Mongol Conquests (1200–1400)

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Mongol Conquests (1200–1400)

Major Figures

Genghis Khan

Late in the twelfth century, an individual emerged from among several warring tribal confederations in the steppes of Mongolia to not only unite his people, but also to establish the largest contiguous empire in history. Born in 1165 to the name of Temujin (1165–1227), he received the title of Genghis Khan first as the Khan or leader of his own tribe, the Mongols, and then as the Emperor of all the tribes of Mongolia. Earning these titles took twenty years of conflict, but in the process Genghis Khan forged a new identity for the nomads by organizing them into one supra-tribe known as the Yeke Mongol Ulus (Great Mongol Nation). Genghis Khan led his unified tribesmen into northern China and then into Central Asia and Iran, conquering more territory than even Alexander the Great. His successors continued the conquests until the Mongol empire stretched from the Pacific Ocean to the Carpathian Mountains and Mediterranean Sea.

Early Life

Genghis Khan, also known as Chinggis Khan or Temujin in his youth, assumed the mantle of leadership early in his life. After the murder of his father—Yesugei, who was also a tribal leader—in 1175, Yesugei’s family was deserted by his tribe. At the time, Temujin was only ten years old. Temujin had two half-brothers from Yesugei’s second wife, Ko’agchin; these brothers may have been older or equivalent in age, so it is unclear whether Temujin was the logical successor. However, none of Yesugei’s children were old enough to lead the Borgijin clan of the Mongols. A power struggle ensued between the sons of Ho’elun, the mother of Temujin, and those of Ko’agchin. The end result of the struggle in 1180 was that Temujin and his brother Jochi Qasar murdered the eldest of Ko’agchin’s sons Bekhtar but spared Belgutei, the younger son.

In 1180, Temujin reached the age of fifteen, essentially attaining his majority (typically males aged fifteen to sixty fought in warfare, so a fifteen-year-old would be considered a man and not a boy). Temujin (now Genghis Khan) served as the leader of his small following, enduring a period of captivity among the Tayichi’ud, a tribe that once served his father, and other hardships including the kidnapping of his wife Borte by the Merkits, another tribe. In spite of this, Temujin gradually won the loyalty of others and gradually increased his following. In addition, he became the vassal of Toghril Ong-Khan, the ruler of the powerful Kereit tribal confederation. Through this alliance, Genghis Khan rescued his wife and steadily rose through the ranks of Toghril’s followers. He gained a reputation for respecting merit over heredity and status, as well as rewarding loyalty.

Unification of Mongolia

Genghis Khan gained supporters from other tribes. Since he divided the plunder acquired in warfare among all of those who participated, he attracted many followers. He also ordered that anyone who stopped to gather booty during a raid would be punished. Genghis Khan insisted that all should continue fighting until the battle was won, because if they plundered the enemy’s camp before complete victory, the enemy could counterattack. Traditionally, plunder tended to be divided amongst the leaders who then distributed amongst their men. As a consequence, everyone had an incentive to take what one could on a raid to increase his share. Genghis Khan had a new, and superior, system.

Genghis Khan remained loyal to Toghril for several years, but tensions built as Genghis Khan’s influence and power increased. In 1203, the two former allies clashed; Genghis Khan emerged victorious. With his defeat of the Kereit, the Mongols now controlled Eastern and Central Mongolia. The only significant force that remained in Mongolia was that of the Naiman, another tribal confederation. Initially, the Naiman planned to attack the Mongols by invading their territory, but Genghis Khan learned of their intentions and attacked them instead. He led his army into Western Mongolia and defeated the Naiman in 1204.

The victory over the Naiman gave Genghis Khan complete control over Mongolia. In 1206, Genghis Khan was officially declared the supreme ruler of the steppes. At this time, he organized his newly won empire in a more formal manner. He assigned commanders to the mingans, the units of a thousand or ten thousand men. He also organized his society. As the wars to unify Mongolia involved fighting numerous tribal groups, in order to maintain unity a new entity had to be born. Thus Genghis Khan created the Yeke Mongol Ulus, the Great Mongol Nation. Tribes that had been loyal to him through the years maintained their integrity. Those that he had defeated, however, were divided up and integrated into the new units.

The World Conqueror

After uniting Mongolia, Genghis Khan went on to conquer much of northern China and Central Asia. His wars were as often occasioned by his desire for retaliation for perceived wrongs as for territory or riches. In 1207 the Mongols began operations against the kingdom of Xi Xia, which comprised much of northwestern China and parts of Tibet. This campaign lasted until 1210, when the Xi Xia ruler submitted to Genghis Khan.

In 1211 he led his armies against the Jin dynasty, which ruled northern China. War continued against the Jin until 1234, well after Genghis Khan’s death. Meanwhile, in 1219, during the war in China, a caravan under the protection of Genghis Khan was massacred in Otrar, a city of the empire of Khwarazm, which consisted of much of modern Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Iran, Afghanistan, and Tajikistan.

With his armies engaged in China, Genghis Khan attempted to find a peaceful solution, but his diplomacy failed. Genghis Khan left a trusted general, Muqali, to continue to fight the Jin while he led an army into Central Asia. The war lasted from 1219 to 1222, and the Mongols destroyed Khwarazm. Striking from several directions, Genghis Khan’s armies carried out a campaign that is still considered strategically remarkable. Yet despite having conquered Khwarazm, Genghis Khan kept only the territories north of the Amu Darya River so as not to overextend his armies.

In 1226 his armies invaded Xi Xia once again to quell an uprising there. During the campaign, Genghis Khan fell from his horse and later died from internal injuries suffered in the fall. His followers completed the reconquest of Xi Xia and then buried Genghis Khan in a secret location that remains a mystery, although several modern expeditions have attempted to find it.

Achievements and Legacy

Genghis Khan’s achievements as a leader went far beyond his conquests. While these certainly gained him recognition among historians as a military genius, perhaps his greatest achievements were not in the field of military conquest. Indeed, he played a major role in five significant areas in the development of Mongolian society. The first was that he united the tribes of Mongolia into one nation that remained unified through his might and charisma. Second, he introduced a writing system into Mongolian society and forced the Mongolian nobility to become literate, although he himself remained illiterate.

The last three cultural achievements were institutions he imposed on the Mongols that lasted well beyond his death. The first of these three was the Yasa, or law code, which he imposed over the empire. He also created an army with absolute discipline out of the unruly tribes. With this army he was able to forge an empire that stretched from the coasts of China to the shores of the Caspian Sea in his lifetime. It continued to grow after his death, a phenomenonal achievement in nomadic empires. The last institution that Genghis Khan developed—or rather foresaw the advantages of—was an organized system of administration to govern his empire.


Subedei (1176–1248) was one of Khan’s most capable military officers. He entered Genghis Khan’s service as a young man. Subedei had a long, distinguished career leading Mongol troops all across Europe and Asia.

Early Life

Subedei’s elder brother, Jelme, had been a companion and servant of Genghis Khan since his youth and rose to be one of his most trusted aides. Jelme and Subedei were of the Uriangkhai, a forest-dwelling people to the north of Mongolia. Subedei followed in his brother’s footsteps. Like Jelme, Subedei began his career as a servant, earning the trust of his lord by performing menial tasks such as tending his horses. At the same time, he learned leadership and military skills from Genghis Khan.

In time, Subedei amply proved his talent. He first served as a commander of one hundred men. By 1204 he was known as one of the “Four Hounds” of Genghis Khan, Genghis Khan’s most trusted generals: Subedei, his brother Jelme, Jebe, and Khubilai (not to be confused with Genghis Khan’s grandson, Kublai). As one of the Four Hounds, he was sent on the most urgent of missions and led an elite regiment of troops. After the unification of Mongolia in 1206, Subedei was appointed as commander of one thousand men, although it is very likely that he held this position before the official announcement took place at the crowning of Genghis Khan as ruler of Mongolia in 1206.

Military Successes

Subedei’s first military foray outside of Mongolia was conducted under the tutelage of Jebe. He pursued the renegade Naiman and Merkit tribes, tribes that refused to bow to Genghis Khan, into western Siberia in 1209. His success in this area also brought him into contact with the armies of the Khwarazmian Empire that were also in the region. Although the outcome of the war with the Khwarazmian Empire (1219–1223) was a draw, the ferocity of the outnumbered Mongols was such that it left Sultan Muhammad II, the Khwarazmian ruler, quite shaken.

After the Khwarazmian War, Subedei and Jebe set out through Transcaucasia (modern day Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia) and across the Caucasus Mountains. There, they defeated a combined army of Russian princes and Kipchak Turks at the battle of the Kalka River in 1223. Jebe apparently died not long afterwards, but Subedei, now fully in charge, continued the mission and successfully joined forces with Jochi, son of Genghis Khan, in what is now Kazakhstan. This feat remains an unparalleled accomplishment: his forces rode approximately five thousand miles without the assistance of modern communications or reinforcements, and always in hostile territory.

Afterwards, Subedei had a few years of rest from campaigning. While stationed in Kazakhstan, he organized an army to protect the western flank of the empire. When Genghis Khan led his armies to deal with the recalcitrant Tanguts of Xi Xia in 1226–1227, Subedei led Mongol forces in the invasion. After Genghis Khan’s death, Subedei had a brief falling-out with the new Mongol ruler Ogodei, but soon he was once again called upon to lead the Mongol armies. This time it was the all-out assault on the Jin Empire, and he was instrumental in that empire’s ultimate destruction.

Later Campaigns

In 1236, at the age of sixty, Subedei was ordered to lead the Mongols west towards the Volga River and into the Russian heartland. Batu, the son of Jochi, was the senior Mongol prince and held the nominal command of the campaign, but Subedei prepared the strategy and assumed overall operational command. In addition to an army of 150,000 men, they were accompanied by the dozens of grandsons of Genghis Khan. Sudebei’s most amazing achievement as a commander was not so much leading the army in this major campaign, but rather managing the egos of dozens of high-ranking Mongol princes. The fact that they accomplished anything despite constant princely rivalry is truly a testament to his abilities.

On this campaign, the Volga region fell quickly and by the end of 1237, the Mongols began their attack on Russian cities. Kiev, the grandest of the Russian cities, fell on December 6, 1240, but during the three years of campaigning, the Mongols had extended their empire by hundred of miles, from the Volga River to the Carpathian Mountains, conquering not only the Russian cities but also the Kipchak Turks of the steppes.

Subedei then planned his invasion of Central Europe with Mongol armies striking simultaneously at Hungary and Poland. The invasion of Poland was a diversion to keep Polish armies from potentially joining forces with the Hungarians. Subedei himself led the assault on Hungary. The Mongols overpowered the mountain fortresses that guarded the passes. Subedei then encountered the Hungarian army at a spot called Mohi by the Sajo River. Here, Subedei demonstrated strategic and tactical genius by seizing the bridge over the river through the use of a rolling barrage from catapults. While one force did that, Subedei outflanked the Hungarians by building a pontoon bridge at another spot on the river. The two wings then proceeded to crush the Hungarians during a siege of their camp and the subsequent retreat.

Despite having free rein in Hungary, Subedei ordered his forces to withdraw in 1240 after receiving news of the death of Ogodei Khan. He and the princes in the army were needed for the selection process of the new ruler, which did not happen until 1246. Subedei’s talents were still so respected that even after six years of inactivity (no fighting occurred until the election of a new khan) he was again asked to lead the army. Guyuk Khan, the new ruler, asked the now seventy-year-old general to lead Mongol forces against the Song Empire. Subedei continued to demonstrate his talents, but after two years of inconclusive war, he was finally able to retire to the Tula River basin in Mongolia where he died in 1248.


One of the many sons of Jochi, the eldest son of Genghis Khan, Batu (1203–1255) became one of the most influential and powerful figures in the Mongol Empire. It had long been rumored that the father of Jochi was not really Genghis Khan but a Merkit prince who had kidnapped Borte, Genghis Khan’s wife. Neither Batu nor anyone descended from Jochi had a legitimate chance of ruling the empire. Nonetheless, Batu became a powerful figure in his own right.

Batu’s Patrimony

The territory of the Jochids, as the descendents of Jochi were known, was as far west as the Mongols had traveled. In the 1220s, a Mongol army led by Subedei (a trusted general of Genghis Khan) had reached the Black Sea. However, effective Mongol control only reached as far as the Aral Sea. The rest was in the hands of the Bulgars, who controlled much of the Volga River, the nomadic Kipchak Turks who controlled the steppe lands between the Caspian and Black Seas, and finally the Russian principalities.

In 1234, Ogodei Khan, the ruler of the Mongol empire after Genghis Khan, announced that it was time to claim the territory bequeathed to the sons of Jochi. Subedei, who had been recalled from the final stages of the war against the Jin Empire, was to lead the military campaign. Batu, as the leading prince, would be the nominal commander of an army of 150,000 men.

Bulgar and Russia

The army set out in February, 1236. The first target was the city of Bulgar, near modern Kazan, on the Volga River. Bulgar was an important commercial city in the region because its denizens procured furs from Siberia and sold them throughout Eurasia.

Batu led one part of the army against Bulgar, while the main body under Subedei marched against the Kipchaks. Bulgar fell in 1236 and most of the Kipchaks submitted to the Mongols later that year. This brought the present day Volga and Ural river basins under Mongol control.

In the winter of 1237, the Mongols invaded northeastern Russia. Ryazan fell in December. From there, the Mongols quickly overran Vladimir and other cities. An early spring thaw in March 1238 spared Novgorod from attack. Nonetheless, the Novgorodians saw the wisdom in submitting to the Mongols rather than risking an attack.

Batu’s forces then overran southern Russia. Kiev refused to submit and was stormed in December 1240. The Mongols then rested for the duration of the winter before invading Hungary and Poland.


The Mongols invaded Europe in 1241. Batu and Subedei led most of the Mongol army into Hungary while another force entered Poland. The Mongols won successive victories at Liegnitz and over the Hungarians at Mohi. The Mongols also raided deep into the Balkans and approached Vienna. All of Europe trembled before the impending attack, but then the Mongols suddenly retreated back behind the Carpathian Mountains.

Rivalry with Guyuk

The main reason for their retreat was the death of Ogodei in 1241. Guyuk, who was one of the sons of Ogodei and Batu’s rival, was a contender for the throne. Batu led his forces back to the Volga River where he made his camp. Here the city of Sarai was built, which served as Batu’s capital. Batu then watched and awaited the outcome of the Mongol election.

Unfortunately for Batu, Guyuk was chosen ruler in 1246. The two were enemies not only because Guyuk disparaged Batu’s lineage, but also because Guyuk had been sent back to Ogodei due to insubordination during the Russian campaign. A livid Ogodei almost had his son executed; however, Ogodei died before any punishment could be meted out. Once in power, Guyuk intended to wage war against Batu.

Power of the Golden Horde

The war never occurred, however, since Guyuk died in 1248. Afterwards, Batu, now the most senior ranking prince in the empire, became engaged in politics. Knowing that he could never be khan, he instead engineered the election of Mongke, the son of Tolui (Genghis Khan’s fourth son), in 1251. Mongke served on the Russian campaign and had proven his worth. In return for Batu’s support, Mongke gave Batu almost complete autonomy in the west. Batu then spent the remainder of his life ruling his kingdom from Sarai and making the region a major power for the next two hundred years.

Yuri II

Yuri Vsevolodovich II (1189–1238) was the Grand Prince of the Russian principalities at the time of the Mongol invasion. His career reflects the complications of being the ruler (theoretically, at least) of medieval Russia. Although he was the Grand Prince, the subordinate princes carried out their own agendas, and unity was often ephemeral.

Rise to Power

Yuri was the third of the seven sons of Vsevolod III (d. 1212), the Grand Prince of Russia. His elder brothers Boris and Gleb had died in 1188 and 1189, respectively, making Yuri the eldest son. Yuri Vsevolodovich’s family was from the province of Suzdal and although Kiev was the historic center of power and culture for the medieval Russians, Suzdal in the northeast of Russia would remain the true base of his power. Yuri’s rise to power was enhanced by a marriage to Agafia Vsevolodova arranged by Vsevolod a year before his death. Agafia was the daughter of Vsevolod Chermnyy, a long-time rival of Grand Prince Vsevolod. The marriage concluded a peace treaty on April 10, 1211.

After Vsevolod’s death, Yuri was not guaranteed the throne. A considerable amount of infighting took place between all of the sons of Vsevolod before Yuri’s claims were secure. In the meantime, those distractions allowed the dissolution of the unity that had been created by the marriage of Yuri and Agafia. Other wars between the princes throughout Russia became quite frequent as they all jockeyed for power.

Not until 1217 was Yuri secure in his position of Grand Prince, and then only in the northern cities was he completely accepted as ruler. Another three years went by before he was the undisputed Grand Prince of Russia. To aid in the process, Yuri placed his brothers as governors and princes in some cities when the opportunity arose.

Mongol Threat

Although Yuri was Grand Prince, the decade of warfare that occurred after the death of his father ended the days of the all-powerful ruler. Although Yuri held the title, he could not assert himself in local matters even if he wanted to. He had become more of a first among equals. His power was respected, but whenever possible, the princes—particularly in southern Russia—ignored him.

Thus when the Mongols invaded southern Russia in 1223, Yuri’s army was not involved in the crushing defeat at Kalka River. To Yuri, the Mongol invasion appeared to be just another incursion by steppe nomads, and the Bulgars on the Volga River were of greater concern. In the early 1220s, Yuri led a few campaigns against them, particularly when they took advantage of the disorder of the previous decade. Hostilities ended in 1229 as the Bulgars signed a peace treaty as a result of their own growing fears about the Mongols. After the peace treaty they had minimal contact until 1236, when the Bulgars appealed to Yuri for aid against the Mongols. Yuri declined.

The Mongol invasion began in 1237 at Ryazan, roughly 120 miles from Yuri’s capital, Vladimir. Ryazan fell after a five-day siege on December 21, 1237. Yuri tried to lure the Mongols into open battle, but his attempt failed. The Mongols shadowed his moves, but meanwhile they continued to assault city after city. Yuri fell back to a sound defensive position on the Sit River, near the confluence of the Oka and Moskva rivers. The rivers, he hoped, would limit the mobility of the Mongols.

Unfortunately for Yuri, the Mongols took their time and did not rush to the attack. They surrounded him while they destroyed Vladimir. In the attack, Yuri’s family, including his wife and daughters, were killed in February 1238. Yuri was helpless to prevent this, for although the Mongols did not attack him, they were always on the horizon, preventing him from moving his army.

Battle of Sit River

On March 4, 1238, the Mongols launched their attack. Very little is known about it, primarily because on the Russian side there were few survivors and the Mongols merely listed it as a victory. The Mongol general Burundai crushed the Russian forces. Yuri was decapitated during the battle. Apparently, after Yuri’s death the rest of the Russian army broke up and fled, only to be chased down and slaughtered by the Mongols.

After Yuri’s death, his son Yaroslav ascended to the throne of the increasingly shrinking kingdom. He wisely submitted to the Mongols and ruled as a vassal over Suzdal until 1246, but with the Mongol presence, his authority was obviously limited.


Mongke (1208–1259) was the last khan of a unified Mongol Empire. He was the eldest son of Tolui, the fourth son of Genghis Khan. Mongke resurrected the dynamism of the empire, sending it on another round of conquests after a decade of little fighting.

Mongke served with distinction in the great westward expansion of the Mongol Empire led by Batu and Subedei. He fought against the Kipchaks and then later in the Caucasus region (present day Chechnya) in 1238–1239. During these campaigns he formed a good relationship with his cousin, Batu. Whereas virtually all of the princes of the Mongol Empire were cousins to one degree or another, the bond between the families of Jochi and Tolui were especially close. The wives of Jochi and Tolui—Chaur and Sorqoqtani, respectively—were also sisters.

The Coup

This close relationship was pivotal in the rise of Mongke. After the death of Guyuk Khan in 1248, the administration of the empire came to a halt as the regent, Oghul Qaimish (Guyuk’s wife), showed no intention of selecting a new khan. Seeing an opportunity and tired of the governmental malaise, Sorqoqtani and Batu plotted to overthrow her. They agreed to place Mongke on the throne.

A quriltai, or meeting, was held in 1251. Although Batu did not attend, he provided thirty thousand troops for security. In the meantime, Sorqoqtani procured the support of some of the princes from outside the Toluid and Jochid families. Thus Mongke ascended the throne; he arrested Oghul Qaimish and accused her of a variety of crimes, ranging from negligence of state matters to witchcraft. Indeed, the Mongols brought in special shamans in case of any magical threats.


Initially there was little opposition from the other branches of Genghis Khan’s family. However, the dissenters soon made their discontent known. Shiremun, a son of Ogodei, believed that he should be the new khan. Indeed, he had been a candidate for the crown when Guyuk was elected. He and others plotted against Mongke. They pretended to come to Mongke’s court to pay homage, but their wagons contained armed warriors rather than their families. Fortunately for Mongke, the plot was discovered. Accompanied by his own troops and those of Batu, he intercepted the plotters and arrested them.

The ringleaders were executed and a purge began. Mongke set up an investigative board, and all the princes and government officials were scrutinized to determine their loyalty. In the end, most of the descendents of Ogodei were executed along with many of those of Chaghatay, another son of Genghis Khan. Only those who were personally known and trusted by Mongke were spared.

Mongke also used the purges as an effective means of reconstructing the administration of the empire. During the time of Oghul Qaimish, government positions were easily bought and used to exploit the subjects of the empire. Mongke returned qualified administrators to their positions and restored the efficiency of the government. He then marshaled the resources of the empire in order to resume the expansion of the Mongol state.


Mongke ordered two invasions. While his brother Hulegu invaded the Middle East, Mongke sought to complete the conquest of the Song Empire, which had begun in 1234 and made little progress since. His brother, Kublai, led the initial forces against the Song. Mongke set off to join him.

In 1258, Mongke crossed the Yellow River and divided his army into four corps, attacking the Song on multiple fronts. Mongke’s personal army did quite well, capturing the cities of Chengdu and Tongchuan, along with multiple fortresses. He then moved against the important city of Hezhou in 1259. The siege began in typical fashion, as the Mongols surrounded the city with a palisade and began to bombard it with their siege engines. However, during the siege, Mongke died. It is not clear if he died from an arrow wound or from dysentery, since the sources disagree.

Mongke’s death set the stage for the breakup of the Mongol Empire. Kublai and Ariq Boke—the youngest son of Tolui and brother to Mongke, Kublai, and Hulegu—both claimed the throne. A civil war erupted and the western portions of the empire began to act on their own and fight their own disputes, thus ending the unity of the empire.

Kublai Khan

Kublai Khan (1215–1294) was probably the most famous Mongol Khan after his grandfather, Genghis Khan (1165–1227). Kublai was one of the four sons of Sorqoqtani, a Mongolian queen who greatly influenced the course of the empire, and Tolui. Although Kublai established himself as the titular ruler of the Mongol empire, his brothers were also significant personages in history. Mongke, his elder brother, ruled the empire from 1251 to 1259 while Hulegu established the Mongol Il-Khanate in the Middle East. After Mongke’s death, Kublai fought a civil war with his brother Ariq Boke for control of the empire, which Kublai won in 1264.

The empire he won was not the entire Mongol Empire, which had stretched from the Sea of Japan to the Carpathian Mountains. Instead, this “Great Khanate” consisted only of Mongolia, Korea, and modern China, including Tibet. Meanwhile, the Chaghatayid Khanate in Central Asia alternated between fighting Kublai and recognizing him as its overlord, depending on who was currently in power. The Il-Khanate in the Middle East remained a steadfast ally and subordinate state, but the Golden Horde, as the Il-Khanate eventually became known in Russia, remained distant and only provided token recognition to Kublai Khan.

Conquest of the Song Empire

Kublai’s greatest military achievement was the conquest of southern China, the location of the Song Empire. The Mongols had been at war with the Song Empire since 1234, but had made little headway. Mongke died during the largest invasion, of which Kublai was the leader. After securing the state against Ariq Boke, Kublai redoubled his efforts. He steadily moved against the Song Empire’s mountain fortresses and captured cities along the rivers with the use of a navy and increased use of Chinese infantry.

The use of the navy and infantry was pivotal because the mountainous terrain and numerous rice paddies hampered the traditional Mongol cavalry. Finally, in 1272 the Mongols captured the city of Xiangyang after a three-year siege. Although the conflict lasted another six years, Kublai conquered the Song empire in 1279 with a naval victory at Yaishan.

Failed Invasions

When not embroiled with civil wars against his cousins, Kublai did attempt to expand his empire. Kublai sent ambassadors to Japan, requesting that they come to him and submit to his authority. Despite the Mongols’ reputation, the Japanese believed that their samurai tradition and the isolation provided by being an island state would protect them from the Mongol onslaught. Therefore, they rebuffed the request.

In the eyes of the Mongols, who believed that heaven had decreed that they should rule the world, this was an act of rebellion. In 1274, Kublai sent an army of almost thirty thousand men and more than three hundred ships to Japan. After initial successes, the navy was destroyed by storms. The same thing would happen in 1281 when the Mongols sent two armies, numbering more than one hundred thousand men in total. Thus Japan was spared from Mongol conquest.

Kublai’s overseas ventures did not end with Japan, though. In 1289, Kublai’s envoys requested the submission of the kingdoms of Java. Initially, the Mongols had success, especially after fighting broke out among rival powers on Java. Some of the rulers submitted to the Mongols. After the Mongols won at the battle of Kediri, it appeared that the island was theirs. However, Prince Vijaya, who had submitted to the Mongols, betrayed them and drove the Mongols off the island.

Kublai’s attempts at conquest outside of China continued to prove unsuccessful. Invasions of modern-day Vietnam and Burma failed, although many of the princes decided it was better to pay tribute than to face continual Mongol raids and invasions.

Although Kublai’s military operations overseas and in southeast Asia were desultory, it is still amazing that he could even attempt them. During his entire reign, his armies were continuously active against other Mongol armies in Central Asia. In many ways, the invasions of Japan and Java were extravagant—Kublai’s major concern was quelling the war with his rival Qaidu, a cousin, in Central Asia. This war, however, continued even after Kublai’s death in 1295.

Kublai was known for the magnificence of his court, and his wisdom and accomplishments. Although his military record was not like his grandfather’s, Kublai’s fame endured. Immortalized in The Travels of Marco Polo as well as Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem “Kubla Khan,” Kublai Khan and his legacy have only grown over time.


The early life of Hulegu (1217–1265) is a mystery, but it is known that he was the son of Genghis Khan’s fourth son, Tolui, and his wife Sorqoqtani. Hulegu was the younger brother of Mongke, the fourth Khan of the empire, and Kublai Khan, Mongke’s successor. Despite being in the shadows of his elder brothers, Hulegu carved his own impressive legacy in history by conquering much of the Middle East.

After Mongke became khan, he ordered Hulegu to invade the Middle East with an army of 150,000 men. The Mongols had been operating in the Middle East since 1230, but the region was not fully under Mongol control.

The Assassins

Hulegu’s first target was the sect of Shi’a Muslims called the Ismailis, more popularly known as the Assassins. They were known for being masters of disguise and for their assassinations of political leaders throughout the region. While much of their lethal reputation was based on fact, it was greatly enhanced by legend and rumor.

Although the Mongol Empire had bordered the Assassin territory for twenty-five years, they still had not conquered them. The Assassins had once been allies and perhaps even clients of the Mongols. However, since 1240 there had been sporadic skirmishes between the two powers. During Mongke’s enthronement, it was rumored that four hundred Assassins were making their way to Karakorum, the Mongol capital, to kill him.

It is not known if this was the truth, but the rumor was enough evidence for Mongke. In 1256, Hulegu’s army marched on the Assassin-held territories in the Alborz Mountains south of the Caspian Sea. Ket Buqa, the commander of Hulegu’s vanguard, began the assault on the mountain castles. The Assassins made some guerilla attacks, but realizing that they did not have a chance against the Mongol army in the open, they opted to focus primarily on the defense of their mountain fortresses.

The Mongols quickly set large forces against the principal fortresses of Alamut and Maymun-Diaz. In the meantime, Hulegu demanded that the Assassin leader, Rukn al-Din, come before him and submit. As Rukn al-Din had taken refuge at Maymun-Diaz, Hulegu focused his efforts there; the castle fell with two weeks.

Afterwards, Hulegu used Rukn al-Din as a pawn to secure the surrender of other fortresses. Eventually, however, his usefulness diminished, and Rukn al-Din was sent to Karakorum. At some point, possibly on the return journey, he was kicked to death.


After the destruction of the Assassins, Hulegu advanced against Baghdad. Although the titular head of the Islamic world, in reality the Caliph had very little power. The Caliph, an incompetent named Mustasim, tried to ignore the Mongol threat, but Hulegu’s forces overwhelmed the defenses of Baghdad in 1258, and the Abbasid Caliph came to an end.


After the destruction of Baghdad, Hulegu advanced on Syria. Many of the local princes in what is now northern Iraq, eastern Turkey, and northern Syria came and submitted to him. One such ruler was Bohemund VII of Antioch and Tripoli, a Crusader prince.

Afterwards, Hulegu marched on Aleppo and quickly took it. While Ket Buqa captured Damascus in 1260, Hulegu withdrew the bulk of the army to the Mughan plain in modern Azerbaijan, where there was sufficient pasture for his horses. He had also heard of the death of his brother Mongke and needed to determine what would happen next.

The Il-Khanate

At the same time, the Mamluks of Egypt defeated Ket Buqa and the Mongol garrison at Ayn Jalut in 1260. Thus the Mongols were driven out of Syria, but Hulegu could do little about it. After Mongke’s death, the empire split into four realms. Hulegu ruled what became known as the Il-Khanate of Persia, consisting mostly of Iran and Persia.

Most of Hulegu’s time, until his death in 1265, was consumed by a civil war with his cousin, Berke, son of Jochi, who was the eldest son of Genghis Khan. The war was ostensibly triggered by Hulegu’s execution of the Caliph, which angered Berke, a Muslim convert. However it was actually fought over Berke’s claims to the Mughan plain. The issue was never resolved as the Il-Khanate would fight the Golden Horde, as Berke’s state became known, basically until the end of the Il-Khanate in 1335.

Hulegu successfully established his own kingdom; unfortunately, the chronic warfare that erupted after his death prevented it from ever becoming very stable.


Abu Ahmad Abd Allah ibn al-Mustansir al-Mustasim bi Allah, more commonly known as Mustasim (1212–1258), has the dubious honor of being the last Caliph from the Abbasid family. During his reign from 1242 to 1258, the Mongols destroyed the Abbasid Caliphate and sacked Baghdad, doing so while Mustasim demonstrated an alarming amount of incompetence.

As Caliph

Like so many medieval figures, little is known about his early life. His father, the Caliph al-Mustansir, died in December 1242. Al-Mustansir had been a determined leader and had even thwarted a few small invasions by the Mongols. He had kept the army in a constant state of readiness. When al-Mustasim came to the throne, he quickly proved that he was not the same caliber of leader as his father.

The first decade and a half of his reign was rather unremarkable. During this period the Mongols rarely even raided the territory controlled by the Abbasid Caliphate, which extended roughly from Basra to the south to Tikrit in the north, in modern-day Iraq. However, this is not to say that this region was tranquil.

The large army his father created was supported by fiefs known as iqtas. Unlike medieval European knights who ruled their fiefs on behalf of their lord, in the Middle East the warriors did not rule their fiefs. They instead received a share of the proceeds from the land, markets, and orchards. Since this served as their pay, the warriors had incentive to protect and also not to plunder the land.

Mustasim, feeling that the army was a drain on government revenues, began to reduce the number of iqtas allotted to the army in 1250–1251. Because of this change, the number of troops was also significantly reduced. Furthermore, Mustasim ignored tensions between minority Shi’a Muslims and the more numerous Sunni Muslims. Thus, when violence between the two groups erupted in 1258 after the Caliph’s son Abu Bikr massacred the Shi’a Muslims at Karkha and Mashad, Mustasim lacked the authority to quell the violence.

Mustasim also neglected affairs of state, spending most of his time preoccupied with his collection of doves. While he raced them and engaged in other bird games, he left the major affairs of state to his wazir, or minister of state, Alqami.

The Plot Against Mustasim

Alqami, a Shi’a Muslim himself, was competent in his job, but there were also rivalries within the government. The dawatdar, or chief secretary, Sultan Mujahid al-Din-i-bak (a Sunni), challenged his every move. Alqami was also enraged by the actions of Mustasim’s son and sought an alliance with the Mongols. Although the Mongols had just destroyed the Shi’a Assassin sect, Alqami saw the Mongols as a good alternative to the Sunnis. The Mongols were known for their policy of religious tolerance, something out of the norm for the age.

Alqami successfully contacted the Mongols, but some of the messages were intercepted and given to the dawatdar, Sultan Mujahid. The dawatdar knew of the wazir’s hostility towards the Caliph’s son and informed the Caliph of the plot. Alqami was not easily removed from office; he successfully turned the tables on Sultan Mujahid and said that Sultan Mujahid plotted to raise Abu Bikr to the throne. The confused Caliph did not know who to believe, so he ignored them both.

Meanwhile, Alqami continued his undermining of Baghdad. He dismissed Kurdish regiments under the pretence that it was part of maintaining peaceful relations with the Mongols. When Hulegu advanced on Baghdad, its defenses were dismal compared to when Mustasim’s father was the Caliph. In addition, despite his own role in reducing the size and effectiveness of the army, Mustasim apparently did not think that anyone would dare attack the Caliph’s city.

The Mongol Threat

When the Mongol envoys arrived requesting tribute, Mustasim sent them back to Hulegu with a threatening letter. This only angered the Mongol prince, and the war began. Afterwards Mustasim had second thoughts and tried to appease the Mongols with an annual tribute, but Hulegu refused it.

The siege of Baghdad began in January and was completed by February 10, 1258. Hulegu allowed his men to plunder the city for several days. Ten days later he met with Mustasim and chastised him for hoarding his wealth instead of using it to pay his soldiers and improve the defenses of the city. He then had Mustasim honorably executed: so that his blood would not be spilt on to the ground, he was rolled in a carpet and trampled by horses. Thus ended the last of the Abbasid Caliphs.

Saif al-Din Qutuz

Saif al-Din Qutuz (?–1260) was a Mamluk amir (commander) of Egypt who faced the threat of the Mongol juggernaut. Within a span of five years, the Mongols had eliminated the menace of the Assassins, destroyed the former center of the Muslim world by sacking Baghdad, and almost casually swept over Syria. Rather than fleeing, as so many had, Qutuz instead took the battle to the Mongols and drove them out of Syria.

Becoming a Mamluk

No one was born a Mamluk. The Mamluks, who were military slaves, were selected from the boys brought in by slave traders. Turks were usually preferred because most of them already had experience at riding horses and in archery. Saif al-Din Qutuz came to the slave market in Damascus during the Mongol invasion of the Middle East in the 1220s and 1230s, but the exact year is not known.

Qutuz was the nephew of Jalal al-Din Khwarazmshah, the last ruler of the Khwarazmian Empire, which had been destroyed by the Mongols. Qutuz, taken captive by the Mongols, was then sold to a slave trader from Damascus who in turn sold him to a Mamluk amir in Cairo named Mu’izz Aybak al-Turkumani (1250–1257).

As their masters fed and clothed them quite well, Mamluks often developed an intense loyalty to their owners. Mamluks trained every day in the arts of archery, fencing, lancing, and horsemanship. With this intense training, the Mamluks became renowned for their abilities and were probably, man-for-man, the best soldiers in the world. Unfortunately, because of the expense in training and arming them, like most elite forces they were relatively few in number.

Rise to Power

Prior to Qutuz, Egypt was ruled by Shajar al-Durr and Qutuz’s master Aybak. Qutuz served as his viceroy. Aybak was assassinated in 1257 by his wife because he intended to take another wife, the daughter of the Sultan of Mosul in northern Iraq. In turn, Aybak’s slaves murdered her. Aybak’s son, al-Mansur Ali, was then proclaimed sultan while Qutuz continued to serve as viceroy.

From 1257 to 1258, Qutuz was very active, fighting other Mamluks and their Syrian allies who together sought to overthrow Aybak’s young son. As this child was only ten, Qutuz was the real power behind the throne, but he remained loyal to the child out of respect for his former master. However, in 1259, Qutuz replaced al-Mansur as the Sultan of Egypt. He did promise that after defeating the Mongols, he would relinquish the throne to Aybak’s son.

With the Mongols invading Syria in 1259, the sultanate could no longer be ruled by a child—a man of action was needed. In this time of danger, Qutuz’s heritage did not hurt his reputation either, as his uncle, Jalal al-Din, had been one of the few leaders who had defeated the Mongols.

To better face the Mongols, Qutuz and the other Mamluk leaders—including Baybars, who was one of his most ardent opponents—came to terms. Not only did Qutuz accept Baybars’s services, but he awarded him territory and a high rank. Thus, Qutuz was able to recruit a strong army.

War with the Mongols

Mongol envoys arrived in Cairo, demanding that Egypt submit or face destruction. Qutuz’s response was to execute them, a clear declaration of war. Furthermore, he decided to lead the Mamluk army against the Mongols in Syria.

Qutuz chose his time perfectly. He struck while the Mongol prince Hulegu was occupied in Azerbaijan waiting for information concerning the death of Mongke, his brother and the ruler of the Mongol Empire. Hulegu had left a small but suitable garrison to maintain order in Syria. This was a sufficient force to ensure order, but only so long as no other destabilizing factors entered the country.

Qutuz’s army overran the Mongol border guard at Gaza and made their way to Ayn Jalut, in modern Israel. Here Qutuz met the Mongol forces led by Kit Buqa and defeated the Mongols.

Qutuz could not savor his victory though. After securing Syria from further Mongol attacks, he marched back to Cairo. One day when they stopped to rest, Qutuz was assassinated by Baybars and other commanders. Baybars then assumed the throne. It was rumored that enmity between Qutuz and Baybars arose again after Qutuz refused to award Baybars the governorship of Aleppo for his role at Ayn Jalut. Qutuz did not trust Baybars, quite rightly as it turned out, and did not want him so far away. Unfortunately, having Baybars close to him was even deadlier.


Timur (1336–1405) was a Tatar ruler who conquered central Eurasia and much of the Near and Middle East. He was born near Kesh, near Samarkand (in modern day Uzbekistan). Timur was the son of Taragai of the Barlas Tribe, a tribe with Mongolian origins but thoroughly Turkic in ethnicity by Timur’s lifetime. During his youth, Timur’s right arm and leg were paralyzed from arrow wounds received during a raid. Later his detractors called him Timur-i Leng, Persian for “Timur the Lame,” which became “Tamerlane” in the West. Timur began his career as a minor leader and occasional bandit during the unrest that marked much of Central Asia during the mid-fourteenth century. He eventually carved out a sizable empire in the region, doing so by means that were typically quite brutal.

Early Career

With the collapse of the Chaghatayid Khanate (a successor state of the Mongol Empire that covered most of Central Asia), new opportunities arose in the region. Timur worked a chaotic situation to his advantage and became the lieutenant of his brother-in-law Emir Husain. The two gained control of Mawarannahr—Arabic for “Land Across the River,” (i.e., the Amu Darya), also called Transoxiana—before a falling-out pitted Timur and Husain against each other in 1370. After a heated contest, Timur emerged as the victor.

After defeating Husain, Timur spent the next ten years consolidating his control in the region and defending it from raids by the remnants of the Chaghatayid Khanate in Moghulistan (modern Kazakhstan and Xinjiang in modern China). Beginning in 1380, Timur became embroiled in external affairs when he began lending support to Toqtamysh, a prince in the Golden Horde. (Located in modern Russia and Ukraine, the Golden Horde was another remnant of the Mongol Empire.) Toqtamysh was embroiled in a civil war. Timur saw this as a valuable opportunity to not only secure a border, but also to have influence in the Golden Horde, a powerful neighbor.

Building an Empire

Not until 1383 did Timur expand his realm beyond Mawarannahr. In that year, his forces crossed the Amu Darya River into Persia and conquered the area known as Khurasan (parts of modern Iran and Afghanistan and eastern Iran). By 1394, the regions of Fars, Iraq, Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Georgia succumbed to his armies as well. It is questionable if Timur actually sought to create a true stable empire, as he seems to have preferred to plunder these areas rather than to collect taxes and tribute.

Meanwhile, Timur’s protégé and new ruler of the Golden Horde, Toqtamysh, challenged Timur’s authority. As a descendent of Genghis Khan, Toqtamysh viewed himself as the rightful leader of the post-Mongol Empire. Toqtamysh invaded Timur’s empire in 1385 and 1388, defeating Timur’s generals twice. In retaliation, Timur invaded the Golden Horde in 1391 and defeated Toqtamysh. Although beaten, Toqtamysh regained power and invaded Timur’s empire again in 1395.

Timur decided to finish the rivalry once and for all. He pursued Toqtamysh and finally caught him in a battle on the Kur River. Timur defeated him and then proceeded to break the power of the Golden Horde by inciting and supporting various contenders for the throne, but making sure none could be a threat to his own power. Although Timur effectively conquered the Golden Horde, he did not seek to incorporate it into his empire, perhaps realizing that as a non-Chinggisid prince, he would never be accepted as the ruler in that region. Thus he settled for its continued existence, in a weakened form.

With one border secure, Timur turned his attention to India, invading the Sultanate of Delhi in 1398. As he did for many campaigns, Timur justified his actions on religious grounds. His armies sacked and burned Delhi in a wanton display of destruction, but Timur—a Muslim—legitimized his invasion on the grounds of Sultan Mahmud Tughlak’s excessive toleration of his Hindu subjects. As always after a campaign, wealth from the plunder poured into his capital at Samarkand.

Western Campaigns

Despite the massive haul of plunder, Timur did not remain at his capital. In 1399, he marched west against the Mamluk Sultanate in Egypt and Syria and the Ottoman Empire in Anatolia (modern Turkey). Both states had supported rebellions against Timur or threatened his vassals. After putting down a rebellion in Azerbaijan, Timur invaded Syria in 1401 and defeated the Mamluks, sacking Aleppo and Damascus in the process. At Damascus, he ransomed it once, and then decided to plunder it after deeming the ransom insufficient. He then invaded Anatolia and defeated the Ottoman army at Ankara in 1402. Here he also captured Sultan Bayazid, formerly known as the terror of Europe, leaving the Ottoman Empire in turmoil for the next fifty years.

The Last Campaign of Timur

With his western frontier now secure from the threat of attack, Timur returned to Samarkand in 1404. Despite being carried in a litter for most of his later campaigns, Timur did not plan a life of ease yet. Instead, he planned for an invasion of China, ruled by the Ming Dynasty. The invasion ended prematurely as Timur died on January 19, 1405, at the city of Otrar. Although he had designated a successor, his empire, held together primarily through the force of his will, quickly disintegrated into smaller states ruled by his sons and grandsons.

Legend and Legacy

Timur continues to be most often remembered for his conquests and cruelty. Massacres accompanied all of his victories, and he left reminders of his deeds in the form of towers of skulls. These served both as monuments to his achievements and warnings to those who opposed him. Yet Timur was not a crude, unsophisticated barbarian. Even his enemies noted that he was an expert chess player, very intelligent, fluent in several languages, and well-versed in the art of debate. Indeed, he would debate Muslim theologians from either the Sunni or Shi’a perspective.

Although his own empire was ephemeral, Timur dramatically impacted five states. His defeat of the Ottomans spared the Byzantine Empire for another fifty years, as Bayazid had planned to attack Constantinople before his defeat at Ankara. Although he did not destroy them, Timur’s defeat of the Mamluks exposed the slow decay of their once grand military might. With his defeat of Toqtamysh, Timur eroded the strength of the Golden Horde and accelerated the end of nomadic dominance over the principalities of Russia. Although he sacked Moscow (then a small town), Timur’s defeat of Toqtamysh also contributed to the rise of Moscow. His destruction of Delhi was the death knell for the Sultanate of Delhi. Indeed, although his empire disintegrated after his death, Timur’s descendents established the Moghul Empire in India, supplanting the Sultanate of Delhi.

Bayezid I

Bayezid (1354–1403) was one of the most dynamic sultans in the history of the Ottoman Empire. His military feats earned him the name of Yildirim (“Thunderbolt”). The rapidity of his conquest, particularly in the Balkans, also made him the “Terror of Europe.” However, much to his regret, he eventually discovered that there was a conqueror even more powerful than he.

Rise to Power

Bayezid accompanied his father, Sultan Murad I, on his campaigns in the Balkans. It was on one such campaign that Bayezid became the ruler of the Ottoman Empire. Murad suffered a mortal wound on the Field of Kosovo (June 15, 1389), and on that battlefield Bayezid became sultan.

He immediately had to secure his power against rivals and rebels. First he formed a marriage alliance with his Serbian vassals, then he returned to Anatolia to deal with rebellious subjects there. Afterwards, the Ottoman Empire in Anatolia stretched to the Karaman state in eastern Anatolia.

The Terror of Europe

In Europe, Bulgaria and Serbia had rebelled and Greece was restless as well. Although the Ottoman garrisons located in Europe did their best to quell the rebellions, the magnitude of the uprisings required Sultan Bayezid’s presence.

In 1393, Bayezid’s forces invaded Bulgaria and quickly overran Trnovo, the Bulgarian capital city. Meanwhile, he sent troops to establish a blockade of Constantinople. The Byzantine Empire was at this point less an empire than just a city, but it remained influential because it still represented the legacy of the Roman Empire. Its prestige was greater than its power. In 1394, Bayezid began what became a seven-year blockade.

As the blockade continued, Bayezid led his main forces deeper into Europe. With continued Ottoman successes, the call for a Crusade spread throughout Europe, sponsored by the Venetians and Hungarians. This Crusade ended at Nicopolis in 1396 as a complete disaster. Despite the warnings of the Hungarians, French knights fell for the feigned retreat of the Ottoman cavalry and were mowed down by the Janissary archers. The rest of the Crusader army was also annihilated.

Ottoman Military Power

Bayezid is often credited for implementing or strengthening new military innovations in the Ottoman army. It is during his reign that the devshirme system, or tribute paid in children, increased. The children were then the slaves of the Sultan, and fed, clothed, and trained by him. This gave the Sultan a loyal counter to the traditional cavalry forces of the Turkic aristocracy. Some of the children were trained to serve in the administration of the Ottoman Empire, but the majority entered the Janissary corps, the Yeni Cheri (“New Army” in Turkish). They served as infantry, first as archers but later as musketeers. Their loyalty and effectiveness made them the most feared fighting force in Europe and western Asia.

Demise of the Thunderbolt

In addition to securing and expanding Ottoman territory in Europe, Bayezid also sought to consolidate and expand his territory in Asia. His reputation as a ghazi, or warrior of the faith, was undisputed after his victories over the Christian armies of Europe. However, in Anatolia, he faced his fellow Muslims, who were also Turks. This led to some complications, and Bayezid had to find ways of justifying his wars against them. Also, his Turkic troops were less enthusiastic about fighting their co-religionists, thus forcing Bayezid to rely more on his Janissaries and European vassals.

Ultimately, this ambitious endeavor to conquer Europe and the Middle East led him into conflict with another powerful leader: Timur of Central Asia. In the early 1390s, Bayezid had expanded his Anatolian holdings to the borders of the small state of Karaman in eastern Anatolia. In 1397, Bayezid choose to annex the territory. This is what brought him into conflict with Timur, who had claims on the territory as well.

The two rulers, with equally large egos, could not resolve the issue diplomatically. In addition, Bayezid was known to have assisted Timur’s rival Toqtamysh, further drawing his ire. Eventually the two collided in battle at Ankara in July 1402. In the end, Bayezid was defeated. Timur took him captive and hauled the Ottoman ruler back to Samarkand in an iron cage. Bayezid eventually died in captivity.

Timur did not attempt to conquer the Ottoman state. Instead, Timur left Bayezid’s sons to fight amongst themselves, leaving it too weak to be a threat to him.

Major Battles

Zhongdu, 1210s

Zhongdu was the capital of the Jin Empire (1125–1234) in northern China. Located near modern Beijing, it was an impressive city, boasting a population nearly one million people. Zhongdu was well-protected by strong walls and outlying fortresses. Furthermore, the Jin had an army that consisted of over 500,000 cavalry and even more infantry. At the time of the Mongol invasions, they were one of the most advanced civilizations in the world in terms of technology.

Early Attacks

Mongol attacks on the Jin Empire began in 1211. Although the Jin possessed much larger armies, they had no one who could match Genghis Khan’s brilliance or the talent of his generals. The Mongols had burst through mountain passes and even raided the environs of Zhongdu by January 1212. As the surrounding towns surrendered or were pillaged, Zhongdu became an island in a sea of Mongol attacks. The Mongols then withdrew, content with the plunder they gained. However, this peace was brief, for later that year the Mongols attacked again.

The 1212–1214 War

Beginning in 1212, Mongol armies invaded and spread across the Jin Empire like a plague of locusts. The Jin attempted to counter their attacks. At the end of November 1213, the Jin army defeated two Mongol forces north of Zhongdu. A third Mongol attack annihilated the Jin troops, leading the Jin to extend the olive branch in December 1213. The Mongols rejected the peace terms.

Rather than tying down his army with a siege, Genghis Khan left five thousand men to patrol and blockade Zhongdu. Meanwhile he divided the main army into three forces and attacked the rest of the empire. As the three-pronged attack devastated the rest of the empire, it was difficult for the Jin armies to coordinate their efforts, and so they remained on the defensive.

Meanwhile, the garrison of Zhongdu discovered they could not attempt an attack on the Mongols outside the city. As the Mongol armies moved quickly (both in retreat and advance), the unnerved garrison became paralyzed by the fact that Genghis Khan might suddenly descend upon them.

Then in late February or March of 1214, Genghis Khan launched two unsuccessful attacks on Zhongdu, which convinced the Jin to attempt peace negotiations. Weary of war, the Jin negotiated a peace treaty that gave Genghis Khan the daughter of the previous emperor, five hundred boys and girls for the daughter’s retinue, three thousand horses, and several carts loaded with gold and silk. Content with the loot, the Mongols withdrew north.

The Final Destruction

The lull in hostilities between the Mongols and the Jin was brief. As a result of the looming Mongol threat and the devastation around Zhongdu, the Jin Emperor moved south. Genghis Khan viewed this movement as a violation of the treaty. The Mongols sent an army of fifty thousand to Zhongdu and surrounded it in September 1214. Rather than attacking directly, the Mongols blockaded it in hopes of starving it into submission. As the siege continued, some Jin commanders attempted to relieve the city. In April 1215, two such armies were defeated. After that, no other attempts were made.

The plight of the Jin worsened after these defeats as the Jin saw other cities fall to the Mongols throughout the month of May, leaving Zhongdu increasingly isolated and desperate. As the blockade of Zhongdu continued, there were incidents of cannibalism, and the commanders of the defense squabbled over the best course of action.

Finally, Zhongdu surrendered to the Mongols in June 1215. Genghis Khan returned north while his armies looted the city. Khwarazmian merchants who visited the city months after the siege ended noted the slaughter: there were bodies piled as high as hills.

Implications for the Jin

The fall of Zhongdu was not only a great military defeat for the Jin, but it also undermined their defense of other territories. Many areas simply surrendered rather than trying to resist the Mongol onslaught any longer. Rebellions broke out and spread across the dwindling Jin Empire. Some of the rebels submitted to the Mongols while others attempted to create their own kingdoms. The Mongols dealt with the latter harshly. At the same time, forces from the Song Empire and the Tangut Kingdom to the west invaded the Empire as well. The Jin could hold off the Tangut and the Song, but not the Mongols. Nonetheless, the Jin Empire struggled on until 1234, partially because Genghis Khan became distracted by events in Central Asia that led him and most of the army west.

Kalka, 1224

The first encounter between the Mongols and the Russians occurred in 1224 at the Kalka River. The battle was an unforeseen result of a reconnaissance expedition by the Mongol generals Subedei and Jebe. After the Mongols invaded the Khwarazmian Empire in Central Asia in 1219, Genghis Khan granted permission to these generals to continue west and explore the region.

After leaving Persia, the Mongols continued north and crossed the Caucasus Mountains and into the Kipchak steppes, which were the grasslands around the Black and Caspian seas. Here they defeated an army of Kipchak Turks, the dominant tribe in the region. The defeated nomads under Kotian Khan turned to Russian princes of Kiev for help, as Kotian’s tribe had several marriage alliances with them. (Indeed, Kotian’s brother-in-law was Prince Mstislav Mstislavich of Galicia.) The Russians joined the Kipchaks after the nomads convinced them that if they did not form an alliance now, the Mongols would advance upon them after defeating the Kipchaks. Furthermore, the Russians realized that if defeated, the Kipchaks would most likely be incorporated into the Mongol forces.

In the meantime, the Mongols denied any interest in the Russians and informed them that their grudge was solely with the Kipchaks. By way of a reply, the Russians killed the Mongol envoy and prepared for war. The Russian force included Grand Prince Mstislav Romanovich of Kiev, Prince Mikhail of Chernigov, Mstislav Mstislavich of Galicia, Daniilo Romanovich, the grandson of Mstislav of Kiev, and others. As they set out against the Mongols, they met another Mongolian emissary who warned them that since they had killed the previous envoy, war was guaranteed. The murder of the envoy had been a bold move, for despite the fact that the Russians did not know much about the Mongols, they had heard rumors that the Mongols defeated everyone they encountered.

The Russian armies joined the Kipchaks at the Dnieper River. Not long after crossing the Dnieper, scouts reported that the Mongols were in sight and surveying the Russian boats. This prompted Daniilo Romanovich to ride ahead and scout out the enemy. A sizable number of troops accompanied him. Having verified the report, he and Prince Mstislav Mstislavich decided to attack. They defeated a Mongol force and pursued the survivors.

Other princes advanced after Mstislav Mstislavich’s success and joined the pursuit. Although the Mongols fled before the Russians, they always remained in view but out of reach. Thus the Russian-Kipchak forces chased the Mongols for eight days before reaching the Kalka River. On the ninth day, Prince Mstislav Mstislavich ordered Prince Daniilo Romanovich to cross the Kalka River and continue the pursuit while he established a camp along the banks.

Lightly armed Kipchaks served as a vanguard and scouts for the pursuit force, and these units frequently skirmished with the Mongols. This delayed the Mongols enough so that the Russians caught up with their vanguard. Once again the Mongols took flight. As the Russian cavalry charged after them for the kill, other Mongol forces emerged from concealed positions among the rolling hills of the steppe. The Russians and Kipchaks began to realize that the whole retreat had been a trap; Mongol forces surrounded the Russians and raked them with volleys of arrows.

The Kipchaks broke and fled, pursued by Mongol troops. Prince Vasil’ko Gavrilovich and Prince Daniilo Romanovich and their men were cut down by the Mongol assault. (The two princes were struck by lances.) Meanwhile the terrified Kipchaks continued to flee to the Russian camp on the Kalka River. However, they did not halt at the camp but continued their flight, stampeding through the camp and throwing it in turmoil.

Unfortunately for the Russians, the Mongols had pursued the Kipchaks closely and attacked the camp. A massacre ensued as the Russians could barely organize a defense. Many of the Russians attempted to flee, only to be cut down. Prince Aleksandr Dubrovich and Prince Mstislav Romanovich of Kiev and his son-in-law, Prince Andrei, and rallied a force at a better defensive position along the river. They fortified a rocky area on the banks of the Kalka and resisted Mongol attacks. Meanwhile some of the Mongols pursued the rest of the Kipchaks and remaining Russian forces to the banks of the Dnieper.

After three days of siege, Prince Mstislav Romanovich and the others finally surrendered after negotiations with a man only known as Ploskinia. He was a member of the Brodniki, predecessors to the Cossacks. Whether the Brodniki had joined the Mongols of their free will is unknown, but they served as translators for the Mongols since they knew the Kipchak and Russian languages. Ploskinia secured Mstislav’s surrender and the Mongols took the fort.

After their victory, the Mongols celebrated with a feast. They constructed a platform where they ate, drank, probably sang songs raucously, stomped their feet, and perhaps even danced. The captive Russian princes, however, did not enjoy the banquet, for the Mongols used them in the construction of the platform as support for the planks. The princes were crushed under the platform boards during the feast.

Of the major Russian leaders, only Prince Mstislav Mstislavich survived, having safely crossed the Dnieper. Only one in ten soldiers returned home. After the victory, the Mongols simply turned east and disappeared. The Russians never learned who the Mongols really were and instead explained away the defeat as a punishment from God for their sins.

As for the Mongols, at the time they were not interested in conquest. This force was one of reconnaissance. They did not attempt to seize any territory, but made sure that neither the Russians nor the Kipchaks could interfere with their return to the region. Nonetheless, the Mongols gained valuable information from the experience: approximate troop strengths, tactics of their opponents, knowledge of the terrain, and the fact that the Kipchaks and the Russians were allies. Amazingly, the Russians simply resumed their civil wars and daily life, evidently not worried that the Mongols might return. Unfortunately for them, fourteen years later the Mongols did return—in unprecedented numbers and intent on conquest.

Kaifeng, 1233

The southern capital of the Jin Empire (1125–1234), Kaifeng was the city that the Jin court fled to in 1214 in the face of the Mongol invasion led by Genghis Khan. The flight triggered the destruction of Zhongdu, which had a population of over one million people. Although Genghis Khan died in 1227, the war against the Jin continued. Ogodei, the next Mongol ruler, continued the war and eventually brought it to Kaifeng.

Ogodei’s Invasion

In 1219, Genghis Khan left his most trusted general, Muqali, in charge of the campaign against the Jin, while he moved west to deal with the Khwarazmian Empire. Although Muqali made gains, he died in 1223. During the period between Muqali’s death and when Ogodei came to the Mongol throne, the Jin had regained some territory. When Ogodei invaded in January 1230, he planned on destroying the Jin once and for all.

As with most Mongol invasions, the Mongols divided their forces after they entered enemy territory in order to cause the most destruction possible. By the year 1231, the Jin Empire had been reduced to the province of Honan and the city of Kaifeng.

The situation of the Jin worsened in 1233 when Ogodei formed an alliance with the Song Empire. Although the Song provided the Mongols with twenty thousand men, the alliance was primarily made so that the Song could supply the Mongols with food. Although the Mongols were very good at conquest, often their destruction limited the food resources in the region since most farmers fled.

Ogodei sent the best general in the Mongol army, Subedei, to deal with Kaifeng. In 1233, Subedei led his army against the city. His opening maneuvers successfully lured the Jin army from its defensive positions. This allowed Subedei to cross the Yellow River while other Mongol forces dealt with the Jin field army.

The Jin tried to delay him by bursting the dams that held the yearly flooding of the Yellow River in check. However, Subedei—who campaigned against the Jin during the lifetime of Genghis Khan—had anticipated this. Thus when the Jin sent troops to the dikes, they found them already in the possession of the Mongols. Subedei then began a slow but steady encirclement of the city, beginning miles away. This was part of a hunting technique used by the Mongols known as the nerge. Gradually the circle tightened, herding everything into the center. Those that did not flee fast enough were cut down by the Mongols.

The influx of refugees broke the will of the city. Food and water stores were exhausted, and the newcomers spread stories of terror. The city fell after a relatively brief siege in May 1233.

The Mongols did not subject Kaifeng to destruction or excessive pillaging. Yelu Qu Cai, the primary advisor to Ogodei, had convinced the Mongols that in the long term the city would be more beneficial if it was spared the celebratory sacking that usually accompanied a Mongol victory.

Although Kaifeng fell, the Jin Emperor was not in Mongol hands. Even so, it was a forgone conclusion that the demise of the Jin Empire had arrived. Subedei was recalled to help plan for the invasion of the western steppes and the Russian principalities, while a lower-ranking general finished off the Jin Empire at Caizhou, where the Jin court had taken refuge. Caizhou fell in 1234, thus ending the Jin Empire.

Isfahan, 1230s

An important city in Persia for centuries, Isfahan in the thirteenth century became a center of resistance to the Mongols. During the initial invasions of the 1220s, Isfahan was largely spared from the depredation of the Mongols. Naturally, refugees fled to Isfahan because of this and because the eastern portion of Persia had been devastated.

Isfahan’s importance as a center of resistance to the Mongols intensified with the arrival of Jalal al-Din (d. 1231), the last ruler of the Khwarazmian Empire. While the core of this empire was now firmly under Mongol control north of the Amu Darya River, in the 1220s the Mongols largely withdrew from Persia and the area south of the Amu Darya.

Jalal al-Din had fled to India after Genghis Khan defeated him in 1221. After the Mongols withdrew, Jalal al-Din returned from India to regain control of what remained of his father’s empire. Because of the looming Mongol threat, he focused most of his efforts in trying to conquer territories in the west, such as Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Armenia. Meanwhile, he made Isfahan his capital.

While Genghis Khan was invading Xi Xia (northwestern China and parts of Tibet) again in 1227, he received reports of Jalal al-Din’s activities and ordered Chin-Temur, the Mongol governor in the region, to deal with him. Chin-Temur sent a small army of four thousand into Persia where it met Jalal al-Din at Damghan. Here, Jalal al-Din defeated the Mongols.

It is unclear if Jalal al-Din defeated the main force or just the vanguard, because the Mongols later captured Damghan and defeated other Khwarazmian troops. Then, in August 1228, they fought Jalal al-Din near Isfahan and defeated him. However, they could not eliminate the resistance, perhaps due to heavy losses incurred in battle. Furthermore, the Mongols did not attempt to occupy the territory.

In 1230, the Mongols decided to conquer all of Persia. An army of thirty thousand led by the Mongol general Chormaqan (d.1240) crossed the Amu Darya River. Despite the relative ease at which Chormaqan conquered Persia, Isfahan still did not fall. However, it became increasingly isolated. Chormaqan made his headquarters to the north, while other territories around Isfahan were secured.

The Mongols pursued Jalal al-Din, who fled upon Chormaqan’s approach, into Azerbaijan. Meanwhile, the rest of Persia submitted to the Mongols. Isfahan was surrounded, with only a narrow corridor open to the Abbasid Caliphate on the Tigris River. Its isolation became complete when Jalal al-Din was killed while fleeing from the Mongols in 1231. His army dispersed; some of them escaped to Isfahan through the corridor, but not even this was safe as the Mongols made several probing attacks on Baghdad and its protectorates.

The Mongols made several attacks on Isfahan, but it did not fall until 1237. As the Mongols encircled the city, they made contact—as they often did—with dissatisfied groups within the city. At this time, the city was divided between Hanafis and Shafi’is, two rival schools of interpretation of Islamic law. Even before the Mongols, their factionalism could become quite violent and clashes were frequent. The Shafi’is went to the Mongols and established contact, promising the Mongols that they would submit to them if in return the Shafi’i interpretation of Islamic law would be accepted over the Hanafi. The Mongols agreed and approached the city.

As the Mongols attacked Isfahan, the Shafi’is attacked and killed the Hanafi qadi, or judge, who had been a vociferous opponent of the Mongols for years and who directed the city’s defenses. They then attacked the Hanafis and opened the gates for the Mongols. The Mongols stormed the city and cut down all they encountered, including Shafi’is. The citizens were massacred and the city plundered before being set on fire.

Vladimir, 1238

In 1224 the Mongols destroyed a sizeable Russian army at the Kalka River and razed the Muslim city of Bulgar on the Volga River, just east of the Russian cities. However, the princes of Russia were too immersed in their own quarrels to realize the significance of the Mongol threat. A little over a decade later, this oversight would lead to their demise.

The invasion of Russia began at Ryazan on December 16, 1237. The city fell shortly before Christmas, five days after the invasion began. Grand Prince Yuri II sent a relief force to Ryazan, but it did not arrive in time. The Mongol forces destroyed his army near the city of Kolomna, located where the Oka and Moskva rivers join. Afterwards, the Mongols sacked Kolomna. The next major city targeted by the Mongols was Vladimir.

Vladimir was the capital of Suzdalia, the province of Grand Prince Yuri II, who was the titular ruler of the Russians. Although Yuri had done little to prepare his city after the fall of Bulgar, once he heard the news of the Mongol approach on Ryazan, Yuri quickly readied the defenses of Vladimir. His efforts were aided by the stout, but doomed, resistance of Moscow.

In the thirteenth century, Moscow was little more than a fortified outpost for the city of Vladimir. Nonetheless, it lay in the path of the Mongols. Although the Mongols captured Moscow quickly in January 1238, its resistance slowed them and allowed Yuri to continue his preparations. Meanwhile, the Mongol general Subedei ordered the Mongol army to break into smaller units and spread out. In doing so, Subedei now outflanked Vladimir and threatened all of northern Russia, rather than simply proceeding from one city to the next.

As the Mongols marched towards Vladimir, Grand Prince Yuri retreated to the Sit River, twenty miles west of the city, in hopes of meeting the Mongols in battle and luring them away from Vladimir. Yuri had chosen his position wisely as the Volga, Mologa, and Sit rivers would form natural defenses and help limit the Mongols’ mobility.

Initially, Mongol scouts simply reconnoitered the surrounding territory while Subedei and Prince Batu, son of Jochi and the nominal commander of the expedition, established their headquarters. (Jochi was the eldest of Genghis Khan’s sons.) Although Mongol scouts followed and observed the Russians, Subedei did not comply with Yuri’s wishes and would not engage. Instead, he led the main army against the city of Vladimir and began the siege on February 3, 1238.

Yuri had left his wife and sons, Vsevolod and Mstislav, in command of Vladimir. They were aided by Petr Oslyadyukovich, the commander of the Vladimir garrison, but the city’s fate rested largely in the hands of the Grand Prince’s family.

The Mongols asked for the city’s submission and were met with a hail of arrows. The Mongols then produced a prisoner, Prince Vladimir, Yuri’s son who had led the relief army that was defeated at Kolomna. They again requested the city’s surrender in exchange for Prince Vladimir’s life. It was an exchange of one Vladimir for another. Although Yuri had left in an attempt to lure the Mongols away from the city, Vsevolod and Mstislav also knew that other troops from the cities of Suzdalia were joining their father’s army. Despite knowing their brother’s fate if they refused, they hoped that the city could resist until their father returned with the entire armed might of Suzdalia. Thus they rejected the offer and watched the Mongols execute their brother.

Then the Mongols moved on to the next stage of the siege. The officers rode out around the city walls, out of arrow range, to inspect the defenses. Then to the surprise of the inhabitants, the Mongols’ siege engineers constructed a palisade around the city, completely surrounding them and cutting off any chance of escape. Meanwhile, Subedei sent a portion of his army to attack the city of Suzdal to the north, thus ensuring that no aid would come for the city of Vladimir. Scouts monitored and shadowed Yuri’s camp so that he could not surprise the Mongols. Furthermore, their activities made Yuri believe that their attack on his camp was imminent, but it was all a bluff.

Suzdal fell quickly under the first assault, but unlike at Ryazan, the Mongols did not massacre the populace. Thousands of prisoners (clergy were spared) were then marched to Vladimir. They then served as manpower for the building of the palisade that surrounded the city, as well as manpower for the catapults, which functioned by several people pulling ropes to fling the stones through the air. Unfortunately for Vladimir, as catapults were not used by the Russians, they had no weapons that could return fire. The prisoners of Suzdal would also man the battering rams when the time came. Naturally, the defenders of Vladimir had no choice but to shoot their countrymen; from the Mongol perspective, the prisoners were nothing more than arrow-fodder.

Unfortunately, the preparations begun by Yuri were insufficient against the Mongol attack. From their fortified positions, the Mongols then proceeded to bombard the city with catapult fire day and night. The Mongols also built scaffolding to assist in storming the walls and to give shelter for those manning the battering rams. On the morning of February 7, 1238, the Mongols launched their assault, storming all four city gates at once and using ladders to ascend the walls.

Fear swept through the city, undermining the efforts of the defenders. Despite a valiant effort, the defenders could not hold back the Mongol onslaught, which broke through the western defenses. By the afternoon, the majority of the fighting was over. The city bishop, Mitrofan, took Yuri’s wife, daughters, and grandchildren, as well as hundreds of other citizens, to the Cathedral of Assumption for refuge, believing that the Mongols would spare those who took sanctuary. The Mongols then attempted to seize the church, but resistance was tenacious. Rather than fighting their way through the church, the Mongols burned it to the ground, killing all of those who took shelter there. By the morning of February 8, 1238, all resistance in Vladimir had ended.

Afterwards, the Mongol army divided. One force led by Batu marched northeast, while Subedei sent troops under a lieutenant, Burundai, to finish off Grand Prince Yuri II. After Vladimir was taken, the rest of northern Russian fell quickly, with the exception of Novgorod, which was only spared because of an early thaw turned the ground into a morass, preventing the Mongols from riding. Whereas modern armies have floundered in the Russian winter, the Mongols took advantage of the frozen rivers and ground to move swiftly and were seemingly unaffected by the cold.

Liegnitz, 1241

When the Mongols invaded Europe in 1241, the main blow struck Hungary. Batu (the grandson of Genghis Khan) and the veteran general Subedei pursued fleeing Kipchak tribes who sought refuge there, while an additional Mongol force of approximately twenty thousand men rode north into Poland. The commanders of the invasion of Poland—Baidar, son of Chaghatay (the second son of Genghis Khan), and Kadan, Batu’s brother—had one directive: to prevent the armies of Bohemia, Poland, and Prussia from aiding the Hungarians. Poland was a fragmented state, but the Hungarian king, Bela IV, had relatives among the Polish dukes, such as his son-in-law Boleslaw V of Cracow and Sandomir, and Henry II of Silesia, Bela’s cousin.

As the main Mongol army under Batu prepared to invade Hungary, the forces of Baidar and Kadan struck Poland, raiding the possessions of Boleslaw around Sandomir in February 1241 and burning the cities of Lublin and Zawichost. Next, using the frozen Vistula River as a bridge, they sacked the lightly defended Sandomir. Baidar and Kadan then divided their forces to terrorize a wider area.

Baidar continued to march towards Cracow. Boleslaw’s forces marched against them and routed the Mongol vanguard. Baidar, however, was unconcerned; the Mongols always tried to determine when and where they fought, and now that garrison of Cracow had been drawn out, he slowly retreated, luring them further out before ambushing them on March 18, 1241. Baidar’s army defeated Boleslaw, who was forced to flee to Hungary. Unfortunately for him, his haven there was soon overrun by Batu’s army. Meanwhile, Baidar burned Cracow.

Although the Mongols numbered only twenty thousand, their small numbers were compensated for by sudden strikes that left the Poles convinced a much larger force had invaded. As the Mongols advanced west across into the Oder valley, most of the nobles there withdrew rather than risk facing the Mongols. After sacking Cracow and several other cities, the Mongols received word that Henry II of Silesia (1238–1241) was forming an army of the northern princes near Liegnitz. A powerful army led by King Vaclav I (1230–1253)—the Good King Wencelas of Christmas-carol fame—of Bohemia was also on the march to join them. The Mongols then rode to Liegnitz to meet the Christian army before Vaclav could arrive.

The combined forces of Kadan and Baidar faced Henry’s forces, comprised of the Silesian dukes, Duke Mieszko of Oppeln (a margrave from Bohemia), Boleslas (son of another margrave), and units from the military orders. These included a small force of Knights Templar, and a more sizeable force of Teutonic Knights led by Poppo von Osterna. There was also a contingent of several hundred German gold miners who volunteered to fight the Mongols, probably to protect their mines. Nonetheless, the combined force was only slightly larger than that of the Mongols, approximately twenty-five thousand men, and a large percentage of them were peasants and townspeople conscripted for the battle.

Battle was joined in April 1241. Unbeknownst to Henry, Vaclav’s army was only a day’s march away. Henry divided his army into four battles, as the Europeans called their military formations. One consisted of the miners under Boleslas and his men. The second consisted of the remnants of Boleslaw of Cracow’s forces that had joined Henry, along with the peasant conscripts. Duke Mieszko commanded his own forces and was augmented by the powerful Teutonic Knights. In the center, the largest division was that of Henry with the combined forces of Silesia and the Templars.

As the Mongol vanguard advanced, Henry’s Silesian knights rode to meet them, but were rebuffed by the Mongols archery. Henry ordered the rest of the cavalry, including the Teutonic Knights, to advance. As they charged, the Mongol vanguard fled, pulling the knights after them. As the knights pursued, more Mongol light cavalry began to appear on the flanks of the charging knights, raking them with arrows. The fleeing Mongol vanguard also continued to fire as they retreated, turning backwards in their saddles to shoot. Once the knights were sufficiently far from the rest of the army, riders from the flanks of the Mongol army rode behind the charging knights and set off smoke bombs, which screened them from the onlooking infantry. As the knights pursued the Mongols, their formation began to break apart as horses tired and the Mongol archery cut down riders.

Before the knights could reform their ranks, the Mongol light cavalry opened up, allowing the Mongol heavy cavalry to descend upon the Europeans. The momentum of the Mongol charge decimated the knights. Many were killed by the Mongol lances, many by being pulled from their horses (the Mongol lances also had a hook specifically for that purpose). The knights were destroyed as a fighting force.

Meanwhile, the European infantry waited, unsure of what occurred behind the wall of smoke. A hail of arrows hit them through the smoke as the Mongols suddenly appeared. Other Mongol forces flanked them and cut off their retreat, riding around them and firing into the massed ranks. The result was devastating.

Although Poppo von Osterna, the leader of the Teutonic knights, escaped, few others did. The Teutonic knights and the Templars were both annihilated. The Mongols kept track of how many they killed by cutting off the left ear of each of the slain. They later presented Batu with nine large sacks of ears. Not even Duke Henry escaped, although he tried. The Mongols pursued him, killing his guards and then finally him. He was beheaded, and the Mongols placed his head on a spear to display to the citizens of the city of Liegnitz before they burned the city.

In one battle, the army of Poland and the Teutonic Knights had been destroyed, although the Mongols also had taken heavy casualties. Vaclav would be the next to face Baidar and Kadan, but his army was too strong to be easily defeated. The Mongols merely had to keep him from Hungary. After a wild goose chase which drew the Bohemian King farther from Hungary, the Mongols again broke into smaller units and pillaged along the way as they rode to join Batu in Hungary.

Battle of Mohi or Sajo River, 1241

After conquering Russian principalities, the Mongol armies led by Subedei and Batu invaded Eastern Europe in February 1241. Twenty thousand men attacked Poland while forty thousand men invaded Hungary. At this time, Hungary possessed perhaps the finest army in Europe and was quite aware that the Mongols intended to invade.

During the conquest of Russian principalities, the Mongols had also subdued most of the Kipchak Turks that lived in the steppes north of the Black and Caspian Seas. Some of the Kipchaks resisted and were defeated, others simply submitted, and some fled. Led by Koten Khan, forty thousand Kipchaks escaped and took refuge in Hungary. King Bela IV, who ruled from 1235 to 1270, welcomed their arrival and accepted them into his kingdom on the condition that their leaders accepted Christianity and underwent the rite of baptism.

Bela had ulterior motives for accepting such a large population of steppe nomads, for they would serve as a useful counterweight to his own feudal vassals. Tensions between the crown and the vassals were high as Bela sought to increase the authority of the king throughout the kingdom. The vassals, naturally, were reluctant to lose some of their own power and influence. The arrival of the Kipchaks did nothing to ease these tensions.

Conflict between nomads and populations that primarily farm has existed since the two came into contact. During the medieval period, this was still the case. The Kipchaks not only came with forty thousand families, but also flocks of sheep and herds of goats, cattle, and horses. These animals required pasture to graze; the nomads did little to distinguish between a wild pasture and a farmer’s field and this led to violence between the peasants and the nomads. Taking advantage of this and their own concerns about the Kipchaks, the Hungarian nobility seized Koten and hanged him. Koten’s death made it clear to the Kipchaks that things would only get worse for them. Now caught between the threat of the Mongols and the Hungarian populace, the nomads headed south into the Balkans, pillaging and raiding as they went. The nomads would eventually be dispersed by other forces, enter the service of other kings as mercenaries, or be recaptured by the Mongols. Nonetheless, the Kipchaks remained in the region until the fourteenth century.

During this time, the Mongols also sent envoys to King Bela IV, requesting that he return the Kipchaks to them. The Mongols held that all nomads from the steppe were their subjects by command of Heaven. Any nomads who did not obey this order were renegades, and therefore, anyone who aided the renegades also violated the wishes of Heaven. Bela refused the order, and of course after the Kipchaks fled Hungary, he was in no position to comply. Thus, from the Mongol point of view, they had no option but to invade Hungary.

Although King Bela IV of Hungary fortified the passes of the Carpathian Mountains, the Mongol armies soon broke through by March 14, 1241. Despite their feud with Bela, the nobility recognized the threat of the Mongols and formed a formidable army. On April 9, 1241, King Bela advanced with an army of seventy thousand men. As the Hungarians moved against them, for several days the Mongol vanguard withdrew until they arrived at the plain of Mohi, located between the Sajo and Tisza rivers. The Hungarians camped in the plain, unaware that the Mongols specifically chose this site as the battlefield. The Mongols then crossed the Sajo River.

As was standard practice for the Hungarians, Bela formed his wagons into a circle, thus fortifying his camp against a sudden cavalry charge and a serving as a rallying point and headquarters for his army. He then stationed a thousand men at the only bridge for the Sajo River to hold it against the Mongols.

Around dawn, Batu attacked the bridge with archers and a rolling barrage of catapults firing naphtha (a flammable, petroleum-based pitch). The use of catapults in a field battle was a rare site in medieval warfare and most likely stunned the Hungarians. The Hungarians retreated from the bridge before the Mongols. Both sides suffered heavy casualties.

While Batu attacked the bridge, Subedei had marched several miles to find another location to cross the river. This enabled him to appear behind the Hungarians, forcing them to fall back to their camp rather than face a two-front attack. The Mongols then surrounded the camp. They began to bombard the fortified camp with catapult missiles and arrows.

Eventually, the Hungarians detected what appeared to be an accidental gap in the western portion of the Mongol ranks. Seeing an opening to freedom, a few Hungarians made a run from the imperiled camp. Soon, men poured from the Hungarian camp in that direction. Many dropped their weapons and armies in order to hasten their flight. Unfortunately, the Hungarians did not realize that the Mongols had intentionally left a hole in their lines, realizing that if trapped, the Hungarians would most likely give a more determined resistance, and possibly fight to the last man. As the unarmed Hungarians fled, the Mongols now wheeled upon them and slaughtered the fleeing Hungarians, cutting them down with their sabers or shooting them as they would do in a hunt.

The pursuit lasted for three days. With the army destroyed, the Mongols also ravaged Hungary unopposed. Neither the nobility nor the common people were spared from the wrath of the Mongols. Indeed, Bela IV barely escaped, fleeing to the coast of the Adriatic Sea. According to some reports, Mongol arrows rained down around his boat as it rowed from the shore.

The Mongols did not remain in Hungary for long, although fears arose in Italy and the Holy Roman Empire that the Mongols were preparing to invade. However, Batu ordered his armies to withdraw back into the steppes, probably because of the death of the Mongol ruler, Ogodei Khan. Nonetheless, Hungary remained a shadow of its former might for decades, and the rest of Europe lived in fear of future invasions.

Fall of Baghdad, 1258

The Abbasid Caliphate, centered in Baghdad, withstood several years of Mongol attacks in the 1230s and remained defiant. Baghdad had a sizeable army as well as strong city defenses. However, after ruling seventeen years, Caliph al-Mustansir died at the age of fifty-two in 1242. The collapse of Baghdad was hastened with the ascension of Mustasim ibn al-Mustansir in to the throne in 1242. Unlike his father, the new caliph did not take the Mongol threat seriously, focusing instead on personal amusements such as games and birds.

Mustasim reduced military pay, thus weakening the forces. In addition, in 1258, religious strife broke out between Shi’a Muslims and Sunni Muslims. These events led the Shi’a wazir Alqami, who ran the day-to-day affairs of the government, to hatch a plot to overthrow the Caliph. Alqami continued to disband military units under the pretence that it would create peace with the Mongols. Caliph Mustasim, preoccupied with less-serious matters, remained so oblivious of his actions that even when Mongol messengers fell into the hands of the Abbasid government, the Caliph failed to perceive that the Mongols planned to attack. Thus, Baghdad remained unprepared for the coming onslaught.

In 1257, Mongke (the fourth Mongol Khan) and Hulegu (his younger brother) marched from Persia (modern Iran) towards Baghdad. When Hulegu reached the border, he gathered his vassals; these included Muslim rulers such as Badr-al-Din-i Lu’lu’ of Mosul and the Atabak Abu Bikr ibn Sa’d of Fars. While this was occurring, Ket Buqa, the commander of Hulegu’s vanguard, captured the surrounding areas by December 1257. Then in 1258 Hulegu marched on Baghdad with an army that included Georgians, Armenians, and the garrison of Mosul. When Hulegu was twenty miles away, Abbasid military leaders (Sulaiman Shah and Malik Izz al-Din) urged the Caliph to take action, but the Caliph left the preparations in the hands of the wazir, who did nothing.

As Hulegu approached the city from the east, Baiju, a Mongol general, moved towards Baghdad from the northwest. Caliphate forces intercepted the vanguard of Baiju near the city of Tikrit. Initially, this forced the Mongols back, but Baiju arrived and secured a Mongol victory.

After constructing a boat bridge, Baiju’s army (composed of Armenians and Georgians) crossed the Tigris River. The Caliphate forces stationed at Tikrit attempted to burn the bridge and prevent the crossing, but the Mongols rebuilt it and proceeded to capture the strongholds of Kufa, Hillah, and Karkh.

The Abbasid commanders Malik Izz al-Din and Mujahid al-Din led twenty thousand horsemen across the Tigris River to meet the main army of Hulegu. In the ensuing battle, the Mongols initiated the attack, but the Muslims defeated them. Malik Izz al-Din wanted to pursue the Mongols, but Mujahid al-Din held back, perhaps afraid that the Mongols feigned their retreat, a common tactic. The Abbasid forces made their camp near the stream Nahr-i-sher, a branch of the Euphrates. At night, the wazir Alqami had his agents sabotage the dikes, thus flooding the plain and the Abbasid camp. The Mongols then returned at dawn and defeated the Baghdad army.

Afterwards, the Muslims withdrew to Baghdad and stopped at fortifications named Sanjari Masjid and Kasr Sulaiman Shah. After the defeat of the Baghdad army, Baiju moved to the west side of the city on January 22, 1258, while Ket Buqa arrived from Najasiyya and Sarsar. A few days later, Hulegu arrived from the east and began the siege in earnest on January 29, 1258. Leading citizens of Baghdad attempted to open negotiations to surrender, but Hulegu simply kept the envoys in his camp and continued the siege. The Mongols focused their catapults on a single tower. While the siege engines pounded the walls, Hulegu conducted negotiations in order to undermine the resistance of the city. In return for the city’s surrender, he offered to spare the clergy and noncombatants. Then on February 1, 1258, the Mongols pierced the walls of the city. While they were unable to achieve victory that first day, on the second day the city fell.

Izz al-Din and Mujahid al-Din tried to convince the Caliph to flee the Baghdad and escape to Basra. Alqami, however, convinced the Caliph that he would negotiate peace terms with the Mongols. Hulegu’s terms consisted of taking Mustasim’s daughter as a wife and the Caliph becoming a vassal. If these were accepted, the attack would cease. With little choice, the Caliph and the local leaders exited the city to conclude the treaty. The army of Baghdad surrendered and was divided and killed. Hulegu then executed most of the officials and eventually ordered the execution of the Caliph. The Caliph was rolled in a carpet and trampled, after Hulegu berated him for hoarding his wealth rather than spending it on the defense of Baghdad.

Thus in 1258 the Abbasid Caliphate came to an end and Baghdad, after a sporadic conflict that ranged for roughly twenty years, was now in Mongol hands. Hulegu gave his consent for a general pillaging of the town, which lasted thirty-four days beginning on February 13, 1258. Each general received a section of the city to pillage. Alqami’s service to the Mongols did not go unnoticed. Hulegu asked the wazir what had been the source of his former prosperity. The wazir naturally said it was the Caliph. At that, Hulegu ordered his execution, telling Alqami that since he did not show gratitude to the Caliph, he was not worthy of serving the Mongol prince.

Aleppo, 1260

Aleppo had long been a powerful city-state in northern Syria. Its proximity to the Mediterranean made it an important trade city, and it was a formidable military power within Syria, although not as powerful as Damascus. Aleppo’s ruler was at times a rival, and sometimes a vassal, of Damascus. Aleppo was also situated perfectly to be a menace to the Crusader states of Antioch and Tripoli. With its imposing citadel and fortifications, Aleppo was also a difficult target for attackers. Despite this, Aleppo proved to be only a small obstacle to the Mongol armies of Hulegu.

After the sack of Baghdad in 1258, the Mongol leader Hulegu retired to Azerbaijan and received his vassals. Among those who came to his camp was King Hethum of Cilicia, who brought twelve thousand cavalry and several thousand infantry. Prince Bohemund of the Crusader state of Antioch also came to pay homage. At this time, the Mongols planned for the invasion of Syria. Hethum, who had gained considerable favor among the Mongols for his willingness to support their campaigns with troops and provisions, recommended that the conquest of Syria begin with Aleppo.

After sending detachments to quell a rebellion in Georgia, the invasion of Syria began. Before entering Syria, the Mongols—along with contingents from Cilicia and Antioch—marched on Harran and Edessa, both of which submitted without a fight. The Mongols also captured a number of fortresses in the region, including the important fortress of Aklat. The Mongol general Ket Buqa served as the vanguard commander and led the invasion.

Refugees from Harran and Edessa, and from Baghdad, had fled before the invading Mongols to seek refuge in Aleppo. When news of the Mongols’ approach arrived, the refugees once again fled, this time to Damascus. Many died in the cold of winter, while others were robbed of all their goods.

By January 19, 1260, Aleppo was under siege as Ket Buqa’s vanguard arrived. The garrison and a corps of volunteers immediately sallied forth to deal with it, but upon discovering that the Mongol force was larger than they realized, the Aleppans quickly retreated. The next day the Mongols approached closer to the walls. Despite the protestations of Muazzam Turanshah, the city’s ruler, another attempt was made against the Mongols. This time the Mongols fled before the attack. The Aleppans followed, but it was a feigned retreat, and they lured the Aleppans into an ambush. Few made it back inside the city.

Meanwhile, Hulegu offered terms to Aleppo, but Muazzam Turanshah refused them. The next day the citizenry woke up to find that the Mongols built a wall to surround the city. Hulegu then ordered twenty mangonels to attack the Bab al-Iraq, the gate facing Iraq. After six days of concentrated fire by the Mongols’ siege artillery, they broke through at that sector. The Mongols swept through the city, cutting down any who opposed them. Only a few buildings were spared, including a school and a synagogue where refugees took shelter. The city was then turned over to the soldiers for five days for pillaging.

Only the great citadel of Aleppo still held out. With a massive ditch and a narrow causeway, it continued to resist the Mongols. However, after a month even the citadel could resist no more. Within the citadel the Mongols found the treasury and put the skilled artisans to work in their camps. In addition, Muazzam Turanshah was captured during the seizure of the citadel. The Mongols spared him, as they admired his defense of the citadel.

With Aleppo in the hands of the Mongols, Hulegu withdrew back to the pastures. Meanwhile, Ket Buqa led his army towards Damascus. News of the fall of Aleppo spread quickly. Afterwards the city of Damascus surrendered rather than face the Mongol onslaught, leaving the rest of Syria open to the Mongols.

Ayn Jalut, 1260

After the Mongols conquered Syria, it appeared that Egypt would fall next. Indeed, envoys came to the Mamluks (a caste of Turkic military slaves that ruled the region) with the same demand the Mongols always made: surrender or die. Qutuz, the Mamluk leader at the time, gave his answer by cutting off the heads of the Mongol envoys—an automatic declaration of war.

The Mamluk invasion of Mongol-held Syria began at Gaza, where Qutuz defeated the Mongol advance guard. This victory was very helpful, for in addition to worrying about the Mongols, Qutuz also had to consider the Crusader states in the region. He was aware that not all of the Franks, as the Muslims called the European Crusaders, were favorable to the Mongols. Although Antioch was a vassal of the Mongols, many of the barons of the Kingdom of Jerusalem were opposed to the idea of an alliance with the Mongols. If the Mongols won without the aid of a crusading army from Europe, the Latin East would surely fall into Mongol hands in due time. If the Mamluks won, they were less intimidating than the Mongols. Thus when Qutuz took Gaza, he was soon met by envoys from the Franks, who promised they would be neutral in the coming fight.

The coming struggle for control over Syria took place at Ayn Jalut, or the “Springs of Goliath,” in the Jezreel valley on September 3, 1260. The Mamluks were to meet the Mongols on equal terms, which did not bode well for the Mamluks. In previous encounters throughout their conquests, the Mongols were able to defeat larger armies, such as at Liegnitz in 1241 where they defeated a combined European army of Germans and Poles.

The Mongols in Syria numbered around twenty thousand. One tumen, or group of ten thousand soldiers, under Kitbugha was of Mongols, while another was recruited from the local Ayyubid population. The reliability of this Ayyubid tumen was questionable, and it may have been useful only for garrison duty. As long as the Mongols were not challenged it is doubtful if the Ayyubids would have rebelled, as all previous Ayyubid attempts to rebel or defeat the Mongols had been fiascoes. They could, though, be an important factor if another Muslim force invaded Syria. Therefore, when Kitbugha marched to Ayn Jalut it was unlikely that he took more than a small contingent of the auxiliary Ayyubids with him for fear of treachery.

The battle itself was not one of great tactical maneuvering. The Mamluk leader Baybars, in charge of the vanguard, lured the Mongols into an ambush. The Mongols attacked Baybars’s smaller force, which retreated into the hills. From the hills, the rest of the Mamluk army poured out and surrounded the Mongols, preventing their escape.

The Mamluks were aided by treachery; the local troops from Hims (that reinforced the Mongols) switched sides, and the Mamluks also received information given by a traitor named Sarim. The troops from Hims were positioned on the Mongol’s left wing. Once the battle began, the unit from Hims fled, thus weakening the Mongol left wing. The Mongol right wing now faced a strengthened Mamluk left. The Mamluk flanks could now sweep in and crush the Mongol center in a pincer. Despite this act of treachery, the Mongols still almost defeated the Mamluks. The Mongols did break one of the wings of the Mamluks, after which Qutuz reportedly rallied his forces by crying, “O Islam.” The troops of the Hims abandoned the Mongols probably when the Mamluks rallied, for the Mongols took the initiative at the onset.

Immediately after Ayn Jalut, the Mongols did attempt to reestablish their supremacy in Syria. In December 1260, a large force of Mongols entered Syria near Aleppo. The Aleppan amirs were not willing to face the Mongols alone, so the Aleppan army retreated south to avoid the Mongols. After raiding Aleppo, the Mongols followed them. At Hims the army of Aleppo joined the armies of Hamah and Hims. Battle was joined on December 11, 1260. The Mongols numbered around six thousand while the Syrian army numbered less than fifteen hundred. Details of the battle are not available, but in the end the Mongols were defeated, despite outnumbering the Muslims. This battle was extremely significant as local forces—not the elite Mamluks of Egypt—had defeated a larger Mongol army

The battle of Ayn Jalut was not won because of superior numbers but due to other factors. For one thing, the Mamluks took advantage of the terrain. They hid their troops in the hills surrounding the valley so that the Mongols could not estimate the strength of their army. The Mamluks also positioned themselves so that the Mongols faced the sun in the morning, thus hampering the Mongol view of the Mamluks proceeding down out of the hills. This may have also affected the Mongols’ ability to fire their arrows as the sun would have also impaired their aim.

The Mongols, on the other hand, failed to acquire proper intelligence of the Mamluk force or leave a more appropriate force to garrison Palestine and Syria. This second factor forced them to rely on untrustworthy and recently conquered Syrian troops. The Mongols also failed to safeguard the route to Syria by either removing the Crusaders or coming to terms with them. By allowing the Crusaders to exist, they created a party that could decide the balance of power in the region even if they remained neutral.

The battle of Ayn Jalut indicated who the dominant power in Syria was to be. The events that occurred after the battle ultimately decided the fate of Syria and Palestine, but the Mamluk victory at Ayn Jalut was the pivotal factor because it showed that the Mongols could be defeated. This encouraged rebellion, and the Mongols were soon driven out of Syria. The victory at Ayn Jalut also gave confidence to the local amirs. As demonstrated at Hims in 1260, the amirs discovered that they could defend themselves without the aid of the Mamluks of Egypt. Thus, in order for the Mongols to reestablish themselves in Syria, they would, in effect, be forced to conquer the country again instead of only having to defeat the Mamluks.

Xiangyang, 1268–1272

Xiangyang was located in the modern province of Hubei, China, on the banks of the Han River. As the key to the Yangtze River basin, the city was of great strategic importance; its seizure would open the rest of the Song Empire to Mongol attacks. However, taking Xiangyang would not be easy: it was strongly fortified with a citadel, surrounding walls, and a deep moat, in addition to the river that protected one side of the city.

The siege began in 1268. The Mongols assaulted it not only with siege weapons, but also with their new navy. The siege was an excellent example of the polyglot nature of the Mongol attacks: It was led by two Chinese generals, an Uighur Turk, and a Mongol. In addition, two Middle Easterners (Ismail and Ala al-Din) commanded the artillery. The siege progressed in a deliberate manner as Korean-made ships blockaded Xiangyang while the Mongol army captured outlying villages and towns. A fleet of five hundred ships was assembled for the blockade, and fortifications were built south of Xiangyang along the river to cut off attempts to relieve or supply it via the river. The garrison of Xiangyang attempted to break through the Mongol lines, but they were repulsed. There were repeated attempts in 1270, but all failed with heavy casualties. One attempt included a sortie of ten thousand men.

The Song also attempted to relieve the city and at times were successful. In August 1269, a Song fleet of three thousand ships approached, but the Mongol fleet fended it off and captured several of the Song boats. Meanwhile, the Mongols built a series of ramparts around Xiangyang. Nonetheless, it was impossible to prevent some blockade-runners and messengers from getting through the Mongol flotilla and defenses. Although the Mongols did not expect the siege to be a quick victory, the fact that they could not completely isolate the city prolonged the attack for five years. Indeed, despite Mongol successes, in 1270 the Mongol commander Aju requested that Kublai Khan send him seventy thousand men and an additional five thousand ships. Even with the reinforcements, the Mongols did not take the city.

The obstinacy of the Song resistance is not surprising, since the Song saw this as a life-and-death struggle against the Mongols. In addition, Song generals on the outside gave rich rewards to men who could sneak through the Mongol lines with messages to the city and make it back alive. The Song continued to attempt to relieve the city by land as well as by sea, but most of the attacks failed. One attack did succeed in 1272, breaking through the Mongol lines and making it to the city. Yet even this victory was fleeting since most of the force, including several officers, were killed.

Ultimately, the siege gradually exhausted Xiangyang’s defenders. The Mongols, however, did not make significant headway in actually ending the siege until the arrival of Muslim engineers from the Middle East. In 1272, these engineers brought with them a new technology: the trebuchet. As it had a superior range and was also capable of launching heavier missiles, the trebuchet had an immediate impact.

Initially, the two trebuchets built by Ismail and Ala al-Din were used on towns across the river from Xiangyang. Then they turned them against Xiangyang. The noise and damage caused was terrifying, and no wall could resist it. General Lu, the commander of Xiangyang, attempted to hold out, but the Mongols stationed both machines on the southeast corner of the city in order to concentrate their firepower. After a few days of bombardment, General Lu finally conceded defeat and surrendered after resisting the Mongol attack for five years.

The siege of Xiangyang is a testament of the power of the Mongol Empire. A mixed army of Chinese, Mongols, and Turks fought the Song Empire of southern China for five years on land and on the water. When those efforts failed, they produced a new weapon from another region of the empire. The resources and innovations of the empire were simply too great for any other state to resist.

Attempted Invasions of Japan, 1274 and 1280

The Mongols were known to be an almost unstoppable army. Many contemporaries compared them with forces of nature. Since the Mongols believed that they were destined to rule the world, they traditionally sent emissaries to other states and requested their submission. Refusal to come to the throne of the Khan meant war.

In 1268 and 1271, Kublai Khan (1215–1294) sent emissaries to Japan to reestablish contact and to ask for submission. Both times, the Japanese court refused to meet with the Mongol ambassadors. In 1272, another ambassador arrived with an ultimatum—submit or be destroyed. He too was sent back without a meeting. Kublai was furious and determined to subdue Japan. Since the Mongols had recently captured Xiangyang, Kublai could now divert some of his army against the Japanese.

A fleet of seven hundred to eight hundred ships sailed from Korea in November of 1274. The ships carried almost forty thousand soldiers and sailors. They quickly captured the small islands of Tsushima and Iki. The Mongols then landed on Kyushu at Hakata. The Japanese had gathered an army to meet them. The Japanese attacked the Mongol forces and quickly found out why the Mongols had conquered Eurasia. For the samurai, battle was an individualized action, but for the Mongols it was a team sport.

The Japanese retreated at the end of the day on November 19 under the cover of night. Although the Mongol invasion force was relatively small, it had lived up to its reputation as a force of nature. Fortunately for the Japanese, another force of nature struck the Mongol fleet that same night: a typhoon hit the island. Although the Mongols attempted to get to open water before the winds destroyed their ships, the storm was faster. Hundreds of ships were destroyed and thirteen thousand troops died. The Mongol invaders had no choice but to return to Kublai Khan.

Kublai could not avenge his loss since he was tied down with finishing his conquest of the Song Empire and fighting wars in Central Asia. However, he did not forget the defeat. In the meantime, he wrote it off as simply bad luck. It was not until 1280, after the destruction of the Song Empire, that Kublai could attempt another invasion. His anger grew after the Japanese executed the Mongol ambassadors as spies in 1279.

In the interim, the Japanese put into practice what they had learned from the invasion. In 1275, they constructed a long wall along Hakata Bay on Kyushu. This was the most logical landing area on the island for an attack from Korea. Fortunately for the Japanese, they finished it before the next attack. Although the Mongols might land elsewhere, at least they would be diverted to less desirable landings.

Kublai placed Hong Tagu, a Korean admiral, in charge of the fleet of nine hundred vessels. Together, Fan Wan-hu (a former Song general) and Shintu (a Mongol) commanded an army of 140,000 men. The invasion was a two-pronged attack on the island of Iki, which would then serve as the launching point for the Kyushu invasion.

The planned rendezvous did not take place. The force of forty thousand captured Iki in June 1280, and then waited two weeks for the arrival of the larger army. Hong Tagu finally could wait no longer. He directed his ships to the north of the wall, to Manakata. When the other army finally arrived, they landed south of the wall. The generals coordinated a plan to rendezvous in the middle. The samurai forces resisted fiercely, and the Mongols could not gain the upper hand. The bulk of the Mongol forces were former Song troops from southern China, more suited to defending fortresses and cities. In addition, the Japanese had learned from previous experience to fight the Mongols as a unit, not as individuals.

Inconclusive fighting lasted for two months, then disaster struck the Mongols again. A typhoon struck in mid-August, destroying the fleet and many of the troops. Few of the Mongol army escaped the weather. Those stranded on Kyushu were killed or made prisoner by the Japanese. When Kublai learned of the defeat, he ordered yet another invasion. Eventually, his advisors dissuaded him. To the Japanese, the victories over the Mongols were not due to luck or military strategy, but rather divine intervention. The typhoons that wrecked the Mongol fleets were due to the kamikaze, or divine winds, and a sign of Heaven’s favor for Japan.

Red Turban Revolt, mid-fourteenth century

Kublai Kahn conquered the Song Dynasty in 1279 and created a new state to rule China and the rest of East Asia. This was known as the Yuan Dynasty. Although his empire was vast and powerful, the quality of the empire’s rulers and government were inferior to the talents of Kublai. Furthermore, although many regions had become accustomed to Mongol rule, it was always resented in southern China. Eventually this would lead to a rebellion that drove the Mongols out of China.

Problems of the Yuan Dynasty

Southern China never fully accepted Mongol rule. In the first decades resistance was crushed without hesitation, but as the Yuan rulers and government became ineffectual, rebels seized their opportunity. The last Yuan ruler, Togon-Temur, inherited a bad situation that only became worse as more Chinese rebelled, including members of the military.

Chinese resentment was understandable. Mongol appropriation of land brought starvation to much of China towards the end of their rule. In addition, the government failed to maintain the system of dikes and levees that prevented the Yellow River from flooding, leading to massive destruction and loss of life. Finally, ever-increasing taxes alienated nearly all Chinese citizens, ranging from peasants to the aristocracy. These grievances fueled the resentment towards foreign rule.


Several rebel states had formed by the 1360s. The Yuan generals could not effectively crush them partially because of the lack of leadership in the Yuan court. Also, the Mongol generals were often too busy with their own rivalries to pay attention to the rebels.

The Red Turbans emerged from the Buddhist White Lotus secret society. The White Lotus society believed that Buddha, in a messiah-like incarnation, would return and save the Chinese from Mongol oppression. The Red Turbans were a militant offshoot of this religious movement. Among the Red Turbans—so named for the red headbands they wore—was a monk named Zhu Yuanzhang. Born a peasant, his family had a distinguished background before Mongol rule. Zhu Yuanzhang became an important commander in the Red Turbans. With his background, he was able to cultivate ties with both the peasantry and the aristocracy.

Although he started out as just one of many commanders among the Red Turbans, Zhu Yuanzhang’s military successes soon led him to dream of becoming emperor. In 1356, he captured Nanking in southern China and made it part of the kingdom formed by the Red Turbans. His successes continued as he conquered more territory from the Mongols. Soon Zhu Yuanzhang considered his victories greater than those achieved by other leaders. He then split from the Red Turbans and established his own movement in 1368.

Rise of the Ming Empire

Whereas the Red Turban movement originally planned to drive the Mongols from southern China and restore the Song Empire, Zhu Yuanzhang had grander ideas. His new goal was to drive the Mongols from all of China, including northern China (which the Song had lost in the tenth century). His armies continued to have success against the Mongols. Finally in September 1368, Zhu Yuanzhang invaded the Mongol capital of Dadu (modern Beijing). The Mongols under Togon-Temur were forced to retreat to Mongolia. Here they continued to fight the Chinese, and also other Mongols who resented what they considered to be “Chinese” Mongols.

Although it would take thirty years before all of China was under his control, Zhu Yuanzhang established himself as the first emperor of the Ming dynasty in 1368. He took the title of Hongwu, or the “Vastly Martial.” To prevent the return of the Mongols, Hongwu began building what became the Great Wall of China. Before the Mongol period a few border walls existed, but nothing like what Hongwu ordered. The dynasty Zhu Yuanzhang created would provide stability for China, although it was ultimately toppled in 1644.

Ankara, 1402

Although Ankara is the capital of modern Turkey, its importance only manifested when two major empires collided. The Ottoman Turks had steadily expanded in Europe as well as Asia under the leadership of Bayezid I (d. 1403). Meanwhile, to the east, the empire of Timur (1336–1405) extended from Central Asia into Anatolia. Eventually both leaders claimed the same territory, and this dispute led to war.

Bayezid’s annexation of the Karamanid emirate in eastern Anatolia triggered the war with Timur. As Anatolia was the frontier of Timur’s empire, the Karamanids had maintained a client relationship with the Central Asian ruler, if only to keep him from destroying them. This allowed the Karamanids to enjoy a level of autonomy and independence. With the outright annexation by the Ottomans, this independence vanished, so the Karamanids appealed to Timur for relief.

Timur had many faults as a leader (and as a human being), but he never backed down from a threat. Timur had developed a pattern of eliminating threats to his supremacy in Eurasia; in addition, it is quite likely that he held a grudge against Bayezid, since Bayezid had indirectly assisted one of Timur’s rivals. For a host of reasons, Timur marched against the Ottomans.

The two forces met at Ankara in central Anatolia. Timur’s army began to lay siege to the city, which was still a possession of the Ottoman Empire. This forced Bayezid to abandon his blockade of Constantinople and march his army across Anatolia. Bayezid’s march was rapid but exhausting, since roughly a third of his troops were infantry (including the feared janissaries).

Both armies were large. Reports put the Ottomans at almost ninety thousand men, including Serbs, Tatars, and Turkmen, among others. Timur’s army, mainly of cavalry, was anywhere between 100,000 to 150,000 men. The two generals sized each other up from strong defensive positions. Timur’s camp, established during the siege, was protected by a palisade and a ditch. It blocked Bayezid from the city, which was still held by an Ottoman garrison.

On July 20, 1402, the battle began. Timur’s right wing collided with the Ottoman cavalry. Timur’s cavalry broke this wing as Timur’s left wing outflanked the Ottoman right wing. This allowed Timur to then attack the Serbian troops without fear of the Ottoman cavalry. The Serbs, skilled mountain fighters, held against the Timurid cavalry and forced them to retreat. Unfortunately, it was a feigned retreat designed to draw the Serbs out of their position. The Timurid troops did not retreat quickly, but remained tantalizingly near. This enticed the Serbs to charge, and the Timurid cavalry drew them out so that the Serbian formations began to break rank. A Timurid charge forced them to abandon their attack.

Meanwhile, Tatars and Turkmen nomads—who served as light cavalry for the Ottomans—suddenly deserted. The Tatars then attacked the already wavering Ottoman left wing. Not even the Ottoman reserves could prevent the situation. Most of the auxiliaries were from regions that only recently came under Ottoman control and were resentful for the increased centralization of authority under Bayezid’s rule. Timur had established contact with their leaders once he entered Anatolia. Given that Timur’s capital of Samarkand was far removed from Anatolia, and that Timur’s administrative apparatus was not nearly as onerous as the Ottomans, they gladly switched sides. This was the beginning of the end for Bayezid. Both Ottoman wings collapsed, leaving Bayezid’s center exposed to Timur. Knowing the battle lost, Bayezid simply hoped to extract his army from the situation. He rallied his forces on a hilltop called Catal Tepe where the remnants of the cavalry had gathered.

Here they resisted several attacks by Timur. Once night fell, Bayezid attempted to retreat. However, during his escape (which involved leaving the bulk of his forces behind) his horse tripped, and Timur’s troops captured him. Despite their steadfast resistance, the rest of the Serbs and janissaries were cut down. Bayezid was brought before Timur, who was in his tent playing chess. Ankara fell not long after.

The Ottoman defeat left the empire in a state of flux. Bayezid’s sons spent the next decade fighting amongst themselves. Timur had no intent on conquering the Ottoman Empire, preferring to have it a weak neighbor on his flank. Bayezid was carried back to Samarkand in a litter with bars, either because he attempted to escape or due to illness. This would later give rise to a legend that Timur imprisoned him in a golden cage.

Key Elements of Warcraft

Mounted Archers

The mounted archer was the basis of the Mongol army. Since the nomads of the Eurasian steppes wielded the powerful composite bow from an early age, they were excellent archers. If the accounts of medieval travelers can be believed, Mongols often learned how to ride before they could walk. Mastering these essential military skills at an early age gave the Mongols a military force that could not be matched in terms of mobility and lethalness until the modern age. Genghis Khan then forged it into a highly disciplined army, a feat which enabled him to carve out the largest contiguous empire in history. Often their armies fought on several fronts at once, a difficult enough task in the modern period and practically unheard of during medieval times.

The keys to the Mongol army were not only their natural skills at archery and horsemanship, but also their training. All males between the ages of fifteen to around sixty were eligible for military service. The harsh climate of Mongolia gave the nomads an almost other-worldly endurance. Although nomadic horse archers had a long history of success in the ancient and medieval worlds, the army created by Genghis Khan perfected this form. He added the essential element that separated the Mongols from their peers: discipline. While other armies would disintegrate in order to loot the dead and baggage of an enemy in flight, Genghis Khan ordered his armies to wait until victory was complete before plundering. Anyone who disobeyed this command was executed.

Each trooper had a string of three to five horses. If one horse grew tired, the soldier simply switched horses. In non-nomadic armies, this was not possible. Horses were simply too expensive to maintain to allow each cavalryman to have more than one, especially the large horses necessary to carry an armored warrior.

In order to maintain their mobility, the Mongols were lightly armored. Their armor usually consisted of lacquered or boiled leather and a helmet. Some wore other types of armor, such as chain mail, but it was not as widespread among the Mongols due to its weight.


The primary weapon of the Mongols was the composite bow, made of layers of sinew, horn, and wood. Each warrior carried one per horse, attached to their saddles, and quivers of arrows. The bow was incredibly powerful, often with a pull weight of over one hundred pounds. The Mongols also used a wide variety of arrows, such as armor piercing, blunt stun arrows, and even whistling arrows for signaling purposes. In addition, the soldiers carried sabers, maces, axes, and sometimes a short spear with a hook at the bottom of the blade. Other supplies (such as rope, rations, and files for sharpening arrows) were also carried. This made the soldiers of the Mongol army a self-sufficient unit, able to function independently of supply lines, thus allowing them to make rapid marches without being bogged down by supply wagons.


The Mongol army was organized in decimal units, an old tradition of the steppe. The Mongol army was built upon a squad of ten (arban) and companies of a hundred (jaghun). The primary military unit was the regiment of a thousand (mingghan). Larger units of ten thousand (tumen) were also used. The Mongols also recruited defeated enemies into the Mongol army—especially other mounted archers. To prevent a mutiny, the Mongols divided the new recruits into existing units.

Before invading a territory, the Mongols held extensive meetings to decide not only how the upcoming war would be conducted, but which generals would participate in it. The Mongols also gathered intelligence on their opponents. Only after this was obtained would there be a declaration of hostilities.

While on the campaign, Mongol generals still held a high degree of independence. Thus they could complete their objectives on their terms. Even so, they still had to abide by a timetable. As a consequence of this, the Mongols could coordinate their movements and concentrate their forces at prearranged sites.

The Mongols also invaded in a set pattern. The Mongol army invaded in several columns, often a three-pronged attack consisting of a center army of the center with two flanking forces. All Mongol columns were covered by a screen of scouts who relayed information back to the generals. Because of their preplanned schedule and their scouts, the Mongols marched divided but were also able to fight united. Furthermore, because their forces often split up after the initial invasion, they marched in smaller concentrations and were not slowed by columns stretching for miles. With their spare horses, they moved fast and spread terror across the countryside. Thus, their opponents rarely prepared in time to face them as the Mongols appeared everywhere.


The Mongols preferred to destroy all field armies before attacking cities. Smaller fortresses, however, were taken as they came along. This had beneficial effects. First, it isolated the main cities. Second, refugees from these smaller cities fled to the main stronghold. The reports from the refugees helped reduce the morale of the inhabitants and garrison of the city. In addition, food and water reserves were taxed by the sudden influx of refugees.

The tactics by the Mongols in field battles or in sieges ultimately came back to being mounted archers: firepower and mobility. The Mongols had demonstrated on several occasions the advantages of concentrated firepower over any opponent. Not only did a withering hail of arrows break a charge of armored knights, but it also could pin units down. In sieges, concentrated bombardment by catapults broke through walls. Mobility was vital for the Mongols to carry out all of their tactics. By advancing, firing, wheeling, and retreating, the Mongol attack was in perpetual motion. Other tactics, such as encircling the enemy, could only be achieved with a high degree of mobility. Perhaps most importantly, mobility allowed the Mongols to withdraw and then reappear when they were least expected. This made it almost impossible for their opponents to accurately report on the movements of their armies.

The Mongols perfected the mounted archer art of war. With their armies of mounted archers, the Mongols conquered the steppes of Asia and Europe. It is no surprise that mounted archers from the steppes became the most coveted element in every sedentary army stretching from China to Egypt.

Gunpowder Weapons

The Mongol’s first experience with gunpowder weapons was on the receiving end, but they quickly incorporated them into their arsenal and used them extensively in their wars against the Jin Empire in northern China and the Song Empire in southern China. The weapons came in two basic forms: explosive and incendiary. Although many consider gunpowder to be an explosive, it is also possible to concoct gunpowder recipes to create incendiaries. The Mongols may have used catapult-launched bombs in siege warfare outside of China. However, there is no conclusive evidence to determine if these bombs were explosive-based or filled with naphtha (a petroleum-based incendiary), or used with catapults and trebuchets.

The Mongols first encountered gunpowder-based weapons in their campaigns against the Jin Empire (1125–1234) in northern China. The weapons used by and against the Mongols in the thirteenth century were not cannons or firearms in the modern sense, as these weapons would not exist for approximately one hundred years. Instead, the Jin used explosives and fire lances. The explosives were called “thunder-crash bombs.” Although they were primitive in form and function, they were effective. Thunder-crash bombs were made from metal containers and filled with gunpowder and a fuse. They were then launched against the enemy with a lit fuse through a variety of methods such as by hurling it from a catapult, or lowering it by chains against Mongol troops at the base of walls.

The explosives were very effective against wooden or skin-covered shelters, but has less impact against the thick base of city walls. Nonetheless, if they struck the top of the wall, defenders had little defense against them. In addition, the bombs could be used as landmines. When used as landmines, they were not very efficient because someone had to light a fuse. However, when properly placed in ambushes, the unexpected explosions created havoc and inflicted both physical and psychological damage on the Mongols and their horses.

Another gunpowder weapon widely used during the Mongol conquests was the fire lance. The fire lance was a spear with a short bamboo tube attached to the spear blade. When the fuse was lit, the fire lance functioned as a primitive flame thrower. A single warrior with this weapon was not terribly impressive, but often entire units among the Chinese were equipped with them, making them very formidable. In addition, the weapons could be a key component of a defensive network by placing the tubes—with or without the lance—on a rack. Thus a single person could light them and create a wall of flame.

Like the Jin, the Song Empire (1126–1279) also used gunpowder weapons such as thunder-crash bombs and fire lances. In addition, they used another primitive cannon that shot “fire arrows.” Essentially, these were arrows shot from a vase-shaped vessel by a gunpowder explosion. As with most early gunpowder weapons, fire arrows were not very accurate. However, they had a greater range than the Mongols’ composite bows (approximately 300–350 yards), and when used in large number, fire arrows could disrupt enemy formations before they could use their own weapons.

Defending against the thunder-crash bombs and fire lances proved to be a most difficult challenge for the Mongols. Indeed, they did not develop anything particularly effective against these weapons. Perhaps the only effective defense, if one could call it that, was perseverance in the sieges. Initially Mongol sieges consisted of blockading the enemy and thus forcing the city to surrender or face starvation while staying out of ranging of the bombs. In addition, the Mongols engaged the defenders by pummeling them with missiles from their own siege engines as well as their archers. Later, when deserters and Chinese engineers explained gunpowder technology to them, the Mongols adopted them in their arsenal and began using explosives against the Jin.

The Mongols were also instrumental in the spread of gunpowder weapons. However, it is not clear if the Mongols used thunder-crash bombs or other weapons in sieges west of China. The records of the Mongol conquests in Russia or the Middle East do not mention anything like an “earth-shattering kaboom!” One reason may be that the necessary resources required to manufacture gunpowder were easily available and properly stored in China. However, outside of China, even though Chinese engineers accompanied the Mongols it could be difficult to transport the weapons, keep the powder dry, or to find the proper materials to make more powder. The technology was previously unknown or only rumored outside of China.

Nonetheless, the Mongols were the primary transmitters of the knowledge of gunpowder. The technology spread either directly by witnessing its use in war, or by travelers (merchants, missionaries, adventurers) who went to the Mongol empire. This latter scenario seems more likely because most of the major trade routes ran through the empire, and the Mongols ensured the security of those routes. Therefore, while it is unlikely that Europe received gunpowder directly from the Mongols, it is known that it appeared there only after the Mongol invasions. Most likely, merchants like Marco Polo’s family traveled through the Mongol Empire and carried the recipe back. Indeed, gunpowder appears in European arsenals as bombards, cannons, fire arrows, and fire lances—as well as in the form of celebratory fireworks in India, Central Asia, and the Middle East—after these regions encounter the Mongols.

Impact of the Mongol Conquests

In many ways, the Mongol conquests initiated the modern period, as the world became much more connected when the Mongols created the largest contiguous empire in history, one which stretched from the Sea of Japan to the Carpathian Mountains. Trade routes became more secure, and the Mongols further encouraged trade by willingly paying inflated prices to attract merchants to their capitals, thus developing the commercial hubs.

As a result, goods flowed throughout the empire and outside of it much more easily. Indeed, one of the reasons Christopher Columbus sought an oceanic trade route to the East is because by 1492, after the disintegration of the Mongol Empire, these land routes had collapsed due to war. Prices rose and security dropped.

During the Mongol period, however, ideas and technology flowed along with trade. Gunpowder weapons began to appear in Europe as did other forms of technology that had existed in China for centuries. Prior to the Mongol conquests, the wheelbarrow, for example, was unknown in the West. This is not to say that one fell off a Mongol cart, but rather that ideas began to spread and travelers, such as Marco Polo, reported what they saw in the East.

In terms of military world history, the Mongol impact was vast. Beyond just the spread of gunpowder, the Mongols impacted military history in many ways. The Japanese kamikaze pilots in World War II were inspired by the storms that wrecked Kublai Khan’s invasion fleets. Vietnamese people throughout the twentieth century looked back to their fight against Kublai Khan’s invading armies as inspiration to resist French imperialism, Chinese aggression, and American interference during the war in Vietnam.

During the rule of the Mongols, many of their subjects adopted Mongol military formations and methods of fighting. The Russians were the most notable group to do this. They realized that their old methods were ineffective as they served alongside the Mongols on campaigns. Indeed, even up to the period of Ivan the Terrible in the mid-sixteenth century, the primary enemies of the Russians were offshoots of the Golden Horde. To effectively combat them, one had to adopt the highly mobile form of warfare the Mongols used.

Once cannons and mass-manufactured firearms became commonplace, the dominance of the horse archer receded. While horse archers could still shoot faster than muskets, their discipline broke down, making them less effective as the primary body of troops. As firearms improved, the impact of horse archers disappeared for good in the nineteenth century.

After World War I and the staid offensive warfare of the period, military theoreticians began to reconsider the tactics and strategies of the Mongols. The military academies in Russia studied the tactics of the nomads beginning in the late nineteenth century. This continued during the period of the Soviet Union under the leadership of Marshal Tukhachevsky. By the 1930s, the Soviets created a mechanized force designed to emulate the Mongol art of war—high mobility, independence of command, and the capability of concentrating firepower and support. Unfortunately, Tukhachevsky and most of his subordinates perished in the Stalinist purges. This set back the Soviet military for more than a decade.

In the West, the primary advocate for using Mongol methods was B. H. Liddell Hart, a British theoretician. The British and American militaries used his strategies to remodel their tank and mechanized forces. At the time, tanks were seen primarily as support weapons for infantry and not organized into their own units. However, Hans Guderian, an officer in the German Wehrmacht, saw the potential of Liddell Hart’s ideas. He incorporated these ideas and also some from the Soviets, laying the foundation for the German blitzkrieg (lightning warfare) that would make the Nazi armies feared throughout the world.

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Jackson, Peter. The Mongols and the West. London and New York: Pearson, 2005.

May, Timothy. The Mongol Art of War. Yardly, Pa.: Westholme, 2007.

Morgan, David. The Mongols. Cambridge, Mass.: Basil Blackwell, 2007.

Rossabi, Morris. Khubilai Khan. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1989.