Post-classical history

Chapter Thirty-Seven


Moving Westward

Between 1215 and 1229, the Mongols set their eyes on lands west of the Oxus river

THE JIN CAPITAL ZHONGDU had fallen to Mongol siege, and the north of the Jin empire was in Mongol hands.

Four years in China—during which a multitude of Jin soldiers, officials, and councillors had been enfolded into the ranks of his advisors—had taught Genghis Khan that there was more than one way to build an empire. He did not give up the conquest of the Jin, a long and involved campaign of sieges and skirmishes that would drag on another nineteen years and he also sent troops to fight their way westward towards the Oxus river. But in an innovative and strange move for a Mongol, he also made moves towards diplomacy.

Just on the other side of the Oxus lay the kingdom of Khwarezm, a Turkish possession that had broken away from Khorasan after the Great Seljuk’s death, half a century earlier. It was ruled by Shah Ala ad-Din Muhammad ibn Tekish, who had set out in 1200 to turn himself from a minor sultan into a major power by conquering the old lands of the Great Seljuk himself. While Genghis Khan was fighting in northern China, Shah Ala ad-Din was battling towards Baghdad, hoping to seize control of the caliphate there.1

Hearing of the Mongol advance, the Shah left the battlefront to return home. When he arrived, he found three Mongol ambassadors waiting for him, sent by Genghis Khan with presents of precious metals and semiprecious stones, rhinoceros horns and white camel wool. The Shah’s secretary, Muhammad al-Nasawi, records the message that accompanied the gifts. “I am familiar with the magnificence of your empire,” Genghis Khan wrote, tactfully,

and I know that your authority is recognized in the majority of the countries of the world. Therefore, I consider it my duty to strike up friendly relations with you. . . . You know better than anyone else that my provinces are nurseries for soldiers, of mines of silver, and that may produce an abundance of things. If you would agree that we open up, each from our own side, an easy access for negotiations between our countries, this will be an advantage for us all.2

There is no reason to think that he was insincere. He already ruled a larger swath of the world than any Mongol had ever dreamed of, and a treaty with Khwarezm would have opened up brand-new trade routes and the opportunity to gain unheard-of wealth. But the Shah, perhaps soured by two decades of war, saw only a threat. He bribed one of the ambassadors to act as a spy; and then, when a second delegation came from the Khan, had them arrested and murdered. (“He seized the negotiators,” says al-Nasawi, “and so they disappeared forever”—not the last time this technique would be used on suspects.)3

So began the disruption of the west.

“This movement of anger,” al-Nasawi wrote, several decades later, “brought about the ruin and depopulation of the earth. . . . From all sides poured torrents of pure blood.” In person, Genghis Khan led a vast army—200,000 strong, a combined force of Mongols and soldiers drafted from the conquered lands—westward. They rode through the dry wastes of the Gobi Desert, across the Altai Mountains, over the rough rocky ground between the Altai and the Aral Sea, to the borders of Khwarezm. In 1219, the horde descended on the border city of Otrar.4

The Shah, believing that the nomadic Mongols would be difficult to defeat on open ground but unable to take fortified cities, had divided his troops up among his frontier fortresses. Genghis Khan left two of his sons to besiege Otrar and sent a second division under his oldest son, Jochi, to blockade the nearby river city of Khojend. He himself led a third army to Bukhara, the wealthiest and largest city east of the Oxus river.5

In short order, all three cities were crushed. In Otrar, the official responsible for the murder of the Mongol ambassadors was taken prisoner and executed by having molten gold poured into his eyes and throat. The garrison at Khojend tried to escape along the riverbank at night, but Jochi’s men chased the soldiers away from the river and through the desert until, one by one, they fell to Mongol arrows or exhaustion. In Bukhara, the townspeople surrendered almost immediately, but a small royal detachment held out in the city’s citadel. Genghis Khan ordered the citadel stormed, with Bukhara’s civilians driven in front of his own men as a shield. After twelve days of assault and slaughter, the citadel too was taken; the defenders were massacred.6

Hearing of this efficient shattering of his frontier, the Shah fled westward. Genghis Khan sent his two highest-ranking generals, Jebe and Subotai, to pursue him, but Ala ad-Din escaped by boat into the Caspian Sea and took refuge on an island, where he died less than a year later. His son and heir, Jalal ad-Din, slipped away to the east, leading five thousand men to a safe haven in the north of India.

Jebe and Subotai, with twenty-five thousand soldiers behind them, continued around the southern end of the Caspian Sea, up into the Kingdom of Georgia.

Georgia, crisscrossed with mountain ranges and deep valleys, had always been home to a disunited array of tribes and peoples. At the beginning of the twelfth century, a vigorous young Christian king known as David the Builder had managed to bring the patchwork of native mountain tribes, Turks, refugees from Cilician Armenia, and various Muslim settlers under his rule; by the end of the same century, his granddaughter Tamar governed a Christian Georgia that covered almost all of the land bridge between the Caspian Sea and the Black Sea.7

Now under the rule of Tamar’s son George IV, the Kingdom of Georgia was able to field an impressive number of troops to meet the Mongol invasion. But Jebe and Subotai crushed the Georgian army near the capital city of Tbilisi, staged a fake withdrawal, and then stormed back to kill the survivors. The king, badly wounded, was forced to give up the south of his country.8

Meanwhile, Genghis and his sons had turned back eastward to conquer Samarkand and then after a brief rest had continued the devastating sweep across Khwarezm. Cities that surrendered were generally looted and then put under Mongol governorship, but their citizens were mostly spared; cities that resisted were exterminated. At Tirmidh, where the people refused to surrender, Genghis Khan ordered the entire population driven outside the city walls and put to death, giving each of his warriors the task of executing a certain number of men, women, and children. At Merv, by conservative accounts, seven hundred thousand people were massacred; some contemporary chroniclers put the total at more than a million. At Nishapur, four hundred useful artisans were spared. Everyone else was beheaded; the Mongols piled the heads of the men in one place, the heads of women and children in another. Two massacres were carried out in Balkh, one when the city first fell, a second after the false withdrawal of Genghis’s men lured survivors out of the nooks and crannies where they had hidden. “Wherever a wall was left standing,” writes the thirteenth-century historian Juvaini, “the Mongols pulled it down and for a second time wiped out all traces of culture from that region.”9

Meanwhile, Jalal ad-Din had claimed his father’s title of Shah of Khwarezm, and was gathering himself to attack the Mongol rear. Receiving word that the new Shah’s forces had managed to defeat a Mongol outpost, Genghis Khan turned and began to ride eastward, back towards India. His vendetta against the Shah was still alive; he traveled, says Juvaini by day and night, not even stopping for food. He caught up with Jalal ad-Din on the banks of the Indus river, and drove him and his men steadily backwards into the water. Most of the Shah’s men were killed by Mongol arrows as they struggled in the water; the whole river, Juvaini writes, was “red with the blood of the slain.” Jalal ad-Din himself managed to flounder through the Indus on horseback and emerged on the other side, only to flee into the distance. His wives and children, left behind, were taken captive; all of his male children were put to death.10


37.1 The Mongol Empire

After the Battle of the Indus, Genghis Khan himself returned east, to his ancestral lands in Mongolia. His task, it seems, was done.

But he left his son Jochi in charge of a substantial Mongol army in the west. This force continued to raid the lands east of the Black Sea, and eventually a coalition of worried peoples, including Georgians and detachments from the Turkish tribes who had settled north of Georgia, assembled on the banks of the Kalka river in an attempt to drive the invaders out.

The coalition was shortly joined by the Grand Duke of Kiev, a prince from the Rus’ tribes who occupied the cold lands just southeast of the Baltic Sea.11

The Rus’, Christian since the tenth century, had been mostly occupied with internal matters since their conversion. Each major city of the Rus’ was ruled by a prince who (like the Turkish sultans) paid lip service to the overall rule of a Grand Duke, but protected his own power, sometimes viciously. The ruler of Kiev had most often claimed the title Grand Duke, but for the last half century, his authority had been constantly challenged by the rulers of the city of Novgorod.

The current Grand Duke of Kiev, Mstislav III, had no worries about the Mongols; they were still far to the south. But the fight against the Mongols would most certainly increase his standing among his own people. In response to appeals from his southern neighbors, he recruited the nearby princes of Galich, Chernigov, and Smolensk, and led a force of eighty thousand Russian warriors south to the Kalka river.

The joint army was disorganized, the command divided, and half of the troops advanced towards the waiting Mongols before the Kievans even knew that battle had begun. The contemporary Russian history known as the Chronicle of Novgorod says that his first wave, instantly repelled by Jochi’s men, panicked and stampeded back through Mstislav’s camp, leaving him to fend off the advancing Mongol front. He held out for three days before the Mongols overwhelmed his position and took him captive. He was put to death, the Chronicle tells us, by suffocation; the Mongols forced him and his captive men to lie beneath boards and then “took seat on the top to have dinner. And thus they ended their lives.”12

Jochi chased the retreating Rus’ survivors westward, raiding and killing as he went. But when he reached the shores of the Dnieper river, he halted and turned back eastward, ready to travel home. He had carried out his orders; the Khwarezm had been punished, the west successfully raided, and Genghis Khan had no further intentions in this direction.


37.2 The Battle of Kalka

Instead, the Khan had turned to finish destroying the Western Xia. He was still directing this campaign when he died. After a bad hunting fall in 1225, he had suffered from recurring fevers and muscle spasms that grew gradually worse. Sometime in 1227, in an unknown camp south of the Li-p’an Mountains, the Universal Khan of the Mongols drew his last breath. His death was kept secret, by his own wish, until his generals finished demolishing the last Xia strongholds in September of 1227.13

HE LEFT HIS CONQUESTS, which stretched westward to the Caspian Sea and southward to the Hindu Kush mountains, to his sons.

Jochi had died a few months before his father, so the lands awarded to him—the western territories he had himself helped reduce—were divided between his two sons. Genghis Khan’s youngest son Tolui received the Khan’s own homeland. Chagatai, the second son, was given his father’s lands in Central Asia.

The third son of the conqueror, Ogodei, received the title of Great Khan of the Mongols.

This had been Genghis Khan’s own wish. He had fallen out with Jochi repeatedly, and he suspected that his second son Chagatai was unequal to the job: “As Genghis Khan was aware that his nature was excessively sanguinary, malevolent, and tyrannical,” writes Juvaini, “he did not bequeath the sovereignty to him.”14

This created a certain amount of dissension, but by 1229 the Mongols had agreed to recognize Ogodei as Genghis Khan’s rightful successor. The new khan’s first act was to dispatch forces westward. What Genghis Khan had seen as land to be raided, his sons saw as the new battlefront. And thanks to their father’s training, they knew how to fight successfully against the settled west.


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