For two days’ walk a trail of corpses lead from the bridge over the Sajo River. Arrows protruding from fallen Hungarians, limbs bent at unnatural angles, leading to a dense marsh where armoured bodies lay sunk in the bloodied water. Riders picked over the bodies, collecting unbroken arrows, still usable weapons and armours while finishing off survivors. Great piles of loot were made, to be divided among the troops, and Batu Khan, grandson of Chinggis, took the royal tents of the Hungarian King, Bela IV, for himself. Bela had escaped, but the Mongol riders would pursue. In the aftermath of the carnage at the battlefield at Mohi, the rest of the Hungarian Kingdom and Europe itself seemed open to Mongol horsemen. Batu and Subutai may have envisioned leading their men into the cities of Italy, Germany and France, but within a year they pulled their forces back from Europe. I’m your host David, and this is Kings and Generals: Ages of Conquest.
The Mongols considered the battle of Mohi, over the 10th and 11th of April, 1241, among their greatest victories, a hard fought battle over a determined enemy. Though the battle over the bridge was close, Mongol losses running high and certain princes wishing to retreat, in the end Batu and Subutai outplayed the Hungarians and destroyed the royal army. Yet King Bela IV had escaped, as had his brother Prince Coloman, and a number of Hungarian nobles had not been present, never providing their troops to Bela in the first place. Nonetheless, the battle’s outcome was a massive disaster for the Hungarians. Alongside the sheer volume in manpower lost, many of the Kingdom’s highest ranking figures had been killed. From top bishops, archbishops, the Knights Templar within the Kingdom, to Bela’s chancellor, were among the fallen. In one stroke, the head of the Hungarian administrative apparatus was nearly severed. Though Bela and his brother Coloman survived, they were on the run, desperate to get as far from the Mongols as possible. In the even terrain of the Great Hungarian Plain east of the Danube River, it was hard to get far enough.
Prince Coloman reached Pest, where the Hungarian army had rode from so confidently a week prior. He urged the inhabitants to flee, but was rebuffed, the wall-less town choosing then to begin building ditches and defences. Coloman rode on to Zagreb in Croatia where he succumbed to his injuries in May. Bela rode to his territories west of the Danube River, near the Austrian border where his wife and young children were. There they were invited to seek refuge in Austria by its Duke, Frederick. Bela headed to the Austrian fortress of Hainburg, where he was promptly imprisoned, the Austrian Duke demanding an exorbitant ransom from the Hungarian King: at least 1,000 marks in coin, another 1,000 in gold, silver vessels, jewels, and five western counties of Hungary to be ceded to Frederick. Bela reluctantly paid, then rejoined his family in Hungary before fleeing south to Croatia. Duke Frederick sought to take these territories by force, but due to local resistance, was only able to hold three. Angered, he began extorting money from refugees seeking shelter in Austria! Bela reached Zagreb around May 18th, in time to bury his dear brother Coloman, in some accounts forced to give him an unmarked grave to avoid it being descretated by the Mongols. In his absence, Hungary was left to the Mongols. In the Hungarian Plain where fortifications sat on level ground and consisted of wood or earthworks, the Mongols were unstoppable. Historical sources and archaeology show horrific destruction, depopulation and indiscriminate slaughter. In some regions of the plain population loss reached as high as 70% , many villages permanently abandoned. Remains of people trapped within burning buildings abound. The few locations built in difficult to access sites, such as mountaintops or thick marshand protected with stone, fared better, but these were rare and of little consolation to the majority. Demographically, this caused a massive shift with refugees flooding out of the plain to western and northern Hungary, territory more rugged and easily fortifiable. We have evidence of desperate, impromptu defenses built around churches, often the only stone buildings accessible. Ditches and earthworks were dug in concentric layers around churches, incorporating the local cemeteries and features. Arrowheads and bodies are always found, indicating only hopeless last stands.
At Pest, Batu and Subutai linked up with Qadan, Burundai and Bojek, the commanders who had campaigned through Transylvania. The hastily constructed defences of Pest were easily penetrated, the town burned down by the 30th of April. From Pest, the Mongols ravaged the cities on the east and north banks of the Danube River, unable to cross it. By July 1241 Mongols riding west along the north bank of the Danube reached the Duchy of Austria. Austria’s Duke Frederick defeated some Mongol parties, in the process making a fascinating capture: an Englishman, banished from England around 1220, who had wandered east, developed a skill for languages and eventually wound up in Mongol service, where he was richly rewarded for his talents. He was sent as envoy to King Bela at least twice, before meeting his fate in Austria. Finding resistance stiff and yet still unable to find an unguarded crossing point over the Danube River, the Mongols soon turned back from Austria. To terrify the defenders on the west side of the Danube, the Mongols piled bodies of the slain on the east bank, and were said to have speared small children on lances and parade them ‘like fish on a spit.’ Waiting for the river to freeze, Mongol forces were left to harass central and eastern Hungary for the remainder of 1241.
An emotional eye witness account of the horrors of the 1241 occupation is recorded for us by the Archbishop of Varad, Master Roger, sometimes called Rogerius. Written shortly after the invasion, Roger describes his own harrowing journey on the run from the Mongols, including first hand information from other survivors. Roger had fled Varad, modern Oradea in Romania, shortly before the city was destroyed by Qadan. Watching from the forest, he saw Qadan leave only the castle standing before withdrawing. After several days, the castle’s defenders came down from the walls to rebuild the town, thinking their deep moat and wooden towers had scared off the Mongols. One day at dawn Qadan’s riders reappeared, killing those outside the walls then surrounding the castle, setting up seven catapults which bombarded the walls ceaselessly day and night; towers and newly fortified sections of the walls were all demolished. The defenders were killed, and the women and survivors who fled into the church were trapped when the Mongols set it aflame. Withdrawing again, the Mongols waited several days before returning again to kill those survivors who had come out for food. Roger saw this carried out several times; a German village on the Çris River which he nearly stayed in was obliterated shortly after his departure; Cenad, where he hoped to flee, was destroyed before he could arrive; and for a while he found refuge at a fortified island, accessible only by a narrow passage and gates. After his servants abandoned him, stealing his money and clothes, Roger left the island for the nearby forest, from where he watched Mongol forces arrive. Setting up on one side of the river, the Mongols tricked the defenders into mobilizing there, anticipating the Mongols would try a river crossing. Then, another group of Mongols struck the now undefended gates, striking the defenders from the rear and taking the island. Horrific slaughter ensued, and once again after a few days the Mongols returned to kill those survivors who, through hunger, were forced to come out to search for food.
Knowing many people hid in the forests, the Mongols sent captured persons into the forests with messages that they would spare anyone who gave themselves up before a set deadline, allowing them to return to their homes. Having found the Royal Seal from the corpse of Bela’s Chancellor at Mohi, they dispersed forged documents in the name of the King, sending this message to discourage flight.
“Do not fear the ferocity and madness of the hounds and do not dare to leave your houses, because, although on account of some unforeseen circumstances we had to leave behind the camp and our tents, yet by the favor of God we intend gradually to recover them and fight a valiant battle against the Tatars; therefore, do nothing except pray that merciful God may permit us to crush the head of our enemies.”
Starving and scared, many complied and returned to their villages, Master Roger among those leaving the forests. The Mongols appointed basqaqs to govern these regions, both Mongols, subject peoples and Hungarians who had sided with them. Roger describes attaching himself to a man who had “already become a Tatar in deeds.” In this way, the well educated churchman accompanied his new master to weekly meetings of the overseers, who installed, over summer 1241, a regional administration. Courts and local governments were established to maintain a sort of justice- one which involved the overseers collecting numerous beautiful women for their own purposes. The villagers were to resume life and bring in the harvest. Once collected, the Mongols rode out, took what they needed for their own men and horses, and burned the rest. With a cold winter and continued depredations in spring 1242 preventing planting, a horrific famine followed.
Roger makes this interesting statement after the Mohi battle: “First they set aside Hungary beyond the Danube and assigned their share to all of the chief kings of the Tatars who had not yet arrived in Hungary. They sent word to them on the news and to hurry as there was no longer any obstacle before them.” Evidently, the Mongols anticipated not just raiding Hungary, but allocating its territory and people to the princes and the Great Khan as they had elsewhere. Over 1241 at least, the Mongols were still expecting to stay in the region and continue to expand.
With much of his kingdom left in the hands of the Mongols, King Bela tried to organize some sort of resistance. While in Zagreb in summer 1241 Bela corresponded with the Pope , Gregory IX, for help from the west. Gregory essentially shrugged off Bela’s pleas, informing him no help would come as the Pope and Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick II Hohenstaufen, were locked in conflict. The Kaiser in his letters to King Henry III of England and Louis IX of France did say they should unite against the incursion, and his son Konrad, King of Germany, collected a crusading force, but this all came to naught. Konrad’s army advanced some 80 kilometres east of Nuremberg in July 1241 before dispersing, the Mongol threat to Germany proper having dissipated for the time being. By September, the German nobility was rebelling against Konrad and civil war breaking out, while the Saintonge War between France and England began in early 1242. While Pope Gregory had ordered the preaching of crusade against the Mongols, he died in August 1241, his successor surviving only three weeks, leaving the position vacant until Innocent IV’s election in 1243. Bela would see no aid from the west.
The winter of 1241-1242 was brutally cold, exacerbating the famine and suffering in eastern Hungary. The few fords and ferries over the Danube River were guarded by Hungarian defenders on the river’s west bank, but as the temperature dropped precipitously and ice began to form on the river, they knew it impossible to watch the full length of the frontier. Despite efforts to break the ice, the Danube froze around Christmas 1241. To test the ice, the Mongols left a group of horses unguarded, and when they saw Hungarians cross the ice to herd the horses back over the river, they knew it was safe to cross. Batu and Subutai took their riders over the river, falling on the untouched western edge of Hungary. Once more, unfortified sites and villages suffered greatly from Mongol riders. But here the terrain was more rugged, fortifications more common and there had been time to improve defenses and plans.
In the first days of 1242, Batu directed his energies against Esztergom, the kingdom’s preeminent political and religious centre. Hungarian prisoners were sent forward to build a wall of bundles of twigs before the moat, to screen 30 siege engines. The population felt confident behind their moats, walls and wooden towers, but stones lobbed from the catapults destroyed the towers and homes within the city. Next, they hurled bags of dirt into the moat, the garrison unable to clear it due to the precision of Mongol archers. With it apparent that the walls would soon be breached, the townsfolk set fire to the suburbs, destroyed the fine fabrics, buried gold and silver, killed horses and generally hid everything of value, then retreated to the citadel. Once Batu learned he had denied his prize, he was furious. The stone citadel was surrounded with wooden palisades, but they were unable to take it- a Spaniard named Simon led a skilled defence with able balistarius, referring either to crossbowmen or counter siege engines, keeping the Mongols at bay. Perhaps with good reason, it was a commonly held belief in Europe that crossbows were a weapon feared by the Mongols.
The Chinese catapults the Mongols utilized were designed for use against walls of pounded earth- common in China and Central Asia, and highly effective against earth works and wooden walls, as among the Rus’ principalities. A stone walled fortress however, proved resilient. See, the Chinese catapult was a traction catapult, sometimes called a mangonel, and was powered entirely by manpower. Large teams of men, each holding a rope, would pull on one end of the catapult arm, thus propelling the given projectile. Such a machine was, comparatively speaking, easy to build and take apart, and could be fired relatively quickly. To increase the velocity of the projectile, it was a matter of increasing the size of both the team and the machine. However, their range and strength was less than the cunningly designed counterweight trebuchet, which began to appear in the 13th century. The Mongols would, in time, require these counterweight trebuchets in order to take the greatest of Song Dynasty fortifications, Xiangyang, as the classic traction catapult proved insufficient to the task of those mighty walls protected by wide moats. Likewise, it seems stone fortifications, which in Central and Western Europe were often built on high points difficult to access, proved beyond the means of the traction catapult. Esztergom’s outer walls had fallen, but the stone central castle withstood their efforts, and if the defenders had their own counter batteries, Batu may have been infuriated to watch his own men and machines for the first time targeted by enemy catapults. Batu was certainly in a foul mood: when 300 ladies from the city came out in their finest clothes to beg for mercy, Batu ordered them robbed and decapitated before finally leaving the city. Nothing stood of Esztergom except the citadel, the surrounding suburbs a smoking ruin.
Szekesfehervar, one of the Kingdom’s chief cities, similarly withstood a brutal assault. Everything outside the city walls was obliterated but the able garrison, possibly a group of Hospitaller Knights, built their own siege weapons to counter those of the Mongols. The siege lasted only a few days before the Mongols moved on. The ferocious pace the Mongols had taken cities in Eastern Hungary was not repeated in the western part of the Kingdom, where the enemy refused to meet the Mongols in the open field. With depleted numbers Batu may have lacked the will to conduct prolonged, bloody sieges, his siege weapons struggling against stout stone walls. With the garrisons refusing to rush out for feigned retreats, Batu found his operational abilities reduced.
While Batu struck Esztergom at the start of 1242, Qadan had been sent south to hunt down Bela IV, who had moved on from Zagreb. After a flight down the Dalmatian coastline, Bela took refuge on an island just off shore before finally going to sea, narrowly avoiding Qadan’s riders. At one point, he sailed close to the shore to view Qadan’s army, who could only watch in frustration. Early in the season with limited pasture, Qadan only had a small force, but took out what anger he could, burning down numerous settlements from Zagreb itself past Dubrovnik, before abandoning the pursuit in March. Qadan cut through the Serbian Kingdom and the southern edge of the Hungarian Kingdom, taking Belgrade, before meeting with Batu in Bulgaria.
And it is the end of March, 1242 that we reach the most controversial topic of the campaign, as Batu began to pull back from Hungary, having found no great success in the territories beyond the Danube. This was no hurried rush to escape the country however. The earlier mentioned Master Roger was still in Mongol service at this point, recording that up until the withdrawal began, he was under the impression Germany was to be the next target. Roger then describes the journey as slow, loaded with booty, weapons, herds of cattle and sheep, methodically searching hiding places and forests to find both persons and goods they had missed in their first advance. Upon returning to Transylvania, where the rugged region and thick forests provided much cover for survivors, and castles had since been refortified, Batu ordered a renewed onslaught. Roger states succinctly, “With exception a few castles, they occupied the whole country and as they passed through, they left the country desolate and empty.”
Orda and Baidar returned through Poland, burning Krakow a second time. Batu reached Bulgaria, where the King, Ivan Asen II, had died in July 1241, leaving only young heirs and anarchy to succeed him. With the kingdom already in chaos the Mongols were fuel to the fire, and Bulgaria may have submitted to them. A Mongol army reached the borders of the Latin Empire of Constantinople, where Emperor Baldwin II defeated them, only to be defeated in a second engagement. We lack information on the meeting beyond that: as per the suggestion of historian John Giebfried, this may perhaps be a description of Baldwin falling for a feigned retreat. Baldwin, it must be noted, had granted shelter to Cumans fleeing Hungary, a cardinal sin in the eyes of the Mongols. The attack seems to have been limited, though Baldwin must have felt in a tenuous position with Mongols on his northern border and soon on his eastern with Baiju’s subjugation of the Seljuqs in 1243.
Before reentering the steppe, the Mongols began reducing rations for their many prisoners- at this juncture, anticipating the worst, Master Roger fled into the woods. The rest were told they may return home, and the jubilant crowd made it several kilometres down the path before the Mongols rode them down for sport. In the steppe, Batu’s route was slow, allowing men and horses to rest after years of hard campaigning. His younger brother Shingqur led Mongols forces in the suppression of a Qipchaq rebellion later in the year, pursuing them all the way to the northern Caucasus. Batu and his army wintered in that same region before marching north, in 1243 reached the Volga River where he set up his encampment. He never returned to Mongolia.
I’m sure you sat through that whole section screaming “But what about Ogedai’s death!” Ogedai Khaan died on the 11th of December, 1241. It’s often presented that the army had to hurry back in order to elect Ogedai’s successor as per custom. But as we have just noted above, the Mongols continued to campaign in Eastern Europe after they pulled back from western Hungary. In fact, based on the time it took Batu to reach the Volga steppe, his pace was downright leisurely- and he never returned to Mongolia, Subutai himself staying with Batu for a few years. Ogedai’s successor, his son Guyuk, was not elected until 1246, and Guyuk had left the army in 1240 before even the fall of Kiev. To put simply, the withdrawal in 1242 was not in order to elect the new Great Khan. We must ask if a messenger could have even reached Batu before his withdrawal began at the end of March 1242. Assuming the messenger left immediately on the discovery of Ogedai’s body in December 1241, that’s less than four months to cross the entirety of the Eurasian steppe in the middle of winter, a tough ride even for a Mongol. Sources such as Rashid al-Din indicate Batu didn’t learn of Ogedai’s death until well after the departure from Hungary.
If not withdrawing because of Ogedai’s death, then what was the reason? Numerous theories have been proposed, some more convincing than others. Some have suggested the attack was never intended as more than a raid, though we have pointed to statements suggesting otherwise. Historian Denis Sinor suggested the Hungarian plain provided insufficient pasture for the Mongols’ vast herds of horses, though Sinor’s math for the matter leaves something to be desired. Based on environmental data, Nicola di Cosma suggested an exceptionally wet spring forced the Mongols to turn back. While the data may suggest a wetter spring, the historical sources do not indicate this was an issue for the Mongols in 1242. They certainly do mention occasions when it was an issue for the Mongols, such as the so-called ‘second Mongol invasion of Hungary,’ of Nogai Khan, where numerous sources reference foul weather hamphering Mongol efforts. Of course, every nation in Europe likes to claim their heroic efforts inflicted so many losses on the Mongols that it forced them to turn back. Despite the campaign being a greater effort than popularly portrayed, the Mongols were routinely victorious in field battles, so support from that quarter is rather lacking.
Historian Stephen Pow has recently offered a new explanation based on close examination of the historical sources. He suggests a shift in Mongol goals over 1241-2, a realization based on Mongol losses and frustration with continuous sieges and strong stone fortresses. The withdrawal, in his view, was not a full retreat with intent of never returning, but a temporary strategic retreat. Recall, if you will, our episode on the final conquest of the Jin Dynasty, wherein, due to struggles with the mighty fort of Tongguan, Ogedai, Tolui and Subutai temporarily withdrew from the Jin Empire for a season to restrategize. With a new plan of attack, the Mongols successfully bypassed Jin defences and overwhelmed the empire. Pow’s suggestion is essentially that this was the intention as to Europe. Finding their catapults and efforts having little success against stone fortifications, and having suffered losses over the continued campaigning, Batu and Subutai decided to pull back in early 1242 to rest men and horses and determine a new plan to overcome Europe. They considered Hungary conquered, and once reinforcements had been gathered, they fully intended on returning and extending their rule. The campaigning on their departure from Hungary was to consolidate the conquered territory. However, political matters evolving in the aftermath of Ogedai’s death meant Batu’s attention was drawn away from Europe for the time being. If you found that all a bit confusing, don’t worry- we’ll be interviewing Dr. Stephen Pow himself in the next episode to discuss his theory, and the other suggestions, in greater detail.
As for Hungary, King Bela IV returned to his kingdom late in 1242 once he was sure the Mongols were gone. What he found was a shattered hull, the Great Hungarian Plain mostly depopulated through massacre and flight. Bela spent the next decades rebuilding his kingdom and preparing defences. The erection of stone castles by both him and the nobility was encouraged, the great majority of which were built west of the Danube on the border with Austria where most of the population now was. The Danube itself was to be a great defensive line, fortifying the important crossing points. To defend the now depopulated Hungarian plain, Bela invited the Cumans back into Hungary almost immediately, granting them this empty pasture. To secure their loyalty, Bela married his son, Stephan, to the daughter of a lead Cuman Khan -possibly a daughter of Khan Kuthen. Further marriage ties were organized with neighbouring states, with unsuccessful efforts to build an anti-Mongol coalition, all for the inevitable return of Mongol armies.But that is a topic for another episode; our next task is an interview with historian Stephen Pow on the theories of the Mongol withdrawal from Hungary, so be sure to subscribe to the Kings and Generals podcast and to continue helping us bring you more outstanding content, please visit our patreon at www.patreon.com/kingsandgenerals. Thank you for listening, I am your host David and we will catch you on the next one!
“I, Khan, the emissary of the heavenly king, to whom he gave power over the earth to lift up those who subject themselves to me and lay low those who resist, am amazed at you, king of Hungary – that when I will have sent you envoys thirty times, you do not send any of them back to me, and send me neither your messengers nor letters. I know that you are a wealthy and powerful king, that you have many soldiers under you, and alone you rule a great kingdom. And, therefore, it is difficult for you to submit yourself to me voluntarily. However, it would be better and more beneficial if you were to voluntarily submit to me! I have understood, in addition, that you are keeping the Cumans, my slaves, under your protection, for which reason I command you not to keep them with you any longer, and do not have me as your enemy because of them! It is easier for them to escape than you because they, lacking houses and migrating about with tents, might perhaps get away. But you, living in houses, having castles and cities – how will you escape my hands?”
So reads the famous ultimatum sent by Batu, grandson of Chinggis Khan, to Bela IV, King of Hungary. Our previous two episodes have covered the rapid Mongol campaign across the western steppe from 1236-1240, conquering the Volga Bulghars, the Alans, the Cuman-Qipchaqs and the Rus’ principalities. Having just taken Kiev in December 1240, Batu and mighty Subutai cast their eyes to Eastern Europe: Poland, the Hungarian Kingdom and beyond. I’m your host David, and this is Kings and Generals: Ages of Conquests.
The man standing between Europe and the Mongols was Bela IV, King of Hungary, a great power of Europe. The Magyars, as the Hungarians call themselves, came to Europe as nomadic horse archers like the Mongols, conquering the Pannonian Basin -Hungary- in the 8th century and raiding western Europe. At Lechfeld in 955 they were defeated by the Holy Roman Emperor Otto I and some fifty odd years later these pagans officially adopted Christianity with the baptism of Stephen I, first King of Hungary, on Christmas Day 1,000. In the following centuries they abandoned the old ways, but with a still formidable military the Hungarian Kingdom emerged as the lead power between the Holy Roman Empire in Germany and the Rus’ principalities to the east. Controlling not just modern Hungary but large swathes of Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia, the Hungarian monarch controlled a diverse realm, the crossroads between Catholic and Orthodox Christendom.
Bela IV made few friends after his coronation in 1235. Born in 1206, the same year Chinggis Khan declared his Empire in distant Mongolia, Bela had a rocky relationship with his father King Andrew, whose decentralization of the kingdom through rich land rewards to the nobility frustrated Bela. Their tension progressed, Bela essentially making himself an autonomous monarch in Hungary’s Croatian territory. With Bela’s marriage to a Byzantine princess, Andrew urged the Pope to annul the union and forced Bela from the Kingdom. Ultimately he let his son return, making him ruler of Transylvania in the 1220s, where Bela came into regular contact with the Cumans. Cuman presence increased with the eastern upheavals from Mongol expansion, Cuman Khans fleeing to Hungary for asylum and baptism. Bela was drawn to the Cumans as a pillar of support against his father, while also boosting his reputation as a good Christian ruler by encouraging missionary work among them, styling himself King of the Cumans. Bela’s first years as King after 1235 saw the reclamation of crown lands and reduction in privileges of the nobility while expanding the Kingdom. Border territories were taken from Bulgaria and in 1238 Bela’s brother Coloman extended their rule in Bosnia by force. Bela’s efforts made him unpopular among the aristocracy of the kingdom, who felt their rights trampled upon.When a large body of Cumans under Khan Kotjen sought refuge in Hungary in 1239, Bela was only too happy to welcome them. 40,000 skilled mounted archers loyal directly to Bela provided him a massive bodyguard against a possible uprising from the barons of the kingdom, and Bela heaped rewards and rights to them.
Bela was not unaware of the Mongols’ western expansion. One contemporary author, Thomas of Spalato, records that the Hungarians had heard so many rumours of impending Mongol invasions that when news came of their arrival in the 1240s, it was treated as a joke. Bela certainly had up to date information from refugees like Kotjen Khan and Mikhail Vsevolodovich (Vsye-vo-lod-o-vich), Prince of Chernigov, and the Domincian Friar Julian returned with letters from Batu demanding Bela’s submission, preceding a number of Mongol envoys. Contrary to popular depictions and contemporary accusations, Bela was not a monarch sitting idly on his hands; he had foreknowledge and some measures were enacted. Passes through the Carpathian mountains, the shield dividing the Hungarian plain from the Eurasian steppe, were blocked with wooden barriers and fallen trees, and some fortresses in Transylvania were refortified. The crux of his defense relied on the Cumans; their horse archery and experience in steppe tactics were a mighty aid to the already formidable Hungarian army. Bela was the only monarch in Europe preparing for their arrival. Of course, nothing went to plan. Tensions flared between the Cumans and the kingdom’s sedentary population. The sources speak of anger at Cumans herds allowed to roam through peasants’ fields, distrust at the close proximity of pagans, all encouraged by Hungarian lords eager to undermine Bela’s powerbase, to dire consequence.
On the fall of Kiev on the 6th of December, 1241, Batu and Subutai moved their army west and broke off into columns. The total force for the invasion of Europe is difficult to gauge, estimates of around 50-60,000 troops being common. Intelligence was carefully collected, strengths assessed. Batu was fearful of being outflanked by the enemy, and it was deemed necessary to send a portion of the army into Poland, at that time divided into five duchies- Bela IV’s sister was married to a lead Polish Duke. Despite some modern comments, the whole campaign was no mere raid. Structurally it differed little from the previous years of campaigning and the Mongol belief in world hegemony was well established. At the borders of Hungary and Poland at the start of 1241, Batu anticipated a conquest of both, and likely expected to push into Germany as well.
The army split into two main theaters. One group under Orda and Baidar was to strike Poland, preventing the Polish duchies from aiding the Hungarians. The main army was to conquer Hungary, certainly intending to use its grassland as a forward base for further operations. Batu and Subutai lead the main army, sending three smaller detachments to penetrate various passes along Hungary’s Carparthian frontier, allowing them to surround the enemy. We’ll deal first with the Polish invasion.
In January 1241 the first Mongol scouts entered Polish territory, followed by Orda’s main force in February, generally estimated around 10-20,000 men. Orda, Batu’s older brother, moved quickly in two main divisions under himself and Chagatai’s son Baidar. The attack on Poland was swift and ferocious: by the 13th of February, Sandomierz, capital of a Polish duchy, was taken. An engagement at Tursko saw the Polish knights get the better in the initial clash, only to be destroyed when the Mongols regrouped and surprised them. From Sandomierz they followed the Vistula River, sending contingents north to harass, pillage and burn, causing confusion as to their movements and hampering the already slow Polish response. On the 18th of March, the army of Boleslaw V, ‘the Chaste,’ Duke of Sandomierz, was destroyed at Chmielnik (Hhe-myel-nik); shortly afterwards, the Mongols sacked the Polish capital, Krakow. Boleslaw V fled to the kingdom of his brother-in-law, Bela IV.
The Polish High Duke at that time was not in Krakow, but in his home duchy of Silesia. Henry II the Pious was the lead member of the fragmented Piast dynasty, duke of Silesia and High Duke of Poland since 1238. His preparations were slow and by the time he readied his army, the Mongols were in Silesia, western Poland. Henry was supposed to wait for aid from his brother-in-law, King Vaclav I of Bohemia, but found the Mongols approaching too quickly, following the Oder River to the Silesian capital of Wroclaw [Breslau]. On the 9th of April, 1241, Henry’s army met the Mongols under Orda and Baidar at Legnica, better known as Liegnitz or Wahlstatt [German, ‘vahlstaht’], west of Wroclaw.
The Liegnitz battle is not recorded as well as Mohi, and a considerable amount of details were added by later authors. Illustrative of this is the notion that a contingent of Teutonic Knights under their Grand Master Poppo von Osterna were present, and that Qadan or Qaidu led Mongol contingents there. In reality, Poppo von Osterna was not Hochmeister until 1253 and the Teutonic Order provided no troops for the battle- though the Templars provided 500 peasants from their landed estates. Qadan, a son of Ogedai, was not present, as he led an army into Transylvania, and Qaidu, the grandson of Ogedai famed for his conflict with Kublai Khan, was certainly absent, as he was only about 10 years old!
Liegnitz is often presented as the Mongols easily overwhelming the Polish and German forces of Henry II, but the medieval chronicles demonstrate that the Europeans made a good show of themselves. A Polish Fransciscan reported that another Polish friar, Benedict, was told by the Mongols that they were on the point of retreat when Polish resistance collapsed. The 15th century Polish writer Jan Dlugosz describes the Poles holding their own against the Mongols in the first half of the battle. But the Mongols had a trick: a standard bearer waved his banner violently and sent forth a smokescreen, so foul the Poles lost order. Stephen Haw postulates that this poisonous smoke was gunpowder, or perhaps firelances. For the Poles who had never encountered such devices, it was overwhelming. Polish order collapsed and they were overrun. Nine sacks of ears were said to have been filled, and Duke Henry was decapitated, his severed head paraded on a lance before neighbouring cities. The suburbs of his capital at Wroclaw were destroyed, though the citadel held out.
Mongol losses may have been high, as they were unwilling to meet King Vaclav of Bohemia’s army. Small parties were briefly sent into eastern Germany where the town of Meissen, just west of Dresden, suffered an attack, but Orda and Baidar moved south to link up with Batu, cutting through the Bohemian Kingdom, modern Czechia. Stiff local resistance in Bohemia proper convinced Orda to pass through Bohemian controlled Moravia. Fortified points were bypassed for speed, but villages in the countryside suffered. Through the Vlara Pass they entered the Hungarian Kingdom on its northwestern border in May 1241. As that takes us to Hungary, let skip back a few weeks.
After the deparuture of Orda and Baidar in February 1241, Batu and Subutai took the rest of the army to Hungary, dividing their forces to overwhelm their foe at multiple points. On March 12th, Batu and Subutai crossed through the Verecke Pass, the northeastern route the Magyars themselves first took to enter Hungary. Ogedai’s son Qadan took his contingent through the Bargo Pass into northern Transylvania. One of Tolui’s sons, Bojek, took his force through the Oituz pass into central Transylvania, and the noyan Burundai diverted far south, coming up through the Tornu Rosu Pass into southern Transylvania, linking up with Bojek at Alba Iulia.
At the beginning of March King Bela IV began gathering his forces at Pest, one half of the city which forms modern Budapest. His requests to foreign rulers for aid were largely ignored. Bela had in mind an orderly countermarch against the Mongol army. But things quickly slipped from his hands. Some of the nobles held their forces back, refusing to come in the first place. The Mongols broke through the Carpathians quicker than anticipated and news came in of nobles going ahead to face them without support. Denis, the Kingdom’s Palatine, fled to Pest, having failed to repel the Mongols on their exit from the Verecke. Bishop Ugrin of Kalocas (Kalots-ash) defied Bela’s order and likewise marched ahead to engage the Mongols, and only barely escaped with his life. The Duke of Austria, the quarrelsome Frederick II, came to Bela’s call for aid, defeated a small Mongol party in a skirmish near Pest and withdrew. The Bishop of Varad fought the Mongols near Eger, where he was defeated and Eger destroyed. Reports kept coming to Bela of his forces allowing themselves to be destroyed piecemeal by the Mongols, while yet more Mongol forces kept showing up from new directions and rumours swirled of destruction in Poland.
On top of that the tensions between Cumans and Hungarians had not abated. News of Cumans among the Mongol forces led to cries that Bela’s Cuman allies were spies for Batu. Bela placed the Cuman Khan Kotjen and his family under guard in Buda, but in an assault led almost certainly by Hungarian and German nobles, Kotjen and his retinue were killed. In turn, this prompted a pogrom from Hungarians in the area against the Cumans. The remaining Cumans refused to risk their lives for ‘allies’ who treated them such, and abandoned the Hungarians, leaving a trail of destruction as they flew en masse to Bulgaria, some making their way to the Latin Empire of Constantinople. This was just a goddamn mess for Bela, but he was forced to action. At the start of April a Mongol army approached Pest and Bela marched out. The Mongols fled and for a week Bela pursued them, reaching the village of Mohi on the Sajo (shah-yo) River, finding a larger Mongol army arranged on the opposite bank, a single bridge across the only passage. It was the 10th of April, only one day after the Mongol victory at Liegnitz.
Bela had just followed Shiban, Batu’s younger brother, into ground of Batu’s choosing. Batu and Subutai commanded a force estimated around 20-30,000 men, the rest of the army still ravaging Poland and Transylvania. The village of Mohi, where the Hungarians made camp, sat near the Sajo River in the northern edge of the great Hungarian plain, flat rolling grassland ideal for cavalry, while the thick trees along the river kept much of the Mongol army hidden. When Shiban’s messengers ran ahead with news of the size of the Hungarian army, Batu was unnerved, climbing a mountain to convey with Eternal Blue Heaven for a day and night to pray for victory, urging the Muslims in his army to likewise pray. As the Hungarian army settled into their camp at Mohi, Batu viewed them from a nearby burial mound. Seeing how the Hungarians had packed themselves tightly within a laagar, a wagon fort, Batu was not impressed, likening them to sheep trapping themselves within a pen.
Batu had hoped King Bela would try to cross the bridge, but by digging in at Mohi, Bela was forcing Batu to act. Thomas of Spalato wrote that a Rus’ prisoner escaped the Mongols and warned the Hungarians, and Bela stationed a guard at the bridge. Frustrated, Batu had to force a crossing- neutralizing his army’s mobility and playing to strengths of the Hungarian’s heavier armour. But Subutai came up with a plan. While Batu took his men over the bridge, under the cover of night Subutai would take a force downstream and build a pontoon bridge to cross and outflank the Hungarians.
It didn’t go well. The waters downstream were deep and in the darkness, progress on the pontoon bridge was slow. Too slow for Batu, who in his impatience or belief Subutai was on schedule, ordered an assault, sent a close comrade in a heavily armoured elite unit to push the Hungarians off the bridge. The Hungarians held firm, crossbowmen proving deadly. Bela’s brother Coloman, the Bishop Ugrin and the Master of the Knights Templar in Hungary led the counterattack and repulsed the Mongols. Coloman was said to have personally thrown the Mongol commander off the bridge. The Mongols were forced back, and the Hungarians returned to their camp jubilant. Both European and Chinese sources written from Mongol documents indicate Mongol losses were heavy- as an aside, Mohi is the first battle on European soil described in any detail in a Chinese source. This source, the Yuan Shih, indicates the princes among Batu’s forces were greatly perturbed by the losses, and desired to withdraw and replan. The Polish friar C. de Bridia wrote that the Mongol vanguard actually broke on the bridge and fled. Batu was furious at Subutai’s failure to cross the river, though Subutai was not to be swayed. In response to voices urging retreat, Subutai told them “If my lord wishes to retreat, then retreat by yourself. Until I reach the Magyar city on the Danube River, I will never return!”
The Hungarians left a light guard on the bridge while the distant Hungarian camp slept soundly. Only a few hours after the initial clash, early on April 11th before dawn, the Hungarian bridge guard was rocked by the sudden crashing of stones descending on them from the darkness. The Mongols had set up their Chinese catapults and were ‘shelling’ the enemy position. Demoralized with losses mounting, when the Mongols charged they broke through the defenders. Survivors ran back to the camp, shouting alarm, but the Hungarians were slow to rise, not having anticipated an attack so soon. Subutai’s forces crossed his pontoon bridge, and by 6 A.M. the Hungarian camp was surrounded.
Though Bela’s decision to circle the camp with a wall of wagons offered some protection, the space was too small for the large army. Panic set in as thousands of men woke to cries of anguish and Mongol arrows raining among them, while the Mongols tried to set the wagons on fire. In the densely packed camp men tripped over tents and tent ropes, crushing each other in the fray. Confusion now reigned, and Bela’s fortifications trapped his men. Prince Coloman, the Bishop Ugrin and the Templars rode out to force back the Mongols but were unable to rally more men to join them. Coloman and Ugrin were seriously wounded while the Templars, despite brave efforts, were killed to a man.
A cry ran out. An opening! The Mongols had left a gap, and many ran to take it. This was a trap. Men surrounded with no escape will fight to the death; but provide an avenue for survival, and they’ll take it. In the disorganized rout no formation or protection was to be had. As if herding their sheep, the Mongols followed along both sides of the Hungarians, ensuring none veered off trail. Once the prey was exhausted, the Mongols fell upon them. Survivors were led directly into a marsh where many drowned, encumbered in their armour, weak from injuries and exhaustion. The Bishop Ugrin met his end in these waters, one among many of the nobles, bishops and archbishops of the kingdom who fell. Bela and his brother Coloman barely escaped, with Coloman seriously injured. So ended the battle of Mohi, the back of organized Hungarian resistance broken.
Hungary, and the rest of Europe, now seemed open to the Mongols, but just under a year after the victory at Mohi, Mongol armies departed from Europe. Why was this? What did they do in that year in between? Since most popular accounts cut from the Mohi victory straight to the Mongol withdrawal, we will give you, our dear listeners, more detail on the what the Mongol presence in Europe actually looked like beyond these battles, and the consequences for Hungary. If it wasn’t Ogedai Khaan’s death in December 1241 which caused the Mongol withdrawal, then what was it? Theories have abounded from a lack of pasture, poor weather, to a gradual conquest having been the intention. While we will return to Hungary’s fate and later interactions with the Mongols in future episodes, we will also be interviewing Dr. Stephen Pow in a forthcoming episode to discuss the theories, and his own thesis, around the Mongol withdrawal in more detail, so be sure to subscribe to the Kings and Generals podcast and to continue helping us bring you more outstanding content, please visit our patreon at www.patreon.com/kingsandgenerals. Thank you for listening, I am your host David and we will catch you on the next one!
“And from thence they proceeded to the land of the Rus and conquered that country as far as the city of Magas, in the inhabitants of which were as numerous as ants or locusts, while its environs were entangled with woods and forests, such that even a serpent could not penetrate them. The princes all halted on the outskirts of the town, and on every side they built roads wide enough for three or four wagons to pass abreast. And they set up catapults opposite the walls, and after a space of several days left nothing of the city but its name, and took great booty. And they gave orders to cut off the right ears of the people, and two thousand seven hundred ears were counted. And from thence the princes returned homewards.”
So the Persian writer Juvaini describes the siege of the Alanian capital of Magas in winter 1239, a lesser known corner of the famous Mongol western campaign. In our previous episode, we covered the years 1236-1238, the first years of the great campaign wherein Batu and Subutai wrecked havoc across the northern Rus’ principalities and Volga Bulghars. When we left off, Batu and Subutai were withdrawing from the ashes of the northern Rus’ in spring 1238 to spend the summer resting men and horses and preparing their next moves. In today’s episode, we follow their continued movements, securing the remainder of the Volga and south Russian steppes, down to Crimea and the Northern Caucasus, to the resumption of hostilities against the southern Rus’ and the fall of Kiev, mother of cities, at the end of 1240. I’m your host David, and this is….
As we’ve stated already, Batu and Subutai pulled their forces back from the northern Rus’ to rest their men, fattening their horses on the grasslands of the steppe over summer 1238. The campaign had so far been a great success, marred by only a few difficult sieges and the loss of a son of Chinggis Khan, Kolgen. The northern Rus’ principalities had been subjugated, leaving only a collection of Rus’ states in the west still independent. For a time though, the Rus’ would have a respite. The Mongols were loathe to advance too far without securing their rear, and Subutai knew well from his own experience how tough the steppe’s inhabitants could be. Were you to place the conquests at that point onto a map of modern Russia, you would have seen a huge strip of land from the northernmost point of the Caspian Sea to where Moscow sits today as under Mongol rule. The steppes of southern Russia, Ukraine, Crimea and between the Black and Caspians seas north of the Caucasus were still unconquered, where several nomadic, semi-nomadic and other independent powers continued to reside. Many Cuman-Qipchaq tribes had fled deeper into that region, having avoided the initial Mongol advance. Leaving them unattended would allow them to move back into their original territory once the Mongols moved on, or even strike their rear while the Mongols focused on the Rus’ settlements. So the decision was made, once man and horse was rested by the end of summer 1238, to subdue these peoples.
You may recall our episode covering Chormaqun Noyan’s conquest of the Caucasus and Georgian Kingdom. That was happening essentially at the same time as this. As the Qipchaqs and Georgians were known to have had contacts and alliances in the past, it may have been a conscious decision to coordinate these offenses, ensuring no help would come from the steppe to the Caucasus while ensuring the Caucasus could not be a haven for fleeing nomads. Securing the region also provided another lane of contact for Mongol forces, rather than all messages being forced to circumnavigate the vast Caspian Sea. An interesting thing to note in regards to the scale of the Mongol Conquests, which often happened simultaneously: it’s easy to forget, since by necessity most discussions have to pick only a narrow window to discuss.
In autumn 1238, several Mongol armies shot across the southern steppe, beginning at the Black Sea coastline and moving east. Batu’s brother Shiban, Chagatai’s grandson Buri and Tolui’s son Bojek marched into the Crimean Peninsula, defeating the Cuman tribes who inhabited the peninsula’s fertile steppe, and its Armenian, Greek and even Gothic population. On December 26th 1238, the famed Crimean trade port of Sudak, also called Soldaia, fell to the Mongols, leaving them the masters of this great trade entrepot. Another of Batu’s brothers, Berke, later to be the famous Muslim ruler of the Golden Horde, at the same time campaigned against the Cuman-Qipchaqs north of the Black Sea. Those not subjugated by Berke were dislodged and likely among their number, or soon to be at least, was an important Cuman leader called Kuthen in Latin sources, though more commonly known as Kotjen or Kötöny. We’ve met him before, as he was present at the battle of the Kalka River back in 1223. With a marriage alliance to the Rus’ prince Mstislav the Bold, it was on Kotjen’s urging that the Rus’ came to assist him against Jebe and Subutai. Kotjen escaped the battle, remaining in the steppe north of the Black Sea until the return of the Mongols. With 40,000 warriors and their families, he fled before the Mongol advance, making his way to Hungary in 1239, where we will pick up with him in our next episode. Many Cumans were also sold into slavery. The slave trade was a big deal in the Black Sea, with captured nomadic Turks prized goods alongside the furs collected from the Finno-Ugric peoples to the north. Defeat in steppe warfare often resulted in the victors capturing the vanquished and taking them to the cities of the Crimea to be sold across the Meditteranean and Islamic world. The Mongol incursions caused a glut of slaves on the market- nomadic Turkics for their hardiness and horsemanship, not to mention skill with a bow even at a young age, made ideal soldiers once they received the training and funds of a state. The dying Ayyubid state in Egypt bought up a number of these, forming an important body of slave soldiers- Mamluks, who would soon overthrow their heirs of Saladin and establish their own dynasty, to the Mongols’ later chagrin. Slaves were sold further afield, as far as India, where Qipchaq slaves such as Balban eventually rose through the ranks to become Sultans of Delhi- again, to the Mongols’ later chagrin. Everything has consequences in Eurasia!
While Crimea was secured and the Cuman-Qipchaqs subdued, Mongol forces marched towards the Caucasus. The first group to feel their wrath were the Circassians along the eastern Black Sea, where the Olympic destination of Sochi stands today, attacked by Tolui’s son Mongke, the later Great Khan, and Ogedai’s son Qadan. We are told only that a Circassian King, ‘Buqan,’ was killed in the process. The Circassians, called Cherkes by the Russians, are a member of the northwestern Caucasian peoples, who like the Qipchaqs, also found themselves sold into slavery extensively and transported across the Mongol Empire and Meditteranean. In the late 14th century, the Qipchaq Mamluk dynasty in Egypt was succeeded by a Circassian one, commonly called the Burji dynasty.
With much of the central steppe and Black Sea coast secured by the end of 1238- though the northern Caucasus still untaken- Batu and Subutai recalled their forces. It was time to look to the Rus’ again, this time the mostly hitherto untouched southern principalities. On March 3rd, 1239 Pereyaslavl, downstream along the Dnieper from Kiev, fell to Mongol forces. It seems to have been something of a test to see the mettle of these southern principalities, especially that of Kiev. Kiev had been the great capital of the unified Rus’, and still must have held something of a reputation as the Mongols approached it cautiously. The reality of Kiev’s strength by this point was quite different. Despite the proximity of the Mongols and devastation of the northern principalities, fighting over Kiev had continued unabated by the Rus’ themselves. Kiev’s Prince Vladimir Riurukiovch was ousted by Prince Mikhail Vsevolodovich of Chernigov basically as the Mongols arrived on the doorstep of the principalities.
For summer 1239 the Mongols rested men and horses, once again picking up the sword in the fall. In October, the struck Chernigov, northeast of Kiev. An attempt was made by Prince Mstislav Glebovich, cousin to Mikhail of Chernigov, with his army to repulse the Mongols in the field. The army was crushed and Msitslav disappears from the sources. Stones so large four men could barely lift them were hurled by catapults into Chernigov’s walls, and by October 18th the city had fallen, its population like so many others subjected to fire, rapine and massacre. From Chernigov, envoys were sent to demand Kiev’s submission, and Mongke, who in about a decade would become Great Khan of the Mongols, traveled to see the city himself, having heard of its splendour. He stood on the opposite bank of the Dnieper, and though his personal thoughts on the city are not recorded, Rus’ sources insist he marvelled at its beauty. Prince Mikhail refused to surrender, though he soon abandoned Kiev and fled to Hungary. Mongke’s presence was only reconnaissance and he to departed. Perhaps he had wished to gleam if Kiev had any offensive potential, and deeming this not the case, it was decided the city could sit for the time being. Mongke travelled back east across the steppe, joining with forces which were securing the remaining independent territory of the north Caucasus and steppe.
Here, the notable remaining independent force, other than those few Qipchaq and other Turkic tribes which had escaped Mongol armies, was the Alans and their ‘kingdom’ in the valleys of the north side of the Caucasus. The Alans were an Iranic people -ancestors of today's Ossetians- who had inhabited the steppe since the time of Attila the Hun. Their polity in 1239, insomuch as we can call it that, had emerged after the collapse of the Khazar Khaganate in the 9th and 10th century. Sometimes called ‘Alania,’ its kings were notable for converting to Christianity and at times acting as a formidable military force, though by the start of the 13th century the Alans were a collection of local powers rather than a unified state, and sadly we are lacking much information on this kingdom. Back in the 1220s they had, alongside the Qipchaqs, fought Jebe and Subutai upon their exit from the Caucasus mountains, and as I’m sure you know by now, the Mongols were rather slow to forget such grievances. Their continued independence posed the final threat, no matter how slight, to the Mongol rear.
As a result of this decentralization, it seems the local Alanian leaders made their own decisions on how to respond to the Mongol advance. We are told of one individual, Ajis, who led a resistance against them until his capture and execution, while another, Arslan, quickly submitted and was made overlord of the Alans only to be replaced soon after by another Alan prince who provided his troops to the Mongols. The capital of the Alanian Kings was Magas, a strongly fortified site which remained influential among them, perhaps a symbolic capital as much as anything, and therefore a prime target. The Mongols arrived outside the fortress in November 1239, where they met their most difficult battle of the campaign yet. The very name of the settlement was disputed until recent decades, when it was finally reconstructed as Magas, the Persian word for ‘flies,’ as in the insects. This conclusion was reached in part as it explained why so many Medieval Muslim writers made puns involving these bugs when discussing it. The location of the settlement is also a long subject of debate, but an exciting possibility has been identified by Dr. John Latham-Sprinkle, who has proposed the massive hillfort Il’ichevsk gorodischche on the borders of Russia’s Krasnodar Krai and Karachai-Cherkess Republic, in the valley of the River Urup. Our medieval sources indicate that Magas was highly fortified and in a strong position, surrounded by dense forests, taking the Mongols months to subdue to. Few of the possibilities have matched the basic facts we know about Magas, but Latham-Sprinkle has found Il’ichevsk to meet the criteria,: for the time it was inhabited, for being a royal residence of the Alans, a strong fortress and destroyed in the mid 13th century.
Il’ichevsk is a long, high ridge, approachable only from the south, it;s other sides protected by cliffs and rivers. Seven lines of defenses, thick walls, wide ditches and embankments, protected the city and its inner layers- a veritable Minas Tirith, if you will. The site was massive: the whole fortified area from north to south was 15 kilometres, covering some 600 hectares. That’s larger than 14th century London or Milan! The outermost walls covered fields and small, scattered villages, becoming more densely populated as one proceeded up the ridge to the royal residence. With evidence of imported craftsmen to construct the walls, of stone 4 metre thick held with a lime mortar, it’s clear this was the home of powerful lords, and thus a very reasonable choice to identify as the Alan capital.
For the Mongols, it was a difficult siege. Arriving outside the walls in November or December 1239, it was not until February 1240 when the city fell. Roads had to be cut through the forest around the fortress to even approach it. The length of the fortifications made it impossible for the Alans, well past their prime, to man the full distance, thinning their defense. We are told from the Yuan Shih, compiled from the Mongols’ successors in China in the 1370s, that the Mongols relied heavily on allied and subject forces for this assault. A Tangut officer is mentioned leading squads, and it seems many Alans fought for the Mongols against their capital. When it fell, it was destroyed. Archaeological evidence indicates the city was abandoned immediately afterwards: a church’s roof which collapsed from fire was never cleared from the floor. A child’s body was found unburied outside the church where it had fallen, a Mongol arrowhead embedded in the church’s walls.
While Magas fell, Mongol contingents ranged across the northern Caucasus, taking settlements and forts: by November 1239, when the siege of Magas began, Mongol forces were already within kilometres of the great fortress of Derband, which fell to them in spring 1240. Lacking an existing overarching political structure to incorporate, the Mongols found it difficult to impose their rule on the ground outside of periodic military actions. The fact that sites in Dagestan began rebuilding their fortifications within a few years of the Mongol invasion was telling. In China, for instance, many cities taken in the early 13th century had their walls unrepaired until the 1350s and 60s. The many valleys of the region made it a nightmare to bring every local tribe to heel. Perhaps because of this, the Mongols saw fit to transport thousands of Alans and others across the empire, as slaves and military units. From the Balkans to China we have Alans showing up in entire regiments over the 13th century, indicating their useful military prowess, and perhaps the frustration the Mongol governors felt dealing with them in the Caucasus.
In summer 1240 the princes were called back, holding a quriltai to celebrate the gains and decide the next steps. During this feasting we are provided an interesting episode from the Secret History of the Mongols. In this account, Batu sends a messenger to Great Khan Ogedai, informing him that during the feast Batu drank from the ceremonial wine first, which angered Ogedai’s son Guyuk and Chagatai’s grandson Buri who took offense at Batu taking this ceremonial position ahead of them. In the Secret History’s account, Guyuk and Buri leave the tent, calling Batu an old woman with a beard and shouting insults. When Batu’s message reached Ogedai with the news, he sobered up long enough to become furious at his son and recall him. The whole episode has been torn over by historians repeatedly. It seems to have been the climax of long simmering tensions among the princes ,having until then been kept at bay by continually separating them over the campaign. There were likely several factors at play: Guyuk was haughty, being the son of the Great Khan though not his heir; likely a few continued the slander of Jochi not being Chinggis’ son, and hence Batu, the senior prince, not really a Chinggisid. Other concerns were more material. Historian Stephen Pow has noted that some regions were left to members of one branch of the family to attack, in theory making those conquests their territory. However, since the majority of the vast territory seemed destined for the Jochids, many of the princes grumbled as to what they were getting for their efforts. The timing is suspect as well, as the time needed for Batu’s messengers to reach Ogedai, and then Ogedai’s messengers to return to recall Guyuk, is too great for this is have occurred after the fall of Magas but before the fall of Kiev in December, which we know Guyuk to have been absent for.
Perhaps this was a compression of a series of events, or coordinated ahead of time, their troops required for the front with Song Dynasty, with later editing to the Secret History of the Mongols using this as an opportunity to discredit Guyuk, but multiple sources indicate the departure of both Guyuk and Mongke, along with their troops, around late summer 1240. So Batu and Subutai’s army lost as many as 20,000 men, on top of casualties they had already suffered and those stationed behind to keep their rear secure and prevent uprisings. This was not an end to the campaigning by any means, and Batu turned his sights to Kiev and the western Rus’ principalities. Once the Dnieper had frozen in November 1240, Batu marched onto Kiev, investing it on November 28th. Batu set up his catapults in a great line and fired upon the city walls day and night until they crumpled before them. Kievan efforts to defend the breaches were met with hails of arrows, and the Mongols mounted the walls, forcing back the Keivans. Retreating to the Church of the Blessed Virgin, the Rus’ fortified it’s approaches. As the Mongols began to overcome the impromptu defenses, frightened townsfolk and defenders climbed with their possessions on top of the church, only to have to collapse under their weight. By the 6th of December 1240, Kiev was in Mongol hands.
Though Halych of Galicia-Volhynia soon fell as well, on the whole the campaign in southern Rus’ was considerably less destructive. In northern Rus’, essentially all major and many secondary cities had been sacked in quick succession, but we see in the south sieges of only major settlements, capitals like Chernigov, Kiev, and Halych, or undefended settlements without walls. At secondary cities which showed stiff resistance like Kremenents and Danilov, the Mongols moved past. Much of Galicia-Volhynia, the westernmost extent of the Rus’, was left untouched, it’s ruler Danilo not submitting to Batu until 1245, and even then, retained enough strength to declare his independence until a Mongol campaign at the end of the 1250s. What was the cause of this comparative reduction of Mongol devastation? One factor is certainly the departure of Mongke and Guyuk with their troops, perhaps causing a loss in morale alongside the numbers of available men. Another aspect is that while the many sieges in Rus’ were successful and relatively quick, it does not mean they did not result in Mongol casualties. Indeed, evidence suggests the western campaign was a bloody affair for the Mongols, resulting in the losses of many elites and commanders- Chinggis Khan’s son Kolgen most notably. We are told of a large cemetery in Mongolia built for prominent Mongols killed in the campaign, and we learn from Chinese references to rich rewards for those who shipped the bodies of Mongols back to their homeland, something which apparently happened with some regularity.
While in field battles, Mongol commanders stayed behind the lines in order to properly assess the situation and give orders for troops movements, generally staying out of the battle itself, this was not the case for sieges. Rather, it seems officers, captains and even generals had to command from the front to help encourage the men over the walls. Sons of the elite aspiring to build their reputation as brave warriors, fought from the front as well. In the confined spaces and narrow streets of a city and fortress, the Mongols could not rely on their mobility, and it seems losses ran high. The Rus’ cities fell in quick succession but not without taking Mongols with them; we may likewise assume the difficult siege of Magas and other Caucasian fortresses had brought losses as well. By the time Batu and Subutai reached southwestern Rus’, Mongol casualties, both those killed and those injured in the many battles, were beginning to become an issue. In addition, units were left across the region to hold it and stop the newly conquered tribes from rising up and keep contact routes open with the rest of the empire. Coupled with the departure of Guyuk and Mongke’s armies, it’s possible that Batu and Subutai’s army was as much as half its original size, maybe down to 50-60,000 men. Mongol actions thus were limited to major settlements where they could bring their full force or locations where defense was weak and a prolonged siege could be avoided. If not, the settlement was bypassed, preferring soft targets or to hit enemy field armies.
Still, Batu and Subutai controlled an experienced and battle hardened army, and had effectively conquered the principalities of the Rus’. As 1240 turned to 1241, they now sat on the borders of Europe, having conquered up to the edge of what is now western Ukraine. Many Cumans, and the odd Rus’ prince, had fled to the Kingdom of Hungary. The housing of Mongol enemies was an act of waragainst the Mongol Empire, and Batu was determined to punish the Hungarian Monarch for this. Europe was about to hear the hoofbeats of Mongol horses. Our next episode will take us to the famous battles of Liegnitz and Mohi, so be sure to subscribe to the Kings and Generals podcast and to continue helping us bring you more outstanding content, please visit our patreon at www.patreon.com/kingsandgenerals. Thank you for listening, I am your host David and we will catch you on the next one!
Had you a bird’s eye view of the Eurasian steppe in 1236, you could have watched an unparalleled sight. Perhaps more than 100,000 mounted warriors spread out in vast columns converging upon the Kama River, followed with nigh on one million horses, goats, and sheep at some distance behind; thousands of carts, some small enough to be pulled by a single ox, to those so large they required full teams of oxen. Mounted on these carts were spare weapons and arrows, specialists and engineers in siege technology and the tools they needed to build their fearsome machinery, and on the largest carts, royal Mongols gers, round felt tents to house the many princes leading the army. Their very movement changed the landscape, politically and ecologically. The nomadic Turkic peoples who inhabited the steppe fled before them; new roads were cut, others formed by the very passage of ten thousand horses stripping bare the grassland; to avoid lengthy detours in order to stay on schedule, rivers were blocked and diverted to accommodate the great carts. This was an army with one purpose: to conquer everything as far as the hooves of Mongol horses would take them. This was the Great Western Invasion, Mongol princes from across the dynasty collected and hurled as a great spear westwards, which in the coming years would land deep into Europe. I’m your host David, und this is…
The Great Western Invasion is perhaps the most famous campaign of the Mongol Empire. It’s a campaign of big names and big personalities: Batu, Mongke, Guyuk and the great commander Subutai. It’s a story you likely know the broad strokes of already, the bloody conquest of the Russian principalities culminating in the famous battles of Liegnitz and Mohi. It’s generally presented as the master stroke of Subutai’s strategic genius,commonly said that the Mongols would have driven right to the shores of Britain if hadn’t been for the untimely death of Ogedai Khaan at the end of 1241, forcing them to withdraw to elect his successor. It’s a great story and quite cinematic, but one which barely conveys any of the complexities of the great invasion, and one ripe with exaggerations and myths. Over the next episodes we’re going to try to change your view of the invasion, including as many of the intricacies and historiography of it as we can to provide a fuller understanding of the campaign, and a better, though more nuanced, respect for Mongol military success.
Mongol knowledge of the west came through an offshoot of the invasion of the Khwarezmian Empire, when Jebe Noyan and Subutai Ba’atar led an army through the Caucasus and onto the steppe, where they fought with the nomadic Turkic Cuman-Qipchaq tribes, an army of the Rus’ principalities on the Kalka River, and the Volga Bulghars, the mercantile masters of the Volga River’s trade routes. We covered this in a previous episode, so check that out for the specifics. Though popularly portrayed as a reconnaissance in force, it was a hard fought campaign resulting in the death of Jebe Noyan and Mongol defeats or narrowly won victories. The defeats demanded Mongol retaliation, as did the loss of a top commander- it’s easy to imagine Subutai personally wanting to avenge himself and his fallen friend, as Jebe may have been a mentor to him. The foes encountered in the west had shown themselves fierce fighters, and the Mongols left with an impression that overwhelming force was needed for further campaigning in the region. The Cuman-Qipchaqs, a loose confederation of Turkic tribes inhabiting the steppes from the borders of Hungary past the Caspian Sea, were a particular issue. Nomadic enemies, similar in lifestyle to the Mongols themselves, were perceived as their greatest threat. Not only could they more readily flee Mongol armies than any sedentary foe, thus continuing to be a threat, but they were likewise skilled horse archers. If united under a charismatic leader as Chinggis Khan had done with the Mongol tribes, the Cuman-Qipchaqs could directly challenge Mongolian hegemony in the steppe. In the Mongolian universalist ideology which developed at the end of Chinggis Khan’s life, everything beneath Eternal Blue Heaven was the Mongols to rule. The fact that these foes had fought the Mongols, at times even besting them, was a state of open rebellion that the Great Khan could not allow.
Subutai had withdrawn from the western steppe over 1224, but that was not the final Mongol encounter in the west before the great invasion. Modern Kazakhstan was by then the ulus of Jochi, the territory granted to Chinggis Khan’s eldest son. As Jochi had died in 1225, the appanage was now headed by Jochi’s second son, Batu- this was the territorial beginnings of the later Golden Horde. From the Jochid ulus, the Mongols had a forward base to attack their foes within the Volga steppe. The closest foe was the Volga Bulghars, a distant Turkic relation to the Bulgarians who gave their name to the empires on the Danube in Southeastern Europe and the Balkans. Controlling the meeting point of the Volga and Kama Rivers, their influence extended to the Urals in the east, and to the borders of the Rus’ principalities in the west. Dominating the fur trade and other exports from the local Finno-Ugric population like the Mordvins and Bashkirs, Volga Bulgharia was a major trade centre, the stopping point between the Rus’ principalities and Khwarezmian Empire. At least, it had been until Chinggis Khan wiped the Khwarezmian Empire from the map. With extensive contacts in Khwarezm and the Qipchaq tribes of the region, the Volga Bulghars were well informed of the fall of Khwarezm and approach of Subutai in 1223, and defeated him on the Volga River that year. Despite this victory, they were not left in a great position. The most powerful Rus’ princely state, that of Vladimir-Sudzal’, was encroaching on Bulghar territory and competing for control over the Mordvins, making one of the Mordvin principalities their vassal. The Bulghars tried to appease the Rus’ through peace negotiations, hoping to focus their efforts for a Mongol return.
It proved fruitless. In 1229 with Ogedai’s ascension came the second Mongol attack, in which Mongol forces seized the steppe from the Ural River to the Volga, overrunning the Bulghars’ border guards. This attack was led by the commanders Koketei and Sonitei, though it’s commonly suggested that this Sonitei may have been a misspelling of Subutai in the source. If it was Subutai, he was soon recalled to aid Ogedai and Tolui in the final conquest of the Jin Dynasty. The 1229 attack caused a great displacement of tribes, fleeing deeping into Bulghar territory to escape the Mongols. Another attack came in 1232, spending the winter in Bulghar country but were unable to move onto their capital.
Relatively smaller armies had undertaken these two offensives; with significant forces dispatched under Chormaqun to finalize conquests in Iran and accompanying Ogedai, Tolui and Subutai to destroy the Jin, as we have covered in our previous episodes, major resources were unavailable to attack Bulghar. Victory over the Jurchen Jin in 1234 changed this, freeing up troops to divert elsewhere. Most of the Mongol army and its auxiliaries were pulled back within weeks of the final victory over the Jin, though some forces remained on the border due to an attack from the Song Dynasty. Despite Song attacks, Ogedai ordered only minor offensives against them for the time being; the west had to be dealt with.
In 1235 a great quriltai was held in Mongolia to which the available princes of the dynasty were invited. In classic Ogedai fashion upon their gathering an entire month was spent in feasting, drinking and celebrating; gifts and loot were handed out from the treasury; the laws and ordinances of Chinggis Khan were read out again. After this imperial bender, it was time to get to business. Ogedai’s son Qochu was ordered to hold the frontier with the Song Dynasty, while the rest of the available forces were to be taken west. The Mongol leadership was under the impression that the western end of the continent was home to fierce foes. Ogedai’s only surviving full brother, Chagatai, had been collecting information for him. In the Secret History of the Mongols, Chagatai gave this warning to Ogedai:
“The enemy people beyond consist of many states, and there, at the end of the world, they are hard people. They are people who, when they become angry, would rather die by their own swords. I am told they have sharp swords.”
Chagatai's idea was that this should be a unified effort with all branches of the dynasty -that is, from the lines of Chinggis Khan’s four sons with Borte- contributing troops. This was agreed to. While the western campaign is sometimes depicted as a side show, the sources inform us that the chief figures of the third generation of Chinggisids were present. A number of Jochi’s numerous children, especially his most important sons Orda, Batu, Shiban and Tangqut, were to be present. From Chagatai’s line were Buri and Baidar, Buri his grandson via Moetugen, Chagatai’s beloved favourite who had died in the Khwarezmian campaign. Ogedai’s own sons Guyuk and Qadan represented him, and from the line of the late Tolui was his eldest, Mongke, and Mongke’s half-brother Bojek. If some of these names sound familiar to you, it's because these were among the most prominent Chinggisids of the next decades: Batu, founder of the Golden Horde, with Guyuk and Mongke to be Great Khans in the years after Ogedai. Kolgen, a son of Chinggis Khan from a secondary wife accompanied them, as did the most famous of all Mongol generals, Subutai. While Batu was the lead prince and it was ostensibly his territory they were expanding, Subutai was to hold overall command. Ogedai wished to lead this army himself, but was talked out of it by the assembly- it was deemed too dangerous an expedition, and Ogedai’s health may have already declined past being fit for such a trek.
Each of these princes brought the troops attached to their households and appanages, resulting in a massive and diverse army. Common estimates range from 100,000-150,000 men- largely Mongolian and Turkic horse archers, but with an important contingent of Chinese siege engineers. Representatives of other conquered peoples joined them- Tanguts, Uighurs, Khitan, Jurchen, already conquered Qipchaqs and perhaps even Central Asian Iranians. A mainly cavalry army, speed, maneuverability and overwhelming firepower was its strength, taking advantage of the seemingly unlimited grassland and pasture of the great Eurasian steppe. We know at one point in the quriltai it was considered to send a vast army of Chinese along with them, but this idea was talked down: Yelu Chucai declared they were unfit to the climate and long march.
A moment must be given to what the strategic goals were. The Qipchaq and Bulghars were obviously targets, with the Rus’ to be punished for allying with them. In general, the western steppe was to be conquered, but beyond that? It’s often said the famous European component of the invasion was an afterthought, little more than a raid, but there is some suggestion that Hungary was a definite target right from the beginning. Most Mongol imperial sources discuss Hungary, or rather, their garbled name representing the Kingdom, as a target from the outset. In the 1220s the Hungarian King, Bela IV, who we will meet in our next episodes, had declared himself King of the Cumans. The Hungarian Kingdom wanted to expand its control over and convert the neighbouring Cumans to Christianity. It’s possible rumour made it down the steppes that the Hungarian King was not the Cuman King in name only, but the actual lord of the Cuman tribes in fact. For the Mongols, who saw the Cuman-Qipchaqs as enemies, this made their “king” a major foe. As they moved west they likely gained more accurate information on him, but in distant Mongolia it was hard to correct that. Beyond that, we have statements from the likes of Friar Julian, who will be introduced below, stating in 1236 that the Mongols intended on attacking Rome. So the army, representing the four branches of the Chinggisid dynasty, had a goal to essentially conquer everything westwards, specifically intending on Europe as a part of this.
After the quriltai, the princes returned to their ordus, [or-doos] to assemble their forces: the various armies marched separately, setting out in spring 1236 to unite on the Kama River on the edge of Volga Bulghar territory.
We are provided an absolutely fascinating perspective from an Hungarian Dominican friar who traveled through Volga Bulgharia on the eve of the Mongol invasion. Called Julian, or sometimes Julianus, he had been sent to find the Hungarians who remained in their old homeland. In a journey that took him across the steppe, through the Rus’ principalities, and Volga Bulgharia, he arrived east of Volga Bulgharia in what he called Magna Hungaria - “great Hungary,” inhabited by a Ugric people whose language, Julian was astonished to find, was mutually intelligible with his own, despite the 400 years since the Magyars had separated from them to enter the Pannonian Basin. These were the Bashkirs, related to the modern people of the same name in Russia’s Bashkortostan, though the modern descendants have been thoroughly turkicized. More relevant for us, Julian was in Magna Hungaria and Volga Bulgharia while Mongol armies gathered on the Kama River only a few days away. There is a sense that the Bulghars were quite aware of the strength of the Mongol army and the approaching terror, but lacked the manpower to repulse such a horde, leaving them to watch helplessly. During his time there, Julian encountered Mongol envoys moving ahead of the main army with demands of submission. Julian departed before the Mongol attack on Bulghar, and we are provided no specifics on the fall. The Bulghar cities were well fortified, their army of fine repute, but they had been weakened in recent years by conflict with the Rus’ and Mongols. Over winter 1236, their capital cities were destroyed and the state of Volga Bulgharia ended.
While there, Friar Julian heard that Saqsin, a Turkic city along the lower Volga, had already fallen to them. Indeed, it seems the Mongols made to secure the steppes around the northwestern Caspian before moving onto the Volga Bulghars. This was a region inhabited by the Qipchaq-Olberli-Qanglis of the Cuman-Qipchaq confederation, who had fought the Mongols several times. We have little specific details of this, except for one episode. Many Cuman-Qipchaq peoples fled west before the Mongols, while others submitted, with limited resistance by one individual in particular. This was Bachman of the Olberli Qipchaqs. The ruler of a territory along the Ahktuba, a branch of the lower Volga, Bachman emerged sometime in the late 1220s and early 1230s, trying to organize against the Mongols. The leading Cuman-Qipchaq chiefs had fallen to Jebe and Subutai during their campaign in 1222-1223, leaving few in the Qipchaq steppe with the following or influence to rise up. According to the Yuan Shih, dating from the early Ming Dynasty, part of Subutai’s specific instructions had been to strike down this Qipchap chief. Before the fall of Volga Bulgharia, Subutai advanced with the vanguard ahead of the main and scattered Bachman’s army, somewhere along the Caspian Sea, capturing Bachman’s wife and sons. Subutai then turned back for the Kama River to await the main army before moving onto the Bulghars. Bachman was reduced to irregular warfare with a small following, striking at Mongol parties while fleeing southwards. In early 1237 as the main army under Subutai continued on from the ruins of Volga Bulgharia, Mongke and his half brother Bojek were despatched to hunt Bachman down, each travelling down a bank of the Volga. Finding an old woman left behind by Bachman’s troops who pointed them after him, Mongke and Bojek cornered Bachman on an island in the river. Heaven showed its favour when the winds picked up and pushed the water back to reveal a ford. Crossing rapidly, Mongke and Bojek’s army fell upon the unprepared and outnumbered Bachman, destroying the remnants of his men. Bachman was captured, asking only for the final honour to be killed by Mongke’s own hand. Mongke instead had Bojek cut Bachman in half, essentially putting an end to any form of organized Cuman-Qipchaq resistance to the Mongol advance.
After Bachmann’s death, Mongke and Bojek marched back across the steppe to rejoin the main army, which had stayed busy. The Bashkirs had been dispersed and subjugated, Volga Bulgharia destroyed, the next target being the Mordvins, another Ugric people still extant today, giving their name to the Russian republic of Mordovia. The Mordvins were divided into two principalities; once both under Volga Bulgharian influence, the western had since fallen under the domination of the Rus’. The eastern principality submitted to the Mongols and provided troops; the western made the mistake of resisting and was crushed.
This left the Mongols on the borders of the Rus’ principalities. Halting on the Voronezh River in late summer 1237, Batu and Subutai waited to allow Mongke and Bojek to rejoin them, finalizing their plan of assault, sending envoys to demand submission and waiting for the rivers to freeze in order to cross them. The Rus’ principalities were the divided heirs to the Kievan Rus’; still linguistically and culturally a part of the same heritage and the Riurikid dynasty, but politically each principality was an independent entity. In the 1230s, the most powerful was the northeastern principality of Vladimir-Suzdal’ under the Grand Duke Yuri Vsevolodovich. While the Volga Bulghars had made efforts to prepare for the Mongol return, it seems the great slaughter on the Kalka River did nothing for the Rus’, who chalked it up to another attack, though a destructive one, by the various nomads of the steppe. Few rumours of the Mongols had reached the Rus’ in the following years, and their return was sudden and unexpected. For Batu’s force, the closest Rus’ principality was Ryazan, which bravely, but foolishly, refused to submit. The Princes of Ryazan, Murom and Pronsk sent an army against the Mongols, at the start of winter 1237, which was destroyed near the Voronezh River, the Rus’ horsemen pierced by Mongol arrows.
On December 16th, 1237, Batu’s armies arrived outside Ryazan, surrounding the city with a stockade. On the 21st of December, the city’s wooden walls were breached by catapult and battering ram, the Mongols pouring in. In the words of the Chronicle of Novgorod, the Mongols “killed the Knyaz and the Knyaginya and men, women, and children, monks, nuns and priests, some by fire, some by the sword, and violated nuns, priests’ wives, good women and girls in the presence of their mothers and sisters.” The slaughter was total and indiscriminate. Grand Duke Yuri was unable, or unwilling to help. Some historians such as Alexander Maiorov have suggested based on the Laurentian Chronicle that Yuri had actually accepted a Mongol demand for submission, having sent back their envoys with gifts. In the Chronicle, Roman Igorevich, the brother of the Prince of Ryazan fled with his druzhina bodyguards, hotly pursued by Mongols, making his way to Kolomna on the Oka River. There he was unexpectedly supported by the commander- an officer of Grand Duke Yuri- who tried to help him. The Mongols won the battle, but one of their generals was killed- Kolgen, a son of Chinggis Khan. The killing of a Chinggisid prince was always cause for horrific retaliation, and even if Yuri had accepted submission, or at least hoped to avoid violence, it was too late. The consequence of Kolgen’s death was the rapid assault and sacking of numerous cities across the northern principalities over spring 1238, among them a small town called Moscow on the 15th of January.
Grand Duke Yuri fled north, his capital of Vladimir falling on February 7th, his family killed in the process. On the 4th of March , Yuri and a small force was caught on the Sit’ River by the Mongol Noyan Boroldai. Yuri was captured and suffered a horrific death the sources could only allude to
Only at Torzhok and Kozel’sk did resistance last weeks. Kozel’sk in particular was a bloody affair, aptly defended under its young prince Vasilko. Batu was unable to force the city for almost two months. At one point a wall was breached and the Mongols rushed it, only to be repulsed. Only when Qadan and Buri arrived with reinforcements was the city to be taken. Before the city fell in May 1238, the citizenry rushed from the gates in an unexpected charge, taking the Mongols by surprise and inflicting heavy casualties, destroying catapults and killing the sons of three commanders before the Mongols overcame them. According to the Galician-Volhynian Chronicle, the Mongols came to call Kozel’sk “the evil city,” and none dared mention it in their presence. Of the major cities of the northern principalities, only the republic of Novgorod escaped slaughter with the timely submission of its prince, Alexander Nevsky, perhaps aided by the spring melt turning the approaches to the city into marsh and hamphering Mongol advances. Nevsky is most famous today as the victor over the Teutonic Knights at Lake Peipus in 1242, a small victory the Rus’ clung to in an era of devastation. With the onset of warmer weather around May 1238, the Mongols withdrew from northern Rus’ to rest men and horses and take stock of their efforts.
Why did the Rus’ fair so poorly? From December 1237 to May 1238, the Mongols took the major cities of the northern principalities with few holding out longer than a couple of days. We can boil it down to two main factors. The first being the matter of defenses and weaponry. The defenses of the Rus’ cities were mainly logs on top earthworks, with towers few or non-existent and stone works rare. For catapults designed to bring down the great pounded earth walls of China, such walls provided little defense. Mongol siege techniques were simply far advanced beyond that of the Rus’, where sieges were generally blockades to starve out the inhabitants and catapults exceedingly uncommon. Defenders behind the city walls had nothing to compare to the range of Chinese catapults, leaving them only able to watch as the walls were battered down from afar. Cities and fortresses were, unlike Europe, built on level and approachable ground, making them easy to surround, advance to, and easy to strike with siege machines.
The other cause for the swift Rus’ defeat was the deep fragmentation of the principalities. Princely conflict was tense in the years building up to, and even during, the Mongol invasion, princes keen to watch their neighbour take the force of the Mongol assault, only to be surprised when they were struck next. In comparison, the Mongols had a mostly unified and effective leadership- though their own princely antagonisms were about to begin to rear their heads. Mongol army units were able to cooperate and move independently from hundreds of kilometres apart, kept in contact with a series of messengers and set timelines to meet. Rather than a massive assemblage moving altogether, the Mongol army split into contingents led by their princes and commanders, units of 1000 darting across Rus’. The sensation within the cities must have been that they were totally surrounded, new parties of Mongols riding to and fro daily, their numbers seemingly endless. Like the cities of the Khwarezmian Empire, the Rus’ cities were basically each left to their own defense, allowing the Mongols to always isolate the enemy and enjoy local superiority in numbers despite the fierceness of the Rus’ garrisons.
By the time Batu ordered the withdrawal for summer 1238, northern Rus’ was devastated. Archaeologically the evidence of the slaughter of men, women and children has sadly corroborated Rus' accoutnts, though the destruction was not as total as commonly portrayed, as Rus’ princes still had military and economic power to continue fighting each other in the following years. Their ability to offer an effective military resistance to the Mongol Empire was broken, and it would be well over a century before the Rus’ could provide a direct military challenge to Mongol forces. Still, not all the principalities were destroyed in this first wave: the south and far western principalities like Chernigov, Kiev, Galicia and Volhynia had not yet been targeted, and the Cuman-Qipchap inhabited steppe between the Caspian and Black Seas still needed to be conquered, the next tasks for Batu and Subutai after their break for summer 1238, and the topic for our next episode, so be sure to subscribe to the Kings and Generals podcast and to continue helping us bring you more outstanding content, please visit our patreon at www.patreon.com/kingsandgenerals. Thank you for listening, I am your host David and we will catch you on the next one!
While Ogedai Khaan led his armies in the final war against the Jurchen Jin Dynasty, covered in our previous episode, this was far from the only theatre his forces operated in. As the conquest of northern China was completed, Chormaqun Noyan brought Mongols armies back to the west, returning to Iran to hunt down the energetic Khwarezmian Prince, Jalal al-Din Mingburnu, hoping to restore his father’s empire. In the course of this, the Mongols effectively completed the conquest of Iran, the Caucasus and entered Anatolia- a great southwestern expansion of the empire. At the same time, Mongol armies under Subutai conquered the western steppes and Rus’ principalities, a vast, two pronged pincer assault on western Eurasia, and the subject of our following episodes.
First, we must wind the clock back from the 1230s to the Khwarezmian campaign of Chinggis Khan in the 1220s. As you’ll recall from that episode, the Mongol invasion at the end of 1219 brought about the near total collapse of the Khwarezmian defense and flight of the empire’s ruler, Muhammad II Khwarezm-Shah. Muhammad died at the end of 1220, harried to his end by Jebe and Subutai. On his death in December, Shah Muhammad’s son Jalal al-Din Mingburnu, a far braver and more talented general, took up the mantle of leadership- or rather, what was left of it. Rallying what forces he could, he eventually made his way into what is now Afghanistan, defeating two Mongol armies but finally crushed by Chinggis Khan himself on the Indus river in November 1221. At the battle's climax, Mingburnu spurred his horse off the cliff and into the Indus, swimming across and making into the Punjab. Chinggis Khan, to give the devil his due, is said to have personally ordered archers not to fire on him, admiring Jalal al-Din’s courage. The same mercy was not spread to other Khwarezmian troops trying to make it across the river.
Jalal al-Din spent the next three years in northwestern India. At that time, northern India was ruled by several Muslim warlords, mainly former generals of the Ghurid Empire which had once stretched from Iran across northern India. Among these was the general Iltutmish, based in Delhi- the origins of the Delhi Sultanate. At the end of the thirteenth century, the Delhi Sultanate had the strength to repel Mongolian invasion, but in the 1220s was only one power among several. At the time of Jalal al-Din’s arrival, Iltutmish of Delhi’s main rival was Qubacha, a fellow Ghurid controlling the Punjab and lower reaches of the Indus River. Despite being fellow Muslims, the post-Ghurid powers had little love for the Khwarezmians. Jalal al-Din’s father Muhammad had been a stalwart foe of the Ghurids, and after the Ghurid collapse in the early 1200s, it was the Khwarezm-shah who had gobbled up their western territories in Iran and Afghanistan, bringing Khwarezmian influence right to the borders of India. Jalal al-Din’s own appanage given to him by his father was the former Ghurid capital of Ghazna. Further, the Khwarezmians had also become foes of the ‘Abbasid Caliph in Baghdad, who provided his holy support to those generals battling the Khwarezm-shah. The Khwarezmian reputation was that of an aggressive, unreliable and expansionist empire, and the chief scion of that house, Jalal al-Din, was not destined to enjoy a warm welcome among his co-religionists in India, nor among those Hindu rulers still extant in the region.
Upon his defeat on the Indus, Jalal al-Din needed to make space for himself from the Mongols, who initially turned back from the river but soon sent parties to hunt for Mingburnu. Managing to gather survivors from the Indus battle and other refugees from the invasion, his victory over local Hindus in the Salt Range brought defections to Jalal al-Din’s force. Charismatic and with a reputation as a superb warrior, Jalal al-Din rarely had trouble attracting followers- making friends with other states was another matter. With Mongol forces under Dorbei Doqshin approaching, Jalal al-Din fled further into India, coming to within a few days of Delhi. His envoys sent to Sultan Ilutumish were killed, for Iltutmish, a wily politician, had likely weighed the costs of providing aid to Mingburnu with the Mongols now approaching. Delhi was too well protected for Jalal al-Din to assault, so he doubled back to the west, ransacking as he went and successfully avoiding Dorbei Doqshin’s Mongols. Dorbei abandoned the pursuit, returning to Chinggis Khan at Samarkand in late 1222, where he was severely reprimanded and ordered back to India.
Jalal al-Din in the meanwhile attacked the Ghurid successor in northwestern India and Iltutmish’s main rival, Qubacha, forcing him to submit and pay tribute. Most of 1223 he spent ravaging cities along the Indus, making his way to the Gujarat peninsula. Having successfully pissed off everyone between the Indus and the Ganges rivers, Jalal al-Din was greeted with rumours of a grand coalition -Iltutmish, Qubacha, and various Hindu lords- uniting against him, as well as Dorbei Doqshin’s second approach. Learning that a half-brother had set up a state in western Iran, Jalal al-Din decided it was a good time to leave India in 1224, leaving his officers Ozbeg-bei and Hasan Qarluq in control of his Indian territory. They, along with Qubacha, took the full brunt of Dorbei Doqshin’s returning army, who took his frustration out on them when he found himself unable to locate Jalal al-Din. While this proved unfortunate for them, Iltutmish did rather well out of this episode. With his major rivals weakened by Jalal al-Din and Mongol attacks but his own state relatively untouched, over the late 1220s and 30s Iltutmish was able to overcome these rivals and set the Delhi Sultanate on a path to regional dominance. In due course we will return to Iltutmish’s successors, but now we must follow our friend Jalal al-Din westwards.
Jalal al-Din’s three years in India did little for his dream of restoring the Khwarezmian Empire, but saw better opportunity in the efforts of his half-brother, Ghiyath al-Din. Around Rayy, modern Tehren, Ghiyath al-Din had started to reestablish Khwarezmian control. Jalal al-Din’s thought seems to have been that, if anyone was to continue the Khwarezmian Empire, it was going to be him, damn it! Mingburnu cut across southern Iran, hoping to restore Khwarezmian rule as he went, first stopping in the province of Kerman. There, Baraq Hajib ruled, a former general of the Qara-Khitai brought into Khwarezmian service who established his independence in the wake of the Mongol invasion. Jalal al-Din gained his submission and married one of his daughters, though Baraq soon revolted and Mingburnu carried on. At Shiraz in the province of Fars he was welcomed and again married a daughter of the local dynasty, the Salghurids. He then departed for Isfahan, where he rested his main army. With a handful of picked horsemen, said to be carrying banners of white cloth like the Mongols, Jalal al-Din led a daring raid against his half-brother, attacking him in his camp, capturing him and absorbing his followers and territories.
This greatly strengthened his position. Knowing that the former northeastern sections of the Khwarezmian empire, including the former capitals of Gurganj and Samarkand were under firm Mongol control, Mingburnu must’ve thought it more prudent to push west, in theory providing himself more resources and space to resist the Mongols. Gaining the submission of the chiefs of Luristan, marrying princesses of local Turkomans, he now had a not-insubstantial force under his belt. Most of southern, central and western Iran had now submitted or was under his direct control. Casting his eyes west, he marched towards Baghdad. Supposedly he was expecting assistance from the Caliph, at that time an-Nasir, who had reigned since 1180. Caliph an-Nasir had been paralyzed and blind for a few years at that point, but the memory of Muhammad Khwarezm-shah’s own failed march on Baghdad had not been forgotten. Anticipating that the son shared the same greed as the father, an army was dispatched to repel Jalal al-Din. Drawing them into a feigned retreat, Jalal al-Din put them to flight, pursuing them as far as Baghdad’s suburbs before withdrawing, and then defeating a force sent from Irbil, capturing that city’s ruler.
Lacking the means to siege Baghdad itself, Jalal al-Din sought easier targets. He moved next against the Eldeguzid atabegs of Azerbaijan- former Khwarezmian vassals who had submitted to the Mongols- and destroyed them in 1225, taking their capital of Tabriz. A brief Georgian foray against Tabriz while Jalal al-Din was mopping up remnants of the Eldeguzids brought him, for the first time in his life, into conflict with Christians. Over the next few years, Jalal al-Din unleashed a torrent of destruction against the Kingdom of Georgia. At that time ruling Georgia and Greater Armenia, the kingdom had suffered terribly during Jebe and Subutai’s own expedition through the region only a few years prior. In 1226, Jalal al-Din took the Geergian capital Tbilisi, destroying the churches within the city. According to a contemporay historian, Kirakos Ganjaketsi, rather than spend time to determine who in the city’s diverse population was Christian or Muslim, Jalal al-Din simply ordered all the men to be circumsized.
After this, Mingburnu marched rapidly back to Iran, having heard rumours that Baraq Hajib was attacking Isfahan, the new Khwarezmian capital. Baraq apologized and sent gifts, and while Jalal al-Din rested in Isfahan, he learned that the Georgians revolted. Speeding back to Georgia, Jalal al-Din undertook a slaughter outside the walls of Akhlat, but was unable to enter the city. In similar time, news reached him of another threat to Isfahan. A Mongol army was approaching the city, ordered there by Chin-Temur, the Mongol appointed governor of Gurganj, a former capital of Khwarezm. Jalal al-Din brought his army back to Isfahan, and in August 1228, bravely led his forces to be defeated by the Mongols. His half-brother Ghiyath al-Din fled, and Jalal al-Din was forced to retreat when the Mongols drove back his remaining forces. However, with losses high or fearing a trap, the Mongols failed to advance, and withdrew back to their own empire. Thus was Isfahan saved, if narrowly.
Really changing things up, Jalal al-Din returned to Georgia again in late 1228, and inflicted one of the most famous defeats in Georgian history at Bolnisi, known also as Mindori. A large army of Georgians, Armenians, various ethnic groups from across the Caucasian mountains as well as a significant Qipchaq component had been assembled against him. Qipchaqs had a long history serving as mercenaries for both the Georgian Kingdom and the Khwarezm-shahs, and we may well assume a number were present among Mingburnu’s forces. Outnumbered and lacking swordsmen and lancers, it was a precarious position for Jalal al-Din. His vizier, Yulduzchi, suggested it would be better to pass behind the enemy, cutting them off from water, thus weakening the larger force in the heat. Jalal al-Din’s reaction as recorded by Juvaini is rather illustrative of his character. Becoming as enraged as was possible for him, he hurled a pencase at the vizier’s head while shouting “they are a flock of sheep! Does the lion complain of the size of the flock?” It is unfortunate for Mingburnu that this was a mantra he applied to everything.
Yulduzchi repented, paying a fine of 50,000 dinars. Opening contact with the Qipchaq, reminding them of his own connections with their people, he successfully convinced them to remove themselves from the battlefield. Then he convinced the Georgians to send champions out to face him- supposedly Jalal al-Din killed them all himself, then ordered a general charge against the demoralized Georgians. The foe was destroyed and we might regard this as the high water mark of his military career. The last half of 1229 Jalal al-Din was held up besieging Akhlat, falling only to great massacre in April 1230 after a 8 month siege. Learning that the Seljuq Sultan Kayqubad I, master of Anatolia, was organizing an alliance against him, Jalal al-Din moved west. Falling ill, he lost his strength and was unable to ride his horse, forced to be carried in a litter. At Yassıçemen near Erzincan in August 1230, Jalal al-Din met an allied force of Seljuqs under Kayqubad I and the Ayyubid Sultan of Syria al-Ashraf, the nephew of the famed Saladin. During the battle Jalal al-Din tried to mount his horse, but lacked the strength to even hold the reins. His courtiers pulled him back. Seeing his banners fall back, the army thought Jalal al-Din was retreating, and thinking the battle thus lost, fled. The Seljuq-Ayyubid forces, believing it a feigned retreat, held their ground. Jalal al-Din escaped another major military defeat, this time while seriously ill. Certain to improve his mood was news of a large Mongol army now approaching.
Far to the east, Ogedai had been elected Great Khan of the Mongol Empire. Aware of Jalal al-Din’s resurgence, Ogedai could not allow him to reform the Khwarezmian Empire. Seeking to complete the conquest of the region, perhaps even hoping to take Baghdad itself, Ogedai ordered fresh troops to be sent. Commanded by Chormaqun, a member of the keshig, the imperial bodyguard and a veteran of the Khwarezmian campaign, this is our first mention in the sources of the tamma. The tamma was essentially the closest the Mongols came to garrison duty, sent to the empire’s borders to expand, consolidate and intimidate, rather than a full, tsunami like tidal wave of invasion. There is some suggestion Chormaqun may have initially been ordered west by Chinggis Khan in his final days, but would have been held up by the Khan’s death in 1227. Ogedai in that case would have been reaffirming his father’s decision.
So, Chormaqun set out with perhaps 30,000 men, ordered to be supported and reinforced by the appointed basqaqs and darughachi governing the western Mongol empire, like Chin-Temur. In early 1230 Chormaqun crossed the Amu Darya and began the proper subjugation of Khurasan, which had been left a ruinous buffer after the 1220 invasion. Chormaqun bypassed those few strongpoints still holding out, leaving Chin-Temur to reduce them and set up a proper administration in his wake. By autumn 1230, Chormaqun was in Mazandaran, northern Iran, and took Rayy, which he set up as his headquarters. Chormaqun spent the next two years in Rayy, from where he ordered his various forces and took the submission of most of the powers in Iran, the states of the south sending representatives and recognizing Mongol rule. By 1233 essentially all that was left of Jalal al-Din’s reconstituted Khwarezmian Empire in Iran had submitted to the Mongols, leaving his capital of Isfahan isolated until it fell in 1236. In eastern Khurasan, that is, now modern eastern Iran and Afghanistan, Chormaqun’s lieutnentats Dayir and Monggedu operated, driving out Khwarezmian holdouts. By 1235 they had brought the Mongol Empire to the borders of India, forcing an officer Jalal al-Din had left behind, Hasan Qarluq, to submit. It seems even the Isma’ilis, the famed ‘Order of Assassins,’ allied themselves with the Mongols, providing intelligence on Jalal al-Din’s movements and strength.
By spring 1231, Mongol forces had entered Azerbaijan’s Mughan plain, zeroing in on Mingburnu. He frantically sent word to the Seljuq Sultan and Ayyubid Sultan of Syria, urging cooperation against the Mongols. But it was too little too late. Jalal al-Din had long ago soured the relationship through his aggression. Too busy raiding and campaigning, he had not created anything in the last decade to actually prepare for the return of the Mongols, and now he paid for it. He spent 1231 hopping across the Caucasus, narrowly avoiding Mongol forces. At one point, he only just escaped his camp as the Mongols came across it, only the action of a general waving Mingburnu’s banners and therefore distracting them, giving Jalal al-Din enough time to escape.
Near Diyar Bakir, known also as Amida, in what is now southeastern Turkey, his luck finally ran out. Hounded down to just a few followers, in mid-1231 he was killed by Kurdish bandits robbing him for his robes. The clothes were recognized, the Kurds killed and the body thought to be that of Jalal al-Din buried. So ended the reign of Jalal al-Din Mingburnu, final ruler of the Khwarezmian Empire. A fine soldier and warrior but a poor king, he could not improve upon the Khwarezmian tradition of treachery and aggression to his neighbours. With the time, energy, troops, experience and personal charisma, Jalal al-Din had the potential to build a proper resistance to the Mongols, yet he instead squandered this opportunity, in many ways showing himself little better than them. Still he remained a powerful symbol; for years, rumours persisted of his survival, and every once and a while someone would claim his identity, only to be swiftly killed by the Mongols. Many a medieval Muslim author glorified him, such as his own secretary Nasawi, the Khwarezmian refugee to Delhi Juzjani, and even Juvaini, a beaureaucrat who worked for the Mongols. We might consider him the Bonnie Prince Charlie of the 13th century Muslim world. A figure whose actual person could not stand up to the legend and potential of his idea.
Jalal al-Din’s demise had other consequences. For one, there was still a large body of Khwarezmian troops in the region, fleeing the Mongols and now acting as mercenaries. In time, they were displaced from their refuge in Syria, making their way south and in 1244, took Jerusalem. Jerusalem had only been in Christian control again since Emperor Frederick II’s crusade in 1228. Not until 1917 would Jerusalem again be controlled by non-Muslims.
In Azerbaijan, Tabriz came under Mongol rule quickly after Mingburnu’s death. With Iran secured, Chormaqun marched into newly subjugated Azerbaijan, and there planned the conquest of the Caucasus. Georgia was severely weakened; first Jebe and Subutai’s attacks, then Jalal al-Din’s repeated depredations, it would be just a matter of reducing fortresses. In 1236 Chormaqun ordered a three pronged assault against the territories of the Georgian Kingdom: Chormaqun himself drove into Greater Armenia, Mular up the Kura Valley and Chagatai Noyan, known as ‘the lesser’ to distinguish himself from Chinggis’ son, attacked Georgia proper. So weakened, the Georgians could offer no unified defence, with each lord retreating to his own castle in the mountains. The Mongols moved at a leisurely, careful pace, forcing some castles but needing to starve out others. Some Armenian and Georgian lords, like the influential Awag Zak’arian, willingly submitted, receiving special treatment and encouraging others to follow his example. With the flight of the Georgian Queen Rusudan from Tbilisi, Awag was the most powerful lord in the kingdom, and assisted in the Mongol expansion. In 1238 Tbilisi fell to Chagatai Noyan, Queen Rusudan fleeing into the far western mountains of Georgian territory, near the Black Sea. So remote was it that the Mongols did not even pursue her. By that point, Subutai and Batu’s armies were overrunning the steppes north of the Caucasus, so perhaps they felt her trapped between them.
The conquest of the Caucasus was essentially complete by 1240. Though it saw its shares of massacres, it was considerably less disastrous for the locals than, say, the war against the Jurchen Jin had been in north China. Most local forms of government were allowed to continue operating, though now with Mongol overlordship at the top. The Mughan plain in Azerbaijan became a favoured centre for Mongol power, and in time, a political centre under the Ilkhanate. For more details on Mongol rule in the region, one can easily find a copy of Bayarsaikhan Dashdondag’s The Mongols and the Armenians online, kindly uploaded to the internet and academia.edu by Dashdondag herself.
The early 1240s saw notable political upheaval in the Mongol Empire- of course at the end of 1241, we have Ogedai Khaan’s own death, though we’ll deal with that in a later episode. Chormaqun was struck down by a paralytic disease, leaving him unable to command, his wife acting as regent until officially replaced by his lieutenant, Baiju Noyan. Baiju had a habit, even for Mongol standards, of ordering senseless executions. It is Baiju who brings us to the final section of today’s episode, the battle of Kose Dagh.
The Seljuqs of Rum, as the Anatolian branch of the once mighty dynasty was known, had experienced a heyday and expansion under Kayqubad I. After his death in 1236, he was succeeded by Kaykhusraw II, not his equal and certainly not up to repelling the predatory Baiju. From 1240 to 1241 a Turkoman revolt led by Baba Ishak hamstrung the Seljuq state, and Baiju took note of this Seljuq weakness. In 1242, hungry to continue expanding, Baiju led his armies into Anatolia. The Seljuq controlled Armenian city of Erzurum was a first target. After a two month siege, catapults brought down the city walls, the Christians and Muslims within the city brought to an indiscriminate slaughter. Valuable gospels found in Erzurum were gifted by Baiju to his Chirstian followers, while Armenian princes in his army sought to rescue those taken as slaves. Following further campaigning, Baiju returned to the Mughan plain for winter 1242, before returning in Spring 1243. The Seljuq Sultan Kaykhusraw II had boasted he would march and defeat the Mongols in the Mughan; Baiju marched back into Anatolia before Kaykhsuraw’s men were even mobilized. Kaykhusraw tried to get reinforcements from his vassals and allies, at Trebizond, Aleppo, Nicaea, and Cilician Armenia. The Armenian King, Het’um I, was a stout observer, and knew that the drunkard Sultan Kaykhusraw fared little chance, and held his forces back.
Erzincan, Sivas, Kayseri, all fell to Baiju as he pushed into Anatolia. He brought with him a large, multi-ethnic force, with notable Armenian and Georgian contingents. Baiju encouraged the intermingling of his forces, so as to prevent ethnic rivalries flaring up and increasing unit cohesion. By June 26th, 1243, Baiju caught the Sultan’s army in the defile of Kose Dagh, in what is now northeastern Turkey. The Seljuqs likewise brought a diverse contingent, including important Frankish mercenaries commanded by a Cypriot and a Venetian. Kaykhusraw drank himself into a stupor the night before, and was so hungover that army organization was non-existent, his force failing to assemble until late in the day. Stationed well beyond the lines, the Sultan had little awareness of what was happening at the front. Moral was poor, the Mongols’ reputation was one of invincibility and absolute terror. There could be only one end.
Mongol horse archers supported by Georgian and Armenian heavy cavalry clashed with the Turkish and Frankish troops of the Seljuq Sultan. Within an hour, they had broken and fled. So sudden was the Seljuq flight that Baiju suspected it had to be a feigned retreat, and held his army back. Only cautiously did he send scouts forward to check out the abandoned Sultan’s camp, and when they found it truly abandoned, the celebration was great. Kaykhsuraw left all his treasure behind in his flight, and what a great deal of treasure it was. Though he survived, his reputation and military were broken. The Seljuqs had little option but to submit to the Mongols- as did the King of Armenian Cilicia, Het’um I, leaving the Mongols as masters of Anatolia.
The Kose Dagh campaign was a part of a growing shift in Mongol military thought. Under Chinggis Khan, campaigns were normally a reaction to an incident or a need; the Otrar Massacre was of course an important precipitate to the Khwarezmian campaign, but Chinggis Khan had tried to avoid it, even after the massacre sending envoys to seek a peaceable solution. Only when his envoys were killed by Muhammad Khwarezm-shah did Chinggis Khan order an assault. The initial campaigns ordered by Ogedai were sent against targets who had survived Chinggis Khan’s invasions, that is the Jurchen Jin and Jalal al-Din. But by Chormaqun’s final years and the time Baiju took office in 1241, the justifications for invasions grew ever flimsier. The greatly weakened Kingdom of Georgia and the Seljuqs of Rum were not a threat to the already vast Mongol Empire, though the Georgians were considered enemies since Jebe and Subutai’s expedition. No, this was conquest for the sake of conquest. Baiju attacked the Seljuqs in their moment of weakness, for little reason other than the expansion of the Mongol Empire. This was the manifestation of the belief that the Chinggisids were to rule everything under the Eternal Blue Heaven. The very existence of non-subject powers was, in itself, resistance against the will of Heaven. The Khan had no allies, only vassals.
The submission of the Anatolian Seljuqs by the mid 1240s marked the highpoint of Mongol efforts in the region for some years. Baiju probed Syria, bringing the submission of local Ayyubid princes there, and his armies tested the borders of Iraq. However, the Mongols seem to have been under the impression that Baghdad was supported by a massive army, and were hesitant to commit to any serious operation against it. It would not be until the arrival of Hulegu in the 1250s that the Mongol conquest in the region would be finalized. As it was, Mongol rule now stretched from the Mediterranean and Black Seas all the way to the Pacific Ocean, and still continued to expand. Our next episode will begin to cover the conquest of the greatest western steppe, the prelude to the invasion of Europe proper, so be sure to subscribe to the Kings and Generals podcast and to continue helping us bring you more outstanding content, please visit our patreon at www.patreon.com/kingsandgenerals. Thank you for listening, I am your host David and we will catch you on the next one!
A desperate, starving crowd of thousands presses together, smothering each other in the narrow city streets; defenders clad it broken or hastily repaired lamellar armour hurry to and fro, responding to new alerts along the city walls; the constant thundering of stone slamming into the city walls; the loud cracks of bombs exploding, lobbed into houses by the enemy siege weapons and setting them alite. Screams, some ongoing and others cutting off suddenly, marking where a poor defender, foolish enough to stick his head over the ramparts, was struck by arrows. Outside the city, smoke billowed up enemy sieges machines set on fire by the defender. Beyond them, was the whinnying of tens of thousands of Mongol horses, with Chinese subjects and allies sharpening swords and preparing for the assault. Such was life in the nearly year-long siege of Kaifeng, capital of the Jin Empire and now the target of the Mongol war machine. Today, we look at the final collapse of the Jurchen ruled Jin Dynasty, ending the twenty year long Mongol conquest of Northern China. Victory here laid the groundwork for Mongol war with the masters of southern China, the Song Dynasty, setting the stage for a conflict which would eventually leave the Mongols the rulers of the Middle Kingdom. I’m your host David and this is Ages of Conquest: The Mongol Invasions!
We’ve covered the early stages of the Mongol-Jin war in previous episodes but to give a quick recap. Mongol armies under Chinggis Khan had invaded the Jin Empire in 1211. The Jin, ruled by the Jurchen, hailing from Manchuria and ancestors of the later Manchu, controlled China north of the Huai river and had enjoyed a fearsome military reputation, renowned for their heavy cavalry and horse archers. But after nearly a century of their rule, the semi-nomadic Jurchen in China had adopted Chinese culture and language, losing their formidable military edge. Jin armies were routinely swept away in the field by the Mongols, and those Jurchen and Khitans who still lived as nomads or semi-nomads were soon allied with Chinggis Khan. In 1215, the Emperor Xuanzong of Jin fled south of the Yellow River, abandoning the capital of Zhongdu, now modern Beijing, and cutting ties to his Manchurian homeland. Formerly hardy horsemen, the final emperors of the Jin Dynasty, though still ethnically Jurchen, were now little different from the Chinese. Their armies were now made up of Chinese infantry, having lost most of their access to horse producing regions. Defections from the Jin army early on in the war brought the Mongols knowledge of Chinese siege weapons, and soon the fortifications of northern China were reduced one by one. When Chinggis Khan moved against the Khwarezmian Empire in 1219, the Jin were granted no respite, as the talented commander Mukhali was left to continue pressure on the Jin. Only Mukhali’s death in 1223 granted the Jin a brief rest, with Mongol attacks for the next few years becoming decidedly more limited.
The Jin had been in an unenviable position from 1215-1223. Mongol pressure in the north was unrelenting and of great concern, bringing the losses of hundreds of thousands of soldiers and civilians. In the west, the Tangut ruled Xi Xia, former Jin vassals, had submitted to the Mongols and joined them in attacking the Jin. In the east, the Shandong peninsula and surrounding coastline was lost to a local insurrection known as the Red Coats, an umbrella term for a collection of independent warlords, some of whom declared for the Mongols, some who declared for the Song Dynasty, and all hating the Jin. The Chinese Song Dynasty ruled almost all of China south of the Huai river, and were a formidable economic power as well as being longtime foes of the Jin. Having lost their northern territories, and two emperors, to the Jurchen in the early 1100s, few tears were shed in the Song court for the Jin’s struggles. In 1217 the Jin invaded the Song- a shocking development considering their ongoing military issues, but one with the intention to essentially provide further room to retreat from the Mongols. Fighting continued until 1221, proving both indecisive and wasteful.
1223-1224 provided an unexpected change of events. Beginning with Mukhali’s death, we have the already noted reduction in Mongol pressure. Though Mukhali’s son and brother continued to campaign, it was without Tangut military support, as their forces had abandoned Mukhali in his final days. Furthermore, Chinggis Khan was still absent in Central Asia, though making his return. This was the first real breathing room northern China had experienced in well over a decade. In the first days of 1224, the Emperor Xuanzong of Jin died, succeeded by his third son Ningjiasu (Ning-ji-asu), known also by his chosen Chinese personal name, Wanyan Shouxi (Wan-yan Shou-shi), Wanyan being the royal clan of the Jurchen Jin.
25 years old on his ascension, Ningjiasu (Ning-ji-asu) was the closest the Jin came to a competent monarch since the death of Shizong of Jin in 1189. More evenhanded and thoughtful than Xuanzong (shuan-zong) of Jin, and more competent than the arrogant and inept Wei Shao Wang, had Ningjiasu taken the throne at any other time, he may have enjoyed a fine reputation. However, he was unable to arrest the collapse of his state, and would die only a few hours before the end of his dynasty. In life, rulers of Chinese-style dynasties are simply known as ‘the Emperor,’ and prior to the Ming Dynasty, would take era titles to delineate certain years of their reign. After their deaths, they are all given posthumous temple names, such as ‘Taizu’ for dynastic founders. Xuanzong of Jin was the posthumous title for Ningjiasa’s father, whose personal name had been Wudubu. Wudubu’s predecessor was so hated he was posthumously demoted from emperor to prince, and hence known as the Prince of Wei, or Wei Shao Wang. The posthumous temple name given to Ningjisau was Aizong, meaning, ‘pitiable ancestor.’ His Chinese personal name, Shouxu (Shou-szhu), was also turned into a pun by the Mongols, as it sounded similar to “little slave.”
Aizong of Jin, as we’ll call him had a promising start to his reign. Both the Tangut and Song emperors died in similar time, and Aizong quickly set about organizing peace between them, though no military cooperation came of this. Able to redistribute troops against the Mongols and Red Coats, the Jin also began to receive horses in trade from the Tangut. Seeking to inprove relations with the Mongols, on Chinggis Khan’s death Aizong even sent envoys bearing formal condolences to the Mongols, though they were turned away. Jin forces were able to reoccupy some territory and strengthen fortifications. As we mentioned earlier, Xuanzong of Jin had moved the capital from Zhongdu to Kaifeng in 1215. Though a foolhardy decision which brought Mongol armies back into China, it wasn’t strategically awful. Kaifeng, in the central Henan province, had been the capital of the Song Dynasty before captured by the Jurchen in the early 12th century. With massive walls, a large population and rich hinterland, the city itself was difficult to siege. Unlike Zhongdu, which was situated comparatively close to Mongolia, Kaifeng was sheltered behind the Yellow River, fordable only at select, and guarded, points. Any passage directly over the river could prove highly costly. The Mongols would thus be more inclined to ford the river further along its great bend towards the Ordos, allowing them to make an approach to the west of the city. This would bring them into mountainous territory in Shaanxi (Shaan-shi) province to Henan’s west, the passage between these provinces guarded by the fortress of Tongguan. Bordered by mountains and possessing a strong garrison, either Tongguan would have to be forced by a costly siege, or bypassed entirely by cutting south through the territory of the now neutral Song Dynasty. Indeed, this was advice Chinggis Khan was said to have given his sons on his deathbed. But since peace had now been reached between Jin and Song, it was impossible to say if they would allow Mongol troops through their country unimpeded.
Such was the problem Ogedai faced when he became Khan in 1229. Ogedai was not the military equal of his father or brothers, and to quiet questions of how fit he was to succeed his famous father, he needed to complete the conquest of the Jin. Growing bolder through the recapture of their cities, defeats of small Mongol parties and absence of any major offensives for some years, the Jin would be a test of worthiness for the new Khan. Weeks after becoming Khan, Ogedai sent an army against the Jin, perhaps to test the waters. A Mongol army of 8,000 under Doqulqu (do-khul-khu) entered Shaanxi (Shaan-shi) at the end of 1229, besieging Qingyangfu (Ching-yang-foo). After a failed Jin peace embassy, a relief force was raised under the commander Pu’a with a vanguard of the “Loyal and Filial Army.” Pu’a was a bit of a rapscallion who had led raids into Mongol occupied territory for several years, looting and carrying off captured horses and provisions, then withdrawing before Mongol forces could catch him. Through his habit of playing up minor skirmishes like they were great victories, he had earned a reputation for skill against the Mongols, though whether it was deserved was another matter. The ‘Loyal and Filial Army,’ which Pu’a had been associated with for years also had an unsavoury, though effective, reputation. Made up of deserters and captives from the Mongols it included northern Chinese, Uighurs, Naiman, Tanguts and the odd Qipchaq, these were mounted units specializing in Mongol tactics. Paid three times that of normal soldiers, to encourage defections from the diverse Mongol armies, by the 1230s this was a crack force of 7,000. Often undisciplined and unruly, they proved effective at plundering and were fine horse archers- one of Pu’a commanders, Chenheshang (Chen-hae-shang) commanded a 1,000 strong vanguard of these men.
At Dachangyuan (da-chang-yuan) in January-February 1230, Pu’a drew Doqulqu’s (Do-hool-hoo’s) force up for battle. Chenheshang led the Loyal and Filial Army as vanguard, and for the first time in the nearly 20 years of war, the Jin defeated the Mongols in open battle. After the battle, Pu’a released a captured Mongol envoy, and sent him to Ogedai with a simple message: “We’ve got all our soldiers and horses ready- come on over and fight!” Soon afterwards, Pu’a, Chanheshang and the general Hada defeated a Mongol army investing Weizhou on the northern bank of the Yellow River in Henan.
Ogedai was furious and frightened. Doqolqu (do-khul-khu) was removed from command and possibly poisoned. Pu’a’s boast, followed by actual Jin victories coupled with peace between Jin and Song, made the new Khan very nervous. Naysayers within his own court who whispered how the more militaristic Tolui, Ogedai’s younger brother, should have been Khan, saw this as signs of Heaven’s displeasure. Ogedai tried to quiet these whispers by saying this was like the candle flaring up before it goes out, while at the same time raising a large army to personally lead against the Jin. It should be noted that details of this campaign are often contradictory, with later authors hiding details due to the Mongol defeats suffered in the campaign. The reconstruction which will follow is based on the work of historian Dr. Christopher Atwood, and his fantastic article on Doqulqu’s death.
Ogedai set out in early 1231, praying for nine days to Eternal Blue Heaven for victory. His solution to the described defenses of the Jin- the wide and fast moving Yellow River guarding the north, the neutral Song border to the south and the fortress of Tongguan protecting the west, was to bring the full might of his army against Tongguan, to force it or bypass it.
Up to 100,000 men in Ogedai’s army, including his brother Tolui, the general Subutai freshly recalled from the western steppe, and Mongols, Khitans, Uighurs and subject Chinese, marched into Shaanxi province, already suffering from a severe famine. With such a large army and limited resource available, Ogedai needed to find a way through Tongguan quickly. The Jin commanders, Pu’a and Hada, pulled all their available troops out of Shaanxi before the Mongol advance in order to reinforce Tongguan, and it quickly became apparent that an assault on the fort would be costly and lengthy.
An attempt by Ogedai’s adopted brother Shigi Qutuqu (shi-gi hoo-too-hoo) to draw the Jin defenders into a feigned retreat resulted in heavy Mongol losses, the Jin refusing to leave the safety of their fortifications. Subutai for his part, was able to find a route through the hills south of Tongguan, and seemed likely to outflank the fort. However, his forces became spread too thin during the rough voyage, and a counterattack led by Chenheshang and 1,000 of the Loyal and Filial Troops defeated Subutai at Daohuigu (dao-hui-goo). Subutai and part of his force returned, humbled, to Ogedai, who was so furious he threatened to totally remove him from command, and was only restrained by Tolui. The Mongols withdrew from Tongguan, besieging the large city of Fenxiangfu. The city fell in May 1231, 400 catapults concentrating on one corner of the walls. Despite this victory, Ogedai’s mood was little improved, and lambasted his generals, saying “If Mukhali were alive, I would not have had to come here myself!”
Struggling to support the large army in famine stricken Shaanxi, Ogedai ordered a withdrawal to Inner Mongolia for summer 1231 and replan the assault. There, Tolui suggested a plan which their father had discussed in his final days, bypassing Tongguan by going through Song territory and arriving deep behind Jin defenses. Ogedai agreed, ordering Tolui and Subutai to take their tumens on this flanking maneuver. Meanwhile, Ogedai and the main army would attempt a crossing of the Yellow River, while a smaller force under Ochin Noyan was to try the end of the Yellow River in Shandong, guarding Ogedai from encirclement. The plan was for their armies to act as a giant pincer, striking Kaifeng from the north and southwest simultaneously, Tolui coming up behind enemy lines and preventing the Jin from marshalling all of their forces on a single army.
Nothing started off to plan. While Ogedai’s force was held up by a long siege at Hezhongfu (Hay-zhong-foo) in their effort to cross the Yellow River, early indications were that the Song would not cooperate with Tolui. At the start of 1231 the Song had killed Li Quan, the Mongol’s Red Coat ally in Shandong. Also, the envoy sent at the end of summer to request passage through Song territory had disappeared. Entering into the Song empire without their approval could mean Tolui would face resistance or an army. If Tolui was bogged down fighting Song troops, he would be unable to rendezvous with Ogedai, leaving his brother isolated. Much of Tolui’s army had been in famine stricken Shaanxi, or relocated to the barren Qinling mountains during summer 1231- lacking resources to feed perhaps 20-30,000 men, medieval authors speak of cannibalism occurring here. They could hardly eat the horses they needed for war, afterall. These starving men faced a difficult ride through hostile territory, beyond which they needed to return to the Jin realm with strength and numbers to fight.
It is testament to Tolui’s military ability that he kept his men together through this hard ride through mountainous territory. Once they reached the Song border in November 1231, Tolui allowed his men a month of pillaging across Sichuan. This Song province was rich, fertile and untouched by the two decades of Mongol-Jin warfare, a chance for Tolui’s men to regain strength, morale and fatten their horses. It also showcased a noted weakness of the Song border defenses- Tolui’s troops travelled over 290 kilometres into Song territory before turning back. This was not the first occasion of Mongol-Song warfare: a brief clash had occurred in 1227 during the destruction of the Tangut Kingdom when Mongol forces attacking the western edge of the Jin empire had gone over the border and raided Song prefectures. The Chief Councillor of the Song Dynasty, Shih Mi-yuan, in power since 1208, was as cautious and pragmatic as he was unpopular in the empire, and he was very unpopular. Neither clash was enough for him to send Song Chinese to die at Mongol hands, and he didn’t let Tolui’s raid escalate into a full military response. Tolui was thus able to enter the southern flank of Jin ruled Henan province in January 1232.
The Jin were panicking now, and Pu’a and Hada rapidly withdrew the garrisons of Tongguan to catch Tolui. At Sanfeng mountain, Tolui and Subutai found themselves surrounded by multiple converging Jin forces under Pu’a and Hada. Pu’a sent a message to Tolui which, in the words of the Ilkhanid vizier Rashid al-Din, the Jin threatened to “do this and that to their women folk.” The actual message was certainly not so polite, and Tolui bristled at this. Surrounded, the Mongols were in a tough position. Aid came from an unexpected direction, as it suddenly began to snow forcefully, a blizzard mixed with hail. Subutai reminded Tolui that they were facing soft men from cities and small villages- the Mongols, used to harsh winters on the open steppe, put on their winter coats and waited on their horses. The Jin troops were unprepared for the early February storm, and for four days they froze and suffered. On the fourth day, deciding their enemy was suitably weakened, Tolui ordered the assault. Racing down the mountain side, the Mongols cut into the Jin and obliterated them, Pu’a and Hada both captured. As punishment for their threat to rape the Mongol women, we are told the Mongols sodomized the captured Jin troops, and made a huge mound of severed ears from the slain.
The defeat at Sanfang mountain and capture of their best generals marked the end of the Jin Dynasty’s offensive capabilities. Ogedai pushed through the northern defenses, and was soon reunited with his brother. Subutai was given overall command of the army while Ogedai and Tolui returned to Mongolia, possibly because Ogedai had fallen quite ill. In April 1232, Subutai began the siege of Kaifeng, a noose which took almost a year to tighten.
Ogedai and Tolui returned to Mongolia. Precisely what occurred is unclear, but by the end of 1232 Tolui was dead. The ‘official’ verison in the Secret History of the Mongols had Ogedai fall deathly ill, and Tolui urges the spirits to take him instead, sacrificing himself for his brother- but mention of him drinking a ‘special brew’ prepared for him have fueled rumours that Ogedai in fact had his brother poisoned. The problem with this theory is that it relies too strongly on later antagonism between the heirs of Ogedai and Tolui. By all accounts the two brothers were extremely close, and later editing to what became the Secret History of the Mongols by Tolui’s sons may have chosen to portray their father more heroically, and by villianizing Ogedai, helped justify their eventual ascension to the throne. Other writers like Juvaini say Tolui drank himself to death. Since this was the fate Ogedai, and numerous other Mongolian princes, shared, this is rather likely. Ogedai Khaan lost his closest companion late in 1232, a loss from which he never recovered.
Back at Kaifeng, Subutai led a brutal siege. The city, so flooded with refugees that it held over 1 million people, was totally blockaded, starvation and pandemic setting in over the summer of 1232. Gunpowder weapons were used by both sides in the form of bombs lobbed by catapults, and in fire-lances by the Jin. Essentially a flame thrower, fire-lances shot a jet of fire three metres long, burning men to death horrifically and were used to effectively block breaches in the walls. You can see this in action in episode 10, season 1, of Netflix’s Marco Polo. Subutai tried various means to breach the walls of Kaifeng, but the city was skillfully defended. Sappers would approach the walls under mobile shelters, with the intention to physically dig through them. Jin defenders dropped bombs onto them, destroying both shelter and attackers. Dykes on the Yellow River were broken, flooding the plain and the city.
This resistance was valiant, but ultimately doomed. The Jin leadership was chaotic, with individuals promoted, then demoted and executed within days for perceived slights or on suspicion of treachery. Finally, in February 1233 Aizong of Jin abandoned the city with some loyal guards, leaving it to its fate. One commander left in Kaifeng, Cui Li (Tsui Li), assassinated those still loyal to Aizong, leaving himself in control. Realizing the only way to spare the population was a voluntary surrender, on 29 May 1233 Cui Li (Tzui Li) opened the gates to Subutai. Ogedai was urged to mercy by the protests of his adviser Yelu Chucai, and Subutai was restricted to plundering, killing only 500 members of the royal Wanyan clan who were still in the city. Cui Li for his efforts was assassinated by another Jin officer, in response for an offense Cui Li had committed to the man’s wife.
By August 1233, Aizong of Jin and his ever decreasing retinue fled to Caizhou (Tsai-zhou), only 64 kilometres from the Song border. Aizong’s messages to the Song for aid, warning them they would be the next target of the Mongols, fell on deaf ears. The Song agreed to cooperate with the Mongols against the Jin, closing off Aizong’s route of escape. By November 1233, a Song army joined Subutai outside Caizhou. Caizhou was reduced to starvation, but its defenders fought tooth and nail, inflicting heavy casualties. But there could be no other end now.
As Mongol-Song forces filled in a nearby lake with bundles of reeds and sticks to gain access to the city in February 1234, Aizong declared he would not be remembered as the last Jin Emperor. He abdicated for a distant relation, a man in better shape who Aizong faintly hoped would escape and continue to resist. Barely had Aizong hanged himself and the new emperor been enthroned when the Mongols had broken through the walls. On the 9th of February, 1234, the final emperor of the Jin Dynasty died fighting in the streets alongside his men, having reigned only a few hours. So ended the Jurchen Jin Dynasty, controlling north China for a little over a century. Despite defections, defeats and numerous other setbacks, both Jurchen and Chinese alike showed loyalty to the Dynasty to the very end. Few other kingdoms had suffered the full might of the Mongols as the Jin had, and it was not an easy conquest. In 400 years, the descendants of the Jurchen, the Manchu, would come to rule both the Mongols and the Chinese, but that’s quite another story.
The Mongol-Song alliance barely outlasted the Jin. Subutai moved north with his armies not long afterwards, eager for discussions on where to take them next. The Song commander in the region, Meng Gung, withdrew as well, the devastated Henan province no place to keep an army fed. Aside from a few sites, most of the area, including Kaifeng, stayed in Mongol hands.
As we’ve noted earlier, Kaifeng had once been a capital of the Song Dynasty before it fell to the Jurchen. Long had voices in the Song clamoured to reclaim the north. Chief Councillor Shih Mi-yuan had kept these hawks in check during his long administration, but his death in late 1233 left a vacuum, one the feeble Emperor Lizong of Song could not fill. Those Song officials and commanders who had firsthand experience of conditions in the north and against the Mongols knew what a foolhardy thought a campaign there would be, and understood the limits of the Song army, an army which had never performed well offensively against either the Khitan Liao or Jurchen Jin. However, Song generals who had won battles against the Red Coats and had been uninvolved with the Caizhou campaign were ecstatic at news of the destruction of the Jin, and immediately urged war.
Assuming the local Chinese would happily rise up and supply them, two Song armies marched into Henan in summer 1234, walking into the undefended Kaifeng and Loyang, the birthplace of the founder of the Song Dynasty- and found a population hardly able to feed itself, let alone an entire army. So expectant of a gracious local population, the Song armies had brought provisions for only two weeks. Their men refused to advance further, and a retreat began… just as Mongol forces returned to deal with the incursion. The Song army at Loyang was ambushed and almost totally destroyed. For a campaign that had lasted barely a month, the Song had unwittingly began what was to be a 40 year long war resulting in the destruction of their own Dynasty.
Rather inconclusive Mongol-Song warfare continued for the rest of Ogedai’s reign- much of the Mongol armies freed up from the fall of the Jin were sent to conquer the far west. This early Mongol-Song conflict did cost the life of one of Ogedai’s sons and designated heir, Kochu, in 1236. This was perhaps the final blow to Ogedai’s interest in anything other than alcoholism, which consumed his final years even as his armies under Subutai blazed into Europe. But we’ll return to those years of Ogedai’s reign in future episodes. Our next episode will discuss the continued Mongol expansion into the Middle East in the 1230s, led by Chormaqun Noyan (chor-ma-huun Noyan) against the Khwarezmian prince Jalal al-Din Mingburnu, so be sure to subscribe to the Kings and Generals podcast and to continue helping us bring you more outstanding content, please visit our patreon at www.patreon.com/kingsandgenerals. Positive reviews on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher or any other podcast catcher of your choice are also greatly appreciated. Thank you for listening, I am your host David and we will catch you on the next one!
The crowd that had assembled was mighty. The princes, sons, and generals from across the Mongol Empire had collected on the Kerulen [Хэрлэн] river in September 1229 to elect Ogedai, third son of Chinggis Khan, as Khan of Khans. From the line of Ogedai’s late brother Jochi, his sons Orda, Batu, Berke and more made the journey from the Qipchaq steppe; Ogedai’s two surviving full brothers and their children, Chagatai and Tolui (to-loo-i), stood present, as were the only living siblings of Chinggis Khan, his brother Temuge and half-brother Belgutei (bell-gu-tai). It was a huge gathering, perhaps the final meeting of many members of the old guard: the last of those who had fought alongside Temujin to unify the Mongols now watched as the reins of power were handed to the next generation. I am your host David and this is the Ages of Conquest podcast: The Mongol Invasions!
Chinggis Khan had died in August 1227. Two years had been needed for the appropriate funeral arrangements, for the various princes to return to Mongolia and preparations for the coronation. Tolui had been appointed regent of the empire during those two years, and despite some later rumours, there can have been little doubt as to the decision. Chinggis Khan himself had decreed Ogedai to succeed him, and there could be no serious thought of challenging his will. To quote the Persian writer Juvaini, writing in the 1250s, Chinggis Khan spoke thus:
“If it is your wish to pass your lives in ease and luxury and to enjoy the fruits of sovereignty and wealth, my advice, as I have lately given you to understand, is that Ogedai should ascend the throne of the Khanate in my place because he stands out amongst you for the excellency of his firm counsel and the superiority of his perspicacious understanding; and that the government of the army and the people and the defence of the frontiers of the Empire should be executed by his auspicious advice and good counsel. I therefore make him my heir and place the keys of the Empire in the hands of his valour and ability.”
To which his sons are said to have replied after kneeling before him,
“Who hath the power to oppose the words of Chinggis Khan and who the ability to reject it?”
Removing their hats and belts as signs of submission, Chagatai took Ogedai’s right hand, Temuge his left, and hoisted him onto the throne while Tolui passed a cup to Ogedai, symbolically showing the three main alternatives supporting him. Then, all in attendance kneeled three time before Ogedai, saying “May the Kingdom prosper by his being Khan!”, then exited the grand tent, knelt to the sun three times, and returned into the tent to drink and cheer: Ogedai was now ruler of the Mongol Empire, taking not his father’s title of Khan, but the older Turkic title Khakhan, “Khan of Khans,” often transliterated as Khan written with two ‘a’s.
So, who was Ogedai? Born in 1186, the third son of Chinggis Khan and Borte, Ogedai was 43 years old when he became Khaan. Not as skilled a military commander as his brothers, Ogedai instead had a reputation as generous, easy-going and incredibly fond of alcohol. Unlike his surviving brothers, who could be unyielding like iron, Ogedai was one to compromise and seek solutions- and therefore stabilize the empire his father had created. It was Ogedai who famously constructed the imperial capital of Karakorum in Mongolia’s Orkhon Valley. Early on in his reign, Ogedai took to administration with vigour, not just streamlining but in many respects creating an actual bureaucracy and tax system for the empire. Compared to Chagatai, Ogedai was rather positively portrayed by Muslim historians of the period, who shared numerous anecdotes, although many of questionable verocity, of Ogedai intervening to save the lives of Muslims about to be executed for transgressing a law of Chinggis Khan, such as washing in a river. Of course, this is not to say Ogedai was a man of peace. As we will see in the coming episodes, the conquests continued rapidly on his orders: crushing the Jurchen Jin and remnants of Khwarezm, as well as driving into Europe in the 1240s. Ogedai could also fly into horrific rages and order slaughter and sacrifice: from sending 40 virgins to join Chinggis Khan in the next world, to a terrible rape of the women of the Oirat tribe to continued destruction in China, Ogedai could order the deaths of thousands just as easily as his father. Later in his reign, Ogedai found increasing solace in alcohol and withdrew from government, leading to his sudden demise in December 1241.
But in 1229, Ogedai was an energetic and ambitious monarch, one eager to prove himself a worthy successor to his father’s enormous legacy. Ogedai needed to not just consolidate an empire, but set out finding long term methods to rule one as well, rather than the temporary garrison occupation it had been to that point. Civilian administration had been completely subordinate to military rule. The general in the theater who held the highest office, such as Mukhali in north China from 1218-1223, had also acted as governor general. Being engaged in ongoing conquest at the same time meant that civil matters were secondary, and the population was subject to the whims of whatever local power had survived the Mongol onslaught, or been appointed to govern them. This often ended up an appointed general concerned with how to best mobilize their resources for the Mongol war effort or to enrich himself. Furthermore, Chinggis Khan had never established a system of regular taxation. Taxes were collected in kind, that is, in whatever goods the Mongols felt they needed for the war effort, be they animals, weapons, iron implements to be turned into weapons or food stuffs. There was no regular interval for this, nor a set level of assessment. Mongol parties came and took what they needed, when they needed it, and the local populations were thus exploited, suffering depredations well beyond their initial subjugation.
Upon taking the throne, Ogedai had several issues to deal with, such as the matter of how to accommodate the large sedentary populations of north China and Transoxania while completing the conquest of the Jin Dynasty and Khwarezmian Empire. The Jin were now based behind the great defensive line of the Yellow River, with new generals leading a valiant defensive effort, while in western Iran the son of Khwarezm-shah Muhammad II, Jalal al-Din Mingburnu, had reappeared after years in India, making claim to restore his father’s empire. Challenged from these fronts, on his ascension to Khaan in late 1229 Ogedai held a council to decide the courses of action to take.
Some choices were obvious: new military forces needed to be raised to crush these opponents. Chormaqun Chor-mah-hun) Noyan, a member of the keshig, the imperial bodyguard, was given a large force to destroy Jalal al-Din and subdue Iran. We will look at his campaign later in this series. In China, the Jin Dynasty, though reduced, was not yet broken, and had even reclaimed some territory in the years during the Khan’s absence. A final Mongol invasion of the Jin would be forthwith, though difficult, as their remaining territory was well fortified by the Yellow River guarding the north, and the great fort of Tongguan protecting the western approaches. The Chinese Song Dynasty bordered the Jin to the south, and while no friend to the Jin, they remained neutral in the war. Careful planning was needed, and we will explore Mongol strategy in the final war against the Jin in our next episode.
The other question raised at this council was what to do with the sedentary populations, especially in occupied north China. For some Mongols, the solution was simple: an extreme faction led by a general Bedger (bed-ger) suggested the total annihilation of the northern Chinese, turning the now empty land into pasture for their horses. For some at the meeting, this was beyond the pale. One such was the scholar, Yelu Chucai. Chucai, you will remember, was a Khitan, a semi-nomadic people related to the Mongols who had once ruled China before the establishment of the Jurchen Jin Empire; though adopting aspects of Chinese culture in the following centuries, they retained their identity and many had risen up against the Jin with Chinggis Khan’s invasion. Yelu Chucai entered the Khan’s service in 1218. Having lived through the terrible siege of Zhongdu, he spent three years learning Buddhism before being called into Mongol service. His height - well over 6 feet, or 182 centimetres tall- deep voice and long beard down to his waist instantly caught the attention of the Mongols, as did his promulgations of loyalty, a trait Chinggis Khan always valued. Yelu Chucai accompanied Chinggis Khan west into Khwarezm, where he served as a court astrologer, scribe and advisor, building a network of contacts and a respected reputation among the Mongols, as well as a keen understanding of how the Chinggisids viewed the world. A great humanitarian, Yelu Chucai could not allow Ogedai to approve this genocide, and vehemently argued against it. His suggestion was to instead begin a system of regular taxation. Chucai knew that appealing to the Mongols’ sense of empathy would be fruitless, so essentially argued this simple tenant: kill everyone, and you’ll only gain their wealth once, but tax them every year, and long term you’ll make more revenue at less danger to yourself.
Ogedai was intrigued, and allowed Yelu Chucai to try out his strategy as part of the newly created Branch Secretariat for China. At the same time, a similar Branch Secretariat was established for the Islamic lands the Mongols controlled, headed by Mahmud Yalavach, a Turkic merchant who had been a part of the embassy to Muhammad Khwarezm-shah in 1218. Yalavach likewise instituted tax reforms and rebuilding, and Ogedai was immediately pleased by the results. What Yalavach and Chucai did in both Secretariats was basically set up systems of regular, categorized taxations, though each with regional differences based on local tradition.
In his Secretariat, Yalavach’s taxes were on every adult male, as per Islamic tradition, while in time Chucai’s would align with the Chinese model of taxation based on the household, with different rates for urban and rural peoples. Streamlining taxation and reducing the numbers of minor officials and princes collecting taxes at whim meant that the revenues coming to the Mongol court increased significantly. Ogedai allowed Chucai further power for more reforms, and by 1231 Yelu Chucai was responsible for the administration of North China. Former officials of the Jin Dynasty were rescued to aid Chucai’s burgeoning bureaucracy, rebuilding efforts were launched, the power of monasteries were curtailed and fiscal obligations forced onto monks conducting business. Chucai had further ambitions, such as continued refinement of his tax system and hoping to reduce the power of regional princes to strengthen the central government. Long term, his intention was a return to his idealized, Confucian style of Chinese governance. You could almost say he looked to rescue the Chinese from Mongol rapaciousness, allowing northern China a chance to heal from the ravages of the Mongol-Jin wars. Chucai even managed to convince Ogedai to allow a census to be undertaken, something Chucai later came to regret, as we will discuss in future.
Much of Ogedai’s early reign was caught up with continued war with the Jin Dynasty, subject of our next episode but completed by 1234. Mongol victory there had been a long time coming, but Ogedai needed to continue his father’s work should he wish to step out from under his shadow. In 1235, preparations began to be made for the Great Western Invasion. As you may recall, during the expedition of Jebe and Subutai, they had fought Rus’, Cuman-Qipchaqs and Volga Bulghars, all peoples who now needed to be brought under Mongol rule. By this time, the Mongols were increasingly supporting the belief in their united destiny to rule the world. Those who rebuffed initial Mongol demands for submission, or worse, fought and even defeated Mongol armies were an affront to the obvious will of Heaven. The Song Dynasty had made an unfortunate effort to claim, by force, the territory of the fallen Jin Dynasty, and now the south of China too fell prey to Mongol designs.
The scope of Ogedai’s empire was increasing dramatically year-by-year. Don’t worry, though, we’ll cover these regionally rather than overburden a single episode. Ogedai made adjustments to suit this expansion. One such was the expansion of the yam system, essentially a relay system to quickly transport messages across the empire. It was similar to the American Pony Express, except the Mongol system actually lasted longer than 18 months. During Chinggis’ reign, the yam was confined to Mongolia, but Ogedai oversaw its extension into north China, the former Qara-Khitai and occupied Khwarezmian territories, tying these far flung corners to the central administration. The yam was made up of relay stations which a messenger could reach on a day's ride, quickly acquiring a new horse and provisions and continuing onwards to the next station. As Ogedai, much like his father, was concerned with encouraging trade he allowed merchants to utilize the system. To determine who could use what at each station, travellers were assigned with a gereg, known also as paiza, essentially a passport. The material the passport was made of -wood, iron, silver or gold- determined what provisions the carrier could access at each station, and allow them unimpeded or protected movement across this empire. Not that this system was without any issues, as it was the responsibility of local communities to provide provisions and animals for their nearest yam station, leaving them exposed to exploitation of merchants or commanders lining their own pockets.
To further facilitate these trade routes, Ogedai also ordered the construction of protected wells, security patrols, improved roads and bridges, all in order to encourage merchants to make the trip in Mongolia. But Ogedai knew that merchants would need a definite location to carry their wares too, as well as a place for diplomatic envoys to always find the Khan’s representative: the extensive march of Qiu Chuji from northern China to Afghanistan to find Chinggis Khan was too inefficient to repeat. Partly for this purpose, in 1235 Ogedai ordered the construction of his most famous project: Karakorum, an actual capital city for the Mongol Empire. Once again, this may have been Ogedai expanding upon another of his father’s ideas, though the specifics are somewhat murky.
Chinggis Khan seems to have had a semi-permanent, but poorly understood, base at Avarga along the Kherlen River, in northeastern Mongolia where he spent so much of his life. Archaeologically, little remains of Avarga, perhaps being little more than a location to store loot and house envoys, or hostages, from the sedentary world. Two large mounds have been discovered there, and it has been speculated that each mound held a palace, one built for Chinggis and the other by Ogedai, though they were likely unimpressive structures surrounded by Mongolian gers rather than walls. More interestingly is that for decades, the site continued to serve as a cultural and religious destination, and thousands of burned animals bones have been found there, indicating large and ongoing sacrifices. Perhaps rather than palaces, it has been speculated that the mounds were temples, and as the site had been associated with Chinggis it became a holy memorial to him.
Chinggis Khan may have not been totally averse to the notion of a capital then, though he may have seen them more useful as places to store treasures too inconvenient to carry with him. BUT, there is some evidence he actually chose the site of Karakorum and wanted to build a capital there: late Yuan Dynasty transcriptions and the Yuanshih, ‘History of the Yuan Dynasty,’ from 1370, assert Chinggis founded Karakorum in 1220. This is unlikely, as we know Chinggis spent all of 1220 campaigning in the Khwarezmian Empire. He did, however, pass through the Orkhon Valley, where Karakorum would later be built, on his way to invade Khwarezm in 1219. Entering the valley, Chinggis would have noted much to find attractive. Rich in water and grass, vital to maintaining the Mongols’ valuable animal herds, it’s central location in Mongolia also placed it in easier reach of merchants and envoys while still a safe distance from any sedentary foe. Further, it was a region of cultural and imperial significance to nomads, as the Orkhon Valley was associated with the capitals of earlier steppe empires and confederations , such as the Uighur Empire, whose capital of Qarabalaghun (Kh-ara-bal-a-ghun) had been built there. Qarabalghasun’s (Kh-ara-bal-gha-sun’s) ruins, or Ordu Baliq, are only 30 kilometres north of where Karakorum was built. It’s also the home of the famed Orkhon Inscriptions of the Turkic Khaganates. For an ever growing Mongol imperial identity as the masters of the steppes, it was a powerful political connection to lean on.
While Chinggis Khan may have designated the site of Karakorum to serve as the great capital of his empire, as we have shown in our previous episodes, he spent the remainder of his life on campaign or preparing for campaign. It’s doubtful any construction was undertaken on his orders. While Ogedai may have built on a site chosen by his father, what he built was entirely his own, and served as the administrative centre of much of Eurasia for the next 30 years.
Karakorum was not a huge city even by medieval standards- travellers to the city in the 1250s found a population of around 10,000 people. Separated into four quarters and surrounded by a low wall, Karakorum was an amazingly diverse city. Mosques, Christian churches, Confucian, Daoist and Buddhist temples stood across the street from each other. Markets were constructed for merchants travelling from across the Muslim world, while Chinese craftsmen built the imperial palace and later, captured artisans from Europe were brought back to further decorate it, most famously in the form of a silver tree with four spouts to pour various alcoholic drinks from. With its own mint for coinage, gold and silversmiths alongside blacksmiths and other craftsmen, it served as a major production centre. The major streets were paved with limestone, lined with wood to prevent displacement during the freezing and thawing cycles, and all atop gravel to aid in water drainage. A canal was even dug to bring water into the city and drive the water wheels of the smiths.
Many scribes and members of the bureaucracy could be found there, taking in messages sent from across the empire via the yam system and passing on instructions back. Numerous storehouses were built to house captured goods and tribute sent by subservient peoples, and it was to Ogedai’s delight to showcase his generosity by using this loot to overpay merchants several times what their goods were worth. This served as an effective means to encourage merchants to actually make the journey to Karakorum, which in contrast to a nomadic camp, featured amenities to keep visitors occupied and entertained. Limited agriculture was undertaken around the city, with evidence for wheat and barley, and one account mentions a proud farmer presenting his locally grown radishes to Ogedai. The city was not self-sufficient however, and at its height required hundreds of cartloads of food to be shipped to the city daily in order to feed it, something which came to be a major strategic weakness later in the century.
The Great Khan essentially used Karakorum as his office, and the city likely had few actual Mongols within it at any given time. Rather than actually residing in Karakorum’s palace, Ogedai and his successors continued to nomadize around the capitol, venturing within it sparingly as business or ritual commanded. Ogedai himself preferred another palace he had built in Mongolia, the Wanangong, or Palace of Eternal Peace. Having a fixed location to send diplomats and treasure was to the benefit of the empire, while also helping to rebuild the overland trade routes damaged in the initial Mongol expansion. Neither was it the only city in Mongolia at the time, though it was certainly the largest. There was also Chinqai Balasagun, meaning ‘Chinqai’s city,’ named for the able minister Chinqai, a former Onggut merchant who served as Ogedai’s chancellor. Built by thousands of captured Chinese, it was intended as a logistics base in western Mongolia to prepare for the great invasion of Khwarezm but had turned into a major farming and production centre, manufacturing goods and weapons for Mongol armies.
Ogedai’s early reign was marked by activity. New conquests were launched across Eurasia, an extensive new administration was created and a capital city built. Perhaps initially uncertain of how fit he was for the position, Ogedai was eager to prove himself a worthy successor to his awe-inspiring and terrifying father. The expansion of the Mongol Empire only continued under Ogedai, and his armies seemed unstoppable. Chinggis Khan bequeathed him a mighty army, but Ogedai built a political system to back it up. A number of historians for this reason consider him to be the true founder of the Mongol Empire. But the zeal was soon burned out of Ogedai, and by 1237 he essentially removed himself from most affairs of state.
With access to most of the alcohol of Eurasia, Ogedai busied himself by sampling as much as he could. His final years were swallowed up by constant drunkenness and without his forceful presence, corruption set in. His second wife, Toregene Khatun, began exercising her own authority, pushing to the edge reform minded figures such as Yelu Chucai and Mahmud Yalavach. This later period of Ogedai’s rule and his weaknesses will be investigated in an upcoming episode, but our next episodes will detail the continued conquests by the Mongol armies on Ogedai’s orders, beginning with the final destruction of the Jurchen Jin Empire. This will carry us onto the invasion of Europe, so be sure to subscribe to Ages of Conquest: A Kings and Generals podcast and to continue helping us bring you more outstanding content, please visit our patreon at www.patreon.com/kingsandgenerals and if you want to help us continue to grow our audience, be sure to leave us a positive review on Apple Podcasts! Thank you for listening, I am your host David and we will catch you on the next one!
We’ve now covered Chinggis Khan’s conquest of much of the Jin Dynasty and the Khwarezmian Empire, leaving him with an empire stretching from the Caspian Sea to the Pacific Ocean. With the defeat of Jalal al-Din Mingburnu on the borders of India at the end of 1221, Chinggis Khan began the long journey back to his homeland- much of this trip being discussed on our last episode where we also discussed the Khan meeting the Taoist, Qiu Chuji (Chee-u Chu-ji). Chinggis Khan was certainly returning to his native steppe with an idea for continued campaigning in north China, hoping to deliver the death blow to the Jin Dynasty. In his absence, his general Mukhali, supported by Tangut forces, had been left to maintain pressure on the Jin until the Khan’s return. Mukhali’s death in 1223 unravelled this plan, as it was followed by the ascension of new Jin and Tangut rulers who organized peace between their respective empires. The treachery of his erstwhile vassals, the Tangut, had to be punished, while the succession of the aging Chinggis had yet to be settled. Now, let us discuss the final years of Chinggis Khan! I’m your host David and this is the Ages of Conquest Podcast: The Mongol Invasions!
By the 1220s, Chinggis Khan was in his sixties, having lived a long and difficult life. In the almost 20 years since he had unified the Mongols, a generation of new warriors had known nothing but his rule. The thought that Chinggis even could die must have seemed impossible to many: the great success of the Khwarezm campaign had only demonstrated how Chinggis Khan was Heaven’s chosen, and surely he was destined to conquer the remainder of the world. His impending demise however, was something his top advisers were concerned over, and all knew the tendency for nomadic confederations to fragment on the ruler’s death. You will recall that Chinggis himself had taken advantage of the division of the Naiman Khanate between Tayang and Buiruk after their father’s death in the 1190s. If the Secret History of the Mongols is to be believed, the matter was brought up and settled on the eve of the Khwarezmian campaign- so in 1219, though other sources have it settled as late as on Chinggis’ deathbed. It’s possible it was something dealt with in stages.
Though Chinggis had God knows how many children with likely hundreds of lesser wives and concubines, there were only four choices over who would become Khan after his death, those born of his first and chief wife, Borte Khatun. The eldest of these was Jochi [Зүчи, Züchi]. A skilled hunter and capable commander, infamously, Jochi was born after Borte’s abduction by Merkits in the 1180s. A haze therefore always hung over Jochi’s legitimacy, and though Chinggis Khan always publicly treated Jochi as his own, his second son Chagatai [Цагадай] utterly refused to. Perhaps two years Jochi’s junior, Chagatai was stern, a strict enforcer of his father’s laws, and had an intense dislike for his elder brother. Possibly by encouraging rumour of Jochi’s illegitimacy, Chagatai hoped to increase his own chances of succeeding their father. Their conflict escalated and resulted in Chinggis removing both from succeeding him as Great Khan, a decision made easier by Jochi’s untimely death in 1225. The sources are unclear as to the reasons for his death and cite anything from illness, to injuries from a hunting accident, to rumours that he was poisoned by Chinggis himself. Chinggis allowed Jochi’s sons to inherit their father’s territory, with Jochi’s second son, Batu, succeeding him.
The other two options to succeed Chinggis were his third and fourth sons, Ogedai [Өгэдэй] and Tolui [Тулуй]. Both were notable alcoholics, even by Mongolian standards but where Tolui built himself a reputation as a ruthless military commander, Ogedai was famously generous and conciliatory, a man capable of reaching compromise between the many loud voices of the empire. Unlike the less flexible Chagatai and Tolui, Chinggis anticipated Ogedai as having a head for establishing an actual administration, rather than just expansion. Indeed, the intention may have been for Ogedai to be a ruler, not just a conqueror, though he would undoubtedly do that. If we are to believe the account in the Secret History of the Mongols, Chagatai himself suggested Ogedai as the best choice from among them.
Chinggis Khan returned to Mongolia in spring 1225 in what was to be a short stay in the land of his birth. As we’ve already mentioned, the general Mukhali, with Tangut support, had campaigned against the Jin Dynasty while Chinggis was subduing the Khwarezmian Empire. With Mukhali’s death in early 1223, the Mongol offensive in China lost its impetus, though his son and brother continued to campaign. The Tangut abandoned the war, which was both hugely expensive and unpopular within their kingdom. In similar time, the Jurchen emperor Xuanzong (shu-an-zong) of Jin died, succeeded by Aizong (Ai-zong) of Jin, and the Tangut king was forced to abdicate by his son, Weiming Dewang (Way-ming De-wang).
With the slate wiped clean and the great Khan still in Central Asia, the Jin and Tangut entered into negotiations and proclaimed a peace treaty and fraternal relations in 1225- a treaty with no provisions for military assistance, mind you. Organizing their own peace treaty with the Jin Dynasty was, of course, an open refutation of the Great Khan’s mandate, the culmination of a defiant trend that had started with their refusal to supply troops in 1219.
Sitting comfy in our armchairs 800 years later with the benefit of hindsight, we know what a foolish decision this was. There was some sense to it from the Tangut point of view though. With Mukhali’s death and Chinggis still distant in the west, the Tangut gambled that the high tide of the Mongols had passed, the aging Chinggis Khan burning out the last of his energies in Central Asia. The known tendency for nomadic confederations to splinter on their founder’s demise, and the vast breadth of the Mongol Empire could have brought hopes of an approaching Mongolian civil war and breathing room for the Tangut. It turns out, this was not a good gamble.
On his return to Mongolia in 1225, Chinggis Khan sent messengers to the Tangut court demanding they send a royal hostage to reaffirm their vassalage- an act the proud Tangut had never partaken in before. Mongol sources have the Tangut refuse to provide this hostage, and thus brought on Mongol wrath. However, we have two very rare and precious Tangut documents- a commander’s report dated to 1225, and an early 14th century ritual song- which say the Tangut did provide a royal hostage, a prince who was less than 10 years old who the Mongols promptly murdered. That this killing went unmentioned in Mongolian documents makes sense. Killing a royal hostage, an envoy, a child, was not a good look, especially when unprovoked and even more when the Mongols tried using it to justify the invasion and destruction. If true, perhaps Chinggis Khan was already set on attacking the Tangut, intending to use their refusal as casus belli, not anticipating they might actually comply. That the Tangut actually did send a child took the Mongol leadership by surprise and made it hard to justify an invasion- so they killed the boy, spread rumours the Tangut had refused, and proceeded with their invasion.
In winter 1225, Chinggis Khan left Mongolia for what would be the final time, marching at the head of an army into the Tangut Kingdom in January 1226. In these months according to the Secret History of the Mongols, Chinggis Khan fell from his horse while hunting wild asses- the second such fall he suffered, with one a few years earlier mentioned in our episode on Qiu Chuji. This fall however was more serious. The elderly Khan developed a fever and was bedridden, and his captains argued that the army should fall back to allow Chinggis to recover. The Tangut in their pounded-earth walls would not be going anywhere. Chinggis refused, instead ordering a final set of envoys to meet the Tangut and based off the response they received, Chinggis would decide if they should retreat.
Chinggis’ messengers reached the Tangut Emperor, called Burqan (Bur-chan) by the Mongols, and shared the Khan’s message, as per the account in the Secret History of the Mongols.
“... you, Burqan (Bur-chan), did not keep your promise and did not give me troops, but came out with
mocking words. As I was moving in a different direction at the time, I said that I would call you to account later. I set out against [Khwarezm] and being protected by Eternal Heaven I brought them duly under submission. Now I have come to call Burqan to account for his words.”
Before the emperor could reply, the minister Asa Gambu spoke up, the man who had issued the rebuff to Mongol requests for troops in 1219, and the same man dominating and leading the anti-Mongol faction in the Tangut court:
“I spoke the mocking words. As for now, if you Mongols, who are used to fighting, say, ‘Let us fight!’, then turn towards the [Alashan mountains] and come to me, for I have an encampment in the [Alashan].”
When the messengers came to Chinggis with Asa Gambu’s response, the injured Khan made this declaration:
“This is enough! When one lets oneself be addressed so boastfully, how can one withdraw? Even if we die let us challenge their boasts!... Eternal heaven, you be the judge!”
Thus did Chinggis Khan, suffering from internal injuries, remount his horse and ride into his final campaign. He had used his time wisely, developing a simple, perfectly executed strategy to ruin the Tangut. The western territory of the Tangut was taken methodically, preventing these garrisons from reuniting at the capital. Then, Mongol armies cut east, coming up behind the Alashan mountains and bypassing the defensive passes which had proved so troublesome in 1209. With their armies situated between the Tangut capital of Zhongxing and the Jin Empire, the Mongols cut the Tangut off from possible Jin support, investing the city while they reduced the other Tangut holdouts in the east of the kingdom.
Everything went according to plan. The fortress of Qara-qoto, famous ruins today, fell in February 1226, and the western settlements fell in perfect succession. Tanguts in Mongol service at times managed to prevent slaughter or reached negotiated surrenders, but the bloodbath could not be averted. By that autumn, entire districts were surrendering to the Mongols, and then Tangut emperor died suddenly, supposedly of fright. The reign of the kinsman who succeeded him was short and chaotic, watching helplessly as the 200 year old Tangut kingdom was reduced to an ever shrinking strip of land around the capital.
In winter 1226 Chinggis was outside Lingzhou (Ling-zho), northeast of Zhongxing (Zhong-shing). A Tangut army was sent from the capital, a desperate final gamble to kill the Khan and end the invasion. When the Yellow River froze, Chinggis Khan crossed the river and destroyed the army- the final field battle Chinggis Khan seems to have commanded in person. An army was then ordered to invest the Tangut capital, while Chinggis moved to the kingdom’s southeast, to Lintao, to mop up those untouched cities and act as guard should Jin reinforcements come. By spring 1227, Chinggis had secured most of the region, but the injuries sustained the year prior had not gone away. Whatever the injury had been, the year of campaign had prevented it from healing properly. Perhaps ribs had been broken in the fall and been unable to heal, and now infection was setting in, the Khan’s old body failing him. To avoid the approaching heat of summer, and have a chance to rest, Chinggis made his encampment high in the valleys of the Liupan (Leeo-pan) mountains. It was here that the Khan spent the last months of his life.
The order of events of the Khan’s final month, August 1227, are highly contradicted among the historical sources. Zhongxing (Zhong-shing) resisted for 6 months before it finally surrendered in July or August, the Tangut ruler asking for a month to prepare gifts for the Khan. When Weiming Xian (Way-ming Shian) came to surrender before the Khan’s ger in August, he was forced to stand outside his ger for three days- quite likely because Chinggis Khan had already died.
What exactly killed Chinggis Khan goes unspecified in the Secret History of the Mongols, though it strongly suggests it was related to the injury from his earlier fall. By then, Chinggis was in his late sixties and had gone through a life of injuries and rigour. Complications from internal injuries at that age in this period would hardly be an unusual way to die. Chinggis is recorded as ordering the time, the cause of his death and the very fact of it to remain secret: had news of it reached the Tangut too early, they could have found new courage to continue and brought renewed resistance. Furthermore, dying before the campaign was actually completed could have been interpreted as heaven rescinding its favour. Coupled with Mongolian taboos about discussing death, it’s almost a wonder we even learned he died at all!
His generals proved loyal to him until the very end and succeeded in keeping his death a secret. The true details around it were only known to a select audience of his commanders and family. The problem with this reasonable enough explanation is that it just wasn’t sexy enough for the rumour mills of Asia, and in the absence of an official explanation, we are provided with a litany of different variations in every medieval source which mentions it. The Persian writers Juvaini, Rashid al-Din and the Ming era Yuan shi speak of illness aggravated by the climate while the Syriac writer Bar Hebraues specified malaria. The Franscian Friar John de Plano Carpini thought Chinggis was killed by lightning and Marco Polo said Chinggis died of infection from a Tangut arrow to the knee; he used to be an adventurer, after all. A later Mongolian tradition from the 17th century said that Chinggis was severely injured during coitus with a captured Tangut princess, Gurblechin, who had… ‘cleverly’ hidden a knife in her body somewhere. We’ll let you fill in the blanks on that one.
Whatever the specifics, Chinggis Khan died in August 1227, with August 18th or 25th commonly given dates in the sources. The Tangut king was left standing for three days, for which the Mongols gave him the ironic name of ‘Sidurqu,’ (shid-ur-hoo) meaning ‘upright.’ With Sidurqu’s (shid-ur-hoo’s) death, Mongol forces rode down upon the unsuspecting Zhongxing, which was subject to fire and plunder. Though some were rescued by Tanguts in Mongol service, Zhongxing was obliterated, the vast pyramidal tombs of the Tangut kings looted and stripped of their tiles. These still stand today, barren, eroding memorials to a lost kingdom.
The Secret History of the Mongols treats the Tangut with nothing but scorn, this passage illustrating this:
“After he had plundered the Tang’ut people and, making Iluqu Burqan change his name to Sidurqu, had done away with him, and after having exterminated the Tang’ut people’s mothers and fathers down to the offspring of their offspring, maiming and taming, Chinggis Khan gave the following order: ‘While I take my meals you must talk about the killing and destruction of the Tang’ut and say, ‘Maimed and tamed, they are no more.’”
The Tangut Kingdom ceased to exist in August 1227, an escort for Chinggis Khan to the
afterlife. Temujin had entered the world clutching a blood clot in his fist, and Chinggis Khan left it with the blood of kingdoms on his hands. The Tangut people were scattered, their official records burned along with Zhongxing. It was not however a total genocide, as we know several Tangut cities surrendered without issue, with communities spread across China and the Mongol Empire. Tanguts would actually enjoy higher ranking than even Khitans and Jurchen under the Yuan Dynasty later in the century, as the Tangut were seen as less sinicized than them!
Chinggis Khan’s body was, according to contemporary accounts, returned to Mongolia beside an honour guard, buried most likely on mount Burkhan Khaldun, the mountain which had provided him shelter in his childhood and not far from his place of birth. The grave was kept small and hidden, trees supposedly planted to hide it, and the entire region placed under guard and forbidden to enter. Even today, the area is called the ikh Khorig, the great taboo, and only the most limited of non-intrusive scientific surveys have been undertaken in the area. There are of course other variations to the story, such as the caravan becoming stuck in the Ordos desert. In the Ordos during the Qing Dynasty a shrine was built to honour the Khan’s spirit, the cause of some misconception today that he was literally buried there. Other rumours mentioned the killing of every individual the funeral cortege came across. Human sacrifice is not mentioned with Chinggis’ immediate burial, but a few years later his son Ogedai sent 40 maidens for his father’s soul. Beyond that, we know almost nothing about the details: inference based off of what we know of the burials of later Khans are hard to apply to Chinggis, as these later burials had influence from sedentary cultures, though many Mongols Khans and notables would be buried on Burkhan Khaldun in the following two centuries.
So ends the life of Chinggis Khan, founder of the Mongol Empire, conqueror of much of Eurasia and flail of God. His death was met by sorrow among his people, cheers from peoples across Asia, and bated breath by the empire’s neighbours, waiting to see what would come next. Chinggis’ third son, Ogedai, was to succeed his father, inheriting a powerful, experienced and loyal army staffed by generals and officers who believed it was their destiny to ride over everything under the Eternal Blue Sky.
Once a young boy abandoned by his tribe, Chinggis had over time forged his people into a weapon, by the end of his life approaching the status of a demi-god among them. Today, Mongolians cherish him as the founder of their nation, and his reign was a turning point in Eurasian history. Kingdoms across the world were washed away by his armies, and an unprecedented era of Eurasia integration was to be ushered in his successors. Could Ogedai live up to Chinggis’ legacy, or would he be lost in the shadow of a man which could blot out the sun?
The continued expansion of the Mongol Empire is the topic of our next episodes, so be sure to subscribe to the Kings and Generals podcast and to continue helping us bring you more outstanding content, please visit our patreon at www.patreon.com/kingsandgenerals. If you are unable to help financially but still want us to support us, it would be highly appreciated if you can leave a positive review on Apple Podcasts to help us grow and bring you more Mongols. Thank you for listening, I am your host David and we will catch you on the next one!
“Heaven has abandoned China owing to its haughtiness and extravagant luxury. But I, living in the northern wilderness, have not inordinate passions. I hate luxury and exercise moderation. I have only one coat and one food. I eat the same food and am dressed in the same tatters as my humble herdsmen. I consider the people my children, and take an interest in talented men as if they were my brothers. We always agree in our principles, and we are always united by mutual affection. At military exercises I am always in the front, and in time of battle am never behind. In the space of seven years I have succeeded in accomplishing a great work, and uniting the whole world in one empire. I have not myself distinguished qualities.”
So opens a letter from Chinggis Khan in 1219. Though he did not write it himself, as no evidence suggests he ever learned to read or write, he may have dictated much of what was written down. Emphasizing his nomadic background and lifestyle, his military qualities and extreme humility, it’s easy to imagine this as part of the many ultimatums the Mongols sent to rulers across the world, demanding their submission by the will of Eternal Blue Heaven. However, this was not sent to any monarch, but a Taoist sage, and the letter goes on to describe the graces of one Qiu Chuji, begging him to come and provide his wisdom- and the secret to eternal life- to Chinggis Khan. The elderly Qiu Chuji agreed, and made the difficult journey from northern China, through Mongolia and Central Asia to finally meet Chinggis Khan in what is now modern Afghanistan. In this episode, we’ll relay to you one of the lesser known, but most intriguing episodes in the life of history’s greatest conqueror. Not a military campaign, but a religious discussion, one which illuminates some of the personality of Chinggis Khan. I’m your host David…
As always, context is key! In thirteenth century China, the three most noteworthy belief systems were Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism. Their history, and how they intertwined and affected one another, is fascinating but far beyond the scope of this episode. Each strongly influenced daily life and government in China, had done so for centuries and still does today. They were not monolithic belief systems, nor singular ecceleisatical entities like the Roman Catholic Church, and various sects and trends impacted each of these systems over their combined millenia of adherence. What interests us in this episode is a sect of Taoism which combined elements of Buddhist and Confucian thought that emerged in the mid 12th century, the Quanzhen sect, meaning ‘complete realization’ or ‘complete perfection.’ Founded by Wang Zhe, a man who historical commentators have defined more for his eccentricity than sanctity, the Quanzhen quickly became associated with prolonging life, perhaps indefinitely, through controlling one's internal alchemy, which includes among other things, total celibacy. Thus the Quanzhen leadership, among them Qiu Chuji, were invited to the Jurchen Jin capital of Zhongdu in 1188 to share their knowledge with the ailing emperor, Shizong of Jin. The fact that Jin Shizong died the next year, and that Wang Zhe had died in 1170 at age 57, did little to dispel the association.
Qiu Chuji was among Wang Zhe’s earliest disciples, and after the master’s death, became one of the sects leading figures, eventually earning the title of Master Changchun. After Shizong of Jin’s death, Qiu Chuji was largely confined to his home region in north China’s Shandong peninsula, and along with other Quanzhen leaders, cultivated the sect’s popularity until it became one of the most popular of north China and the Jin Empire. As we know, the thirteenth century was not a good time for the Jurchen Jin state, and Mongol forces invaded in 1211, quickly grinding down the empire. In this time, Qiu Chuji received invitations from both the Jin court and Chinese Song Dynasty to the south, inviting him to come and share his knowledge. Both were declined. The sage may have been rather surprised when a messenger arrived from the Great Khan of the Mongols in 1219.
How did Chinggis Khan learn of Qiu Chuji? That takes us to some interesting characters. One was Liu Zhonglu, personal name Liu Wen, a Jin defector, Chinggis Khan’s personal Chinese physician, a herbalist also skilled in the making of whistling arrows. The Mongols prized men of useful skills, as well as archery, so Liu Wen was a snug fit in the Khan’s expanding entourage. It was he who heard of the Taoist sage and brought him to Chinggis’ attention, having heard rumours Qiu Chuji was over 300 years old. He told the Khan that the Taoist would be able to share these secrets and prolong his life.
The meeting was encouraged by another figure of growing influence, a Khitan scholar named Yelu Chucai. Chucai is worth a digression as he is among the most famous of the non-Mongolian administrators of the empire, though his importance would not come until the reign of Ogedai. The Khitans, you may recall, were a people related to the Mongols who had once ruled northern China during the Liao Dynasty, from the 10th century to 1100s, before being conquered by the Jurchen ruled Jin Dynasty. Yelu Chucai was a distant relation of the Liao ruling clan, and his own father had been a personal attendant to Emperor Shizong of Jin. He would have followed in his footsteps as a highly educated, sinicized servant of the Jin, if it wasn’t for the Mongol invasion. Stationed inside Zhongdu, the city of his birth, during the terrible final siege in 1215, Chucai was deeply traumatized by the intense suffering and horrors he witnessed. Had it not been for the three years of intensive Buddhist training he underwent following the siege, it seems unlikely he would ever have reared his head for posterity. But finding peace and purpose within the teachings of the Buddha, Yelu Chucai developed a steely resolve and determination to do his greatest to reduce further sufferings. In 1218 he was summoned to Mongolia, gathered in a Mongol search to find ministers to govern their new empire- as a Khitan, educated in Chinese government but of kin to the Mongols, he was highly prized. In April of that year, he met Chinggis Khan in person, who was immediately impressed by the tall, deep voiced and long bearded Yelu Chucai- the Mongols would call him Urtu Saqal, ‘long beard.’
On meeting him, Chinggis Khan stated “Liao and Jin have been enemies for generations; I have taken revenge for you.”
To which Chucai responded: “My father and grandfather both served Jin respectfully. How can I, as a subject and a son, be so insincere at heart as to consider my sovereign and my father as enemies?”
Loyalty to one’s lord was something Chinggis Khan valued above almost all else, and would honour the Khitan for this. So Yelu Chucai entered his service, acting in a variety of roles, such as astrologer, adviser and court scribe. Hearing Liu Zhonglu’s notification of Qiu Chuji, Chucai encouraged the meeting, hoping the Taoist would be able to help pacify the Khan’s more violent tendencies. It is likely Chucai drafted the letters to Qiu Chuji, though he would in time come to regret this.
Was Chinggis genuinely enticed by the idea of eternal life? As always, the personal thoughts of the man are unknown to us. Rarely did Chinggis Khan ever find a single use for anything- while Qiu Chuji could bring the secrets to immortality, he was also a highly influential religious leader within territory the Mongols wished to conquer. To have him on their side would prove valuable in both the spiritual realm- for his prayers could entice Heaven’s continued support for the Mongols- and in the physical realm, as to bring the many Quanzhen followers into accepting and supporting Mongol rule would ease and consolidate the conquest. If a religious leader was unwilling to accept Mongol rule, then he must be destroyed.
The implicit threat behind this would have been clear to Qiu Chuji when Liu Zhonglu arrived with Chinggi Khan’s message and 20 armed Mongols in late 1219. Declining was not really an option for Qiu Chuji, though he may have been eager to attach his name to the growing hegemon of northern China; such an attachment would only strengthen the place of Quanzhen, and save them from Mongolian retribution.
Qiu Chuji and several disciples, protected by Liu Zhonglu and his men, set out in early 1220, traveling through the war torn north China. We are rather fortunate to have one of Qiu Chuji’s disciples record the journey for us- it has been translated into English twice, by Emil Bretschneider and Arthur Waley. Both are available to read for free online: look up Bretschneider’s Mediæval Researches From Eastern Asiatic Sources, or Waley’s Travels of an Alchemist, if you wish to read the full, fascinating itinerary. In April they reached the Mongol occupied ruins of Zhongdu, now renamed Yen, where Qiu Chuji was received by escatic crowds. There the party received unfortunate news, as Chinggis had set out on the great Khwarezmian campaign- they were reaching Yen while Chinggis was resting his horses near the fallen capital of Muhamamd Khwarezm-shah, Samarkand. Qiu Chuji understandably did not want to make the long journey to Central Asia, but Liu Zhonglu would not have it, and forced him on. Qiu Chuji’s next stalling tactic was directed at the large group of young girls Liu Zhonglu was collecting to present to the Khan. For reasons relating to purity and celibacy, Qiu Chuji refused to travel in their company, and a perhaps flustered Liu Zhonglu sent a messenger to Chinggis to inform him. They spent most of the rest of 1220 near Yen, awaiting the Khan’s reply, when in winter messengers arrived from Chinggis’ youngest, and perhaps only, surviving full brother, Temuge [te-moo-guh], who wished to hear his words.
In February 1221 they set out again, having received the Great Khan’s replies- one of which was a reminder for Liu Zhonglu to take the utmost care of the master. Before they departed, Qiu Chuji is said to have told his adherents in Yen he would return in three years time. Traveling north, they passed through the fortifications which the Mongols had broken through in 1211. Crossing the Yehuling, the site of the bloody battle of the Badger’s Mouth Pass, they saw the ground still littered with bleached human bones, 10 years after the engagement. Around April or May, the party reached Temuge’s encampment in northeastern Mongolia. There, Temuge inquired about the secrets to prolonging life, to which Qiu Chuji told him it was improper for the prince to learn these secrets before the emperor. Getting the hint, Temuge supplied the travellers with oxen and carts to help them on their journey and hurry them onto his older brother.
The voyage is of great interest to scholars, as it provides a fascinating view of early imperial Mongolia, visiting the Orkhon Valley and encampment cities like Chinqai Balasghun, where they met the eponymous Chinqai, a senior minister of the empire ordered to help expedite the journey. Jurchen and Tangut princesses that Chinggis had taken as wives came out to greet Qiu Chuji, as did various Chinese who had been transplanted west to serve the Mongol war machine. Sadly, we don’t have time to share all the details of the lengthy and difficult journey westwards, following roads cut by Mongol armies en route to Khwarezm, or at times, forced to tie ropes around carts and animals to lift or lower them through passes in the mountains. Details of cities they passed by or through, like Beshbaliq, Almaliq, Urumqi and the former Qara-Khitai capital of Balasagun are provided, In December 1221, they finally reached Samarkand, Qiu Chuji wintering in the palace of the late Khwarezm-shah. Likely at this time, he met Yelu Chucai and spent time discussing religion and philosophy.
Judging from the writings of Qiu Chuji’s disciple, the master found great pleasure in Samarkand, particularly in its gardens, describing them as finer than those in China. There he noted that Samarkand had a quarter of its former population, but had been repopulated somewhat by Chinese, Khitans, Turks and Tanguts who had travelled with the Mongol army. The party stayed in Samarkand in comfort until April 1222, when a Tangut messenger from Chinggis arrived.
“Sainted man, thou hast arrived from the country where the sun rises; thou hast met great difficulties in crossing mountains and valleys; indeed, thou hast taken great pains. I am now about to return, but I wait impatiently for thine explanation to me of the doctrine of the Tao. Do not delay meeting me.”
...read the Khan’s letter to Qiu Chuji. At that time, Chinggis was making his steady way north after his victory over the Khwarezmian prince Jalal al-Din Mingburnu in November 1221 on the borders of India. Qiu Chuji met Chinggis Khan somewhere south of the Amu Darya River in what is now Afghanistan, on the 22nd of May 1222, where the Khan was joyed that this old man had made such an arduous voyage to meet him. After allowing him a meal, the Khan asked rather bluntly:
“Sainted man, you have come from a great distance. Have you a medicine of immortality?”
To which Qiu Chuji replied, equally bluntly:
“There are means for preserving life, but no medicines for immortality.”
Counter to what you might have expected, at least publicly, Chinggis Khan lauded Qiu Chuji for his honesty. For a man to travel such a distance and hardship at his age, only to tell the World Conqueror, “no,” required quite some courage, and the Khan always respected that. The Khan was not yet finished with him though, and ordered him to have a tent pitched next to his own. They were to together travel higher into the valleys of the Hindu Kush to rest and wait out the summer heat, though uprisings took Chinggis Khan away before he could speak with the master again. Qiu Chuji requested to return to Samarkand in the Khan’s absence, which Chinggis reluctantly agreed to, providing him a 1,000 man escort.
As Chinggis spent the next months putting down local rebellions, Qiu Chuji again in the palace of Shah Muhammad, enjoying melons and bathing. By the end of August, Chinggis Khan was ready for him, and sent for Qiu Chuji. A particularly erie detail mentioned is that while traveling south to rejoin Chinggis, Qiu Chuji passed the ruins of the once great city of Balkh: only dogs could be heard barking within.
Chinggis once more showed the master great respect and patience. Presented to Chinggis by the minister Chinqai, Qiu Chuji was not required to bow or kneel before the Khan. When the Khan offered him airag, the traditional fermented mares’ milk so beloved by the Mongols, Qiu Chuji refused to drink it. Everyday he invited Qiu Chuji to join him for dinner, and everyday he declined, saying he preferred seclusion. The master told Chinggis to keep his soldiers distant, for the noise annoyed him, and when the army moved north in the autumn of 1222 and wintered near Samarkand, Qiu Chuji was given leave to take up in Shah Muhammad’s palace once more.
Over the course of this period, Chinggis Khan and Qiu Chuji had several meetings, Chinqai and Liu Zhonglu present, the Khitan governor of Samarkand Yelu Ahai acting as translator between the Mongolian and the Chinese. Together they discussed the concepts of the Tao, Chinggis supposedly being quite interested. Qiu Chuji’s disciple failed to provide specific details of these discussions, though we know he urged Chinggis to show mercy on the Chinese, establish a buffer state in north China and lift taxes for three years. In January 1223 their journey back east resumed, though the Taoist showed himself displeased with the progress of the army. By March he was asking to set out on his own, hoping to return to his native Shandong before the end of the year. Chinggis urged him to stay, saying his sons would soon arrive and would like to hear of the doctrine and that he himself needed more information. Qiu Chuji cooly replied that he had told the Khan everything he knew.
Later that month while hunting wild boar, Chinggis Khan was thrown from his horse: the boar failed to charge and gore the Khan, avoiding the fate of Game of Thrones’ Robert of House Baratheon. When he learned of this, Qiu Chuji called it a warning from heaven, a sign that the Khan should give up hunting in his old age. Reluctantly, Chinggis gave up this favourite activity… for two months. Qiu Chuji’s advice on abstaining from sexual intercourse to prolong his life was likewise ignored. Continuing to badger Chinggis to allow him to leave, the Khan finally acquiesced and in April 1223 they seperated. The master declined the gifts Chinggis Khan offered, except for a major one: an edict declaring Taoists exempt from taxation and corvee labour
Qiu Chuji returned to Yen, modern Beijing, in the first months of 1224, within 3 years as he had foretold. He spent the remainder of his life in that city, dying in August 1227, the same month as Chinggis Khan. We just mentioned the edict proclaiming Taoists exempt from taxation. Well, part of the original edict was that no more Taoists would be ordained. This was followed up with a proclamation a few months later making Qiu Chuji the head of all the Taoists and Buddhist of China. The consequences of this were many. It’s not sure what exact role Qiu Chuji had in what followed, as he fell ill not long after he returned to Yen and the Khan’s edicts may have been taken advantage of by ambitious disciples. Almost immediately this turned into thousands flocking into Quanzhen temples to escape taxation and forced labour for the Mongols. Likely, thousands of lives were saved through this, and Quanzhen Taoism quickly became the most influential religious sect of North China. One scholar, Yuan Hao-wen, estimated that by the late 13th century, some 20% of northern Chinese were adherents. Even today, it remains one of the most popular forms of Taoism in China. Less positively, was that the Khan’s elevation of Qiu Chuji’s status over Buddhists turned into free license to confiscate Buddhist temples, destroy Buddhist artifacts and texts and force the conversion of Buddhist monks and nuns.
When the Buddhist Yelu Chucai returned to Yen in 1228, he was infuriated by what he found there, and how the Quanzhen had taken advantage of the privileges granted to them, compounding Chucai’s existing dislike of Qiu Chuji. Initially they had been friendly, but Yelu Chucai soon found Qiu Chuji to be totally ignorant of Buddhism, and came to see him as a fraudster taking advantage of the Khan’s generosity and power. In 1229, Yelu Chucai wrote a lengthy work criticizing Qiu Chuji and his positions, while blaming himself for having encouraged the meeting. He further accused Qiu Chuji of being fully complicit in the seizure and desecration of Buddhist temples, and it is in Chucai’s account we are told that Qiu Chuji died on the toilet, but his followers covered this up and said he died while at prayer. Yelu Chucai’s work provides a fascinating counterbalance to the more hagiographic account of the journey provided by Qiu Chuji’s disciple, though Chucai’s writing remains difficult to access, leaving Qiu Chuji’s reputation intact as a ‘saviour’ of the Chinese. The influence of Quanzhen Taoism, and it's armed conflict with Buddhists continued until the reign of Chinggis’ grandson Kublai, when their privileges were drastically reduced and forced to return Buddhist temples.
What did Chinggis Khan think of Qiu Chuji? He seems to have enjoyed his company, and would certainly have had respect for an old man who made the long journey to his court. If he was disappointed in the failure of Qiu Chuji to provide an elixir of immortality, he did not show it publicly. Since the main account of these meetings was from a follower of Qiu Chuji, we must note he had a vested interest to make the relationship between the two look as good as possible, securing Quanzhen privileges as they were granted at the Khan’s behest.
On the internet, their relationship is famous for the following letter, sent from Chinggis to Qiu Chuji not long after their final meeting in 1223:
“You left me and set out on your travels in the Spring and were still on the road during the great heats of the summer. I hope you suffered no inconvenience and were well supplied with post-horses. I hope that you were always provided with plenty to eat and drink and were never stinted. I hope the officials at Hsuan-te [Xuande] and elsewhere treated you properly. Hope that the common people came to hear you. Are you well and in good spirits? Here I am always thinking about you, O Holy immortal. I have never forgotten you. Do not forget me.”
It is… a little unbecoming for the world conqueror, making him appear rather desperate for Taoist’s affection, like a high school student trying to win back his crush. There are two things to keep in mind:The most obvious is that this letter was sent in very basic and repetitive simple Chinese. Form wise, it is totally alien to the literary flourishes, metaphors and references from writing of scribes like Yelu Chucai. Arthur Waley suggested that because the Chinese is so basic, that perhaps this was Chinggis Khan himself dictating it in Chinese. He had Chinese speakers in his entourage for well over a decade, meaning he had plenty of time to learn to make simple sentences in the language. So the letter may have come across particularly love-lorn because the Khan couldn’t do much better than that. Chinggis Khan knew Qiu Chuji was a very popular figure in northern China. Getting Qiu Chuji to encourage his many followers across China to accept Mongol rule and pray for them may have been the Khan’s ulterior motive throughout. Note how Chinggis hopes the common people came to hear him- to hear him spread the word of accepting Mongol rule, and to pray for them. Then, the final line “I have never forgotten you. Do not forget me.” While it can be read as a rather sappy declaration, we might wonder if there was a threat hidden between the lines. Should Qiu Chuji choose to forget about the Khan and proclaim for the Jin Dynasty, Chinggis and his men would not forget about him, and their arrows never missed their mark…
Shortly after the departure of Qiu Chuji, Chinggis Khan learned of the death of his general Mukhali in China, how Tangut forces had abandoned him and were now in peace talks with the Jurchen Jin. The aging Chinggis Khan was about to partake on the final campaign of his long life, so be sure to subscribe to the Kings and Generals podcast and to continue helping us bring you more outstanding content, please visit our patreon at www.patreon.com/kingsandgenerals. Thank you for listening, I am your host David and we will catch you on the next one!
“And thus, for our sins God put misunderstanding into us, and a countless number of
people perished, and there was lamentation and weeping and grief throughout towns and villages... And the Tatars turned back from the river Dnieper, and we know not whence they came, nor where they hid themselves again; God knows whence he fetched them against us for our sins.”
So ends the section in the Chronicle of Novgorod which describes the first encounter
between the Rus’ and the Mongols, the famous Kalka River battle of 1223. Perhaps the most impressive feat of the Mongol invasion of the Khwarezmian Empire was the so-called raid of Jebe Noyan and Subutai Ba’atar, two Mongol generals whose pursuit of Muhammad Khwarezm-shah took them from modern Uzbekistan across northern Iran, through the Caucasus then across the steppe to Ukraine, fighting a combined Rus’-Qipchaq force on the Kalka River in May 1223, before returning back across the steppe. For these generals, it was a journey through totally alien cultures, languages and peoples, and that they met with military success at almost every turn- with notable exceptions- is an impressive feat itself. Considerable legend has built upon the ‘great raid’ like so much rust, so we are eager to strip this away, sharing recent historiography and shining a light on this expedition.
I’m your host David and this Ages of Conquest: The Mongol Invasions.
For background on this venture, we must point to our episode on the Mongol invasion of the Khwarezmian Empire, which of course you have listened to! Mongol armies reached the northeastern borders of the Khwarezmian Empire, in modern Kazakhstan, at the end of 1219, and by March 1220 had seized the capital of Samarkand and nearby Bukhara, and with their fall the nerve of the Khwarezmian ruler, Shah Muhammad II, broke. Stationed in Balkh, just south of the Amu Darya, the final natural barrier to the Mongols, the thought of facing Mongol armies in battle was too much for him and he fled west to Iran with a small entourage including his son, Jalal al-Din Mingburnu. In Chinggis Khan’s long experience in warfare, he knew that should the enemy leader escape, he could rally disparate forces and strike back: this was something Chinggis himself had done many times in his earlier career. The Khwarezm-shah could not become a beacon for resistance, and thus Chinggis Khan sent his hunters in pursuit: Jebe Noyan, Subutai Ba’atar and Toquchar Guregen.
Jebe was at this time Chinggis Khan’s top general. A daring and brave commander, Jebe led from the front and had a knack for long pursuits. Jebe had famously entered Chinggis Khan’s service in a rather unorthodox manner. Originally in the service of the Khan’s enemies, in 1202 at the battle of Koyiten, Jebe, then named Jirqo’adai (djir-cho ‘ad-ai), shot and killed the Khan’s horse.. After the battle, Jirqo’adai was captured, and told the Khan that should he execute him he would be useful to no one, but spare him and he would be his most loyal servant. Always one to appreciate acts of bravery and noting his skill with a bow, Chinggis Khan took him and renamed him to Jebe, meaning arrow. Jebe distinguished himself against the Jin Dynasty and then against against Kuchlug of the Qara-Khitai, during which he almost single handedly doubled the size of the empire, as covered in a previous episode. Jebe was the senior commander of the hunt for Muhammad Khwarezm-shah.
Subutai is likely the most famous Mongol general, though in 1220 was far from the prominence he would later assume. Indeed, the following expedition forged Subutai into the iron-hard commander for which he was later renowned. His most notable command prior to this was alongside Chinggis Khan’s eldest son Jochi, sent against fleeing Merkits and unintentionally colliding with an army under the Khwarezm-shah Muhammad. Jebe may have been a mentor to Subutai in this pursuit. Each of them was in command of a tumen, in theory 10,000 though almost certainly these were undermanned.
The man sent in support was Toquchar Guregen, guregen meaning son-in-law, as Toquchar was married to a daughter of Chinggis Khan, Temulun. Toquchar’s job was to consolidate those cities and towns which submitted to Jebe and Subutai’s forces, while securing their rear.
The pursuit went at a fast pace. Shah Muhammad reached Nishapur in northeastern Iran as early as April 1220, but moved again once he learned that Mongol forces had crossed the Amu Darya. Jebe and Subutai as they moved took the submission of cities like Balkh, Sarakhs and Nishapur itself in May. These cities were given a Mongol appointed governor, ordered to provide tribute, food supplies and to not offer assistance to the Khwarezm-shah. Those who resisted were bypassed for sake of speed, sending messages to Toquchar to punish them. Nishapur was lightly treated, but soon revolted due to false rumours of a victory of Shah Muhammad. Toquchar attacked them in November 1220, where he was killed by an arrow outside the walls. In spring 1221 Nishapur received a grim punishment for this action: Tolui, Chinggis Khan’s youngest son, led a brutal retaliatory campaign and devastated Nishapur. Men, women, children, even cats and dogs were said to have been slaughtered. Toquchar’s widow, Temulun, took part in the massacre, wrecking havoc for her fallen husband.
Back in 1220, after Shah Muhammad left Nishapur, he undertook a wild ride across northern Iran. Jebe and Subutai struggled to find his trail, splitting into two separate columns which blazed across the country before reconvening at Ray, at present day Tehran. During this period, Jebe captured Shah Muhammad’s mother, Terken Khatun, sending her to Mongolia to spend the rest of her life a prisoner. Muhammad’s western flight was hamphered by his conflict with the Abbasid Caliph in Baghdad, and with Jebe and Subutai closing the gap, he sped north to Hamadan. According to the Persian writer Juvaini, the Mongols narrowly missed the Shah with their arrows at Hamadan, while another, Nasawi, records a battle fought between Muhammad and the Mongols. If Nasawi’s account is true, that was the only time Muhammad led an actual battle during this entire campaign.
Either way, after Hamadan, at the end of summer 1220 Jebe and Subutai lost Muhammad’s trail. Muhammad had fled to an island off the coast in the Caspian Sea, down to a few followers and his sons. Delirious, mentally and physically exhausted and suffering from pneumonia, Muhammad Khwarezm-shah died there in December 1220, his 20 year reign ending in fire and a sea of blood. Jalal al-Din took on the mantle of Khwarezm-shah and returned to the mainland, the remainder of his story is covered in our previous episode.
Jebe and Subutai spent winter 1220 in Azerbaijan’s Mughan plain. Perhaps they soon learned of Shah Muhammad’s death, as they began 1221 by attacking the local kingdoms, though our sources diverge on details. In some sources, during this winter they sent messengers to Chinggis Khan for permission to continue campaigning, while in others had received such permission at the outset. By February 1221, they were attacking the Kingdom of Georgia.
We’ll give a brief rundown on who the Mongols encountered here. The Kingdom of Georgia was the region’s great power since the early 12th century, developing and expanding upon a strong military and fortress system established by King David the Builder. Georgian heavy infantry and cavalry had resisted repeated Seljuq invasions, while the mountainous country provided many natural barriers. Greater Armenia was under Georgian rule, as was northern Azerbaijan through Georgia’s vassals, the long-reigning Muslim Shirvanshahs. To the south of the Shirvanshahs were the Ildiguzids, Seljuq appointees and longtime foes of Georgia who a few years prior had recognized Khwarezmian overlordship. There was an independent Armenian Kingdom in this period, though it was in southeastern Anatolia. This was the Armenian ruled Kingdom of Cilicia, and whom we’ll meet in future episodes.
The Mongols moved quickly. In February 1221, they defeated a Georgian army before doubling back to Iran to deal with revolt among cities which had submitted. One of these which was sacked was Maragha in March 1221. At this time, ibn al-Athir was living in Mosul, a city not far from Maragha. Writing a few years later, he records an interesting anecdote at Maragha, describing an unnamed Mongolian entering a house during the sacking, killing several people and taking more prisoner. Only when the Mongol removed their helmet, armour and weapon to rest, did the prisoners realize that their captor was actually a woman, then surprised and killed her. While we have a few cases of Mongol women partaking in battle, almost all were princesses or were avenging fallen husbands, like the aforementioned Temulun. This occasion in Maragha is perhaps the closest we come to a regular women in the Mongol army. No other source mentions this anonymous woman, or indicates any women of high standing marching alongside Jebe and Subutai.
Much of 1221 was spent pinballing across northwesternmost Iran and the Caucasus. Hamadan, Nakhichevan (nak-i-chev-an), Ardabil (ard-a-bil), Sarab, Bailakan (bai-lak-an) and others were all attacked; the Ildeguzid (il-de-guz-id) Atabeg of Azerbaijan, Ozbeg, ignored Georgian requests for an alliance and submitted to the Mongols; and later in the summer they defeated the Georgian King George Lasha, son of the famed Queen Tamar, drawing his heavy cavalry into a feigned retreat. George only narrowly escaped, and died in 1223, leaving his kingdom greatly weakened. He was succeeded by his sister Rusudan, who ruled as regent for the next twenty years, marrying a Seljuq prince, but her kingdom suffering repeated depredations by Khwarezmians under Jalal al-Din Mingburnu, and then the Mongols who she reluctantly submitted to. And so ended Georgia’s golden age.
Jebe and Subutai spent winter 1221 on the Mughan Plain again. Had they sent messengers to Chinggis earlier in the year, by now they would have returned with orders and confirmed Muhammad Khwarezm-shah’s death. It is probable they were ordered north against the Qipchaq-Cumans, the nomadic Turkic peoples who inhabited the steppe beyond the Caucasus. The Qipchaq-Cumans had been an issue for several years already: alongside Jochi, Subutai had fought them just prior to the Khwarezmian campaign; Qipchaq-Qanglis made up much of the Khwarezmian military, and had a long tradition of military alliance with the Georgian Kingdom.
In either of these realms they had the potential to undo Mongol advances once Chinggis withdrew. Since part of the Mongol Empire’s legitimacy was based on its supremacy of the steppe, the independence of the Qipchaq-Cumans, a potential rival to that claim, was entirely intolerable. Perhaps even at the outset of the campaign, Jebe and Subutai had been ordered against them, but we are not provided sufficient evidence to say that with certainty.
In turn, that brings us to another point. Often this part of the campaign is titled as ‘the Great Raid,’ intended as one of exploration and intelligence gathering, and therefore a great success. However, this appears to be a creation of more recent popular literature. As we have already described, little of Jebe and Subutai’s actions differ from the ongoing campaign of Chinggis and his sons in the east. A raid would not have been so concerned with subjugating cities and peoples, and the sources themselves generally refer to it as conquest. As mentioned, the Mongols had an enmity with the Qipchaq-Cumans for several years at this point. A major attack from an unexpected direction was always a favourite maneuver of Chinggis Khan, and perhaps their conquest was in mind from the outset.
In 1222 Jebe and Subutai began north again. In Shirvan, they sacked Shamakhi, where we find a particularly gruesome siege technique. Supposedly, they built a ramp from corpses of livestock and locals, fighting over the city walls until the ramp decomposed! Their next movements were halted by the great fortress of Derbent, guarding one of the main passages through the northern Caucasus to the steppe. Deeming it too secure, they asked its ruler to provide them with envoys to discuss terms. One envoy was killed, and the other forced to show the Mongols a difficult alternate route through the mountains past the fortress. Exiting the mountains, they entered into the base of the Volga steppe into Chechnya or Dagestan. There, they were met by an army of horsemen: Alans, a nomadic Iranian people who had inhabited the region since Attila the Hun, and the Turkic Qipchaq-Cuman tribes.
It’s quite possible the Shah in Derbent, the Georgians, or even merchants, had brought news of the Mongol army wrecking havoc across the region, and they had prepared should the Mongols come for them. The Alan-Qipchaq army was too strong together, so messengers were sent to the Qipchaqs with promises of sharing loot and gifts should they abandon the Alans. The Qipchaq leaders withdrew, leaving the Alans to be slaughtered by the Mongols, who soon caught the unsuspecting Qipchaqs and fell upon them. Evidently, quite a number escaped, fleeing westwards- among them a notable leader named Kotjen, rising to prominence with the deaths of the two most powerful Cuman Khans in the battle.
Kotjen had allies among the Rus’ princes to the far west. The Rus’ principalities were at that time infamously fragmented, inhabiting the cities of northwestern Russia, north of the Ukrainian steppes. These competing principalities- the most prominent being Veliky-Novgorod, Vladimir and Kiev- often relied on Cuman horsemen as auxiliaries for attacking their rivals, bartering for valuable Cuman warhorses and marrying into the Cumans for alliance. Mstislav the Bold of Galicia, perhaps the leading Rus’ prince of the time, was married to Kotjen’s daughter, and upon learning of the Mongol threat from his father-in-law, helped assemble a mighty coalition of Rus’ princes in the final months of 1222. With the fearsome druzhina heavy cavalry of the Rus’ princes and skilled Qipchap-Cuman horse archers, it was a formidable force. In a lovely coincidence, the three lead Rus’ princes of the coalition were Mstislav the Bold of Galicia, Mstislav of Chernigov, and Mstislav Romanovich, the Grand Duke of Kiev. The sources have an unhelpful tendency to just refer to ‘Mstislav’ when discussing the army.
As this force assembled in late 1222, Jebe and Subutai raided Crimea, sacking the port of Soldaia. Popular retelling has Venetian merchants ally with the Mongols here, sharing information on Europe and spreading Mongol propaganda in exchange for exclusive trade rights, Subutai then sacking their Genoese rivals at Soldaia. Such statements have no basis in history, however emerging it would seem, from a French work of the 1890s. Italian, especially Genoese, presence in Crimea and the Black Sea in 1222 was minimal. At this time access to the Black Sea was controlled by the Latin Empire of Constaninople, supported by Venice, preventing Genoese entrance.
Soldaia itself was an outpost of the Empire of Trebizond, another Byzantine successor, but as argued by historian Andrew Peacock, when the Mongols arrived at Soldaia in 1222 it may have been under the brief control of the Seljuqs of Rum, taken as a part of their war against Trebizond. Either way, in 1222 Soldaia was not a Genoese colony. The belief in a Venetian-Mongol alliance emerging in 1222 must be a conflation of later Venetian prominence in Crimea and among the Mongols in the later thirteenth century- long after Subutai’s initial raid into Crimea. No evidence from the period suggests, in any form, that Venice allied with the Mongols in the early 1220s.
After this Crimean raid Jebe and Subutai learned of the Rus’-Cuman army making its way down the Dnieper. Hoping to split this force up as they had the Alans and Qipchaqs, Jebe sent an envoy, who the Rus’ princes killed. Another envoy was sent, with this simple message:
“Since you have listened to the [Cumans], and have killed all our envoys, and you are coming against us, come then, but we have not touched you, let God judge all.”
From here, most modern retellings skip to the prolonged feigned retreat culminating on the Kalka River- a battle often presented as Subutai’s masterstroke, second only to his victories in Hungary two decades later. However, there is a little known skirmish prior before that which is often ignored, recorded by the Chronicle of Novgorod. As the Rus’-Cuman force marched down the Dnieper towards the Mongols, on the other side of the river a small Mongol scouting force was spotted observing them from a Cuman burial mound, a kurgan. The Mongols hadn’t realized they were by a ford, and one of the Mstisilav’s, likely Kotjen’s son-in-law, and a Cuman force unexpectedly crossed and closed the distance. Surprised, the Mongols buried their captain, named Gemya-Beg in the Chronicle of Novgorod, to hide him until they could return. But the Cumans uncovered him, and executed him before Mstislav.
This episode seems a minor skirmish, but a shocking interpretation has been proposed by historian Stephen Pow. Pow suggests that Gemya-Beg was how 13th century Rus’ writer may have interpreted the name ‘Yeme Beg,’ which was the Turkic form of Jebe Noyan, suggesting this was the embarrassing capture and execution of Chinggis Khan’s star general! Allow me to explain while you settle from the shock. In most western Asian sources, Jebe is referred to by the Turkic form of his name, with beg, ‘prince,’ the Turkic version of the Mongol title of noyan. Jebe disappears during this campaign, last mentioned with certainty in the Caucasus, and his final fate unrecorded. This was hardly uncommon for Mongol generals, as the Mongols preferred not to discuss the deaths of their commanders. Some modern authors have tried to fill in the blanks, such as Jebe dying of illness during the return but again, there is no medieval source which states this. Jebe was brave, often taking risks and leading from the front: perhaps he had rode ahead to eye the Rus-Cuman army himself. The Cumans recognized him and were very excited to have captured him. The episode stood out to the Rus’ chroniclers: they knew it was someone important who had been captured, but were not quite sure who or how important.
This puts a spin on what follows: if Jebe died on that kurgan in May 1223 and was Subutai’s superior, then the famous nine day feigned retreat Subutai led the Rus’ and Cumans on may have been an actual retreat. Suddenly thrust into command thousands of kilometres from any reinforcement with a large enemy army drawing down on him, Subutai needed to fall back and replan. So, for nine days his army ran, the Rus’ and Cumans hot in pursuit. As they travelled across the steppe, Subutai saw the enemy force lose its cohesion, the Cuman riders pulling ahead of the Rus’. Rather than face the full might of the coalition, Subutai could bring the full weight of his army to bear upon only a fraction of the enemy.
As they reached the Kalka River, Subutai’s force turned about and fell upon the isolated Cumans, who routed. The Cumans fled, colliding with the Rus’, who lost their battle order as Mongol arrows fell among them. Mstislav the Bold of Galicia lived up to his name by being among the first to run, making his way back to the Dnieper, taking a boat and cutting loose the rest- trapping the rest on the shore with the Mongols. A portion of the army under Mstislav of Kiev retreated to a nearby hill and built a stockade, holding out a few days until tricked into surrendering. It was promised that the blood of the princes would not be shed- so the princes were bound hand and foot, and placed under boards as the Mongol command feasted and danced upon them. The rest of the army was slaughtered, though one prince was recorded as being brought to be executed before Jochi in 1224- likely, this was the fate of Mstislav of Kiev.
The Chronicle of Novgorod says only 1 in 10 men returned from the Kalka campaign, and all indications are that losses were shockingly heavy. Yet that the Mongols quickly returned to the steppe took them out of mind. The Kalka disaster had little immediate impact on the Rus’, other than the loss of several princes, and no preparations were made for their possible return. The Cuman-Qipchaqs likewise stayed fragmented, though Kotjen Khan seemed to remain wary. When the Mongols returned in the late 1230s, Kotjen was the Cuman leader who fled to Hungary.
Why did Subutai not put further pressure on the Rus’? By now, he had been on campaign for several years, and the size of his force must have been ground down. Further, if Jebe wasn’t killed in the above mentioned incident on the kurgan, he did not long survive the Kalka Battle, and his loss would have been demoralizing. Despite the victory over the Rus’ and Cumans, they had shown themselves dangerous foes, and Subutai knew that if he returned, he would need a powerful force. Thus did he begin the long trek back to Mongolia in the summer of 1223…
...unfortunately for Subutai, this episode doesn’t end there. While many popular retellings end on a triumphant account of the Kalka, on his way back east Subutai’s army was ambushed by the Volga Bulghars. It’s a murky episode, and you’ll find a lot of nonsense about it online. First off, who were the Volga Bulghars? The original Bulgarian nomadic tribes of the steppe were first mentioned around the 5th and 6th centuries. There was a brief period when they were the regional power in the 7th century, often called ‘Old Great Bulgaria,’ under Khan Kuvrat. On Kuvrat’s death, according to tradition his sons took the tribes in different directions: one, Asparukh, took them to the Danube, founding the first Bulgarian Empire, assimilating into the local slavic population and adopting Christianity.
Another group travelled north, to the intersection of the Volga and Kama Rivers and hence, the Volga Bulghars. Famed as merchants their cities were a vital trade point between the Rus’ cities, the Finno-Ugric peoples of the forests, and the Islamic world, and they were the northernmost outpost of Islam, which they had adopted in the 10th century. By the twelfth and thirteenth century, they had an increasingly violent competition with the easternmost Rus’ principality, Vladimir-Suzdal. With their extensive trade contacts among the Cuman-Qipchaqs and along the Volga they must have known of the destruction of Khwarezm and the rough clockwise movement of Subutai’s army, long making preparations for a possible confrontation.
This battle is mentioned in brief in several sources, but only the Arab writer ibn al-Athir, writing in Mosul in the early 1230s, provides any details, and it must be noted he may have been eager to play up any Mongol defeat. We do not know if Subutai was intending to strike the Volga Bulghars, or was completely surprised by them, but somewhere along the Volga river, Bulghar forces ambushed him, drawing the Mongols into feigned retreats and striking them in the rear as their forces spread thin, to high losses. According to ibn al-Athir, Subutai was left with only 4,000 men by the end of the battle, though he then mentions that Subutai had strength enough to attack cities along the lower reaches of the Volga outside Bulghar territory like Saqsin, so we might question how accurate this number is. Jebe, notably, is not mentioned at all.
And that’s it! Though some modern authors like to write about Subutai then avenging himself against Bulghar forces further upriver, neither ibn al-Athir or any other medieval source makes any such mention. It seems these modern statements arise from two things: 1) confusion regarding highly influential French authors, D’Ohsson and Grousset of the 19th and early 20th centuries, whose vaguely worded paragraphs on this section may have led others, blindly trusting them, to interpret a victory. And 2) Many authors just as blindly accept the legend around the ‘undefeated’ Subutai, with source not easy to access to combat it. Mighty Subutai was defeated, and forced to withdraw from Bulghar territory- though whether this was a minor or major loss, we cannot tell. This was not even the only military defeat we know Subutai suffered- another loss came at the hands of the Jin Dynasty in the early 1230s, the final victory of that once mighty kingdom.
And so Subutai returned humbled and hardened from a several thousand kilometre march across Eurasia. He brought with him information on the nature of the enemies in the west, and an idea of the numbers needed to subjugate it. Jebe had to be avenged, as did Subutai’s pride, andin time Subutai would return with overwhelming force to crush the Bulghars, the Cuman-Qipchaqs and the Rus’.
We’re far from finished with the Mongol conquests, so be sure to subscribe to Ages of Conquest: A Kings a Generals podcast and to continue helping us bring you more outstanding content, please visit our patreon at www.patreon.com/kingsandgenerals. You can also leave us a written review on iTunes which would help us to raise our profile so we can keep this show running! Thank you for listening, I am your host David and we will catch you on the next one!
“For some years I continued averse from mentioning this event, deeming it so horrible that I shrank from recording it and ever withdrawing one foot as I advanced the other. To whom, indeed, can it be easy to write the announcement of the death-blow of Islam and the Muslims, or who is he on whom the rememberance thereof can weigh lightly? O would that my mother had not born me or that I had died and become a forgotten thing ere this befell! Yet, withal a number of my friends urged me to set it down in writing, and I hesitated long, but at last came to the conclusion that to omit this matter could serve no useful purpose.
I say, therefore, that this thing involves the description of the greatest catastrophe and the most dire calamity which befell all men generally, and the Muslims in particular; so that, should one say that the world, since God Almighty created Adam until now, has not been afflicted with the like thereof, he would but speak the truth. For indeed history does not contain anything which approaches or comes near unto it… Nay, it is unlikely that mankind will see the like of this calamity, until the world comes to an end and perishes, except the final outbreak of Gog and Magog. For even the Antichrist will spare such as follow him, though he destroy those who oppose him, but these Mongols spared none, slaying women and men and children, ripping open pregnant women and killing unborn babes.”
So begins the famous excerpt from Ibn al-Athir on the Mongol invasion of the Khwarezmian Empire. Living in Mosul, in northern Iraq, ibn al-Athir was just outside the range of Mongol armies as they annihilated the neighbouring Khwarezmian Empire in just a few short years. Daily, news must have come into Mosul of stories of Mongol devastation and atrocities, suddenly Mongol armies were operating hundreds of kilometres farther west than previously thought, or how they were now doubling back, terrified townsfolk wondering if Mosul was next. The writers who lived through the Mongol invasion or just after it, such as ibn al-Athir, Nasawi, Juzjani, and the most well known, Juvaini, all describe the invasion in near-apocalyptic terms, the Mongols a punishment sent by God. For how else, if not divine retribution, could one explain how every city could all fall so swiftly to these strange people from the north?
Today, we present the Mongol Invasion of the Khwarezmian Empire. I’m your host David and this the Ages of Conquest\s presentation of…The mongol invasions.
In our previous episode, we discussed in detail the period from 1216-1219, after Chinggis Khan returned from north China and entered into initial diplomatic contact with the Khwarezmian Empire. War between the Khwarezmian and Mongol empires came from three factors which occurred over this short period. The first was the breakdown and absorption of the empire of Qara-Khitai, which had served as a buffer state separating the two empires. Mongol forces under Jebe Noyan took most of the eastern half of the empire, while the Khwarezmians seized the territory from the Ferghana Valley westwards. The second was a battle between Mongol forces under Jochi and Subutai against the Khwarezm-shah Muhammad II sometime in late 1218 or early 1219. And finally, the massacre of a Mongol trade caravan at the Khwarezmian city of Otrar by its governor, Shah Muhammad’s uncle Inalchuq. An envoy Chinggis Khan sent afterwards to try and solve the dispute was then executed by Muhammad. Coupled with the engagement with Jochi and Subutai, it seemed that the Khwarezm-shah had declared war on the Mongols, and with the fall of Qara-Khitai, now shared a border with them in what is now eastern Kazakhstan.
Though the Khwarezmian Empire now holds a reputation as a giant with feet of clay, this would not have been apparent from Chinggis Khan’s position. The Khwarezmians controlled a vast territory. Originally based in the Khwarezm region in modern Uzbekistan, south of the Aral sea, where their house’s founder, Anushtegin (Anush-te-gin) Gharchi (gar-chi), was appointed governor in 1077 by the final Great Seljuq Sultan, Malik-Shah I. Anushtegin’s successors expanded to incorporate Transoxania, central Kazakhstan, and south into Afghanistan, most of Iran and even Azerbaijan, though much of this territory south of modern Turkmenistan had only been taken since 1200, and Khwarezmian control was loose. Much of their military was Turkic Qipchaq-Qangli peoples from the steppe, fighting in similar fashion to the Mongols: horse archers, heavy cavalry, and supported by various Iranian peoples as infantry. The Qipchaq-Qangli also made up a significant portion of the administrative and upper bureaucracy of the empire.
Having spent the early 12th century as vassals of the Seljuqs and then the Qara-Khitai, the house of Anushtegin showed themselves to be consistently ambitious and treacherous. In the 1190s, Muhammad’s father Tekesh, in alliance with the Caliph, defeated and killed the final Seljuq Sultan Toghrul III, allowing Khwarezmian expansion into western Iran, but beginning their rivalry with the Abbasid Caliphs in Baghdad. The disintegration of the Ghurids in 1206 brought Khwarezmain rule to the northwestern borders of India, and the collapse of the Qara-Khitai due to Kuchlug’s usurpation extended Khwarezmian authority east into the Ferghana Valley.
With this massive expansion of the empire in a three decade period, Khwarezm-shah Muhmmad, ruling since 1200, could, quite rightly, feel he was among the most powerful sovereigns on earth, which may in part explain his haughty treatment of Chinggis Khan’s ambassadors. From the Mongol perspective, the Khwarezmians were acting antagonistically, and as a rapidly expanding empire, it seemed possible they would try and seize the new Mongol controlled territory of the former Qara-Khitai.
Internally, the Khwarezmian state was not as strong as it appeared. Since most of the empire was so newly taken, how reliable it would prove in the face of invasion would be questionable. The Qipchaq-Qangli in the administration and military not only mistreated the urban Iranian population, but many of them were essentially mercenaries, or held more loyalty to Muhammad’s mother, Terken Khatun, than him. Indeed, Muhammad and his mother were often at odds, and with Terken Khatun often issuing orders that conflicted with those of her son. Officers across the empire would receive contrasting orders from both, and would follow whichever arrived later. The antagonism between mother and son would hamstring the Khwarezmian defense.
Neither had Muhammad’s actions in the last two decades made him friends outside of the empire. From Baghdad to Delhi, the Khwarezm-shah had a reputation as greedy, unreliable and driven to conquer. Few tears would be shed for him, should he face calamity. Most of the contemporary sources lay the blame for the invasion squarely on Muhammad Khwarezm-shah, ibn al-Athir for instance, directly citing Muhammad’s conquest of the local kingdoms, leaving him as the sole defence, as the reason for the speed of the Mongol conquests. Most sources also cite his treatment of the merchant caravan and envoys, and present the Mongol invasion as something he brought on himself, and was equally unsuited to defend against.
With that background on Khwarezm, and the reasons for the war between the two empires, let’s get into the actual invasion, shall we?
Chinggis Khan made his preparations and set out in summer 1219. The general Mukhali with 20,000 Mongols, and several tens of thousand of Khitan, Jurchen, Chinese and Tangut soldiers, was left to maintain pressure on the Jin Dynasty, while Chinggis’ brother Temuge [te-mew-guh] was left with a small force keep Mongolia secured. The remainder of all available forces were to be taken west against Khwarezm. This was not just Mongolian cavalry, but subject Uighurs, Qarluqs, Khitans, and Jurchen horsemen, with Chinese siege engineers and doctors. 100-200,000 armed men are the common range for estimates, not including families and attendants who would have accompanied the army. Additionally, herds of horses and remounts for the soldiers, hundreds of thousands of sheep and goats to feed the men, and oxen and camels to haul wagons, gers, supplies and materials to construct siege weapons. The total animals brought may very well have approached a million.
Orders had also been sent for the Tangut to provide troops for the western campaign, but with the rise of the anti-Mongol minister in the Tangut court, Asa Gambu, they declined and told off the Mongol envoys. Now, this was not the cause for the later destruction of the Tangut, spoiler alert, by the way, as is often reported: the Tangut did provide troops for Mukhali’s campaigns, occurring at the same time. But it was the start of an insubordination, and finally independence, which would lead to the utter destruction of the Tangut state. But that is getting ahead of ourselves.
Shah Muhammad did not sit idle, and convened a war council at his new capital of Samarkand to decide the defense. One strategy proposed was by Muhammad’s valiant son, Jalal al-Din Mingburnu, who suggested the full might of Khwarezm should be levied and meet the Mongols in a titanic clash on the Syr Darya River, a formidable barrier where crossings would be limited. Muhammad balked at pulling all his garrisons north, for in their absence his southern territories could assert independence. His fear at meeting the Mongols in open battle may have played a role as well. Ultimately, it was decided to spread garrisons across the major cities of Transoxania, Khwarezm and Khurasan: the northeastern frontier which would face the brunt of the Mongol assault, while Muhammad stayed south of the Amu Darya River to ensure the south of the empire didn’t rebel.
Though this plan has been criticized in the decades and centuries that followed, it wasn’t totally without merit. Just mostly. Attacks by steppe tribes were hardly new, but generally they lacked the siege equipment to take the walled cities of the region, and would contend themselves with pillaging the countryside. Muhammad assumed the Mongols would do the same, and in theory a long march without succeeding in taking any cities would smother the flame of Mongol wrath quickly. Transoxania, the region between the Amu Darya and Syr Darya, or Oxus and Jaxartes as these rivers were known in antiquity, marked the most important geographic barrier to the Mongols in the northern half of the empire. Crossings over each river were limited, and much of the expanse in between them was marked by the harsh Qizil Qum Desert. There would be reason enough to expect that it would slow them down, and perhaps even prevent, Mongol passage, or at least limit it to a few select routes which could be guarded. Unfortunately, Muhammad didn’t comprehend the significance of the experience the Mongols gained in China from 1211-1215, or that they now came west with a large body of Chinese engineers to build their siege machines, or that if the Gobi desert proved no barrier to the Mongols, then neither would the Qizil Qum.
Chinggis Khan’s armies reached the Khwarezmian border city of Otrar in autumn 1219, where the trade caravan had been massacred. With strong walls and a stout defence, Chinggis left a force to besiege Otrar while his armies split and marched up and down the Syr Darya river. Otrar fell after a difficult, five month siege, and its governor Inalchuq was captured. In famous tradition, when Inalchuq was brought before Chinggis, the Khan saw fit to punish him by pouring molten silver into his eyes and ears. It doesn’t often pay to defy Khal Drogo...I mean Chinggis Khan.
That Mongol armies split up after reaching Otrar proved a major issue for the Khwarezmian defenders: had the full force stayed encamped outside of Otrar, waiting to starve it out, the possibility was there that the Khwarezmians could bring their weight to bear upon them. But now, with Mongol armies ravaging both up and downstream of the Syr Darya, while keeping Otrar under siege, it was impossible to combine against them. Further issues came when Chinggis Khan himself suddenly crossed the Syr Darya and Qizil Qum desert: it had been expected he would have take the route directly to Samarkand, protected by a mighty garrison, while the Qizil Qum was thought too difficult for a large army to pass. The Mongols and their horses were sturdy, and they passed in winter with the assistance of local guides. In the early months of 1220, Chinggis Khan had appeared behind enemy lines. The towns of Zarnuq and Nur were the first Khwarezmian settlements to fall, shortly followed by the major centre of Bukhara. A sortie by the garrison was quickly destroyed, the citadel holding out only a little while longer. It is at Bukhara that Chinggis Khan, for the only time we know for certain, entered a city, and allegedly gave a famous speech, calling himself the punishment of God, if we are to believe Juvaini.
Bukhara’s population, particularly young men, were forced into the hashar: a forced levy used by the Mongols essentially as arrow fodder. Driven before the main army, Mongol lances pointed at their backs, the hashar would push siege equipment, fill in moats and be sent against the gates and walls of cities. In these highly exposed positions, they soaked up arrows which would have otherwise fallen onto valuable Mongol warriors; it served to frighten and demoralize the garrison and other populations; it made the Mongol army appear larger; and ground down a segment of the population most likely to resist later. Such multifaceted psychological tools were favourite weapons of the Mongols. The hashar of Bukhara and other settlements on the route were driven to Samarkand, the chief city of the region and Muhammad’s capital. With strong walls and a garrison of fierce Turkic warriors supported by war elephants, Samarkand would be a fearsome target to force. Chinggis arrived before it in March 1220, where he was reinforced by his sons Chagatai and Ogedai, who had taken Otrar and brought the captive Inalchuq. Three days into the siege, Samarkand’s garrison rode out to attack the Mongols, and were cut down to the last man. The city surrendered by the end of week, its citadel holding out until a nearby dam was destroyed, its floodwaters undermining its walls.
Craftsmen and artisans were put aside for Mongol service; women were taken as slaves; and the remainder were forced into the hashar. Unexpectedly quickly, the jewel of the northern half of Shah Muhammad’s empire had been snatched away. Near the ruins of Samarkand, Chinggis divided his forces again, divisions crisscrossing across the empire. On the advice of a Khwarezmian defector, Chinggis Khan had letters forged and sent to top Khwarezmian generals, making it seem that the Mongols were cooperating with Muhammad’s mother, Terken Khatun. This further paralyzed whatever still remained of Khwarezmian leadership. Chinggis sent his generals Jebe, Subutai and Toquchar after Shah Muhammad, whose courage had fled almost immediately. As Samarkand burned, Muhammad fled south.
Muhamamd Khwarezm-shah spent the remainder of his life on the run, Jebe and Subutai hot on his heels. Across Khurasan he rode, then northern Iran, where Terken Khatun was captured. He rode until December 1220 when the bedraggled Shah died on an island in the Caspian Sea, his final days spent suffering from pneumonia, awarding titles and lands to his sons. Titles and lands that were no longer his to give. So ended the reign of Ala ad-din Muhammad bin Tekesh, Shah of Khwarezm, whose actions signed the deathwarrant for many untold hundreds of thousands of people. Beside him had been his son, Jalal al-Din Mingburnu, who took his father’s title and would lead a resistance against the Mongols. This was not the end of Jebe and Subutai’s great voyage, but we’ll give that tale its own episode and focus on the main campaign here.
Once Mongol armies crossed the Amu Darya, the southern river of Transoxania, and Muhammad fled west, the fate of Khwarezm was sealed. The names of the cities change; the length of the sieges change; but the outcome rarely does. Cities that resisted were forced open, their garrisons massacred, the populations enslaved. For strenuous resistance or the death of a Chinggisid prince, like that of Toquchar outside of Nishapur, then the entire population would be put to the sword, the city destroyed. These served as a stark message; resist, and you will perish. In contrast, those who surrendered immediately were largely left untouched. Often, they were ordered to dismantle their walls, provide food and tribute, and sometimes men for the Mongols and accept a Mongol appointed overseer, a daruqachi (da-roo-ka-chi), basqaq (bas-kak) or shahna (sha-nah), as they were known in Persian sources. Beyond that, the Mongols cared little for the internal affairs of towns, and they were left to their own devices. If they revolted afterwards though, as happened in Merv did, a spectacular example would be made of them- it is from these cases where we see stories of towers of skulls made from the inhabitants.
Did Chinggis Khan at the outset intend on conquering the Khwarezmian Empire? It is hard to say- certainly not even he would have anticipated how quickly the Khwarezmian defence would fail. Each city was essentially left to its own defence, ensuring the Mongols could surround and bring their weight to bear on individual sites. As Muhammad had fled, accompanied by Jalal al-Din, there was noone to organize any greater unity among the Khwarezmian amirs. After his father’s death at the end of 1220, Jalal al-Din and his brothers returned to the mainland, making their way to Gurganj, the original Khwarezmian capital. There, Jalal al-Din attempted to organize things, but some amirs, even in this crisis, refused to recognize him, as Terken Khatun had wanted another of Muhammad’s sons, a more malleable individual, to succeed him. With assassination attempts against him, Jalal al-Din abandoned Gurganj. Not long after he left, Jochi, Chagatai and Ogedai surrounded and destroyed the city after a lengthy siege.
Jalal al-Din fled southeast to Afghanistan, the former Ghurid territory which was his patrimony and where Mongol armies had not yet arrived. There, he was able to gather an army of Qangli, Qarluqs, Khalaj, Afghans and Ghuris, perhaps 60,000 in total. Jalal al-Din was a capable general, and led this army to defeat two Mongols forces. One of these, at Parwan, was a sizable force led by Shigi Qutuqu (tchut-oo-tchoo), the grand judge of the empire and Chinggis’ adopted son. The victory at Parwan late in summer 1221 set off a series of revolts in Khurasan, cities like Herat and Merv which had submitted previously, threw off Mongol rule. Chinggis Khan’s youngest son Tolui was sent to punish them severely for this. For Jalal al-Din, he suffered a catastrophic defection in his victory: a conflict over loot from the battlefield between some of his commanders led to one abandoning him, taking half the army with him. Unfortunately for the Khwarezmian prince, this coincided with Mongol forces converging upon Chinggis to march against him. Jalal al-Din, with now only half of his army, was to face the full might of the Mongol invasion.
Jalal al-Din attempted to flee to India, but the Mongols moved quickly, and caught him on the Indus river around November 1221. The Khwarezmian prince fought fiercely, his army backed up to a cliff over the river. Commanding the centre himself, even while his flanks crumpled under Mongol arrows he held firm, but fate could not be avoided. With a final charge, he pushed back the Mongols, then spurred his horse around, and in full armour, spear still in hand, lunged off the cliff into the river. Mongol archers rushed to the cliffside to send arrows after him, but according to Juvaini, Chinggis Khan personally ordered them to hold, and watched Jalal al-Din and horse swim across the river to India. Then, turning to his sons he said:
“This is the kind of son that every father dreams of! Having escaped two whirlpools-
water and fire- and reached the bank of safety, he will commit many a glorious deed and
cause innumerable misfortunes. How can a man of reason but reckon with him?”
Chinggis Khan always appreciated heroic acts and Jalal al-Din, for his courage, earned the respect of the Khan. The other Khwarezmian soldiers were not so lucky, and those also trying to make the river crossing were sunk by Mongol arrows. The Battle on the Indus River essentially marked the end of the Khwarezmian Empire. Though Jalal al-Din escaped, and spent some years in India before making his way back to western Iran and resisting there, the state effectively ceased to exist. Most of Iran would be left in the hands of local dynasties for the next two decades, Khurasan left a ruinous buffer while Transoxania was absorbed into the empire, the threat of the return of Mongol forces hovering over all.
It is impossible to say how many were killed in the invasion. Sources like Juvaini often give grealy inflated numbers for those killed in certain cities, recording 2.4 million killed at Herat or 1.3 million at Merv, while another source gives 1.7 million lost at Nishapur. These numbers are certainly exaggerations, more to give an idea of total destruction than specific losses. It is doubtful that any city in the Khwarezmian Empire approached one million inhabitants, even when flooded with refugees fleeing the Mongols. Juvaini’s work will also mention 1.3 million killed at Merv, then have the Mongols return not long after and find another 10,000 to kill. It is also hard to distinguish how many were killed directly from Mongol arrows, or from the famine and spread of disease following the invasion. Many of the irrigation canals needed for sustaining agriculture around these cities were either directly destroyed, or had the people who knew how to maintain them killed or driven off. The starvation which set in following the reduction in agricultural production must have claimed many thousands.
Beyond that, we have mention of internal fighting, cities using the Mongol invasion as a chance to carry out old grudges, and following the Mongols’ withdrawal, the fighting between local dynasties, bandits and rebels would have claimed yet more lives. That many tens or hundreds of thousands of people were driven from their homes, fleeing the Khwarezmian empire entirely or carried back east as slaves, must not be discounted.
Gaining a truly accurate tally of the dead is impossible, but easily at least 1-3 million people were killed during, or because of, the invasion. It left not just a physical and demographic scaring, but a mental one as well, the Mongols becoming a byword for incomparable calamity even today. It is no wonder so many sources present the invasion in apocalyptic terms, though efforts at recovery and reconstruction under Mongol rule will be something we will explore in future episodes.
With Jalal al-Din Mingburnu’s defeat, Chinggis began the slow journey back to Mongolia. The campaign had been a victory beyond his wildest dreams, and it is at this point that the Mongols likely began to develop the belief that it was Heaven’s Will for them to conquer the world. For how else could one explain what had happened? Everywhere they went, military victory soon followed. The authority of Chinggis Khan among the Mongols was near absolute, though he still had the matter of the succession to deal with, as well as unfinished business in North China. Contrary to some statements, Chinggis did not immediately turn about from the Indus to attack the Tangut- it was not until after 1223, with the death of the general Mukhali, that the Tangut would openly rebel, and earn their own destruction.
Our next episodes will be discussing the great expedition of Jebe and Subtuai through the Caucasus and battle against the Rus’ and Qipchaq at the Kalka River, as well as Chinggis Khan’s final years, so be sure to subscribe to Ages of Conquest: A Kings and Generals podcast and to continue helping us bring you more outstanding content, please visit our patreon at www.patreon.com/kingsandgenerals. Thank you for listening, I am your host David and we will catch you on the next one!
In our previous episode, we covered the whirlwind campaign of Chinggis Khan and his generals against the Jin Dynasty of North China from 1211-1215. Chinggis Khan’s empire had been baptised in the blood of the Jurchen state, and before the fall of the Jin capital to Mongol armies in 1215, Chinggis Khan returned to his homeland. A lesser conqueror would have sat proudly on his accomplishments then, having unified the Mongols and secured a lifetime’s worth of plunder from the Jin. But Chinggis Khan was no lesser conqueror. Never one to sit idle, even while his armies continued to fight in China he sent others to wipe away old enemies and uprisings and expand the economic reach of the Mongghol ulus. Unintentionally, these efforts set him on a collision course with the Khwarezmian Empire, which controlled a huge swath of territory from Transoxania in modern Central Asia to western Iran. Today, we will be looking at the uprising of the Siberian forest peoples, the fall of the Qara-Khitai, and the Otrar Massacre; the prelude to the Mongol Invasion of the Khwarezmian Empire. I’m your host David and this is the Ages of Conquest: A Kings and Generals Podcast. This is..the Mongol Conquests.
Before we delve into today’s episode, we must mention upfront that the timeline of all of these events can be a bit messy. They all took place in a short period between 1215 and 1219 and in an area most westerners have very poor geographic knowledge of. It is testament to Chinggis Khan’s army though, that he could have so many forces operating in different theaters over vast distances all at the same time, all of whom could succeed in their tasks and return to him triumphant. So let us begin!
Chinggis Khan crossed the Gobi desert to return to his homeland in July 1215, his first time north of the Gobi since 1211. The Jin Dynasty’s capital of Zhongdu, modern day Beijing, had fallen the month before, and he must have felt confident his presence would not be needed in that theatre for some time. In his absence, continued operations against the Jin Dynasty were led by his general Samuqa, who undertook a phenomenal circuit across the Jin realm, crossing the Yellow River and approaching their new capital at Kaifeng, darting around Jin armies and crushing those he could outmaneuver. The continued pressure kept the Jin from occupying their fallen settlements, and Chinggis could now deal with issues back at home. The danger from his length of absence was that more recently conquered peoples would find it a chance to reassert their independence- which is exactly what happened.
By 1216, unrest had spread among the forest tribes around Lake Baikal, north of Mongolia proper and only recently subjugated. It had been simmering for sometime with the Khan’s absence in China, but was set off by one of Chinggis’ lieutenants, Qorchi. Qorchi had joined Chinggis decades prior, and had ingratiated himself with the Khan with a vision of Chinggis’ future victory, and had been in turn promised at some point along the way, thirty wives. In 1216, Qorchi was finally allowed to ride north to claim them from the Tumed tribe near the southern reaches of Lake Baikal. Qorchi rode into the main camp of the Tumed and, quite gracefully [sarcasm], told them to deliver unto him thirty of their finest women. The Tumed were at that point ruled by their chief’s widow, a proud woman named Bodoqui Tarkhan. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Tumed were pretty pissed at this, and promptly captured Qorchi.
Chinggis Khan was not happy to learn of this, but hoping to avoid having to send an army deep into the Siberian forests, sent the loyal chief of another forest tribe, Quduqa Beki of the Oirat, to use diplomacy to garner Qorchi’s release. The soft touch proved no more successful, as Quduqa was captured. This was a real issue, as Quduqa was not just a chief, but also an imperial son-in-law, married to Chinggis and Borte’s second daughter, Chechiyegen (chech-i-yeg-en). It was time for armed retaliation. Chinggis summoned first the Noyan, Naya’a, who fell ill, and the duty then fell to Boroqul. One of the Khan’s ‘four steeds of war,’ an adopted son raised by Chinggis’ mother Hoelun, a high steward, cup-bearer, commander of a part of the Imperial Bodyguard, and a long time friend of the Khan, Boroqul was held in high esteem, and sending him showed how serious Chinggis took this matter. Boroqul marched north with a small army, intending to carry out the duty of his Khan. Entering Tumed territory in early 1217, Boroqul was perhaps a little too proud after the successful war against the Jin. If the mighty descendants of Wanyan Aguda had been humbled by Mongol archers, how could peoples of the Siberian forest hope to stand before them? Boroqul rode before the main army with two scouts, where he was ambushed and killed by the Tumed. With their commander lost, the Mongol army retreated.
Chinggis Khan was furious. A personal friend had been killed, a Mongol army was forced back- this was an affront he did not take lightly. Further, the rebellion spread. Other people of the forest were now in open revolt. The Kirghiz of the Yenisei River refused to provide troops, and the whole northern frontier of the empire threatened to break away. Chinggis Khan wished to lead an army himself to crush this insurrection, but was talked out of it by his close friend Bo’orchu, and a strategy was devised. In a great pincer movement, the commander Dorbei (dor-bei) Doqshin (dok-shin) was to be sent against the Tumed, while Chinggis’ eldest son Jochi was sent in a western army against the Kirghiz, preventing cooperation between the various peoples. The plan was a success. Dorbei Doqshin avoided the main routes that Boroqul had taken, cutting his own roads through the Siberian forests to surprise the Tumed at their main camp while they were in the middle of a feast. The victory was total, and the Tumed were subjugated. Quduqa Beki and Qorchi were freed, Quduqa taking the Tumed chieftainess Bodoqui Tarkhan as a wife while Qorchi got his 30 maidens. 100 Tumed were sacrificed for Boroqul’s spirit and many others were taken as slaves. Finally, Chinggis Khan took his dear friend Boroqul’s children to raise as part of the imperial household.
In the west, Jochi was also met with success. Assisted by Quduqa Beki and his Oirat, early 1218 saw Jochi subdue the remaining Oirat, Buryat, Tuvan and finally the Kirghiz. Controlling one of the northernmost grain producing regions along the Yenisei River, the Kirghiz were a formidable force and valuable to have as subjects. This region was to be Jochi’s patrimony, the seed from which the vast Golden Horde would later grow. This was just the opening move of a larger operation, however. While 1218 was the defeat of the hoi-yin irgen revolt, it was also the opening of the first western operation of the Mongols, and for this we must backtrack a small bit.
If you recall, with Chinggis Khan’s unification of the Mongols in 1206, there was a group of Naiman, under Kuchlug (whooch-loog), son of the late Tayang Khan, and Merkit, under their chief Toqto’a Beki, who fled west, making a stand on the Irtysh River in 1208 before being defeated and dispersed. Toqto’a, the long hated enemy of Chinggis who had captured his wife Borte in the 1180s, was killed there, and his sons took the remaining Merkit to the far west, while Kuchlug would make his way to the empire of the Qara-Khitai, in what is now eastern Kazakhstan and Northwestern China.
The remaining Merkit, under Toqto’a’s son Qodu, fled to the Qangli, the eastern branch of the vast Qipchaq-Cuman confederation. The Qipchaq-Cumans were a loosely connected grouping of Turkic tribes inhabiting the steppe from the borders of Hungary, to the open lands east of the former Aral Sea. Chances are, you know the Qipchaq-Cumans best for their battlemasks with the moustaches, or as enemies from the game Kingdom Come: Deliverance, set almost two centuries after the events we discuss here. With Jochi’s forces already acting in the west and subduing the Kirghiz, it was seen as a good time to not just strike back at the Merkit, but give Jochi a chance to prove his own strategic acumen.
We’ll briefly note that there is some confusion on the exact timing of this campaign against the Merkits, as some sources date it about a decade earlier, adding it onto that Irtysh River battle, or a bit later, adding it onto the great campaign against Khwarezm. But it has been convincingly argued by scholars today, such as Christopher Atwood, for a dating of 1218-1219, just after the hoi-yin irgen revolt and before that Khwarezmian campaign. We’ll use this dating for this episode.
To the Mongols, other steppe nomads posed the greatest threat. Enemies in China would be tied down by their cities, but nomads could always withdraw and continue to pose a threat. The chance of them being unified under a charismatic leader, like Chinggis himself had done with the Mongols, was a real danger, and their very existence as an independent steppe people challenged the growing sense of Mongol legitimacy as the masters of the peoples of the steppe. That they were harbouring Mongol enemies, from the much hated Merkit tribe, was tantamount to a declaration of war itself. With the return of much of the Mongol army from China, this was a fine time to crush the remaining Merkit, as well as Kuchlug in Qara-Khitai, which we will get to shortly.
This operation in 1217/1218 is also the first time the famous Subutai held a major command, though it is unclear if Jochi or Subutai was the overall commander. Meeting up with the western vanguard, Toquchar, they marched across the steppe into what is now western Kazakhstan. On the Chem River, near the northeastern shore of the Caspian Sea, Jochi and Subutai caught and defeated the Merkit-Qangli force. According to a biography from the Ming era Yuan shih, the history of the Mongol Yuan Dynasty, Jochi and Subutai then pursued the fleeing Merkit-Qangli between the Ural and Volga Rivers, deep into Qipchaq territory, and destroyed the remainder. Qodu was killed, and his son or brother Qulqutan Mergen was captured.
Qulqutan Mergen deserves mention for the following anecdote, which highlights the relationship between Jochi and Chinggis Khan. As we’ve discussed, all Mongols were trained archers from childhood, but Qulqutan Mergen was considered highly skilled even among the skilled; indeed, ‘Mergen,’ means archer or shooter. In Robin Hood fashion, the captive Qulqutan sent arrows into a target, and then split those arrows in twain with his next shots, to Jochi’s delight. Jochi sent a messenger to Chinggis, asking them to spare Qulqutan’s life. Chinggis however, despised the Merkit, his long time foes, and had to deal with rumours that Jochi himself was a Merkit bastard. Chinggis’ response was, as recorded by Rashid al-Din was rather typical for the Khan:
“There is no tribe worse than the Merkit. We have fought so many battles with them and
suffered untold trouble and difficulties on account of them. Why should he be left alive to cause trouble again? I have stored up all these realms, armies and peoples for you: what need is there of him? For an enemy of the state there is no place better than the grave.”
Jochi duly did his duty and executed Qulqutan and his family, but this highlights the tension between Jochi and Chinggis which would emerge in the following years. It has been used to suggest Jochi was less sanguinary than his father, whereas this highlights a mantra Chinggis had become well acquainted with in his own youth: an enemy who is allowed to survive will only continue to be a danger in future. Had Chinggis’ own enemies taken note of that, then he would likely have perished long before.
Jochi and Subutai had a long journey back to Mongolia, but their return was interrupted by an unexpected encounter in early 1219, with a large army under the Khwarezm-shah, Muhammad II of the Anushtegenids (Anush-te-genids). Based in the Khwarezm region just south of the Aral Sea, under the Shah Tekish, and his son Muhammad II, in the previous decades the empire had expanded dramatically with the collapse of the Seljuqs, the Ghurids and the Qara-Khitai.
Ruling the empire since 1200, Muhammad had shown himself to be an ambitious, though not always patient, man. Styling himself ‘the second Alexander the Great,’ in 1217 he had made a failed march on the Caliph in Baghdad, was gobbling up the former western territory of the Qara-Khitai and had an eye on the steppe, where much of his own military forces and family came from. In early 1219 he may have been seeking retribution for Qangli raids, or to go after the Merkit himself, when his army stumbled into that of Jochi and Subutai. Aware of Chinggis’ interests in trade with Khwarezm, the Mongols asked for free passage. Shah Muhammad, a vain man infront of a very large army and not trusting them, decidied to attack. Reluctantly, Jochi and Subutai lined up for battle. Greatly outnumbered, they fought fiercely, though Jochi was nearly killed.
With nightfall, the armies pulled back. The Mongols lit fires to make it appear they were resting for the night, then withdrew under cover of darkness. Morning broke, and the Shah looked out at an empty battlefield. This enemy had fought fiercely, much fiercer than he had anticipated, and inflicted great losses on his army. It was said that the Shah developed a phobia of sorts towards facing the Mongols in open battle, something which would have major consequences for our next episode.
Jochi and Subutai returned to Mongolia sometime in late summer 1219, coinciding with major news which also reached Chinggis. But we’ll pick up with them later, and move our attention now to the southeast, where other Mongols forces had been busy.
Kuchlug (whooch-loog), the Naiman prince we’ve mentioned several times already, fled to the empire of Qara-Khitai after the defeat on the Irtysh River in 1208. The Qara-Khitai was founded in the 1130s, by Khitans fleeing the fall of the Liao Dynasty to the Jurchen Jin Empire. One Khitan commander, Yelu Dashi, took the Khitan garrisons from Mongolia and entered Central Asia, where his well armoured Khitan cavalry proved decidedly deadly. He subdued the eastern Qarakhanids (tchara-khan-ids), then defeated the western Qarakhanids and the Seljuq Sultan Sanjar in 1141 on the Qatwan (tchat-wan) steppe, near Merv. The defeat was a major blow to the already fragmented Seljuq state, though Seljuq control in Iran would last another 50 years. In the aftermath, Yelu Dashi controlled an empire stretching across Central Asia, from the Tarim basin to Khurasan. The Anushtegenids (anush-te-genids) of Khwarezm, formerly Seljuq appointees, now became vassals of the Qara-Khitai, as Dashi’s empire was called by the Mongols, meaning ‘Black Khitans,’ or ‘black Cathay.’
The Qara-Khitai have a fascinating history, but unfortunately, not one we have time to go into here. Buddhists, with Chinese dynastic trappings, their empire was decentralized, with many vassal kings subject to the gurkhan, the Khitan emperor. Two of their five emperors were women, ruling an ethnically and religiously diverse realm, and for decades harboured dreams of retaking north China, though they stagnated under the long reign of Dashi’s grandson, the gurkhan Yelu Zhilugu. The Qara-Khitai had been overlords of the Naiman tribes, so after the Irtysh River defeat in 1208, the Qara-Khitai was a natural place for Kuchlug to flee. Zhilugu saw Kuchlug and his retinue as a useful ally against his own vassals, especially the troublesome Muhammad Khwarezm-shah. The gurkhan bestowed titles, favours and a daughter upon Kuchlug, who repaid this generosity by raiding the Qara-Khitai treasury during Zhilugu’s war against Muhammad.
After a series of back and forth attacks, including an incident where Zhilugu sacked his own capital after it barred his door to him, Kuchlug ambushed and captured the Gurkhan 1211, and held him captive until his death in 1213. Kuchlug seized power, but proved incapable to rule the complicated state. Muhammad Khwarezm-shah took much of the Qara-Khitai’s western territory and butted heads with Kuchlug, who challenged the Khwarezmian to personal combat. The Shah declined. Kuchlug, originally a Nestorian Christian, converted to a violent strain of Buddhism, and began persecuting Muslims within his territory, alienating the empire’s urban population. The Tarim Basin proved especially volatile, where Kuchlug nailed an imam to the doors of his own madrassa in Khotan, and his forces destroyed crops every year until starvation quieted them.
In the northeast, near the Mongolian border, Qara-Khitai vassals declared for Chinggis Khan. One such was Ozar, a Qarluq horse thief who had risen to control Almaliq, and on his declaration of loyalty, had been given one of Jochi’s daughters in marriage. Kuchlug besieged Almaliq in late 1215 and killed Ozar, though his widow succeeded in defending Almaliq and getting a messenger to Chinggis Khan on his return to Mongolia. The death of a vassal, especially a son-in-law, was something to always punish, and Kuchlug’s usurpation of Qara-Khitai was a real danger. So in late 1216 Chinggis sent his top general, Jebe Noyan, [Zev, Зэв], accompanied by the Uighur Idiqut Barchuk and Qarluq Khan Arslan, to deal with Kuchlug. The speed of the collapse of Kuchlug’s state was shocking. Securing Almaliq, Jebe pursued Kuchlug to the Qara-Khitai capital of Balasaghun. There Kuchlug was beaten, but escaped, and Jebe entered Balasaghun unopposed. With princes of the realm now declaring openly for Jebe, Kuchlug fled through the mountains into the Tarim Basin, where he was still despised.
Jebe’s forces followed suite, and upon entering the Tarim Basin, sent out a declaration of religious tolerance: whoever submitted to the Great Khan would have their freedom of worship respected, a rather marked change from Kuchlug’s policies. The region then erupted: wherever Kuchlug had garrisoned troops, the citizenry fell upon them. Kuchlug was chased from city to city, many barring their gates to him. Fleeing the Tarim Basin, he travelled through the Pamir Mountains, eventually making his way through rugged Badakhshan (bad-akh-shan) to the Wakhan (wa-han) Corridor in northern Afghanistan, where he was cornered by local hunters and handed over to Jebe. With Kuchlug’s severed head on a lance, Jebe paraded it through his territory and gained the submission of whichever cities still held out. Thus ended the Qara-Khitai, years of anarchy followed by a remarkably peaceful Mongol conquest. With hardly an arrow shot, Jebe had greatly expanded the Mongol Empire westwards, returning to Chinggis Khan in 1219 with 1,000 chestnut horses with white muzzles- the same colour as the horse Jebe had shot out from under him in 1202.
An unforeseen consequence of this conquest was that this brought the Mongol Empire to the borders of the Khwarezmian realm. Shah Muhammad had had his own ambitions to conquer Qara-Khitai and had succeeded in taking some of its western territory- only to suddenly have the remainder quickly fall to this rising power in the east, while encountering them on his northern borders.
Yet, conflict between the Mongols and the Khwarezmians was not yet inevitable. In fact, Chinggis Khan wanted to avoid, at all costs, war with Khwarezm. The first Mongol-Khwarezmian contacts were an embassy sent out by the Khwarezm-shah in 1215, passing the ruins of Zhongdu. Chinggis was happy to generously gift them, a part of a general Mongol policy of overpaying merchants for their goods. With a surplus of silver ripped from North China, overpaying merchants was a fine way to encourage and direct trade in the difficult overland journeys, especially into Mongolia, and would be a hallmark of Mongol policy for the next century. Initial contacts seemed promising between the two states, and Chinggis sent a return embassy in 1218 to reaffirm trade and friendship. By then though, most of the Qara-Khitai realm, the bufferstate between the Khwarezmian and Mongol empires, had been ground down by the efforts of Shah Muhammad and Jebe.
Muhammad was perhaps eager to find fault in the embassy, led by Mahmud Khwarezmi, likely the same individual as Mahmud Yalavach, a significant figure under Ogedai Khan. The embassy’s message from Chinggis Khan said that the Khan considered the Shah on the same level as his dearest sons. The Shah was furious: how dare any man, even a great emperor, consider the Shah of Khwarezm a son, implying the superiority of the father?
After the initial meeting, the Shah continued to grill Mahmud Khwarezmi, who, as his name describes, was a native of Khwarezm. Mahmud managed to calm him down by telling him Chinggis’ armies were pitiful compared to the mighty forces of the Shah, and that the Khan was only interested in trade. Shah Muhammad was pacified, for now.
This embassy had been sent ahead of a larger, slow moving trade caravan, about 450 merchants and their attendants, carrying precious goods. Sometime in late summer 1218, the caravan reached the city of Otrar on the northeastern frontier of the Khwarezmian Empire. Otrar was governed by Shah Muhammad’s uncle, Inalchuq, who, possibly on the orders of the Shah or his own vile initiative, accussed the merchants of being spies, seized their goods and finally executed them, only a single camel driver escaping. This was a shockingly short sighted decision. Even if Shah Muhammad didn’t directly order it, he did nothing to discourage it or punish Inalchuq for the act. One possibility, suggested by historian Dmitri Timokhin, was that it was ordered by the Shah’s domineering mother, Terken Khatun, Inalchuq’s sister. Terken Khatun, a strong willed woman of Qangli origin, often actively combated her son’s orders, and acted as monarch in her own right in the original Khwarezmian capital of Gurganj. Perhaps seeing war as inevitable with the Mongols, with their swift conquest of Qara-Khitai, she wished to force her son to act.
Whatever the reason, it may surprise you to learn that the Massacre of Otrar was not the direct casus belli for the Mongol invasion of Khwarezm. When that lone camel driver returned to Chinggis Khan with news of what had happened, he was mad, but had no desire to lead a full invasion of Khwarezm while the Jin were still unconquered, and the Khwarezmian army seemed fearsome enough on its own. Trade with Khwarezm was of greater benefit than conquest, so Chinggis Khan, in early 1219, sent another embassy, led by a Muslim who had served Muhammad’s father and two Mongol notables. War would be averted and trade resumed, they told the Khwarezm-shah, if he only sent Inalchuq to Mongolia for punishment. As far as the Mongols were concerned, the massacre at Otrar was just the act of a shortsighted governor.
Muhammad was in an unenviable position: if he didn’t give up Inalchuq, war would come to Khwarezm. If he did give up Inalchuq, he would antagonize the Qipchaq-Qangli officials in his empire loyal to his mother Terken Khatun, pitting much of the administration and military leadership against him and undermining his rule. Thus, Shah Muhammad II of Khwarezm sided with his mother and made the fateful decision to execute the Muslim envoy, breaking the cardinal rule of diplomacy with the Mongols: do not kill the envoys. The envoy’s Mongol accomplices had their beards singed off by Muhammad, and were sent back to Chinggis Khan. They returned to him after Jochi and Subutai had come with news of their own encounter with the Khwarezm-shah, and the message seemed clear. A powerful foe in the west, who now bordered his empire, had made opening strikes against the Khan. Ignore it, and he would lose face while leaving his new western territory vulnerable to Muhammad’s armies. With his general Mukhali having been committed to the Jin realm and able to keep the pressure on them, his northern borders secure and remaining rivals to steppe legitimacy destroyed by Jochi, Subutai and Jebe, Chinggis Khan raised his armies, and unleashed hell upon Khwarezm
Having explained the background to war between the Mongols and Khwarezm, you won’t want to miss our next discussion on the Mongol Invasion, so be sure to hit subscribe to the Kings and Generals podcast and to continue helping us bring you more outstanding content, please visit our patreon at www.patreon.com/kingsandgenerals. Thank you for listening, I am your host David and we will catch you on the next one!
Columns of Mongol rider, armed with bow, lance and mace, march through the dark defiles and narrow valleys of the Yan mountains, a confined route for warriors used to the open steppe. Here, the valleys were marked by towns and villages in close proximity, a track for their army to follow, falling upon terrified settlements whose newly collected harvests now fed hungry Mongols. After days of this claustrophobic territory, of surprising and outwitting the garrisons of the forts blocking their path, the mountains suddenly gave way, opening up to the Northern Chinese Plain: low, open country, marked by the great Yellow River, farmland and the capital of the mighty Jin Empire: Zhongdu, modern day Beijing. Northern China was now open to the Mongol horde, and the Mongol conquests were about to begin in earnest. I’m your host David and welcome to Ages of Conquest: a Kings and Generals Podcast. This is the Mongol Conquests.
After returning from the Tangut Kingdom in early 1210, and shortly thereafter disrespecting the envoys of the new Jin Emperor, Wei Shao Wang, Chinggis Khan began his preparations, reviewing his forces and gathering intelligence. Alongside Muslim, Uighur and Ongguds merchants and travelers who brought him information on the Jin, a few Khitan and Chinese officials had already defected to Chinggis, bringing him detailed intelligence and urging an attack. Though still mighty, the 13th century had not been kind to the Jin Dynasty. The 1190s saw a huge flood of the Yellow River, so severe it changed its course; once entering the ocean north of the Shandong peninsula, it now spilled to the south, a drastic shift which displaced entire villages, destroyed cropland and sowed discontent. War with the Song Dynasty from 1206-1208 drained Jin finances, and inflation caused the paper currency of the Jin to be near worthless. The Jin armies, though large and their horsemen still fierce, were past their prime, many having become quite sinicized and lost the biting edge of their grandfathers. The time was as good as any for an assault upon the Altan Khan, the Golden Khan, as the Mongols called the Jin Emperors.
At the start of 1211, the Qarluqs (Kar-luk) of Almaliq (alma-lik) and Qayaliq (kaya-lik) submitted to Chinggis Khan, providing their own Turkic horsemen as auxiliaries. Chinggis positioned his son-in-law, Toquchar, in the west of Mongolia, doubtless with Qarluq forces, to act as a guard against roaming tribes or the Naiman prince Kuchlug (whooch-loog), who usurped power in Qara-Khitai that year. Feeling himself secure and that he had the favour of Eternal Blue Heaven, Chinggis Khan was ready. He marched south early in the spring of 1211 with as many men as he could muster, around 100,000 split into two armies, one commanded by himself, the other by his three oldest sons, Jochi ( Джучи, Зүчи, Züchi) Chagatai (Цагадай) and Ogedai (Өгэдэй). By May 1211, they had crossed the Gobi desert, entering what is now modern Inner Mongolia, the band of steppe between the Gobi and the Yanshan mountains which shield north China.
You may be anticipating the Mongols cinematically bursting through the Great Wall of China, or the popular internet variation wherein the Mongols ‘just went around it.’ But the Great Wall of China as it exists today was built by the Ming Dynasty in the 15th and 16th centuries, well after Chinggis’ invasion. There had been sections of walls built prior, most notably in the Qin and Han dynasties a millenium prior, but the 1000 odd years between the Han and the Ming saw only sporadic building, generally of rammed or stamped earth, which erodes comparatively quickly over time in unmaintained. The Jin Dynasty in the late 12th century had ordered the creation of several dozen kilometres of wall built in Inner Mongolia, a ditch before a rammed earth wall, marked by gates and a few forts. The base of this is still extant, a long, low, grass covered ridge which today doesn’t even block the wanderings of sheep. This wall was manned by whichever people inhabited the local area, largely from the Onggud tribe, a Turkic Nestorian people who had been on friendly terms with Chinggis Khan since 1204. The Naiman Khan had tried to urge them to attack Chinggis’ southern flank, which they refused, alerting the Mongol Khan to the scheme.
When Chinggis Khan arrived, the Onggud wisely opened the gates and submitted
voluntarily to him: it was a fair assumption he may have forced his way through them had they refused. Rather than conquer the Great Wall, or go around it, we might better say that it was opened to him. For their part, the Mongols treated the Onggud well, and a daughter of Chinggis Khan married into their ruling family- she would effectively rule the Onggud in her own right, the direct representative of Chinggis Khan. The Mongols spent the summer in Onggud territory, resting, fattening their horses on the local pasture, and taking the few Jin towns in the region- the first to fall was Fu-zhou, stormed after a brief resistance in late August 1211.
The Jin Emperor, Wei Shao Wang, was bolted awake by the news of the Mongol arrival on his doorstep. To his credit, he did not sit idle- two large armies were mobilized and sent to the most likely route. Dividing the Northern Chinese plain from the steppe was the Yan Mountains, relatively low mountains with numerous towns and villages nestled in its many valleys. The primary defile which provides access from the steppe through the northern side of these mountains is the Yehuling, the Wild Fox Ridge, just south of Fu-zhou.
The army led by Chinggis’ sons was making its way into the Ordos to the west, but Chinggis himself was certainly to try passing through Yehuling (ye-hu-ling), a route which would lead him only a few days away from the Jin’s central capital of Zhongdu. It was here, the Jin leadership rightly supposed, that the determining battle should be fought with as much might as possible; kill the Khan, and the princes would certainly withdraw. As Chinggis stormed Fu-zhou, a major force of crack Jurchen and Khitan cavalry, supported by Chinese infantry, all under the Jurchen commander Hushahu (hoosh-a-hu), was sent to Yehuling (ye-hu-ling). Hushahu was an unpopular, arrogant individual but influential with the Emperor, and had shown himself a cunning figure during the war against the Song Dynasty. Just a small note here; Hushahu is known by a dozen variations of Heshihlie Jiujun Hushahu (hesh-ee-hlee djioo-jun hoosh-a-hu), with some sources just calling by one of these names. Hushahu is the easiest to say, so we’ll stick with it here.
Supporting Hushahu was a smaller force under Wanyen Ho-Sha, who was sent ahead to repair the fort of Wo-shao-pao, between Fu-zhou and the entrance to the Yehuling. Together, this was a massive mobilization, given in the sources as anywhere from 300,000-500,00 men- though a good many of these were probably labourers, who would be tasked with digging ditches and building defenses along the passage.
Before the Wu-sha-pao fortifications could be completed, Chinggis sent his commander Jebe (Зэв) to surprise this smaller army in August shortly before the fall of Fu-zhou. Ho-sha escaped with much of his army, making his way to Huihebao, a fort south of the Yehuling, all before Hushahu could even reach Yehuling. Once within the defile, Hushahu set up at the narrow point within the Yehuling known as Huanerzui (Huan-er-zui), the Badger’s Mouth Pass. Here,his labourers were put to work, digging ditches and defences. His Khitan scouts informed him of the fall of Fu-zhou, and that the Mongols seemed occupied with looting the city, but Hushahu declined advice to immediately attack them. Wary of Mongol cavalry in the open field, he was hoping to use the narrow Huanerzui to protect his flanks.
A Khitan officer who had previously been sent as embassy to Chinggis Khan, Shimo Ming’an, was sent to speak to the Khan, officially to reprimand him for his actions but intended to gather intelligence and stall for time. Ming’an, a proud Khitan who admired the Mongol Khan, promptly defected and told Chinggis of Hushahu’s battle plans. Alarmed, Chinggis’ scouts confirmed his statements.
The Jin had sent a great army to crush the invasion in one fell swoop, and Chinggis had only a part of the total Mongol force, his sons still in the west. Ming’an’s information, and Hushahu’s caution was to the Khan’s advantage. As one, the Mongols moved into Yehuling, approaching the Jin army at Huanerzui. Jin scouts informed Hushahu of Chinggis’ sudden advance, and the Jurchen general ordered his huge army into position- wings of Jurchen and Khitan heavy cavalry and horse archers in the front, supported by a large group of Chinese infantry and the labourers who had started the fortifications. In the narrow defile, Hushahu’s army was tightly packed, unable to maneuver or envelop the smaller Mongol army.
Mongol archers got to work first, sending volleys of deadly arrows into the thick rows of Jin warriors, who had nowhere to move under the hail. One of Chinggis’ commanders, the tireless Mukhali ( Мухулай) saw opportunity, and his lancers led the first charge into the injured enemy- Chinggis followed with the imperial bodyguard, the Keshig. The Jurchen and Khitan horsemen buckled, and fell back, right into the dense rows of Chinese infantry behind them, who were trampled and crushed under the panicking horsemen. Discipline and command broke down, and the army disintegrated in the confusion, the Mongols cutting through them like a hot chainsaw through butter. As they ran, the Mongols pursued: bodies lined the road for kilometres, and the Secret History of the Mongols repeatedly described the fallen ‘heaped like rotten logs.’ Hushahu and Ho-sha met up at Huihebao (hwee-he-bao) fort several kilometres south, and put up another stand, only to be overwhelmed by the end of the day.
Huanerzui was long remembered by the Mongols as their greatest victory. Ten years later, a Taoist monk travelling through the region to meet with Chinggis Khan passed through and found bones still piled high throughout. Perhaps the finest warriors of the Jin fell that day, and the chance to nip the Mongol conquest in the bud had been ripped bloodily from their hands.
Hushahu fled to Zhongdu with nothing but bedraggled, bloody remnants of his great army. Mongol forces were briefly halted by the fortified pass of Juyongguan (joo-yong-guan), which guarded the narrow, 18 kilometre long Guangou Valley, the final barrier before entry into the North China plain, some 53 kilometres north of Zhongdu. During the Ming Dynasty, the famous Badaling section of the Great Wall was built at the north end of this valley. Badaling is the most popular tourist site of the entire wall, due to its preservation and proximity to Beijing. Indeed, it was this proximity to the capital that made it such a strategic pass, the final chokepoint before the open space of the Chinese plains. Therefore, even in the 13th century Juyongguan (joo-yong-guan) was strongly fortified with a large garrison, and the Mongols lacked any weapons to force it. So, Jebe Noyan fled before its impenetrable gate, and the defenders, eager to avenge their fallen comrades, sallied out to pursue. 30 kilometres from Juyongguan, Jebe (Zev) turned about and destroyed them. The mighty Juyongguan surrendered shortly thereafter.
By the end of October 1211, Chinggis Khan was on the North China Plain, and all hell was let loose. Chinggis made a brief effort to besiege Zhongdu itself, but this great city was far too well defended, its walls defiant and unbreachable. Leaving a force to blockade Zhongdu, Chinggis sent his armies to ravage across the plain. One army captured the imperial horse herds, depriving the Jin of much of their cavalry. From the Jin’s western capital, Xijingto (Shi-jin-to)their eastern capital, Dongjing (dong-jing) in Manchuria, those are modern Datong and Liaoyang respectively, Mongols armies pillaged and raided. Dongjing fell to Jebe Noyan through another expertly executed feigned retreat, while Xijing stood firm against the Mongols.
Mongol armies withdrew back to Onggud territory in February 1212, loot and animals in tow, eager to give horses and riders a well deserved rest. The border passes they had fought so hard for were, somewhat surprisingly, left unoccupied. Why the Mongols chose not to garrison them is unclear- some suggest Chinggis had no ambitions beyond that initial raid, while others note that with the Mongols’ lack of administrative experience, attempting to hold territory at this point was foolish with the Jin still strong. The Jin, meanwhile, were left bloodied but still unbroken. The defeats at Huanerzui (Huan-er-zui) were horrific for the Jin, decimating their prized cavalry, but reinforcement Jurchen were called upon from Manchuria. Wei Shao Wang appointed Hushahu as Deputy Military Commander of the Empire and sent him to reoccupy the border forts, Juyongguan (joo-yong-guan) in particular.
Suspicious that the Khitan population of Manchuria may align themselves with the Mongols, Jurchen colonists were sent amongst them, an act which ironically prompted the large Khitan revolt the Jin so feared. Led by Yelu Liuge (ye-lu liu-ge), within a few months he had not only submitted to Chinggis Khan, but also declared a new Liao dynasty with himself as king. The Tangut began to raid the Jin’s western frontier, the Song ended their tribute payments to the Jin, and famine began to break out in several provinces. To top it off, the Mongols returned in autumn 1212 after resting their horses for the summer, but this campaign was cut short when Chinggis was injured by an arrow to the leg at Xijing, and forced to withdraw.
Famine, Tangut attacks and insurrection did not abate, and only continued to spread in 1213. In July or August of that year, a healed Chinggis Khan returned to Jin China. In the valleys south of Yehuling, towns and settlements fell or surrendered with alarming speed. On the road towards Juyongguan, at modern Huai-lai, Chinggis was met by a large army under the commander Zhuhu Gaoqi. Supposedly a force of 100,000, in the narrow valley they had no room to maneuver and were crushed by the Mongols. The survivors fled to the refortified Juyongguan, where the ground for almost 50 kilometres was said to be covered by caltrops. For a month, Chinggis waited before the fort, trying to lure the garrison out. Finally he withdrew and wisely, the garrison stayed in the fort. A small Mongol force was left to watch the northern mouth, while Jebe was sent through the hills, finally coming out south below the Juyongguan, where the fortifications had not been improved. Surprising the garrison, its Khitan commander panicked and surrendered, and by the end of October 1213, the road to Zhongdu was once more open.
Things had developed rapidly in Zhongdu in the meantime. Hushahu had been ordered to remain in the city to defend it, though had spent the weeks before the Mongol return in 1213 hunting. When the Mongols returned to Juyongguan in September, a messenger had arrived from Wei Shao Wang to reprimand Hushahu for inactivity, but the panicked general killed the messenger. Now forced to act, he made his way to Zhongdu, overwhelmed the palace guards, captured and executed the emperor. He appointed Wei Shao Wang’s nephew, the 50 year old Wudubu, as Emperor, expecting him to be submissive. Hushahu’s arrogance and disrespect to the new emperor made him no allies in the court. He succeeded in defeating two Mongol raiding parties outside the walls in November, but fell ill. In Hushahu’s absence, Zhuhu Gaoqi was ordered to repulse the Mongols, on pain of death should he fail. Gaoqi failed, and hurried back to the palace before Hushahu could learn of it. Hushahu was captured and decapitated by Gaoqi, who was pardoned by Wudubu and made Vice-Commander of the Empire.
The course of this political upheaval left the Jin leadership paralyzed for two valuable months as the Mongols broke through Juyongguan. With the Mongol army before Zhongdu, the new emperor sent Chinggis a peace offering in December 1213. Recognizing the weakness of the Jin, Chinggis left a small force to blockade the Jin, and then unleashed a massive onslaught across the north China plain, a three pronged assault across the whole of Hebei province, into Shanxi and western Shandong. “Everywhere north of the Yellow River there could be seen dust and smoke and the sound of drums rose to Heaven,” was how one Chinese writer described the offensive. Almost 100 towns fell to the Mongols, farmland was destroyed, and the Mongol reputation for both invincibility, and cruelty, blossomed. The Jin had been hamstrung, unable to retaliate. By February 1214, Mongol forces were converging on Zhongdu.
While the Mongols had shown frightening success in the field and against less fortified settlements, Zhongdu was a different beast altogether. The Jin’s central capital since the early 1150s, now the site of modern Beijing, it had been keenly designed to withstand assaults. Built in a rough square, the city had almost 30 kilometres of stamped earthen walls 12 metres high. Over 900 towers were said to line these walls, lined with various types of defensive siege weapons. Before the city were three lines of moats, as well as four forts outside the main city, each with their own walls, moats, garrisons and supplies, connected to the main city by underground tunnels. The surrounding countryside had been stripped bare of not just food stores, but even stones and ties which could have been for projectiles. Each fort held 4,000 men, with another 20,000 manning the walls of the city itself. Zhongdu was well stocked, well fortified and well prepared for a siege.
The Mongols, with their siege knowledge still in its infancy, were not without their own cards to play. They had near total freedom of movement outside of the city, and now had begun to have their forces bolstered by desertions, especially among the Chinese and Khitans in the Jin military. Some of these deserters had brought along their own catapults, and captured engineers provided knowledge to construct more. At one point, the Mongols burst through a gate of Zhongdu, or were perhaps allowed in, as they found themselves surrounded, the street behind them set on fire. That party only escaped with heavy losses. Another assault was repulsed by the garrisons of the forts. It seems some sort of disease was spreading among Chinggis’ forces as the siege dragged on, and they must have started to become frustrated. In April 1214, Chinggis sent an embassy under a Tangut officer in his service with terms, entailing the submission of the Jin and the Emperor relinquishing his title. Wudubu refused to be demoted. Since Wudubu had no bargaining position beyond ‘we haven’t starved yet!’ Chinggis sent his envoys again, with the message:
“the whole of Shandong and Hebei are now in my possession, while you retain only
Zhongdu; God has made you so weak, that should I further molest you, I know not what
Heaven would say; I am willing to withdraw my army, but what provisions will you make
to still the demands of my officers?”
Wudubu was finally convinced to come to terms, noting the reality of his situation. In May, 1214, the Jin Emperor capitulated. A daughter of Wei Shao Wang was sent in marriage to Chinggis, with 500 boys and girls for her retinue, and 3,000 horses, 10,000 liang of gold and 10,000 bolts of silk, which would have been a mighty caravan of tribute. For reference, 1 liang is equal to 50 grams. The Jin, who had once held the forefathers of Chinggis Khan in such contempt, were now his vassal, and Chinggis Khan withdrew back to Onggud territory, doubtless proud of his work.
What Chinggis Khan’s plans were from this point we will never know- perhaps he was to turn west, pursue those final few enemies like Kuchlug? Allow his men to grow fat and soft off the tribute from the Jin and enjoy his own retirement? Or perhaps, with his new vassals, march south against the Chinese Song Dynasty. But we’ll never know. For in June 1214, the anxious Wudubu, fearing himself too close to Chinggis Khan, made the ill-fated decision to abandon Zhongdu and flee to his southern capital, Kaifeng, in territory untouched by the Mongols and shielded by the mighty Yellow River. Shortly after his departure, he began to have misgivings over the 2,000 Khitans in his retinue, and tried to take their horses. The Khitans, like the Mongols, were skilled horsemen who prized their mounts. To take their horses was to take their legs, and they abandoned the fleeing Emperor, riding all the way north to Chinggis Khan in inner Mongolia.
When the Khan learned of this, he was incensed. This was the Jin Emperor breaking his word, violating the treaty in an action tantamount to preparation for future hostilies. South of the Yellow River, he would be beyond the authority of Chinggis Khan where he could plan further troubles. Zhongdu was left with a much smaller garrison and would now pay the price for Wudubu’s cowardice. In late summer the general Samukha, with Shimo Ming’an, and the 2,000 Khitans who had abandoned Wudubu marched to Zhongdu with perhaps 50,000 men. The city was reached around September 1214, and placed under siege. The garrison, forlorn but proud, stoutly manned their doomed walls. Even with it defenders reduced, an assault on the city’s mighty fortifications would be costly, so Samukha aimed to starve it out.
Wudubu hadn’t completely abandoned the city, and belatedly in early 1215 sent relief columns bearing foodstuffs and reinforcements to Zhongdu. The Mongols overcame these columns with ease, and sated their own hunger with the supplies meant for the people of Zhongdu. The noose only continued to tighten around the city. Those communities in the region still untaken were reduced: most of the Jurchen homeland in Manchuria had fallen to the Mongols and their vassal Khitan kingdom. One Jurchen commander in Manchuria, upon learning of Wudubu’s flight, deserted and founded his own kingdom in the far east of Manchuria. In the Shandong peninsula, a long simmering local uprising erupted quickly, commonly known as the Red Coats, who proved themselves staunch foes of the Jin government. Whatever Jin forces that remained had either joined the Mongols, or were already destroyed. North of the Yellow River, only a strip along it, and around Xijing in the west, remained under Jin rule.
For Zhongdu, these happenings made the chance of reinforcement grow ever dimmer. Starvation was severe in the city. All possible animals were eaten, and accusations of cannibalism seem unfortunately probable. At one point, thousands of the city’s virgins were said to have thrown themselves from the walls, rather than suffer fate at the hands of the Mongols. The city’s leadership began to fight each other, with one top commander committing suicide, while another made his way through the blockade, arriving in Kaifeng where he was executed for desertion.
In June 1215, Zhongdu finally surrendered. Mongol troops let out their pent up frustration on the poor souls still within the city. Many thousands were slaughtered, every home and shop looted. Parts of the city were said to have burned for a month. So terrible was the slaughter that a Khwarezmian embassy passing the city a few months later was horrified to see piles of human bones surrounding the city, the ground greasy with human fat and disease rampant. Some of their embassy even fell ill and died as a result.
For the Mongols, it is interesting to note what anecdotes they took away from this tragedy. Chinqai, an officer of importance in the decades to come, climbed one of Zhongdu’s towers and sent an arrow in every direction. When Chinggis learned of the feat, he was so tickled by it that he granted Chinqai ownership of everything within the range of arrows. Chinggis Khan always found a particular joy in these sorts of acts. The event most fondly reported by the Mongols was when several officers attempted to bribe Chinggis’ adopted son, Shigi Qutuqu, in splitting the loot of the city between them. He declined, stating he could not take it, as it was all the possessions of the Khan. Such loyalty to the Khan was prized greater than all the treasures of China.
There can be little doubt that the flight of Wudubu and destruction of Zhongdu a year later was an irreverseible blow to the prestige of the Jin Dynasty, alongside the obvious territorial losses. To many, coupled with years of natural disasters, disorders, and poor governance, the Mongol invasion and Wudubu’s abandonment of the north must have looked like the Jin had lost the Mandate of Heaven, the supernatural approval necessary to rule China. When Heaven rescinded its Mandate, it always awarded it elsewhere, and it seemed that Chinggis Khan had received its blessing. It should not be a surprise that the following years saw the desertions to the Mongols turn into a flood, and they were now able to staff their newly taken territory with loyal Chinese, Khitan and even Jurchen officials. Entire armies of Chinese were soon fighting for the Mongols to aid their conquest of China, something we will explore in detail in future.
Zhongdu was left a shell of its former self, and was renamed ‘Yen’ or ‘Yenching’ by the Mongols. It remained an important command centre, but only began to return to real significance again when Chinggis’ grandson Kublai built a capital near the site. But that’s a few decades ahead of us. In the meantime, Chinggis Khan returned to his homeland and found himself distracted by uprisings and the pursuit of old enemies- a path which brought him, unintentionally, into a collision course with the Khwarezmian Empire to west.
In the next episode we will explore the first western movements of the Mongols, so be sure to hit subscribe to the Kings and Generals podcast and to continue helping us bring you more outstanding content, please visit our patreon at www.patreon.com/kingsandgenerals. Thank you for listening, I am your host David and we will catch you on the next one!
Rain. The constant, incessant rains of autumn. A wide brown river, its water swirling and churning, now overflowing its banks due to the rain. A great inconvenience and threat to the local farmer, but to the commander on horseback, his piercing eyes see a weapon. Men are sent with buckets of earth, stones and trees, and a makeshift dyke soon rises. The water is now unable to travel its standard route, and is now diverted, towards the great city and proud defenders who have dared to resist the Mongols. Lacking tools to take down the city’s walls, Chinggis Khan will now use the very landscape itself to strike his foe.
This was the tactic Chinggis Khan would use in his first conquest of sedentary power, a campaign against the Tangut Kingdom, known also as the Xi Xia Dynasty, in what is now northwestern China. His armies having never even seen walled cities before, this campaign would be the first true test of the army of the newly established Mongol Empire, the prelude to the fearsome conquests which would soon grip Asia. I’m your host David and welcome to Ages of Conquest: a Kings and Generals Podcast. This is the Mongol Conquests.
Before we get to the first Mongol invasion of the Tangut, we must step back a few
years. When we last left off with Chinggis Khan, he had finally unified the Mongol tribes and proclaimed the Mongol Empire in 1206. A little over 50 years of age, Chinggis had spent his life fighting for every inch of ground. He had known victory as keenly as defeat, and learned from not only every mistake he himself had made, but all that his enemies had made as well. The new Mongol state had been hard won: yet, it was a brittle entity. Tribal confederations were not known for their longevity, and Chinggis Khan had to ensure that the animosity of the tribes would not rear its head and tear his new empire apart.
He developed several strategies to prevent this. First, was breaking down the powers of the traditional chiefs and Khans: loyalties were now to be to the Great Khan. Old leaders who had resisted were removed from power entirely, extinguishing them as possible beacons of resistance. The majority of these tribes were broken up, their families mixed among Chinggis’ own people, which was then cemented by the extension of the army’s decimal system to the entire nation, totally reorganizing Mongol society.
But what was the decimal system that we have now made reference to several times? Organized into units of 10, 100, 1000 and 10,000, or in Mongolian, arban, jaghun, minghaan and tumen, peoples from various tribes were placed into the same minghaan, replacing the tribal social organization with the decimal one. Just as there was the military unit of the minghaan, now families were placed into their own ‘units,’ which were used as basis for taxation. Each military Minghaan was supported by the ‘civilian’ minghaans, which supplied, produced and maintained equipment and utensils used by the warriors, and in the absence of the fighting men, were responsible for managing the various herds of the Mongols. "No longer were they Taychiud, Tatar, Kereyit or Naiman, but Mongols. A few select tribes who had shown themselves loyal were allowed to maintain their integrity and their rulers, but had to recognize the absolute authority of Chinggis Khan himself. There was to be no Khan but the Khan himself.
The individual law codes and customs of each tribe were now overruled by a single code set out by Chinggis- the great yassa. The yassa standardized tribal customs, forbidding acts which would antagonize the spirits and bring misfortune upon the young nation. Acts seemingly as innocuous as washing dirty things in running water, putting a knife into a fire or urinating in ashes were all punishable by death, as they offended the spirits within and could bring calamity. Such prohibitions mattered when Heaven’s support was crucial for success. Death seems to have been a common punishment in the yassa, and none doubted that the Khan was willing to carry it out. It also ordained the proper way to slaughter animals, via crushing the heart and not spilling any blood. All religions were to be respected, and religious figures exempt from taxation- though how far this religious tolerance went, when the yassa expressly forbid the Islamic method of slaughter which mandated draining the blood, is a part of the strong debate around the code. Was the yassa intended to apply to sedentary peoples? When it was, how thoroughly was it enforced upon them? The answers to this vary over time and place, and we will discuss these in due course.
To aid in the management of the Mongols,Chinggis Khan needed to establish an administration for his new empire. Now, this should not be conflated with the hulking bureaucracies of China, in comparison to which the Mongol 'administration’ would have been a laughably simple thing. But it was necessary for managing a state of about one million people and the roughly 100,000 strong army. With the defeat of the Naiman, Chinggis had acquired their Uighur scribes. Mongolian at that time had no written form, and Chinggis Khan quickly saw the use of a script. Thus, Mongolian gained its first alphabet, still in use today in Inner Mongolia. One of Chinggis’ adopted sons, a Tatar named Shigi Qutuqu (Koo-too-koo), was appointed yeke jarghuchi,(Yayk-eh jarg-hoochi) the chief judge of the empire, given great power settling legal matters, preserving justice and recording the edicts of Chinggis Khan and judicial decisions in their new alphabet.
To assist the burgeoning administration was the expansion of the keshig to 10,000 men. The keshig had been established only in 1204, essentially as a bodyguard for the Khan. Aside from guarding the Khan, they acted as grooms, preparing his meals, maintaining his ger, his herds, weapons and even musical instruments. Made up of trusted men, sons of commanders or sons of vassal chiefs and Khans, it also served as a sort of military college. It provided first hand learning experience at army leadership and administration, to see who was fit to ‘graduate’ to command armies, govern peoples or in time, territories. Richly rewarded and trusted, when those of keshig who were sons of vassals were sent back to their homelands, they acted as agents for the Khan to ensure the loyalty of their people, and were an important instrument of control for Chinggis Khan and his successors.
These actions helped strengthen what the Mongols valued most in their armies: loyalty, and discipline. Great trust would be placed in the commanders of not just armies, but of each level of the decimal system. In order for their maneuverability in warfare to succeed, where Mongol armies could literally be operating hundreds of kilometres apart, it was absolutely necessary that commanders could trust each other to meet timetables, objectives, stay in contact and meet up to surround enemy armies. It is to the credit of the Mongol military that the Khan could be operating on the far side of Asia, and he could trust his commanders to remain loyal, carry out his duties and expand the empire. By removing possible allegiances that could challenge loyalty to the Khan, rewarding those who showed ability and skill while supporting and protecting the soldiers’ families, the Great Khans were rewarded by a hardy, adaptable and reliable army. Individual soldiers went to great lengths to prove their worth and carry out orders: abandoning their arbans would bring strict punishment, or even death, to their comrades and families. Defections of Mongol soldiers, officers or commanders during the height of Mongol unity was extremely rare, and almost every contemporary foreign author commented on that loyalty, how the average Mongol stoically, even happily, endured the fiercest hardship for the Khan.
The few possible rivals for power who emerged from within the early empire were quickly dealt with. An ambitious shaman, Chinggis’ step-brother Kokochu, also known by the title of Teb-Tenggeri, grew greedy and bold. Already famous for his strong connection with the spirits, and supposed ability to walk naked through even the fiercest of snow storms, it was he, we are told in one source, who gave the title of Chinggis Khan to the warlord Temujin in 1206. Having in his view, appointed the Great Khan, he was soon bold enough that he assaulted Chinggis’ brothers. When he overstepped, Chinggis allowed his youngest brother to break the shaman’s back and leave him to die. It served as a stark message: the Khan was stronger than even the mightiest of shamans. No religious authority would be able to claim power over the Great Khan of the Mongols.
These methods provided internal control to his new state, but its footing was not entirely stable yet. Various enemy leaders or their sons had survived the wars of unification- Toqto’a Beki of the Merkit and his sons, Buiruk Khan of the Naiman and his nephew Kuchlug, and the son of the late Ong Khan, Senggum Ilkha of the Kereyit. The Naiman and Kereyit sons were a particular concern, as the Jin Dynasty in the south could choose to support them as candidates against Chinggis, a beacon for those extant disaffected elements to gather around. In the years immediately following unification in 1206, it was against these potential sparks that Chinggis Khan had to stamp down. Buiruk was crushed first in the later part of 1206, leading the surviving Naiman under Kuchlug to move west, joining the Merkit under Toqto’a on the Irtysh River, where they were defeated in 1208. Toqto’a was killed in battle, his sons fleeing to the far west to the Qipchaq tribes, and Kuchlug would in time end up in the Qara-Khitai, where he would usurp power in 1211. We’ll pick up with him in a later episode for his final fate.
To the north, a number of the tribes of the Siberian forests around Lake Baikal were forced to submit in 1207. This included the Kirghiz, the Tumed and the Oirat, among others. By 1208, Chinggis had secured his northern and western borders, and with his eastern borders bounded by the Khingan mountains, that left the south, the kingdoms of China.
While these other actions to establish an administration and destroy potential rivals helped secure his power, he knew that without a common enemy to throw the whole of his people against, if left idle, the Mongol would begin to fight each other in due time. Reminiscent of Otto von Bismarck’s ploy to unify the German states against their French foe, Chinggis Khan needed ample loot and warfare to burn off their excess energies and keep them united towards a shared goal. It served other aspects as well- we noted already the danger from the potential of the Jin Dynasty giving support to a rival chief and churning up the internal rivalries of the new empire. The late 12th century seems to have been a drier period with an increase in desertification, accentuating the decrease in herds brought on by years of continuous warfare in Mongolia. Attacking China would replenish their herds, and by providing the Mongols with loot, Chinggis Khan would be undertaking part of his duties as the steppe warchief par excellence.
Ideologically it buttressed his new state as well. Part of Chinggis Khan’s legitimacy was based on his connection to the Khamag Mongol union of the early 12th century. The Khamag was destroyed by the Jurchen Jin, the Khan Ambaghai tortured and murdered by them. By attacking the Jin, Chinggis would also be performing another duty of the Khan, that is, avenging past wrongs. Finally, while in the first years of the 1200s the Jin Dynasty was distracted by internal revolts, flooding and renewed warfare with the Chinese Song Dynasty to their south, they would not sit idly by for long while the steppes to the north were unified under a single power. The Jin considered Chinggis Khan their vassal, and confrontation would be inevitable. It was to the advantage of the Mongols to make the first move.
It should be noted that no evidence suggests at this point that the Mongols believed in dominating the world or any such thing. At the outset, even an actual conquest of China doesn’t seem to have been considered.
In a previous episode, we discussed the states of 13th century China, so we won’t repeat that at length here. The two kingdoms the Mongols faced at the outset was the Jurchen Jin empire, its capital at Zhongdu, modern day Beijing, which controlled a huge stretch of territory from the Ordos loop to the far east of Manchuria. Ruled by the Jurchen, a semi-nomadic people originally from Manchuria, it was certainly the strongest single military force in the world at this point, with a population of about 40 million, mainly Chinese but a notable Jurchen and Khitan minority. Chinggis Khan would have considered them the single greatest foe he faced. To the west of the Jin Dynasty, in the Gansu corridor, was the ‘backdoor’ to north China. The Xi Xia Dynasty, or the Tangut Kingdom. Considerably smaller in both population, geographic size and in its military, it was a stout kingdom ruled by a people of Tibetan heritage, with a mixed population of Turkic nomads, sedentary Chinese and Uighurs. Much of it was covered by desert and mountain, its major cities huddled along the Yellow River west of the Ordos desert. Controlling the Gansu corridor, the narrow strip between the Gobi desert and Mongolia in the north, and the offshoots of the Himalayas to the south, most of the overland trade routes, the Silk routes, were funnelled through here, increasing the wealth of the kingdom substantially. It was here the hammer would fall first.
The first Mongol raids into the Tangut realm were in 1205, pursuing the fleeing Kereyit prince Senggum Ilka. The Senggum evaded them, as he had been chased out by the Tangut and was then murdered shortly afterwards in the Tarim basin. The Mongols made due with captured animals and goods before withdrawing. In 1207, the Mongols returned to the Tangut, a more serious probe this time, taking advantage of the first coup d’etat in the Xi Xia’s history, and the ascension of the new King Weiming Anquan (an-quan). Tangut garrisons were sent out to meet the raiders, and were destroyed, and the border fort of Wu-la-hai was sacked and occupied until early 1208.
The new Tangut King looked to the Jin, their nominal overlords, for aid, but in the winter of 1208 the Jin emperor had died and was succeeded by his uncle, Wanyan Yongji. History does not look kindly on him. So poor was his reign that his successor posthumously demoted him from Emperor to Prince, and hence, instead of emperor, sources call him the Wei Shao Wang, the Prince of Wei. To give you an idea of his character, his helpful response to the Mongol attacks on the Tangut was allegedly to say “it is to our advantage when our enemies attack one another. Wherein lies the danger to us?” How could a man who tempts fate so willingly have been a poor emperor?
By autumn 1209, Chinggis Khan was ready for more serious actions. His flanks now secured with the defeat of the Naiman-Merkit force on the Irtysh in the west, the submission of the forest tribes to his north, and the voluntary submission of the Uighurs, the neighbours of the Tangut in 1209, the Mongol conquests were to begin. The Mongols marched in spring 1209, when there would be sufficient water and sparse grasses to allow the perhaps 60,000 man army to cross the Gobi desert. The Tangut armies, generally Turkic and Tangut horse archers and lancers, supported by Chinese infantry, fared poorly against Chinggis, who personally led the invasion.
His disciplined army in the open proved itself almost immediately. Made strong by their hard lifes, at a strategic level the army moved swiftly, effectively and without complaint. Honed and sharpened by decades of continuous war, at the tactical level they were a storm, out maneuvering and surrounding their enemies on the field, their arrows flying far, hitting hard and striking true. Thousands of arrows would rise into the sky like a cloud, dropping like rain and suddenly releasing cries of anguish from an army of dying men and horses. Wings of the Mongol army, separated by kilometres but kept in touch through messengers, signal arrows, flags and drums, seemed to move as one to envelope their foe. Or, in their units of 10, 100 or 1,000, sent to run against the enemy, appearing like an undisciplined horde before suddenly forming into a wall of unyielding cavalry, or swiftly wheeling about, turning in their saddles to send arrows behind them, tempting the foe to pursue. Often, they took the bait, charging the Mongol archers, who parted, the impetus of the enemy charge leading into nothing. Isolated, these horsemen were quickly surrounded, filled with arrows or crushed by the Mongols’ own lancers. The enemy infantry without cavalry support could be then almost contemptuously picked off, like a wolf among a flock of sheep.
Chinggis Khan marched first to Wu-la-hai, where he destroyed a Tangut army sent against him. The fort fell once more shortly afterwards. Marching south along the Yellow River, they had to cross the Helan mountains, which formed a shield from west to north in which the Tangut capital, Zhongxing, modern Yinchuan, lay huddled in its fertile valley. On its eastern approach it was guarded by the Yellow River, which watered the irrigation canals that sustained life and crops in this beating heart of the Tangut realm. The approach through the Helan Shan was marked by the fort of Kei-min, reinforced in the aftermath of Wu-lai-hai’s fall, and led by an imperial prince. The Mongol vanguard was initially repulsed, but with the arrival of the main Mongol army the Tangut garrison remained on the defensive, hiding behind their walls. For two months, the Mongols waited before the fort, lacking the means to force Kei-min and the garrison refusing to sally forth. Frustrated in the summer heat, Chinggis Khan was not outplayed. Feigning a retreat, the Tangut garrison was tricked into pursuing their fleeing foe- only to find themselves met by the full Mongol army far from the protection of their walls. Kei-min surrendered shortly afterwards.
Descending from the Helan Shan, Chinggis Khan was now before the walls of the Tangut capital, and it was these walls which threatened to halt his invasion. Thick walls of stamped earth, dotted by sturdy towers and well armed defenders and surrounded by irrigation canals, without siege equipment the Mongols could barely advance to the city. They looted the surrounding countryside and villages, but Zhongxing itself stood defiant, unassailable. So Chinggis sat before the walls, wasting away until the autumn of 1209, when a solution seemed to present itself. The rains of the fall swelled the nearby Yellow River, and Chinggis had an idea. His horsemen were sent forth with looted tools, and built an impromptu dyke, diverting the water which now was forced into the city. The stamped earthen walls were undermined, homes were washed away and the standing water threatened disease in Zhongxing, all while the usual rigours of the siege and blockade, starvation and illness, sapped away at Tangut moral. Somewhat embarrassingly, the makeshift dyke broke and flooded the Mongol camp, but by then it could not change the outcome, and finally in January 1210 the Tangut agreed to peace talks.
Humiliated, the Tangut became vassals of the Mongols, providing a princess in marriage for Chinggis and extensive tribute, including falcons, camels and textiles. Chinggis Khan returned to Mongolia in early 1210, vindicated- the Tangut King, Weiming Anquan, died under suspicious circumstances the next year. Thus ended the first Mongol conquest.
Cities and walls had proved an issue, but in the field the Mongols had performed spectacularly, and proved highly adaptable. No reliable method for forcing cities had yet been determined, but garrisons could be tricked out into the field by thoughts of easy victory. Compared to later Mongol conquest, the Tangut got off relatively light in 1210. The tribute was costly, but not prohibitively so, and cost less than the damage which continued Mongol attacks would cause. Neither did the Mongols leave a garrison in the country, and aside from demands for troops and tribute, the Mongols would interfere little in the internal autonomy the Tanguts so dearly prized. The submission was not popular within the Kingdom, and a notable faction in the court would develop urging the Tangut King to break with the Mongols at every opportunity. Despite the fact the Tanguts had survived the Mongol conquest more or less intact, this element in the court would ultimately lead to the destruction of the Tangut Kingdom.
Not long after his return, Chinggis Khan received messengers from the Jin court, informing him of the ascension of Wanyan Yongji and to reaffirm Chinggis’ tribute obligations. You may recall that Chinggis had fought against the Tatar tribes with Jin assistance in 1196. The Jin would have considered him a vassal after that, and he likely sent gifts, or tribute, to the Jin for a few years. It seems around 1206, he had stopped this, and in 1208 Emperor Zhangzong of Jin had sent his uncle Wanyan Yongji as embassy to get Chinggis to supply that tribute and reaffirm his vassalage. Chinggis had found Yongji utterly unthreatening, and had disrespected him. Now in 1210, learning that Yongji was the new emperor, Chinggis could only laugh. According to protocol, he was supposed to kowtow to the news. Instead, he spat on the ground towards the south, the direction of the Jin Emperor, and said, “I thought that the ruler of the Middle Kingdom must be from Heaven. Can he be a person of such weakness as Wei Shao Wang? Why should I kowtow for him?” before riding away. War had been declared, the start of a 20 year struggle that would outlast both Chinggis Khan and Wei Shao Wang.
This has been the start of our discussion on the Mongol conquests, and the next one is going to be even bigger, so be sure to hit subscribe to Ages of Conquest: A Kings and Generals podcast and to continue helping us bring you more outstanding content, please visit our patreon at www.patreon.com/kingsandgenerals. Thank you for listening, I am your host David and we will catch you on the next one!
Surely, you have heard of the phrase ‘rags to riches,’ indicating the rise from abject poverty to untold wealth? You may be interested in its 13th century equivalent, ‘rags to ruler of Eurasia.’ I hope you are interested because this is the story you’re about to hear, of a boy who lost everything but by the end of his life, he conquered an empire larger than Rome. An Empire which continued to expand decades after his death to incorporate most of Eurasia. An Empire which would leave his name etched into the fabric of history. It is time for the rise of Chinggis Khan, founder of the Mongol Empire.
The previous episodes in our series should have provided you with the foundation for this episode, demonstrating Mongolian nomadism, the politics and tribes of mid-12th century Mongolia, and the relationship with China. So cozy up in your ger with a nice cup of airag, and let’s get into it. I’m your host David and welcome to Ages of Conquest: a Kings and Generals Podcast. This is the Mongol conquests.
It is 1162, Mongolia. The Khamag Mongol Confederation, the brief military alliance of the Mongol tribes of the Borjigon, Taychiud and others, has collapsed under the assaults of the Tatars, supported by their masters, the Jurchen ruled Jin Dynasty in China. In a raid against the Tatar, a young relation of the Khamag Khans named Yesugei Ba’atar captures a Tatar chief, Temujin-Uge. Returning to his own camp, he finds his second wife, Hoelun, recently stolen from her Merkit husband, has just given birth. The boy is born clutching in his tiny fist a blood clot the size of a knucklebone, an omen foretelling of future greatness or bloodshed. To celebrate the birth of the boy, Yesugei sacrifices the Tatar chief Temujin-uge, giving his name to the boy: Temujin, meaning, ‘blacksmith,’ denoting strength and iron. The man who would be known to posterity as Chinggis Khan has just been born.
We can assume Temujin was raised like any other Mongol, learning to ride a horse before he could walk; to make and shoot a bow, the prized weapon of the Mongols; the skills of herding the animals necessary for survival; how to hunt and track prey; and he would have been familizared with the grudges of his people, most notably the Tatars, the sworn enemies of the Khamag Mongols, and the Tatars’ masters, the Jurchen Jin Dynasty. Temujin was the eldest child of Yesugei’s second wife Hoelun, with three brothers and a sister following. Yesugei’s first wife, Suchigel, had two sons, one of whom, Begter, was slightly older than Temujin. The only other detail that comes to us from these early years is that Temujin, the future conqueror of cities and master of war, was afraid of dogs.
Our main source for Temujin’s early life is the Secret History of the Mongols, a Mongolian epic chronicle written sometime after his death in 1227 for the imperial family and records most of the main events of his life. While the broad course of events and general flow is probably accurate, for these early years it is sometimes hard to say what details are based in fact, which are half-truths or which are simply legends.
The first recorded event of young Temujin’s life occurred when he was about 9 years old in the early 1170s. His father Yesugei took the young lad to choose a bride, intending one from the Olqunuut, the tribe of Temujin’s mother, but on the way came into the camp of the Onggirat. The chief of this camp, Dei Sechen, greeted Yesugei, and was impressed by his son. He told Yesugei of a dream he had the night before, wherein a white gerfalcon brought him the sun and the moon in its talons. Obviously, this was a powerful omen, but since the Secret History of the Mongols is full of these, we should wonder if they were added retroactively by the Secret History to demonstrate Heaven’s support for Chinggis Khan. Of course, another option is that Dei Sechen pulled this move on every traveller coming by to marry off his daughters.
Whatever the answer, Yesugei agreed to marry Temujin to Dei Sechen’s daughter, a slightly older girl named Borte. Yesugei left Temujin in Dei Sechen’s camp and returned home, on the way stopping in a camp of the Tatars. Traditionally, guest rights were highly valued on the steppe. A hungry traveller could, if he came unarmed and bearing no ill will, expect to be fed and provided shelter for the night. In an era without photographs, it would be easy for someone to go about unrecognized. Unfortunately,Yesugei was recognized as the captor of Temujin-uge, and poisoned. He survived long enough to make it back to Hoelun and his family, but by the time Temujin arrived, Yesugei was dead.
You may recall from a previous episode our mention of the distinction between the Borjigon and Taychiud lineages of the Mongols. Yesugei was a lead representative of the Borjigon. The Taychiud maintained their grudge from when the leadership of the Khamag Mongol had moved from their representative, Ambaghai, back to the Borjigon. The Taychiud in Yesugei’s camp, including widows of Ambaghai and the nefarious Targutai conspired against Yesugei’s widows and his young sons. At a feast which soon followed, Hoelun was excluded from taking part in the ceremonial sacrificial meal, signalling their isolation. Despite Hoelun’s impassioned efforts, the Taychiud killed a servant who tried to stop them, and Hoelun, Suchigel, and seven children were left abandoned on the steppe with no herds or supplies. Surely, they would not have been expected to survive the winter.
Yet, survive they did. Hoelun showed that her will was as strong as the mountains. She organized her family, gathering roots, berries, and even fishing, seen as a lowly activity by the Mongols. Through her determination, not one child was lost to hunger, not even her infant daughter Temulun. Hoelun could protect Yesugei’s children from starving, but not however, from each other. Temujin and Suchigel’s eldest son Begter, Temujin’s half-brother, were at odds. Begter stole food from the others, bullied them, making the stress of their situation worse. As Yesugei’s oldest child, Begter had the legal right to inherit Hoelun, his step-mother, as his wife, which would have cemented his authority, meager as it was, over Temujin. Felt pushed to the edge, Temujin made a decision. With his younger brother Khasar, the best archer among them, the two of them ambushed and killed Begter. Before his death, Begter only asked that they not harm his own young brother, Belgutei. Hoelun was furious; after all they had suffered that they still chose to fight amongst each other.
Shortly after Begter’s death, Targutai of the Taychiud came hunting. Perhaps having heard of Begter’s death through the few families they must have been in contact with, Targutai came and captured Temujin. Placed in a cangue, a sort of wooden neck brace trapping the hands and neck of the prisoner, Temujin was paraded around the Taychiud camp and humiliated. The prisoner was moved to the ger of a different family every night, but some of these families showed him kindness, even removing the cangue at night to allow him to sleep. When he found an opportunity to escape, one of these families, that of Sorqan Shira of the Suldus, even provided Temujin a horse and a bow so he could make it back to his family. This is often emphasized as a major turning point in the life of the young Temujin. Routinely, he had been showed nothing but cruelty from people who were his relations: the Taychiud under Targutai and Ambaghai’s widows, and his own half-brother Begter. But humble herdsmen, former servants of his father and people of no direct relation to him showed him mercy and kindness.
A few years after the escape, Temujin returned to Dei Sechen to claim Borte, a joyous reunion. Borte’s mother sent a gift of a black sable coat for Hoelun, which Temujin took, travelling south to the court of Toghrul, Khan of the Kereyit. Toghrul, you may recall, had been blood brothers with Temujin’s father Yesugei, who had helped him secure his throne. A powerful and wealthy lord, having him as an ally would make the Taychiud think twice about raiding Temujin. Toghrul was delighted by the fine gift, and happily took Temujin into his retinue.
This was the late 1170s, and things were looking up for Temujin. They had a small but loyal group of comrades building around them, Temujin had his wife and the protection of an overlord. Temujin likely envisaged living out his days as a minor chieftain, perhaps in time leading small raids against the Tatars but with little hope of achieving power comparable to Toghrul. Fate, however, often has little interest in our expectations.
What put Temujin on a collision course with humanity occurred around 1180. You may remember that Yesugei had stolen Hoelun from her Merkit husband. Well, the Merkits remembered that too. Learning of the marriage of Yesugei’s oldest surviving son, the brothers of that Merkit, the tribe’s leaders, led a raid against Temujin. Temujin and his brothers fled but Borte, Suchigel and their servants were captured and carried off north to Merkit territory. Temujin, seeking refuge on Burkhan Khaldun, was distraught: he had struggled so hard to build himself back up from the death of his father, and again everything was ripped away.
Once he cleared his head, with his brothers in tow he traveled to the court of Toghrul, and demanded his justice. Toghrul, his mouth watering at the thought of loot from Merkit camps, agreed, and reintroduced Temujin to a childhood friend, a fellow Mongol named Jamukha of the Jadaran, now an ambitious warchief in Toghrul’s service. For the first time in his life Temujin was now a part of an army: they took the Merkit by surprise, their forces dissolving before them. Borte was rescued, but pregnant, or had already given birth.
It never will be known if the child Borte carried was Temujin’s or a Merkit’s. For his part, Temujin always treated him as fully legitimate son, but the shadow of doubt hung over the boy his entire life, with huge consequences for the Mongol Empire. He was named Jochi, meaning ‘guest,’ and would become the father of the Khans of the Golden Horde, who would rule Russia for centuries. Temujin and Jamukha renewed their oaths of anda, blood brothers, and enjoyed a blissful year and a half together.
Under Jamukha, Temujin began to be taught the ways of war, something his own father never had the chance to do. But in time, the friendship frayed. Temujin grew unsure of his friend, and Borte warned Temujin that Jamukha was fickle and tired of his friends easily. They may have feared that should they remain in Jamukha’s retinue, he’d spend his life a follower rather than come into his own. And so Temujin and his small group of followers went their own way, but surprisingly, some of Jamukha’s men and their families joined them, supposedly due to a vision of Temujin’s future greatness- though we might wonder if Temujin had not been encouraging some of these defections.
A year or two after this, a steady stream of followers and an emerging reputation for fairness to his men and their families regardless of their status made Temujin the most influential Borjigon. The surviving sons of the Khamag Khans, Temujin’s various uncles and relations, held a quriltai, a tribal meeting, and elected Temujin as Khan of the Borjigon. He sent his emissaries to Toghrul and Jamukha: Toghrul sent his congratulations, whereas Jamukha laid the blame for his separation with Temujin on the sons of the Khamag Khans.
Jamukha’s concerns were realized when he learned that his younger brother Taichar had been killed by Temujin’s men. That Taichar had also been stealing horses from Temujin’s men mattered little. Jamukha saw this as an act of war. They met in battle around 1186 at Dalan Baljut, or seventy marshes. For the first battle he is known to have commanded, Temujin was soundly defeated. Outnumbered by Jamukha, who had more military experience, Temujin’s army was broken and dispersed: his men taken prisoner by Jamukha were, according to the Secret History of the Mongols, boiled alive in cauldrons, and a leading prince was beheaded, Jamukha then tying his severed head to a horse’s tail.
Now, as I am sure most of us can attest, there is no teacher like failure. One of Temujin’s skills was his ability to learn from both his own failings and those of his enemies. In this case, Jamukha had failed to finish off Temujin, allowing him to escape and to continue to be a threat, a rallying point for his army to gather around. According to the Secret History of the Mongols, Jamukha’s exceptionally harsh treatment of the prisoners encouraged defections from his force, which taught Temujin another lesson: Jamukha’s men were uneasy with the level of cruelty of the punishments, and with Temujin still alive, he served as a beacon for discontents to flock to. A staple of Temujin’s future strategies would be the relentless hounding of enemy leaders, preventing them from becoming such rallying points, weakening the enemy’s ability to resist and discouraging defections.
The next ten years or so of Temujin’s life are not covered in the sources, and he next shows up in 1196. Possibly, he spent that time just rebuilding his forces, essentially repeating the previous ten years and nothing of interest was there to be recorded. We’re also assuming the Secret History is accurate with chronology. However, there is a third option. This theory goes that after his defeat at Dalan Baljut, Temujin fled to the Jin Empire in the south. Fled to his enemies, you might say? How unlikely! But there is both precedent, and evidence for this. Precedent, in that steppe leaders sought shelter with sedentary powers when out on their luck- Toghrul in the same period was pushed from power and went to the Tangut Xi Xia and the Qara-Khitai.
Not having Toghrul to fall back onto, Temujin had few options other than the Jin. When Temujin shows back up on the scene in the Secret History of the Mongols, he is fighting alongside both a Jin army and Toghrul against the Tatars, who were revolting against the Jurchen- an example of Chinese dynasties employing steppe tribes against each other when they got too rowdy. So if Temujin had spent part or all of the previous 10 years in Jin company, looking for a chance to win their support for his entrance back into steppe politics, that would explain why he was fighting beside them in the mid 1190s.
Anyways, the Tatars were defeated, Temujin and Toghrul each got loot, followers, and Chinese titles were awarded to them- Toghrul earned the title wang, meaning ‘king’ in Chinese. In Mongolian this became ong, and hence, he is often known as the Ong Khan. Both of them were now considered vassals by the Jin. With a boost to their positions, Temujin and Toghrul were very busy over the remainder of the 12th century: they campaigned against the Merkit tribes in the north, the Naiman in the west, and defeated vassal tribes who proved unreliable.
Their reputations and power grew immensely in these years: Temujin in particular showed himself a skilled student of war, and a keen organizer. Defeated tribes were not slaughtered, but absorbed and spread among his people, increasing his numbers. Followers who showed loyalty and ability were amply rewarded and given higher commands. While blood ties were not ignored and a number of these commanders were Temujin’s relations, blood was not the only factor as it often was for his rivals.
Speaking of rivals, Temujin and Toghrul’s actions created a swath of enemies across Mongolia. Merkits, Naimans, Tatars, Taychiud and other minor groupings were now all seeking revenge. In 1201 they elected a military leader to defeat Temujin once and for all, choosing a certain Jamukha. At Koyiten in 1201, the armies met and despite Jamukha’s shamans allegedly summoning a snowstorm, this time Temujin had the better of the engagement, and Jamukha’s coalition fractured. In the collapse, to offset his own losses Jamukha looted the camps of his allies before he fled. Toghrul was sent after him, while Temujin avenged himself against the Taychiud. The Taychiud did not go quietly: Temujin, not only had a horse shot out from under him but also suffered a grievous neck wound which nearly cost him his life.
Yet he was victorious, and the Taychiud were defeated and absorbed, their vassal tribes also submitting. Sorqan Shira and his family, who had helped Temujin escape as a captive, were welcomed with honours. The man who shot Temujin’s horse came forward, admitting what he had done. He urged Temujin to spare him: if he was allowed into his retinue, he would lead armies for him. So the man was renamed Jebe, meaning ‘arrow,’ and brought into Temujin’s service. He became one of Chinggis Khan’s top commanders, leading armies in China and Qara-Khitai, pursuing the Shah of Khwarezm to his death and, alongside Subutai, marched through the Caucasus Mountains into southern Russia. All for his honesty about shooting the Khan’s horse.
In 1202 he had his revenge against the Tatars, defeating them and killing all of their men taller than the lynchpin of a cart. Before the battle began, he sent an order to his forces that there would be no looting until the enemy was totally defeated. Men breaking rank to pillage allowed the enemy a chance to escape: by forbidding this, not only was the total defeat of the enemy ensured, but it allowed a more organized looting. Loot was even provided for families who lost loved ones, which strengthened the loyalty of Temujin’s followers to him, knowing he would provide for their families. None of his followers would suffer the abandonment he had. Fortifying Mongol discipline was always one of his top priorities, and he considered the laws applicable to everyone. Thus when the Khamag princes who had elected him Khan broke rank to loot early, they were harshly punished and their loot confiscated. The princes felt this was a violation of their rights as nobles and split with Temujin, fleeing to Toghrul Ong Khan.
Toghrul was by now perhaps in his late 60s, and not as decisive as he had once been. The vultures were circling, awaiting to succeed him as Kereyit Khan. Temujin, who had closely worked with Toghrul for years, seemed an obvious choice, and indeed, he proposed a marriage alliance between their families, Toghrul’s daughter to wed his son Jochi, and for his daughter Qojin (Ko-jin) Beki to marry Toghrul’s son, Senggum (seng-gum) Ilkha (Ilk-ha). Senggum Ilkha baulked at this. He wanted his father’s throne and saw Temujin’s proposal as a brazen ploy. On the insistence of Senggum Ilkha, Toghrul declined the offer. With this gap in the Toghrul-Temujin alliance, the vultures flew in. The Khamag princes and Jamukha now whispered into Senggum Ikha’s ears, and in turn, he urged the Ong Khan to betray Temujin. Toghrul gave in, and a plan was made. A message was sent to Temujin informing him that Toghrul had agreed to the marriage proposal, and that Temujin should come at once. When Temujin and his small entourage arrived, the trap would spring on the unsuspecting Mongol.
While Temujin seemed to believe Toghrul had come to his senses and happily agreed, his followers had their doubts, and convinced Temujin to send envoys ahead to learn more. This brief pause gave time for sympathetic herders in the Kereyit camp, Badai and Kishlik, to overhear the plotting and warn Temujin. Alerted to the betrayal, Temujin fled and when Toghrul and the others realized the plot was found, they pursued.
The army caught Temujin and his hastily assembled force at Qalqaljit Sands in eastern Mongolia, and despite a ferocious engagement- Temujin’s third son Ogedai was wounded in the neck, a top commander was fatally injured, and Toghrul’s son Senggum took an arrow to the cheek- Temujin’s forces were defeated, and he withdrew. But there was infighting in the enemy command- Toghrul showed himself unable to take leadership,and a frustrated Jamukha sent warnings to Temujin- meant the coalition could not pursue and finish off Temujin.
Temujin and the survivors fled to Lake Baljuna in 1203, and drinking the muddy waters, those who stayed with him swore their loyalty, an event famous among the Mongols as the Baljuna Covenant. Though he had lost once again, Temujin had his allies, and he had those sympathetic to him, such as Central Asian Muslim merchants, come with supplies and sheep to feed Temujin’s forces as they trickled in. Meanwhile, the enemy coalition disintegrated: the vultures wanted Toghrul’s throne, no one could assert leadership over the various factions, and there were assassination attempts. Temujin encouraged this division by sending messengers to the various leaders, reminding them of past loyalties and promises, or making threats, sowing dissension and mistrust.
As the enemy splintered, Temujin saw his opportunity. Under cover of night in 1203, Temujin’s army fell upon the Kereyit while they were feasting. Though they put up stiff resistance, Toghrul and his son fled in the chaos. With their leadership gone, the Kereyit surrendered to Temujin Khan. Toghrul fled west to the Naiman, but a patrolman saw the poor wretch and, refusing to believe him to be the mighty Ong Khan, killed him. Thus ended Toghrul, Khan of the Kereyit.
Strengthened by the absorption of the Kereyit, Temujin now controlled eastern and central Mongolia. His enemies flocked together one last time, to the Tayang Khan of the Naiman in the west: Jamukha, the Merkit under Toqto’a Beki who had captured Borte so many years prior, Kereyit and other disaffected remnants of former tribes gathered for the final stand. Even still, as fate was on the knife’s edge, infighting weakened the coalition’s leadership. Tayang Khan’s brother, Buiruk, refused to supply forces from his branch of the Naiman. Tayang Khan, his son Kuchlug, wife Gurbesu and top commanders fought over strategy. In an effort to outflank Temujin, Tayang sent messengers to the Onggut tribes to Temujin’s south. Wary of the new power on their north, the Onggut warned Temujin of the Tayang’s plans.
Temujin’s preparations were careful: he reorganized the army into its famous decimal composition, units of 10, 100, 1,000 and 10,000, appointing new commanders and strengthening discipline. They would not fight based in their tribes, but in their units, strengthening the chain of command. He set out early in spring 1204, while the horses were still thin from winter- the Naiman would not expect a campaign so early in the year. He allowed a Mongol scout on a particularly lean horse and poor saddle to be captured, causing the Naiman to underestimate the quality of the Mongol forces and their horses. Deeper into Naiman territory, when they knew they would be spotted by Naiman scouts, at night each man lit five fives. The Naiman watchmen returned with over exaggerated reports of the size of the Mongol army, telling Tayang Khan the Mongols were as numerous as the stars.
Tayang Khan panicked, and was unsure of what to make of the Mongols, who seemed to be growing in size each day. His instinct was to withdraw, drawing them deeper into Naiman territory and wearing them down. His son and commanders accused him of cowardice. Tayang Khan was now forced to confront the Mongols to save face.
“A life means to die, a body means to suffer: it is the same destiny for all! That being so,
let us fight!” he said, as he marched to his doom.
At Naqu Cliffs came the final battle. Tayang’s command was weak; Temujin was thoroughly prepared, his battle lines and commanders ready. Naiman forces were pushed back. Jamukha, seeing the battle could only end one way, frightened Tayang with tales of Temujin’s ferocity:
“My sworn friend Temujin is indeed drawing near, slavering thus like a greedy falcon. Have you seen him? You Naiman friends used to say that if you saw the Mongols, you would not leave them even the skin of a kid’s hoof. Behold them now!”
Jamukha then took his men and abandoned the Tayang to his fate. When night fell, many of the Naiman tried to flee, only to fall off the cliffs to their deaths. Whatever resistance remained when morning broke was finished off by Mongol troops, the Tayang killed, and the survivors incorporated into the Mongols. Temujin took the Tayang’s wife as his own, and the Naiman’s Uighur scribes were taken: their writing system became the basis for the first written Mongolian.
1204 sealed Mongolia’s future. Though there were minor holdouts, none in Mongolia could now defeat Temujin. The son of Tayang fled to the Qara-Khitai, where he would usurp power in 1211, and Mongols came for him in 1217. The surviving sons of the Merkit chief fled to the Qipchaq-Qangli tribes in the far west, but not even that was far enough to protect them from the Mongols. Jamukha himself was betrayed in 1205 by his final five followers: for betraying their master they were killed, and Temujin offered Jamukha a chance to rejoin him. In a famous, emotional scene in the Secret History of the Mongols, Jamukha declined, asking Temujin to provide him a bloodless death, and that his soul would watch over his friend’s family.
In Mongolian tradition, Temujin buried his sworn friend with the golden belts they had once given each other. In the account of the Persian Historian Rashid al-Din, writing a century later, Jamukha was instead cut to pieces while shouting his revenge at Chinggis Khan. This less romanticized version is much less often included in retellings of the story."
In 1206, a great quriltai was held, and Temujin was proclaimed as ruler of all the steppe tribes: no longer were they Kereyit, Naimans, or Tatars, but Mongols. Temujin took a new title, Chinggis Khan: fierce or stern ruler. And now the whole of the world would tremble at what he was about to accomplish.
In the next episode we will begin the Mongol Conquests, so be sure to hit subscribe to the Kings and Generals podcast and to continue helping us bring you more outstanding content, please visit our patreon at www.patreon.com/kingsandgenerals. Thank you for listening, I am your host David and we will catch you on the next one!
I’m your host David and welcome to Ages of Conquest: a Kings and Generals Podcast. This is the Mongol conquests. Before we get into all that material you’re expecting for any good series on the Mongols- the conquests, the smoking ruins and the towers of skulls, we must discuss Chinggis Khan’s long and troubled rise to power. But before we can do that, it will help the humble listener immensely if we take the time to introduce what was going on, and who was who, in 12th century Mongolia. In the previous episode we introduced some aspects of Mongolian culture in this period as groundwork: now we will introduce the various tribes who played a role in the rise of the Mongol Empire.
Our episode on introducing thirteenth century China provides some important context on the general overview of Mongolian-Chinese relations, and details on the power vacuum following the fall of China’s Tang Dynasty in 907 that I won’t repeat at length here. In short though, parts of northern China and Mongolia came under the rule of the Liao Dynasty, ruled by the nomadic Khitans, a people related to the Mongols, beginning in the 900s. Their rule included garrisons and forts stationed throughout Mongolia, and mainly kept things in order for about two centuries, dealing with sporadic uprisings and resistance. One of the final military victories of the Liao Dynasty was the suppression of an uprising by the Tatar tribes at the beginning of the 1100s.
Just over two decades later though, the Liao Dynasty disintegrated under the onslaught of the Jurchen, a Tungusic semi-nomadic people from Manchuria and ancestors of the Manchu. Their newly declared Jin Dynasty seized control of Manchuria, took control of all of China north of the Huai River from the Song Dynasty, and vassalized the Tangut Xi Xia in northwestern China: but, they did not make an attempt to control Mongolia as the Liao had done. With the Khitan garrisons moving west with the general Yelu Dashi to found the Qara-Khitai empire, Mongolia was basically left in a power vacuum, and the local tribes now rose into their own.
When we describe the Mongol tribes in the 12th century, we are discussing a large, rather disparate group of clans and tribes, some of whom were speakers of Mongolic languages, some were speakers of Turkic languages, and some were in a sort of milieu, described by historians as Turko-Mongols, tribes perhaps ethnically Turkish but speakers of Mongolian, and vice-versa. By convention, we use ‘Mongol tribes,’ to refer to the various nomadic groups north of China but south of the Siberian forests. However, in this period ‘Mongol’ referred to just a rather distinct and smaller grouping in the northeast, in the region of the Onon and Kerulen Rivers, the tribe to which the young Chinggis Khan belonged.
If we were to place a clock face over the whole of Mongolia, they would be situated at about 2 o’clock. The other tribes of the region, who we will be meeting shortly as we go around this clock, such as the Merkit, Kereyit, Tatars and Naiman, did not consider themselves Mongol, and indeed, evidence suggests they would have been rather insulted by it. A recent argument by historian Stephen Pow suggest that ‘Tatar,’ may have been the general endonym used by the steppe tribes. The Liao and Jin Dynasties generally referred to them all as ‘zubu.’ Either way, Mongol was, in the 1100s, a very limited term, and in the following discussion, will refer to the specific tribe and its subclans.
The history of the Mongol tribe before the 12th century is not an easy one to trace, and the mentions prior to this period are often controversial. The most commonly agreed upon, (though not a universal agreement, mind you) is that the Mongols’ ancestors were the Meng-wu, mentioned in histories of the Tang Dynasty as a minor branch of the larger Shih-wei ethnic grouping, a grouping which were vassals of the Gokturk Khaganates until their final collapse in the 740s. At this time, they lived in the area south of the Amur river, which is today the border between Russia and Chinese Manchuria, and would have been semi-nomadic, relying on hunting, fishing, agriculture and raising pigs as much as pastoralism. For a refresher on nomadic pastoralism, check out this seasons 2nd episode, on Mongolian nomadism. During the 900s, the Meng-wu moved west to the Arghun River, on the edge of modern Mongolia, becoming subjects of their linguistic cousins, the Khitan Liao Dynasty. They gradually continued west and south, and were likely in the region of the Onon-Kerulen Rivers by the 11th century, by then relying on full pastoralism, as pigs and agriculture are unsuited for the steppe.
In the Mongols’ own legendary accounts, preserved in the 13th century Secret History of the Mongols, their people originate from the union of the blue-grey wolf and the fallow deer, Borte Chino and Gua Moral. The entire ancestry from the wolf and deer down to Chinggis Khan is recorded in the Secret History, and we won’t bog you down with it here. A particularly interesting conception occurs at one point, where a ray of light, also translated as yellow man, enters the tent of one of Chinggis’ ancestors, Alan Qo’a and impregnates her, a sort of divine conception. At this section in the Secret History, the most famous Mongolian parable first appears. Alan Qo’a, to prevent her sons from fighting each other, gives them each an arrow, and asks them to break it, which they do easily. Then, tying five arrows together in a bundle, asks them to break it, which they are unable to do. The message was clear: divided and alone, they are easily broken, but united they are unbreakable. It is a famous passage for the Mongols, and for good reason, as its lesson was applicable again and again.
The first of Chinggis Khan’s ancestors commonly agreed to exist was Khaidu, who in the Secret History of the Mongols is a great-great-great-grandson of Alan Qo’a, a figure who brought his branch of the Mongols, the Kiyat Borjigon, to some prominence over the other Mongol branches. Khaidu’s great-grandson Khabul, with the fall of the Liao in 1125 creating a power vacuum in Mongolia, was able to organize what seems to have been a sort of military confederation, called by modern authors the Khamag Mongol Khanate, and at the time was known as something like Monggyol ulus, or Mongol state.
Little is known about this early Mongol state, or what sort of suzerainty its Khans exercised. What we do have takes the form of anecdotes. For Khabul, the Jin Dynasty took note of his rise to power, and invited him to the imperial court, intending to make him a vassal. At a feast at the imperial court, Khabul became incredibly drunk, went over and pulled on the Jin Emperor’s beard! The Jin Emperor allowed Khabul to leave with his life, but changed his mind and sent officials to kill him- Khabul ambushed them instead. The Jin Dynastic sources do not, unfortunately, provide direct corroboration for the above events, making it unclear if they were the stuff of legend, though they do remark on the Mongols being a nuisance along the frontier in this period.
Khabul was succeeded as Khamag Khan not by any of his sons, but by his cousin Ambaghai, a Mongol of the Taychiud line. Ambaghai, shortly into his reign, was captured by the Tatar tribes of eastern Mongolia, who on our clock of Mongolia, would be located between 2 and 3 o’clock. Turkic tribes, speaking most likely Mongol, the Tatars in this period were in three main divisions, an unruly control of much of eastern Mongolia. Even though Ambaghai had been en route to organize a marriage alliance with them, the Jin Dynasty had gotten to the Tatars first, the Tatars acting as the Jin Dynasty’s ‘men on the ground,’ disrupting local politics to keep the tribes from unifying. The Tatars handed Ambaghai over to the Jin, who nailed him to a wooden donkey. His dying breaths were allegedly urging the Mongols to avenge him-
“Until the nails of your five fingers
Are ground down,
Until your ten fingers are worn away,
Strive to avenge me!”
So began the decades long rivalry between the Mongols and the Tatars, with the Jin Dynasty as the puppet master behind them.
Khabul’s son Qutula (Ku-tu-la) succeeded Ambaghai, and though he was famous among the Mongols for immense physical strength and an appetite to match, over a series of thirteen battles he was unable to defeat the Tatars, and was killed in about 1160, heralding the collapse of the Khamag Mongol confederation. It must be stressed that the Khamag Mongol was much more of a military alliance than a state in the form of the later Mongol Empire. Though it held influence in the steppe, it did not hold domination over the whole of Mongolia, but simply among those branches of the Mongol tribe- Borjigon (Bor-ji-gon), Taychiud (Tay-chi-ood) and the like, in northeastern Mongolia. To quote Volume 6 of the Cambridge History of China, “none of the available evidence even hints at the emergence at this time of any kind of administrative machinery or lines of authority independent of and in competition with the traditional kinship structure. The experience and memory of this brief unity may have contributed to the consolidation of the Mongolian nation, but it bequeathed nothing in the way of institutional foundations on which the later empire of the Great Mongols could build. The preliminary work would have to be done anew.”
Over the course of these battles, one of Khabul Khan’s grandchildren, Yesugei, captured a Tatar chief, Temujin-Uge. Upon his return to his own encampment, Yesugei found that one of his wives, Hoelun, had given birth to a boy clutching a blood clot in his fist the size of a knucklebone. The Tatar chief was sacrificed, and the boy was given his name- Temujin, the future Chinggis Khan. But you’ll have to wait until the next episode for more on his story.
With this brief history of the Khamag Mongol, we should quickly note the other clans of the Mongol tribe in this period. The two main to know are the Kiyat Borjigon and the Taychiud. The Kiyat Borjigon are the clan to which Khabul, Qutula, Yesugei and Chinggis Khan belonged. Of the Taychiud lineage, Ambaghai was the most notable leader. The switching of the Khamag leadership between these two lineages sowed the seeds for future divisions- Ambaghai’s family held a grudge when the title of Khan when back to the Borjigon, and this was one of the factors which lead to the famous abandoning of Yesugei’s family, which we will explore next episode. Other clans of the Mongols included the Jadaran, to which Temujin’s blood brother Jamukha belonged, the Jurkin, and the Uriyangqat (Uri-yang-kat), to which the famous Subutai belonged. Subutai’s Uriyangqat are not to be confused with the very similar sounding Uriyangkhai, a northern tribe famous for reindeer herding.
Continuing clockwise on our clock, if the Mongols were 2 o’clock, the Tatars between 2 and 3 o’clock, then at 3 o’clock we would have the Onggirad, a less warlike grouping which in this period was famous for the beauty of its women. Chinggis Khan’s mother Hoelun, his wife Borte, and numerous wives for the rest of his descendants, came from this tribe or its subgroupings. At 5 o’clock we have the Onggut, close to the border of China proper. The Onggut were what the Jin Dynasty called their juyin, the tribes who made up their border guards. The Onggut were among those whose duty was to man the border defences the Jin erected, particularly in the final years of the 12th century- this included forts and an extensive earthen wall and ditch along the frontier. The Onggut were given a chance to join a coalition against Chinggis Khan, but chose to warn him instead, and their ruler was granted a daughter of the Khan in marriage, and soon submitted to him proper. Contrary to the description that Chinggis Khan simply ‘went around the Great Wall of China,’ we might find it more accurate to describe it as being opened to him by those appointed to man it!
At 6 o’clock is the noted Gobi desert, a sparsely populated expanse of gravel and low scrub brush. It was a formidable, but not unpassable, barrier, especially if an army chose to travel during the milder times of year. Connecting to the Alashan desert and the great western loop of the Yellow River, known as the Ordos loop, it served as the divider between the steppe and the Tangut Xi Xia Kingdom.
From 6 o’clock, if one was to move towards the centre of our clock face, they would encounter one of the most powerful tribes of 12th century Mongolia, the Kereyit. Centered on the Black Forest of the Tuul River, the Kereyit may have originated as a branch of the Tatars, asserting their independence in the final years of the Liao Dynasty, emerging as a distinct political body in about 1100. Though the Kereyit were likely of Turkic origin, the sources indicate close contact with the Mongols and little trouble conversing between them, suggesting they were bilingual or spoke Mongolian. Much closer to the main trade routes and China proper, the Kereyit were considerably wealthier than their northern cousins, their population was higher, and, perhaps surprisingly, they were Christians, or at least their ruling class were.
Specifically, they were Nestorian, or Church of the East, a sect which had gradually made its way east after being deemed heretical at the Third Ecumenical Council of Ephesus in 431. Several names associated with the Kereit, such as Marqus and Qurjaqus (Kur-jak-us), were Mongolized forms of Marcus and Cyricaus (syr-i-cus). Indeed, Marqus-Buyruq Khan was the Khanate’s founder in about 1100, and Qurjaqus-Buyruq (kur-jak-us booy-ruk) Khan was his descendant and the father of the Khanate’s final ruler, the famous Toghrul-Ong Khan. When Qurjaqus died around the mid 12th-century, his.. potent manhood, shall we say, left him the issue of numerous children, 40 by one account. Toghrul was able to seize control only after killing a number of his brothers, with the military assistance of the Mongol Yesugei, the father of Temujin. Yesugei and Toghrul swore oaths to be blood-brothers, anda, a relationship which would bring Temujin to seek Toghrul’s assistance in due time.
At 7 o’clock, to the west of the Tangut and far side of the Gobi, we meet the Uighurs. A mainly sedentary Turkic people, we mentioned them in our episode on North China as an empire based in Mongolia until their defeat in 840 by the Kirghiz. After that, a large number of Uighurs migrated south, into the Gansu corridor and the oases of the Tarim Basin, Turfan Depression and into the Dzunghar Basin, in what is now Xinjiang in China, the far northwest of the country where it meets with Kazakhstan, Mongolia and Russia.
The Gansu Uighurs were conquered by the Tangut Kingdom, but the remainder, in their realm sometimes called ‘Uighuristan,’ retained their independence. Qara-Qocho, or in Chinese, Gaochang, in the Turfan Depression, was their major city. During the days of their empire, they had practiced Manicheism, but in their new homeland largely converted to the Buddhism of the locals in the following centuries, or Christianity in lesser numbers. With the establishment of the Qara-Khitai Empire to their west in the 1130s and 40s, by Khitans fleeing the fall of the Liao Dynasty, the Uighurs became their vassals, though they kept a great deal of autonomy and were an important link in the regional trade routes. Uighurs were able to often find employment as merchants or skilled advisers to the Khanates to their north, a role which would only increase when their script became adopted for the Mongolian language with Chinggis Khan’s expanding empire.
Continuing north from the Uighurs, we head to roughly 9 o’clock, where we end up in western Mongolia on the slopes of the Altai Mountains, in the territory of the Naiman. Meaning ‘eight’ in Mongolian, for the number of tribes or lineages making up this turkic Khanate, the Naiman in the 12th century were the most powerful union within Mongolia, nomadic yet relatively centralized, with a distinct ruling dynasty and literacy, making use of the Uighur script and a strong military. A number of the Naiman elite were Nestorian Christians, like the Kereyit, but shamanistic practices are observed multiple times in the sources. Their main competition was with the Kereyit, but were also involved with Central Asia- for several decades they were vassals of the Qara-Khitai. The Naiman maintained their unity until the mid 1190s, with the death of their Khan Inancha-Bilge, when the Khanate was split between his sons, Tayang and Buyruq, weakening it in the face of Mongol aggression. Despite their power, we know very little about the Naiman. Their name, Naiman, is what the Mongols called them. We don’t even know what they called themselves.
With the Naiman at 9 o’clock, we have a selection of smaller tribes on the borders of, or within, the great Siberian forest which take us to 12 o’clock. At 10 o’clock, around Khovsgol Lake, were the Oirat, in this period a relatively minor tribe, but the seed of a later union, the Four Oirat, which would dominate Mongolia in the fifteenth century, from which the Dzunghars and the Kalmyks would spring. At 11 to 12 o’clock, on the lower Selenge River to the south of Lake Baikal, a massive body of water in Russia which is the deepest lake in the world, we find the Merkit. Speaking likely a Mongolic language, they were a fragmented collection of tribes, of little danger to the Naiman or Kereyit, but could pose a threat when the Mongols were disunified.
On the edge of the steppe, the Merkit practiced a mix of pastoralism, hunting, fishing and even it seems, agriculture. The Merkit would have a long antagonism with the Mongols, dating at least to the late 1150s when Chinggis Khan’s father Yesugei stole Hoelun, Chinggis’ mother, from her Merkit husband. This left a long suffering grudge which led to the capture of Chinggis’ own wife Borte by the Merkit, a captivity which resulted in the birth of Jochi, a child whose uncertain paternity would have major consequences for the Mongol Empire. One chief of the Merkit, Toqto’a Beki, would be a particular thorn in Chinggis Khan’s side, and after his death, his sons fled to the Qipchaq (chip-chak) in the far western steppe, bringing the Mongols eventually into Russia.
Aside from the Merkit, there are the smaller tribes of the Siberian forests the Mongols collectively dubbed the hoi-yin irgen, meaning ‘forest peoples.’ This included the aforementioned Oirat, the Kirghiz in the Yenisei valley, controlling one of the most northerly grain producing regions, and the Qori Tumed to the east of Lake Baikal, among others. All of these mentioned come under the authority of the Mongol Empire, but how far north Mongol control went is unclear. Lake Baikal is often seen as a rough estimate for the northern extent of Mongol rule, but there is suggestion their trade networks extended far among the peoples of what is now Yakutia, the Russian far east.
This has been a very brief introduction to the various peoples inhabiting the Mongolian steppe, or were in close proximity to it. This is not exhaustive: we didn’t mention every single clan and sub clan and lineage among the Mongols, nor did we go into Manchuria, or discuss in much detail the lands and tribes of the Qara-Khitai. Ideally, this should give you, dear listener, a fine basis for understanding the tribes and politics at play for our next discussion: the birth of Temujin, and his rise to become Chinggis Khan, the conqueror of the World. That’s coming soon, so be sure to hit subscribe to the Kings and Generals podcast and to continue helping us bring you more outstanding content, please visit our patreon at www.patreon.com/kingsandgenerals. Thank you for listening, I am your host David and we will catch you on the next one!
Contrary to some popular internet opinions, the Mongol Empire was not an unprecedented, utterly unique presence on the stage of world history. It was neither the first or the last nomadic empire, though it was certainly the greatest. This depiction of the Mongol Empire as a total historical aberration is due, perhaps, to a lack of context. When one learns of the Mongols through hyperbole and dramatized retellings of the rise of Chinggis Khan, it neighbours portrayed only long enough to explain their destruction, it is easy to feel you’re learning about perhaps the only nomadic empire to really conquer anything, instead of just raiding. In this episode, we will provide first a very brief history of Mongolia based nomadic empires- not encyclopedic, but enough to give you an idea of what the precedent here was. Then, we will explain the first of what is known in Chinese history as the ‘conquest dynasties,’ the Khitan Liao Dynasty, the Tangut Xi Xia Dynasty, and the Jurchen Jin Dynasty, who laid the groundwork for the Asia Chinggis Khan would emerge into. With that background, it will make puts the events of the conquest of China into greater context for you, our dear listener, so that the significance of particular events should perhaps take greater event. Now, prepare yourself as we take a speedy 1,000 year journey through Mongolian and northern Chinese history.
In broad strokes, we must first note that the Empire founded by Chinggis Khan in 1206 was not the first empire ever based in Mongolia. For that honour we must go back over 1400 years to the Xiongnu Empire, a tribal confederation founded around 209 BCE, perhaps a reaction to the unification of China under their first imperial dynasty, the Qin Dynasty. The well known Terracotta warriors come from the magnificent tomb of the first emperor, Qin Shi Huangdi, to place this into a well known context. The Xiongnu’s military might put the Qin’s successors, the famed Han Dynasty into what was essentially a vassal relationship, forcing them to send tribute for decades. Before the rise of the Mongols, the Xiongnu were the archetypal nomadic threat to the Chinese, who struggled to find ways to successfully resist their pressure. One effort was to ‘civilize’ the Xiongnu by sending them Chinese brides and goods, to force the Xiongnu to become dependent on them. It proved expensive and unsuccessful, and with the Xiongnu based still in Mongolia, they could maintain the divide between their society and the Chinese. The Han saw more success militarily, building border walls, expanding towards Central Asia to cut off the Xiongnu from their client kingdoms on whom they depended for revenues and forming alliances with various tribes along the Xiongnu’s border- although military operations into Mongolia proper were difficult and costly for the Chinese. What finally allowed the Han to overcome the Xiongnu was the end of their long unity. Unlike effectively every other nomadic confederation to follow them, the Xiongnu maintained a remarkable degree of unity from 209 until 60 BCE. The civil war which broke out over the Xiongnu ruler’s succession was the true end of their confederation. Various claimants sought support from the Chinese, increasing Chinese influence, weakening the central authority of the Xiongnu ruler, encouraging their enemies and ultimately, resulting in the fragmentation of the confederation and rise of other powers in Mongolia.
Now, you may ask, why did we have all that preamble for events literally over a millennium before Chinggis Khan? The reason is because of trends which will be apparent in this, and future episodes:The significance of Chinese goods and tribute, as something desired by the nomads, and a tool to be used by Chinese with the intention of ‘corrupting,’ or from the Chinese point of view, ‘civilizing’ the nomads, forcing them to lose their military edge in favour of the finer things. The great military potential of the nomads, and the difficulty the various Chinese dynasties had operating militarily directly in the vast Mongolian steppe, where the nomads could easily escape on horseback or surround them And nomadic unity: when they organized, the various nomadic powers were an incredibly potent weapon. But when they fragmented, invariably due to a succession crisis, their infighting was horrific, and old micro-tribal loyalties would assert themselves over the macro-tribal confederation. Wise Chinese dynasties would play these tribes off on-another, providing goods, resources or even military support to a certain leader, keeping the nomads at each other’s throats and preventing them from unifying and directing their fearsome energy to the south.
The Xiongnu was among the most stable and longest lasting tribal union in Mongolia’s history. Among these successors included the Xianbei confederation, founded in the late first century CE, then the Rouran, the first to use the title of Khan, then the Gokturk Khaganaes, and the Uighur Khaganate, which collapsed in 840 CE. All rose to power in what is now modern Mongolia, forming mighty empires which spanned huge territory and threatened the Chinese Dynasties. The Gokturks, in particular, saw their influence stretch even to Crimea, and proved highly influential to Turkic peoples who emerged in the following centuries.
One thing we have not noted as of yet, is the make up of these empires. Were they Mongols? Proto-Mongolic? Turks? Irish? Well, prior to the Gokturks, known also as the Turkic Khaganates, who were unequivocally turkic tribes speaking turkic languages, the make up of these confederations is a messy, messy thing. Many a long academic paper has been written arguing for Mongolic, Altaic, Tungusic, Turkic, and many more, for the identity of these various earlier empires. These were all ethnically quite diverse, various tribes united by charismatic leadership or by one tribes military might. This is part of why these states suffered such violent fragmentations: once that leadership stopped being charismatic enough, generally associated with the death of a major monarch and conflict for the throne between his sons or brothers, then those old tribal ties would reassert themselves. These were not nation-states, but better thought of as military alliances. The constituent peoples who made up the empire could have all been nomads, but speaking totally unrelated languages, lacking a common identity beyond “we’re not sedentary or Chinese.”
The Uighur Khaganate, a Turkic empire, was destroyed in 840 under the assault of the Yenisei Kirghiz, who did not establish their own empire. Many Uighur moved south, to Gansu and Turfan in what is now modern China. With the fall of the Uighurs, and at a similar time the Tibetan Kingdom, China’s mighty Tang Dynasty, the most powerful Dynasty since the Han and the latest to unify the country, had lost its main rivals of the last century, and had no major nomadic threat on its border. However, the Tang Dynasty was well past its prime and collapsed in 907, creating a power vacuum across the whole of China. While China went through its favourite process of small kingdoms fighting their way back to unity, in the north a people speaking a Mongolic-language had unified, and were to proclaim their own kingdom, the first of the conquest dynasties.
Oh yes, you guessed it: the Khitans!
A nomadic group from southern Manchuria, culturally and linguistically close to the Mongols, under their chief Abaoji they declared their own empire after the final collapse of the Tang in the early 900s. Now, this was not a confederation/military alliance in the likes of the Xiongnu, where the ruler’s actual authority outside of military direction was limited, but a true, structured state, one which took on the outward trappings of a Chinese dynasty. In fact, among other things, they took their own dynastic name in the style of other Chinese Dynasties, Abaoji choosing Liao, from a river in their territory in southern Manchuria. The Khitan Liao empire incorporated much of Mongolia, Manchuria, and the very north of China, with what is now modern Beijing made their southern capital, a part of China known to their contemporaries as the 16 prefectures. The Khitans practiced a style of government which would be picked up by their nomadic successors, known as the dual administration system, to accommodate the nomadic tribesmen and vast sedentary Chinese population within their empire. Under this system, the nomadic tribes who made up the military core, command and the elite, were governed according to their own tribal customs, while the Chinese were separately administered under their own laws, its bureaucracy there based off the Tang model.
In Mongolia, the Khitan presence was not extensive, but it was notable especially in the east. Military forts and garrisons were established across the steppe, such as Bars-Hot, which were also centres of trade and provided valuable, reliable smiths. Essentially, they kept the peace, offering a stability to the region, though details on this aspect come as much from archaeology as they do the textual record: what happened on the steppe between nomads was not often of interest to Chinese writers. It does not seem to have been a level of control like that of the Manchu occupation centuries later.
Khitan rule in northern China lasted two centuries, and their name became the basis for Kitai or Cathay, the name by which China is known in a number of languages. Their rule was not uncontested: the most notable conflict was with the Song Dynasty which emerged in the south, swallowing up the petty kingdoms south of the Yellow River in the decades following the collapse of the Tang. The Song will be a dynasty we will revisit later in this series, but for now know this: while the northern conquest dynasties were ruled by nomadic or semi-nomadic peoples over a Chinese population, the Song were ruled by Chinese and considered themselves the heirs of Tang, though deliberately weakened the power of their military, to their later chagrin. The Song sought to bring the aforementioned 16 prefectures back under Chinese rule, and to this end fought a series of inconclusive wars with the Liao. The Song proved unable to wrest control from the Liao, while the Khitans were unable to push deep into Song territory, though they had a notable expedition to the Song capital of Kaifeng, culminating in the Treaty of Chanyuan in 1005, finalizing the border and the Song providing large amounts of silver and silk annually to appease the Liao. This was an often uneasy peace, one punctuated by raids and expeditions. The Song, for their part, cultivated extensive forests along their border with the Liao, an effort to hampher the cavalry which was so important to the Khitans.
The other notable relationship which emerged in this period, was with the Tangut Kingdom, known also as the Xi Xia Dynasty. The Tangut ancestors were a Tibetan people who had moved into the Gansu corridor, a sparse desert region of oasis cities, the great Ordos loop of the western Yellow River and the fertile valley known today as Ningxia. Slowly granted rights by the Tang Emperors, like many others they asserted their independence with the fall of the Tang, first as Kings, then in 1038 declaring their own empire, taking the dynastic name of Xi Xia, though they knew themselves as the State of White and High. The Tangut Kingdom was a peculiar little state: Buddhism was strong there, with Chinese Confucianism finding little ground. It was a diverse though small population of approximately three million, with Tangut rulers, about half the general population Han Chinese, and the remainder various Turkic or Tibetan peoples, a strong nomadic and agricultural element. They created their own script, visually similar to Chinese but distinct: likewise, their government had Chinese trappings but internally unique, and did not use the dual administration system of the Liao. Unfortunately due to the Mongols, little information on their internal structure survives to us. They had a strong, cavalry based military, though they lacked the great offensive potential of their neighbours in the steppes or the Khitans. Generally seen as trade oriented, especially in the 12th century they turned their attention to the silk routes in the west as much as they did the east, and had influence towards the Tarim Basin. A favoured destination for leaders in the Mongolian steppe seeking refuge, their relationship with the Khitan was amicable and had marriage relations with them: while with the Song Dynasty it often took the form of raids, urging the Khitans to join them in attack. Visually, the Tangut had a rather unique hair style which bears brief mention: known as a tufa, the head was shaved except for the bangs and temples, framing the forehead.Trust me when I say it is incredibly ugly, but it does make it easy to identify them in surviving artworks.
Though their rule was long, the Liao rulers after Abaoji were not his equals. Much like their successor conquest dynasties, the Khitan struggled between adopting Chinese customs and maintaining their nomadic heritage. One place this was manifested was the succession, something to take note of for future discussion. The Liao Emperor, often influenced by his wives,often wanted t a designated heir, as per the Chinese style. Yet the Khitan elite wanted to maintain the nomadic preference for electing who they saw as the most suitable ruler, a choice which could be from the emperor’s sons or brothers. In this case, most suitable often meant whoever had developed the greatest military reputation or contacts, or who this elite thought could be most malleable. These disputes could manifest into assassination, and neither the Liao nor the Mongols would ever find a suitable solution to this problem at the imperial level. The later Liao Emperors struggled to deal with the rebellions along their borders, such as the Tatars in Mongolia, and in Manchuria, the Bo-hai peoples of the former Bo-hai kingdom in the far east, and the Jurchen tribes in the north, and the ones to usurp the Khitans.
The Jurchen tribes were the ancestors of the Manchu, and a semi-nomadic Tungusic people, nomadizing only a part of the year and inhabiting a large swath of territory from northeastern Manchuria towards the Yalu River. The Liao court classified them into three broad groups, based on proximity to China: the ‘civilized’ Jurchen, the closest, around the Liao River who were under firm control and generally assimilated to Chinese culture. North of them were the ‘obedient’ Jurchen, under regular contact and, well, obedient. Beyond them were the largest group, the ‘wild’ Jurchen, of the middle valley of the Sungari and the eastern mountains of Heilongjiang. They were vassals of the Liao, but the court held little direct power there. Originally split between numerous small tribes and clans in spread out villages, over the eleventh century the wild Jurchen were gradually unified by the Wan-yen clan, who gained recognition and titles from the Liao. Though the Liao court held little direct control over the wild Jurchen, they could still pose a threat if they turned their might to them, and the Jurchen rankled over the perceived abuses of the Khitan border guards, a sentiment worked up by the ambitious Wan-yen chief, Aguda.
The ultimate fall of the Liao Dynasty rose from a well known incident. It was the custom of the Liao Emperor to go on seasonal hunting and fishing trips into Manchuria, during which the tribes and chiefs of the region would come and pay homage to the Liao Emperor. As a gesture of submission, each chief would stand up and dance before him. During this ceremony in winter 1112, when it came time for Aguda to dance before the emperor, he refused. Annoyed, the Liao Emperor asked him again. Again, Aguda refused. On the third time, Aguda still refused. Incensed, the Liao Emperor wanted to execute Aguda for his insolence, but was talked out of it by his chancellor, allegedly saying something along the lines of ‘what harm could he do?’
In 1113, Aguda was elected chief of the Wild Jurchen; in autumn 1114, he began raiding the Liao frontier. That winter, he crushed Liao armies sent against him, and several border prefectures surrendered to him. By the start of 1115, Aguda had declared himself emperor of a new Jin Dynasty. What followed was the shockingly quick collapse of the Liao. A campaign by the Liao Emperor against Aguda was undermined when his court appointed his uncle as emperor in his absence. The Bo-hai in the east rebelled, killed their Khitan viceroy and submitted to the Jurchen. In 1118, Aguda crossed the Liao River, and the next year the Song Dynasty opened contact with the Jin, hoping to use this as a chance to regain those lost prefectures.
After a round of failed negotiations between Jin and Liao, war resumed in 1120. The supreme capital of the Liao Dynasty fell almost immediately, the imperial tombs sacked. By 1122, the Liao Emperor fled to inner Mongolia while his empire was swallowed by the Jurchen armies, their heavy cavalry rolling over all in their path. The Tangut attempted to aid the Khitans, but their army was swiftly defeated and forced to offer tribute. The Song, their armies initially distracted by war with the Tangut and an internal revolt, were finally able to attack the Liao, though embarrassingly were repulsed. This would not be the last time the Song would ally against their current enemy with a dangerous nomadic group from the north.
The final Liao emperor was soon joined by the able general Yelu Dashi, a distant relation who brought with him the empress and a number of Khitan troops. Yelu Dashi however, quickly became disillusioned with the Liao Emperor’s incompetence and abandoned him, gathering up the Khitan garrisons of Mongolia and moving west to Central Asia. There, he founded the Qara-Khitai Empire, a state we will revisit in the future. By doing so, the garrison outposts in Mongolia were abandoned, and there was no reason at this time for the Jin to expand their presence into the steppe, leaving Mongolia in a power vacuum. The Liao Emperor was finally captured in 1125 by the Jin, and spent his final years humiliated and imprisoned. Thus ended the Liao Dynasty.
Aguda did not live to see this great success, dying in 1123 a few months after concluding the alliance treaty with the Song. The Song still hoped to gain those prefectures back, but their poor military performance, and the overwhelming might of the Jin armies, radically changed the balance of power as the Liao state disintegrated. The relationship was tense, and by the end of 1125 the Jin under Aguda’s brother attacked the Song. Once more, Jin success was shocking. By 1127, the Song capital of Kaifeng had fallen, the emperor captured and the dynasty was reeling. Jin advance forces were even able to cross the Yangtze River. Yet it seems the speed and scale of their conquest was too rapid, and they struggled to hold onto the vast territory they now controlled. Local militias sprang up to resist the Jurchen, and Song forces rallied under the command of the talented Yue Fei, who pushed the Jin back over the 1130s, culminating in a peace treaty in 1142 which set the Huai River as their border. The older Song-Liao treaty was used as a basis, and the Song had to deliver 250,000 bales of silk and bolts and silver yearly, and the Jin Emperor was to be regarded as the ‘elder brother’ of the Song emperor, now based in Hangzhou in the south. Though the war would flare up again between the two, the treaty of 1142 effectively set the borders of China until the Mongol conquests.
For the Song Dynasty, this was a grand humiliation, the total loss of northern China to the invaders. 1127 is the end of what is known as the ‘Northern Song Dynasty,’ its salvaged successor the ‘Southern Song,’ which found trade and economics more to their skill than military aspects. The Jin Dynasty, at its height in the 12th century, was perhaps the single greatest military on earth. The Jurchen state had a number of problems however. Perhaps four million Jurchens now ruled over fifty million northern Chinese. Many of the Khitans of the Liao had not left with Yelu Dashi, but remained in northern China. The Jin borders were distant, their territory vast: garrisoning the entire kingdom with just Jurchen troops was impossible. Khitans and Chinese were incorporated in large numbers into the army, but excluded from promotion in both the military and government. The Khitans, still skilled horsemen, did not forget or forgive the loss of their dynasty, and rebelled periodically. The long reign of Emperor Shizong, from 1161-1189 was a golden age for Jin rule, but saw a growing sinicization of the Jurchen rulers, separating them from their kinsmen remaining in Manchuria. Under Shizong’s successors, corruption became endemic and was compounded by intense natural disasters, particularly devastating flooding of the Yellow River in the early 1190s. Like the Liao, the Jin ruled through a dual administrative structure, and maintained the Liao practice of having five capitals, one of which was at the site of modern Beijing. Prohibitions were made preventing Jurchen from wearing Chinese clothes or to learn Chinese and vice versa, in an effort to preserve Jurchen culture, and Chinese were even forbidden from calling the Jurchen ‘barbarians.’ Unique Jurchen scripts were developed, and Jurchen bards were to play the old songs in the emperor’s presence. These efforts could not halt the steady flow of assimilation, however, and only in the Manchurian homeland, removed from the Chinese culture altogether, were any Jurchens able to resist sinicization
This was China as the Mongols would find it in the thirteenth century: the Jurchen ruled Jin Dynasty in the north, a massive military power but spread thin over its vast borders, its rulers adopting Chinese customs, important sections of its military and population, especially the Khitans, feeling alienated and disrupted by natural disasters. Conflict would be renewed with the Song Dynasty in the south in 1206, the heirs of the Tang Dynasty who still dreamt of bringing the north back under Chinese control, but though their economic might in the Asian trade routes was significant, militarily they were not the equals of the conquest dynasties. In the northwest, the Tangut ruled Xi Xia dynasty bordered the Mongolian steppe, a small but sturdy state which was the vassals of the Jin, but had no great love for the Jurchen. A fractured China, ready to descend into warfare with the correct spark. That sparks name would be Chinggis Khan.
We hope that you have enjoyed this introduction to 13th century, a basis for our explanation on the upcoming Mongol conquests, so be sure to hit subscribe to the Kings and Generals podcast and to continue helping us bring you more outstanding content, please visit our patreon at www.patreon.com/kingsandgenerals. Thank you for listening, I am your host David and we will catch you on the next one!
Nomadism! It is a term closely associated with the Mongols and other inner Asian peoples of the vast Eurasian steppe-lands. Yet what does it entail, specifically? How did it influence Mongolian culture, religion and warfare? We are going to explain this all in detail, hopefully providing you a solid foundation for our forthcoming discussions on the Mongol Empire. I’m your host David and welcome to Ages of Conquest: a Kings and Generals Podcast. This is the Mongol conquests.
Let us begin with a description from a Chinese writer on peoples from Mongolia, which provides an apt generalization: “The animals they raise consist mainly of horses, cows, and sheep, but include such rare beasts as camels, asses, mules, and the wild horses known as taotu and tuoji. They move about in search of water and pasture and have no walled cities or fixed dwellings, nor do they engage in any kind of agriculture. Their lands, however, are divided into regions under the control of various leaders. They have no writing, and even promises and agreements are only verbal. The little boys start out by learning to ride sheep and shoot birds and rats with a bow and arrow, and when they get a little older they shoot foxes and hares, which are used for food. Thus all the young men are able to use a bow and act as armed cavalry in time of war. It is their custom to herd their flocks in times of peace and make their living by hunting, but in periods of crisis they take up arms and go off on plundering and marauding expeditions. This seems to be their inborn nature. For long-range weapons they use bows and arrows, and swords and spears at close range. If the battle is going well for them they will advance, but if not, they will retreat, for they do not consider it a disgrace to run away. Their only concern is self-advantage, and they know nothing of propriety or righteousness.
From the chiefs of the tribe on down, everyone eats the meat of the domestic animals and wears clothes of hide or wraps made of felt or fur. The young men eat the richest and best food, while the old get what is left over, since the tribe honours those who are young and strong and despises the weak and aged. On the death of his father, a son will marry his stepmother, and when brothers die, the remaining brothers will take the widows for their own wives. They have no polite names but only personal names, and they observe no taboos in the use of personal names.”
Now here’s the thing: that is not a description from the 13th century, but rather, the second century BCE! This is a very famous passage from the Chinese ‘grand historian,’ Sima Qian, a writer from the early Han Dynasty, describing not the Mongols, but the Xiongnu. And everything he says in this excerpt is just as applicable to the Mongols of the 13th century CE as it is to the Xiongnu a thousand years before them, from the animal lists, little boys learning to shoot, everyone acting as armed cavalry to the sons marrying their widowed stepmothers. Pastoral nomadism, which is where people with no fixed abode undergo seasonal or regular migrations with their various herds for fresh pasture, has long been the staple form of subsistence in Mongolia. Even today, about 40% of modern Mongolians still live in this fashion.
With irregular rainfall in arid summers and long, harsh winters, agriculture has never been extensively practiced in the country, though never totally unknown. Mongolia today is about the size of western Europe: the south of the country towards the low mountain range which divides China proper from the steppe is more arid, made up mostly of the Gobi desert, a mix of sand, scrub brush and gravel. To the east, the Greater Khingan Range separates the Mongol inhabited steppe from Manchuria, and in the west the Altai range serves as the natural barrier splitting the Mongol steppe from the western Eurasian steppe. The north of Mongolia edges onto the forests of eastern Siberia, with the deepest lake in the world Lake Baikal, a rough border between the Mongols and what they called the hoi-yin irgen, the forest people. Between these barriers was a territory of vast grassland, rolling hills and low mountains, rivers and lakes. It is a land greatly suited to pastoral nomadism. It is Mongolia.
Living out of their felt tents, known in Mongolian as gers or in Turkish as yurts, Mongolian families generally herded a collection of animals known as the ‘five snouts:’ sheep, goats, oxen, camels and the most prestigious, the horse. The ratios of these animals would depend on the region and the conditions, such as those living on or closer to the Gobi desert using greater numbers of camel than those in the far north of the country. Generally, sheep and goats were kept in the greatest numbers, with an ideal herd size being about one thousand head. The sheep provided mutton and the felt so necessary for constructing their gers. Goats provide milk, meat and soft cashmere, while also requiring less water than sheep, making them more desirable in more arid regions. Yet both had to be carefully managed, as they graze grass very close to the ground while the sharp hooves of the goats can damage pastures. Overgrazing had to be carefully avoided, and indeed in modern Mongolia, the expansion of the cashmere industry and resulting growth in goat herds, has led to an increase in desertification in the country.
Oxen and bactrian camels were used in smaller numbers, more for hauling than for meat, the camel in particular being too expensive, too useful and their gestation too long at 12 to 14 months for routine slaughtering. The milk from the oxen was utilized, and in more recent centuries oxen have been cross bred with yaks, especially for herders in higher elevations. Horses were exempt from hauling carts and the like: this was the job of the herds of oxen, and dozens could be yoked together to haul the great mobile gers mounted on the backs of carts. The camels could carry loads of 400 pounds or 181 kilos, and pull loads exceeding 900 pounds or 408 kilos. Their famed suitability for dry, arid climate made them a particularly valuable tool for those herders of the Gobi regions, and coats of camel hair were considered a fine gift.
But of course, we would be remiss for discussing Mongolian nomadism without mentioning the horse. The Mongol horse today is considered to have changed little since the thirteenth century: a short, sturdy animal, sure footed, with great endurance and physical strength, this is an animal aptly suited to the climate of Mongolia, where large Arab stock breeds even in modern times struggle to survive the often harsh winters. Often inaccurately called ponies, being rarely taller than fourteen hands, or 56 inches at the shoulder, this is a resilient, intelligent animal which was and still is the pride of any herder.
In a country with few roads even today, the horse is the most reliable tool for crossing the steppe. Aside from transportation, they were the tools which facilitated herding, giving a Mongol herdsman a high vantage point to look over his herd, move among them or chase after separated flocks. In winter, the horses pawed through the snow, allowing access to the winter grazing to keep the other livestock alive. A Mongol would ideally not rely on a single horse, but dozens, for long journeys using remounts rather than tire out an individual mare or gelding, which were preferred over stallions, kept only for reproduction or protecting herds.
As noted by Sima Qian, Mongols learned to ride early on. In fact, before they could even walk, they were tied to their saddles, building up the requisite balance and endurance for long hours on horseback. This is part of what made them such excellent horse archers: by the time they came of age, they had long developed the ability to maintain themselves in the saddle as if the horse’s legs were their own. While most of these animals provided milk for dairy products, it was mare’s milk which held the highest honour, which when fermented became airag, or the Turkish kumiss. A drink of low alcohol level, it was a delicacy and something which one could drink considerable amounts of. Even a few foreign travelers to the Mongol Empire, such as the Franciscan William of Rubruck, developed quite a taste for it. It was considered a manly thing to drink copious amounts of airag, vomit, and continue drinking more. Something which was fine for the low alcohol content of airag, but would become more of an issue when the Mongols were introduced to the stronger alcohols of the sedentary world, and applied this same practice.
In modern Mongolia, a herder is considered to be in poverty if he has a herd of less than one hundred animals, seen as a minimum amount needed for eating and replenishing stock after the hard winter. Mongols and other steppe peoples generally did not provide fodder for the animals, at least extensively, relying instead on year round grazing. In the cold winters of Mongolia, this winter grazing can be difficult, and if a dzud event occurs, when periods of freezing and thawing and dropping temperatures leave the grass hidden below layers of ice, thousands upon thousands of animals can die: for that reason, herders could be responsible for hundreds or even thousands of animals.
Pasture had to be carefully managed: pastoral nomadism is not the ‘aimless wandering’ it can sometimes be presented as, but careful, indeed even strategic, movement of animals to ensure the appropriate pasturage is maintained, not just for that season, but the upcoming winter and also future years. As we’ve mentioned, goats and sheep can crop the grass too close to the root and damage it, while the urine from animals concentrated in an area too long will poison the grass. Winter pastures, where the location is in the shade of mountains, hills and treelines as the only protection against the winter winds had to be left alone during the rest of the year. Different animals require different amounts of water, which can mean different sections of the herd must be fed over vast distances to accomodate what local water sources are nearby, while striving to avoid too much animal manure and urine polluting that water. Flash floods in Mongolia can also be an issue in the spring time, where low country provides no protection for rapidly rising waters: herds and gers too close can be swept away suddenly. On top of all of this, they must also recognize the grazing rights to territory owned by other families, clans and tribes: grazing in someone else's land, and ruining it for them, could lead to retaliatory raids.
To successfully do all of this, the Mongols gained exceptional experience in logistics, moving these herds without constant loss of life. The herders themselves grew strong, forced to endure hardship after hardship and lean times. The Mongols were noted by more than a few authors of the period as being able to live off of scraps, drinking blood from the veins of their mares or their milk, and when an animal dropped dead, devouring every possible part they could, ensuring nothing went to waste. This was a hard life, but it meant that when on campaign, the Mongols could endure that which few other armies could, and allowed them to move over areas which would have been impassable for others, such as the Gobi, Alashan and Kyzylkum deserts. They were not reliant on baggage trains, as much as they were on baggage herds.
Men and women were expected to be able to do the same work, though there were general divisions in labour. It was necessary that both groups understood how to do the work of the other, especially should one die, or the men be absent while at war, or extra help was needed with particular jobs. To paraphrase historian Timothy May, aside from warfare, the men focused on maintaining the herds and taking them out to pastures, while women gathered local foods, cleaned and processed food and animals products and maintained the campsites and gers. During the imperial periods, the women and families would take on more significant roles, now responsible for producing and maintaining much of the armaments the men took to war with them.
Men could take multiple wives provided they had the means to support them. Marriages were arranged and socially, women had fewer restrictions on them than their counterparts in China, Europe and the Islamic world, something often noted to the chagrin of writers from those same regions, though we should be careful not to view this as a precursor to modern notions of gender equality. Women learned how to shoot an arrow from horseback because it was a necessary part of survival, though the cases of female warriors are of some controversy.
Chinggis Khan himself had a number of women take major roles in his life as advisers, such as his mother Hoelun (ho-e-lun) and chief wife Borte (bort-ee), and for most of the 1240s the Mongol empire was ruled by the widows of Ogedai Khan, and then of his son Guyuk, though no woman ever made the claim to hold the imperial title herself. As mentioned in Sima Qian’s description, sons and brothers could marry their widowed stepmothers or sisters-in-law, known as levirate marriage. This is something which confused many a medieval author, who were forced to refer to a woman as an individual’s wife and mother, as was the case of the Naiman queen Gurbesu and her son-in-law and husband, Tayang Khan! Generally, this helped prevent widows and their young children from becoming abandoned, while also maintaining the political ties this marriage may have established in the first place.
In a land of such open space, where one can quite literally see their enemy coming from many kilometres away, it is perhaps no surprise that the bow is such a favoured weapon, both a tool for hunting as a supplement to what meat their herds provided, and as a tool for war. The famed Mongol bow is a composite recurve design. A bow like an English longbow is made from a single strip of wood, a self-bow; whereas a composite bow was made of layers of different materials, generally a wooden core, with sinew on the back and horn on its belly, held together with natural glues. A recurve bow has the ears or siyah, the ends of the bow, curve back away from the archer and putting the whole thing under much greater tension.
The result was a weapon of marvelous strength, shooting an arrow with far greater energy compared to a self bow of similar poundage. At 130-140 cm long, or 51-55 inches, it was a relatively short bow, making it excellent for use on horseback. Constructing these bows was a long and difficult process, and the final quality would vary depending on the skill of the maker. Arrows were approximately 75-82 cm in length, or 29-32 inches long, the shafts of bamboo, reeds or willow wood with birch nocks. Mongols drew their bows with their thumbs instead of the forefingers, allowing a cleaner draw facilitated by a thumb ring. Unlike European archers, the arrow was nocked on the far side of the bow, placing the string between the archer and his arrow. Arrowheads varied widely, depending on the target, and were made of bone, horn or iron. A well known favourite was the ‘whistling arrows,’ arrows with the horn head hollowed out so that, as it traveled through the air, it produced a distinct whistling noise, serving to signal other units and frighten enemies.
Mongol children, both boys and girls, learned to shoot from horseback at a very young age. To be a truly proficient horse archer in battle, it is a skill which must be learned from childhood and ingrained to the culture, and this was very much the case for the Mongols. It takes a lifetime of skill to build the muscles necessary to shoot arrows for hours if needed, especially while maintaining the balance to ride a horse at the same time. Numerous medieval authors remark on the accuracy and power of Mongol archers: one Armenian historian of the period, Grigor Aknertsi, went as far as to call them the Nation of Archers! The distance the arrows could go is a matter of some debate, caused by some confusion between maximum distance and maximum effective combat range, which could be significantly less. There is a stone inscription in Mongolia, commemorating an occasion in about 1224, when Chinggis Khan’s nephew Yisungge supposedly sent an arrow roughly 520-535 metres, or 569-585 yards, or over 1700 feet! For that, we must note first that this may be a case of some exaggeration, like a fisherman increasing the size of the fish he caught with each retelling: the noted historian Igor de Rachewiltz suggested the inscription was erected in the 1240s, when Yisungge held more political power, and could have ‘politely suggested’ the increase of an impressive shot to even greater lengths.
As well, for such long ranges, these were not heavier war arrows being used, but lighter ‘flight arrows,’ designed to go great distances, but would not have as much punch when they landed. Actual range for combat has been suggested to be about 150 meters, about 164 yards, though some authors have suggested as low as 30 meters, or just under 100 feet, would be the preferred range, a ‘sweet spot,’ as it were, between distance while maintaining penetrative power. To penetrate armour, heavier arrows are needed, but heavier arrows cannot fly as far while maintaining their energy, whereas those long distance arrows will lack the weight to go through armour at range.
It is often said that their animals provided everything the Mongols needed, with even their dung utilized as fuel for fires, known as argal. However, they were not able to gain quite everything they needed from this. While metal forging was undertaken in limited amounts, and blacksmiths were not totally unknown, it was rare, and they would have to rely on trading or raiding to the south to acquire at least the raw materials for this process. Therefore, due to the costs and difficulties involved, things like swords would be very uncommon, instead preferring weapons which used less metal to make and had other uses as tools, like spears, knives and axes. A pot for boiling water and meat had far more utility for the average Mongol than a sword ever would. This interest in material items, such as silks, spices, porcelain and even replenishing livestock herds depleted by war, would be an important component of initial Mongol interests to China and the sedentary world, and we will make further notes on that later.
While there was interest in the goods of the Chinese, there was much less interest in their lifestyle or civilization. The settled, agricultural life, and hiding behind city walls, made the Mongols think their enemies weak and unable to suffer hardship; there are more than a few examples of Mongols making statements along the lines of ‘where can you go to escape us, hiding in your city walls?’ In the Secret History of the Mongols, when Chinggis Khan suffers a fall from horseback while campaigning against the Tangut, a general remarks that they should withdraw and return after the Khan had healed, saying:
“The Tang’ut people
are ones who have towns with pounded-earth walls,
are ones who live in permanent camps.
They won’t leave, carrying off their towns with
Culturally, the Mongol tribes shared little with their Chinese neighbours, aside from the obvious differences of nomadic versus settled. The Mongols had no written language, and the languages spoken in Mongolia in the 12th century, Mongolian and Turkic, are completely unrelated to Chinese. In religion, they were very distinct. Whereas the Chinese had ancestor worship, Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism and various sects and combinations thereof, things were rather different in the steppe. Some tribes to the south and west like the Kereyit and Naiman were in fact Nestorian Christians, though ones who still made use of shamans. Named for Nestorius, the Patriarch of Constantinople from 428 to 431, the Church of the East as it is also known were deemed heretics by the Third Ecumenical Council of Ephesus in 431. The adherents had fled to the Sassanid Empire, before being pushed out of there into Central Asia, ultimately coming to contact with the Naiman and Kereyit perhaps around the 10th century. Some Mongolian names were garbled forms of Chirstian names, such as Solomon becoming Shiremun, the name of a grandson of Great Khan Ogedai.
Outside of the Kereyit and Naiman, most of the tribes would have been shamanist-animists. It was the job of the shaman to act as a healer and mediator between the physical world and the spirit world, interacting with the gods and spirits who inhabited it, or those spirits who had become stuck in the physical world. The most well known of these gods was the sky, heaven, known as Tengri, and Etugen-eke, the earth-mother. The exact nature of Tengri, often called koko mongke Tenggeri, or Eternal Blue Heaven, before the imperial period is not well understood. See, there seems to have been an unintentional anthropomorphization of Tengri, into something a bit more in line of the personal God of the Abrahamic religions. This may not have been by the Mongols themselves, but by Christian and Muslim authors who merely saw Tengri as another name for God or Allah and indeed, there are many cases where Tengri is used as a translation for these terms.
As the Mongol Empire gradually transformed into a continent spanning geopolitical entity, Tengri transformed to accommodate this: almost every letter sent by the Mongol imperial court opens with ‘by the Will of Eternal Blue Heaven.’ But before the unification of the Mongols, Tengri’s exact nature may have been much less personal. One did not convene with Tengri, at best thanking him for a storm passing by their encampment. Neither was his wrath the sole thing to fear: fire, rivers, mountains all had spirits, and it was the duty of the Mongols and their shamans not to offend them. Knives could not be pushed into a fire; dirty things and humans could not be washed in running water. The spirit world was not like the Christian Heaven were everything was better and an eternal paradise. A person’s status did not change upon death. People of noble blood had more powerful spirits, and while alive that person’s soul was believed to be inside the blood. Therefore, spilling the blood, especially of nobility or royalty, on the earth outside of battle was not only dishonourable, but a great danger, offending the earth and their spirit could now become stuck to that location. This affected even the Mongolian method of animal slaughter, which sought to spill as little blood as possible, instead knocking the animal unconscious, turning it over and pinching, cutting or crushing the aorta, depending on the animal. This had the advantage of also preserving all of the blood, a useful ingredient for sustaining a hungry herder and his family.
When Chinggis Khan formed his law code, the yassa, many of its promulgations were the enforcement of these taboos, designed to maintain heaven’s fortune for the Mongols. Violating these restrictions could bring natural disaster: thunderstorms and lightning in particular were dreaded, and seen as the wrath of heaven. Mongolia’s geographic position, an inland continental climate of high elevation, helps make these storms particularly severe. And when a man on horseback can literally be the highest thing around for hundreds of kilometres, essentially the only lightning rod, you can understand why it could be such a concern for them.
For the Mongols, life was difficult, and the afterlife would not be any better. Without a strong political authority to maintain order, people would turn quickly to raiding, capturing and stealing women and herds. These turned into rivalries which were slow to be forgotten, leading to retaliatory raids which only brought further retaliation, cementing long grudges. Orphaned children could become burdens upon the small family groups, and as a young boy named Temujin learned in about 1170, they and their hungry siblings could be abandoned. Yet this hard life made the Mongols into hardy warriors, skilled archers and superb horsemen: if a general could come along to mold them into an army, then they could truly be a weapon to be feared.
We hope that you have enjoyed this introduction to Mongolian nomadism: we hope it has given you some insight into the life of these herders, and perhaps some of the cultural factors which influenced Chinggis Khan. In our next episode, will introduce the tribes and politics of twelfth and thirteenth century Mongolia and North China, the political world Chinggis Khan entered into, so be sure to hit subscribe to the Kings and Generals podcast and to continue helping us bring you more outstanding content, please visit our patreon at www.patreon.com/kingsandgenerals. Thank you for listening, I am your host David and we will catch you on the next one!
In the smoke filled air, the cries of men and women reach towards Eternal Blue Heaven as horsemen ride over ruined city walls. The men of fighting age are forced together, their weapons and armour abandoned or taken, to be shortly executed en masse. A tower of their skulls be all that remains of their resistance The women, holding close crying children and infants, are led away, chattel for their new masters. Those craftsmen and artisans of skills -engineers, masons, woodworkers, and smiths of metal- are deemed to be useful to their new master in the east, and will be carried off for his service. Over the 13th century, from the islands off Korea to the plains of Hungary, from the forests of Siberia to the rugged borderlands of India, variations of this scene are enacted again and again, in the pursuit of nothing less than the domination of everything under Heaven by one family. I’m your host David and welcome to Ages of Conquest: a Kings and Generals Podcast. This is the Mongol conquests.
In Bukhara, in early 1220, as the formidable Khwarezmian (Khwa-rez-mian) Empire buckles under their onslaught, the man who has caused this horrific explosion of violence stands before a crowd of the city’s notables and wealthy. Once proud and haughty, now they are held humble before this horseman from the steppe. “O peoples,” he tells them through his translator, “know that you have committed great sins and that the great ones among you have committed these sins. If you ask me what proof I have of these words, I say it is because I am the punishment of God. Had you not committed great sins, God would not have sent a punishment like me upon you.” As the translator finished the statement, the shocked murmurs and hurried glances of the crowd would surely have pleased him - Genghis Khan, the World Conqueror, who had driven this proud people before him like hunters do their prey.
The 13th century Mongol Conquests today are often presented in apocalyptic imagery, a carry over from many of the medieval sources, for whom the only explanation for the speed and thoroughness of these conquests could only be that they were a punishment sent by God, surely heralding the end of times. These connotations are difficult to dissociate, and indeed, one might ask why we should look deeper, when these conquests resulted in an estimated 30-40 million deaths, unimaginable suffering, rape and cruelty. Genghis Khan’s name, to many in the west, Iran and China, brings to mind the stock image of the blood thirsty barbarian, who raped his way to over 200 million modern descendants!
Yet, in Mongolia today, he is not a national shame, but rather considered the heroic, legendary founder of their country, the unifier of the Mongols who led them to an unprecedented age of greatness. He is a lawgiver, the ideal steppe chieftain. Stern and vengeful to his enemies, but generous to his followers, a protector bringing peace and ending the age of intercine steppe warfare. For centuries, descent from Genghis Khan was perhaps the single most important source of legitimacy for dynasties and states across Asia. Even those monarchs not of the altan urugh - the Golden Lineage- often maintained a puppet Khan descended from him, or married a daughter of distant descent. For many of the Turkic peoples across the steppe today, Genghis takes the form of a great folk hero, and individual clans, tribes and peoples will feature some legend wherein a famous ancestor of theirs was granted their rights to that territory by Genghis himself, or was held as a loyal general by him.
How do we reconcile these differing interpretations? As with so much of history, the truth lies in the middle. That is what we will discuss over the course of this podcast series. Not a dramatized, apocalyptic presentation, but neither a glowing heroic description, we will instead in detail go through the Mongol conquests, beginning with the origins of the empire and following through its expansion, administration, collapse and legacy, and address along the way popular misconceptions. To begin this, then perhaps we should first take a note of the name of the great Khan himself. Rather than the ‘Genghis,’ of modern English, we should instead use the more accurate rendition of his name in Mongolian: Chinggis Khan. Not meaning ‘universal emperor,’ it instead is something like ‘fierce, stern ruler,’ and neither was it his birth name.
Chinggis Khan was born in about 1162, as Temujin, son of the minor chieftain Yesugei. Greatness did not come to him easily. When he was about 9 years old, his father was poisoned by a rival tribe, and Temujin and his family were soon abandoned by their own people. Only slowly did he gain power, suffering numerous setbacks, captures, and military defeats, forced to crawl and scratch for every inch. It was only in 1206, when he was over 40 years of age, that he finally unified the tribes of Mongolia, was elected Great Khan and took the title of Chinggis Khan. Even then, there is no evidence suggesting world domination was a goal he set himself to at this point: the initial attacks on China, beginning with an invasion of the Tangut Xi Xia in 1209 ,and an invasion of the Jurchen ruled Jin Dynasty in 1211, were intended for plunder and the punishing old enemies rather than establishing a vast empire.
Only in the final years of his life, as Mongol armies obliterated the Khwarezmian ((Khwa-rez-mian)) Empire in modern Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Iran, does it seem the Mongols started to envisage themselves not just as rulers of the steppe and north China, but of much, much more. To paraphrase the Historian David Morgan, the Mongols came to believe it was their destiny to rule the world when they found out that they were in fact, doing so.
The empire Chinggis Khan founded was the largest contiguous land empire in history, coming to incorporate most of the Eurasian continent by the end of the thirteenth century. Contrary to some statements you may seen online by those reminding you of the size of the British Empire that this was an ‘empire of empty space,’ the Mongols took control of all of the Chinese mainland, the trade cities of the famed Silk Routes in Central Asia, with Persia, Iraq, the Caucasus, eastern Anatolia and the cities of what is now Russia and Ukraine. That Mongol armies never landed in England and France is perhaps why to many in the west they remain but a foggy topic, the might of Genghis Khan glossed over in favour of Julius Caesar and Alexander the Great for most English speakers.
Yet the Great Khan’s lifetime and legacy was a defining period for most of Eurasia, an immense period of transformation. Few powers of the 12th and early 13th century survived the Mongol onslaughts, and those that did were often significantly impacted by them. Neither were these impacts solely military: the expansion of trans-continental trade, spread of ideas and movements of peoples resulted in major economic changes, and Europe learned in detail of the wealth of China and the far east; population losses from the conquests and the Mongol civil wars, and finally the Black Death, as well as huge migrations of people across Asia, changed the population figures and distribution across the continent; Islam, from its low point with the destruction of Baghdad by Mongol armies in 1258, spread across Central Asia in the wake of the Mongols; and the states which succeeded the Mongol Empire now bore much different political and cultural outlooks, with a slew of Turko-Mongolian empires rising and falling ruled by Chinggisids or those who married into the family, most famously the great conqueror Temur; the likes of the Ming Dynasty in China, which after a brief flirtation with its famous trade fleets, became a Dynasty famously insular, closing itself off to outsiders and with a near-paralyzing phobia of the Mongols: it is this dynasty which built the Great Wall of China as we know it today. All of these various aspects and more, we will explore over the course of this series.
For purposes of this series, we define the Mongol Empire as the single, unified state ruled by the Great Khans from 1206-1259. Upon the death of Chinggis Khan’s grandson, the Great Khan Mongke in 1259, civil war tore apart the empire into regional Khanates: the Yuan Dynasty in China, ruled by the heirs of the famous Kublai Khan, who maintained the title of Great Khan; the Ilkhanate in Persia, the Caucasus and Iraq, ruled by the descendants of Kublai’s brother Hulegu (Hoo-le-goo), the conqueror of Baghdad; the Golden Horde in Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan, ruled by the sons of Chinggis Khan’s ill-fated eldest child, Jochi; and the Chagatai Khanate in the geographic expanse between them, where the line of Chinggis’ second son Chagatai would rule in some form for centuries.
These were not the only Khanates of the period: an Ogedaid (O-ge-dai-id) Khanate would emerge in the late thirteenth century under the rule of Qaidu (Kai-doo) Khan, and would dominate the Chagatai khanate for some time; the rambunctious Neguderis (Neg-ood-er-is) in modern Afghanistan would be a thorn in the side of the Ilkhans and rulers of India; and one may even suggest the constituent Khanates of the Golden horde like the White Horde, held their own true independence. And this is not even discussing the further fragmentations and reunifications over the following centuries!
As one can gather from this brief description, this can be a complicated period and certainly overwhelming if we dive in unprepared. This series will hopefully serve to ease the uninitiated into it: we will begin with an introduction to nomadism in Mongolia, the tribes of that region and the local powers of North China, before detailing the rise of Chinggis Khan and his conquests. From there we will follow a history of the empire and the succeeding Great Khans of the 13th century: first Ogedai Khan, who would send Mongol armies to conquer the western steppe, Russia and into eastern Europe before his unexpected death in late 1241; then the regency of his wife Torogene, the brief reign of their son Guyuk and regency of his widow Oghul Qaimish (og-hool kwai-mish); and then the significant Toluid Revolution in 1250, when Mongke (mong-ke), the eldest son of Ogedai’s brother Tolui (to-lu-ee), took power. Mongke’s reign saw the major consolidation and expansion of the empire, sending his brother Hulegu into the Middle East while he and his brother Kublai took up arms against the Song Dynasty of Southern China. Mongke’s death in 1259 brought an end to Mongol unity, and the following years saw the outbreak of war between the various newly emerging Khanates. Following that, we will cover the history of these Khanates, and their own successor states, and will note when appropriate historiography, sources and other related matters.
With this brief outline complete, let us note some important themes and trends to keep an eye out for during our sojourn into Mongol history. Perhaps the most notable and reoccuring being the notion that ‘conquering the world from horseback is easy: ruling from it is hard,’ to paraphrase a supposed quote of Chinggis Khan. That is, in military matters the Mongols proved themselves to be well-versed professionals, but actually garrisoning, managing and governing an empire thousands of kilometres in scale is a rather different matter entirely. At the start of the 13th century, the Mongols lived as nomads without walled cities, without written languages and without the complex administrative features necessary to manage huge populations. These were all skills the Mongols had to acquire, on a vast scale dealing with added problems of diverse populations speaking hundreds of unrelated languages in territories where the pre-existing government apparatus had generally been annihilated in initial Mongol assaults. The difficulties of this, and the surprising successes, is a matter we will explore.
Closely related to that is what we might call the conflict between steppe and sedentary culture. That is, whether the Mongols should maintain their traditional ways, the nomadism and herding of Chinggis Khan and his fore-fathers, as well as adhering to the laws he laid out for them, known as the yassa. In this case, the wealth of the sedentarized, agricultural world should be utilized mainly for the further expansion of the empire, and was there for the Mongols’ exploitation. It was believed that the sedentary world would soften them, and force them to lose their military edge. In contrast, there were many who instead wished to adopt aspects of these urbanized societies and sedentary cultures, most notably in Persia and China where ancient traditions captured their attention. In these cases, the view was not to exploit these resources for expansion, but focus the empire onto these territories.
In the Yuan Dynasty based in Mongolia and China, this is most keenly visible. There, the heirs of Kublai Khan quite literally went to war over this matter. The conflict was whether the leadership should live in Mongolia, using China proper as a sort-of supermarket, its resources there for the Mongols to use against their enemies outside the dynasty. The other party believed that China should be the empire, where the Mongols should make their capital and should adopt Chinese traditions as it suited them, particularly to serve the Mandate of Heaven, as Chinese monarchs justified their rule. In the Yuan Dynasty, it may be said the sedentary party won their civil wars, but by the time the Mongol rulers were expelled from China in 1368, they were too Mongol for the Chinese, but too Chinese for the Mongols who had remained in their homeland. The Ilkhans of Persia found themselves struggling between the conflict of the yassa of Chinggis Khan and the shariah of Islam; the Chagatai Khanate literally broke into western and eastern halves over this matter; and though the Golden Horde’s rulers had the most success avoiding the perils of sedentery soceity, they still needed to build cities for their trade.
Another matter we’ll examine is the Turkification of the western Khanates. From early on, Turkic tribes formed an integral part of the Mongol armies, and as they moved west, ‘true Mongols,’ those actually from Mongolia, made up only a small percentage of some of these armies, well represented in leadership positions but forcing various Turkic peoples, especially Kipchak-Cumans, into their services. In the Golden Horde the role of these Turks is easily noted, but they took on significant roles even in Yuan China, and in the Ilkhanate and Chagatai realm this intermixing occurred as well. In fact, the role of non-Mongols in both the Mongol army and administration is something to keep an eye out for in general: without the skills, knowledge and manpower of Uighurs, Khitans, Turks and Chinese, it is difficult to see the Mongols expanding beyond China, let alone across Eurasia.
Indeed, the empire was ‘Mongol’ in the sense of its primary leadership and army core: the vast majority of its population and even armies however were non-Mongol. By the time Chinggis Khan rode west against the Khwarezmian (Khwa-rez-mian) Empire in 1219, there were more Chinese fighting for the Mongols in China, than there were Mongols fighting there! This is very much the key to how a population of about one million Mongols was able to dominate Eurasia for a century.
All history is based from the historical sources which have survived to the present day. At times, you may hear people on the internet state that ‘we know nothing of the Mongol Empire! They wrote nothing down!’ or something like that. This is quite far from the truth: in fact, this a period particularly rich in historical sources. Authors from China to Japan to Java to India to the Islamic world and Christendom all describe their dealings with the Mongols. Often, we have sources written decades apart, in different languages on the far sides of Eurasia presenting their own garbled versions of the same events, each now bolstered with a greater understanding of the world at large.
The first battle fought in Europe to be described in a Chinese source was the famous encounter between Subutai, Batu and the armies of Hungary at Mohi in 1241. European travellers to the Mongol Empire, such as William of Rubruck, John de Plano Carpini and the famous Marco Polo describe in exquisite detail their experiences with the Mongols, describing their histories, appearances, empire and military tactics. There are wonderful extensive histories written in Persian, that of ‘Ata-Malik Juvaini (ju-vai-ni) with his History of the World Conqueror, to the mammoth universal history of the Ilkhanid vizier Rashid al-Din Hamadani, in his Compendium of Chronicles, which not only provides a history of the Mongols, but makes an attempt to provide a history of the Turks, the Islamic World, China and the Franks as well! Juzjani, a refugee from the Khwarezmian (Khwa-rez-mian) Empire, shares with us all the awful rumours he heard of the Mongols during his asylum in Delhi; al-Nasawi, the secretary of the valiant Khwarezmian (Khwa-rez-mian) Prince Jalal al-Din Mingburnu (ming-bur-new), provides a fantastic account of that prince’s resistance against the Mongols; ibn al-Athir, writing in Mosul in the 1220s, shows us the horror of hearing reports of the Mongol devastation of the Khwarezmian (Khwa-rez-mian) Empire trickled down to him.
In the east, we have numerous Chinese accounts, notably the hastily compiled Yuan-shih, a general dynastic history of the Yuan Dynasty put together in the early years of the succeeding Ming Dynasty. And of course, no source is as famous, or infamous, as the great wild card, the Secret History of the Mongols, an epic chronicle written sometime after Chinggis Khan’s death to record his unification of the Mongols and his words. The oldest history written in the Mongolian language, it is an invaluable chance to look at how a nomadic state viewed its own history before being ‘tainted by sedentary cultures.
This is of course, only a brief survey, as it doesn’t even mentions the accounts of Arabic, Armenian, Georgian, Rus’, Byzantine, Korean or later authors. The idea though, is to present that we have a rich variety of sources for this period, from both within the empire, written on imperial order, or from outside the empire and written by its enemies, all over the course of the 13th century.The great difficulty for any historian of the Mongol Empire is that there are so many sources in so many languages. To read them all, in their original languages and original scripts, is a task beyond any individual mortal. Yet, in recent years, and especially with the advent of the internet, translations are far more accessible, and now we can discuss in detail numerous aspects of the empire undreamable decades ago.
This won’t be an endless description of battles, instead something which will show that this was no apocalyptic swarm of demons but rather events undertaken by, and against, other humans. Not just bloodshed, but a period of increased cultural contacts and learning, trade and exploration, yet also of prejudice, violence and human greed. So truthfully then, something demonstrating all the colours of the human experience. A complicated and complex yet incredibly fascinating and unique period in human history, we hope this series can spark not just your own interest in the Mongol Empire, but increase your appreciation in other historical topics as well, seeing them all with the same ribbon of complexity.
We hope that you have enjoyed this introduction to our series about the Mongol Empire. We at Kings and Generals will be bringing you the next episode introducing Mongolian nomadism and steppe society, so be sure to hit subscribe to the Kings and Generals podcast and to continue helping us bring you more outstanding content, please visit our patreon at www.patreon.com/kingsandgenerals. Thank you for listening, I am your host David and we will catch you on the next one