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Ages of Conquest: a Kings and Generals Podcast

Mar 30, 2020

    “And thus, for our sins God put misunderstanding into us, and a countless number of 

people perished, and there was lamentation and weeping and grief throughout towns and villages... And the Tatars turned back from the river Dnieper, and we know not whence they came, nor where they hid themselves again; God knows whence he fetched them against us for our sins.”


So ends the section in the Chronicle of Novgorod which describes the first encounter 

between the Rus’ and the Mongols, the famous Kalka River battle of 1223. Perhaps the most impressive feat of the Mongol invasion of the Khwarezmian Empire was the so-called raid of Jebe Noyan and Subutai Ba’atar, two Mongol generals whose pursuit of Muhammad Khwarezm-shah took them from modern Uzbekistan across northern Iran, through the Caucasus  then across the steppe to Ukraine, fighting a combined Rus’-Qipchaq force on the Kalka River in May 1223, before returning back across the steppe. For these generals, it was a journey through totally alien cultures, languages and peoples, and that they met with military success at almost every turn- with notable exceptions- is an impressive feat itself. Considerable legend has built upon the ‘great raid’ like so much rust, so we are eager to strip this away, sharing recent historiography and shining a light on this expedition.


    I’m your host David and this Ages of Conquest: The Mongol Invasions.


For background on this venture, we must point to our episode on the Mongol invasion of the Khwarezmian Empire, which of course you have listened to! Mongol armies reached the northeastern borders of the Khwarezmian Empire, in modern Kazakhstan, at the end of 1219, and by March 1220 had seized the capital of Samarkand and nearby Bukhara, and with their fall the nerve of the Khwarezmian ruler, Shah Muhammad II, broke.  Stationed in Balkh, just south of the Amu Darya, the final natural barrier to the Mongols, the thought of facing Mongol armies in battle was too much for him and he fled west to Iran with a small entourage including his son, Jalal al-Din Mingburnu. In Chinggis Khan’s long experience in warfare, he knew that should the enemy leader escape, he could rally disparate forces and strike back: this was something Chinggis himself had done many times in his earlier career. The Khwarezm-shah could not become a beacon for resistance, and thus Chinggis Khan sent his hunters in pursuit: Jebe Noyan, Subutai Ba’atar and Toquchar Guregen. 


Jebe was at this time Chinggis Khan’s top general. A daring and brave commander, Jebe led from the front and had a knack for long pursuits. Jebe had famously entered Chinggis Khan’s service in a rather unorthodox manner. Originally in the service of the Khan’s enemies, in 1202 at the battle of Koyiten, Jebe, then named Jirqo’adai (djir-cho ‘ad-ai),  shot and killed the Khan’s horse.. After the battle, Jirqo’adai was captured, and told the Khan that should he execute him he would be useful to no one, but spare him and he would be his most loyal servant. Always one to appreciate acts of bravery and noting his skill with a bow, Chinggis Khan took him and renamed him to Jebe, meaning arrow. Jebe distinguished himself against the Jin Dynasty and then against against Kuchlug of the Qara-Khitai, during which he almost single handedly doubled the size of the empire, as covered in a previous episode. Jebe was the senior commander of the hunt for Muhammad Khwarezm-shah.


Subutai is likely the most famous Mongol general, though in 1220 was far from the prominence he would later assume. Indeed, the following expedition forged Subutai into the iron-hard commander for which he was later renowned. His most notable command prior to this was alongside Chinggis Khan’s eldest son Jochi, sent against fleeing Merkits and unintentionally colliding with an army under the Khwarezm-shah Muhammad. Jebe may have been a mentor to Subutai in this pursuit. Each of them was in command of a tumen, in theory 10,000 though almost certainly these were undermanned.


The man sent in support was Toquchar Guregen, guregen meaning son-in-law, as Toquchar was married to a daughter of Chinggis Khan, Temulun. Toquchar’s job was to consolidate those cities and towns which submitted to Jebe and Subutai’s forces, while securing their rear.


The pursuit went at a fast pace. Shah Muhammad reached Nishapur in northeastern Iran as early as April 1220, but moved again once he learned that Mongol forces had crossed the Amu Darya. Jebe and Subutai as they moved took the submission of cities like Balkh, Sarakhs and Nishapur itself in May. These cities were given a Mongol appointed governor, ordered to provide tribute, food supplies and to not offer assistance to the Khwarezm-shah. Those who resisted were bypassed for sake of speed, sending messages to Toquchar to punish them. Nishapur was lightly treated, but soon revolted due to false rumours of a victory of Shah Muhammad. Toquchar attacked them in November 1220, where he was killed by an arrow outside the walls. In spring 1221 Nishapur received a grim punishment for this action: Tolui, Chinggis Khan’s youngest son, led a brutal retaliatory campaign and devastated Nishapur. Men, women, children, even cats and dogs were said to have been slaughtered. Toquchar’s widow, Temulun, took part in the massacre, wrecking havoc for her fallen husband. 


Back in 1220, after Shah Muhammad left Nishapur, he undertook a wild ride across northern Iran. Jebe and Subutai struggled to find his trail, splitting into two separate columns which blazed across the country before reconvening at Ray, at present day Tehran. During this period, Jebe captured Shah Muhammad’s mother, Terken Khatun, sending her to Mongolia to spend the rest of her life a prisoner.  Muhammad’s western flight was hamphered by his conflict with the Abbasid Caliph in Baghdad, and with Jebe and Subutai closing the gap, he sped north to Hamadan. According to the Persian writer Juvaini, the Mongols narrowly missed the Shah with their arrows at Hamadan, while another, Nasawi, records a battle fought between Muhammad and the Mongols. If Nasawi’s account is true, that was the only time Muhammad led an actual battle during this entire campaign. 


Either way, after Hamadan, at the end of summer 1220 Jebe and Subutai lost Muhammad’s trail. Muhammad had fled to an island off the coast in the Caspian Sea, down to a few followers and his sons. Delirious, mentally and physically exhausted and suffering from pneumonia, Muhammad Khwarezm-shah died there in December 1220, his 20 year reign ending in fire and a sea of blood. Jalal al-Din took on the mantle of Khwarezm-shah and returned to the mainland, the remainder of his story is covered in our previous episode.


Jebe and Subutai spent winter 1220 in Azerbaijan’s Mughan plain. Perhaps they soon learned of Shah Muhammad’s death, as they began 1221 by attacking the local kingdoms, though our sources diverge on details. In some sources, during this winter they sent messengers to Chinggis Khan for permission to continue campaigning, while in others had received such permission at the outset. By February 1221, they were attacking the Kingdom of Georgia.


We’ll give a  brief rundown on who the Mongols encountered here. The Kingdom of Georgia was the region’s great power since the early 12th century, developing and expanding upon a strong military and fortress system established by King David the Builder. Georgian heavy infantry and cavalry had resisted repeated Seljuq invasions, while the mountainous country provided many natural barriers. Greater Armenia was under Georgian rule, as was northern Azerbaijan through Georgia’s vassals, the long-reigning Muslim Shirvanshahs. To the south of the Shirvanshahs were the Ildiguzids, Seljuq appointees and longtime foes of Georgia who a few years prior had recognized Khwarezmian overlordship. There was an independent Armenian Kingdom in this period, though it was in southeastern Anatolia. This was the Armenian ruled Kingdom of Cilicia, and whom we’ll meet in future episodes.


The Mongols moved quickly. In February 1221, they defeated a Georgian army before doubling back to Iran to deal with revolt among cities which had submitted. One of these which was sacked was Maragha in March 1221. At this time, ibn al-Athir was living in Mosul, a city not far from Maragha. Writing a few years later, he records an interesting anecdote at Maragha, describing an unnamed Mongolian entering a house during the sacking, killing several people and taking more prisoner. Only when the Mongol removed their helmet, armour and weapon to rest, did the prisoners realize that their captor was actually a woman, then surprised and killed her. While we have a few cases of Mongol women partaking in battle, almost all were princesses or were avenging fallen husbands, like the aforementioned Temulun. This occasion in Maragha is perhaps the closest we come to a regular women in the Mongol army. No other source mentions this anonymous woman, or indicates any women of high standing marching alongside Jebe and Subutai. 


Much of 1221 was spent pinballing across northwesternmost Iran and the Caucasus. Hamadan, Nakhichevan (nak-i-chev-an), Ardabil (ard-a-bil), Sarab, Bailakan (bai-lak-an) and others were all attacked; the Ildeguzid (il-de-guz-id) Atabeg of Azerbaijan, Ozbeg, ignored Georgian requests for an alliance and submitted to the Mongols; and later in the summer they defeated the Georgian King George Lasha, son of the famed Queen Tamar, drawing his heavy cavalry into a feigned retreat. George only narrowly escaped, and died in 1223, leaving his kingdom greatly weakened. He was succeeded by his sister Rusudan, who ruled as regent for the next twenty years, marrying a Seljuq prince, but her kingdom suffering repeated depredations by Khwarezmians under Jalal al-Din Mingburnu, and then the Mongols who she reluctantly submitted to. And so ended Georgia’s golden age.


Jebe and Subutai spent winter 1221 on the Mughan Plain again. Had they sent messengers to Chinggis earlier in the year, by now they would have returned with orders and confirmed Muhammad Khwarezm-shah’s death. It is probable they were ordered north against the Qipchaq-Cumans, the nomadic Turkic peoples who inhabited the steppe beyond the Caucasus. The Qipchaq-Cumans had been an issue for several years already: alongside Jochi, Subutai had fought them just prior to the Khwarezmian campaign; Qipchaq-Qanglis made up much of the Khwarezmian military, and had a long tradition of military alliance with the Georgian Kingdom.


In either of these realms they had the potential to undo Mongol advances once Chinggis withdrew. Since part of the Mongol Empire’s legitimacy was based on its supremacy of the steppe, the independence of the Qipchaq-Cumans, a potential rival to that claim, was entirely intolerable. Perhaps even at the outset of the campaign, Jebe and Subutai had been ordered against them, but we are not provided sufficient evidence to say that with certainty. 


In turn, that brings us to another point. Often this part of the campaign is titled as ‘the Great Raid,’ intended as one of exploration and intelligence gathering, and therefore a great success. However, this appears to be a creation of more recent popular literature. As we have already described, little of Jebe and Subutai’s actions differ from the ongoing campaign of Chinggis and his sons in the east. A raid would not have been so concerned with subjugating cities and peoples, and the sources themselves generally refer to it as conquest. As mentioned, the Mongols had an enmity with the Qipchaq-Cumans for several years at this point. A major attack from an unexpected direction was always a favourite maneuver of Chinggis Khan, and perhaps their conquest was in mind from the outset.


In 1222 Jebe and Subutai began north again. In Shirvan, they sacked Shamakhi, where we find a particularly gruesome siege technique. Supposedly, they built a ramp from corpses of livestock and locals, fighting over the city walls until the ramp decomposed! Their next movements were halted by the great fortress of Derbent, guarding one of the main passages through the northern Caucasus to the steppe. Deeming it too secure, they asked its ruler to provide them with envoys to discuss terms. One envoy was killed, and the other forced to show the Mongols a difficult alternate route through the mountains past the fortress. Exiting the mountains, they entered into the base of the Volga steppe into Chechnya or Dagestan. There, they were met by an army of horsemen: Alans, a nomadic Iranian people who had inhabited the region since Attila the Hun, and the Turkic Qipchaq-Cuman tribes. 


It’s quite possible the Shah in Derbent, the Georgians, or even merchants, had brought news of the Mongol army wrecking havoc across the region, and they had prepared should the Mongols come for them. The Alan-Qipchaq army was too strong together, so messengers were sent to the Qipchaqs with promises of sharing loot and gifts should they abandon the Alans. The Qipchaq leaders withdrew, leaving the Alans to be slaughtered by the Mongols, who soon caught the unsuspecting Qipchaqs and fell upon them. Evidently, quite a number escaped, fleeing westwards- among them a notable leader named Kotjen, rising to prominence with the deaths of the two most powerful Cuman Khans in the battle. 


Kotjen had allies among the Rus’ princes to the far west. The Rus’ principalities were at that time infamously fragmented, inhabiting the cities of northwestern Russia, north of the Ukrainian steppes. These competing principalities-  the most prominent being Veliky-Novgorod, Vladimir and Kiev- often relied on Cuman horsemen as auxiliaries for attacking their rivals, bartering for valuable Cuman warhorses and marrying into the Cumans for alliance. Mstislav the Bold of Galicia, perhaps the leading Rus’ prince of the time, was married to Kotjen’s daughter, and upon learning of the Mongol threat from his father-in-law, helped assemble a mighty coalition of Rus’ princes in the final months of 1222. With the fearsome druzhina heavy cavalry of the Rus’ princes and skilled Qipchap-Cuman horse archers, it was a formidable force. In a lovely coincidence, the three lead Rus’ princes of the coalition were Mstislav the Bold of Galicia, Mstislav of Chernigov, and Mstislav Romanovich, the Grand Duke of Kiev. The sources have an unhelpful tendency to just refer to ‘Mstislav’ when discussing the army. 


As this force assembled in late 1222, Jebe and Subutai raided Crimea, sacking the port of Soldaia.  Popular retelling has Venetian merchants ally with the Mongols here, sharing information on Europe and spreading Mongol propaganda in exchange for exclusive trade rights, Subutai then sacking their Genoese rivals at Soldaia.  Such statements have no basis in history, however emerging it would seem, from a French work of the 1890s. Italian, especially Genoese, presence in Crimea and the Black Sea in 1222 was minimal. At this time access to the Black Sea was controlled by the Latin Empire of Constaninople, supported by Venice, preventing Genoese entrance. 


Soldaia itself was an outpost of the Empire of Trebizond, another Byzantine successor, but as argued by historian Andrew Peacock, when the Mongols arrived at Soldaia in 1222 it may have been under the brief control of the Seljuqs of Rum, taken as a part of their war against Trebizond. Either way, in 1222 Soldaia was not a Genoese colony. The belief in a Venetian-Mongol alliance emerging in 1222 must be a conflation of later Venetian prominence in Crimea and among the Mongols in the later thirteenth century- long after Subutai’s initial raid into Crimea. No evidence from the period suggests, in any form, that Venice allied with the Mongols in the early 1220s.


After this Crimean raid Jebe and Subutai learned of the Rus’-Cuman army making its way down the Dnieper. Hoping to split this force up as they had the Alans and Qipchaqs, Jebe sent an envoy, who the Rus’ princes killed. Another envoy was sent, with this simple message:


“Since you have listened to the [Cumans], and have killed all our envoys, and you are coming against us, come then, but we have not touched you, let God judge all.”


    From here, most modern retellings skip to the prolonged feigned retreat culminating on the Kalka River- a battle often presented as Subutai’s masterstroke, second only to his victories in Hungary two decades later. However, there is a little known skirmish prior before that which is often ignored, recorded by the Chronicle of Novgorod. As the Rus’-Cuman force marched down the Dnieper towards the Mongols, on the other side of the river a small Mongol scouting force was spotted observing them from a Cuman burial mound, a kurgan. The Mongols hadn’t realized they were by a ford, and one of the Mstisilav’s, likely Kotjen’s son-in-law, and a Cuman force unexpectedly crossed and closed the distance. Surprised, the Mongols buried their captain, named Gemya-Beg in the Chronicle of Novgorod, to hide him until they could return. But the Cumans uncovered him, and executed him before Mstislav.


    This episode seems a minor skirmish, but a shocking interpretation has been proposed by historian Stephen Pow. Pow suggests that Gemya-Beg was how 13th century Rus’ writer may have interpreted the name ‘Yeme Beg,’ which was the Turkic form of Jebe Noyan, suggesting this was the embarrassing capture and execution of Chinggis Khan’s star general! Allow me to explain while you settle from the shock. In most western Asian sources, Jebe is referred to by the Turkic form of his name, with beg, ‘prince,’ the Turkic version of the Mongol title of noyan. Jebe disappears during this campaign, last mentioned with certainty in the Caucasus, and his final fate unrecorded. This was hardly uncommon for Mongol generals, as the Mongols preferred not to discuss the deaths of their commanders. Some modern authors have tried to fill in the blanks, such as Jebe dying of illness during the return but again, there is no medieval source which states this. Jebe was brave, often taking risks and leading from the front: perhaps he had rode ahead to eye the Rus-Cuman army himself.  The Cumans recognized him and were very excited to have captured him. The episode stood out to the Rus’ chroniclers: they knew it was someone important who had been captured, but were not quite sure who or how important. 


    This puts a spin on what follows: if Jebe died on that kurgan in May 1223 and was Subutai’s superior, then the famous nine day feigned retreat Subutai led the Rus’ and Cumans on may have been an actual retreat. Suddenly thrust into command thousands of kilometres from any reinforcement with a large enemy army drawing down on him, Subutai needed to fall back and replan. So, for nine days his army ran, the Rus’ and Cumans hot in pursuit. As they travelled across the steppe, Subutai saw the enemy force lose its cohesion, the Cuman riders pulling ahead of the Rus’. Rather than face the full might of the coalition, Subutai could bring the full weight of his army to bear upon only a fraction of the enemy.


    As they reached the Kalka River, Subutai’s force turned about and fell upon the isolated Cumans, who routed. The Cumans fled, colliding with the Rus’, who lost their battle order as Mongol arrows fell among them. Mstislav the Bold of Galicia lived up to his name by being among the first to run, making his way back to the Dnieper, taking a boat and cutting loose the rest- trapping the rest on the shore with the Mongols. A portion of the army under Mstislav of Kiev retreated to a nearby hill and built a stockade, holding out a few days until tricked into surrendering. It was promised that the blood of the princes would not be shed- so the princes were bound hand and foot, and placed under boards as the Mongol command feasted and danced upon them. The rest of the army was slaughtered, though one prince was recorded as being brought to be executed before Jochi in 1224- likely, this was the fate of Mstislav of Kiev.


    The Chronicle of Novgorod says only 1 in 10 men returned from the Kalka campaign, and all indications are that losses were shockingly heavy. Yet that the Mongols quickly returned to the steppe took them out of mind. The Kalka disaster had little immediate impact on the Rus’, other than the loss of several princes, and no preparations were made for their possible return. The Cuman-Qipchaqs likewise stayed fragmented, though Kotjen Khan seemed to remain wary. When the Mongols returned in the late 1230s, Kotjen was the Cuman leader who fled to Hungary.


    Why did Subutai not put further pressure on the Rus’? By now, he had been on campaign for several years, and the size of his force must have been ground down. Further, if Jebe wasn’t killed in the above mentioned incident on the kurgan, he did not long survive the Kalka Battle, and his loss would  have been demoralizing. Despite the victory over the Rus’ and Cumans, they had shown themselves dangerous foes, and Subutai knew that if he returned, he would need a powerful force. Thus did he begin the long trek back to Mongolia in the summer of 1223…


    ...unfortunately for Subutai, this episode doesn’t end there. While many popular retellings end on a triumphant account of the Kalka, on his way back east Subutai’s army was ambushed by the Volga Bulghars. It’s a murky episode, and you’ll find a lot of nonsense about it online. First off, who were the Volga Bulghars? The original Bulgarian nomadic tribes of the steppe were first mentioned around the 5th and 6th centuries. There was a brief period when they were the regional power in the 7th century, often called ‘Old Great Bulgaria,’ under Khan Kuvrat. On Kuvrat’s death, according to tradition his sons took the tribes in different directions: one, Asparukh, took them to the Danube, founding the first Bulgarian Empire, assimilating into the local slavic population and adopting Christianity. 


Another group travelled north, to the intersection of the Volga and Kama Rivers and hence, the Volga Bulghars. Famed as merchants their cities were a vital trade point between the Rus’ cities, the Finno-Ugric peoples of the forests, and the Islamic world, and they were the northernmost outpost of Islam, which they had adopted in the 10th century. By the twelfth and thirteenth century, they had an increasingly violent competition with the easternmost Rus’ principality, Vladimir-Suzdal. With their extensive trade contacts among the Cuman-Qipchaqs and along the Volga they must have known of the destruction of Khwarezm and the rough clockwise movement of Subutai’s army, long making preparations for a possible confrontation.


    This battle is mentioned in brief in several sources, but only the Arab writer ibn al-Athir, writing in Mosul in the early 1230s, provides any details, and it must be noted he may have been eager to play up any Mongol defeat. We do not know if Subutai was intending to strike the Volga Bulghars, or was completely surprised by them, but somewhere along the Volga river, Bulghar forces ambushed him, drawing the Mongols into feigned retreats and striking them in the rear as their forces spread thin, to high losses. According to ibn al-Athir, Subutai was left with only 4,000 men by the end of the battle, though he then mentions that Subutai had strength enough to attack cities along the lower reaches of the Volga outside Bulghar territory like Saqsin, so we might question how accurate this number is. Jebe, notably, is not mentioned at all. 


    And that’s it! Though some modern authors like to write about Subutai then avenging himself against Bulghar forces further upriver, neither ibn al-Athir or any other medieval source makes any such mention. It seems these modern statements arise from two things: 1) confusion regarding highly influential French authors, D’Ohsson and Grousset of the 19th and early 20th centuries, whose vaguely worded paragraphs on this section may have led others, blindly trusting them, to interpret a victory. And 2) Many authors just as blindly accept the legend around the ‘undefeated’ Subutai, with source not easy to access to combat it. Mighty Subutai was defeated, and forced to withdraw from Bulghar territory- though whether this was a minor or major loss, we cannot tell. This was not even the only military defeat we know Subutai suffered- another loss came at the hands of the Jin Dynasty in the early 1230s, the final victory of that once mighty kingdom. 


    And so Subutai returned humbled and hardened from a several thousand kilometre march across Eurasia. He brought with him information on the nature of the enemies in the west, and an idea of the numbers needed to subjugate it. Jebe had to be avenged, as did Subutai’s pride, andin time Subutai would return with overwhelming force to crush the Bulghars, the Cuman-Qipchaqs and the Rus’.


We’re far from finished with the Mongol conquests, so be sure to subscribe to Ages of Conquest: A Kings a Generals podcast and to continue helping us bring you more outstanding content, please visit our patreon at You can also leave us a written review on iTunes which would help us to raise our profile so we can keep this show running! Thank you for listening, I am your host David and we will catch you on the next one!