely difficult on both the Mongols and their horses, and the often rugged, densely forested or riverine terrain itself made the preferred wide-ranging horseback warfare less effective, while also minimizing available pasturelands to feed the horses in the first place. A small Mongolian garrison would be maintained in Yunnan’s highlands and small pasture for the remainder of Mongol rule in China, and indeed, there are people of Yunnan today who claim descent from the Mongols- the Khatso, who in the last decades have sought to make contact with Mongolians to “reclaim” some of their “ancient customs.”
Anyways, it was a small body of Mongols and many more locally raised troops under the command of Qutuq who set out to repel the army of Narathihapade in 1277. One of the main descriptions of the ensuing engaement comes from that famous Venetian traveller, Marco Polo, who at the time of the battle was a new arrival in Kublai’s distant court at Khanbaliq. In Polo’s account, command of the Yuan forces is given to the general Nasir al-Din, the son of Yunnan’s governor, a Central Asian Muslim named Sayyid Ajall Shams ad-Din. Polo’s mis-attribution to Nasir al-Din is an easy enough mistake to understand; it’s likely Polo never had in his notes or memory the name of a minor commander like Qutuq, but did recall an association between the well known Nasir al-Din and an exciting battle again the King of Mien, as Polo refers to Narathihapade. For our reconstruction today, we will agree with the scholarship and place Qutuq in command of the Mongol troops.
The site where Qutuq and the Pagan King met is contradicted in the sources, either in the Vochang Valley in Baoshan, or at a site the called by the Burmese Nga-caung-khyam [Ngasaynggyan- sorry David] in modern Yingjiang. The two sites are approximately 100 kilometres apart, though Nga-caung-khyam is the more commonly given location. It seems that Narathihapate led the invasion force himself, a mixed force of infantry and cavalry spearheaded by a contingent of elephants: on their wide backs were towers built to house archers.
Qutuq was worried and outnumbered, but chose the site of battle carefully. Entering on a level plain early in the morning, he ensured the Yuan flanks and rear were protected by trees, while the ground before them was bare. Qutuq likely arranged his forces in a standard formation for steppe armies, a center and two wings, while Narathihapade’s force advanced in two large, extended wings of cavalry and infantry, staggered behind the line of elephants in the vanguard- 2,000 of them, if we blindly accept Polo’s numbers, along with 60,000 men on foot and horse. It would be shocking if Narathihapade brought even half as many as this.
According to Marco Polo, the Yuan commander rallied his seemingly outnumbered men through a short speech:
“And calling to him all his hrosemen, he exhorted them with most eloquent words that they would not be of less might than they had been in the past, and that strength did not consist in numbers but in the valour of brave and tried horsemen; and that the people of Mien were inexperienced and not practised in war, in which they had not been engaged as they themselves had been so many times. And therefore they must not fear the multitude of the enemy but trust in their own skill which had already been long tried in many place in so many enterprises that their name was feared and dreaded -not only by the enemy but by all the world; so that they must be of that same valour as they had been. And he promised them certain and undoubted victory.”
After loudly playing their instruments, Narathihapde’s army advanced. The Mongols tried to hold firm, but the scent and sight of the elephants frightened their horses. Once he saw this, Qutuq acted quickly. He ordered his men into the forest beind them, dismounting and tying the horses’ reins to trees, then advancing on foot back onto the plain. Once in the open, the Mongols- and their local allies- began firing volley after volley of arrows into the elephants. The Burmese archers shot back, but clumped as they were in their towers they could not compete with the powerful Mongol bows. Though the elephants’ thick hides could not be penetrated, they panicked under the concentrated barrage of arrows. Before the elephants could meet the Yuan line, they became uncontrollable, and tried to escape: either through the trees, destroying the towers on their backs, or through the Burmese lines.
With this break in Narathihapade’s advance, sections of the Mongols began remounting their horses while the remainder provided covering fire, until the whole force was once more on horseback. Further details of troops movements are scarcer, but the lines finally met and fighting continued until noon. King Narathihapade worked his way up and down his lines encouraging his men, ordering fresh forces from his reserve, but, as per Marco Polo’s account, they were frustrated by the superior armour of the Mongols and their skills with the bow. Finally, Narathihapade and his men began to withdraw, but the Mongols pushed the advantage and it turned into a rout. Losses on both sides were heavy, but the smaller Yuan force had had the better of the day.
The sudden attack and flight of its King made Pagan a more pressing matter to the Yuan court, which finally ordered Nasir al-Din bin Sayyid Ajall against the kingdom in winter 1277. Provided a force of 3,800 Mongols, Cuan and Musuo peoples, Nasir al-Din reached the important fort of Kaung Sin along the Irrawaddy River. Nasir’s force was however too small to progress far into the country, and the onset of hotter weather encouraged him to withdraw back to Yunnan early in 1278. Before he did so, a seemingly humbled Narathihapade agreed to pay tribute to the Great Khan and allowed 100,000 households along the Yunnanese-Burmese border to be placed under Yuan control. When Narathihpate was slow providing tribute, Nasir al-Din returned later in 1278 to enforce the treaty terms. Little is revealed about this expedition, but in July 1279 Nasir returned to the Yuan capital of Dadu with captured Burmese elephants in tow.
By 1279 the Song Dynasty had been destroyed, yet Kublai Khan’s appetite for conquest was not sated, and his attention was increasingly drawn to the kingdoms across southeast Asia where Song loyalists could flee: Dai Viet, Champa, and Pagan. Once Narathihapade again lapsed on the treaty terms, Kublai had little difficulty ordering a proper invasion of Pagan while an invasion of Vietnam was already under way. The Great Khan must have imagined his rule would soon extend right into the Indian ocean. In December 1283, a full invasion of Pagan was launched, with 10,000 soldiers from Sichuan and Miao tribal auxiliaries under the command of Mongol prince Sang’udar. Sang’udar’s army travelled jointly by land and on vessels on the Irrawaddy, taking Kaung Sin, Biao-dian and even the ancient Burmese capital of Tagaung in 1284, before withdrawing around May before the onset of the summer heat.
So quick was the Mongol movements that Narathihpate fled the capital of Pagan in a panic: it was for this flight that he earned the epithet Taruppye [also written Tarukpliy], “he who fled from the Chinese.” Tarup is the Burmese term for the Chinese, but was at this time used to refer to the Mongols- as such, some have argued it’s possibly a corruption of tujue, or Turk, in reference to Turks among the Mongol army, although the etymology is too difficult to pin down precrisely.
Narathihapade sent one of his top ministers to Khanbaliq to talk terms, and discuss making Pagan into a Mongol protectorate, but these were protracted and went nowhere- or atleast, nowhere fast enough to improve Narathihapade’s position. His flight from the Mongols following his earlier defeat and the sudden overrunning of much of Upper Myanmar greatly diminished his authority, augmenting the existing crises his kingdom was facing- particularly a revolt among the Mon in Lower Myanmar, ongoing since 1273.
Perhaps realizing the opportunity provided by the erosion in Narathihpate’s power, the Yuan rapidly ordered another march into Burma, this time under Kublai’s grandson and the Prince of Yunnan, Esen-Temur- not to be confused with another of Kublai’s grandsons, Yesun-Temur, who reigned as Great khan from 1323-1328. With 6,000 Yuan troops and 1,000 Jin Chi auxiliaries, Esen-Temur forced his way through Burma in late 1286, taking Taguang again and Mong-Nai-Dian before possibly reaching the city of Pagan itself in spring 1287- it should be noted that some historians like Michael Aung-Thwin are not convinced the Mongols ever reached Pagan itself. Compounding the chaos, the broken and humiliated Narathihapade was murdered by his own son in 1287.
In this breakdown, the Yuan seemed poised to finally bring Pagan under Chinggisid authority. Yet for all the Mongols’ military might, there was little they could do to stop disease from ravaging many of their troops and summer heat punishing the rest. Kublai’s grandson Prince Esen-Temur was forced to abandon Myanmar by 1289 with considerable losses. For troops used to less tropical climates, the rigours of campaign in Myanmar’s hot, humid summers and the quick spread of disease made them particularly deadly.
Diplomacy was sought as alternative; in the aftermath of the fighting after King Narathihapade’s death, one of his sons, the 16 year old Klawcwa, managed to claim the throne with the aid of the famous “Three Shan Brothers.” These brothers were members of the Pagan elite with military backgrounds, rising in stature for valiant efforts against the Mongols. It should be noted that, despite the popular description of the brothers as members of the Shan people, a Thai-speaking people in the region, there is no evidence whatsoever for what their background was; as noted by Michael Aung-Thwin, the description of them as Shans does not appear until the first English language comprehensive history of Burma, written by Sir Arthur Phayrie in 1883! The contemporary sources simply describe them as princes and a part of Pagan’s elite. Yet this single, perhaps accidental, description of them as Shans in a single secondary source from the nineteenth century has become part of their image in the literature ever since- an interesting example of why we should not blindly keep citing and reciting secondary literature, but revisit the primary sources as much as possible, and how modern boundaries of ethnicity are not useful or applicable when discussing events centuries in the past. What is more significant for our purposes today than their ethnic origins is that by the time of Klawcwa’s ascension, they were among the most powerful men in the kingdom.
King Klawcwa managed sought to reverse the disastrous policy of his father with diplomatic appeasement of the Yuan. In order to regain control over the lower reaches of Pagan and increasingly powerful vassals like the Three Brothers, Klawcwa needed to not fear another disruptive Mongol attack. In 1297 he sent his son-in-law, Kumārakassapa to Khanbaliq, a clear sign of submission- one wasted as the Three Brothers revolted the next year, killed Klawcwa and placed his 13 year old son Sawnit on the throne as a puppet. This was the casus belli for the final Mongol attack on Pagan. On the order of the new Great Khan, Kublai’s grandson Temur Oljeitu Khan, Klawcwa’s son-in-law Prince Kumārakassapa was sent with a Mongol army to avenge the fallen king. Over winter 1300-1301, the Yuan army besieged the heavily fortified Myin-saing, defended by the Three Royal Brothers, which held out and ultimately bribed the Mongols into withdrawing, taking Prince Kumārakassapa with them- an anti-climactic end to the final attempt to extend Mongol authority over Myanmar.
For the Three Brothers, their prestige after another successful repulsing of the Yuan was immense. The King in Pagan was a puppet as the three brothers essentially divided the old kingdom among themselves, each ruling as a de facto monarch in their own rite, until the last surviving brother, Sihasura, declared himself the King of Pagan in 1309. The descendants of one of Sihasura’s brothers would found the Ava Dynasty in 1364. While the Mongols failed to conquer Pagan, they did for a few years collect tribute from its monarchs; while they did not destroy the kingdom themselves, their attacks ruined irrigations systems and paddyfields, undermined the power of the Pagan kings and helped bring about the dissolution of the kingdom by the fourteenth century. Despite winning most of the field engagements, climate forced Mongol withdrawals and tactical successes could not be turned into strategic victories. With the retreat of the army in 1301, Myanmar essentially left the attention of the Yuan, though many of its princes would continue to pay tribute to the Great Khans for decades to come.
Our next episode will take us to one of the least known of all Kublai’s failed expeditions, the attacks on Java, so be sure to subscribe to the Kings and Generals podcast to follow. If you’d like to help us continue bringing you great content, then consider supporting us on patreon at www.patreon.com/kingsandgenerals. This episode was researched and written by our series historian, Jack Wilson. I’m your host David, and we’ll catch you on the next one.
“In the West there is a province called Kafje-Guh, in which there are forests and other places of difficult access. It adjoins Qara-Jang and parts of India and the coast. There are two towns there, Lochak and Hainam and it has its own ruler, who is in rebellion against [Kublai Khaan]. Toghan, the son of the [Khaan], who is stationed with an army in Lukin-fu in the [south of China], is defending [China] and also keeping an eye on those rebels. On one occasion, he penetrated with an army to those towns on the coast, captured them, and sat for a week upon the throne there. Then all at once their army sprang out from ambush in the sea[shore], the forest, and the mountains and attacked Toghan’s army while they were busy plundering. Toghan got away safely and is still in the Lukin-fu area.”
So the Ilkhanid historian and vizier Rashid al-Din, writing in the first years of the 1300s, describes events less than twenty years prior but very far away. Rashid al-Din transcribed a very brief, but recognizable sketch, of the Mongol invasions of Vietnam in the 1280s. Having covered for you the first half of Kublai’s reign up until the end of the 1270s and his conquest of China, we will now take you to the beginnings of his failures. Back in July we already presented the Mongol invasions of Japan in 1274 and 1281, so now we’ll turn our gaze southwards, to the efforts to extend Mongol suzerainty over the kingdoms of what is now Vietnam. I’m your host David, and this is Kings and Generals: Ages of Conquest.
Before we discuss the military operations, it’s useful to set the scene and establish Vietnam’s 13th century status. As has been so often over this series, for context we must go back to the fall of China’s Tang Dynasty in 907. For roughly a thousand years, starting from the Han Dynasty in 111 BCE, the northern half of what is now Vietnam was under Chinese dominion, broken up by a few decades of revolts and brief independence here and there. Of course, the Chinese Dynasties were not dominating a ‘Vietnam’ in any modern sense. Rather, they were exerting control or tributary relationships with the Viet, or Kinh, peoples around the Red River, or Hong River, Delta. This delta is usually described as the cradle of Vietnamese civilization, the most densely populated and fertile part of the country even today. Vietnam’s capital, Hanoi, sits in this region. The long period of Chinese rule and influence left an undeniable mark upon Vietnamese conceptions of state, and every succeeding Viet dynasty has born obvious echoes of it.
With the collapse of the Tang in 907, the Chinese presence in the north of Vietnam weakened, and local groups began to exert independence. Some of the Tang’s successors in Southern China invaded and briefly brought the Red River Delta back under Chinese rule. But by the middle of the tenth century, the first fully independent Vietnamese Dynasty in centuries, the Ngô Dynasty, was established… and collapsed into feuding warlords by 965. It was not until the Lý Dynasty, founded in 1009, was stability reached. Under the Lý Emperors- though only Kings, if you asked the Chinese- the recognizable aspects of medieval northern Vietnam were built. The capital was moved to Thăng Long, modern day Hanoi. Buddhism was adopted as the state religion, and in 1054 a new emperor declared a new name for their state; Đại Việt,, meaning ‘great Viet,’ by which we most commonly know the medieval and early modern state. Administrative and military reforms made it the most stable and powerful Vietnamese kingdom yet, and the state expanded both north and south. Agricultural expansion and land reclamation fueled population growth and a steady Viet colonization southwards.
Good times for the Lý Kings did not last. By the start of the thirteenth century their rule had weakened, local warlords exerted their independence and the monarchs were generally inept with few heirs. In a series of political alliances and marriages, the Trần family gathered power and began to try to force the Lý Kings to be their puppets. Warfare broke out. The Lý Kings maintaned the throne, but with the Trầns the power behind it. The final ailing Lý King abdicated the throne in 1224 with only two daughters. His 7 year old daughter, Lý Chiêu Thánh, was enthroned as the only queen-regent in Vietnam’s history. Throught the machinations of the Trần “mayor of the palace,” Trần Thủ Độ married the young queen to his nephew, Trần Cảnh. The queen soon abdicated the throne, making Trần Cảnh the reigning monarch- the first ruler of Vietnam’s prestigious Trần Dynasty, known by his temple name Thái Tông, the Vietnamese rendition of that classic Chinese temple name, Taizong. His father was posthumously made Taizu, and the scheming uncle Thủ Độ became the chancellor and the major powerbroker within Đại Việt until his death in 1264.
The powerful new Trần Dynasty of Đại Việt centralized power and continued the expansion begun the Lý Dynasty. Further reclamation efforts and dykes to control the flooding of the Red River continued to increase the agricultrual production of the north. Adminsitration, territories, taxes, the army, the law code, all were reorganized under the Trần. Confucianism influenced the government but did not replace Buddhism, and Chinese was the official language of the court. Relations were stabilized with their most important neighbours; the Song Dynasty to the northeast, to which Đại Việt paid tribute and nominal allegiance in exchange for expensive gifts and lucrative trade; to the northwest, trade flowed with the Dali Kings in Yunnan; to the south, a cordial period began with the Chams.
The Chams are a part of the far flung Austronesian people, inhabiting central and southern Vietnam for millenia. For most of their history they were a collection of small, competing Hindu and Muslim kingdoms, but in the 12th century entered a new period of unity in the face of an invasion by the Khmer Empire of Cambodia, the builders of the famed Angkor Wat. United under a ‘king of kings,’ the Chams repulsed both the Khmer and Đại Việt when it attempted to take advantage of perceived Cham weakness. Though not unified or centralized in the manner of Đại Việt, from the mid-12th century onwards there was a King of Kings based out of Vijaya who wielded more influence over the other Cham kings and princes- the kingdom of Champa, as it’s sometimes called. And hence, by the 13th century we can say that Vietnam was divided into two states; Đại Việt in the north, ruled by the Trần Dynasy and known as Annam to the Chinese, and Champa in the south. You can get your references to twentieth century North and South Vietnam out of the way now.
Đại Việt was the first of the two to encounter Mongol armies in the 1250s. As we’ve discussed a few times before, in 1253, on the orders of his brother the Grand Khan Mongke, prince Kublai marched into Yunnan and conquered the Dali Kingdom. Though Kublai quickly returned north, his general Uriyangqadai stayed in the region and continued to subdue the local peoples. Uriyangqadai, the son of the illustrious Sube’edei, led a series of wide ranging campaigns across Yunnan, the edges of Tibet to the small kingdoms on the western edge of the Song Dynasty. In this process, Uriyangqadai came right to the northern border of Đại Việt. At this point Mongol imperial ideology was well entrenched: of course Đại Việt would become subject to the Grand Khan. The more immediate strategic concern though was to prevent the Trần kings offering any sort of support to the Song Dynasty, against which Mongke was planning a massive assault upon for 1258. With Đại Việt’s trade and tribute contacts with the Song, the Mongols were not willing to allow a possible enemy in their rear. With his envoys to the Trần court at Thăng Long illicting no response, in the winter of 1257 Uriyangqadai and his son, Aju, led the army over the border, some 10-30,000 men, Mongols supported by locally raised troops from Yunnan.
Splitting his forces into two, Uriyangqdai ordered the vanguard to cross the Thao River, north of Thăng Long, but not engage the Việt forces; Uriyangqadai knew of the river fleets used by Đại Việt, and desired to draw them into an ambush and thus neutralize their mobility. The vanguard commander did not listen and immediately engaged with the enemy, and a frustrated Uriyangqadai then advanced to support him. Despite the insubordination and the Vietnamese fielding war elephants, the Mongols had the better of the battle; Aju is said to have ordered archers to shoot into the eyes of the elephants. However, a defiant rear guard allowed the Trần leadership to escape the battle on the ships, and the always strict Uriyangqadai ensured the foolish vanguard commander paid for this with his life.
The Trần forces again attempted to stop the Mongol advance, occuping a bank of the Phù Lỗ river at the start of 1258 and cutting down the bridge. The Mongols cleverly found a ford; shooting arrows into the sky, when they fell and disappeared -meaning they had sunk into the mud- that indicated an area shallow enough to cross. They met and routed the Trần army, and now they rushed onto the capital, Thăng Long- only to find it abandoned. The Trần King, government and most of its population had evacuated before the Mongol arrival, taking most of the foodstuffs with them.
Vietnamese and the Chinese sources differ on the precise details of what followed, but generally it can be said that Uriyangqadai withdrew, and was harassed by local forces as went, and the Trần King offered tribute to keep the Mongols at bay. It may have been that the heat, humidity and tropical disease wreaked havoc on Mongolian men, bows and horses and he wanted out of there as quickly as possible, only escaping with heavy losses. It may have been that due to the timetable Mongke had set for the assault on the Song, Uriyangqadai simply did not have time to stay in Đại Việt any longer. Indeed, upon his return to Mongol occupied Yunnan, he was almost immediately leading forces into the Song Dynasty’s southwestern border.
The Trần Kings now sent tribute to the Mongols, expecting it would be a continuation of the relationship they had had with the Song: tribute once every three years, a nominal submission to keep the peace. For almost two decades, this was essentially what followed, as the Mongols were too preoccupied with the succession struggle after Mongke’s death and Kublai’s ensuing war with the Song Dynasty to press the matter further. Likewise, Champa began to send tribute to the Khan. With the Song still a buffer between them, the kingdoms of Vietnam felt some security from the Mongols.
However, Kublai began asking for both monarchs to submit to him in person and confirm their allegiance, which both put off in favour of continued tribute missions. Other demands had to be met as Mongol vassals, such as censuses, allowing daruqachi to be posted in their cities and demands for labour and materials- all were requirments neither kingdom had yet to meet. The end of Song resistance at Yaishan by 1279 to Kublai’s Yuan Empire removed the buffer between them, and now the excuses of the Trần and Cham kings was far less acceptable, as was their housing of fleeing Song officials. In 1280 Kublai demanded that if the Trần king could not come in person, then he must send a massive golden likeness of himself with pearls for eyes, as well as increased amounts of tributes, as well as demanding the kingdom’s most skilled doctors and artisans, most virtuous scholars and most beautiful women every three years. The Great Khan’s demands grew ever greater, the intention clear: the submission of Đại Việt and Champa must be total.
Kublai’s eyes were also going further afield. Dreaming of completing the conquest of the world, the fall of the Song, the greatest single independent power not subject to the Mongols, seemed to open up access to valuable maritime trade routes. It has been speculated that Kublai saw Champa as key to controlling the south-east Asian trade, essentially a landing strip jutting out into the trade routes darting from India, Indonesia and China. After years of perceived insubordination, once the Chams imprisoned Yuan envoys in 1282, Kublai had his pretext for war and a chance to seize the sea trade. Striking at Champa first had the added benefit of putting Đại Việt in a vice grip between Yuan China and an occupied Champa, and hopefully bring it to heel as well. Having overcome the formidable Song Dynasty, the often politically fragmented Champa would have seemed an easy target in comparison. Officials in Guangxi province had sent encouraging messages to the court, saying less than 3,000 men would be needed to overrun the Chams. After the failure of the second invasion of Japan in 1281, Kublai was also hungry for a quick and easy victory. Though the 1270s had been successful, they had worn Kublai out; by the 1280s, he was no longer the patient man he had been in the 1250s, planning out every detail of the Dali campaign with his experienced generals and advisers. His most loyal and critical advisers had died over the 1270s, and Kublai had outlived the most veteran commanders. Having come to expect total victory regardless, Kublai now demanded it immediately.
In December 1282, Sogetu, a hero of the final war against the Song Dynasty and governor of Fujian, departed with 5,000 men drawn from former Song territory aboard a hundred transport ships, arriving near the Cham capital of Vijaya in February 1283. After brief resistance, Vijaya fell to Sogetu, who found that the Cham leadership, its King Indravarman V and Prince Harijit, had fled into the mountains. After wasting a month in fruitless negotiation with Cham envoys, once Indravarman executed his envoys, in March 1283 Sogetu set out on the attack. In the jungle his men were ambushed and driven back, and Sogetu retreated to the coast where he cleared land to plant rice to feed his men. There, he sent envoys to the Khmer Empire (who were detained) and sent messages to the Yuan court for aid.
Initially, the court’s response was slow, still planning for a third invasion of Japan. Ariq Khaya, the Uighur commander who had helped crush the last of Song resistance, was ordered to raise thousands of Jurchen, Northern Chinese and former Song troops to aid Sogetu, but failed to do so. It was not until March 1284, after plans for the third Japanese invasion were finally abandoned, when an army of 20,000 was dispatched to aid Sogetu. Setting out by sea and delayed by a brief mutiny, they arrived the next month to link up with a campaigning Sogetu, who had begun sacking Cham cities along the coast. The Cham King Indravarman sent word he was willing to submit, but would be unable to offer tribute due to the plundering. Such concerns did not really bother the Mongols.
By August 1284 the Yuan court had received maps showing the land routes through Đại Việt to Champa, and it was declared that Kublai’s eleventh son Toghon would lead a force overland to assist Sogetu. Đại Việt was ordered to help supply this army, but they refused: it was immediately apparent in the Trần court that this was almost certainly a pretext for a Yuan conquest of Đại Việt. At that time, the reigning Trần King was Trần Khâm, temple name Trần Nhân Tông. His father, the previous king Trần Thánh Tông, was still alive: the Vietnamese had a similar institution to the Japanese, wherein the previous monarch would ‘retire,’ abdicating the throne for their heir and as ‘emperor-emeritus,’ tutor their successor while stepping out of all that strict court protocol. So it was in 1284 that the 15th century chronicle the Complete Book of the Historical Records of Đại Việt, records a famous episode. The ‘emperor-emeritus’ Trần Thánh Tông, once it was apparent that the Mongol attack was forthcoming, summoned elders and advisers from across Đại Việt to discuss the best course of action and strategy. Supposedly, they all shouted in unison, “Fight!”
So the Trầns began to prepare for the assault, readying officers and men. Of these, one man is the most famous for his preparations, Trần Quốc Tuấn, though you may know him better by his later title, Prince Hưng Đạo. Part of Hưng Đạo’s long standing popularity in Vietnamese history was his character, worth a small digression. Hưng Đạo’s rise to prominence was an unexpected thing. He was the nephew of the first Trần King, the son of his rebellious older brother. While his father died disgraced and as a traitor, Hưng Đạo made himself a shining beacon of loyalty and filial piety- two very good traits to have if you want to have Confucian inspired historians write nice things about you. Hưng Đạo actively made himself appear the most loyal of all the Trần King’s servants, perhaps to overcompensate for his father’s actions. His charisma, natural talent and skill made his life an exemplary subject for chroniclers to fawn over, with one notable exception: when he was around 20 years old, Hưng Đạo had an affair with an imperial princess already engaged to another man. It was a scandal resolved by marrying the two, but was nonetheless an embarrassment. When it became apparent that war was coming, Hưng Đạo marked himself out by preparing and training men and officers, before taking a leading role in the strategy himself.
In January 1285, Prince Toghon and Ariq Khaya led some eight tumens over the border from Yunnan into Đại Việt. He had with him an ousted member of the Trần royal family, Trần Ích Tầc, who the Yuan had declared the new King of Đại Việt and were going to place onto the throne. In addition, another column came further west, led by Nasir ad-Din, the Khwarezmian appointed by the Mongols to govern Yunnan; he was the son of the first Mongol appointed governor of the province, a skilled figure named Sayyid Ajall. The forces sent against Toghon, Ariq Khaya and Nasir ad-Din were quickly overcome, and captured ships allowed them to cross the Phu-luong River in February. Meanwhile, Sogetu was marching north, a great pincer movement on Đại Việt. Prince Hưng Đạo divided his forces to try and prevent Sogetu from linking up with Toghon, but Sogetu overwhelmed them, capturing 400 renegade Song officials. By the time Sogetu linked up with Toghon, the Prince had constructed a full river fleet and placed them under the command of Omar, one of the Yuan’s top naval commanders and Nasir ad-Din’s son. Together, they undertook a full offensive against Đại Việt, Omar driving the King out to sea while Toghon and Sogetu captured the capital of Thăng Long. Armies sent against them were annhilated and many Trần generals defected to the Yuan forces.
With Thăng Long’s seizure, the Yuan experienced their final success of this campaign. Again, Thăng Long had been skilfully evacuated to deny the Mongols access to supplies or the royal family, thus preventing the city’s occupation from being a true strategic gain. In Thăng Long, Yuan forces and supply lines were overextended, running low on food while heat and disease took their toll. In June one of the Yuan commanders, Li Heng, was killed by poisoned arrows and his force decimated by ambushes. A former Song Dynasty officer and his entourage, fighting alongside the Vietnamese, donned their old Song style uniforms and armours, which panicked the Yuan detachments thinking they were now facing long-lost Song reinforcment! The fallen Vietnamese were found to have tattooed “kill the Tatars!” on their own bodies, angering, frustrating and frightening the Yuan forces- many of whom, it should be noted, were not Tatars but conscripted Chinese and others who would be forced to share their fate. All bodies with such tatoos were ordered to be decapitated. Toghon, seeing their position was untenable as morale crumbled, decided to call a full retreat back to Yuan territory. So swiftly was this done that Toghon failed to inform Sogetu of the retreat, who suddenly realized he was left isolated deep in enemy territory. Hurriedly he forced his way north, but the Vietnamese harried him. Sogetu was captured and killed in battle, and the remainder of his force was largely surrounded and destroyed at Ssu-ming on the Yuan border.
This was a disastrous end to the campaign. The Mongols had suffered reversals, loss of commanders and had to turn back from campaigns before. Battles had been lost of course, but major defeats like the Japan invasions could be explained away as the interventions of nature and the heavens. But the Vietnam campaign was a direct military fiasco, one of Kublai’s own sons failing to deliver victory. Kublai was so furious he refused to allow Toghon back to the capital. Frustrated by failures and his mind increasingly clouded by drink and depression, Kublai ordered a third invasion of Đại Việt. Special care was taken for this invasion. The Trần pretender Trần Ích Tầc was once again to be promoted, to hopefully encourage dissension, and great effort was taken to prevent the logistical issues of the previous campaign. Supply ships were ordered from all along the southern Chinese coast to ferry troops and provide the food necessary for the great army being assembled: 70,000 Mongol, Jurchen and Northern Chinese, 6,000 troops from Yunnan, 1,000 former Song soldiers, 6,000 local troops from Guangxi and 17,000 Loi people from the island of Hainan, for a total of 100,000 men not including the crews of the 500 warships and transports. Toghon was placed in overall command again, his final chance to redeem himself before his aging father.
While it is easy to focus on the Yuan losses, it must not be thought it was an easy experience in Vietnam. As per custom, the Mongols had metted out savage reprisal on cities; we know from elsewhere that when frustrated, as when denied a chance to meet the foe directly in battle, it only resulted in increased devastation on those they fell across. Crops and rice patties were destroyed by the tred of armies and horses, and we cannot imagine what starvation and horrors greeted the population caught in the middle of this conflict. Many thousands fled into the wilderness to escape the Yuan armies, and few could have been prepared for the experience. Their suffering from disease, lack of water and resources goes unmentioned in the sources. The capital of Thăng Long had been looted and occupied for the second time in thirty years. In Champa the evidence is less clear, but it seems Sogetu burned his way through many of the most prominent city’s along the coast in his march north. In the Complete Book of the Historical Records of Đại Việt, in the entry for the year 1286 Prince Hưng Đạo provides this assessment to the King:
“Our kingdom has been at peace for a long time. The people do not know about military matters. Previously when the Yuan came and raided, there were those who surrendered or fled. By relying on the potent awe of the imperial ancestors, Your Highness’s divine [perspicacity] and martial [awe] wiped clean the dust of the nomadic barbarians. If they come again, our troops are trained at fighting, while their army fears a distant campaign. They are also dejected by the defeats of Heng and Guan. They do not have the heart to fight. As I see it, they are sure to be defeated.”
Hưng Đạo, as fitting his character, comes across optimistic and eager to fight. Yet, he recognized that many had quickly defected or routed before the Mongols. The Vietnamese needed to prepare to meet the Mongols again ahead on, rather than simply rely on the ‘awe’ of the King.
In October 1287, the third invasion began. The army into three major forces: Toghon took the main army overland, 6,000 traveled west of the main army to act as a diversionary force and 18,000 were taken by Omar and Fan Yi aboard war ships sailing along the coast to find and neutralize the Việt navy. The large transport fleet followed some days behind Omar’s armada, anticipating that Omar would have cleared the way of enemy ships for them. In December the main army crossed the border in two columns and defeated several Đại Việt forces, marching to Vạn Kiếp on the Bạch Đằng River to await the arrival of Omar’s fleet, who arrived after fighting off a Vietnamese navy. Despite early success, neither force had brought much for food supplies, expecting to be supplied by the transport fleet.
Toghon waited for the supply fleet until the end of January 1288, but unbeknownst to him much of the supply fleet was blown off course by a storm, and the rest were attacked by the Việt navy. The commander Trần Khánh Dư held his fleet in secret up a river near the coast at Vân Đồn, and allowed the Yuan warships under Omar to pass by. Once Omar and the warships were beyond reach, Trần Khánh Dư fell upon the unguarded, slower moving Yuan supply ships. By seizing and scattering these, he ensured the breakdown of the massive Yuan army. With food supplies running low, Toghon marched onto Thăng Long, hoping to resupply there. The city fell without opposition in February 1288, but to their horror they found there wasn’t a grain of rice left within: the defenders had once again stripped it in their flight. The increasingly desperate Yuan forces went to great effort to gather food until learning of the disaster which befell the supply fleets at Vân Đồn. Toghon ordered the army back to stockades they had constructed at Vạn Kiếp, and by the end of March, once his men were on the verge of starvation, he ordered a general retreat back to China. It was now the Việt forces sprung their trap. The Yuan army’s route north was harried by continual ambushes and the destruction of roads and bridges to hamper their movements. Arrows flew out from the trees to strike men down. Tropical diseases the Mongols were unused to spread among them, humidity warped their bows and the trees howled with the sounds of alien creatures ensuring sleepless nights. Toghon, great-grandson of Chinggis Khan, showed his pedigree by hiding in a copper tube on the march, then abandoning the troops to board a warship and sail back to the Yuan realm.
On April 9th, 1288, Omar’s fleet was sailing past the mouth of the Bạch Đằng river when a group of Vietnamese ships, commanded by Prince Hưng Đạo, sailed out to meet him at high tide. Eager for some sort of victory, Omar took a portion of the fleet and attacked. The Vietnamese routed before the Yuan warships, fleeing back up the river whence they had come. When the Yuan fleet pursued up the river, the trap was sprung: while the smaller and lighter Vietnamese craft had cruised by in safety, wooden stakes placed along the river bottom impaled the larger Yuan vessels, holding them in place as the tide receded. With the Yuan ships immobilized, the Vietnamese turned about and attacked: helpless, many Yuan soldiers jumped into the river, drowning or picked off by the arrows of Đại Việt, and Omar was captured. The other fleet commander, Fan Yi, attempted to rescue Omar, but his vessels were surrounded and boarded, Fan Yi himself killed in the fighting. Some 400 ships were captured, capping off a campaign which saw most of its land forces destroyed in the wilderness.
1288 proved to be a total fiasco for the Yuan. Only a few years after the destruction of the great armada off the shores of Kyushu, another fleet and army were destroyed with little to show for it. Toghon was sent into political exile after both disastrous campaigns, his son another disgrace to add to Kublai’s troubles of the 1280s. Unlike earlier, thoroughly planned and prepared campaigns, the Mongol leadership was unable to gather the information they needed to properly orchestrate their attacks. The destruction of the cities did not sway or put adequate fear into the Vietnamese monarchs, the sufferings of the population could not move them and unable to capture the enemy leadership, the Mongol were denied many of the strategic tools they had commonly employed to disable the enemy defense. In the dense and rugged jungles and mountains, the Mongols’ greatest tactical advantage, the mobility and range of their horse archers, was neutralized, while the heat, humidity and diseases wrought havoc upon troops and horses unused to such a climate. While victorious in the primary field engagements, the Yuan were unable to transform these battles into strategic successes. And crucially, the Mongols struggled to supply themselves. Small foraging parties could be picked off by the locals, supply lines could more be secured and larger armies were dependent on those supply fleets. When the supply fleets of the third invasion were destroyed by Trần Khánh Dư at Vân Đồn, the massive army commanded by Toghon became a huge, unreadable, liability. All of these were compounded by the fact the Yuan leadership totally underestimated Vietnamese resilience and the Yuan commander, Toghon, was an inept and inexperienced general: in contrast, the military leaders of Đại Việt were able to maximize their strengths and strike at the Yuan when they were their most vulnerable.
While Bạch Đằng was a masterfully executed victory by Prince Hưng Đạo, Đại Việt and Champa had suffered terribly over both campaigns, and both kingdoms, to avoid another invasion began sending tribute and recognized Kublai’s authority. Still, their resilience and refusal of either monarch to come before him left Kublai wanting another invasion, the Trần pretender Trần Ích Tầc again readied to be put onto the Trần throne, but as with much else, such thoughts were abandoned on Kublai’s death in 1294. After Kublai’s death, relations were eased between Yuan, Đại Việt and Champa. The kingdoms in Vietnam paid their tribute, and they were spared another Mongol assault. Relations between Đại Việt and Champa improved, and a marriage alliance was organized. The former Cham Prince Harijit, now King Simhavarman III, married the daughter of the Trần King, only to die suddenly in 1307. The death of the Cham king brought a new round of tension between the two states, eventually turning into a continuous conflict between them that ultimately culminated in the Viet seizure of Vijaya in 1471.
Today, Bạch Đằng is a highly celebrated episode in Vietnam’s history, the tactics and strategy of Hưng Đạo studied by the Vietnamese during the Vietnam war. The introduction of the idea of the nation-state to Vietnam has seen Hưng Đạo turned into a symbol of the nation, a single person embodying the ideals of resistance to powerful, foreign foes.
But for Kublai, the disasters in Vietnam were only the start to a rough decade, which we will explore over our next episodes, so be sure to subscribe to the Kings and Generals podcast to follow. To help us keep bringing you great content, please consider supporting us on Patreon at www.patreon.com/kingsandgenerals. This script was written and researched by Jack Wilson, with the kind assistance of Phú Võ for accessing Vietnamese and Chinese materials. I’m your host David, and we’ll catch you on the next one.
“Now I wish to tell you [...] all the very great doings and all the very great marvels of the very great lord of the Tartars, [...] who is called Kublai Khan, which [...] means to say in our language the great lord of lords, emperor, and [...]this great Khan is the most powerful man in people and in lands and in treasure that ever was in the world, or that now is from the time of Adam our first father till this moment; and under him all the peoples are set with such obedience as has never been done under any other former king. And this I shall show you quite clearly in the course of this our second book, that it is a true thing which I have told you so that each will be sure that he is, as we say without contradiction, the greatest lord that ever was born in the world or that now is.”
So Marco Polo introduces Kublai Khan in his Description of the World, as per the classic translation of Moule and Pelliot. Having now taken you through the successful Mongol conquest of China and fall of the Song Dynasty, we’ll now look at Kublai’s reign itself, and his efforts to build a new dynasty in China. Great Khan of the Mongol Empire and simultaneously Emperor of China, Kublai Khan was one of the single most powerful men in human history, rumours of his vast wealth and might spreading across the world. Kublai Khan’s long reign will be dealt with in two halves; a first one today covering 1260 to 1279, followed by a look at Kublai’s foreign ventures, then another episode detailing his last years. I’m your host David, and this is Kings and Generals: Ages of Conquest.
Kublai’s name has popped up in several episodes even before his war with Ariq Boke, but we’ve dealt little with the man directly. Born on the 23rd of September, 1215, Kublai was the second son of Tolui and Sorqaqtani Beki, and a grandson of Chinggis Khan. Indeed, Kublai was the last of the Great Khans to have ever personally met Chinggis, though Kublai was little more than 12 years old at the time of Chinggis’ death. It was never likely that Kublai would have come to the throne: while all of Sorqaqtani’s son received the same extensive education, learning to read and write the Mongolian script, take lessons in governance and even had Chinese advisers, Kublai was the only one of her four sons who really found himself attracted to Chinese culture. In time, Kublai even came to speak some Chinese, though never learned the characters. While Sorqaqtani’s eldest son Mongke led armies on the Great Western Campaign across the steppe in the 1230s, Kublai was beginning to govern Chinese for the first time, having been given an appanage in North China by Ogedai Khaan in 1236. Like many Mongols granted territory in China, Kublai did not actually rule from China, staying in Mongolia proper. As with much of North China, Kublai’s appanage was left to the whims of tax farmers and merciless officers demanding extraordinary levies. By the time Kublai learned of it, thousands of tenants had already fled their lands. Perhaps on the council of his Chinese tutors, Kublai sought assistance and local knowledge. The tax farmers in his lands were dismissed and replaced with dedicated officials. A regular taxation system enforced, burdens lessened and by the 1240s Kublai had succeeded in encouraging a number to return. The episode was an important one for Kublai. Leaving government to operate without oversight would allow all manner of corruption and abuse into the system, depreiving the lord of his tribute and putting increased pressure onto the peasanty and farmers at the bottom. Given the chance, they would flee, leaving those petty officials to now increase the pressure on remaining tenants and continue the cycle. By curbing abuses and encouraging growth, Kublai reasoned, the lord would reap even greater rewards over time.
For most of the 1240s, Kublai was a minor figure. He was a grandson of Chinggis and thus a high ranking prince, to be sure, but one of little importance without a military record to his name- the only kind of record which mattered, as far as the Mongols were concerned. Just before 1240 Kublai married his second and most famous wife, Chabi of the Onggirat. A wise and outspoken woman, Chabi would, for most of Kublai’s long life, be one of his most significant advisers and supporters, a calming and motivating voice when he needed it most. Chabi was also a devout Buddhist, and certainly must have encouraged Kublai’s own interest in Buddhism. It’s no coincidence their first son was given a rather classically Tibetan Buddhist name, Dorji. She may very well have been a driving force in bringing more Buddhist advisers into Kublai’s fledgling court in the 1240s. In 1242, the Buddhist monk Hai-yun was summoned to Kublai, who further educated Kublai on Buddhism. In 1243, Hai-yun helped Kublai choose the Chinese Buddhist name of Zhenjin, “True Gold,” for Kublai’s second son, rendered in Mongol as Jingim. Hai-yun introduced Kublai to another Buddhist, Liu Ping-chung, who would become one of Kublai’s most prominent advisers in the years to come. While Kublai was personally more inclined to Buddhism, he did not limit himself to it. Confucian scholars such as Chao Pi, Tou Mo and most famously, Yao Shu, came to Kublai in these years. Yao Shu was highly trusted by Kublai, and the Chinese sources are replete with examples of Yao Shu turning ancient Chinese parables and stories into practical advice for Kublai as a general and in time, ruler. These men were made responsible not just for informing Kublai of the ancient Confucian classics, but of tutoring Kublai’s sons as well. The oldest boy, Dorji, died early, and Jingim became the focus of their teaching efforts, receiving an education in Buddhism, Confucianism and even Taoism.
Confucians and Buddhists were not his only advisers; Uighurs, Turks and Central Asians served Kublai in a vareity of roles as interpeters, translators, officials and financial advisers. For military matters of course, Kublai relied on his Mongolian kinsmen. Over the 1240s and into the 1250s, Kublai cultivated what historian Morris Rossabi has termed the “kitchen cabinet,” of advisers, a wide collection of opinions and experiences which he could draw upon, men he knew for years and trusted, backed up by his wife Chabi.
As we’ve covered before, when his older brother Mongke became Grand Khan in the 1250s Kublai was thrust into the international spotlight. We needn’t go into this in great detail again; how Kublai was for the first time given a military command, against the Dali Kingdom in Yunnan. How Kublai returned to Northern China to oversee matters for Mongke there, only to annoy his brother with possible aspirations to greater autonomy and perhaps independence, an overconfidence brought on by a successful military campaign and fruitful years as a governor which saw him construct his own capital, known as Shangdu in Inner Mongolia. Mongke greatly reduced Kublai’s influence in the aftermath, and Kublai only managed to crawl back into Mongke’s favour in time to be given command of an army in a massive assault on the Song Dynasty. The sudden death of Mongke in August 1259 brought the campaign to a screeching halt. Mongke and Kublai’s youngest brother, Ariq Boke, stepped up into the regency. Kublai ignored requests to return to the imperial capital at Karakorum in Mongolia, and continued to campaign for a few more months, until his wife Chabi sent word of rumour that Ariq was going to put his name forward for the Khanate. But Kublai had already been aspiring for the throne. He may have intended to keep campaigning and build up his rather lacklustre resume as a commander, but now had to rush north earlier than he had hoped. In May of 1260, at his residence in Shangdu, Kublai declared himself Khan of the Mongol Empire, precipitating a four year civil war between himself and Ariq. Though Kublai had Ariq’s surrender by 1264, over those four years the princes in the western half of the empire took their independence, leaving Kublai ruler of a realm much reduced in size. As our previous episodes have demonstrated, Kublai sent his armies on the colossal effort to conquer southern China and its Song Dynasty, a task only completed by 1279. Kublai though, did not lead these armies himself, instead focusing on building his new empire, as we’ll go into today.
After declaring himself Khan in early 1260, his early efforts were directed at the war with Ariq Boke. Once the conflict quieted by 1261 and 62, as Ariq was pushed from Mongolia, Kublai could begin to consolidate his empire. Though he still perceived of himself as ruler of the Mongol Empire, he understood that his powerbase was in China. From the beginning, Kublai could not have merely co-opted Mongke’s administration. Since the reign of Ogedai, the Mongol imperial organization functioned through Secretariats, influenced by yet unique from the Chinese system. The Central Secretariat, based in the imperial capital, was the central government, the head of which served as a sort of Prime Minister, consulting with the Great Khan to carry out his will and laws. For Ogedai, Guyuk and Mongke, the Central Secretariat had been staffed by members of the keshig, the imperial bodyguard. The Central Secretariat delegated authority to the various Branch Secretariats, the regional offices overseeing imperial government. Branch Secretariats for North China, Central Asia and Western Asia were the three main offices, with a Secretariat for the Rus’ Principalities in the process of being organized at time of Mongke’s death. The Secretariats struggled to carry out their will, for they were operating alongside various regional Mongol princes who had been allotted these lands as well. The conflict over whether the Secretariats or the Princes carried out administration or taxation, among other responsibilities, was a key component of government ineffiencies over the century.
With the outbreak of war with Ariq Boke, most of the top members of the former Central Secretariat had sided with Ariq Boke in Karakorum, leaving Kublai to rely on his own men. Among his earliest actions was to get the loyalty of the China Secretariat and local Mongol princes, and prevent them from allying with Ariq. Of these, Qadan was the most significant, a son of Ogedai who ruled on Kublai’s northwest frontier, the border close to Ariq’s territory and the Chagatayids. Key allies like this allowed Kublai to focus on more internal matters.
The officials of the China Secretariat were naturally brought on into Kublai’s new government. Without access to the old Central Secretariat offices though, Kublai had to establish a new one after becoming Khan. Unlike the Central Secretariats of the previous Khans, Kublai’s was not filled by men of his keshig -though they were present- but civilian administrators and his own advisers. The first to head the new Secretariat was Wang Wen-tung. In structure Kublai’s Secretariat had much more in common with the usual Chinese office, indicative of the influence of Kublai’s Confucian advisers. The head of the Secretariat was assisted by two Chancellors of the Left and Right, often serving as his replacement and primary advisers to the Khan. The Head of the Secretariat and the two Chancellors oversaw what was known as the Six Functional Ministeries, which carried out the day-to-day running of the empire: the Ministry of Personnel, responsible for civilian officials; the Ministry of Revenue, responsible for the census, taxes and tribute; the Ministry of Rites, responsible for ceremonies, sacrifices and embassies; the Ministry of War, responsible for some aspects of military command, colonies, postal stations and supplies; the Ministry of Justice, which managed law and prisons; and the Ministry of Public Works, which repaired and maintained fortifications, dams and public land.
In 1263, Kublai also re-established another Chinese institution, the Privy Council, which managed the Imperial Army and protected the capital. Kublai sought a more centralized control of the army, but in this found resistance from the Mongolian leadership and princes. While Chinggis Khan had largely replaced the traditional military leadership and chiefs, a new hereditary leadership was installed, both from his sons and non-Chinggisids. By Kublai’s time, he was dealing with well-entrenched egos born into these positions. They would answer the Khan’s summons for war, of course, but did not want to be managed in all aspects by officials in a distant capital who may not have been nomads. To compromise, Kublai organized his armed forces into three major branches. The first a “Mongol Army,” under his direct control, and that of the Privy Council. This was stationed close to the Imperial capitals, made up of Mongols, Central Asians and Turks. This was followed by the “Tammachi,” the Mongols who served the Khan, but maintained their own princes and lived out in the steppes. Then there was the “Chinese Army,” the largely infantry force of Chinese who served as garrison troops.
By 1268, in order to watch his growing bureaucracy, Kublai brought on another Chinese institution, the Censorate. The duty of the Censorate was to inspect officials and route out corruption; they would report directly back to the Khan to inform him of the goings-on in his government, of tidings which may not have reached him through regular channels. For Kublai, good governance was a high priority, and he gave his Censorate great resources and power. The Khan wanted to know what happened at all levels of government. Compared to other dynasties, Kublai’s Censorate had great power… on paper. In reality, there is little evidence for its effectiveness outside of the provinces closest to the capital. The Censorate’s first leader, a Confucian named Zhang Dehui, resigned after a dispute with Kublai on how the law applied to the Khan. To put simply, Kublai argued that it didn’t, and Kublai had him replaced with a more pliant Mongol.
Kublai’s affinity for the classic Chinese government structures should not be overstated. Employing traditional styles of governance helped placate Confucian elites and scholars, going some ways to convince them that Kublai had ‘stepped past,’ his nomad roots, but he was unwilling to let himself be tethered to it. The most obvious example was in his refusal to restore the Civil Service examination systems. Since the Tang Dynasty, most Chinese bureacrats were selected after completing these exams. The highest men in the empires were scholar officials who were well versed in Chinese history and literary classics, and jealuously guarded access to high office from those who had never completed the exams. Kublai did not want to limit himself in who he could appoint to office, preferring to keep his doors open to anyone he perceived useful or deserving, regardless of their origins. So, the non-Chinese men from his keshig could still staff high positions, and men from Central Asia could be raised to high station. Of these, none were more famous than Ahmad Fanakati, becoming Kublai’s finance minister in the 1260s. Particularly with the rebellion of Li Tan in 1262, a Mongol-aligned warlord in Shandong, Kublai’s desire to place power in the hands of the Chinese lessenged. Though the rebellion was quickly crushed, Kublai’s chief minister of the Central Secretariat, Li Tan’s father-in-law Wang Wen-tung, was found complicit and executed. The power of Mongol-allied Chinese warlords across North China was greatly curtailed following this, and Kublai found himself far more suspicious of the Confucians in his government.
For Kublai’s empire, the old imperial capital of Karakorum was untenable. Deep in Mongolia, it was a difficult to supply and highly exposed location, now vulnerable to the mobile horsemen of Kublai’s Central Asian kinsmen- first Ariq Boke, the Chagatayids and in time, the young Ogedeid prince Qaidu. Neither could the complex bureaucracy he was building be managed from Mongolia’s Orkhon valley. Karakorum was to be effectively left abandoned, a garrison outpost of only symbolic value. For a little over 30 years Karakorum had been the administrative centre of most of Eurasia. Never again would it regain its importance. Kublai first made Shangdu, in what is now Inner Mongolia at the edge of the steppe and Chinese frontier, his capital. Shangdu, originally called Kaiping, is most well known through Samual Taylor Coleridge’s poem Xanadu. Though it housed Kublai’s court and was in the steppe, it was built in Chinese style; roughly a square, with low, rammed earthern walls and a palace. But even Shangdu was insufficient for governing the empire. The area was unsuited to housing a great population, and would still have kept Kublai removed from his subjects. Chinese sources assert that Kublai’s Chinese advisers informed him of the need to govern from within China, but Kublai must have seen it himself. Most Imperial capitals were located more centrally, along the lower arm of the Yellow River where it cuts through the North China plain. Of these cities, none were better known than Xian, in Shaanxi province, from which a great many dynasties ruled from. The former Song and Jin capitals of Kaifeng were also located along the Yellow River. Kublai did not wish to abandon his homeland though, desiring to maintain some proximity, both for personal and security reasons. So a more northerly location was chosen: the ruins of the Jin capital of Zhongdu. Fittingly, the city had been taken by the Mongols the same year as Kublai’s birth, in 1215, and now Kublai was the one to restore it… somewhat. His new city was built just northeast of Zhongdu, straddling three rivers to provide ample water for the population. Construction began in 1267. Built in Chinese style but overseen by a Muslim engineer, it was a vast, square shape with walls of rammed earth. Within was a smaller enclosed area, housing the imperial city, palaces and residences of the Khan. This was to be Dadu, meaning great capital. To Mongols and Turks, it was Khanbaliq, the Khan’s city. Marco Polo would interpet it as Cambulac. Today, Beijing sits atop of it.
Dadu in many ways embodied Kublai’s often roughly mixed Chinese and Mongolian demands. The Chinese wanted Kublai to step into the expectations of a Chinese Emperor and conduct proper rituals to maintain the Mandate of Heaven; constructing a capital within China, building requisite temples to honour his ancestors and donning proper imperial garb helped to present the necessary image. Yet, Kublai and his sons slept not in Dadu’s sumptuous residences, but in gers in the city’s central park; feasts were decidedly more Mongolian in terms of drunkenness and yelling; his altar sat on top of soil brought from Mongolia. In a sort of quasi-nomadization, Kublai conducted treks between Shangdu and Dadu every year, spending summers in Shangdu and winters in Dadu. Each trek was marked with Mongolian shamanistic ceremonies: flicking airag onto the ground for the departing Khan and calling out the name of his illustrious grandfather. At Shangdu Kublai hunted and feasted, doing a little bit to remind himself of his heritage and escape the demands of office.
As we’ve been iterating, the image of a legitimate emperor of China was a major part of actually ruling China. Each Chinese dynasty, it was believed, ruled with the Mandate of Heaven, the divine support necessary to control the Middle Kingdom. Victory in war meant the conqueror had Heaven’s support. But Heaven needed to be appeased through proper ritual and ceremony. Good governance and climate meant that the Dynasty had Heaven’s support. Corruption and ecological disasters, coupled with military defeats, meant Heaven had rescinded its blessing. The image of being a proper Chinese ruler was therefore necessary for any man wishing to have that divine backing. Kublai would have been reminded of this constantly by his advisers, particularly Liu Ping-chung, who urged Kublai to commit to declaring a dynasty and marking himself as the successor to the Song. In 1271 the Yuan Dynasty was officially declared. Yuan was taken from the Yijing, the Book of Changes, one of the most ancient of all Chinese classics. Yuan has connotations of primal energy and the origins of the universe; all auspicious things to refer to for a man who already had the backing of Eternal Blue Heaven.
To Kublai, taking the Dynastic name of Yuan was not an indication he was replacing the Mongol Empire. To him, Da Yuan, the Great Yuan, was another way to express Yeke Mongghol Ulus, the Great Mongol State. It was to help Chinese acceptance of his rule and maintain Heaven’s Mandate. But it was a fine line to try and present oneself as both Mongol Emperor and the Chinese Emperor, and the declaration of the Yuan may have been in part a recognition of his lack of effective power over the western Mongol Khanates. Kublai still very much saw himself as their overlord, but even he would have recognized his actual power over them was limited at best.
By declaring the Yuan Dynasty, Kublai was also demonstrating his intention was not just to loot and occupy China, but actually rule there. Now, we’ve talked alot about things Kublai ordered, declared and issued: but what did his rule actually look like? In terms of wanting to be a good ruler, what did Kublai accomplish in this regard? Well, ol’ Kublai was not just a man of ideas, but put things into action. Reconstruction of China both north and south was a primary goal of his. Northern China had hardly recovered from the prolonged Mongol-Jin warfare. Despite efforts in the past to institute regular taxation as proposed by the thanksless Yelu Chucai, much taxatio remained adhoc, local populations still being taken advantage of by Mongol officials. For the success of his Dynasty, Kublai wanted the burdens on the population relieved.
In 1261, Kublai began to provide funding for the Office for the Stimulation of Agriculture, headed by his friend and adviser Yao Shu. The stated goal of the office was to help peasants restore, develop and advance agriculture. Kublai wanted Northern China to once again reach a state of food security and be able to produce surplus as protection against shortages. A starving and discontented peasantry would pose a risk of massive uprisings, and the surplus was needed for the massive capital at Dadu. Dadu required 58 grainaries, each one holding 2,170,440 kilograms of grain, or 4,785,000 lbs. Kublai needed a reserve just to feed his capital, let alone secure northern China.
Kublai also understood it was not just a matter of providing funds and labour; the peasants needed to be protected from the Mongols. In 1262, Kublai forbade Mongols from ranging their animals through peasant fields, protecting vital cropland from becoming lunch for hundreds of goat and sheep. He also sought to abolish, once and for all, the tax farmers who sought to beggar the Chinese. Taxes needed to be simplified, and the power of the princely appanages curtailed in order for the Central Secretariat to retain dominance. For this, princes were denied their ability to collect taxes; rather than pay both the local prince and the Central Government, the taxes would go just to the government. Then, an allotment would be provided to the princes. Simplifying and reducing taxes always goes a long way to reducing stress on the folk on the bottom of the social rung. Taking this further, Kublai also reduced or completely removed taxes on entire regions to help them recover. Funds were provided for farmers to restore lands damaged during the conquest, as was grain for those in need. The Khan regularly met and sought knowledge from his advisers on how to restore the countryside and promote trade, and heaped rewards on those who provided effective ideas.
Kublai also promoted what he saw as useful professions. Generally, Chinese dynasties looked down on craftsmen and doctors, but Kublai carried on the Mongol practice of favouring those with skills. Craftsmen and doctors were exempted from certains taxes and corvee labour. For craftsmen and merchants, Kublai encouraged trade, especially from Central Asia and on the South Asia sea routes. In 1268 he opened the General Administration for Supervision of the Ortogh, which provided government loans to merchants taking part in caravans from Central Asia. In southern China, kilns were registered and supported by the government to aid the production of porcelains, a valuable part of the Southeast Asian sea trade. Taxes were lowered on commercial transactions, roads and routes were improved to facilitate movement. Foreign merchants were encouraged to come to China in order to advance the overseas trade, bring their knowledge and even serve in the government: owing their work to the Khan was thought to make them more useful. It is in such a capacity that Marco Polo would work, serving it seems in Kublai’s keshig, as we’ll explore in a future episode.
For doctors and physicians, Kublai established and funded academies and hospitals for them to work in, and to learn from Muslim medical knowledge Kublai imported- a full 31 volumes of Muslim medical practices were collected for the court library. As Kublai was often in poor health and suffered terribly from gout, he was keen to support this industry and whatever relief they might bring him. Expensive drugs, ingredients and doctors were collected from across the Islamic world and even southern India and brought to China. Exempted from many tax obligations and corvee labour, and often serving upon the elite and government, medical leaders reached a very high, and very lucrative, social standing they had not previously enjoyed. By encouraging the growth in numbers of physicians and hospitals, this brought greater access of their services to people at large as well.
Within his first years as Khan, Kublai had also organized the printing of new paper currencies. The first of these was backed by silk, and the later by the silver reserve. Earlier Khans had encouraged payment in coinage over kind, and Kublai took this to the next level. He hoped to employ the same currency throughout his realm to ease trade and aid in economic stability. The earlier paper mony printed by his predecessors and the Song emperors was invalidated, though in the former Song territory the people were given a period of years to hand in the old money, including gold, silver and copper coins, in exchange for the new. Until the late-1270s, Kublai kept tight control on how much was printed in order to prevent inflation, and the system worked quite well. Only with costs endured from the failed attack on Japan and the last years of war with the Song, did the printing of paper money escalate, though not yet to disastrous levels.
In science too, Kublai promoted cross-continental contacts. Astronomy was always of interest to Chinese monarchs and diviners, and a good mark of any emperor was formatting a new calendar. For this, considerable Muslim knowledge was imported. In 1271 the Institute of Muslim Astronomy was founded, allowing Chinese astronomers to study translated Islamic texts and instruments to design their own, and eventually provide Kublai a new, more accurate calender. Kublai also ordered the establishment of a new legal code which began to take effect in the early 1270s. It was actually more lenient than previous dynastic legal codes: only 135 crimes were punishable by death in the Yuan legal code, less than the preceeding Song, or succeeding Ming, legal codes. Executions per year during the 13th century rarely exceeded 100, with the Khan personally reviewing these cases, preffering to send them to labour or to pay a fine. The latter was an uniquely Mongol addition to the Chinese legal system. For the Mongols, such fines were regular compensation for punishments, and now too would become standard practice in China.
Kublai also gave China the basis for the provincial organization it holds today. As the first man to unite all of China in 300 years, he was able to order a country-wide provincial reorganization. Unlike previous dynasties, Tibet, Xinjiang and Yunnan were now part of China; Yunnan, for instance, had never been under Chinese suzerainty before, and has never left it since. Kublai reorganized China into 12 provinces, each governed by regional versions of the Central Secretariat. In much of the south, former Song officials were brought to staff the lower levels of government, but a system of Mongol and Central Asian daruqachi supervised and managed them.
As part of his hope to tie the various disparate regions of his empire together, Kublai sought a writing system all could use. He did not want to rely on Chinese, a script few Mongols had ever learned. But neither was the Uighur script the Mongols used for their own language fully adequate. Adopted by Chinggis Khan in 1206, it only barely covered the sounds of spoken Mongolian, and was simply incapable of representing Chinese. For this task, Kublai turned to one of his best known advisers, the ‘Phags-pa Lama. Born in 1235, in the 1240s he accompanied his uncle, the Sakya Pandita, one of the leaders of Tibetan Buddhism’s Sa-Skya sect, to the court of Ogedai’s son Koten. Basically growing up in Mongol courts, in the 1250s he found himself attached to prince Kublai, and in time Khan Kublai. Made Kublai’s personal chaplain after he became Khan, in 1264 the ‘Phags-pa Lama and his brother were appointed to govern Tibet on behalf of the Mongols. Having spent comparatively little time there, they did not do a great job. His brother died in 1267, which was soon followed by an uprising from a rival Buddhist sect, crushed with a forced reimposition of Mongol rule. With the Mongols now ruling Tibet directly, the ‘Phags-pa Lama returned to Kublai’s court, where he was given a new task: designing for Kublai a new universal script for the empire. Completing it by 1269, this was the famed Yuan square script, or ‘Phags-pa script, as named for its designer. Based on the Tibetan script, it was 41 square shaped letters written vertically and designed to capture sounds of both Chinese and Mongolian. Kublai was delighted and heaped rewards onto the ‘Phags-pa Lama, making him Imperial Perceptor and Head of all monks in Kublai’s empire, in addition to further tutoring Kublai’s son Jingim. Kublai ordered the script to be taught to all officials, and all government documents were to be issued in the new script. Surviving stone inscriptions, paper money, porcelain and state paizas from the Yuan period all feature the characteristic blocks of the ‘Phags-pa script. But aside from official and decorative purposes, the script never caught on even within the government, despite repeated proclamations from Kublai for his officials to learn it.
In keeping with the precedent of previous Khans, Kublai’s early reign encouraged the respect of religions. The legal code did not set out to prohibit any religion, and religious communities, especially Muslims, were often self-governing as long as they paid taxes. Respect was shown to Confucians, Buddhists, Taoists, Muslims, Shamanists and even those Christians in China. Like Mongke, there were members of these religions convinced that Kublai was about to, or had already, converted to their faith, so effective was Kublai at protraying himself as a friend to all. The ‘Phags-pa Lama, for instance, presented Kublai as the Buddhisatta of Wisdom to Tibetans while Marco Polo portrayed Kublai as a fine Christian monarch in his accounts. Tax exemptions were provided to religious orders, financial aid to help in rebuilding and constructing new temples, representation at court and other privileges were granted to these various communities. In exchange, they convened with the Heavens and Gods on Kublai’s behalf to bring good fortune onto the Yuan realm and maintain the Mandate of Heaven.
It should not be thought that Kublai set out to create an idealized utopia- he was still Mongol Emperor after all, and the Mongols were only a small minority among tens of millions of Chinese. Kublai issued proclamations to keep Mongols and Chinese separate; the Chinese could not learn Mongolian or wear Mongolian clothing, and it was illegal to sell Mongolian horses to them. Marriage and intermingling were dissuaded. Most famously, Kublai organized a racial heirarchy to determine favours and certain rights. Obviously, Mongols were at the top of the hierarchy, followed by the semuren, referring to Central Asians, Muslims, various Turks and even Tangut. Below the semuren was the hanren, the northern Chinese and former denizens of the Jin Empire. Khitans and Jurchen were included among them. After 1279, another category was added, the nanren, the Southern Chinese of the late Song Dynasty. The cateogrization though was vague, subject to change and often ignored. Yet it underlined a key fact: despite all Kublai did to look like a Chinese monarch, neither he nor his successors would ever be Chinese, and that divide would not disappear after Kublai’s death. For those Mongols still in Mongolia though, Kublai certainly looked too much like a Chinese monarch for their tastes. This was not a dynamic that would promote the longevity of the Yuan Dynasty.
From 1260-1279, Kublai Khan’s reign was marked by numerous accomplishments, with the notable exception of the invasion of Japan in 1274, and of course, his loss of control over the western Khanates. He set about creating a new government structure to run his empire, utilizing talent from across Eurasia and rebuilding China after decades of war. For the first time since the collapse of the Tang Dynasty in 907, China was united under one ruler. But 1279 was to be, in many ways, the high water mark of his reign. The effort it took to manage the Yuan government was considerable, and needed tremendous personal energy on the part of the monarch to keep it running as effectively as possible. As age, health and personnal losses took the energy out of him, the 1280s ultimately marked a series of failures for Kublai, which we will explore in forthcoming episodes, so be sure to subscribe to our podcast for more. If you’d like to help us keep bringing you great content, please consider supporting us on patreon at www.patreon.com/Kingsandgenerals. This script was researched and written by our series historian, Jack Wilson. I’m your host David, and we’ll catch you on the next one.
Series researcher Jack Wilson and historian Stephen Pow discuss Pow's explanation for one of the most vexxing issues of Mongolian studies: what is the relation between the terms Mongol and Tatar, and why do so many people across Eurasia consistently use Tatar over Mongol?
“In the world there is the spirit of righteousness, taking many forms,
bestowed on the ever-changing things.
Below they are the rivers and mountains; above they are the sun and stars,
With people it is called the spirit of honour and fearlessness, so vast it fills the universe.
When the empire is tranquil one pours forth harmony in the splendid court.
When times are extreme true fidelity is seen, and goes down in history case after case.”
So goes a poem written by one of the last defenders of the Song Dynasty, Wen Tienxiang, as translated by Feng Xin-ming. Held prisoner by Kublai Khan after the fall of the Song Dynasty, Wen Tienxiang wrote this poem as a part of his refusal to accept to Mongol rule before his ultimate execution. Such defiance was a surprising hallmark of the final years of the fugitive Song court, reduced to a collection of hardliners and loyalists unwilling to peacefully surrender the Mandate of Heaven to the house of Chinggis Khan. Today, we look at the flight of the fugitive Song court after the fall of their capital of Hangzhou in 1276. We will follow brave men like Wen Tienxiang, Zhang Shijie and Lu Xiufu in the final days of the Song Dynasty, a hopeless struggle culminating in the bloody waters of Yaishan in 1279. I’m your host David, and this is Kings and Generals: Ages of Conquest.
Our previous episode brought us to the early months of 1276 with the surrender of the Song capital city of Linan, modern day Hangzhou. The child emperor, Gong of Song, and the elderly Empress Dowager, were brought into the hands of Mongol general Bayan, who escorted them north to bow before Kublai Khan. Organized Song resistance seemed broken, and while the Mongols would need to ensure the official submission of the southernmost regions of Song China, such actions were a mere formality compared to the effort needed to seize the Yangzi River cities. Most of the Mongolian army returned northwards soon after, intent on sparing Mongols and their horses from the worst of the south’s summer heat and humidity. There was but one issue: two of the Song Emperor’s young half-brothers had been smuggled out of Hangzhou under a small guard of soldiers. Bayan had sent riders to pursue them, but the fugitives escaped them in the mountains south of Hangzhou. Fleeing to southern Zhejiang province, they made it to Wenzhou, a city on the coast. From there, they took ships to Fuzhou, just across the straits from Taiwan, where they were joined by other loyalists who had abandoned Hangzhou in the days leading up to Bayan’s arrival. These included the general Zhang Shijie, who had repeatedly fought with the Mongol fleet on the Yangzi in the last episode; Chen Yizhong, the former Song chancellor who had succeeded Jia Sidao; Wen Tienxiang, Yizhong’s brief successor who was temporarily held captive by the Mongols before escaping; and other courtiers and generals, like Li Xiufu and Xia Gui. News of the gathering at Fuzhou spread across the south and brought other hiding loyalists to come out of the shadows in early summer 1276, encouraged by the Mongol withdrawal back over the Yangzi River.
By June 1276, the older of the two half brothers, the five year old Zhao Shih, was declared the 17th emperor of the Song Dynasty, temple name Duanzong of Song. The enthronement prompted a wave of loyalist uprisings in the south and over the summer, growing into an actual offensive against the Mongols. Citizen armies retook cities in Guangdong and Jiangxi provinces. Most of the south and southwest of the Song realm were still outside of Mongol control, and in Sichuan those still resisting found new heart. At Fuzhou, the court built a new navy from those ships which had escaped destruction on the Yangzi, some provided by patriotic ship owners in the south, and some which were forcibly seized from private hands. For a few weeks, there was actual momentum against Mongol rule.
By the fall of 1276, this momentum had largely burnt itself out. The infighting which had been endemic to the Song court reared its head in this fugitive court. Chen Yizhong, who had only come out of hiding after the royal boys had arrived in Fuzhou, had again been made Chancellor, despite the fact his performance as Chancellor in Hangzhou was generally ineffective. Once more the Song Chancellor, Yizhong immediately fought with the others for influence over the young emperor, a stupendously stupid act when all of their energies should have gone against the Mongols. His conflict with Wen Tienxiang forced the latter to abandon the court to fight on his own in his home region of Jiangxi, raising troops there to resist the Mongols. From his base in Jiangxi, Wen Tienxiang led hit and run attacks against the Mongols as far as Lake Poyang. With Tienxiang out of the way, Yizhong butted heads with the most important and capable military leaders left in the fugitive court, Zhang Shijie and Xia Gui. Xia Gui grew so frustrated that he defected to the Mongols, bringing with him a number of districts in Huainan. The infighting predictably hamstrung the already limited capabilities of the Song court. With a mere boy as emperor, there was no one to mediate over Yizhong’s actions, causing them to hemorrhage much needed men they couldn't afford to lose.
And of course, the Mongols were not keen to allow these fugitives to claim legitimacy or strike at such newly taken territory; though they held by now no hope of truly overthrowing Mongol rule. News came of the fall of the Yangzi cities of Yangzhou and Chenzhou after prolonged resistance to the Mongols, soon followed in the autumn with a Mongol invasion of the south. More accurately, we should describe this as a Yuan invasion. While serving the Mongol Khaghan, often commanded by Mongols and Central Asians and with a core Mongol cavalry, the main body of these troops were Chinese, largely northerners but a great number of former Song soldiers and levied southerners. In large part, this was due to the conditions and environment; the climate of the south was difficult on those used to the drier and cooler north, and much of the geography was simply unsuited to large scale cavalry warfare, though Mongol horsemen were employed when appropriate. Under the command of the Uighur, Ariq Khaya, the armies of Kublai’s Yuan Dynasty came in a great pincer movement towards Fuzhou late in 1276. By the end of the year, the boy emperor and his court took to the sea to escape Fuzhou, which soon fell to the Yuan armies.
The young emperor and court had begun what was to be a dreadful pattern. Their ships would find some coastal city to make their new sanctuary, only to be forced to flee in a matter of days, weeks or months as Yuan armies or ships converged on their position. From the last days of 1276 to until 1278, this was the wretched life the court lived, a constant fear for when the banners of the Yuan would arrive on the horizon. From Fuzhou they stayed in Quanzhou, perhaps the wealthiest port in the world and a gateway to the seatrade of southeast Asia. Here, the court sought to ally with their former subject, Quanzhou’s Superintendent of Maritime Trade, the immensely wealthy Fu Shougeng. A highly talented fellow, Fu Shougeng was a descendant of Arab traders, his wealth, influence and veritable armada of ships making him a powerful ally for anyone seeking to control the southern Chinese coast. Both Kublai and the Song court sought to gain his support, but the Song had little patience for carefully cultivating a relationship. The Song general Zhang Shijie attempted to sidestep Fu Shougeng and just commandeer ships and resources for their purposes. Alienated, Fu Shougeng tried to trick the boy emperor into following him in order to capture him for the Mongols, but the ruse was spotted and the court escaped. With their flight, Fu Shougeng officially declared for Kublai, who rewarded him by making him the military governor of much of Fujian and Guangdong provinces. As revenge, Zhang Shijie blockaded Quanzhou’s port late into 1277 until Yuan ships drove him off. Fu provided his ships and resources to the Yuan, enlarging their growing presence on the South China sea, while Fu encouraged other holdouts in the region to submit to the Khan.
As the Song court moved from port to port along the southern coast over 1277, the Yuan continued to strengthen their hold on the mainland. Ariq Khaya focused on holdouts in the south in a methodical campaign; not a great tidal wave of destruction like Chinggis Khan had unleashed upon Khwarezm nearly 60 years prior, but a thorough effort which instituted civilian administration as he went. The area Ariq Khaya took was immediately brought into the Yuan Empire, rather than left a ruinous buffer. Another general, Sogetu, meanwhile pursued the Song along the coast, mirroring their movements from the land and falling upon any city which gave shelter to the emperor. The Mongol advance even encouraged local uprisings against the Song; one fellow leading such an uprising in the interior of Fujian was caught and executed by the loyalist Wen Tienxiang, but it was a minor success as the Yuan hold on the south grew. Wen Tienxiang and his army was forced to the coast, and over 1277 and 1278 Song territory along the southeast was reduced to a few well fortified but isolated coastal holdouts.
In the first month of 1278, while in the midst of once again sailing to a new port, the Song fleet was caught in a storm, sinking several ships. The young emperor was among those who fell into the cold waters. Though he was rescued, the poor lad fell ill. The stress of the flight coupled with illness rapidly eroded his strength. In May of 1278, Zhao Shih, temple name Duanzong of Song, succumbed, not even 9 years old by the European reckoning. The fact the disillusioned Song court did not immediately dissipate is due to Zhang Shijie and Lu Xiufu, who rallied them around the late-emperor’s even younger half brother, the 6 year old Zhao Bing, who they quickly enthroned. It was not enough for some, and no one was happy to fight for the third child-emperor in a row, when most of China was now in Mongol hands. Chancellor Yizhong suggested the court could find refuge in Dai Viet in northern Vietnam, the kingdom known to the Chinese as Annam. Yizhong offered to go himself as an envoy, but the reception among the court was cool. He left for Vietnam anyways; judging by summons by the Song for him to return, this may have just been him abandoning the cause. Yizhong never returned to the fugitive Song court, spending a few years in Dai Viet before fleeing to the Kingdom of Sukhothai in Thailand for the last years of his life.
In June 1278, the Song imperial fleet, now largely under the thumb of Zhang Shijie, settled on Yaishan, some 120 kilometres west of modern Hong Kong. Yaishan was a difficult to reach island nestled in the Chinese coast; surrounded by rivers, mud flats sides and mountains. The island has access to the sea via a narrow waterway, a lagoon on its south side which cuts between two steep cliffs, from which the area’s name is derived. It was a defensible base and large enough to hold the considerable population they brought with them. The sources speak of 200,000 aboard over 1,000 ships: soldiers, ships crews, families, court officials. Zhang Shijie ordered them onto the island, where they immediately built a small city, cutting down trees for palaces and barracks. The river systems around Yaishan led deeper into Guangdong province and to the city of Guangzhou, from which the Song court was supplied. Zhang Shijie had had enough of running, and was intent on making Yaishan the location from which they would retake the Song realm, or make their final stand.
As the Song settled on Yaishan, the remnants of their empire fell to the Mongols. The western end of the Yangzi River in Sichuan was, after decades of effort, finally subdued over 1278. New offensives into Yunnan, Guangxi and Guangdong strengthened the Yuan hold over China’s southwest, bringing them dangerously close to Yaishan.
Just as Bayan had been placed in supreme command in 1274, Kublai wanted a supreme commander to control the Yuan forces operating in the south and bring them all to bear on wherever the Song court was hiding. In June of 1278, the same month that the fugitive court took shelter on Yaishan, Kublai appointed Zhang Hongfan to be this commander. Zhang Hongfan was a man of northern China who had never served the Song; yet, in one of those twists of fate, he was related to the Song’s great general, Zhang Shijie. Zhang Hongfan had led in the river warfare along the Yangzi, and now Kublai wanted him to personally supervise the Yuan’s new ocean fleet as well. This also highlights the nature of the Mongol Empire of Kublai Khan: an ethnic northern Chinese was, for the first time, being placed in supreme authority over Mongol, Central Asian and Chinese forces in order to destroy the remnants of a Chinese dynasty. A diligent and loyal subject of the Great Khan, Zhang Hongfan worked with great speed. The offensive he led at the end of 1278 swallowed up what was left of the Song Dynasty. In an arc from east to west, Zhang Hongfan led his ships along the southern coast, collecting men and ships as he went and turning over every stone for the Song emperor. Assisting them were many former Song commanders and their ships who had thrown their lot in with the Mongols, eager to demonstrate their loyalty to their new masters. Zhang Hongfan’s second-in-command, a Tangut named Li Heng, led the second prong of the assault on land, linking up with Zhang Hongfan’s fleet for those coastal sites still holding out. In the first weeks of 1279, Li Heng surprised and captured the brave Song captain, Wen Tienxiang, handing him over to Zhang Hongfan as prisoner at the start of February.
From there they advanced west, making their way to perhaps the most significant city still resisting Mongol rule, Guangzhou. The Yuan commanders did not know it yet, but Guangzhou was only a few kilometres north of where the Song court was hiding at Yaishan. Guangzhou had thrown off a few Yuan assaults before finally falling to a combined effort by Li Heng and Zhang Hongfan. Twice, ships came up the Xi River in an attempt to relieve Guangzhou. On the second attempt, ships under the command of Omar, grandson of the Yuan governor of Yunnan Sayyid Ajall, followed them, tracking the Song ships right back to Yaishan. Quickly, Omar confirmed it was the Song hideout and sent messengers back to Zhang Hongfan. It was time to prepare the final battle against the Song.
At the end of February 1279, Yuan ships began to join Omar outside the sea entrance to Yaishan, a 1.5 kilometre wide lagoon protected by steep cliffs on either side. Over the following days, the rest of the Yuan fleet joined them. The news prompted panic on Yaishan, and many demanded Zhang Shijie organize another escape. But Shijie was done running. “Lo these many years we have voyaged on the seas. Now we must decide between us and them the victor and the vanquished.” Setting fire to the palaces and buildings of Yaishan, he ordered everyone aboard the ships. The plan was simple. From reports his scouts had gathered, his fleet outnumbered the Yuan greatly, perhaps 1100 Song vessels to 300 for the Yuan. Shijie also considered his men the superior fighters at sea. But morale was low, and in open water the men could find it more persuasive to flee rather than fight. Figuring the Mongols would gamble on an immediate assault to put an end to the campaign, Zhang Shijie needed to make best use of both his greater numbers but worse morale. He settled on chaining his ships together in a great, fortified line. Not at the entrance of the lagoon, where some ships might be able to slip away, but situated deeper down the waterway, where their flanks were securely protected by the steep cliffs. Anchors were dropped, and ramparts and towers were built on the ships, a massive, immobile floating wall. The young emperor, Zhao Bing, was placed in the largest ship at the centre under a secure guard. To protect against incendiaries, the ships were coated with mud and provided long poles to push away fire ships. Finally, catapults were set up to send projectiles at any approaching vessel. Set up, Zhang Shijie prepared for the expected attack.
Shijie’s Yuan counterpart, Zhang Hongfan was no fool and recognized a frontal attack against this entrenched position was very risky. He sent first a small ship with negotiators, among them the captive Wen Tienxiang, who Hongfan hoped would convince Shijie to step down. Tienxiang refused however, and negotiations went nowhere. An effort to send fire ships into the Song line was likewise repulsed, the poles of the defenders keeping the fireships at bay until they burned themselves out. Zhang Hongfan then did the unexpected. He waited.
In doing so, he had the one tool which Shijie had no defence against. Locking the Song ships into place as he had done gave all the mobility, and the initiative, to the Yuan fleet. With so many men and families aboard the Song ships, they quickly used up the food and freshwater that they had brought aboard. Destroying their island buildings and pulling all troops onto the ships meant they had no land forces to scavenge for them or fall back to. Quickly, Yuan scouts found a small creek the Song had considered impassable for ocean vessels. The Yuan instead sent smaller craft up this creek, coming out behind the Song line and surrounding them. Zhang Shijie sent out small sorties to attempt to get through the Yuan lines and acquire supplies, but each time these were pushed back. Unintentionally, Zhang Shijie had settled on the plan that left the remnants of the Song trapped in place.
The two fleets sat in place for two weeks. Running out of freshwater and firewood, the Song soldiers resorted to drinking seawater and eating uncooked meals. Dysentery, sickness and starvation ravaged them. Zhang Hongfan sent one final letter to Zhang Shijie, imploring his kinsman to surrender. Three times letters were sent to Shijie, carried by Shijie’s nephew Han, who alongside Hongfan served the Mongols. The letters carried by Han told Shijie of the rewards that awaited him if he surrendered, but warned of the destruction that awaited him if he refused.
Zhang Shijie’s reply, as recorded by Yuan Dynasty sources, ran thus: “I know that if I surrender I would have life, and also noble titles and riches, but my ruler lives and I cannot desert him. If you wish me to surrender, lift your blockade and permit me to sail out.” But Zhang Hongfan knew he could not trust this. For the next five days, Hongfan and his officers made the final plans and moved ships into place. At dawn on the 19th of March, 1279, anchors were weighed and the Yuan fleet advanced onto the Song from both north and south. Zhang Hongfan led his flagship against the most dangerous section of the Song line. The Yuan ships crashed into the larger Song vessels, the Yuan soldiers climbing aboard to fight on the Song decks, Mongol archers picking off Song defenders. The decks ran red with blood, men locked in combat fell into the churning waters and were crushed between ships. Spears pushed climbing Yuan soldiers back into their ships; grasping hands pulled Song defenders off the decks. Zhang Shijie’s catapult crews fired until they ran out of projectiles. The Song fought with courage, battling for every metre. It was a full day of fighting, but the sickness and hunger of the Song troops was a knife in their backs. Dropping from exhaustion, the Yuan soldiers stepped over their bodies as they steadily advanced along Zhang Shijie’s makeshift wall. Unexpectedly, one Song ship dropped its colours, the signal to surrender. Then another, and another. Such an order had not been given, but in the confusion of battle it could not be undone. The Song began to surrender en masse. Zhang Shijie desperately ordered troops to withdraw to the centre ship housing the emperor, but it was clear the day was lost. As fog rolled in that evening, Zhang Shijie ordered some ships to be cut loose to break out. 16 out of the 1100 Song ships escaped Yaishan with Zhang Shijie, evading the Yuan pursuers in the fog and the confusion. The Emperor, Zhao Bing, was not among them, the imperial barge too large and too slow to break free.
The courtier Lu Xiufu stayed close to the boy emperor, but there was now no escape left on those bloody decks. The last emperor of the house of Zhao would not fall into these barbarian hands, Xiufu decided. Tearfully, Xiufu forced his own wife and children to jump into the sea. With Zhao Bing still in his royal robes and clutching the imperial seals, Lu Xiufu took the 7 year old Son of Heaven into his arms, and carried him beneath the waves. Yuan sources assert 100,000 distraught Song loyalists followed in a mass suicide, the lagoon red and filled with bodies. Whoever still lived surrendered along with some 800 ships. The Song Dynasty’s 300 year rule was over.
Zhang Shijie did not flee far: not long after the battle, while sailing to seek shelter in Vietnam his small fleet was caught in a storm and sunk, and he joined his emperor beneath the waves. Zhang Hongfan commemorated the battle with a simple stone inscription at Yaishan, stating “here the great Yuan general Zhang Hongfan destroyed the Song,” and was richly rewarded by Kublai Khan for his victory. He could not long enjoy his spoils. He died the next year, an ailment brought on by the heat and humidity of the south. Later nativist Chinese historians ravaged Hongfan’s reputation as a Chinese “betraying” the Song to serve northern barbarians. But Zhang Hongfan and his family had never been Song subjects. Their native area had been controlled by the Khitan Liao Dynasty since 939, before the Song Dynasty had even been founded. In fact, Zhang Shijie had briefly served the Mongols, making him the traitor to his emperor.
Wen Tienxiang outlived both Zhang Shijie and Zhang Hongfan, offered a respectable position in Kublai’s empire. But Tienxiang refused again and again, unwilling to betray the memory of the Song. Spending his last years imprisoned, he wrote poetry and proudly denied Mongol offers, until finally executed in the early 1280s, the last patriot of Song.
Yaishan was perhaps the largest naval battle in Chinese history after Lake Poyang in 1368, if the sources are accurate with their numbers. It was a major and decisive victory. While some regions in the south still needed to be fully incorporated into the Yuan Empire, and there would be local uprisings, organized resistance against Mongol rule was broken. The Song Emperors were dead, the loyalist infrastructure crushed. Kublai Khan had unified China for the first time since the fall of the Tang Dynasty almost 400 years prior, and was the first non-Chinese to do so. Kublai was now the ruler of All Under Heaven, master of China and the single most powerful man on earth. Those Song loyalists who had escaped to the Vietnamese kingdoms of Dai Viet and Champa would need to be pursued, and Kublai was not a man to believe China was the limits of his empire. Even as the last Song Emperor disappeared beneath the waves at Yaishan, Kublai’s eyes darted to those kingdoms on his horizon, revenge against Japan plotted and his relatives in Central Asia punished. More battles were planned beyond the waters of Yaishan; but not many of them would be victories.
Before we discuss Kublai’s further military ventures though, we must discuss Kublai the man, and the actual empire he built in China, so be sure to subscribe to our podcast. If you’d like to help us continue to produce great content, please consider supporting us on patreon at www.patreon.com/kingsandgenerals. I’m your host David, and we’ll catch you on the next one!
To coincide with the release of the Kings and Generals Biography video of the Mongol general Subutai, for our podcast we’ll present for your listening an extended version of that script, courtesy of our series historian writer. While Subutai is the most well known of all medieval Mongolian generals, the full extent of his career is rarely presented in a single document. With this episode, we’ll hopefully do just that for you; providing an idea of the vast scope of Subutai’s campaigns and his service to three generations of Chinggisids, providing along the way an idea of what made up this man’s personality, and some historiography on him. This version of the script will be accessible to read with full footnotes and sources on the academia.edu page of our series writer, Jack Wilson. I’m your host David, and this is Kings and Generals: Ages of Conquest.
Of all the generals of the Mongol Empire, none stand taller than Subutai, who led armies from China, across Iran, the Caucasus, Russia and into Eastern Europe. Yet, Subutai remains a murky figure, with difficult to access primary sources providing fertile ground for all manner of myths to grow instead. Utilizing the latest scholarship and medieval materials, we will paint for you a more accurate biography of one of history’s fiercest generals.
Perhaps the best place to start would be his name. Subutai, the most common form of his name on the internet, comes from the Chinese rendering of his name( 速不台 ). Numerous transliterations of his name exist, but perhaps the best approximation of the Mongolian is Sübe’etei. The common epithet attached to his name, Ba’atar, signifies bravery and is often translated as hero or knight.
Sübe’etei was born in northwestern Mongolia in 1175-1176, to the Uriyangqat Mongols. There has been modern confusion of the Uriyngqat Mongols, nomadic pastoralists in the Mongolian steppe, with the Turkic Uriyangqai of the forests north of Mongolia, reindeer herders who did not raise the vast herds sheep, goat or horses. This confusion has resulted in the common misconception today that Sübe’etei was a Tuvan. However, the 13th and 14th century sources clearly identify Sübe’etei as a man of the steppe, whose father herded sheep and their family having been in close contact with that of Chinggis Khan’s for five generations, a sublineage of the Mongol tribe to which Chinggis Khan belonged. Stephen Pow in his article with Jingjing Liao on Sübe’etei suggests part of the appeal to this belief of Sübe’etei as a ‘reindeer herder,’ is the irony in one of history’s greatest cavalry commanders being a man who did not learn to ride a horse until well into his adulthood.
Though specific details of Sübe’etei’s early life are lost to us, we can assume it mirrored that of other Mongolian children. He would have learned to ride a horse, shoot a bow, hunt and herd animals from a young age, the basic skills necessary for warfare on the steppe. In the politically chaotic period of late 12th century Mongolia, Sübe’etei and his family likely suffered from raids and predatory marauders. As a young boy, he found a role model in the form of a fellow Mongol named Temujin. Since the time of Sübe’etei’s great-great-grandfather Nerbi, their families had been close allies, and perhaps from Sübe’etei’s earliest days Temujin had appeared as the centre of Sübe’etei’s world. In the Secret History of the Mongols, around 1185 Temujin was elected as Khan of his Mongol lineage, the Borjigon. Per the Secret History’s account, Sübe’etei, perhaps little more than 10 years old, attended, accompanied by his older brother Ca’urqan and their older cousin, Jelme. In Sübe’etei’s most formative years, he attached himself to this rising warlord, whose family he would stay in loyal service to for the next six decades.
Sübe’etei’s role, if any, in the many trials of Temujin’s rise to power are unmentioned. At 14 years old he would have been enrolled into military service as a lightly armoured horse archer. It is not until 1203, when Sübe’etei was about 27, that we have the first described event of his life. That year, Temujin suffered a devastating setback, betrayed by his ally Toghrul, the Ong Khan of the Kereyit. Defeated in battle by Toghrul and Jamukha, another ally turned enemy, Temujin’s army was scattered and with a small force he fled to Lake Baljuna in eastern Mongolia. Slowly, his allies trickled in, one of whom was Sübe’etei’s father Qaban, driving a flock of sheep to Baljuna to feed Temujin’s hungry men. As described in the Yuan shi, Qaban was ambushed and captured by robbers. Sübe’etei and his brother Ca’urqan, not far beyond with the rest of the animals, followed the tracks of the robbers and ambushed them. Bringing down several robbers, the rest panicked and fled. Their father was rescued, and they brought the much-needed sheep to Temujin at Baljuna. Heartened by their loyalty and courage, he rewarded them; Ca’urqan was made a commander of 100, and Sübe’etei was enrolled into the keshig, the imperial bodyguard, as was common for younger brothers of unit commanders. Alongside physically protecting the Khan, the keshig also served as his closest servants, preparing his meals, protecting his herds and maintaining his belongings. The keshig also served as a training school for commanders, where the skills of leading armies, logistical needs and battle were advanced. It is here that Sübe’etei began his education as a general.
By 1206, Temujin had unified the tribes of Mongolia, taking the title of Chinggis Khan and declaring the Mongol Empire. Sübe’etei was among those rewarded for his service. It was not without sacrifice, as his older brother had died in the fighting against the Naiman in western Mongolia. With 95 others, in 1206 Sübe’etei was appointed to command a minggan, 1,000 men. His reputation as a ferocious warrior in the name of the Khan had already begun to be established, for at the sametime he was noted among Chinggis Khan’s Four Dogs of War: Jebe, Qubilai Noyan and Jelme Uha. Unlike Chinggis’s four Horses -Bo’orchu, Muqali, Boroqul, Cila’un Ba’atar- who were Chinggis Khan’s personal friends from his youth, the Four Dogs were among the deadliest men of the Khan’s arsenal. To paraphrase the Secret History of the Mongols, the Four Horses were the men at Chinggis’ side, while the Four Dogs were those charging wherever the Khan pointed. Brutal, daring, often cruel yet utterly loyal, the Four Dogs were Chinggis’ swords to wield against Asia. It was in this service that Sübe’etei would excel.
In the first Mongol invasions, against the Tangut Kingdom in 1209 and the Jin Dynasty in 1211, Sübe’etei’s mentions are sparse. In 1212 Sübe’etei was the first onto the walls of Huanzhou. He was richly rewarded for his role in taking the city, and for his courage he earned the title of Ba’atar. Jebe Noyan, with whom Sübe’etei was often partnered with, went on a long ranging campaign across the Jin Empire in 1213, through Manchuria and taking one of the Jin capitals, Tung-ching. It’s possible Sübe’etei accompanied him on their series of long marches, feigned retreats and sacked cities, but such is only speculation.
By 1216 Chinggis Khan was back in Mongolia, his armies having taken the Jin supreme capital of Zhongdu and left them on the backfoot. In Mongolia Chinggis had to deal with rebellions and foes who had survived the unification. One army under Boroqul was sent to subdue the forest peoples around Lake Baikal, who were in open revolt against Mongol rule; Jebe was sent to capture a fugitive Naiman prince who had usurped power in the Central Asian realm of the Qara-Khitai; Muqali was to command the armies fighting the Jin; and Sübe’etei was to accompany Chinggis’ eldest son Jochi far across the western steppes, in pursuit of Merkit tribes who had fled Mongolia and sought shelter with the Qipchap-Qangli east of the Caspian Sea. This was the Mongol Empire’s first great expansion west of the Altai Mountains. The precise dating and presence of Jochi on this western campaign has been debated by scholars, but we will follow the likeliest chronology proposed by historian Christopher Atwood. Before they set out on the long journey, the Secret History of the Mongols has Chinggis provide Sübe’etei an iron reinforced cart for the journey. This statement may perhaps be the partial origin for the myth that Sübe’etei was immensely overweight, and that no single horse could carry him, requiring instead specially made carts! No medieval source describes Sübe’etei’s weight in any capacity, but Stephen Pow noted that Rashid al-Din mentions of an elderly Uriyangqat who needed to be carried everywhere in a cart, as well as a grandson of Orda bin Jochi who was immensely obese and also required a cart to travel, for no horse could bear him. Possibly, such descriptions were confused with Sübe’etei, encouraged, Pow suggests, again by the “irony of a man [unable to] ride a horse becoming the nomadic cavalry’s greatest general.”
In two battles over late 1218 and early 1219, Sübe’etei and Jochi defeated the Merkit and their Qangli allies in what is now western Kazakhstan. On the long trek back across the steppe to Mongolia they made an unexpected meeting. The ruler of the vast Khwarezmian Empire, Muhammad II, intercepted the Mongols somewhere in central Kazakhstan. Jochi and Sübe’etei informed Shah Muhammad they had no quarrel with him, that their task had been simply to deal with the Merkits. But Muhammad had come north looking for a fight, and the Mongols would have to do. Outnumbered, the Mongols made a good show of themselves, the right wings of both armies pushing back the opposing left. Both armies fought until darkness forced them apart. Lighting many fires to make it appear they were setting up camp, the Mongols slid away into the night. The Khwarezmians awoke the next morning to see the mysterious enemy had vanished. Horrified by the destruction wrought by this encounter in the field, Muhammad Khwarezm-shah seems to have developed a phobia of facing the Mongols in open battle.
Jochi and Sübe’etei returned to Chinggis late in summer 1219, in similar time to the arrival of news of the infamous Otrar Massacre. The Khwarezmian governor of Otrar, Shah Muhammad’s uncle, murdered a trade caravan sent by Chinggis Khan. It is unclear if the massacre took place with or without Muhammad’s support, but when Chinggis’ envoys arrived demanding punishment for the butchery, Muhammad had them executed. As Jebe had by then conquered the Qara-Khitai, the aggressive Khwarezmians were now direct neighbours of the Mongol Empire. Scarcely had Jebe, Jochi and Sübe’etei returned to Mongolia when they set out to invade the Khwarezmian Empire at the end of 1219.
The story of the Mongol invasion of Khwarezm is well told and does not require our attention here. Muhammad, seeking to avoid field battles relied on garrisons within city walls, believing the Mongols, as nomads, lackes sige capabilities. He was sorely mistaken. By spring 1220 the northern frontier of Khwarezm had collapsed. Muhammad fled deeper into his empire, and in pursuit Chinggis Khan unleashed his dogs of war: Jebe Noyan and Sübe’etei Ba’atar, supported by a third tumen under Chinggis’ son-in-law Toquchar.Across Khurasan and northern Iran sped Shah Muhammad. Jebe and Sübe’etei followed. While Muhammad was their primary goal, as they went they took the submission of cities- those which resisted were marked for Toquchar to secure as he followed behind them until his death outside of Nishapur in November 1220. After Nishapur, Jebe and Sübe’etei split up to cover more ground. In Radkan, Sübe’etei was so pleased by the pleasant climate that he apparently avoided any bloodshed, appointed a Mongol governor and moved on. In Quchan, the Mongols committed great slaughter. In Mazandaran, Jebe captured Shah Muhammad’s mother and his harem, sending them back to Chinggis Khan.
Jebe and Sübe’etei reunited at Rayy, tracking Shah Muhammad to Hamadan. Sources differ on what exactly happened at Hamadan. Nasawi describes a battle near the city, ibn al-Athir
has the Shah escape before they arrive and Juvaini wrote that the Mongols caught him on the road, wounding him with arrows before he escaped. No matter what occurred, after Hamadan Jebe and Sübe’etei lost his trail. Muhammad died a few weeks later, succumbing to pneumonia on an island in the Caspian Sea in December 1220.
Spending that winter in Azerbaijan’s Mughan Plain, Jebe and Sübe’etei spent the next two years pinballing across the Caucasus and northwestern Iran. Inflicting a devastating defeat on the Georgian King Giorgi Lasha in February 1221, by the summer they cut back to Persian ‘Iraq where cities they had previously taken were revolting. The Eldeguzid Atabegs of Azerbaijan wisely refused Georgian requests for an alliance and instead submitted to Jebe and Sübe’etei. By mid-1222, messengers had returned from Chinggis Khan, informing them that they could continue the conquest against the Qipchap tribes north of the Caucasus. Striking the enemy from unexpected directions was always a favourite ploy of Chinggis Khan, and the Qipchaq had already shown themselves to be enemies by allying with the Merkit and fighting for the Khwarezm-shah.
While passing north, Jebe and Sübe’etei took the city of Shamakhi, employing a particularly gruesome tactic. To mount the walls, corpses of locals and livestock were piled into a platform. For three days, the Mongols fought from it until it decomposed and collapsed. Such tactics had a use far greater than the individual siege, for they contributed to a dread reputation designed to discourage resistance. Upon exiting the Caucasus, Jebe and Sübe’etei were confronted by a much larger force of Alans and Qipchaqs, perhaps alerted to the Mongol approach by the Shah of Derbend. After a difficult journey through the mountains, Jebe and Sübe’etei were reluctant to fight against such odds. Sending messengers to the Qipchaq, they bribed them into abandoning the Alans. After overcoming the now isolated Alans, the Mongols then fell upon the unsuspecting Qipchaq, killing their most powerful leaders.
Under their leader Kotjen, the Qipchaq survivors fled west to the Rus’ Principalities. There, Kotjen organized an alliance between his son-in-law, Prince Mstislav the Bold of Galicia, and several other leading Rus’ princes. Modern retelling has often presented what follows, the famous Kalka River Battle, as Sübe’etei’s master stroke, perfectly drawing the Rus’ and Qipchap into a long distance feigned retreat. However, as historian Stephen Pow has recently argued, the primary sources suggest a much closer run thing. Often overlooked has been a small engagement in the lead up to the battle, where the Rus’ chronicles described a Mongol general Hamabek being caught and killed by the Rus’s Qipchaq allies. Pow argues that Hamabek is actually how the 13th century Rus’ interpreted Yama Beg, the Turkic form of Jebe’s name and that by which the Qipchaq knew him by. Bold and often leading from the front, Jebe’s recklessness evidently cost him his life, caught hiding in a kurgan and perhaps, embarrassingly, cut in half.
Jebe had been the commanding officer and something of a mentor to Sübe’etei. To suddenly lose him, thousands of kilometres away from any reinforcements and deep in enemy territory, meant Sübe’etei was thrust for the first time into independent command. The famous nine day feigned retreat which followed may have therefore been an actual retreat. The Qipchap and Rus’ hotly pursued them, until Sübe’etei noticed the enemy had strung themselves out. At the Kalka River in May 1223, Sübe’etei turned about and brought the full weight of his army against the Qipchaps, who broke. Fleeing Qipchaps collided with the oncoming Rus’, breaking their formation as Mongol arrows rained upon them. The result was a massacre. Survivors held up on a nearby hill resisted briefly before being convinced to surrender by Sübe’etei. With guard and weapons let down, the Rus’ were slaughtered, their leaders captured and smothered under boards upon which the Mongols feasted and celebrated.
Sübe’etei had won a great victory, but was in no position for further conquest. While often presented as the great, undefeated conqueror, the Kalka Campaign had been only narrowly won. On the return journey, sometime in late 1223 or early 1224, Sübe’etei’s forces passed through the territory of the Volga Bulghars along the Volga and Kama Rivers. Laying ambushes for the Mongols had several places, the Bulghars drew the Mongols into feigned retreats, surrounding and killing many. Some modern writers of popular biographies, such as Frank McLynn and James Chambers, have Sübe’etei regroup his forces and inflict a defeat in turn upon the Bulghars. Such statements have no basis in the historical sources. The most detailed description of the encounter with the Bulghars is in the chronicle of ibn al-Athir, who describes the Mongols suffering heavy losses against the Bulghars, before moving on to campaign farther south along the Volga, attacking the Qipchaq settlement of Saqsin. Some authors may have conflated Saqsin as a location in Bulghar territory, or been misled by outdated works like those of Abraham d’Ohsson and Rene Grousset, who presented the encounter much more favourably for Sübe’etei. The need to dismiss Sübe’etei’s defeat is necessary in order to uphold his popular image as the undefeated champion of Chinggis Khan. The most heavily utilized sources such as Juvaini and the Secret History of the Mongols provide no specific comments on, or outright ignore, the encounter with the Bulghars. In comparison, those who actually provide evidence for the encounter, such as ibn al-Athir and Friar Julian, remain much more difficult to access, allowing the exaggerated version of Sübe’etei’s record to often go about unchallenged.
We can also note another popular rumour relating to this campaign. It is sometimes claimed that Sübe’etei, while venturing into the Crimean peninsula in 1223, formed an alliance with local Ventian merchants there. The Mongols would attack representatives of Venice’s other Italian rival, Genoa, present in Crimea at the port of Sudaq, and provide exclusive trade privileges to the Venetians. In exchange, the Venetians would provide intelligence and maps for the Mongols in Europe, as well as spreading rumours of Mongol ferocity to sow dissent and fear. James Chamber’s The Devil's Horsemen forwards this, among many other false claims on Sübe’etei’s life. As historian Peter Jacskon has noted in his review of Chambers’ book, “Chambers has borrowed the whole idea from Bréhier’s L’église et l’Orient au moyen âge: it is derived ultimately from Cahun’s Introduction à l’histoire de l’Asie (1896), which has all the authority of a historical novel.” The actual Italian presence in Crimea in the early 13th century was minimal. The Mongol sack of Sudaq had nothing to do with Genoa, the major source describing the incursion, ibn al-Athir, signifies the city as a place where the Qipchaq came to sell their wares and slaves, making no mention of any Italians. Historian Denis Sinor describes Suqaq as an outpost of the empire of Trebizond, home to a mixed population of Greeks and Armenians. Meanwhile A.C.S Peacock has argued that there is evidence that Sudaq, also known as Soldaia, at the time of the Mongol arrival to the Crimean peninsula was actually in the hands of the Seljuqs of Rum. Beyond the story of the Venetians bribing the Mongols into sacking Genoan rivals at Sudaq being false, there is simply no medieval evidence supporting any alliance between Venice and the Mongol Empire, and appears to be in part a conflation of later Italian contacts among the Mongols, most notable in the form of Marco Polo. This was however, the acts of individual merchants, rather than the Venetian state.
While this campaign from Shah Muhammad’s death until Sübe’etei’s return to Mongolia is often termed the Great Raid, and described as if it was intended to just gain information on the west, this is a modern extrapolation. The contemporary sources describe it in terms no different than any other stage of the conquests. If a reconnaissance-in-force, then it was a great success; but if intended to seize the western steppe and subdue the Qipchap, it was a poorer showing, marred by the humiliating death of Jebe, heavy losses, a military defeat and no conquered land. The Secret History of the Mongols describes the entire campaign in a laconic line: “Sübe’etei Ba’atur had been put in a difficult situation by these peoples.” It would take well over a decade before the region saw a permanent Mongol presence, and Sübe’etei knew that in order to avenge Jebe and his own defeat, he would need to return in overwhelming force.
Upon his return to Chinggis Khan, Sübe’etei was in an imminent position. Despite his great trial in the west, he faithfully returned with loot for the Khan. Chinggis was preparing for the final campaign against the Tangut, but told Sübe’etei to visit his parents, who he had not seen in a decade. Sübe’etei simply responded, “If the emperor will be busy working and the vassal will be at rest, my heart will be in deep uneasiness.” The Khan’s loyal hound, Sübe’etei led in the conquest of the Tangut in 1226, cutting off the western half of the Tangut Kingdom, skirting along the south to subdue Uyghurs and other local tribes before striking the Tangut’s western border. There, he sacked numerous counties along the Tangut-Jin frontier in Gansu, ensuring no aid would come from that direction. 5,000 captured mares he sent to Chinggis Khan, and it was here that he learned of his master’s death in August 1227.
Chinggis Khan was the single most influential figure on Sübe’etei’s life, and in his memory he would continue to loyally serve his family. Attending the coronation of Chinggis’ son Ogedai as Khan in 1229, Sübe’etei was rewarded with an imperial princess as a wife. Soon after his enthronement, Ogedai resumed the war with the Jin Dynasty. A Mongol army commanded by Doqulqu was shockingly defeated at Dachangyuan in the first weeks of 1230 by the Jin general Pu’a and his “Loyal and Filial Army,” made up of captives and deserters from the Mongols. Ogedai lacked the authority of his father and the confidence of many of the generals, who thought his younger brother Tolui was the better captain. Such military defeats uneased the new Khan and undermined his position. To offset this, in the last days of 1230 Ogedai led an army against the Jin accompanied by Tolui and Sübe’etei.
With the Jin Dynasty’s northern border protected by the Yellow River and its southern by the neutral Song Dynasty, access to Jin territory was through the mountains guarding Henan province’s west, a route blocked by the formidable Tongguan fort. Thre, the garrison wisely refused to be lured into a feigned retreat. Frustrated and not desiring to be stuck in a long and costly siege, Ogedai sent Sübe’etei to find a route through the hills south of the fort. Sübe’etei managed to force a smaller pass, cutting through and ransacking towns in western Henan. Through the hilly terrain his forces became spread out, and the Jin general Chenheshang with 1,000 men of the Loyal and Filial Army cornered and defeated Sübe’etei at Daohuigu 倒回谷. Suffering heavy losses of both men and horses, Sübe’etei was forced to retreat back to a furious Ogedai. So enraged was Ogedai that he removed Sübe’etei from command, and nearly did Sübe’etei disappear from history if Ogedai’s brother, Tolui, did not step in and vouch for him.
A new strategy was decided on, a triple pronged assault on all the Jin frontiers. Ogedai with the main army was to cross the Yellow River along its central stretch, another army would probe the eastern end while Tolui and Sübe’etei were to bypass Tongguan entirely, cutting south through Song territory to come behind Jin lines. Unable to diplomatically gain military access through Song lands, Tolui and Sübe’etei had to rush through potentially hostile territory. The result was unexpectedly successful. In the last weeks of 1231 they penetrated the Song frontiers, feeding men and horses in country untouched by the Mongol-Jin war. After a few weeks of plundering they cut north into the Jin lands. The main Jin generals, Pu’a and Hada, pulled back troops from Tongguan to catch Tolui and Sübe’etei, skirmishing over January 1232 until the Mongols were surrounded on Sanfeng Mountain that February. Pu’a sent a threat boasting that he would rape the Mongols’ women once he was done with them. When a snowstorm blew over the armies, Sübe’etei told Tolui to wait it out, telling him the Jin forces were weak people from cities who could not handle the elements, while the hardy Mongols would endure. After three days, deeming the Jin were suitably weakened, the Mongols charged down the hill and routed them.
As punishment for Pu’a’s boast, the Mongols sodomized the Jin prisoners. The captured general Hada asked for death, with his final wish to lay eyes on Sübe’etei. Perplexed when he heard of this, Sübe’etei came to see the captive Hada, telling him, “You will die momentarily. Why do you want to see me?” To which Hada replied, “Each of us vassals work for our respective masters. You are braver than other generals, and by nature you are a hero. Could that all really just be random chance? I have met you and now I shall die in peace.”
One they linked up with Ogedai’s army, Tolui and Ogedai returned north, leaving Sübe’etei as supreme commander against the Jin. With Jin offensive ability shattered, Sübe’etei invested their capital, Kaifeng. It took a year for the city to fall, in which time the Jin Emperor escaped and many losses were inflicted on the Mongols. When Sübe’etei alerted Ogedai to the city’s final surrender in early 1233, he was prepared to carry out the standard practice of massacre for the city’s prolonged resistance. In Sübe’etei’s mind, it was a well deserved punishment and one he was eager to carry out. But Ogedai was convinced by his Khitan adviser, Yelu Chucai, to spare the inhabitants. What followed is perhaps the most illustrative example of Sübe’etei’s worldview, as far as we can understand it. Sübe’etei was to limit killing to just members of the Jin imperial family, the Wanyan clan 完顏氏, and not harm the inhabitants. Having gone from being prepared to kill them all, Sübe’etei, whatever his personal thoughts on the matter, now carried out the Khan’s will to the greatest detail. Halting depredations of Kaifeng and its population, Sübe’etei allowed them to travel unhindered in search of food. Travel was permitted north of the Yellow River to organize food shipments for the beleaguered population, and Sübe’etei’s biographer in the Yuan shi goes as far as to say the people appreciated him for his efforts.
Sübe’etei led the final push against the Jin, ending their dynasty in early 1234. Back in Mongolia by 1235, Sübe’etei took part in the organization of his most well known endeavour: the Great Western Campaign. Sübe’etei reached his apogee, the senior commander alongside the leading princes of the third generations of Chinggisids under Batu bin Jochi. With a great army, over 1236 they swallowed up the western steppe. The only organized Qipchaq resistance under their leader Bachman was swiftly crushed; the Volga Bulghars who had once ambushed Sübe’etei could do little as the great wave washed over them and destroyed their cities. One of the Mordvin principalities wisely submitted to Sübe’etei; the other foolishly offered a brief resistance. The divided Rus’ principalities were quickly picked off. The Mongols rested men and horses in the summer before resuming attacks in the winter when the frozen rivers were easily traversable. In this way, from 1237 to 1240 the Rus’ cities were burned. Few cities lasted as long as two weeks, though Mongol losses were incurred and part of the army under Guyuk and Mongke returned to Mongolia late in 1239.
By the start of 1241, Sübe’etei and Batu had brought the Mongol Empire to the edge of Europe, splitting their forces to take multiple routes through Poland, Hungary and Transylvania. Sübe’etei wanted to draw the Hungarian royal army onto ground of his choosing, forcing them to cross an exposed bridge over the Sajo River where on the far bank the treeline would hide flanking Mongol forces. King Bela IV foiled this by not crossing the bridge. The new plan was for Batu to force the bridge while Sübe’etei tried to cross downriver and outflank the Hungarians. Either impatient or Sübe’etei was behind schedule, Batu charged the bridge too early, resulting in heavy losses and the Mongols being repulsed. Angered with Sübe’etei’s failure to cross the river, a new plan was used; early on April 11th, the bridge guard was overcome by Mongol catapults. Crossing over the River, near the village of Mohi the Mongols encircled and destroyed the Hungarian royal army.
Despite the success, some Mongol princes were apprehensive of pressing on after the costly fighting. But Sübe’etei shamed them for their cowardice, telling them, “If my lord wishes to retreat, then retreat by yourself. Until I reach Bacha city on the Danube River, I will never return.” The loyal Dog of Chinggis Khan now had to whip his grandchildren into shape. So they pressed onwards, pushing as far as Austria until the Mongols began to withdraw at the end of March 1242. Finding their catapults and siege techniques ineffective against stout stone fortifications, Batu and Sübe’etei desired to step back and restrategize. The withdrawal from Hungary was methodical, campaigning as they went to reduce whoever survived the first pass.
Sübe’etei stayed with Batu up to the Volga River, where in late 1243 or 1244 Batu set up his permanent encampment. Sübe’etei scolded Batu for refusing to attend the quriltai in Mongolia to elect Ogedai’s successor, but before departing, Sübe’etei and Batu came to peace regarding the losses at the battle of Mohi. In time, Batu gave thanks to Sübe’etei, attributing to him the reason for their successes.
Sübe’etei was back in Mongolia by 1246 to meet the new Khan of Khans, Ogedai’s son Guyuk. Now aged 71, Sübe’etei was one of the few remaining individuals left who had personally known Chinggis Khan. The Franciscan Friar John de Plano Carpini, during his journey to Guyuk’s enthronement in 1246, mentions the elderly Sübe’etei, a figure of immense respect among the Mongols “known among them as ‘the knight.” Later that year, the venerable Sübe’etei went on his final campaign, a brief incursion against the Song Dynasty, as described by the Ilkhanid vizier Rashid al-Din. Yet, this campaign goes unmentioned in Chinese sources. Possibly, the elderly Sübe’etei was forced by age or illness to step back from the campaign before it could achieve anything. Perhaps Guyuk’s death in early 1248 ended this campaign prematurely. Either way, we know Sübe’etei was back in Mongolia by 1248, for he died there later that year, somewhere along the Tula River, aged 73. Sübe’etei, most famous of all Mongolian generals, was one of the few to die of old age.
Sübe’etei’s sons continued to serve as commanders, the most well known being Uriyangqadai, who accompanied them on the great western campaign, served with Kublai Khan against the Dali Kingdom, occupied Thang-long, modern Hanoi in Vietnam, and fought against the southern Song Dynasty. Uriyangqadai’s son Aju was another of Kublai Khan’s lead generals, who served alongside his father in Yunnan and northern Vietnam. After leading in the siege of the Song fortress-city of Xiangyang, Aju, longside Bayan of the Barrin, was the top Mongol commander in the final campaigns against the Song Dynasty. After the ferocity of Uriyangqadai and Aju, their descendants picked up the pen instead of the bow. Aju’s son Bolianjidai was an administrator well known for his leniency, while his own son Tongtong was a scholar and academic, and from then the lineage of Sübe’etei disappears from us.
Utterly loyal to Chinggis Khan, perhaps no other commander in history could be said to have travelled so many kilometres. Depending on how one counts, Sübe’etei fought in over 50 battles and sieges against almost every major power of the thirteenth century, though despite some claims was not undefeated. Neither was he the sole strategist of the Mongols, and often his most effective campaigns were those where the planning had been in the hands of Chinggis Khan or Tolui. Sübe’etei had no care for administration, only in carrying out the Khan’s will against his enemies. Frustrated by Chinggis’ descendants, Sübe’etei still carried out their mandate with thoroughness and ferocity. To quote Stephen Pow in his email correspondence with this author, Sübe’etei “emerges from the surviving writings as very loyal to emperors, sardonic toward enemies, and ultimately loyal to Chinggis Khan’s yasa or vision in terms of carrying out missions, following orders even if they went against his own preference. A bit of Cardinal Richelieu can perhaps be found in him – his only enemies were those of the state... and the state was the khan”.
We hope you’ve enjoyed our extended look at Sübe’etei’s life; you can find the written version of this script, featuring all the various sources and footnotes, on the academia.edu page of our series writer, Jack Wilson. If you’d like to help us continue bringing you great content, please consider supporting us on patreon at www.patreon.com/kingsandgenerals. I’m your host David, and we’ll catch you on the next one.
This episode details the Mongol-Song war from the fall of Xiangyang to the capture of Hangzhou in 1276, and the final stand of the infamous Song Chancellor Jia Sidao, and the failures of the Song court to avert disaster.
With the loss of control over the western half of the Mongol Empire, Kublai Khan was left to direct his considerable energies against the single strongest holdout to Mongol rule; the Southern Song Dynasty, dominating China south of the Huai River since the early 1100s. An immense economic and military power, the conquest of this dynasty would be no small feat- trying to do so claimed the life of no less that Kublai’s predecessor the Grand Khan Mongke in 1259, as covered in episode 31. The completion of the conquest of China was to be Kublai’s greatest accomplishment; but first Kublai needed to overcome the mighty walls of Xiangyang, the key to Song China. I’m your host David, and this is Kings and Generals: Ages of Conquest.
As discussed in episode 31 and 32, at the end of 1259 Kublai was forced to withdraw from his campaign against the Song, returning to his residence in Inner Mongolia where he declared himself Khan in the first months of 1260. The led to war between Kublai and his brother Ariq Boke for the throne, culminating with Ariq’s surrender in 1264 and Kublai securing his title as Khan of Khans. However, the upheaval of this conflict broke Mongol imperial unity, and by the mid 1260s the Mongol Empire was irrevocably broken into independent Khanates. Kublai had little authority over these western Khanates, his effective power only with difficulty reaching to the Altai Mountains and the Tarim Basin.
Unlike the previous Khans whose power centres were in Mongolia proper, Kublai’s very legitimacy was tethered to his Chinese territory. Aside from his own personal interests in Chinese culture, it had been the resources of northern China which had allowed him to overcome his brother Ariq. Abandoning Karakorum in Mongolia, which was exposed and difficult to support, Kublai moved his capitals south: first at Shangdu, in what is now Inner Mongolia on the very border of the steppe and China; and then at the site of the former Jin Dynasty capital of Zhongdu, where modern Beijing sits. This was Dadu, the “great city” in Chinese, or as it was known to Turks, Mongols and Marco Polo, Khanbaliq, the Khan’s city. The indications were clear from the outset; Kublai was not just a Mongol Emperor, but Emperor of China- though the specifics of this political aspect we will explore in a future episode.
As a part of this, Kublai needed to bring the Song Dynasty under his rule. Kublai, much like his brothers, was a firm believer in the eventuality of Mongol world domination. It was not a debate of if, but when. Kublai may have cultivated an image as a more humane conqueror than the likes of Chinggis or Mongke, but he was a conqueror nonetheless. The Song Dynasty had to accept Mongol overlordship or be destroyed. For a man also trying to overcome his ‘barbarian’ origins to show himself as rightful ruler of China, having a rival dynasty claiming to be the heirs of the illustrious Han and Tang Dynasties was a major hurdle to his legitimacy in the eyes of many Chinese. The flight of refugees from north China to the Song Dynasty was considerable throughout the thirteenth century, and any revolt within Kublai’s domains could see Song aid, financial, moral or military.
The subjugation of the Song to solidify his rule as both a Mongol Khan and a Chinese Emperor was, in Kublai’s mind, absolutely necessary. The problem was actually doing that. Warfare with the Song broke out in 1234, months after the final defeat of the Jin Dynasty. Thirty years later, in 1264, the frontier had hardly shifted. The Mongols controlled the territory across the Song’s northern and western frontiers, including Tibet and the Dali Kingdom in Yunnan. Even the northern Vietnamese Kingdom of Dai Viet, known to the Chinese as Annam, now paid tribute to the Khan. Advances against Song were difficult; western Sichuan was under a tenuous Mongol hold, unmoved since Mongke’s death in that province. The Mongols had found they could often easily penetrate the Song border, but holding territory was another matter. Unlike northern China, marked by the relatively open North China Plain, the south was a myriad of thick forest, mountains, rivers and canals, the available space covered in rice paddies and other agriculture. This was not the open terrain so suited to Mongol cavalry warfare. The humidity and heat grew ever more oppressive the farther south one travelled, spreading diseases the Mongols and their horses struggled against. It was also home to the largest cities in the world. The Song capital of Linan, modern Hangzhou, held well over one million people- about the population of Mongolia when Chinggis Khan unified the tribes in 1206. The Song fielded a regular army of at least 700,000, supported by a large navy. The many huge cities built along the Yangzi River could be resupplied by naval support, an area in which the Mongols had little experience. The thoroughly planned campaign of Mongke in 1258-9 had wrought much devastation but little gain, and on the Mongol withdrawal at the end of 1259 the Song reoccupied most of the lost territory.
A military conquest of the Song was an immense task, and something Kublai wanted to avoid. Soon after declaring himself Khan in 1260, he sent an emissary with terms. The Song Emperor, Lizong of Song since 1224, could continue to reign as a client of the Khan. They had merely to recognize Kublai as the Son of Heaven and they could continue to rule, with of course yearly tribute and prayers in the name of the Khan. It was, from Kublai’s point of view, a chance for them to enjoy great prosperity and avoid the many hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of lives that would be lost by further fighting. Since it didn’t involve extensive retribution as punishment for thirty years of fighting, Kublai must have thought it a very generous offer.
Kublai’s envoy, one of his top Chinese advisors named Hao Ching, was promptly imprisoned. He would not be released for 15 years. Hao Ching had run afoul of the man now in charge of the southern Song, the infamous Jia Sidao. To some, Sidao was the last intelligent man in Hangzhou, deftly guiding the dynasty against an indomitable enemy, outmaneuvering his foes and a political mastermind let down by a corrupt and rotten dynasty. To others, Sidao is the archetypal “bad minister,” overconfident and inept, downplaying the Mongol threat and hiding the truth from the emperors until it was too late. For some, he is best known as the ‘Cricket Minister,’ who liked to train the insects to fight each other. Sidao’s role in the fall of the Song is complicated, though his 15 year mastery of the Song court saw the loss of the final chance to avoid disaster.
Unlike the majority of the court officials, Jia Sidao was no graduate of the Examinations from which most bureaucrats from the Tang to the Qing were chosen. Born in 1213 to a military family in Zhejiang province, Sidao’s father Jia She was a respected Song military commander in Shandong, and Sidao followed in a variety of military and civil positions in strategic areas along the Yangzi River. Sidao’s good fortune was helped by his talent and the fact his sister was a favourite consort of Emperor Lizong. Lizong and Sidao did not meet until 1254 when Sidao was Associate Administrator of the Bureau of Military Affairs, and immediately struck up a friendship. Promotions quickly followed. The relationship seems to have been genuine; contrary to the Netflix series where Sidao’s rise is due to his sister’s influence, Sidao’s sister had died in 1247, leaving Sidao to ascend on his own charisma and competence.
In Sichuan when Mongke attacked in 1258, Sidao returned east after the Khan’s death. His timing was good; the removal of the Chancellor of the Right, Ding Daquan, left an opening at the top of the Song court, which Lizong replaced with his buddy Jia Sidao at the end of 1259. One of Sidao’s first acts was to play up Kublai’s withdrawal, acting as if Sidao had won a great victory. It was Sidao who imprisoned Kublai’s envoy, Hao Ching in 1260. Acting as sole Chancellor from 1260 onwards, Sidao wished to fervently resist the Mongols, something in which the court was in agreeance. How to do it was another matter. For Sidao, an important step was fiscal reform to strengthen the dynasty. The economic cost of the war was immense. A massive standing army, destruction of valuable regions across the frontier, alongside rampant corruption and hyperinflation of their paper currency put the Song court in a precarious economic position. Sidao ordered land surveys in 1262 to find those avoiding taxation. In 1263, he ramped this up with his Public Fields Measures, wherein officials with tax exempt status had their excess lands confiscated. The government was supposed to purchase the land from the owners, but they were largely paid in the increasingly worthless paper money, or the land was outright seized. Sidao hoped to use this land to grow the foodstuffs necessary for the Song army, but his effort had the side effect of creating a large body of Song officials and elite highly antagonistic to Sidao.
Sidao also set up letter boxes to anonymously report corruption and official offensives. It was a fine sentiment, though it turned out many of these corrupt officials also happened to be the ones Sidao didn’t like. Removing and at times executing those who stood in his way, Sidao appointed his own men to their positions. The polarization of the court was intense, though Sidao could overcome this as he had the strong support of the Emperors. Lizong died suddenly in November 1264, succeeded by his 24 year old nephew Zhao Qi, known by his temple name Duzong of Song. Duzong, if anything, had an even closer relationship with Jia Sidao, who had been his tutor. Duzong was much more interested in extravagant feasts and women than affairs of state -hardly the image of austerity expected when facing the threat of the Mongols, when other lordly men were required to give up lands and sons for the cause. The new Emperor was immensely loyal to Sidao, and in some depictions subservient to him. In 1269 when Sidao played with resigning from the court, Emperor Duzong came on his knees begging and crying for Sidao to return, which Sidao did with the dismissal of more of his court foes.
While this was going on, Sidao was putting substantial investment in defense, especially around the region of Xiangyang, which we will get to shortly, and in improving the walls of the capital. Diplomatic efforts were at their lowest with the Mongols since the outbreak of war in the 1230s, and even though Kublai Khan routinely released captured Song merchants and prisoners in an effort to build goodwill, Jia Sidao did not budge. And since Sidao controlled the court and policy of the Song, the Song court did not budge either.
Aside from retaking some cities and border skirmishing, Jia Sidao did not take any larger offensives against Kublai during his occupation with Ariq in Mongolia. Sidao likely recognized that, with their well-built walls and defensive weapons supported by rivers and ships, the Song’s defense could stick up to the Mongols. Yet on the offense, especially in the more open territory of the north, the Song armies would suffer the same results they had on every other northern expedition in the Dynasty’s 300 year history; a dismal defeat against the cavalry based armies. Perhaps the most notable effort at undermining Kublai’s rule in north China was by encouraging a Chinese warlord in Shandong allied to the Mongols, Li Tan, to revolt. Despite both he and his father, the Red Coat warlord Li Quan, having fought the Song for decades, Li Tan was not feeling like he was favoured under Kublai. Encouraged by Song promises and Kublai’s conflict with Ariq, in February 1262 Li Tan declared for the Song and threw off Mongol rule.
It took about a month for Mongol forces to arrive and defeat Li Tan’s rebels in the field. Li Tan was caught in August 1262 and executed. The Song had provided no direct aid for Li Tan, whose small forces were quickly overcome by Mongolian and Chinese under Shih Tienzi, a Northern Chinese whose family had loyally served the Mongols since the late 1210s. Jia Sidao may have wanted to see if the Chinese of the north would rise up against the Mongols, but the Mongol response was quick enough to violently put a stop to any talk of rebellion. The most significant outcome of the rebellion was upon Kublai himself. Not only had Li Tan, a Chinese warlord considered a loyal subject of the Khan rebelled, but Li Tan’s father-in-law Wang Wentung was found to have been complicit. Wang Wentung was the Chief Administrator of Kublai’s Central Secretariat, and one of the most influential figures in Kublai’s administration. Executed only weeks after Li Tan’s initial revolt, it was a blow to Kublai’s trust of the Chinese in his government. In the aftermath, Kublai decreased the power of many of the Chinese in the upper echelons of the bureaucracy, replacing them with Central Asians, Muslims, Turks and Tibetans. Many of the Chinese warlord families who had served the Mongols since Chinggis Khan saw their holdings reduced or forfeited. The family of Shih Tienzi, a man noted for his loyalty to the Mongols over many decades of service, ceased to be feudal lords, though this was partly on Tienzi’s urging in order to not lose the trust of the Khan. Such was the effect of Sidao’s effort to undermine Mongol rule in North China.
Kublai’s first years as Khan were focused on consolidating and establishing his governing apparatus of northern China, and for the first half of the 1260s conflict with the Song was relegated to border skirmishes. Aside from diplomatic efforts to encourage a surrender of the Song Dynasty, Kublai also offered great rewards and lands for defectors in an effort to encourage desertions. Here, Kublai had some successes, perhaps the most notable early on being Liu Zheng, who became one of Kublai’s staunchest supporters and the ardent proponent of a navy. Liu Zheng and other like minded men convinced Kublai that the key was not multi-front attacks, but seizing control of the Yangzi River, the backbone of the Song realm where the Dynasty’s most prominent cities sat. To do this, the Mongols needed to build a navy and take the stronghold of Xiangyang.
If you look at a topographic map of China, three river systems should stand out to you, running in three lines from west to east. The northernmost and the longest is the Yellow River, which curls from the foothills of Tibet down into the Ordos desert, where it forms its great loop before cutting across the north China plain to spill out into the sea by the Shandong peninsula. This was the barrier which the Jin Dynasty moved their capital behind in an effort to protect themselves from Chinggis Khan. South of the Yellow River is the Huai, the shortest of the three rivers here, which marked the border between Jin and Song for a century, and now served as the Mongol-Song border line. By Kublai’s time, the Mongols had failed to hold it, the area south of the Huai a mess of canals and smaller rivers serving agriculture, terrain unsuited to cavalry maneuvers. Our third river on the map is the Yangzi, a wide and fast flowing river which was the natural defense against any northern invader. The most populated cities in the world were clustered along it, including the Song capital of Hangzhou, a short trip south from the River’s eastern end on the ocean. The Yangzi could only be crossed with difficulty, and the Song used it as a highway to reinforce and resupply cities, ferry troops and generally prevent a Mongol conquest. Lacking any beachheads on the Yangzi, the Mongols had nowhere to build up a navy and begin to challenge Song authority there.
That is, except for the Han River. Nestled between the mountains of Sichuan in the west and end of the Huai river to its east, runs the Han River, cutting north to south to intersect with the Yangzi at what is now Wuhan. The Han was the strategically vital access point, one where the Mongols had the potential to build up a river fleet in security before assaulting the Yangzi. Kublai knew this, and so did Jia Sidao, who for this reason spent huge amounts improving the defences of the twin cities of Xiangyang and Fancheng, which today are the super-city of Xiangfang. Sitting on opposite sides of the Han River, the two cities stood at the edge of the Song Dynasty and the Mongol Empire. Xiangyang and Fancheng were both huge, well fortified with wide moats, well provisioned and guarded by large garrisons and a variety of counter siege weapons. With both cities right on the river, they could continually be resupplied and deny the Mongol advance. Liu Zheng and the other Chinese defectors argued that Kublai should forget the favourite Mongol ploy of vast pincer movements. The Song had resources and moral enough to withstand these. Instead, the defectors argued, Kublai needed to throw his total might against Xiangyang and Fancheng.
Preparations began in the second half of the 1260s with the creation of a river fleet. In 1265, the Mongols won a battle at Tiaoyu Shan in Sichuan against the Song, capturing 146 boats. Koreans, Jurchen and Northern Chinese were put to work building more ships; in early 1268, officials in Shaanxi and Sichuan were ordered to construct another 500 vessels. By the last months of 1268, a large force of Mongols, Turks and northern Chinese converged upon Xiangyang and Fancheng. The Song defector Liu Zheng was placed in charge of the Mongol fleet, blocking off the Han River south of the cities to cut them off from the Yangzi. Aju, Subedei’s grandson, was entrusted with the siege of Fancheng; Shih Tienzi, the Chinese warlord long in service to the Khans, held overall command outside the walls of Xiangyang. A frontal assault was dismissed; the wide moats and thick walls were all but impervious to the catapults the Mongols brought with them. Attempting to storm the cities would result in heavy losses. No, they would need to be starved out. To do so, the Mongols erected walls and defensive works around the cities to cut off land access, while Liu Zheng and his fleet prevented Song reinforcements from the river.
In December of 1268 the garrison made an attempt to break out before the cordon could be tightened, but this was repulsed. The Song commander in Xiangyang, Lu Wenhuan, was a steady hand and kept moral up. They probed the Mongol besiegers continuously, trying to find the weak point in the lines. By March 1269, Shih Tienzi requested another 20,000 reinforcements from Kublai for this reason. The large cities and river access made closing them off a great challenge.
While Jia Sidao has often been accused of hiding the details of the siege of Xiangyang from the Song court, this is a baseless accusation. Duzong of Song may have taken little interest in military matters, but it was beyond the skill of Jia Sidao to hide the massive efforts going on outside Xiangyang; everyone along the Yangzi River would have known of it. The court was very much aware of the siege; the annals of the Song Dynasty, the Song shih, describe the court heaping rewards onto the defenders of Xiangyang in order to encourage their resistance. The court was still united in the opinion of resisting Kublai, even if the how was not agreed upon. Sidao sent multiple armies to relieve the defenders, some of them led by his own brother-in-law, Fan Wenhu. In August 1269, the first of these relieving forces sailed up the Han River to Xiangyang, but was defeated by the Mongol fleet and their boats captured.
In March of 1270 another attempt by the garrison of Xiangyang to break out was defeated and another Song relief fleet was repulsed. Though by then the city was largely closed off by the ever expanding Mongol fortifications, the Mongol commanders needed more men: 70,000 men and 5,000 more ships were requested, giving an image to the scale of the task to really surround these cities. Xiangyang was a whirlpool pulling in men from across the Mongol and Song empires, neither side willing to budge. Several times in later 1270 and 1271 Sidao’s brother-in-law Fan Wenhu led fleets up the Han River to assist Xiangyang, and each time the new Mongol navy proved victorious. The skilled Mongol fleet commanders, most notably the Chinese Liu Zheng and Zhang Hongfan, were adept at this river warfare, luring the Song into ambushes and developing a lengthy system along the Han to detect approaching fleets and communicate response. Jia Sidao ordered attacks on Sichuan, along the border and even a naval attack on the Shandong peninsula. His hopes these would divert Mongol resources were dashed, as most of these were inconclusive, won only minor victories or were outright disasters, as with the Shandong attack. All Sidao achieved was the wasting of Song resources while the noose tightened on Xiangyang.
Though the Mongol navy had a good chokehold on Xiangyang and Fancheng, the cities stood defiant. Well stocked and moral still high, any sort of frontal assault would still result in high losses and possibly allow the Song to break the siege. In 1272 one relief force actually pushed through to reach the city, albeit with heavy losses of most of their men and resources.
Kublai needed something to bring the siege to an end, and reached out west to see about acquiring some news tools.
In 1271, Kublai’s nephew Abaqa sat on the throne of the Ilkhanate. Abaqa was Hulegu’s son, and unlike his cousins in the Golden Horde, still recognized Kublai as the nominal head of the empire. When Kublai’s envoys arrived in 1271 asking for something to assist in the siege, Abaqa had just the ticket. Abaqa sent two Muslim siege engineers, Ismail and Ala al-Din, experienced in the newest advancement in projectile weaponry; the counterweight trebuchet. Developed in Europe in the early thirteenth century, it spread to the crusader kingdoms by the end of the 1250s, where Hulegu may have utilized them in his campaign in Syria in 1260. They were pretty nifty; instead of manpower, as required by the Chinese catapults the Mongols used, the trebuchet used its counterweight and gravity to hurl projectiles with greater accuracy, power and distance.
By the last weeks of 1272, Ismail and Ala al-Din arrived outside the walls of Fancheng and began to build the machines. In December, the first shots were launched into the walls of Fancheng. Within days, they were breached, the Mongols in the city and Fancheng was overrun. A massacre was conducted on those found within, ensured to be visible from the walls of Xiangyang. Still, Xiangyang held out. Carefully, the trebuchets were disassembled and transported across the river. In the first weeks of 1273, the weapons were carefully set up at the southeastern corner of Xiangyang. The trebuchets were carefully calibrated and launched a projectile supposedly nearly 100 kilos in weight. The first shot hit a tower along the city walls, a crack like thunder heard across Xiangyang. Panic set in, Xiangyang’s formerly untouchable walls now under real threat.
One of the Mongol commanders, a Uighur named Ariq Qaya, rode to the walls and called for the city’s commander, Lu Wenhuan. He commended Wenhuan on his skilled resistance, but now it was time to submit; do so now, and he would be rewarded by Kublai. Resistance would meet the same end as Fancheng. Lu Wenhuan recognized there would be no relief force from the Song for him now. On the 17th of March, 1273, Lu Wenhuan surrendered Xiangyang to the Mongols. After a 5 year siege, the battle was decisely won in the favour of the Mongols, and the Han River could now become a veritable shipyard for the Mongol advance on the Song.
The fall of Xiangyang sent shockwaves across the Song Empire; Jia Sidao’s authority was greatly undermined, though Duzong of Song’s confidence in him was not shaken. He had now to prepare for a full river and land invasion of the Song heartland. For Lu Wenhuan, the Mongols kept their promise; siding with the Khan, he would now lead the Mongol spear thrust against the Song. Xiangyang was perhaps the decisive victory in the Mongol-Song war, its fall ensuring the Mongols had a route to truly conquer the dynasty. So great was the story that Marco Polo retold it time and time again on his return to Europe; either through his own ‘enhancing’ of the story, or that of his ghost-writer Rustichello, the account was shifted to remove the Muslims’ role from the siege. Instead, Polo, his father and his uncle became the ones who shared the knowledge of the trebuchet with Kublai. Considering that the siege ended in early 1273, and Polo did not arrive in China until 1274 or 5, we can rather safely dismiss that. However, Polo, the Chinese language Yuan Shi compiled around 1370, and Rashid al-Din, writing in Iran in the early 1300s, all include the story of Kublai gaining his siege equipment from westerners. Polo just happened to be the only one indicating it wasn’t a Muslim.
Kublai Khan was now poised to end the forty year long war with the Song Dynasty, completing the conquest of China begun by Chinggis Khan some sixty years prior. Our next episode will look at the fall of the Song Dynasty, so be sure to subscribe to our podcast. If you’d like to help us continue bringing you great content, please support us on patreon at www.patreon.com/kingsandgenerals. I’m your host David, and we’ll catch you on the next one.
As Kublai Khan and Ariq Boke fought for the Grand Khanate in the east, in the western half of the Mongol Empire another dramatic war broke out. This was the Berke-Hulegu war, the concurrent civil war which permanently fragmented Mongol unity. Though influenced by the war for the throne, the battles between Berke and Hulegu emerged from long simmering tensions, brought violently to the surface with the absence of a central imperial authority, and set the stage for an antagonism which defined the Golden Horde and Ilkhanate for the next sixty years. I’m your host David, and this is Kings and Generals: Ages of Conquest.
To understand the conflict which broke out in 1262, we must step back to the mid 1220s. Around 1225 or 1227, Jochi, the eldest son of Chinggis Khan and Borte, died. Though there had been tension between Jochi and his father, Chinggis did not extend this to Jochi’s many, many children. In fact, they continued to hold suzerainty over the ever-growing Mongol dominated western Eurasian steppe, led by Jochi’s two oldest sons, Orda and Batu. While Orda was the older, Batu was the more ambitious, maneuvering himself into leadership of the Jochid lineage. By the start of the great western campaign in 1235, Batu held not just a preeminent place on the campaign, but in the Chinggisid hierarchy. Only Ogedai Khan and Chagatai, Chinggis’ two surviving sons with Borte, ranked higher. Batu led Mongol armies to seize the remainder of the western steppe, the Rus’ principalities and into Hungary. When he departed from Hungary in 1242, Batu’s influence grew with the deaths of Ogedai and Chagatai, leaving Batu as the aqa, the senior prince of the family. Insteading of returning to Mongolia or his Jochi’s ordu along the Irtysh River, Batu set up on the rich grasslands of the lower Volga, where he built a capital, Sarai. As we have covered in previous episodes, Batu butted heads with Ogedai’s successors, the regent Torogene and her son Guyuk, before finally taking a lead role in the election of Mongke Khan in the 1250s. Outside of political machinations, Batu strengthened the Jochid ulus. He oversaw the rebuilding of overland trade routes and cities, established administrative ties to the Rus’ cities and sought to enforce Jochid hegemony over the Caucasus, Anatolia, Mazandaran, Khurasan and Khwarezm. In the initial dispensation of lands, Chinggis Khan had granted Jochi and his heirs everything as far west as the hooves of their horses would carry them, something Batu took very seriously.
Mongke Khaan largely confirmed these holdings, and Batu was essentially the Grand Khan’s viceroy of western Eurasia. Though immensely powerful, Batu still had to accept Mongke’s tax collectors, census takers and provide troops when demanded, as he did when Hulegu set out on his campaign against the Ismaili Assassins and Baghdad. By the time of his death in early 1256, Batu created a fine foundation for his successors. So influential was his reign that the citizens of his realm remembered him as Sain Khan, the “good Khan.”
We should briefly touch on a somewhat confusing matter. You will recall we mentioned Batu’s older brother Orda. See, Orda, as with the rest of Jochi’s children, got his own territory, with Orda’s number 2 only to Batu’s. Orda and his descendants ruled over the steppe east of the Ural River, the left wing of the Jochid ulus bordering on the Chagatayid ulus and towards Mongolia. This was called the Blue Horde… or maybe the White Horde. See, Persian and Rus’ sources give conflicting descriptions: that Orda ruled the Blue Horde and Batu the White, or Orda ruled the White Horde, and Batu the Blue. Further confusion comes from a tendency to refer to the section ruled by the Batu as the Golden Horde. For our purposes, we’ll assume Orda ruled the Blue Horde, for that also corresponds with the Turko-Mongolian colour designations for the directions; Blue for east, White for west, and yellow or gold for the centre. Black by the way, is the colour for the north, and red for the south. The specific relationship of the Blue Horde to Batu’s territory is unclear. Was it fully independent, as the Chagatayid ulus was? Was it subject to the line of Batu? Or was Batu and his descendants, the “Jochid Khans,” merely first among equals within the lines of Jochi’s children? The answer is unfortunately vague, and shifts depending on the specific period we’re talking about.
On Batu’s death in 1256, it seems he had a clear successor in the form of his son, Sartaq. A Nestorian Christian and firm ally of the Grand Khan, Sartaq was duly confirmed by Mongke in Karakorum and returned to the Jochid ulus. Sartaq was a more pleasing choice to Mongke than Batu’s brother Berke. Berke, the third son of Jochi, was ambitious, overbearing, and something of a black sheep, for he was an early convert to Islam. Precisely how and when Berke converted is contradicted in the sources. He was Muslim at least by 1250, and some sources state he had been since his youth. At the time, it was very uncommon- few Chinggisids, especially of the third generation, converted. It’s possible Berke did it to make his rule more acceptable to Muslims across the Jochid ulus, but it may have been genuine devotion. Jean Richard has argued that Berke’s mother was a captured daughter of Muhammad Khwarezm-shah, thus making it possible Berke was raised a Muslim, though the evidence for his mother’s identity is not conclusive.
In most nomadic steppe societies, succession was not restricted to sons, but could go brother to brother, and it seems Berke wanted it to do just that. Sartaq’s reign was cut suddenly short before the year was even out. Armenian sources directly accuse Berke of poisoning Sartaq, and frankly it’s pretty likely. In 1257 Mongke placed Ulagchi, a young boy who was either Sartaq’s son or brother, onto the Jochid throne, with Batu’s widow Boraqchin as regent. Late in 1257 or 1258, with Mongke occupied with the beginning of his campaign on the Song Dynasty, Berke made his move. Ulagchi suddenly “disappeared,” Boraqchin was accused of treason and executed, and Berke stepped up to become the Jochid Khan. By the time he learned of this, Mongke was deep into Song territory, and could do little but turn to the west and shake his fist in frustration.
Though Mongke spent the rest of his life distracted by fortresses in Sichuan, Berke had a more immediate Toluid presence to deal with; Hulegu and his massive army rolling over the Islamic world. Hulegu, as you’ll recall, spent February 1258 sacking Baghdad and killing the Caliph, the oft-cited great psychological blow to Islam. Sometimes, you’ll see it said that Berke, as a good Muslim, took it upon himself to wave the black banner of jihad against Hulegu. Some statements from the medieval sources support this interpretation, but frankly it does not reflect Berke’s immediate actions. Baghdad was sacked early in 1258; Hulegu and Berke were not at war until 1262. At the outset of his reign, Berke had no apparent goal to unravel the Mongol Empire- in fact, his interests seemed more so securing his own power on the Jochid throne, and maintaining Jochid claims from Anatolia, the Transcaucasus across Iran and into Khurasan.
Before his death, Batu supplied soldiers for Hulegu’s expedition; perhaps three tumens under his relatives Quli, Balaghai and Tutar. Over the march through Khurasan and Iran, the three Jochid princes had sought to reaffirm Jochid privileges at various cities on the route. Some of these, such as the Kartid dynasty in Herat, went to Hulegu, asking him to intercede between them and the Jochid princes. Hulegu sided with the local dynasties as a means to encourage them to send the tribute to him instead. Further, the Jochid princes and Hulegu argued over the conduct of the campaign itself. Local commanders affiliated with the Jochids, such as Baiju in Azerbaijan, were bossed around and ordered out of territory they had garrisoned for over two decades. After sacking Baghdad, Hulegu chose not to send the loot allocated for Berke, another thorn in the side, if the city’s destruction wasn’t already enough of an affront to Berke’s religious sensibilities.
Both Hulegu and Berke learned of Mongke’s death early in 1260. Notably, there was no immediate outbreak of hostilities. Though tensions were mounting, the cause for war can be found in events over 1260 and 1261. In an era of massive princely egos, it must be noted from the state that Berke and Hulegu did not like each other. Back in 1251, Batu had sent his brother Berke to Karakorum for Mongke’s enthronement. Berke was in attendance on Mongke, and in this position sent constant demands to Hulegu to carry out Mongke’s whims for the coronation. As the senior prince, Berke thought he could boss Hulegu around; Hulegu found Berke burdensome and overbearing. During his campaign against the Assassins and Baghdad, Batu and Berke’s representative princes -the aforementioned Quli, Balaghai and Tutar- had continued to berate Hulegu, challenging him and seeking to exert Jochid privileges across the region. Given a limited military command by Mongke, Hulegu had no authority to punish members of the royal family. But upon learning of Mongke’s death, Hulegu saw a chance to take out his frustrations. The sources differ on the why, when and how, but the result is the same. Quli, Balaghai and Tutar were all dead before the end of 1261. At least two of them were accused of sorcery- a serious condemnation for the Mongols- and Hulegu asked Berke if he could punish them for it. Expecting perhaps a slap on the wrist, Berke had given Hulegu permission to punish them- and was angered to find Hulegu went ahead and executed his kinsmen.
Hulegu did not stop there.With the immobilization of the central government due to Kublai and Ariq Boke’s fighting, Hulegu sought to strengthen his hand in the area west of the Amu Darya. We’ve mentioned repeatedly how the Jochids had claims on territory in Anatolia, the Caucasus, northern Iran and Khurasan. These consisted of cities and regions taken by members of Jochi’s lineage in past conquests, which then owed yearly tribute to the Jochids. Many of these were prime estates, especially the fine pastures and trade cities of Azerbaijan, the plains of Arran and Mughan. When Mongke was alive, Hulegu had already bossed around Jochid representatives in these areas, most notably Baiju and his tamma forces in Azerbaijan. With Mongke dead, Hulegu seized these regions for himself, incorporating them into a new ulus ruled by him. Berke was aghast; this Toluid upstart was taking his lands, solely without the Khan’s authority! Combined with the murder of the Jochids princes, Hulegu was acting aggressively. The Jochid troops under Hulegu’s command were given leave by Berke to flee. Some made it back to the Jochid ulus and a major contingent fled under their commander, Neguder, to what is now Afghanistan.
Enraged by Hulegu’s occupation of territory that belonged to the house of Jochi, the execution of Jochid princes, harassment of Jochid merchants, officers, and representatives in Iran, Berke decided it was time to pay Hulegu back with more than just words. With Kublai and Ariq locked in conflict, there was no one to mediate between them. Early in 1262, Berke began mobilizing his troops to seize Jochid claims in Azerbaijan by force. Setting out in spring of 1262, Berke marched south with some 30,000 men, alongside his commander-in-chief, friend and grand-nephew, Nogai. Nogai was a Muslim, and perhaps had converted at similar time to Berke. The appointment of Nogai was hardly coincidental, for he was also the son of Tutar, one of the Jochid princes executed by Hulegu. For Nogai, this was to be a deeply personal conflict.
Early in summer 1262, Berke and Nogai took the great fortress of Derbent, guarding one of the primary passes through the Caucasus mountains and encamping outside of Shirvan. Hulegu’s response was quick, though he had not anticipated the attack. He sent word to his dispersed forces, rapidly mobilizing and setting out with his main army in August, while multiple smaller armies, consisting of Mongol garrisons from Anatolia to western Iran, followed. Berke responded quickly, splitting his force between himself and Nogai to meet the oncoming enemy. In the pastures of Azerbaijan Berke defeated Hulegu’s vanguard in mid-October, but Nogai was forced to retreat in another engagement. Learning of Nogai’s flight, Hulegu pressed the advance and in late November met Berke’s reconstituted army outside Shemakhi, and forced the Jochids to withdraw.
In the first days of December 1262 Berke and Nogai sped past Derbent, leaving a token garrison there in an effort to slow Hulegu down. The fortress fell by December 7th. On the 15th, Nogai took part of the army to try and slow down Hulegu’s vanguard, commanded by his son Abaqa. Nogai was defeated and continued to flee, now in the lowlands north of the Caucasus and at the edge of the Volga steppe. The more experienced commanders in Abaqa’s force, Shiremun Noyan and Abatai, told prince Abaqa it was time to return to Hulegu and the main army, fearing they would be drawn into a feigned retreat. The haughty Abaqa dismissed their concerns and instead ordered reinforcements from his father, then followed the Jochids’ trail. After several days, by 10 January 1263 they came across the camp of Berke’s army on the north bank of the frozen Terek River, where tents, herds, treasures and families were abandoned and Berke’s army was nowhere to be seen. Presumably, in their cowardice they had disappeared deep into the steppe. Abaqa rewarded his men with three days of drinking and celebrating on Berke’s captured goods, “reveling and carousing with lovely girls” Rashid al-Din says euphemistically.
On the 13th of January 1263, Berke and Nogai returned. They had allowed Abaqa’s men three days to get drunk and drop their guard, and when the Jochids returned it was a massacre. Abaqa ordered a retreat and his bewildered, panic stricken army sped across the frozen Terek river. The weight of the fleeing men and horses proved too much. The ice broke and the cold waters swallowed up men and horses. Abaqa, with his tail between his legs, returned to Hulegu with what was left of force. Hulegu led an orderly withdrawal from the frontier, and Berke retook Derbent, and for a time the cousins were at a stalemate. According to the contemporary Mamluk author ibn Wasil, Berke surveyed the carnage and cursed Hulegu, stating “Mongols are killed by Mongol swords. If we were united, then we would have conquered all of the world.”
Sometime in late 1262, Berke received a surprising letter; from Baybars, the Mamluk Sultan of Egypt. News of hostilities between Berke and Hulegu had filtered down to Baybars over 1262, with greater detail coming in that November when 200 Mongol refugees, survivors from Hulegu’s attack on the Jochids in his army, came to Cairo seeking shelter. They had been unable to return north due to the outbreak of war. Now properly illuminated on Berke’s conversion to Islam, the cunning Baybars stumbled across an idea. Though his forces won at Ayn Jalut in September 1260, he doubted he had the strength to withstand a full Mongol invasion. Without a large army, Baybars had to win every battle- Hulegu only needed to win one, and he would overwhelm the newly established, and still quite fragile, Mamluk Sultanate. Without any local allies to provide reinforcements, Baybars needed to look further afield for assistance. The Jochid antagonism with Hulegu would do the trick, the enemy of my enemy being my friend and all that. Sometime late in 1262 Baybars sent a message to Berke, playing on the co-religiosity of the two men, encouraging Berke to adhere to the jihad against the non-Muslim Hulegu, even if Hulegu was Berke’s cousin. Another embassy was sent by Baybars in the winter of 1262, again encouraging Berke to battle Hulegu, and telling him that the 200 Mongol refugees were being well treated in Cairo. It spoke of the strength of the Mamluk Sultanate, but expressed admiration and affection for Berke. Berke was delighted, and organized a prompt response
Berke’s response was encouraging. Hulegu, the letter states, had broken the yassa of Chinggis Khan, -likely reffering to the murder of the Jochid princes, the seizure of Jochid territories and refusal to send tribute to Berke. Berke reaffirmed his conversion to Islam, and his willingness to take vengeance for the death of the Caliph in Baghdad. So began the Jochid-Mamluk alliance against Hulegu. For the first time the Chinggisids had shown willingness to ally with a non-Mongolian, independent power against fellow Mongols. While the alliance would never result in tangible military cooperation between them, it did mean that Hulegu and his heirs were stuck between two antagonistic powers on their north and south; leaving one border alone too long would allow either the Jochids or Mamluks to attack. Our understanding of this alliance comes largely from Mamluk authors, who sought to stress what good Muslims their allies were. It is difficult to gauge how Berke and his successors saw it, and it has been argued that to Berke it was not cooperation between equals, but the submission of the Mamluk Sultanate to the house of Jochi. Since the Mamluk elite were largely Qipchaps, who made up much of the population of the Jochid territory, it was only natural that they bowed to the Chinggisids- the right Chinggisids, that is. Despite his willingness to combat Hulegu, Berke had not forgotten the purpose of the empire; if the quote by ibn Wasil has any basis in fact, Berke may have rued this distraction from the continued subjugation of the world. A diplomatic submission of the Mamluks was as good as conquering them, as far as Berke was concerned.
The war between Hulegu and Berke was quieter over 1263 and 1264. Nogai made threatening moves from Derbend, while Hulegu stayed in Maragha, now his capital. Local forces, such as the Georgians, newly humbled after a brief rebellion, were forced to man border defences against attacks by Berke. In the meantime, Hulegu engaged in his other passions. Hulegu always showed an interest in sciences and astrology, constructing centres for these men and filling his court with the learned of the region. Most famous of these men was Nasir al-Din Tusi, for whom an observatory was built in Maragha. Hulegu spent considerable money on alchemists and efforts at transforming raw materials into gold. Rashid al-Din some 40 years later wrote with scorn that “in transmutation they had no luck, but they were miracles in cheating and fraud, squandering and wasting the stores of lordly power.” Hulegu took steps to organize his emerging empire, such as widening his administration. Reconstructive efforts were overseen through the appointment of the new sahib divan, Shams al-Din Juvaini. Shams al-Din’s brother, the historian ‘Ata-Malik Juvaini, was appointed governor of Baghdad and the restoration process there. Members of what had been the imperial Secretariat for Iran and western Asia like Arghun Aqa were now taken into Hulegu’s new government. His sons were allotted appanages and territories to oversee: Abaqa was given most of the eastern half of the state to act as viceroy over, valuable experience for the man who would be his father’s heir.
With the surrender of Ariq Boke late in 1264, Hulegu and Berke soon learned of Kublai Khan’s victory. Kublai’s messengers demanded Berke, Hulegu and the Chagatai Khan Alghu come to confirm Kublai’s enthronement and decide Ariq Boke’s fate. All declined- Hulegu may have had little choice, as he fell ill in January 1265, and died the following February, about 50 years old. His respected wife, Doquz Khatun followed him four months later, and in June Hulegu’s eldest son Abaqa ascended the throne of the Ilkhanate. Humbled since his humiliating defeat over the ice on the Terek River, Abaqa sought to secure his rule before taking any actions against Berke. Abaqa sent armies under his brothers to guard the frontiers with the Jochids and the Chagatais; he redistributed lands to loyal emirs; political appointments like Shams al-Din Juvaini and Arghun Aqa, were maintained. Moving the capital from Maragha to Tabriz, Abaqa soon received an official investiture from his uncle Kublai Khan, a nice bit of legitimacy and homage to the Mongol Empire, but an act with little actual power.
For Berke, it seemed primetime to seize the Caucasus with the ascension of Abaqa. In July 1265, only a month after Abaqa’s enthronement, Nogai was sent with a large army from Derbent. Abaqa had reinforced the region with an army under his brother Yoshmut, who met Nogai on the Akshu River in what is now Azerbaijan. The fighting was fierce; during the battle an arrow took Nogai’s eye, and his army was defeated with heavy losses, withdrawing to Shirvan. Both Abaqa and Berke collected large forces to prevent the other from seizing the advantage. Sometime in 1266, both armies formed up on opposite sides of the Kura River. For fourteen days, the two armies shot arrows over the river at each other, but were unable to cross. Frustrated, Berke marched westwards towards the Georgian capital of Tbilisi to find a crossing there. En route, Berke fell ill and succumbed, leaving his army and empire without a Khan. Nogai, who in just a few years had lost his father, several battles, his eye and his Khan, led a general retreat back to the Jochid capital of Sarai. Having learned his lesson, Abaqa did not pursue; later in 1266 he had a wall and trench built along the Kura River to guard against Jochid attacks, then withdrew back south. So ended the Berke-Hulegu war.
This was not the end of the fighting between the Ilkhanate and the Jochid realm- what later historians call the Golden Horde, though the term was not used at the time. Fighting picked up every few years, usually taking advantage of the Il-Khan being distracted by conflict with the Mamluks, the Chagatais, or the Neguderis of Afghanistan, who began to make a name for themselves as raiders. But for decades, Berke’s efforts were the most serious attempts by the Golden Horde to take control of the Caucasus, to no success. The region remained under the hands of Hulegu’s successors until the last days of the Ilkhanate. Berke was succeeded by Batu’s grandson Mongke-Temur, who was the first fully independent Khan of the Jochid state, minting coins in his own name. It is under Mongke-Temur that we can really speak of the Golden Horde as an independent Khanate. The one-eyed Nogai continued to grow in influence, transferred to the western half of the Golden Horde where he became the prime intermediary between the Jochids and Europe. Though kept in check by Mongke-Temur, his successors would not have the same control over him.
Abaqa began a nearly 20 year reign, during which time he undertook wide ranging diplomacy with Europe in an effort to open a second front against the Mamluks. Dealing with rebellions and invasions, Abaqa spent most of his years jumping from frontier to frontier of the massive Ilkhanate, using the odd break to order unsuccessful invasions of Syria. Though both the Ikhanate and the Golden Horde had immense military power, the days of successful foreign conquests in western Eurasia were at an end, squandering it against each other. But we will pick up with the later history of the Il-Khans and the Golden Horde in future episodes. By the end of the Berke-Hulegu war, both were fully independent of Kublai Khan. It is back to Kublai that we head to next, to see how he undertook the final push to conquer the Song Dynasty, and complete the reunification of China- all under Mongol auspices, of course. So be sure to subscribe to the Kings and Generals podcast. To help us keep bringing you great content, please support us on Patron at www.patreon.com/kingsandgenerals. I’m your host David, and we’ll catch you on the next one.
Mongke Khaan was dead. Over his 8 year reign, he had ruled the Mongol Empire firmly, strengthening government and renewing the conquests. Yet had not solved the tensions and problems which had been simmering below the surface since the death of Ogedai. Having not designated a successor, Mongke’s brothers Kublai and Ariq Böke would stand in to fill the void, with disastrous results for the empire. In the aftermath of Mongke’s death, the Mongol Empire was irrevocably torn apart, ending the dreams of Chinggis Khan for Mongolian unity. I’m your host David, and this is Kings and Generals: Ages of Conquest.
Before we carry on with our narrative, we must note that following events are highly coloured by who won- quite literally a case of history being written by the victors seeking to justify their victory. Based on recent scholarship and recognition of these biases, we will try to offer a slight reinterpretation of the events, though the outcome remains the same.
Mongke died in August 1259 while on campaign in China, fighting the Song Dynasty in Sichuan. His plan to overwhelm the Song came to a crashing halt, bogged down in sieges and mud, before his demise caused his army to fall back. Perhaps the sole safe guard left in place in event of his death was his youngest brother, Ariq Böke, left as regent in the imperial capital, Karakorum, while Mongke marched on China. Intended to keep the empire running smoothly in Mongke’s absence, it’s possible Mongke, as with so much of his reign, had tailored this as reaction to the regencies after the deaths of Ogedai and Guyuk. Rather than repeat the chaotic periods of control by Torogene and Oghul Qaimish, Mongke may have wanted Ariq to seamlessly step up and guide the empire to an organized quriltai, rather than rely on conniving mothers to do it themselves. Thus was Ariq brought to the forefront of the world stage.
So who was Ariq Böke? The youngest son of Tolui and Sorhaktani Beki, he was born sometime in the early 1220s, putting him in his early forties at Mongke’s death. Unlike his older brother Kublai, Ariq never showed any affinity to Chinese culture, despite being provided Confucian advisers. Instead, he is generally portrayed as a proud supporter of Mongolian culture, priding himself as a nomad uncorrupted by the sedentary world. The second part of his name, Böke, is an epithet, which means variously ‘bull, strong/unbreakable, wrestler.’ Evidently, he was a man of quite some physical prowess, perhaps a star in that favourite Mongol pastime of wrestling. He seems to have had an affinity to Christianity: the Franciscan Friar, William of Rubruck, during his visit to Mongke’s court in 1254 interacted with Ariq and noted that he listened to Christian oratory several time, made the sign of the cross and stated that he knew the Messiah is God. Considering that Rubruck remarked on Mongke’s own refusal to convert to Christianity or Islam and his personal failures to convert anyone, there’s no reason to think he lied on Ariq’s interest in the religion. Ariq’s mother Sorhaktani and at least one of his sons, Mingliq-Temur, were Christians. His chief wife was an Oirat princess, Elchiqmish (el-chiq-mish), described as very tall and as a granddaughter of Chinggis Khan via his daughter Chechiyegen (Chech-ee-yeg-en), she was also Ariq’s cousin. They had no children, but Ariq is said to have loved her very much.
One of Mongke’s sons who accompanied him on the campaign into China, Asutai, brought his father’s body to Mongolia in autumn 1259. Immediately, Ariq Böke stepped into his duties as regent. Messages were sent across the empire to alert princes and notables of the Great Khan’s demise: Kublai, Mongke’s brother closest in age and also campaigning in China, learned of his death in September. Their third brother, Hulegu, learned of it in spring 1260. Representatives of the family were told to come to Mongolia in order for Ariq to arrange a quriltai and decide who would succeed Mongke. But trouble came from a perhaps expected direction: Kublai, their brother who had often butted heads with Mongke, now refused to return to Karakorum.
Over Mongke’s reign, Kublai had been a repeated problem for both the Khan and his chief officials. After his return from the Dali campaign in 1254, Kublai began administering a large swath of northern China. There he showed what some modern authors interpret as inclinations to independence; or at the very least, pretensions to greater autonomy. The first sign was Kublai butting heads with the head of the Secretariat for China, the long-time servant of the Central Government, Mahmud Yalavach. Yalavach was reappointed to the position in 1251, and nominally in charge of tax assessment and collection, but found his efforts challenged by Kublai and his Chinese advisers who desired a more ‘Confucian,’ and local method of taxation and governance. Yalavach was never on good terms with the Chinese, and found many enemies among Kublai’s faction. Accused of malfeasance by Kublai’s followers, around 1254 Yalavach was removed from his post and soon died, though the exact details are murky. So ended the long career of a man who had once served as Chinggis Khan’s envoy to the Khwarezmshah.
Without Yalavach’s meddling, Kublai could strengthen his local influence and position. Most apparent was in the building of a city in 1256 in what is modern Inner Mongolia, on the very edge of the steppe and north China. Called Kaiping, it was built in Chinese style and looked rather suspiciously like a capital city, a rival to Karakorum. The next year, some of Mongke’s ministers under Alandar led an investigation into Kublai’s administration, finding numerous infractions. Kublai’s authority was curtailed, his powers of tax collection rescinded, and some of his men executed. But there were further concerns, most identifiable in Kublai’s affinity for Chinese culture. Filling his staff with Buddhist and Confucians, Kublai’s administration looked a little too Chinese for Mongke’s tastes. The Mongol Empire needed to be ruled by Mongols, afterall, and placing more power into the hands of the Chinese simply would not do. Kublai remained in Mongke’s bad graces until 1258, when Mongke needed him for the oncoming campaign against the Song Dynasty. Provided one of the main armies, Kublai led his force through Central China to O-chou, modern Wuhan, where he learned of Mongke’s death in September 1259. Ariq Böke’s officials were there to get Kublai to move north for the quriltai, only for Kublai to spurn them.
While Kublai’s official excuse was that he could not depart with his task unfinished, an alternative explanation is often provided by modern authors. That is, that Kublai saw this as his chance to take the throne, but needed to beef up his military credentials with victories- so far unearned in that campaign. Ariq Böke, to our knowledge, had not led any armies, making this perhaps the one area Kublai could one-up his brother in the eyes of the Mongol aristocracy. Keep in mind how Ariq’s epithet stressed his strength and ability as a wrestler. In comparison, Kublai suffered from gout and may have already been overweight. Already seen as soft for his interest in Chinese culture and known for having lost Mongke’s trust as an administrator, Kublai needed every advantage he could get in an election against Ariq. If he could paint himself as the better, more experienced military commander, that could be all the edge he needed. Since elections took a while to be called to allow for the appropriate princes and representatives to return to Mongolia, Kublai e predicted he had plenty of time to take a few cities and score some victories of his own.
Kublai spent the next two month crossing the Yangzi River and taking O-chou, linking up with another commander, Uriyangqadai, the son of the illustrious Subutai. The news of Kublai’s continued campaigning was not well met back in Karakorum. Two members of Mongke’s keshig were particularly displeased by this: Alandar, the official who investigated Kublai’s administration, and most importantly, Bulghai, the chief judge of the empire, a Nestorian Christian and Mongke’s #2. Neither was friendly with Kublai. As brother closest in age to the late Khan, Kublai was a prime candidate for the throne, albeit one too interested in Chinese culture and a threat to the current top men of the empire. Therefore, Bulghai and Alandar began to organize the election of Ariq as the next Khan of Khans, if Ariq had not already begun to encourage this himself. With the burial of Mongke, his son Asutai and his generals returned and presented Mongke’s jade seal to Ariq.
Part of organizing a quriltai was getting the appropriate bribes -again, sorry, gift giving- out in time to ensure the princes voted for the right candidate. It had taken Torogene a matter of years to organize the proper support for Guyuk’s coronation, and this was not a process done in secret. That Ariq was left as regent in Karakorum suggests he had a good relationship with those top officials of the Central Secretariat. Having these men and their government institutions on his side made for a powerful campaigning apparatus. Quickly, it seems Ariq gathered widespread support, particularly from the imperial administration and Mongke’s family, especially his sons Asutai and Urungtash who, for reasons we cannot discern, do not seem to have ever been considered as candidates.
In November 1259, messages reached Kublai from his wife, Chabi, at that time in Kaiping. Kublai highly valued Chabi’s advice, and when she sent word that Ariq looked to be moving to claim the Khanate, Kublai was forced to give up his advance to China. That this exchange occurred suggests Kublai’s primary interest was not carrying out the expansion, but securing his own claim for the throne. Withdrawing north to Kaiping, he left only a token force behind to guard his conquests, which was soon crushed when an army was sent by the Song chancellor, Jia Sidao. Sidao portrayed it as a great victory, playing it up to secure his newly taken place at the head of the Song court. Kublai could only send envoys seeking a diplomatic settlement, who were imprisoned by the chancellor, an anticlimactic end to Kublai’s effort at military glory in time for the election.
Returning to Kaiping in Inner Mongolia in the first days of 1260, Kublai watched the support for Ariq’s election continually grow. Having been forced to give up his military conquests in the south, and therefore not creating a reputation as a great conqueror, Kublai may have felt he lost the chance to win an election on Ariq’s term. Perhaps fearful that Ariq may try to arrest him if he approached Karakorum with a small entourage, yet knowing approaching with a larger escort would look like he was attacking the city, Kublai felt he had only one choice: declare himself Khan first, on ground of his choosing. In April or May 1260, at his own city of Kaiping, did Kubla Khan a stately reign decree, and in doing so signed the death warrant for Mongol imperial unity. By all standards, it was illegal: Kublai had neither the support of the four branches of the family and the election was not in the Onon-Kerulen region, the homeland of Chinggis Khan, but in his Chinese-style city. Kublai Khan had just usurped the throne.
He had one small feather in his cap; Kublai could boast he was already recognized by a foreign power. When moving northwards, Kublai met the travelling Crown Prince of Korea, Wang Chon. Having been sent as a royal hostage to Mongke’s court, his timing was poor: while on the road, both Mongke and Wang Chon’s father, King Kojong, died. Korean sources assert that upon learning of Mongke’s death, like a good loyal subject Wang Chon sped to recognize Kublai as the rightful Khan. The idea that Wang Chon had any choice of the matter is generally dismissed by modern scholars. As part of Kublai’s entourage, he witnessed Kublai’s election and was soon sent back to Korea to be installed as the new King, Wonjong. A powerful opening move, it was the beginning of a decades-long close relationship between Kublai, Wonjong and their descendants. Kublai followed up his election with official messages to the Song and official proclamations; that his goals were to feed the hungry, reduce taxes and burdens on the people. Within days of becoming Great Khan, Kublai took a Chinese era name. In Chinese imperial tradition, emperors denoted sections of their reign as eras, which was used for year identification. It’s the kind of thing one does if they want to be associated with Chinese customs of leadership. From the start, Kublai Khan did not just hold an illegal election, but a shockingly Chinese one as well. For Ariq’s faction in Karakorum, this was a shocking demonstration against the legacy of Chinggis Khan. More immediately, it was a dangerous grab for power.
In reaction, in July of 1260 Ariq Böke finally held his election and was declared Khan in an appropriately placed, decidedly non-Chinese process. Ariq held a better claim to legitimacy, for it seems he actually had the support of the branches of the family. The regent of the Chagatai Khanate was the popular Orghina Khatun, sister of Ariq’s beloved wife Elchiqmish, who gave her support. The Jochid Khan, Berke, sent his support, as did some Ogedeid princes, and it seems so did Kublai and Ariq’s brother, Hulegu, whose son Jumqhur attended. Mongke’s sons Asutai and Urungtash, his widows, his keshig and the Central Secretariat led by Bulghai and Alandar, sided strongly with Ariq, and so did the venerable Shigi Qutuqu, an adopted son of Chinggis Khan now well into his 70s.
Over summer 1260, as tensions heightened, messengers sped between the two brothers. Each wanted the other to submit and recognize their rule. Neither yielded. While Ariq had the official support, Kublai was decidedly in the advantage in terms of position. Kublai could exert his hold across northern China, ousting officials who had declared for Ariq and allying with Qadan, a son of Ogedai and the prince holding the Uighur territories around Beshbaliq. Between them, they sought to close off access to north China to Ariq. For Ariq in Karakorum, this placed him in an unsustainable position. Karakorum could not support itself, requiring hundreds of cartloads of supplies daily, largely from northern China. With his army stationed there, this was even more imperative. In a contest of resources, Kublai’s hold of north China was a trump card.
To further starve out Karakorum, Kublai sought to install a new Chagatai Khan loyal to him, a great-grandson of Chagatai named Abishgha. With a small party, Abishgha was sent to oust Orghina Khatun and take power there, denying the Chagatai ulus’ resources and men to Ariq. Abishgha and his small party were captured and brought to Ariq. Tensions boiled. It was a diplomatic impasse. By autumn, it was war. Kublai began to occupy Mongolia, while Ariq sent an army under Alandar to seize the former Tangut territory, the Gansu corridor, the conduit which links north China to Central Asia. In October, Alandar was killed and his army defeated by Kadan and Kublai’s loyalists. Kublai could now exert control across the northern Chinese right to Kadan in Uighuria. At a similar time, part of Ariq’s army was also defeated by Kublai’s troops at an unknown site called Baski. A panicked Ariq had Ahishgha executed, then moved his army from the untenable position at Karakorum, falling back to the Yenisei River valley. Northwest of Mongolia proper, the Yenisei is a valuable region producing wheat, millet, barley and craftsmen, but no place to conquer China from. Sending messages of peace to Kublai, Ariq managed to diplomatically hold off Kublai, stopping him from seizing Karakorum and providing Ariq time to think of new plans.
With the start of 1261, Ariq implemented his new schemes. While popular in the Chagatai ulus, Orghina Khatun, regent for her young son Mubarak Shah, was not a war leader. Ariq had her replaced by Alghu, a grandson of Chagatai who could hopefully rally the ample resources of the Middle ulus for Ariq’s needs with loss of access to resources of China. In the summer, Ariq sought to wrest control of Mongolia from Kublai’s men. Ariq won the first engagement, but Kublai merely sent another army against his brother. In November 1261, at Shimu’ultu Lake in southeastern Mongolia, Ariq Böke Khan’s army was defeated and forced to retreat. Ariq had to abandon Mongolia for good, falling back to the Yenisei River.
Ariq could never come back from the defeat at Shimu’ultu. He lacked the manpower to engage in any attrition with Kublai, and over 1262 the chance of victory was wrenched from his grasp. That year Kublai’s forces entered Karakorum, though his direct actions against Ariq were limited due to an uprising within his Chinese territory. In the west, Ariq’s ally Berke was unable to provide support with the opening of war between him and Hulegu over the Caucasus. Alghu, Ariq’s appointee in the Chagatai realm, started to attack Jochid possessions in Khwarezm and Tranosxiana, ousting Berke’s representatives. Killing Ariq’s envoys, by the end of the year Alghu declared for Kublai. Ariq’s only chance at securing anything depended on the resources of the Chagatais, and in 1263 from his base on the Yenisei he attacked Alghu. Alghu won in the first two engagements, but Ariq had the better of the third, forcing Alghu to flee to Kashgar.
Ariq took the Chagatai capital of Almaliq, in modern Xinjiang close to the border with Kazakhstan. It was here that Ariq spent the final days of his reign. An incredibly harsh winter in 1263 brought famine to men and horses on the steppe. A frustrated Ariq Böke took his anger out on captured Chagatai prisoners. Harsh treatment of fellow Mongols alienated Ariq’s supporters and coupled with the conditions, led to desertion. Hulegu’s son Jumghur left, as did Mongke’s son Urungtash, who brought his father’s seal to Kublai. The omens were bad: harsh winds tore Ariq’s tent right from its pegs, causing it to crash about and injure many. At its end and with an ever decreasing circle of supporters, Ariq knew the gig was up. In August of 1264, he came in person before Kublai at Kaiping, now renamed to Shangdu. Per the account of the Ilkhanid historian and vizier Rashid al-Din, Ariq waited in front of Kublai’s ger for permission to enter, and upon coming face to face with his brother burst into tears. An emotional Kublai asked, “my dear brother, during this strife and contention, were we right or were you?”
To which, as written by Rashid al-Din, Ariq Böke replies “we were then. But you are today.”
Blame was placed onto Ariq’s generals, who were accused of instigating Ariq’s “revolt.” 10, including Bulghai, were executed. Ariq was to be put on trial before the other heads of the family, but all of them- Berke, Hulegu and Alghu, refused to come. Yet Kublai’s generals demanded punishment. The problem was fixed when illness very conveniently struck down the erstwhile healthy Ariq Böke. The timing was certainly handy, and accusations fall on Kublai. Yet it’s possible that a depressed Ariq, brought down by a difficult and fruitless civil war, drunk himself to an early grave. So it was that Kublai was the sole claimant as Khan of Khans.
Having won the war, Kublai lost the empire. Only Hulegu provided his nominal support, but neither he nor Berke or Alghu ever made an attempt to submit in person. Over 1265 and 1266, the three of them died. Hulegu’s successor, his son Abaqa, received an official investiture from Kublai, but Kublai had no power to depose or appoint him or his successors. Kublai sent another descendant of Chagatai, Baraq, to take Alghu’s place, but Baraq soon operated independent of the Great Khan, and fought with the rising prince of the Ogedeids, Qaidu. By 1269, a brief peace was organized between Baraq, Qaidu and the new Jochid Khan, Mongke-Temur. The Peace of Qatwan as it’s known, saw territorial distribution and allotment totally without Kublai’s consideration, circumventing utterly the Great Khan’s authority. Kublai’s rule as Great Khan was nominal in the western half of Mongol territory, a spectre of illegitimacy hanging over him. By 1271, we can speak in earnest of the divisions of the Empire as independent entities, khanates: the Golden Horde, the Chagatai Khanate, the Ilkhanate and the Yuan Dynasty, the latter being the Chinese dynastic name Kublai gave to his reduced empire. As well, there is the matter of the Ogedeid Khanate under Qaidu, the Neguderis and the Blue and White Horde, but we will illuminate these in future episodes.
Most of our sources from within the Mongol Empire come from areas ruled by the descendants of Kublai and Hulegu, the Yuan Dynasty and the Ilkhanate. In the Yuan Dynasty, the need to justify Kublai’s election as legitimate is obvious. The most influential of Ilkhanid authors was the vizier Rashid al-Din, whose Compendium of Chronicles is among the most valuable of all medieval sources on the Mongols. Writing around 1300, Rashid was personally informed of the events of the 1260s from Bolad Chingsang, one of Kublai’s judges who took part in the trials against Ariq and his generals. This pro-Kublai bias strongly affected Rashid al-Din’s work, who dubbed the war as “Ariq’s revolt.” Like so many other figures of the Mongol Empire, only by carefully sifting through the surviving sources can we hope to see through the biases of the winning side. Doubtless, had Ariq had won, Kublai’s name would have been the one tarnished. But Kublai secured his empire, and now the long reign of Kublai Khan was to begin.
The Mongol Empire as a united entity ceased to exist by Kublai Khan’s victory in 1264, but it’s history does not end there. Our future episodes will discuss the other great breakup of the empire, the Berke-Hulegu war, and the continued histories of the successor Khanates, so be sure to subscribe to our podcast. If you’d like to help us continue bringing you great content, consider supporting us on patreon at www.patreon.com/kingsandgenerals. I’m your host David, and we’ll catch you on the next one!
Now that we’ve taken you through Hulegu’s campaigns during Mongke’s reign, it’s time we cut back east to Mongke himself, and the Mongol invasion of the Song Dynasty, the great and immensely wealthy masters of southern China. Among the largest and most thoroughly planned of Mongol campaigns, it was one cut suddenly short with drastic consequences for the Mongol Empire. I’m your host David, and this is Kings and Generals: Ages of Conquest.
Planning a war against the Song Dynasty was no easy task. All of Mongke’s actions of his reign from 1251-1258 can be understood as him making preparations for it: cataloguing the resources and manpower of the empire, strengthening the central government and securing his various flanks. Mongke had valuable experience to use to determine his strategy; since 1234, the Mongols had fought rounds of inconclusive warfare with the Song; penetrating deep into the Dynasty’s territory, routinely defeating armies and taking cities, yet never able to make substantial gains and frustrated by Song tenacity, all in an environment almost tailor made to hampher cavalry armies.
To understand the war with the Song, it’s necessary to introduce the Dynasty and its ruling house of Zhao- but what a task that is! In its 300 year history the Song were among the most complex and fascinating of all of China’s imperial dynasties, a period when Chinese culture reached staggering new heights. To summarize it with any accuracy requires an entire podcast series to do so- the Cambridge History of China managed to get it down to two volumes totalling over 2,000 pages. The Song emperors oversaw a period of amazing economic, technological, agricultural and cultural achievements. Urbanization increased; the southern Song capital of Linan, modern Hangzhou, had a population in the 13th century conservatively estimated at 1.5 million. Paper money, a massive expansion and improvement of farming and rice cultivation, foreign and overseas trade, gunpowder, porcelain… the list goes on and on for either innovations or improvements the Song undertook. The wealth of the Song was immense, and it is rightly considered a Golden Age.
The Song were a dominant force in China since the 960s, emerging in the decades after the fall of the powerful Tang Dynasty, a period of disunity called the 10 Kingdoms and 5 Dynasties. Through great effort the Song swallowed up the other kingdoms of southern China and marched up into the north China plain, where they butted heads with the Khitan ruled Liao Dynasty. Rounds of warfare followed for the remainder of the 10th century, but a pattern which became all too routine emerged. The northern, largely cavalry based armies could outmaneuver and often annihilate the Song armies, whose offensive performance was poor even at their height. Yet the Khitans were frustrated by the defensive ability of the Song, and were unable to hold gains made against them- particularly when a giant Song crossbow speared the Khitan leader in 1005. Weeks later, the Song and Liao came to terms for the infamous Chanyuan Treaty, marking their borders and requiring the Song deliver a massive annual tribute of silk and silver to the Liao.
Part of the reason for the often criticized poor offensive military performance of the Song goes back to its founder, Zhao Kuangyin (kuang-yin), Taizu of Song. Zhao was a military man, as was his father and grandfather. Zhao owed much of his rise to the military- and also blamed it for the dissolution of the Tang Dynasty. Often, new Chinese dynasties structure themselves on what they perceived to be a key weakness of the preceding dynasty. To Zhao Kuangyin, the breakup of the Tang Dynasty came from military leaders and generals who grew too powerful, ignoring the imperial court to seek their own power, such as An Lushan in the 8th century. To Zhao, internal stability of the dynasty could only be secured with the military on a tight leash. Soon after consolidating power, the military leaders who had helped Zhao rise were eased into retirement and the army placed under permanent civilian command, the Bureau of Military Affairs. While often lambasted by later commentators, especially in the Youtube comments section, it wasn’t a horrible idea. The Song Dynasty was never beset by warlords seeking independence and still succeeded in seizing most of China. The fact the dynasty went up against some of the fiercest military powers of the medieval world could not have been predicted.
While an uneasy status quo was reached with the Khitans, in the early 12th century a major upheaval arose in the form of the Jurchen and the Jin Dynasty. In a few short years the Jin crushed the Liao; the Song allied with the Jin in an effort to seize Chinese territory and failed miserably. The alliance between Jin and Song hardly outlived the Liao Dynasty. In 1125 the Jurchens’ fearsome heavy cavalry tore through the Song; by the end of the 1120s the Song capital of Kaifeng was taken, the Song Emperor Qinzong, whose father who had recently abdicated, and most of the imperial family and court, were all captured. Northern China was taken, the Song Dynasty was in turmoil and nearly collapsed. The ninth son of the abdicated emperor managed to flee south, and recentre the Dynasty around Linan, modern Hangzhou, a coastal city at the mouth of the Yangzi River. This much reduced dynasty is usually termed ‘the Southern Song,’ to distinguish from the ‘Northern,’ when it ruled most of China. Over the 1130s leadership issues among the Jurchen, difficulties campaigning in south China and renewed defensive vigour by the Song halted Jin expansion, and a treaty in 1141 marked the Huai River as the boundary between Jin and Song. The Treaty of Shaoxing reimposed similar annual tribute demands as that of the Chanyuan treaty, thousands upon thousands of taels of silver and bushels of silk to be delivered to the Jin, and the Song had to recognize the Jin Emperor as the Son of Heaven- traditionally reserved for only a single ruler of China. The treaty was a humiliation and economic burden, on top of having to lose northern China. The peace was tense, and every few decades war resumed between Jin and Song, with neither able to make gains beyond the Huai.
Relations were somewhat cordial from the 1160s to the end of the 1180s, during the long and stable reigns of Shizong of Jin and Xiaozong of Song, something of a golden age for both states, though neither abandoned their territorial claims. Their successors were not nearly as capable and lacked the will, ability or the interest to direct forces within their courts. In the early 1200s, as the Jin were distracted by the northern steppes and ecological disasters, Song revanchism reached a new height. Seeking to take advantage of perceived Jin weakness, the Song launched a surprise invasion in 1206: before the end of the year, the Song were sending peace overtures to the Jin. Song forces were largely repulsed, the top military commander in Sichuan defected to the Jin, and the Jin counter attacked with a massive, nine pronged assault along the entirety of their 2000 kilometre long border. Despite this massive expenditure of manpower, the Jin made no gains, Peace was reached by 1208, the Song providing an increased annual tribute of 300,000 ounces of silver and bolts of silk, and heads of the ministers seen as responsible for promoting the war. Humiliating as it was, the Song at least did not have to make territorial concessions.
Perhaps the greatest consequence of that brief round of warfare was that it distracted the Jin and occupied its considerable resources from the trouble brewing on their northern frontier; the unification of the Mongol tribes under Chinggis Khan. In 1211, Chinggis Khan invaded the Jin Empire, as covered far back in episode seven. The initial Song reaction was somewhat mixed; no tears were shed in Linan for the suffering of the Jin, but whether this was something the Song should take advantage of was another matter. Either way, in the aftermath of the peace in 1208, for the next 25 years the Song court was largely dominated by the Chancellor Shih Mi-yuan, a man who urged stability and moderation rather than progress or reform. No risky military escapades would be undertaken on his watch.
The Song were unable to provide their annual tribute due to the fighting from 1211-1214. Many voices in the court loudly argued against continuing it all, for what was the use in sending it to a dying dynasty? Demonstrating his often indecisive policy making, Chancellor Shih Mi-Yuan did not actually stop the tribute, but held the allotted tribute in storage. He may have secretly resumed it in 1214, hoping to keep the peace with the Jin while avoiding angering more voices in the capital. The fact that even the Tangut and Korea had halted their payments to the Jin was not lost on Shih Mi-Yuan’s detractors. Neither was this appeasement even successful, for in spring 1217 the beleaguered Jurchen, having lost most of the northern half of their empire to the Mongols, attacked the Song. The intention was to restore both some dignity to the dynasty, and further space for the Jin court to flee from the Mongols if necessary. The result was not what they anticipated. Shih Mi-Yuan, while openly favouring the status quo and not mobilizing armies, had also ordered border defences improved and gave regional commanders greater autonomy with little interference from the central government. Song defensive forces responded quickly, and Jin offensives were not just actively repulsed, but in some cases led to successful Song campaigns into Jurchen territory. For the Jin it was a great shock, a blow to morale and resources at a time where they had little enough of either to spare. The Song and Shih Mi-yuan in particular had a new confidence against the Jin, spurning their envoys and in 1219, cutting off all diplomatic contacts with them.
About this time, in 1221, the Song sent their first diplomatic mission to the Mongols, notable in that it was recorded in a written account still accessible today, the Mengda beilu. The initial Song perceptions of the Mongols, as described in an excellent article by historian Chad Garcia, presents the Mongols as a ‘different kind of northerner.’ Contrasting them to the deceitful and malicious Jurchen of the Jin Dynasty, the Mongols are something of “noble savages;” honest, straightforward, physically strong if not attractive. Chinggis Khan is described in heroic characteristics fitting the archetypal Chinese emperor, with a large, broad forehead and long beard. No mention is made of them as especially terrifying or cruel.
As we’ve mentioned no shortage of times in the past, the absence of Chinggis Khan in the west against the Khwarezmian Empire and death of Mukhali, the commander in the Chinese theater in 1223, resulted in a great reduction of Mongol pressure on the region. The deaths of the Tangut, Jin and Song rulers over the following years allowed new voices to come to the fore. This is dealt with more fully in episode 14 of this series, but the result was a general ceasefire between them. While a brief respite, it was no more than a breath before the plunge; episode 14 also details the destruction of the Jin Empire in the early 1230s during the reign of Chinggis’ son and successor, Ogedai. Song Chancellor Shih Mi-yuan sought to stay out of the conflict and maintain Song neutrality- though the Mongols penetrated the Song border and raided in order to outmaneuver Jin forces, while also demanding an alliance against them. There was a minority of voices within the dynasty warning of the danger of the Mongols. Once the Jin no longer stood as a buffer between them, what then? Shih Mi-yuan may have been mindful of this, but was dead by autumn 1233. In the weeks before his death, as age reduced his presence in the court, the Song had agreed to assist the Mongols in the final attack on the Jin, reduced to a strip of land along the Song northern border. The Mongols needed to ensure the Jin emperor, Aizong of Jin, could not flee into Song territory. In return for this aid, the Song were given vague promises of land to be restored.
In the first months of 1234 the Jurchen Jin Dynasty was destroyed, its last emperor killed fighting in the streets. Yet, the promises of land did not materialize; Kaifeng, once the capital of the Song Dynasty, still remained in Mongol hands. Angry and belligerent voices, particularly among those who had only fought rebels with no experience of the Mongol way of war, were particularly loud in their complaints on the matter. Seeking to restore what was ‘rightfully theirs,’ and anticipating the local Han Chinese population would gladly rise up to join them, several Song armies marched over the Huai river in the middle of 1234… and promptly found a desolated, war torn landscape, a population unable to feed these armies let alone take up arms. The Song armies began a disorganized retreat, which turned into a rout when Mongol forces returned. Foolishly, the Song had just begun a 45 year long war.
Ogedai Khaan sent armies under his sons Kochu and Koten to lead raid the Song. Generally, these were in two regions: along the central frontier on the Huai River, and more westerly in Sichuan. Sichuan, where we’ll spend much of the rest of the episode, was, before the permanent incorporation of Tibet, Xinjiang and Gansu, the westernmost part of China. Roughly a bowl surrounded by mountains cutting it off from the rest of China, the Sichuan basin juts up against the eastern reaches of Tibet. Fertile, is one of the most densely populated regions of China, the Yangzi river which flows through it providing ample moisture for rich cultivation of rice, and a route to connect with the rest of southern China. Hot, humid and famous for its thickly forested mountain slopes, Sichuan saw more than its share of it fighting in the coming decades.
In both 1235 and 1236, attacks were led upon the central border and Sichuan; Koten led a particularly large, multi-ethnic force into Sichuan in 1236. The damage was immense. By the end of the year, only 4 of Sichuan’s 58 prefectural capitals still stood and Chengdu, the regional capital, was taken. The sudden successes were soured with the death of Kochu in November 1236 and retreat of most of the forces. Attacks in the rest of the 1230s were repulsed, often by the star Song general of the period, Meng Gong. Whether the Mongols actually wanted to fight the Song at the time is unclear- certainly in 1234, they were not planning on it. In 1238, they sent envoys to the Song for a ceasefire, which the Song rashly brushed off. Deliberately they were choosing not to hold cities. In 1241 Hanchou fell to a general massacre, followed by a sudden Mongol withdrawal. Such actions may have been a reaction to a necessity of fighting against the Southern Song. The Song had no lack of manpower to fall upon, and the trouble with any rapid assault was that it would need to be able to reliably hold onto any territory taken. Mongols could rapidly penetrate the border defenses, but the threat of being surrounded was quite real. At the very least, without sizable garrisons any city could be quickly retaken by Song forces when the Mongols moved on. The generally hot, humid weather of southern China strained the Mongols and their horses, disease spreading quickly among troops unused to the climate. The general preponderance of rivers, mountains and forest made large cavalry operations difficult to effectively operate. On top of all of this, while the Song are often derided for some sort of innate military ineffectiveness, the most pressing issue was the fierceness of the Song defenders. Resistance was strong, and it was not unusual for the Mongols to find a campaign suddenly held up by valiant defenders in one city, locking at least a portion of the Mongol army in place for months and, in some cases, years.
By the time of Ogedai’s death at the end of 1241, no major gains had been made, though the Song had suffered a good mauling. Little effort was made over the remainders of the 1240s, the Mongols dealing with the political issues relating to the regencies and short reign of Guyuk Khan. Diplomatic discussions took place in 1247, which went nowhere. The Song could in the meantime prepare border defences, repair walls and mobilize men, though at great cost. Printing yet more paper money to solve inflation did not, it turns out, do so. Taxes made it back to the capital in smaller and smaller amounts as regional governors and commanders seized them to pay for the war effort. Sichuan suffered so terribly that it apparently provided no revenue to the capital after 1234. For the Song, the yearly cost to simply keep their armies mobilized was immense. Drought, flooding, epidemics, fires and locusts struck often over the 1240s-50s, another layer of cost which, through augmenting the destruction of farmland from Mongol attacks, further strained government resources. An ever growing bureaucracy brought more corruption, more cost and more issues. The emperors of the thirteenth century showed less and less interest in governing, leaving an ever-more divided imperial court to run things. After the death of Shih Mi-yuan and the last of his followers in 1251, the Song court was hamstrung by fighting between eunuchs and bureaucrats vying for power. Despite their vast wealth, they were under immense pressure threatening to collapse the dynasty, just as Mongke Khaan prepared to hurl the weight of the Mongol Empire upon it.
Mongke knew the assault on the Song was an immense task. In 1252, sending his brother Hulegu to the far west to subdue the rest of the Islamic world, Mongke ordered his other brother Kublai to take another army against the Song. Rather than throw men at the well defended Song northern borders- a strategy so far ineffective- Mongke sent Kublai to subdue the independent kingdoms along the Song’s southwestern border in what is now China’s Yunnan province, where Song defences were much weaker.
Kublai had not yet commanded armies in person before this campaign, so Mongke provided him a guiding figure: Uriyangqadai, the son of the mighty Subutai. Setting out in late 1253 from forward bases in Gansu, the former territory of the Tangut, Kublai’s army marched in three columns; an eastern column under the Chinese defector Weng Dezhen, which marched through Sichuan, the main army under Kublai and the western column under Uriyangqadai, both marching hrough the eastern edges of Tibet. Tibet’s conquest by the Mongols is a bit of a shadowy thing, difficult to reconstruct due to only brief mentions in the sources. By the early 1250s, most of the Tibetan tribes were subdued or paying tribute to the Mongols, who had sent repeated armies into the region over the previous two decades. By the mid-1250s, Tibet was largely under Mongol authority, though it would need to be reimposed and strengthened later in the century.
Cutting through the mountains of Tibet, Kublai’s army fell upon the hills of Yunnan and the Kingdom of Dali. Founded in the 10th century, Dali controlled the valuable trade between the Song Dynasty and the kingdoms of Guizhou, Tibet, Vietnam and the rest of Indochina. Relations with the Song were amicable, and Dali became the Song’s major supplier of horses with the loss of Northern China; but Dali was independent and somewhat isolated from the affairs of the Chinese. Central authority of the Dali kings had declined by the thirteenth century, their actual rule hardly extending beyond their capital, also called Dali. By the time of Kublai’s invasion in 1253, the Dali King was puppet for his chief minister, who had ordered the deaths of Mongol envoys. Dali’s army would be no match for the Mongol forces, even under an inexperienced commander like Kublai. Crossing a river on sheepskin rafts, Kublai’s army surprised and destroyed the main Dali army under the Chief Minister, who fled back to the capital. In the last days of 1253, Kublai’s three armies converged on Dali City. In Chinese sources, Kublai’s confucian teacher Yao Shu convinced Kublai to spare the city’s inhabitants, and in January 1254 Dali submitted to the Mongols. The victorious Kublai returned back to north China, where he was appointed administrator and got up to other problems, as detailed in episode 23. Uriyangqadai was left to subdue the remaining local powers and prepare for the great assault on the Song, as well as recruit locals to serve in the army. He moved against the independent kingdoms of China’s modern Guizhou province, the intermediate area between Song and Dali. He returned briefly to Gansu in early 1257, but in his absence revolt broke out in Dali, bringing Uriyangqadai back into the region. His efforts eventually led him to ride into northern Vietnam, Dai Viet, called Annam in Chinese sources. His envoys were killed, and Uriyangqadai attacked the capital, Thang-long, modern day Hanoi. Thang-long was greatly damaged, the king forced to flee to an offshore island, and send a son as royal hostage to the Mongols as well as tribute. Dai Viet was now vassal of the Mongol Emperor.
Though the Yunnan-Guizhou region would not be fully pacified until the 1280s, it was secure enough to act as a staging ground for the assault on Song. With affairs in order and resources from across the empire pooled, Mongke felt confident to launch the final war on the Song. The total force was immense: as many as 600,000 in some sources to attack Song from several directions. Mongke gathered his forces in the Liupan mountains in 1258, not far from where his grandfather, Chinggis Khan, had died some thirty years prior. Mongke was to take his force against Sichuan; a second army under his cousin Taghachar, was to strike east from the Liupanshan to the Song metropolis of Xiangyang, which controlled access to the vital Song river routes; Kublai was to take a third force from north China to the central regions of the Yangzi river, focusing on the city of O-zhou, today’s Wuhan. The fourth army was under Uriyangqadai, who from Yunnan would hammer the Song from the west and link up with Kublai and Taghachar along the Yangzi.
The idea was twofold. By striking the Song along so many frontiers, they would be unable to converge against a single army, while the Song empire could be split in half. With the capital and administration based on the far eastern edge of the Song realm, the Mongols could isolate it and perhaps drive a mammoth wave of refugees to it.
In the Autumn of 1258, Mongke’s host descended upon Sichuan. 100,000 troops had recently been sent by the Song to reinforce it, but frustratingly little else had been done by the central government to help repair fortifications of that western region. During the march on Dali some five years prior, much of Sichuan was occupied, but the major population centres stood defiant. The Grand Khan himself was now taking the field against them. Sichuan’s capital, Chengdu, a population of almost one million, quickly fell and it’s plain was soon in Mongol hands. Initial successes were significant, but as 1258 turned to 1259, Mongke found himself bogged down in sieges in eastern Sichuan. Outside of the plain of Sichuan, the province turns to rugged mountains and valleys. Recently constructed mountain tops fortresses proved difficult to take; Chongqing, one of the major cities along the Yangzi in the region, was turned into a network of fortresses. Defenders fought tooth and nail, knowing defeat meant slaughter for them and their families. Mongke’s problems grew as he sought to take Ho-chou. For five months, the city resisted his efforts, heavy losses frustrating him. By June, rain became incessant. Humidity and the climate proved an effective weapon. Disease spread rapidly among the Mongols and their horses. Even troops levied from northern China were unused to it, and progress halted. Mongke fought the rest of the summer in the hills around Ho-chou, trying to keep up the army’s momentum. Precisely how things went in August is not agreed upon in the sources. Mongke seems to have been drinking heavily, perhaps recognizing the water spread foul diseases to his men. His judgement and reflex may have been impaired, perhaps his own fortitude suffering. The sources speak of an arrow from the defenders of a local fort, or a projectile launched from a catapult. Others, of cholera or dysentery brought on by the conditions. No matter what it was, on the 11th of August, 1259, Mongke Khaan was dead.
His army ground to a halt. Messages were sent to the other armies, and Mongke’s son Asutai quickly took his father’s body back to Mongolia for burial. According to Marco Polo, the army killed everyone they came across as they hauled his corpse. News spread quickly, the Song found new heart: the great Khaghan was dead! Taghachar Noyan’s army had already floundered outside the walls of Xiangyang. Kublai, delayed by his severe gout, had not yet even crossed the Yangzi River when he learned the news of his brother’s demise. Only Uriyangqadai had made progress, perhaps due to a greater number of locally raised troops from Dali suited to the climate. From Dali or Dai Viet, he had marched through the modern provinces of Guangxi and Hunan to reach Kublai on the Yangzi, allegedly fighting 13 battles, killing 400,000 Song soldiers and capturing several major generals.
On learning of Mongke’s death, Kublai continued to campaign for another two months, initially dismissing it simply as a rumour, then stating he had been ordered south by the Khaan, and it was his duty to carry out his will. Crossing the Yangzi, he succeeded in taking O-chou, modern Wuhan. Perhaps the desire to get something done on the campaign drove him, or perhaps a thought crossed his mind: he didn’t have much for a military reputation. Taking a major city like O-chou would alleviate that, and make him a better candidate for the leadership to succeed Mongke. Doubtless, he imagined it would be months before an election would be held, giving him ample time to score some victories for his resume.
Therefore, he was quite surprised when messages came from his wife, Chabi, in late November 1259, warning that Kublai’s youngest brother, Ariq Boke, was making moves to become Khaan. Ariq had been left as regent in Karakorum while his brothers were on campaign, and now looked to declare himself Khaan before the families had all assembled. For Kublai, this was an opportunity he could not afford to lose. Thus he departed Wuhuan in winter 1259, the Song, under their new chancellor Jia Sidao, warily watching the frontier and seeking to reclaim the lost territory. Little could they have predicted, but the age of the unified Mongol Empire had just ended. Providing no designated successor, Mongke’s death opened a vacuum, one which would tear every fracture within the empire to the surface. Civil war across Eurasia was about to follow, and the Song were offered a brief respite from the Mongols.
Our next episodes look at the great civil wars of the Mongol Empire, so be sure to subscribe to our podcast for more. If you’d like to help us keep bringing you outstanding content, please consider supporting us on patreon at www.patreon.com/kingsandgenerals. I’m your host David, and we’ll catch you on the next one.
“From the King of Kings of East and West, the supreme Khan:
In your name, O God, who stretched out the earth and lifted up the heavens; Qutuz is of the race of those Mamluks, who fled to this region to escape our swords... Let Qutuz know, as well as all his emirs, and the peoples of his empire who inhabit Egypt and the neighboring countries, that we are the soldiers of God on earth; that he created us in his anger, and delivered into our hands all those who are the object of his wrath; what has happened in other lands should be a matter for you to think about, and distract you from making war on us. Learn from the example of others and commit your fate to us before the veil is torn, and, delivered to repentance, you see the penalty for your sins fall upon you: for we will not allow ourselves to be touched by crying and we will be insensitive to complaints. You have heard that we have conquered a vast expanse of land; that we have purified the earth of the disorders which defiled it; and that we have slaughtered most of the inhabitants. It’s up to you to flee, and it’s up to us to pursue you; and what land will offer you a refuge? Which road can save you?... You have no way of escaping our swords, of escaping the slaying of our weapons… Hurry to give us an answer, before the war ignites its fires and launches its sparks on you: then you will no longer find asylum, strength, protection, support. You would experience the most terrible catastrophes on our part, and you would soon leave your lands deserted. In sending you this message, we have acted nobly towards you; we have sought [...] to wake you from your slumber. Now you are the only enemies we must march against. May salvation be upon us, upon you, and upon all [...] who submit to the orders of the Supreme Khan. "
So reads the ultimatum delivered to Cairo in early summer 1260, as recorded by al-Maqrizi. Qutuz, the newly declared ruler of the Mamluk Sultanate of Egypt, faced the awesome might of an army unsurpassed, invincibile and merciless. Qutuz, in a fragile alliance with his erstwhile enemy Baybars, made the frightful decision to kill Hulegu Khan’s envoys, and roll the dice to challenge the Mongol hosts, ultimately facing them at the Battle of Ayn Jalut. I’m your host David, and this is Kings and Generals: Ages of Conquests.
Our previous episode detailed Hulegu’s sack of Baghdad in February 1258, and the death of the last ‘Abbasid Caliph, al-Musta'sim. Hulegu soon moved north to Maragha to rest and prepare for the next leg of his journey; reducing the remaining independent powers along the Levantine Coast. For Hulegu and his massive army, it seemed nothing would stand in the way of the subjugation of the remainder of the Muslim world. Spending the summer of 1258 moving between Maragha and Tabriz, many throughout the region reaffirmed their submission. Sons and representatives came from the atabeg of Fars, various lords of the Caucasus and the Ayyubid Sultan of Aleppo and Damascus al-Nasir Yusuf. In person came the 90 year old Badr al-Din Lu’lu of Mosul and the two Seljuq Sultans of Rum, ‘Izz al-Din Kaykaus II and his half-brother, Rukn al-Din Kilich Arslan IV. The fall of the Caliph sent shockwaves, and most were eager to reaffirm their vassalage lest they share his fate. ‘Izz al-Din Kaykaus, knowing Hulegu was already displeased with him for his brief rebellion in 1256, made Hulegu a pair of fine boots with his portrait on the soles, and kneeling before Hulegu told him “your slave hopes the padishah will elevate this slave’s head with his royal foot.”
Hulegu was pleased with himself; the conquests were coming easily and it seemed he would complete his older brother’s will in good time. It’s possible that at this time Hulegu adopted for himself a new title, il-khan, which he began to include on coinage he minted the following year. Generally il-khan is translated as ‘viceroy,’ or ‘subject khan,’ il in Mongolian having connotations of submission. However, there is argument that it’s a Mongolian form of an older Turkic title, ileg khan, meaning ‘sovereign.’ Some sources from the Ilkhanate use it in this sense; one writer refers to Chinggis Khan as Il-khan,when such connotations of submission were quite inappropriate.
Hulegu spent the remainder of 1258 in Azerbaijan, wintering in Arran and the Mughan plain, where the cool temperatures and fine pastures pleased the Mongols. Maragha emerged as Hulegu’s de facto capital, and that region became the administrative centre and summer retreat of the Ilkhanate for the next 70 years. From here, Hulegu plotted. Intelligence came in of the fractured politics of the statelets from Syria to Egypt. The ruler of Mayyafariqin in the Jazira had previously submitted to the Mongols, but had revolted as the Mongol army surrounded Baghdad. Hulegu sent his son Yoshmut to deal with them. The Ayyubid sultan of Syria, al-Nasir Yusuf, had been a Mongol tributary since the early 1240s, but had failed to provide troops against Baghdad or to appear before Hulegu in person. So, Hulegu would appear before him in person, along with 100,000 of his closest friends and at least 300,000 of their favourite horses. The only power of any note other than the small Ayyubid princes and Crusader holdouts on the coast, was the newly established Mamluk Sultanate in Egypt. Sending Yoshmut and Kitbuqa as his vanguard in spring 1259, in September Hulegu led the main army to Syria, anticipating a swift and glorious conquest of the region.
Some 80 years prior, Egypt to eastern Turkey had been unified by an-Nasir Salah ad-Din Yusuf ibn Ayyub, who you may know better as Saladin. On his death in 1193 Saladin intended for three of his sons to rule in a sort of confederacy, one in Cairo, Egypt; one in Aleppo in Syria, and one in Damascus, also in Syria, to be the senior over the others. Within 3 years, his plan went awry. Saladin’s brother al-Adil bin Ayyub took control of Damascus and Egypt and forced Aleppo to recognize his authority. al-Adil placed his own sons as governors, and allowed the jihad to fall to the wayside, enjoying a fruitful 20 year truce with the Crusader states. The trade they brought was valuable and al-Adil found his Seljuq and Zengid neighbours of much greater concern. It was not until 1218 when his system cracked; that year the fifth Crusade landed in Egypt and soon took Damietta; the Anatolian Seljuqs backed Saladin’s ousted son al-Afdal in attempting to take Aleppo; and al-Adil died of illness is August 1218. On his death, the Ayyubids never regained their unity. al-Adil’s son al-Kamil took power in Egypt, but continually butted heads with the Ayyubid princes of Syria, especially his brother controlling Damascus, al-Muazzam. It was in the face of war with al-Muazzam that in 1229 al-Kamil agreed to a truce with the oncoming Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick II Hohenstaufen, bloodlessly returning Jerusalem to Christian hands for the first time since Saladin took the city in 1187.
Al-Kamil died in 1238, his family vying for control of Egypt. It took two years for his oldest son, al-Salih Ayyub, to seize power there. By then, the Ayyubids of Syria and Egypt were totally independent of each other; al-Nasir Yusuf, the prince of Aleppo, became tributary to the Mongols in 1243. In Egypt, al-Salih Ayyub showed himself a powerful and militaristic ruler- the last effective Ayyubid Sultan, exerting his power against his cousins in Syria. The first means to do this was to invite the bands of Khwarezmian mercenaries in Syria to him. These were the remnants of Jalal al-Din Mingburnu’s army, who, since Mingburnu’s demise in 1231, had acted as mercenaries and pillagers, raiding for the highest bidder. In 1244, al-Salih Ayyub invited them to Egypt, intent on employing them, or at least, keeping them from being employed against him by the Syrian Ayyubids. The Khwarezmians under Husam al-Din Berke Khan took up the call, en route sacking Jerusalem in early summer 1244, the Crusaders losing Jerusalem for good. The panicking Franks organized an alliance against the Khwarezmians- a grand army of Frankish troops, knights of the Military Orders, and the Ayyubid princes of Damascus and Homs, eager to keep the Khwarezmians out of al-Salih Ayyub’s hands. Their largest field army since the Third Crusade, some 13,000 men, was resoundingly crushed by the Khwarezmians at La Forbie in October 1244. It was a massacre, the offensive ability of the Crusader States permanently broken. Representatives from Acre reached Europe and called for aid- only the penitent King Louis IX of France would answer.
Al-Salih Ayyub took the Khwarezmians north, and after assisting him in taking control of Damascus, gave them the boot, and they were overwhelmed and dispersed by Syrian forces in 1246. So ended the last remnant of the Khwarezmian Empire, some 20 years after Chinggis Khan’s invasion.
Giving up on unreliable Khwarezmians, al-Salih Ayyub turned to slave soldiers. Military slavery was hardly a new institution, used from the ‘Abbasids to the Fatimids to the Ayyubids under Saladin himself. Generally, the Islamic institutions of military slavery differed greatly from the chattel slavery we associate the term with. In the words of historian Bart Hacker, “although his owner might buy or sell him and otherwise dictate certain life choices, the relationship of owner to soldier more nearly resembled that of patron to client than master to slave in the western sense. These are complex issues, but Muslim military slavery clearly did not define the soldier’s occupation, wealth, social standing or power.” Depending on the dynasty, military slavery actually increased a man’s access to wealth and social standing.
Prior to the 12th century, these slave soldiers were generally called ghulams, but by 1200 mamluk had replaced it. While a ghulam or mamluk could come from anywhere, Turkic steppe nomads were preferred. Bought as children between 8 and 12, from their upbringing on the steppe they already had valuable experience in archery and horseback riding. The most physically skilled were sold as mamluks, upon which they were converted to Islam and received further training in weapons and tactics, provided armour, horses and the support of the state. Often they were taught languages, administrative skills and how to read and write. They were expected to be absolutely loyal to their master, who heaped rewards on them. They combined all the military skill of the Turkic nomads, but with greater discipline and reliability.
In the dusty flood plain, 100,000 men and many times that in horses surround the walls of Baghdad. Catapults lob stones relentlessly into the city walls, hauled from great distance. Here, towers collapse under the barrage; there, ladders bring Mongol and subject peoples onto the fortifications, seizing them from the disorganized and panicking garrison. Arrows, some bearing messages, bring both confusion and injury where they land. The mighty Tigris River, the city’s lifeblood, is now part of the trap; pontoon bridges, from them dangling nets embedded with iron hooks, rest both north and south of the city to catch those trying to flee. The final ‘Abbasid Caliph sits frightened and overwhelmed in his palace, as the grasp of Hulegu Khan closes around him. Today, we discuss the fall of Baghdad, 1258. But first, we’d like to remind you that for those of you who enjoy the podcast, your support would be highly appreciated and would help us keep going. We have a patreon available for monthly or even one-time donations or, if you aren’t able to support us financially, positive reviews on Apple Podcasts or other review sites really helps us out. And now, I’m your host David, and this is Kings and Generals: Ages of Conquest.
We left our previous episode off with Hulegu destroying the Nizari Ismaili state, better known at the Order of Assassins, who had controlled a series of fortresses across eastern and northern Iran. By the end of 1256, Hulegu had reduced them to but a few holdouts, and he could begin to look to his next target. Considered heretics of the worst variety by most Sunni Muslims, the Persian writer Juvaini, a member of Hulegu’s retinue, described his victory over the Nizaris in glowing terms, Hulegu as a sword of Islam carrying out God’s will. Juvaini presents Hulegu’s war as a more ‘civilized’ form of conquest compared to that of his grandfather, Chinggis Khan. Destruction was limited to Ismaili territories and the towns and fortresses that failed to submit, as opposed to the veritable tsunami of bloodshed Chinggis Khan wrought on the Khwarezmian empire over thirty years prior. What Hulegu was soon to do in Baghdad and to the titular head of Sunni Islam would not be so praised, and it is perhaps no coincidence that Juvaini’s own chronicle ends with the fall of the Ismailis. As Hulegu left Ismaili territory in the final month of 1256, his eye was drawn to the ‘Abbasid Caliph in Baghdad.
In Islam, the spiritual leader of the religion was whoever was considered the successor to the Prophet Muhammad. For Shi’a Muslims, this was the imam- for Nizari Ismailis, the Imam was the ruler of Alamut, who had just been put to death on Mongol orders. For the majority of Muslims, known as Sunnis, the head of their faith was the Caliph, literally meaning ‘successor.’The first four Caliphs to succeed the Prophet were the “Rightly Guided,” the Rashidun, whose legitimacy is generally unquestioned by most Muslims. The Rashidun were succeeded by the Umayyads, who greatly extended Muslim rule east and west, across North Africa into Spain and across Eastern Iran into Central Asia. In 750, the Umayyad Caliphs were overthrown in the ‘Abbasid revolution. Claiming descent from the Prophet’s uncle ‘Abbas, it was under the early ‘Abbasids that the Caliphal capital was moved from Damascus to the newly established Baghdad along the Tigris River. Never comparable to the power of the Umayyads at their height, from the 9th century onwards the still vast ‘Abbasid empire fragmented with threat from all directions: the Fatimids in Egypt, the Samanids, Buyids and Saffarids of Iran and finally from the steppes, the Great Seljuqs, all of which ground the ‘Abbasids down until their state hardly stretched past the walls of Baghdad. The weakening of the Seljuqs after Sultan Malik-Shah’s death in 1092 allowed the ‘Abbasids to gradually reclaim independence and some authority, even repulsing a Seljuq army attacking Baghdad in 1157. The long reigns of Caliph al-Nasir and al-Mustansir, from 1180 until 1242, saw the ‘Abbasids reclaim much of central and southern Iraq. A far cry from the sweeping power they had held in the 8th century, by the 13th century they still remained influential and held prestige. For 500 years they had been the heads of Islam, and had long cultivated an useful image as invioable and holy, above temporal affairs though they were more often than not mired in them.
For instance, in the late 12th century Caliph al-Nasir was in conflict with the Seljuqs who continued to rule in Iran. He allied with the rising power northeast of the Iranian Seljuqs, the Khwarezmian Empire. Once vassals of the Great Seljuqs, the Khwarezm-shahs now butted heads with them as they expanded southwards, and the reigning Khwarezm-Shah, Tekesh bin Il-Arslan, was happy to ally himself with the Caliph. In 1194 at Rayy, modern Tehran, Tekesh defeated and killed the last Seljuq Sultan in Iran, Toghrul III, ending the dynasty and sending the Sultan’s severed head to al-Nasir in Baghdad. Rather than provide freedom for the Caliphate, Tekesh now wanted to step into the place of Seljuqs. The Seljuqs’ territory in Iran was largely annexed by Tekesh Khwarezm-shah, who soon began making aggressive motions to the Caliph. Al-Nasir encouraged the Khwarezmians’ eastern neighbours, the Ghurids, in their war with Tekesh. Tekesh died in 1200, succeeded by his son Muhammad II as Khwarezm-shah who, through luck, timely assassinations and military victories, overcame the Ghurids, consolidated power over Iran and in 1217 tried to march on Baghdad itself. Muhammad’s march on Baghdad was halted by a vicious snowstorm as he crossed the Zagros mountains, forcing him back. Returning to the northeast of his empire, Muhammad would there make the poor decisions which led to the Mongol Invasion of Khwarezm, covered way back in episode 9 of this podcast.
Now, some authors of the period assert that Caliph al-Nasir actually invited Chinggis Khan to attack Muhammad of Khwarezm- when placed in the context of the Caliph switching to support whoever was on the eastern side of his current foe, there is definitely a logic to it. However, as we described in detail in episode 8 of the podcast, the cause of the Mongol invasion can be found in the foolery of Muhammad Khwarezm-shah alone. Had the Mongols come on the invitation of the Caliph, then surely they would have publicized that to justify the attack and sow further confusion among the Khwarezmians.
In fact, in 1221 when detachments of Jebe and Subutai’s army penetrated into northern Iraq, Caliph al-Nasir was hardly welcoming. Along with the rulers of northern Iraq’s most important cities, Muzaffar ad-Din of Irbil and Badr al-Din Lu’lu’, the de facto ruler of Mosul, the Caliph organized a short lived military coalition, which proved unnecessary as the Mongols soon withdrew. Evidently, the ‘Abbasids spread a rumour that their army was absolutely gargantuan, their power unassailable and heavenly protected, and the Mongols were hesitant to commit. Had they paid close attention in the following years, they might have called the Caliph’s bluff. In 1225 that favoured Khwarezmian rapscallion, Jalal al-Din Mingburnu, defeated a Caliphal army after the ‘Abbasids failed to provide him assistance. Jalal al-Din chased the survivors right to the suburbs of Baghdad, then went north, defeated an army from Irbil sent to assist the Caliph and captured Irbil’s ruler, Muzaffar ad-Din. Caliph al-Nasir, by then elderly, paralyzed and blind for three years, died soon after Jalal al-Din’s attack, and was succeeded by his son, az-Zahir, as the 35th Caliph… for nine months. On Caliph az-Zahir’s death in 1226, he was succeeded by his own son, al-Mustansir, the 36th and penultimate ‘Abbasid Caliph of Baghdad.
As Caliph, al-Mustanir continued to try to strengthen ‘Abbasid control in Iraq and expand the army, but Mongol rule steadily spread over the region. By the start of the 1230s, Chormaqun Noyan and his lieutenants brought the submission of most of Iran and cast Mongol authority over the Caucasus. For Caliph al-Mustansir, the Mongol empire was a vast crescent to his north and east, where it stretched seemingly indefinitely. By 1235, Mongol forces mainly under Chagatai Noyan, “the Lesser,” were probing northern Iraq and directly, but hesitantly, testing ‘Abbasid hegemony in the region. In June 1237, Chagatai Noyan captured Irbil in what is now Iraqi Kurdistan, though the Citadel held out and in August Caliphal forces relieved the city. In February of 1238, an attack was launched on Baghdad, and a panicked Caliph al-Mustansir sent messages to the remaining independent Muslim powers from the Jazira and Syria down to Egypt for aid. Only 2,000 troops from the Ayyubid Sultan of Egypt, al-Kamil, reached Baghdad, and in June 1238 a caliphal army was defeated near the city. However, the defences of Baghdad itself remained formidable and the city stood defiant while the Mongols turned back from the walls, unprepared for both a long siege and or the fearsome Iraqi summer. Possibly, the Mongols suffered some sort of reverse while attacking Baghdad; some sixty years later, when the Persian historian Wassaf [vassaf] visited Baghdad, he recorded a Mongol defeat outside the walls, though this goes unmentioned by the other sources.
While Baghdad remained independent, the Mongols continued to take cities in the region. Chormaqun’s successor Baiju brought the submission of the Seljuqs of Anatolia in 1243; in 1244, the Mongol general Yasa’ur rode into Syria, dislodging the remnants of Jalal al-Din’s Khwarezmians. The Ayyubids of Syria, the successors of the once mighty empire of Saladin Ayyubi, largely submitted over 1244-5, and even Antioch, one of the last of the Crusader Kingdoms, offered its submission. In late 1245 another attack on Baghdad was launched but soon aborted. The new Caliph since 1242, al-Mustasim ibn al-Mustansir, was lucky the attack was called off, for he was rather rapidly running out of allies. It seem that the new Caliph managed to avoid further attacks with a token submission: the Franscisan Friar John de Plano Carpini, present at the coronation of Guyuk Khaan in 1246, noted ‘Abbasid envoys were present in Karakorum and believed they paid a regular tribute.
The 38th and final ‘Abbasid Caliph of Baghdad, al-Mustasim, was not the equal of his father or great-grandfather. While al-Nasir and al-Mustansir sought to strengthen the Caliphate, al-Mustasim was more interested in the luxury of Baghdad, and was nearly universally condemned for decadence. A great lover of music, he sponsored an entire neighbourhood in Baghdad to house musicians, including the most famous of the age, Saif al-Din Urmawi. A lover of pigeon racing, art, calligraphy and treasures, al-Mustasim was also indecisive and easily swayed by factions in his court, some of whom, such as the vizier, sought accomodation with the Mongols, while others urged to meet them in battle. As we will see shortly, the result was al-Mustasim vacillating in policy, wavering between antagonizing the Mongols and sending them gifts. Essentially, the worst sort of man to have in power when Hulegu marched on him with upwards of 100,000 men.
Neither was weak leadership the only problem. Corruption and decadence of Baghdad’s elite alienated the lower classes. A weak currency and high food prices contributed to revolts; many of Baghdad’s soldiers increasingly found themselves unpaid and resorted to bandity or desertion. Topping off years of natural disasters- heavy rain, storms, annual flooding, in 1256, the Tigris, the river which runs through Baghdad, flooded for over a month, washing away much of Baghdad’s lower city. Attributed to divine displeasure at the decadent al-Mustasim, for decades afterwards this flood was remembered as the “Mustasimid flood.” As Mongol armies approached the city, pestilence killed many hundreds, if not thousands. The Caliph stood in a precarious position.
Likely in late 1255, Hulegu sent a message to Caliph al-Mustasim demanding, as Hulegu had done with other rulers across the region, that Baghdad supply troops to help in the attack on the Nizari Isamilis. Al-Mustasim refused. As the ‘Abbasids had been sending tribute in the previous years and were considered vassals, such a refusal was a declaration of independence. Hulegu, having been sent in part to find how sincere the Caliph’s submission was, now had his casus belli, for to the Mongols, the Caliph of Baghdad was now in open revolt. War with the Caliph was not intended to punish Islam specifically; had the Mongols caught the Pope and considered him a rebel, certainly he would have shared a similar fate. What mattered to the Mongols was submission to their divinely mandated rule; refusal to submit was blasphemy of the highest order.
After the fall of Alamut in December 1256, and spending some time near the still-resisting Nizari fortress of Lammasar, Hulegu stayed in Qazwin, just south of Alamut, until March 1257. From Qazwin he undertook a somewhat repetitive journey: from Qazwin he went to Hamadan, then to Dinavar, then Tabriz, then back to Hamadan, then back to Tabriz, then back to Hamadan in September 1257, from whence he would finally march on Baghdad. The reasons for this were multiple, and not just because Hulegu really liked northwestern Iran, though it did give him good time to evaluate the region. Firstly, Hulegu did not want to besiege Baghdad in the summer months, and instead needed to time the march so he arrived outside the city in the winter. Secondly, it provided time for his lieutenants to secure the neighbouring theaters: Kitbuqa Noyan secured through force and diplomacy Luristan and the passes through the Zagros mountains, ensuring Hulegu’s main army could march unimpeded when the time came. In Anatolia, Baiju Noyan had needed to put down a Seljuq revolt, culminating in the battle of Aksaray in October 1256. Baiju then needed to move back east, in order to march on Baghdad from the west when the time came.
Thirdly, Hulegu and the Caliph engaged in an entertaining round of diplomatic fisti-cuffs. Hulegu offered the Caliph another chance to surrender, repudiating him for his failure to send troops against the Nizaris. Hulegu’s threat, as recorded by the Ilkhanid vizier Rashid al-Din, went as follows:
“Previously we have given you advice, but now we say you should avoid our wrath and vengeance. Do not try to overreach yourself or accomplish the impossible, for you will only succeed in harming yourself. The past is over. Destroy your ramparts, ﬁll in your moats, turn the kingdom over to your son, and come to us. If you do not wish to come, send all three, the vizier [al-Alqami], Sulaymanshah, and the Dawatdar, that they may convey our message word for word. If our command is obeyed, it will not be necessary for us to wreak vengeance, and you may retain your lands, army, and subjects. If you do not heed our advice and dispute with us, line up your soldiers and get ready for the ﬁeld of battle, for we have our loins girded for battle with you and are standing at the ready. When I lead my troops in wrath against Baghdad, even if you hide in the sky or in the earth, ‘I shall bring you down from the turning celestial sphere; I shall pull you up like a lion. I shall not leave one person alive in your realm, and I shall put your city and country to the torch.’ “If you desire to have mercy on your ancient family’s heads, heed my advice. If you do not, let us see what God’s will is.”
The Caliph refused Hulegu’s demands, and when he sent back Hulegu’s envoys, they were harassed by the people of Baghdad; the Caliph’s vizier, ibn al-Alqami, had to send soldiers to protect the envoys to ensure they weren’t killed. When Hulegu learned of the incident, he derided the Caliph as a total incompetent, and then flew into a rage when he heard the official response, which called Hulegu a young and inexperienced man: somewhat humorous, considering al-Mustasim was only four years older than Hulegu. Hulegu’s response was about as subtle as you’d expect. Again, as per the account of Rashid al-Din, quote:
“God the eternal elevated [Chinggis] Khan and his progeny and gave us all the face of the earth, from east to west. Anyone whose heart and tongue are straight with us in submission retains his kingdom, property, women, children, and life. He who contemplates otherwise will not live to enjoy them. Love of status and property, conceit, and pride in transitory fortune have so seduced you that even the words of your well-wishers have no effect on you. Your ear cannot hear the advice of the compassionate, and you have deviated from the path of your fathers and forebears. You must get ready for battle, for I am coming to Baghdad with an army as numerous as ants and locusts. Be the turning of the celestial sphere how it may, the power to command is God’s.”
Upon hearing this message, al-Mustasim’s vizier ibn al-Alqami understood the colossal danger they were in, and fervently argued for the Caliph to appease the Mongols. Al-Alqami has something of a bisecting reputation in the Islamic world. For some, reading the Mamluk sources, the Shia Muslim ibn al-Alqami was a conspirator, plotting with Hulegu to topple the head of Sunni Islam for his own gain. For those reading from Persian and Ilkhanid sources, ibn al-Alqami was earnestly trying to steer the Caliph away from annihilation and save as many lives as he could. On this last response from Hulegu, al-Alqami was able to convince al-Mustasim to send gifts, only for the Caliph to be talked out of it by the dawatdar, Mugahid al-Din Aybek, the Caliphate’s top military man and a staunch supporter of resistance against Hulegu. Convincing the Caliph to abandon the expensive gifts, al-Mustasim sent the following message to vizier al-Alqami to assuage his worries:
“Do not fear the future, and do not talk fables, for there is friendship and unity, not enmity and hostility, between me and Hülägü and [Mongke Khaan]. Since I am their friend, they are of course friendly and benevolent toward me. The envoys’ message is false. Even if these brothers contemplate opposition to or treachery against me, what has the Abbasid dynasty to fear, when the monarchs of the face of the earth stand as our army and obey our every command? If I request an army from every country and mount to repulse the foe, I can incite Iran and Turan against these brothers. Be of stout heart, and do not fear the threats of the Mongols, for although they are powerful upstarts, they pose nothing but an empty threat to the House of Abbas.”
If Rashid al-Din is accurate in recording this message, then it goes some way to demonstrate just how greatly al-Mustasim misunderstood the situation. al-Mustasim’s next letter to Hulegu spoke of monarchs who had attacked the ‘Abbasids and suffered divine retribution for it, noting specifically Muahmmad Khwarezm-shah, who for his attack on Baghdad in 1217 suffered the power of Hulegu’s grandfather. Hulegu sent another threat, promising to bring the Caliph “down miserably into the jaws of a lion,” and had enough of parlay.
Hulegu had only to check with the astrologers and diviners of his retinue in order to ensure the assault had good fortune. Variously they warned of failure, catastrophe, and death for harming the Caliph. Finally, Hulegu turned to the famed Iranian scholar rescued from the Nizari fortresses, Nasir al-Din Tusi, and asked what he thought of the matter. After thinking for a moment, Tusi told Hulegu that none of these things would happen. Hulegu asked what would. Tusi replied, “Hulegu Khan will take the Caliph’s place.” And that was enough for Hulegu. The border passes were now secured, and the march on Baghdad could begin.
As Hulegu marched through Kermanshah, massacres followed him. His army approached Baghdad in three directions. Kitbuqa took a route through Luristan, and would march on Baghdad from the south. Baiju Noyan came through northern Iraq, crossing the Tigris near Irbil and closing in on Baghdad’s west and north. Hulegu took the main army through the Hulwan pass and would close off Baghdad from the east, thus encircling the city.
As the armies entered Iraq, cities and towns across Mesopotamia surrendered to them. In January 1258 as the Mongols closed in on the city, the Caliphal army under the Dawatdar tried to repulse Baiju’s army. They were lured into a feigned retreat; a dyke was broken and their camp flooded. Few survivors escaped back to Baghdad. By January 22ned, the Mongol armies had linked up around the city. Not just Mongols, but subject Iranians, Turks, Georgians and Armenians made up this force, with a thousand Chinese siege engineers. The defenders of Baghdad were outnumbered and without hope. For a week, the Mongols prepared their siege lines. Pontoon bridges were built across the Tigris, nets and iron hooks hanging from them to ensure none could escape either up or downriver. No stones for the catapults were within the area, so they needed to be hauled in from elsewhere. A ditch was dug around the city, the earth from the ditch used to build a rampart with gates set in it. Protective coverings were built for the siege engines. With the typical thoroughness of the early Toluids, Baghdad was closed off, its fate sealed.
The assault began on January 29th. An incessant barrage of stones and arrows brought the defenders to their knees. The artillery upon the walls of Baghdad was poorly maintained and outranged by that of the Mongols, useless in the words of one source. Under mobile wooden shelters, the Mongols advanced on the walls, sending arrows deeper into the city. One of the Caliph’s daughters was killed when an arrow passed through a window in his palace. Messages were tied to arrows, proclaiming that all those who did not resist would be spared. By the start of February, towers and bastions along the walls were collapsing. By February 3rd, Mongol forces were capturing the walls. When one of Hulegu’s commanders was killed by an arrow sent from the city, he angrily forced his army on at greater speed.
Realizing just how monumentally he had erred, al-Mustasim sent envoys, among them the once bellicose Dawatdar, to discuss terms with Hulegu. They were quickly put to death. Nothing but the unconditional surrender of the Caliph himself was good enough. Finally, on February 10th, al-Mustasim and his family came out from Baghdad, and put his life in the hands of Hulegu. Initially, the Caliph was treated respectfully. Other notables came out to submit to Hulegu, and many others fled out of the city to escape the pestilence which had already claimed thousands within. These who came out were trapped between the walls of Baghdad and the Mongol palisade. Once the garrison and its weapons were collected, on the 13th of February, the sack of Baghdad began.
In popular culture, the sack of Baghdad is uncontrolled, disorganized, horrifically violent and results in the city’s utter destruction and death of a million people. In reality it was controlled, organized, horrifically violent and resulted in only most of the city’s destruction and deaths of thousands. Rather than wiping Baghdad from the map, it was more of an organized dismemberment. Evidence comes from multiple accounts, but we’ll focus on that of the musician, Urmawi. In contrast to the image of the mob running wild over Baghdad, Urmawi’s account, recorded by the Mamluk historian Shihab al-Din al-’Umari, records the Mongols meticulously planned the sacking. Depending on rank, commanders were given 1 to 3 days to collect loot from sections of the city allotted to them. In Urmawi’s case, his neighbourhood was allotted to Baiju Noyan and his retinue- notably just men Baiju picked to bring into the city with him, rather than a whole portion of his army. Urmawi greeted Baiju with gifts and hosted a feast for him, entertaining him with music and ingratiating himself to the Noyan. Baiju was so pleased he urged Urmawi to come with him to play before Hulegu. Hulegu enjoyed a concert before the walls of Baghdad, ordered Urmawi’s neighbourhood spared and protected with picked men, and even granted Urmawi gardens which had belonged to the Caliph.
Likewise, various sources note that a number of segments of the populations were spared and their property protected: Christians, notably Nestorian priests; Shi’ites and Alids; Khurasani merchants, Qadis, scholars, shaykhs and in one source, Jews. Individuals are mentioned petitioning Hulegu to spare their homes- likely for a hefty payment, of course- but in order to follow these orders, the forces looting the city had to be disciplined enough to actually take note of addresses. Even the oft-repeated statement that the Tigris River ran black with ink of the books of Baghdad’s library must be re-examined, for Nasir al-Din Tusi took many with him to Maragha, where he built his famous observatory. A number of sources indicate the city’s looting lasted only a week, rather than a full month.
Clemency was extended to multiple groups… but for the majority of the city’s population who did not fall into these categories, it appears no quarter was given. For all the gated neighbourhoods like Urmawi’s which were protected, many more were gutted and looted. Treasures collected over the city’s 500 years were stolen, the finest architecture of the ‘Abbasids ruined and torn down. Hulegu entered the city on February 15th, visiting the Caliph’s palace, where al-Mustasim was forced to reveal where he had hidden his wealth. 12,000 severed ears were brought before Hulegu to mark the slain citizenry. The dead littered the street; after a few days, the heat and stench of the rotting bodies led Hulegu to end the looting by February 20th. Notably, the city was not to be left to brigandage: a governor and Mongol officials were appointed, ibn al-Alqami kept his position as vizier, to clean up the bodies and restore the city.
On the 20th of February, Hulegu moved to the village of Waqaf to avoid the foul air of Baghdad, from which he apparently fell sick. At Waqaf, Hulegu had al-Mustasim put to death, most likely rolled into a carpet and stomped upon to avoid spilling his blood on the earth. His family soon followed him. In European accounts, the popular version was that Hulegu locked Mustasim in his treasury, where he starved to death in an ironic punishment to mark the Caliph’s failures to pay for troops and defences.
So ended the 500 year old ‘Abbasid Caliphate. The impact on Islam is hard to understate. Since the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632, there had been a widely recognized successor to him in the form of the Caliphs -Rashidun, Umayyad and ‘Abbasid. Most Muslims saw him as the spiritual, if not the actual political, head of Islam. For the Caliphate, seemingly inviolable and permanent, to come to such a violent and sudden end sent shockwaves throughout the Islamic world. Caliphates had been overthrown before; previous dynasties like the Buyids and Seljuqs had held the Caliphs as puppets and militarily defeated them, while the Nizari Assassins had claimed the lives of at least two; but never before had the Caliphate actually been erased from existence by a power claiming universal sovereignty in its place. Distant relations of al-Mustasim were eventually set up in Mamluk Cairo as new Caliphs, but were never widely recognized. The Ottoman Sultans would also claim the title of Caliph in time, but none have ever been able to step into the position held by the ‘Abbasids. It’s no surprise that many Muslims throughout the following centuries have referred to the sack of Baghdad as a scar of the psyche of the ummah, one which it has not recovered from today.
With the fall of Baghdad, Hulegu could now cast his eyes onto Syria, down the Levantine coast to the newly established Mamluk Sultanate of Egypt. The sense was real that Hulegu was about to bring the whole of Islam under the authority of the house of Chinggis. Our next episode takes us to the Mongol drive to the Meditteranean- and the famous clash of ‘Ayn Jalut, an episode you won’t want to miss. Be sure to subscribe to our podcast, and to help up continue bringing you great content, consider supporting us on Patreon at www.patreon.com/kingsandgenerals. I’m your host David, and we’ll catch you on the next one.