Mongol Conquests

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Mongol Conquests

In many parts of the world, in particular, the Arab Middle East, Europe, and the Americas, the Mongols have become synonymous with murder, massacre, and marauding mayhem. Their advent is portrayed as a bloody "bolt from the blue" that left little but destruction, death, and horrified grief in its wake. A medieval Russian chronicle from Novgorod vividly describes their impact on the region:

No one exactly knows who they are, nor whence they came out, nor what their language is, nor of what race they are, nor what their faith is . . . God alone knows (Mitchell and Forbes, p. 64).

A thirteenth-century Persian eyewitness succinctly summarized their initial impact in Iran: "They came, they sapped, they burnt, they slew, they plundered and they departed" (Juwayni, 1916/1997, p. 107). The Arab chronicler ibn al-Athir, although not an eyewitness, described his emotions on hearing of the Mongols' rise in words that have echoed down through history and colored half the world's perception of the Eurasian hordes:

O would that my mother had never borne me, that I had died before and that I were forgotten [so] tremendous disaster such as had never happened before, and which struck all the world, though the Muslims above all . . . Dadjdjal [Muslim Anti-Christ] will at least spare those who adhere to him, and will only destroy his adversaries. These [Mongols], however, spared none. They killed women, men, children, ripped open the bodies of the pregnant and slaughtered the unborn (Spuler, 1972, pp. 29–30).

The reasons for such negative impressions are not hard to discern. Genghis Khan (1167–1227) even described himself as "the punishment of God" and was pleased that others perceived him to play this role. The Mongol period is not only noted for its supposed barbarity, but also for the plethora of historians and chronicles it produced. These many scribes, both within the Mongol camp and without, were happy to pander to the Mongols' desire for notoriety and a reputation for barbarism and cruelty. Primary sources in a wealth of languages have survived the so-called Mongol mayhem. Critical analysis and comparison of these various sources yield a more balanced and less sensationalist picture of what actually occurred during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries than the lurid portrait that myths and legends have conjured up. Since Bernard Lewis questioned the basis of the Mongols' tainted reputation in 1995, scholarly opinion has grown more sympathetic toward the legacy of Genghis Khan.

Turco-Mongol Unity

By 1206 the Turco-Mongol clans of the steppe were united under the charismatic rule of Genghis Khan. It was the size and unity of this force and its endurance that distinguished it from previous steppe armies. Prior to Genghis the tribes had often been manipulated by the Chinese and other settled peoples, and often the nomads' predatory raids had occurred at the behest of a hidden hand. Genghis raided for the prestige he accrued on which to build his power, and for the booty with which to placate his rivals, satisfy his followers, and outwit any reckless challenger to his rule. The initial raids into northern China during the early decades of the thirteenth century were characterized by the barbarity for which the name of Genghis Khan and the Mongols have become inextricably identified. However, Mongol rule subsequent to this, during the reigns of Genghis Khan's grandsons, Hülegü in Iran (ruled 1256–1265) and Qubilai Qa'an in China (ruled 1260–1294), stands in sharp contrast to this earlier violent eruption. The "storm from the East" arose from anger, a spirit of vengeance, and the need to assert power.

Genghis Khan, the leader of the "people of the felt-walled tents" and the "the peoples of the Nine Tongues" (Onon, 1993, p. 102), was born Temüjin and had endured a brutal and merciless childhood. His father was murdered when he was still young, and his mother and her offspring were abandoned by their clan to survive in a very harsh and unforgiving environment. Compassion was not a virtue valued on the steppe. This was a society of submit or be challenged, fight or be beaten, and often kill or be killed.

Force of personality, military and physical might, and tribal alliances were the means through which tribal leaders of the steppe clans rose to power. They maintained power only by delivering on promises of wealth and plenty. If the promise did not materialize, the leader fell, or was forced to join an alliance with another leader who could meet the aspirations of the tribe. Steppe life was brutal, and knowing nothing else, the steppe tribes initially exported this ethos.

The Mongols themselves were few in number, but from the outset Genghis absorbed other Turkish tribes and later any conquered troops into his armies. He used traditional steppe military tactics, with light cavalry, feigned retreats, and skillful archery to conduct what were initially raids of pillage and plunder from bases in the steppe into the agriculturally developed and settled lands as opposed to the steppe grasslands, home to the nomads. Terror, real and imagined, was an important element in the success of these raids. In 1211 the Mongols invaded the independent Chin of northern China, helped by renegade seminomadic Khitans, in a struggle that continued, after Genghis's death, until 1234. It was the defeat of the Chin capital, Zhangdu (the site of modern Beijing), that gave rise to one of the most notorious stories of Mongol atrocities:

[An envoy from the Khwarazmshah] saw a white hill and in answer to his query was told by the guide that it consisted of bones of the massacred inhabitants. At another place the earth was, for a long stretch of the road, greasy from human fat and the air was so polluted that several members of the mission became ill and some died. This was the place, they were told, where on the day that the city was stormed 60,000 virgins threw themselves to death from the fortifications in order to escape capture by the Mongols (Raverty, 1995, p. 965).

The World-Conqueror

Genghis then turned his attention westward in campaigns against the ethnically Chinese Qara Khitai, whose Muslim merchants and administrators would form the backbone of his emerging empire, and reluctantly against Khwarazm (corresponding to present-day Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan), the first Muslim state to experience the full fury of the Mongol onslaught. This apocalyptic invasion occurred in retaliation for the murder of a commercial and political trade delegation composed of Mongols, Chinese, and Muslims. As the self-proclaimed "punishment of God," Genghis Khan unleashed the bloody raids and merciless devastation on the Islamic west that has made his name synonymous with barbaric mass slaughter.

The trail of blood and massacre that followed the crumbling of the Khwarazmshah's empire in 1220 led from Central Asia through Iran to the Caucasus and north into the plains of Russia. The chronicles have told us that 1,600,000 or possibly as many as 2,400,000 were put to the sword in Herat (a city in present-day western Afghanistan), while in Nishapur, the city of Omar Khayyám, 1,747,000 were slaughtered. The two Mongol noyans (generals) Jebe and Sübedei led an expedition in pursuit of the fleeing Khwarazmshah (died 1221), demanding submission to, and assistance and human shields for their advancing armies, or death, destruction, and slavery. These were the two options for the cities and towns in their path. Outside every town they reached, the Mongols would deliver a chilling message: "Submit! And if ye do otherwise, what know we? God knoweth" (Juwayni, 1916, p. 26). In fact, there were few who did not fully understand their fate upon the conquerors' arrival. This epic cavalry mission was perhaps the greatest reconnaissance trip of all time, including not only intelligence gathering but also the conquest, massacre, and defeat of all lands neighboring the Caspian Sea and beyond. Jebe and Sübedei's expedition of pursuit, terror, and reconnaissance represents the Mongols at their destructive peak; thereafter their armies became for those who fell under the shadow of their approach both the invincible wrath of God and the emissaries of the biblical Gog and Magog (Revelations 20). The Mongols wore their notoriety like a khilEat (a robe of honor).

Khorasan in particular suffered grievously for the sins of its deluded leader, the Khwarazmshah. Although the massacres and ensuing destruction were widespread, there was method in the Mongols' madness. Artisans and craftsmen, with their families, were often spared the Great Khan's fury. Separated from their less fortunate fellow citizens, they were often forcibly transported east to practice their crafts in other parts of the empire. It is said that in Khwarazm (Kiva) in 1221, each of the 50,000 Mongol troops was assigned the task of slaughtering 24 Muslims before being able to loot and pillage. However, it is also reported that Genghis Khan personally implored the famed Sufi master and founder of the Kubrawiya order, Najm al-Din Kubra, to accept safe passage out of the condemned city. The saint refused to flee, but allowed his disciples to do so. Even at this early stage the "barbarian" Tatars demonstrated a respect for and knowledge of scholars and learning. (Although previously they had been a Turco-Mongol tribe rivaling Genghis, the Tatars came to be a generic term for the Genghisids in Europe and western Asia. Tartarus in Greek mythology was Hades or Hell.)

The World Ruler

Although Genghis died in 1227, unlike other steppe empires, his survived through his progeny who succeeded in maintaining and extending his power and territories. Genghis Khan rode out of the steppe as a nomadic ruler intent on rapine, pillage, and booty, and combining these traditional steppe practices with dexterous political and military skills, he proved unstoppable. The devastation he inflicted differed only in its scale from the raids of other nomadic rulers before him. Cities were razed, walls were consistently demolished, the qanat system of underground irrigation was damaged physically and, perhaps more serious, allowed to fall into disrepair through neglect. However, Genghis was astute enough to recognize that continued pillage and killing would be counterproductive and eventually succeed in destroying the source of the Mongols' wealth. He had wreaked horror and destruction on an unprecedented scale and achieved legendary status within his own lifetime, but it was only as long as he could deliver the prosperity to sate his hungry followers that he and his progeny would reign unchallenged.

Genghis was a man of vision. The blood and destruction, the plunder and the terror had been in the tradition of the age-old conflict between the steppe and the sown. Although the steppe had won, Genghis knew that its future depended on the sown. The mean tents of his childhood had been transformed into the lavish pavilions of his kingdom. The ragged camps of old had been replaced by mobile cities of wealth, splendor, and sophistication. The infamy he now enjoyed served as his security. In fact, the death tolls recorded and descriptions of the desolation his armies had caused were beyond credibility. The province of Herat, let alone the city, could not have sustained a population of two million, and the logistics involved in actually murdering this number of people within a matter of days are inconceivable. The already mentioned chronicler ibn al-Athir did much to perpetuate the mythology of the Mongol rule of terror. He recounts that so great was people's fear that a single Mongol could leisurely slaughter a whole queue of quaking villagers too afraid to resist, or that a docile victim would quietly wait, head outstretched, while his executioner fetched a forgotten sword (Browne, 1997, p. 430).

These apocryphal tales and the exaggerated accounts of massacres and mayhem were believed as literal truth. This vision of the Tatars as a visitation from Hell was readily accepted by religious zealots, both Christian and Muslim, who were able to shift responsibility for the carnage to their faithful followers.


Before his death Genghis Khan had appointed his second son Ögödei as his successor and divided his empire among the others. By 1241 Batu, his grandson, had overrun the principalities of Russia, subdued eastern Europe, and reached the coastline of Croatia. The year 1258 witnessed the fall of Baghdad and another grandson, Hülegü, firmly established in western Asia. Qubilai QaDan was able to proclaim himself not only Great Khan (QaDan means "Khan of Khans"), but also in 1279 the emperor of a united China. War and conquest had continued, but the nature of the conquerors and rulers had changed.

Qubilai QaDan is quoted in contemporary Chinese sources as declaring that "having seized the body, hold the soul, if you hold the soul, where could the body go?" to explain his support and cultivation of Tibetan Buddhism (Bira, 1999, p. 242). The new generation of Mongols were essentially settled nomads, living in semipermanent urban camps, educated, sophisticated, and appreciative of life's fineries and luxuries. Qubilai QaDan has been described as "the greatest cosmopolitan ruler that has ever been known in history" (Bira, 1999, p. 241). His brother Hülegü and the Ilkhans in Iran received other praises for their rule: justice, farsightedness, and statesmanship.

Once in power, the Mongol princes sought to rule their subjects, avowedly, with justice and tolerance, and for the prosperity of all. They ruled by the standards of the time, and their contemporaries differentiated between the "barbarian" nomads of the past and their masters residing in fabulous imperial courts. The ragged remains of the Khwarazmshah's army, led by the bandit king Jalal al-Din Mangkaburti, inspired far more fear and loathing than the disciplined Mongol troops. The Mongols had never targeted specific groups for persecution on religious, nationalistic, or ethnic grounds. When Baghdad was attacked, it was with the advice of Muslim advisers such as Nasir al-Din Tusi, and the supporting Muslim armies were led by Muslim rulers. Co-option was the desired result of conquest or the threat of attack. Top administrators in all parts of the empire were Mongol, Chinese, Persian, Uighur, Armenian, European, or Turkish. Loyalty and ability were prized above ethnicity or religion. A center of learning was established around 1260 in Iran's first Mongol capital, Maragheh. It attracted scholars from around the world who flocked, in particular, to see the observatory built for the court favorite, Tusi. The Syriac cleric Bar Hebraeus used the libraries, stocked from the ruins of Baghdad, Alamut, and other conquered cultural centers, to research his own acclaimed studies and historical accounts. The nation of archers had changed its priorities.

Most of what is now known of the Mongols comes from non-Mongol sources, among them Persian, Arabic, Armenian, European, and Chinese observers and commentators. While recognizing the might of the Mongols, these sources often betrayed a degree of anti-Mongol bias. Even in the writings of their most loyal proponents, servants, such as the Persian Muslim Juvaini (died 1282), there is a sense of distain and condescension for these arriviste. In many ways the Mongols became victims of their own propaganda and success. The horrors they perpetrated were the crown by which they managed to rise so high. Their impact was of such might that their achievements have been drowned in that initial sea of blood.

SEE ALSO Genghis Khan


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Bar Hebraeus (2003). The Chronography of Gregory Abu'l Faraj, Bar Hebraeus, vol. 1, tran. Ernest Wallis Budge. Piscataway, N.J.: Gorgias Press.

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Lane, George (2003). Early Mongol Rule in 13th Century Iran: A Persian Renaissance. London: Routledge.

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Raverty, Major H. G., tran. (1995). Tabakat-i-Nasiri, vol. 2. Calcutta, India: The Asiatic Society.

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George Lane